Travelogue SEA 1: Joburg – Bangkok – Hanoi

14-17 December 2011

After a mad panic and photo finish to get everything done before leaving, dashed to the airport, went through the obligatories and breathed a sigh of relief to be up, up and away.

An uneventful flight to Ethiopia, marred only by the lack of “…”  in the usual “… or fish” dinner option. So, fish it was. Sadly. Then nap. Gladly.

Addis Ababa airport is largely unremarkable, being a single circuit of duty free shopping (the same old booze and perfumes as everywhere), a few souvenir stores and coffee shops and bars. Really modest and warehousey and still allows smoking everywhere, which is a rarity these days to say the least. Squatted in the biggest of the bars and  tried the local beer, St George’s. Ok, but pricy at $4 each.

An overnight flight later and we were (very pleased to be) in Bangkok. A wall of heat as we left the airport in the early afternoon Thai time and were greeted by the 31 degree summertime. Changed some currency, hailed a taxi and we were delivered to our hotel (for 800 baht, including a detour past the Vietnamese Embassy to drop off our passports for visas). Well, near our hotel. Turns out our hotel is one of a chain and we were deposited at the wrong one, but it was Day 1 excitement, so it was still all good schlepping cases around the crescent to the correct hotel.

As always, our room was the furthest possible from reception, but this time wasn’t so bad seeing as our luggage was a record-breaking 12kg (me) and 15kg (Chris)… not like having to lug our anvil cases up the countless flights of stairs in Zagreb last year!!

Our room was only marginally bigger than the double bed it housed, so we had to strat plan our wardrobe changes to shift one case at a time (onto the bed), grab clothes, rezip and replace and swap turns. All part of the charm though, eh? (clinging to same sentiment for the shower in loo cubicle combo as well!)

Headed out on the town and took a walk around to get our bearings. We did a short loop around the neighbourhood and nestled in at a charming rooftop bar and restaurant to watch the sunset over the river and the boats and people getting on with whatever they were getting on with (with a lovely KFC coincidentally directly over the river from us, completing the perfect picture).

En route back to our hood, we found to our delight that we were one road away from the infamous Khao San Road – the best of both being so close to the action, but far enough away to be able to escape the madding crowds, neon lights and infinite noise when we wanted to. Torn between wanting to sample local beer and check out the bustling roads, kiosks and shops we split the difference and grabbed some roadies from 711. One soon turned into a pub crawl as we discovered there was a 711 every few hundred metres and they all had the same basics (Tiger, Chang, Leo) but there was some variety in the rest of the stock they carried. So we walked, shopped, marvelled, 711’ed, drank, giggled and ogled for hours.

Much later we stopped for dinner – lured in by the promise of a Buy 3 Get One Free Tiger offer. Excellent Pad Thai in belly, Night 1 was done.

Up bright(er than deserved) and early, we were ready to see the sights of Bangkok. Traditional breakfast was a bit disappointing being a starchy rice and water number with ground pork and some green stuff. Not really my scene, but hearty and filling and good fuel for the day ahead.

We started off with an on-foot trip to the Palace and our first temple, which happened to house the world’s biggest reclining Buddha (which has fancy feet with Chinese pearl inlay), the 4 Rama pagodas and a whole lot of contorted looking gargoyle type statues and pretty topiaries with little waterfalls, funny little folk and Buddhas.

Next was a boat trip, which started off with us taking the wrong pier and ending up with an accidental ferry river-crossing before we got on the correct express boat and made our way up-river to the Dusit area with lots of important buildings, the zoo and the president’s residence.

Having a new found confidence in our bearings, we footed it back to Khao San to find a Burger King for lunch. What an excellent idea! I had the Angus burger with smoky sauce, bacon and onions and Christian had the double cheese and bacon Whopper. Large is standard and quite a meal and all burgers come with an upsize option which is the same burger format with each patty twice the size. Hectic.

Fed and happy, we grabbed a tuktuk from outside the BK and negotiated a tour route for the bargain price of 40 baht. We moseyed deftly to the Golden Mount to see Wat Sakhet, the highest Buddha, with the temple on the hill offering amazing panoramic views of Bangkok. Then off to the Black Buddha for luck, which proved handy with the next stop being the Thai gemstone factory!  🙂 The tuktuk drivers get incentives for bringing tourists to the shop and we were more than happy to take the little detour so that our driver could get his tank of petrol – and the beautiful orange and naartjie citrines that I bought were an absolute bargain!

