Ha Long Bay – Vietnam

 

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Ha Long Bay is situated on the north east coast of Vietnam, a ride of about 160 kms from Hanoi. It is an area of about 1500 square kilometres comprising some 2000 islets and Karsts, which has been designated a UNESCO Heritage Site. Ha Long Bay means the bay of descending dragons. It has its own micro ecology and bio diversity and a huge variety of islets.

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You can access the bay from a number of places but the most obvious are Halong town and Bai Chai a small town about 15 minutes away. Travel around the islands is by boat, either old junks which cruise slowly around and on which you can stay overnight or by smaller boats on day trips. One of the delights of this trip is the Vietnamese food that is made locally especially the sea food. On the boats you can order food and have a great meal as you cruise around. The nice thing is that you can order so you get something special.

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There are lots of people selling tours to Ha Long in Hanoi and the local area, many acting only as agents and selling tickets and those tickets can have various prices for the same tour or trip, so it is important to look around. The price differences can be big. For myself I negotiated the various elements of the visit independently so got amazing deals on transport boats and food, but tat is easier if you are a solo traveller than if in a group. Also I stayed in the town of Bai Chai rather than Halong itself , although very close by and that town is very good value. It is being developed for the mass market, so as with many places in Vietnam it is going to change quickly.

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The islets Karsts and the seas around them are a visual delight, something quite unique, but 2000 islets is a lot so its good to be selective and visit the ones you want. Each has a name, the elephant, chicken, he and she, etc so you can be specific. There are many caves and grottos on the islets, some can only be visited at low tide and others any time so find out about those. Some, unfortunately in my view, have lighting that can give them a slightly Disneyworld feel, but they are amazing for all that.

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Halong is a joy, and an indispensible part of any tour of the variety and wonders of North East Vietnam.

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Travel – Vietnam

 

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Vietnam has a long history of insisting on its own identity and culture, dating back to the 10th century when they ceased to be part of the Chinese empire and became an independent state. Since then modern wars against the French there from the 19th century to 1954 and subsequently the US resulting in reunification in 1975 have cemented that sense of independence and pride you find in Vietnam.

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Vietnam’s geography is distinct and varied from the Mekong Delta south of Ho Chi Minh City through the central highlands to the old north and its national parks and mountains. The best way to see Vietnam I think is to start at one end and work up or down according to your choice. Many people but motorbikes in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh and sell them in the other city when they arrive.

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The people of Vietnam are approachable, friendly curious and direct. They have an instinct for trading and business and the whole country gives a strong impression of going somewhere fast, accompanied by massive investment into tourism and business. The tourism industry is growing at a huge rate with ever increasing numbers from Asia so Vietnam is changing fast and it might be good to go soon while the traditions are still very visible.

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Its an amazing place to visit but a place where you need to take your time. There is so much to see, so much variety and so many contrasts that you need to absorb them slowly or you will miss a lot. I am going to write various pieces on various aspects so hope readers enjoy those as much as that country is enjoyable.

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Water Water Everywhere and Not a drop to drink

 

 

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My title, from the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, talks of an ocean of salt water that surrounds his boat, but despite the forbidding description there is something that is fascinating about the image of being surrounded water itself, regardless of whether you can drink it or not. Even if they had loads of drinking water the image would still be powerful

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Humans have a true fascination with water. There are the obvious things that we need to drink it to survive, that our bodies are, to a large extent, made of water, that we wash with it, swim in it for relaxation and many will tell you its because that’s where humans came from in the first place. But that is all the practicalities of water.

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Travellers are no different, when we travel and explore we go and look for water. Millions of us go to the sea or the ocean to rest, we love to see waterfalls, we row on lakes or sail on the sea or take a barge down a canal, or even walk by the river. We sit and contemplate by a gurgling stream, we listen to the sounds of waves, we are in awe of the sheer power of water in waves or Tsunamis , water has a hold on us. We admire huge tracts of water and marvel at the place of water in religions we come across. We take delight in describing a mountain stream with the cool clear water of melted snow, and complain of polluted water, not just because we cant drink it or use it but because you just should not treat water in that fashion.

