Cycling the islets of Hoi An, Vietnam with Heaven & Earth Tours

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Sib and I have always been pretty healthy and active – she grew up a head taller than the rest of the kids and excelled in everything she did, particularly basketball. I’m no where near as naturally athletically gifted, but still somehow wound up with a degree in Exercise Science, a great 8 year career as a personal trainer and a black belt martial artist. After having been repeatedly told that the best way to see Vietnam was by bicycle, we decided to actually do a proper day-long tour, rather than just hiring bikes for an hour. Sib’s a good rider and really enjoys is. I can ride, but am prone to freaking out if I have to ride in traffic. We figured this lovely tour around the quiet, secluded islets of Hoi An was a good way to do it.

After an afternoon of online research, we found Heaven and Earth Bicycle Tours (http://www.vietnam-bicycle.com/). We read glowing review after glowing review from very happy customers, and decided on the 23km “Real Vietnam” tour. Our itinerary read as follows:
After a boat transfer, of approximately one hour on the Thu Bon river, you will arrive at a small village in the middle of the delta where you will begin your cycling tour. The morning will be spent cycling 14km across the countryside and rice fields. You will cross from island to island taking the unusual bridges made from wood or bamboo. A short boat crossing will bring you to a small island where you will enjoy lunch in the home at a local family. In the afternoon you will continue the same route as the “Countryside Bicycle Tour” and discovering local crafts. This tour includes crossing the river on a local ferry, visiting the crafts workshops, crossing a floating bridge, and a bamboo bridge, and several other stops along the way.

Our tour cost only AUD$47.00 per person, and included our lunch, bike and helmet hire, our guide and assistant (I’ll get to them, they were AMAZING!), and a few visits along the path. We were pretty happy with it all and booked on the spot, paying via PayPal, which made things very easy.

The morning of the tour, we caught a taxi to Heaven and Earth’s head office and walked up the front stairs with anxious excitement. After a quick confirmation that we were indeed paid and on the tour, we grabbed a helmet each and went outside to meet the girls who helped us pick out and adjust our bikes. Once the whole group was saddled up and ready to go, they handed us each a 1 litre bottle of water to clip to the back of our bikes, and led the way for a short peddle from the office to the water where our boat was waiting for us.

We spent an hour on the brilliant blue, calm water, weaving in and out of the fishing nets, getting to know our family for the day.
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There were just 8 of us, plus the two amazing women who led us, educated us, looked after us, and quickly became our friends. Trinh and Nahm – you ladies are absolutely amazing! When you book your bike tour around Hoi An (and you’re crazy if you don’t), make sure you ask for these girls.
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Once we hit dry land, we rode on and off for the rest of the day. The girls were really fantastic – Trinh leading the way and Nham holding the fort at the back of the pack, making sure everyone was accounted for, comfortable and managing the ride in the blistering heat. They stopped us regularly for water and photo breaks, always letting us know how far we’d come, how far our next riding stint would be, what our next stop would entail, and what kind of terrain we’d be encountering.

Instead of writing about everything we saw and did, I’m going to let the photos do the talking – no words could possibly do the truly breath taking natural beauty of this place justice 🙂

After riding a few kilometres through the most perfectly green rice fields you’ve ever seen…
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.. we made our first stop in a gorgeous, colourful neighbourhood to learn how to make rice paper.
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We rode a little more through some surprisingly diverse landscapes…
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We also got stuck at a few of these very old bamboo bridges. We were told we could try cycling across if we felt brave. I did not. I walked.
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Next stop was another beautiful neighbourhood, where we met two women who wove the traditional Vietnamese mats. You could feel the mood change, you could almost touch the sadness we were all overcome with, when we were told that these beautiful, large, intricate mats that took 4 hours each to make sold for only USD$5.00, and the women earned only USD$1.00 per mat. To see these kind, smiling women, bent over in manual labour was hard enough. To imagine them doing this for 8 hours a day and earning only $2.00, was beyond the scope of anything we could imagine. It was a really humbling moment for all of us.
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We rode only a little further before stopping for lunch – home cooked and unbelievably good! We were then invited into the home for an explanation about some of the traditions that still hold in Vietnamese homes.
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Next up was a stop on the water to learn how to and try to paddle the little round basket boats.
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We also had stops to see how incense sticks were made, and also met a man who carved out the tiny detailed mother-of-pearl patterns that are inlaid into wooden products.
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It was a long day in very hot, humid weather (we left our hotel at 7.30am and didn’t get back until around 2.30pm), but it was one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had. If you’re in Hoi An, even if you’re not particularly athletic, please do yourself a favour and jump on a bike with Heaven and Earth!

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Cruising the Nile on the Princess Sarah… what?!?!

We arrived into Cairo late at night after a very, very long journey.

