The highway to the highlands

16 12 2014

InsideVietnam’s Charlotte Bower recently headed north from Hanoi to the Sapa highlands on the new express way (opened September 21 2014). The express way from Hanoi to Lau Cai is the longest in the country and cuts journey time to the far north dramatically. Here’s Charlotte…

Ta Van Village Red Dzao and H'Mong (11)
Sapa is a stunning mountain destination with trekking and ethnic tribe villages to visit, but is commonly left off of a short travel itinerary because of the hassle that comes with using the overnight trains to get there and back; previously the only transport option. Now, the recently completed highway has opened up the north west of Vietnam and it provides a pleasant alternative to the train.

Hanoi Traffic
The highway starts about 20 minutes outside of Hanoi and this is a perfect part of the journey to spot motorbikes a little out of the ordinary. In Vietnam, the motorbike is king and is quite often used as a family vehicle. It is not uncommon to see a family of five riding one or someone carrying a ladder.

Hanoi outskirts
The beginning of the highway bridges over the outskirts of Vietnam where you can see the tall narrow houses with red roofs, typical of Vietnamese cities, along the banks of the Red River. This soon gives way to small hold farms where you can observe the farmers ploughing with buffalo or harvesting rice, depending on the season.

It is a great opportunity to sit back and observe rural life for a few hours and see a refreshing change of pace after the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. With the exception of a few road cuts and tunnels, the rural views are uninterrupted for the few hours in takes to get to Lao Cai, the town closest to Sapa and the location of the train station.

Sapa new road
After passing through Lao Cai and observing the French influences architecture in the government buildings and shops, you leave the new highway and start the hour and a half drive up 2500 metres to Sapa; a road full of hairpin bends and stunning mountain views of rice terraces which more than makes up for the bumpiness – a noticeable difference once you have left the new highway.

Sapa service station

The new highway itself has been well constructed with external and internal investment. It is on a par with British roads and, although not perfectly smooth, provides for a perfectly pleasant journey. The facilities on the road are minimal at the moment. There is $2 million of local investment for the construction of service stations but these are still in the early stages of building. Currently, the locations where they will be built have local food stalls with bright signs advertising Pho Bo and plenty of coffee. There are facilities here but they are rudimentary squat toilets – As long as you know what to expect, they are  acceptable for emergencies if a five hour drive without stops doesn’t sound ideal to you. Just don’t forget your tissues!

Not only does this road provide the opportunity to see some stunning scenery you wouldn’t otherwise see (the train is all in the dark), but it opens up the northwest of Vietnam and to time constrained travellers. Sapa (and the surrounding mountians) is an opportunity not to be missed in terms of scenery and culture and the investment that has been put into this highway ensures that even the shortest of itineraries can now include it as an option.

 





Hanoi style motorbike

12 12 2014

Earlier on in the year, we blogged about the impressive motorbike loads that we have seen in Vietnam. Here are some pretty impressive shots of girls on bikes….and lots of them…in Hanoi.

Three people to a bike is pretty much standard in Vietnam, but Thanhnien News recently published a few pictures of girls being escorted around the city on motorbikes. Here are a few impressive shots of ‘heavy motorbike loads’ to get you into the Hanoi spirit.

How many girls?

Hanoi style

Getting comfortable

Off we go

Cruising at night
Read the article here. If you want to get into the spirit of things, InsideVietnam can organise for you to see the city on scooter – Quite exciting, but not for everyone…and certainly not this many people!

 





Culture on the beaches of Burma

1 12 2014

Ngapali palmsBurma has a whole lot to offer in the form of beautiful countryside and culture, but it is not known for its beaches…but it should be!

A little beachI wouldn’t class myself as a beach person really, but soon after flying into little Ngapali airport, it’s hard not to appreciate the tropical surroundings. As the ‘season’ had only just begun…that day in fact (October-May) – it was a bit of a gamble in terms of getting some sun, but Burma, the Bay of Bengal and Ngapali’s beautiful beaches didn’t dissapoint.

Burma beachesHaving said that I’m not really a beach person, after travelling around this  country and soaking up all the amazing mountains, lakes, cities, villages, towns, jungles, temples, food, experiences and lovely people that this place has to offer, I was really quite ready for a bit of R&R on the beach.

Empty beachesVast empty swathes of soft sand and lovely warm ocean are ripe for relaxation too. There’s nobody on the beach hassling you to buy wooden elephants, croaking wooden frogs, drums and likes. You might meet the lady selling fruit every couple of hours, but if you don’t want any, she’ll give you a smile and walk off – That’s how it should be. Nice and relaxing.

Fishing boatIf you don’t want to sit back and relax, you don’t have to. Burma is one huge cultural adventure. Like all towns, there are small local cafes and restaurants to enjoy a drink at or a good bit of fresh fish. There are also plenty of small fishing villages around (well there is plenty of ocean to fish in) to visit and have a nose around to get an idea of how the locals live their lives. Take a one hour boat ride to Muang Shwe Lay (or a three hour drive along the peninsular if you prefer?!) which is a welcoming  small community on the edge of palms and the beach.

