I have just finished four weeks of fieldwork collecting insects in Dominica. I can’t really complain about that except that the fieldwork did not follow my usual routine. Generally when employed at The Natural History Museum your fieldwork is either part of a general collecting trip hoping to find as much as possible (work with Dipterists Forum); part of a research focused group (me collecting flies from Potatoes in Peru); or part of a consultancy project (Mosquitoes in Tajikistan). However this trip was different, I wasn’t marauding around the countryside with collector’s glee, this time I had to teach as well as collect.
We took the day bus up from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh and arrived around midday, Sam was feeling very ill at this point but we still needed to find our accommodation and check in before he could rest. We managed to get a tuk tuk to take us from the bus stop to the hostel we’d booked, although it was quite a way out of town and took ages to find. We’d had a hard time finding a suitable place when we were booking, and the map and road names were totally confusing – many of the roads are numbered rather than named but for some reason do not seem to be numbered chronologically with respect to geography. Arriving at the hostel, finally, we checked in and I put Sam to bed.
The journey to Sihanoukville (Cambodia) from Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) was one of the longest days of travelling of my entire trip to Asia. It began at 8am when my travel companion Sam and I were met at our hostel by a Vietnamese man who led us to our bus. It turned out to be about a 10 minute walk from the hostel, which we weren’t expecting. At 8am, with heavy bags and not enough sleep, this was not particularly welcome. We got to the bus and hung around for a while as luggage was piled onto the bus, and tickets were handed out. It was at this point that it became apparent that some people on the bus had got a ticket all the way to Sihanoukville, whereas we were scheduled to get off in Phnom Penh and make our own way onto another bus. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Nothing could prepare me for the pain of waking myself up at 3am on a Vietnamese sleeper train, scrabbling around in the dark for my belonging and clambering off the train into a dark Ho Chi Minh station. Worse still, we arrived early, so it was an anxious rush to get everything together before getting off the train. Bleery-eyed and confused we piled into taxis to the hotel that my tour had booked. We arrived to find the rooms were not ready yet. Sam and I had a back-up plan, though. We’d booked a hostel. So we got a taxi over to the hostel (which was in the backpacker part of town), only to find the place closed and shuttered up. We’d told them we’d be arriving around this time. Desperately we banged on the metal shutter. We waited. Thankfully, a sleepy-looking receptionist appeared and let us in. Our room wouldn’t be ready until 10am, though, so we could have a different room until then. Fine. We got into our small room, with a broken air conditioning unit and partially functional bathroom door, and immediately fell asleep.
We got up early and drove from Hoi An to Da Nang, where we were supposed to board a day train to the beach town of Nha Trang. The trains in Vietnam are known for being bad at timings – sometimes they’re early, sometimes they’re late. They are rarely on time. This one was late, and we had to wait over an hour in the rather inadequately provisioned train station. Eventually the train arrived and we all hurried with our luggage onto the train tracks to climb up into the train – once inside it was chaos, with far too many people trying to cram too much luggage down the narrow carriage isles and into their cabins.
The added bonus of this 10 hour journey was that I was meeting my friend and repeat travel buddy Sam, who had got on the train in Hanoi the night before, Understandably, he was feeling a little worse for wear after over 12 hours on a Vietnamese sleeper train, but we actually quite enjoyed the journey, watching the Vietnamese countryside roll past and drinking beer in the bar carriage. It was Christmas eve, after all, so drinking seemed to be in order! We arrived in Nha Trang around 9pm, checked into the hotel as quickly as we could and headed out to find some food and suitable Christmas eve entertainment.
After a fairly miserable few days in Hue, we drove down to Hoi An, a quaint ancient town on the banks of the Thu Bon River. Immediately, Hoi An lifted my spirits. It was a beautifully picturesque town, with narrow winding streets of yellow buildings lit by delicate lanterns. We spent the afternoon walking around the ancient town, seeing temples and visiting a traditional house that was absolutely beautiful, and totally serene. The house was long and thin with a partly open-plan layout – different ‘rooms’ were created with small dividers and furniture placement and the whole place felt very light and airy. Hoi An was a fair bit warmer than Hanoi and Hue had been, but inside the house air flowed easily and it was cool and relaxing. A very well-designed house!
Another major attraction of Hoi An is shopping – the town is famous for high-quality tailors at very reasonable prices, as well as some wonderful shops selling handmade lanterns, silk embroidery, and some of the most beautiful paintings I’d seen so far. Me and my new friend from the tour, Monique, had a nice afternoon browsing the shops and I set about finding my favourite lanterns to take home.