An 8 hour flight from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur.
A 12 hour, action-packed (my own fault) lay over in KL.
Another 8 hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Abu Dhabi.
A 3 hour stop in Abu Dhabi.
Yet another 8 hour flight to Paris.
Another 4 hours waiting around
And finally, a 5 hour flight from Paris to Cairo.
Oh yeah, and I’m an insomniac who doesn’t sleep on planes. Factor in that our flight left Melbourne at 2:00am, we checked into the airport at 11:00pm the night before and we were up at 7:00am to work that day, and you can do the maths…

So, you can imagine the state we were in by the time we traversed customs, collected our bags, and checked into our hotel to find our tour leader smiling and ready to have a “quick” 30-45 minute de-brief about the trip we were about to embark on the following afternoon. He got about 5 minutes into the information overload, when our ears pricked up – we had a few overnight trains and a few overnight mini-bus trips to contend with, but, wait, what was that? We could ditch the mini bus and upgrade for a 5 star cruise ship instead? For only £80?! And all our meals on board are included?! WHAT?! Yes, dear God yes, we’ll take the upgrade!!

And that is how the Princess Sarah came to be our floating home for three glorious nights.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

We went to bed on that first night, still completely disoriented and exhausted from the travel, and woke up in the morning both confused as to what we’d just done. Did we really sign up for the upgrade? Were we sure it was really that cheap?? Yeah, it was. There had to be a catch, there just had to… a shitty interior cabin with no windows, the expectation that we’d help with the dishes after dinner, there had to be something… we supposed we’d find out soon enough.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

Turns out we couldn’t have been more wrong. Our cabin was magnificent, with a window that opened straight out onto the water. We had the most magnificent view as we calmly floated on down the Nile. The room itself was beautiful, too, far better than we could have possibly hoped for. The food was delicious, they pulled out all the stops, and we were waited on hand and foot. There were cocktails, floor shows of belly dancers, traditional music, the works. Oh, and there was the rooftop pool and bar, where the cocktails were delivered straight to your banana lounge! So, how the hell had all of that for three nights cost so damn little??!

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

Our answer came as we returned to the ship after a big day of sight-seeing – we realised there were actually a truckload of other ships docked (we’d missed this earlier in the morning as we’d disembarked elsewhere), and we’d have to walk through 8 others to reach ours, which seemed to be half way across the Nile to the other side. We walked through 8 completely empty and horrifyingly dilapidated, ex-5 star cruise ships. They were dirty, run down… their chandeliers were coated in dust, their beautiful carved wooden balustrades haphazardly covered with old sheets, that musty smell emanating from every direction. To our complete shock, we spied a few mattresses and blankets in two of the ships; there appeared to be people squatting in these majestic foyers! We were speechless.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

When we finally made our way back to our ship and we found the voice to speak, we asked our ever-knowledgeable guide Medo what the hell had happened to those ships. Politics happened. He explained that with the civil unrest, the riots, the fighting, the issues with the government, the violence, and the volatile and unpredictable nature of the situation, there was no longer the tourism to warrant running these ships. They simply did not have the passengers to fill them anymore. That’s why we got such a cheap deal. As for the “residents” living in the foyers? They were the staff. Mostly men (but some women, too) had left their families and lives in other parts of Egypt to work on these ships, with the promise of wealthy tourists to pay the bills and provide a more comfortable life for their families back home. But now that the tourists had been scared away, a lot of them couldn’t afford to get back home, or were too ashamed to do so. So, they “lived” in the abandoned ships.  I’m not sure heart breaking really sums it up, to be honest.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

We had the most incredible experience in Egypt. We went in between flare ups of the violence, which was purely by luck – we’d booked the trip 9 months in advance, so anything could have happened. But we weren’t deterred by the events that had been unfolding, and neither were a handful of others, like us, still eager to see it all. I’m so glad we still went; the evidence of the violence was plain to see. We saw buildings that had been gutted by fires, smashed in windows that ran entire lengths of streets, a bombed police car still flipped on its side in the middle of the street (that’ll need it’s own post to explain), but truthfully, the people were kind. They were wary, and I don’t blame them, but they were kind. They were generous. They were accommodating. At the time, to start off with, I was so grateful for the lack of interest in Egypt at the time we visited, because we’d never have had the opportunity to jump onto a cruise ship, or see some of the wonders and temples in relative peace and quiet, without hoards of buses and tourists arriving at the same time as us. But walking through those cruise ships, I felt a little part of my heart breaking for those people. There are only such small areas affected by these riots and violence, as we saw first hand, and at no point did I ever feel unsafe. I’d really, strongly encourage those of you thinking of visiting but still worried to go because of the political situation to reconsider. Certainly do your homework and heed the warnings when they are put out there, but please don’t assume that it’s all doom and gloom over there. It’s still a beautiful country with beautiful people, and they need your help  : )