Take a local cab…

TransportVisit the local monastery and its 90 something ‘local celeb’ head monk…

The main manEnjoy a coconut and some food at a local home…

FoodOr just get back in the sea…

Bay of BengalLike the rest of Burma, everyone is pretty friendly and welcoming. There are no hidden agendas and people just want to say, “hello” or “mingalabar”…that’s all – very refreshing. Ngapali is the perfect way to unwind at the end of Burmese adventure. There isn’t much to it really. Ngapali is beautful and unspoilt. I hope it remains that way.

I am not a Burma expert, but my expert colleagues will want to remid you that if you go to Ngapali out of season, you should expect constant rain…generally warm rain, but pretty much non-stop rain. In season, it’s the perfect place.

Sun setting

 





2014 Guardian Travel Award Winners

28 11 2014

Winners!!!….Twice!

TV's Helen Skelton gets to meet InsideAsia's James Mundy twice at the Guardian Travel Awards

TV’s Helen Skelton gets to meet InsideAsia’s James Mundy twice at the Guardian Travel Awards  – voted by the readers and held in Morocco.

Just a quick post here to say a big ‘thank you’ to those of you who may have voted for us in the 2014 Guadian Travel Awards.

The reader voted awards ceremony took place in Agadir, Morocco (20-22 November) and we are delighted (and pleasantly surprised) that InsideAsia Tours have received not one, but two of travel’s prestigious awards. InsideAsia’s Japan specialist brand, walked away with the accolades at the long-established travel awards with readers voting InsideJapan as 2014 ‘Best Small Tour Operator’ -

The BEST small tour operator

and ‘Best Online Booking Service’ -

Best online booking service

These are great testament to what we do throughout InsideAsia Tours from Japan to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma. We have vast amounts of personal experience living or travelling in each of our specialist destinations, we have vast amounts of knowledge about each place and we are passionate about the culture and the people….we love these places and we want our customers to love them too. Thankfully most of them do love it as you can tell from our live reviews on the websites and these awards. Thank you all for your support!

Japan won the ‘Best long-haul country’ award, but Indochina made a good appearance in the list with Vietnam coming in sixth and Cambodia close on its tail at seventh.

I couldn’t help but notice that the design for this year’s travels awards looks rather similar to the design on the front cover of our InsideBurma Tours brochure (on the flip side of our InsideVietnam Tours brochure)…more to come on that!

InsideBurma Guardian Travel award

 





Carry on up the Mekong: part 2

24 11 2014

Cambodia’s Conservation Conundrum

In an earlier blog we were following the progress of GBBO’s Sue Perkins on a BBC2 broadcast journey 3,000 miles up the magnificent Mekong River from the delta in Vietnam to the river’s source in Tibet.

Cambodian fisherman on the Mekong River

Cambodian fisherman on the Mekong River

Episode 2 saw Sue head away from the river in Cambodia to uncover some of the challenges the country faces in reconciling the need to provide income for its people following the ravages of the Khmer Rouge regime, and the desire to preserve and protect the country’s fabulous natural heritage. Illegal logging, poaching and animal trafficking remain a serious challenge for Cambodia’s authorities, but Sue also visited a number of our favourite conservation projects that provide hope for the future and demonstrate how thoughtful tourism can aid in the protection of the natural world.

Read the rest of this entry »





5 star toilet experience in Saigon

19 11 2014

There is a bit of rivalry between the cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, but we think that Ho Chi Minh might just have it….beacuse of their “four and five star” toilets. Sacombank sponsored the building of classy toilet blocks in Tao Dan Park in Saigon’s District 1 at the cost of around $40,000 – $50,000 USD each according to Vietnam.net news.

Five Star Toilet

The toilets have been built to satisfy the toilet needs of tourists enabling them a bit more comfort when it comes to the call of nature. Saigon is due to invest in around 100 or so of these posh bogs to satisfy the expectations of travellers more used to conveniences of local five star hotels according to Thanhnien News.

Stylish WC

The toilets are paired up with ATM’s owned by the bank and although there is no advertising on the toilet block itself, the bank are still doing their bit to help travellers spend a penny or two whilst in the city (Apologies for the very poor pun).

Spend a penny

OK, perhaps toilets don’t make a city, but it is nice to know that they are there. These toilets are certainly a bit more stylish than some of the usual public toilets that we have seen around town…lets hope they stay that way.

 

 

 





Carry on up the Mekong!

10 11 2014

Part I: Vietnam and Cambodia

Well it seems that the BBC love Indochina almost as much as we do – no sooner have we finished delving into the Cambodian jungles to unearth the mysteries of Angkor, and exploring the magnificent Tonle Sap in the Wonders of the Monsoon, we’re back on the water in The Mekong River with the Great British Bake Off’s Sue Perkins (BBC 2 Sunday night at 8pm) at the helm.

Commencing amongst the bustle of boats and traders in Vietnam’s bountiful Mekong Delta region, over the coming episodes Sue is travelling 3,000 miles upstream through Cambodia, Laos and Burma to the Mekong’s source in Tibet, learning to love the incredible landscapes and fabulous people as we at InsideVietnam do.

We have long thought that getting out on the mighty Mekong was a wonderful way to experience the contrasting delights of the countries through which the river flows, and the Cruises in Indochina section of our shiny new InsideVietnam brochure lays out lots of the exciting options available for experiencing it yourself firsthand. Here’s a quick taste to whet the appetite…

Read the rest of this entry »








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