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If you travel to a country with a coast then at some stage you will visit that coast. if you are in a landlocked country we seek out rivers, streams, lakes, waterfalls even a pond in a park. Its as if we need a little fix of the sights and sounds of water to make our journey complete. We even go on cruises, sitting atop that very undrinkable water the poet wrote of as we feel at peace with the world while we sail on the water.

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We might travel to be near water, or alternatively visit some nondescript seaside town for no other reason than to have stood beside the sea and be able to say we saw this this or that sea or ocean. Somehow a journey without the visit to some water is not complete.

 

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Hot Springs – Basuanga Island Philippines

 

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After a 35 minutes ride up into the hills above Basuanga Island in Palawan, you come to the Maquinit hot springs. Maquinit means Mainit, which in turn means hot in the local Tagalog language. And they are hot up to 40 degrees.

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The springs are one of the very few saltwater springs in the world and emerge from beneath an extinct volcano that sits on the island. The salt waters flow through the springs and then into the sea, either directly or through mangrove trees that surround the site.

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The springs are open into the evening so are often visited in the evening to avoid the heat after a long day hiking, diving or island hopping. But, if you can cope with the heat, it can be worth visiting in the day because there is a wonderful view over the sea that you don’t see at night, and you might just have the place to yourself since local people tend to go at weekends or in the evenings.

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The road to the springs winds up through the hills and the springs are not in a village or town. The surrounding natural environment shows beautiful flowers, birds and even some monitor lizards. Although the lizards are shy they have a wonderful pre historic look if you are fortunate enough to see one.

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The pools give you a variety of temperatures up to about 40 degrees. The hot pool is misleadingly comfortable at first touch because of the salt, but it’s certainly hot and you need to be ready for it. The waters are also said to contain spirulina so their medicinal or healing properties are sought after. The dark volcanic rocks of long ago eruptions surround the pools

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The view across the bay is well worth some time to sit take in the scene and reflect, and, having enjoyed the springs, time slows right down as you sit there, although the bumpy ride back to town will soon restore you to reality. As well as its therapeutic qualities it’s a fascinating change from the island and water life of a Philippine journey

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Village Life – Philippines

 

 

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On the way to the Maquinit hot springs in the hills above Coron at Palawan, in the Philippines, the road winds up and down through hills and around bends in the road that suddenly give vistas of the blue sea below. The road is dotted with villages, each going about its daily life, in the world around the tourists and travellers that come to these islands.

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On the lower slopes is a fishing village with boats moored alongside jetties in front of simple houses, and the village straddles the road into the hills. When you travel its easy to get divorced from the simple fact that the places you travel to are not just destinations, and the world does not exist just to stimulate the traveller but in fact the opposite is true.

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Houses abut the sea with boats parked outside like cars. A man paddling across the bay in a canoe is carrying things not just taking people for an outing; the small houses are deserted waiting for people to return from their daily chores.

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A man sits outside his small shop waiting for customers, and when asked for permission to take a picture he smiles and straightens himself, because there is pride and enterprise there, not just a job. By the water small fish lie drying in the sun, the results of the morning’s catch and boatmen paint and repair their boats.

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A restaurant made almost entirely of bamboo does good trade in the middle of the day, the atmosphere of being in something entirely mad of bamboo being fascinating, but to the people there its just as it is.The market is filled with people searching the displays of fish and vegetables each person with a particular mission.

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You are just passing through but that snapshot of a daily life is a counterbalance to the traveller’s objectives of islands, sunsets, food and relaxation. The experience adds flavour and colour to the journey, and the people you visit stop for a moment to talk to someone new, before returning to the routines of daily life.

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As travelling and tourism grows and the boundaries between tourism and everyday life blur, the village and its life adds some meaning to the surroundings

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The Palawan Underground River – Philippines

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The official name for the Palawan underground river on the west coast of the island of Palawan, is the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. It is an 80km drive from Puerto Princesa and a short trip by Bangka to the mouth of the river. I

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The river sits under the mountain range on the west coast and although much is still unexplored, including waterfalls within the mountain, there is 8.2 kms of river that you can explore with a ticket and a guide, kitted out in life jacket and safety hat in small boats containing 6 to 8 people.