We had to get back to the Vietnamese Embassy to collect our passports, so the tuktuk driver dropped us at the skytrain, which would save us at least an hour travel time because Bangkok traffic is so crazy. Even with our rudimentary map, it was really easy navigate to the Embassy and move to another skytrain line to get back towards our neck of the woods. We opted to grab the train to the River and Express Boat back to our hotel so that we could see the last side of Bangkok that we hadn’t seen (but that had nothing worth exploring up close).

After a hard day’s sight-seeing we did what was necessary… hit the first 711we saw! Beers in hand, we trawled the market streets, eating from stalls as and when things looked enticing. Very yum! After a few ABFs along the way – with progress retarded by the entertainment, the locals, the people-watching, Engrish menus and fun store-window marketing videos that included a tailor who proudly pronounced “happy to make custom dress for fat lady” – we finally got back to our hotel… much later than we should have.

The alarm went off what felt like moments after we had gone to sleep and we were up and out, ready for our 4am transfer to the airport. The driver was late and those 15 minutes dragged on for what seemed liked aeons, saved only by the snacks we’d procured en route home the night before (from 711 of course), including Lays duck flavour and 2 others with 2 flavours combined in one bag (calamari & chilli and pepper steak crinkle cut with BBQ plain cut). Life saver. Probably a bit naff to complain seeing as the streets were as busy as any other time of the day so clearly Bangkok never sleeps. The driver made up for the delay and drove at breakneck speed to the airport, swerving and near-missing a few times. We ended up actually being early for the flight! … and sleeping through it…

… to wake up in Hanoi, Vietnam.

The tourist desk (and there were several) was very helpful, providing a map and key advice and info and arranging a taxi driver to deliver us to our hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi (for US$20). I have never – and I mean nevereverever – seen traffic like this! Cars, scooters and bicycles moving in all directions. Over-taking, swerving, jumping red lights and doing exactly as they please, all the while hooting at regular intervals. We theorise that they hoot as soon as there is someone in front of them, not really to tell them to move or anything, just to alert that they are approaching. You can imagine the cacophony. And the chaos.

Our hotel (Mikes Hotel, 1 Hang Phen) is superbly placed and we dumped our stuff and rushed off to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which we stumbled upon while flipping through a travel guide during the check-in process – and also discovered was only open until 11h30 on a Saturday. And it was 10h30 already! Grabbed a cab and managed to catch it in the nick of time, arriving at 11h15 and needing to be in and out by 11h30. It’s a very sombre and formal site and they are very strict – no bags or camera equipment allowed in and you can only walk in certain places (not the grass or, oddly, the pavement) and uniformed guards glare instructions and nod disapproval to usher you to where you need to be to get trooped through to where the body of Ho Chi Minh rests. A weirdly (literally) awesome experience to be in such close proximity to such an epic character in some really dramatic history. He died an old man, but his embalmed body looks so peaceful that he appears to be sleeping.

Grabbed some lunch at a cafe in a hotel lobby and sampled Hanoi springrolls (pork, mushrooms, onion, carrots, vermicelli noodles) and then spent the afternoon whipping around the town (well, as much as one can whip around a town that has stores spilling onto the pavements from one side and motorbikes from the other, so that you are left dodging cars, bikes and people in conical hats with wares dangling from rods on their shoulders) checking out the famous buildings, museums, Lake Hoan Kiem and a series of pagodas.

Blissful afternoon nap and then maneuvered our way to the cuisine district to wonder and marvel at the street vendors, operating at knee level with pots and woks and all sorts of raw and cooked meat, veg and noodles being spun and dished. Pavement eating, drinking and socialising is the norm, and a modest affair with the standard being the types of little stools and tables you’d find in a nursery school. We spent ages figuring out what meant what seeing as everything is posted only in Vietnamese and settled on a chicken, mushroom and onion dish (Ga Xao Nam Huong) and a beef and mushroom with fried noodles (Bo Xao Pho) with 2 large Tigers (beers, not animals).

Have had a fab time doing our 1 day in Hanoi, which is really all you need to see the sights (unless you’re the type to painstake over a museum, which we are not).

Tomorrow we are off to Ha Long Bay for an overnight cruise to see its rock formations, caves and floating villages (UNESCO winner as one of the new 7 wonders of the world).