From Hanoi I took a sleeper train down to the ancient town of Hue (pronounced hway), boarding at around 7pm and arriving at 8.30am the following morning. The sleeper train was much the same as the one I took in China, except this time I was sharing with westerners. Overall, though, the feel of the train was much more grimy and less modern. Western toilets, though, so I can’t complain. I ate my instant noodles and we had a few beers in the train bar before they kicked us out at 10pm, and I went to bed. I slept pretty well, the rocking of the train was perfect to put me to sleep, although the mattress was fairly hard so I woke up the following morning feeling quite stiff.
We took a taxi from Hue station to the hotel, checked in and then me and my friend Monique headed out to explore the Imperial Citadel. It was very pretty, the citadel walls and buildings felt far more ancient than anything I have seen so far, and a lot of them are really more ruins than buildings, now. It was nice to see an ancient town that hasn’t been so heavily restored.
After just over 3 weeks in China and Hong Kong, I finally headed into Southeast Asia, where my first stop would be Hanoi, Vietnam. My flight was a rather frustrating one; they changed my gate at the last minute leaving Hong Kong, then the flight was delayed while we waited for several lost passengers, and when we finally arrived, I waited over an hour for my bag to come through. After about 40 minutes waiting, as other passengers from my plane began to peel off with their bags, I was starting to sweat. Having lost my bag once before, when flying out to Honduras, baggage claim is always a nerve-wracking wait for me. Thankfully, it did eventually appear, and the relief of seeing my bulging gray and red backpack emerge onto the conveyor belt was wonderful. I caught a taxi from the airport into central Hanoi, and after about 20 minutes the fear of being robbed or swindled somehow died down. It took about an hour to get to my hostel and when I arrived I quickly discovered that I’d managed to mess up the booking. I booked a lot of hostels for the trip, a long time ago, and apparently for this one I had failed to change the month when selecting dates (which is automatically set to the current month), so I’d unwittingly booked a room for July, rather than December. Oops! Thankfully the hostel had space for me, but only a private room, which I was happy to accept rather than try looking elsewhere – at least in Vietnam a private room only cost me about ten pounds!
I arrived in Hong Kong by train from Guangzhou, and decided to walk to my hostel in Kowloon from there. I arrived slightly regretting that decision, especially since I was still dressed for the Ping’an rice paddies. I felt much better after a hot shower, though, and went out to meet my friend who was also arriving in Hong Kong that day. We wandered around for a bit, unsuccessfully looking for something to eat (I was starving!) and eventually defaulted to chips at KFC before finding a bar. We stumbled upon a very cute British bar nearby called ‘Hare of the Dog’, and stayed for a few beers there before wandering home for some well-earned rest.
The following morning we went for a little wander in Kowloon park, which was right next to my hostel, and then walked down to the Star Ferry terminal, with plans to explore central Hong Kong for a bit and hopefully check out Victoria Peak at sunset. We had a lovely afternoon – after a decidedly English lunch of a smoked-salmon and cream cheese sandwich and a hot sausage roll, we took the short Star Ferry journey across to central pier. From there we meandered around central – we checked out the longest escalator in Asia (actually a series of shorter escalators and travelators, but which proved to be a useful navigational tool, and led us to discover some great bars and restaurants). Then we walked down Hollywood road, stopping off at Man Mo temple (we were both finally just about ready to see some more temples after Japan and China!!) and then we wandered down through a quaint antiques market. It was fascinating to check out what they were selling, lots of old knives and old coins, mostly.
After an unpleasantly early flight from Shanghai, I took an hour-long taxi ride from Guilin airport to the small town of Yangshuo, nestled between the Karst mountains. We drove through small rural farming communities between the lush green mountains which jut out dramatically from the flats in between. Geologically, these mountains are the result of techtonic movements which thrust limestone sediments up from the sea bed to heights of over 200m. Many thousands of years of erosion followed this to generate the bizarre and beautiful landscape of Guilin and the surrounding region.
Arriving at my hotel I was immediately calmed by the serene setting and quaint style of the eco hotel by the banks of the Yulong river. It was such an incredible contrast to Shanghai, and the constant noise and bustle of the Chinese cities I have visited so far. For the first time since I arrived in China over 2 weeks ago, everything was quiet. Butterflies flitted by and hummingbirds visited the beautiful pink and red flowers planted around the hotel. I sat by the river bank and drank a mug of ginger tea, watching the small bamboo rafts sail past. It was as though every bit of stress from the preceding weeks (and months!) of my life immediately left my body. I decided to treat myself to a nap.