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The entrance from the river looks imposing, a great dark hole in the side of the mountain from what seems a relatively small river, but once inside the sheer scale is easily apparent. The darkness descends on you very fast and the journey is lit by flashlights. At some point the lights will go out and everyone go quiet and the weight of the darkness and the extraordinary silence descends on you. It is eerie, a darkness and quiet you can’t find in everyday life, and you realise the dangers and difficulties involved in exploring the river.

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The journey along the river and back is marked with rock formations, walls made smooth by the effect of water over generations, bats in vast numbers and the formations made from their droppings, narrow passageways and huge domes rising as high as 300m above the river.

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Voices echo in the darkness and the sound of cameras is magnified echoing against the walls and ceiling. In the distance you see a circle of light, incongruous in the darkness you have become accustomed to and it’s the exit, and you emerge into the bright sunlight and the sight of groups waiting their turn on the river, as if coming into another world.

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The national park is a world heritage sight, with the area surrounding the river mouth having its very own micro ecology and innumerable varieties of plants animal life and recreations from hiking to a zip line running out over the sea.

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The journey back where the road undulates through hills and small villages is a good time to reflect on that immensity and diversity of nature

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Cape Town

 

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In his records of his circumnavigation of the world, Sir Francis Drake described the Cape of Good Hope, where Cape Town rests, as the “fairest cape in the entire circumference of the world”. It is also known as the Cape of Storms so named by the Portuguese explorer Bartolommeo Dias in the 15th Century and was later referred to as The Cape of Good Hope because it was the point at which the sea route to the East opened up. It is part of the Cape of Good Hope national park. Cape Town was originally a supply station for ships travelling from Europe to the East and for this reason was also know as the Tavern of the Seas.

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Today Cape Town is a successful cosmopolitan city; it is the largest by population and the home of South Africa’s Parliament. It has a Mediterranean climate of long warm dry summers and damp cool winters. It has become a major tourist destination as well as a vibrant business centre and a home for some 3m people of various cultures. The city has a wonderful combination of great physical beauty, as well as a lifestyle that is relaxed welcoming and very varied. The streets are varied from traditional zones to the small houses and streets of the Bo Kaap.

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The most famous place in Cape Town is Table Mountain, one of the new7 wonders of the natural world. The city sits in a bowl beneath the mountain that towers over it and you are conscious of it wherever you look. The prevailing winds from the south east mean that the normal city pollutions are blown away and not only is the air cleaner than most cities the quality of the light brings everything around you into the sharpest focus the colours deep and intense.

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Cape Town in famous for its beaches, white sand, blue water, sun and great variety. If you like beaches with people bars and restaurants they are there, but if you like big beaches with few people on them just a few kms brings you to long beaches virtually deserted.

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One of Cape Town’s prides is in its food, of every variety. Seafood fresh from the ocean and the variety of foods representing the different African, Asian and European cultures that make up the city. Like all cities there are two worlds, the one that everyone reads about and the one that locals know so if you know someone that’s the best way to know the city. The food ranges from fine dining to roadside cafes all of which have something to offer.

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The hub of the city for most newcomers starts with the waterfront development at the harbour from where you can visit Robben Island and where you can shop eat and relax to your heart’s content. It’s easy to get stuck there since the centre has everything, but to do so is to miss the other delights.

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In spring, September/October time, a visit to the national park to see the acres of wild flowers is an experience, huge fields of natural varied species. The Cape national part is one of the largest micro ecologies in the world. October is also the time for the annual visit of Southern Right whales who come to the warmer waters of the cape with their young, and as you drive down the coast its special to stop and watch these creatures in the water. The Cape is also home to the Great White shark a protected species in South Africa and the cape is one of the largest breeding grounds in the world for these very formidable creatures. Try cage diving to see the sharks a memorable experience.

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From Cape Town the next destination going south is Antarctica, so its at the very tip of Africa, but distance is relative nowadays and it’s a must see place.

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