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New Zealand – South Island

Christchurch

We landed in Christchurch in the afternoon, it was throwing it down with rain, but we went straight to pick up the car that we would be driving for the next 24 days, and we weren’t too impressed at what we were given, it was an old Mazda, with over 100k already on the clock, and didn’t even have central locking, it certainly wasn’t what we imagined driving for 5,000 km around New Zealand, and definitely not what we had paid for.

Because of the bad weather, and the fact that the office was about to close, we put up with it for now and headed for our apartment. The apartment was tiny, but nice, they then charged us an extra $10 to park the car which we weren’t too happy with but we just put up with it and walked down to the supermarket, for a bottle of wine, in the pouring rain.

We picked up a bottle of wine and some snacks, but when we got to the checkout, the staff and even the store manager refused to serve us without our passports, which were ten-minutes walk away in the rain. Even though we had multiple other forms of ID on us, and hadn’t needed ID once in the week we spent in Auckland. Christchurch wasn’t going great so far.

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Kuta, Lombok

We took an Uber from Ubud back to Padangbai port to take the public ferry to Lombok, we would be going to the south of Lombok, to a town called Kuta (very different from Kuta, Bali) for a few days before going to the famous Gili Islands further north.

All went smoothly, we got to the port, bought our boat tickets for £2.50 each for a four-hour ferry, boarded and went straight up to the top-deck. When I say this boat was a ferry, it was more like a mini-ship, it transported trucks, cars, people, live-stock, petrol, basically anything that needed to go from Bali to Lombok could go on this boat, it was big.

We sat down on the top deck and a couple of the locals gave us some funny looks before one said to us that we might want to go downstairs where there’s more seats, we looked a little confused because we had a seat on a bench up here. But, I went for a walk to see what was in the downstairs section we hadn’t been in.

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Arrival in Bali, Nusa Lembongan & Nusa Penida

After a fantastic week in Singapore, we flew on Sunday 4th June to Bali, Indonesia. We plan to spend a full month in the area around Bali and Lombok, so should have plenty of time to explore a few areas, a lot of where we are planning to go to is influenced by several friends who have been here before and recommended certain places, but Bali is very well-known tourist spot so we assume it’s where most people will go.

One of the first places we wanted to go was Nusa Lembongan, a small island about 30 minutes from Bali, but because we landed at night, we couldn’t go straight to there, so we headed over to the east side of Bali to Sanur, which is the closest port to get the boat to Nusa Lembongan, it’s more of a holiday destination than a backpacker hub, we just spent a couple of nights there to do some planning for the month ahead and sort out a boat to take us over.

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El Nido

Our next destination in the Philippines would be El Nido, Palawan, but first we had to get there from Bantayan Island. This isn’t as straightforward as just going there, first we took a tricycle (like a motorbike tuk-tuk) to the port on Bantayan, then the ferry to Cebu (which for some unknown reason, maybe the shape of the moon, or the wind direction or the captain was sobering up, took two hours this time). Then it was the four-hour bus back to Cebu city, followed by a taxi to Cebu airport.

Next was the one hour flight to Puerto Princesa, Palawan, and because we arrived at night, we’d have to stay there in the city for one night before going to El Nido the next morning, so it was another tricycle from the airport to the hotel. The next morning we got up early and took the six-hour bus (that only took five) to El Nido, I think the driver was making up for the slowness of Philippine time by trying to drive at close to the speed of light to get there quicker.

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Krabi

Despite falling back in to the travelling way of life with a bang, and having a few emotional moments after leaving the others behind at the airport, the bus ride was fairly quick and easy, after about three hours we arrived in Krabi town bus station. We seem to have learned what to do in these situations better than most, so whilst most people stand there negotiating with the tour agency office staff, or just accepting their drastically over-inflated prices to get them to their hostels, we just walk away and go to the public transport station where this time we just hopped in the back of a public Songthaew (like a tuk-tuk bus, with two rows of seats, that you can hop on and off anywhere on the route) for around a third of the price the bus company office wanted. It seems Vietnam and Cambodia were good practice for dealing with this after all.

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Dalat – the Central Highlands

We arrived on the train from hell to Nha Trang, a beach-side town, that seemed to us like it had passed it’s best. Unfortunately the weather was bad for us, raining and cloudy, the sea was rough, so if we couldn’t go to the beach there wasn’t much point in staying. We had booked 3 nights at the hostel, but within a couple of hours we knew we didn’t like the town so cancelled two of the three nights and booked a bus the next day to Dalat in the highlands.

The bus journey to Dalat was pretty horrific, we got the back row, it was the bumpiest and most horrible bus journey yet for 6 hours up to Dalat, from sea level to 5,000 feet, with a crazy driver. We just about managed to keep our breakfast inside us though and  survived the journey to get to Dalat.

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The DMZ, Huế and the Hai Van Pass

We got on a bus from Phong Nha village to Huế which would stop a couple of times along the way in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) in central Vietnam, the area that was used as the border and separation between North and South during the American / Vietnam War. The first stop was at the Vinh Moc Tunnels, this was a village in the DMZ that was famous for building a network of tunnels, in three stages to take the entire village underground away from the bombing by the USA.

This full network of tunnels housed areas for sleeping, eating, working, even a maternity area. The tunnels were a few KM long in total and went down to depths of 23m at the deepest. We walked through the tunnels and came out through one of the exits straight on to a beach on the South China Sea. There was also a small museum here to show all of the tunnels in the region that were built during this time, of which there were dozens.

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Phong Nha National Park

We left Hanoi around 7pm to head to the train station for the overnight train to Dong Hoi, around 10 hours on the train. We had never done an overnight train before, but we had promised somebody very special that we would do one in Vietnam one day and this was to be the first. We were excited and nervous in equal measures, not really knowing what to expect, we even text the best friends to find out if they recommended beer to make the journey easier, of course they did so I headed straight to the shop to stock up.

The train was bumpy, rocked a lot when moving, stopped and started all the time and I barely fit in the bed so sleeping wasn’t very easy, and the toilet was the worst smell I’ve ever experienced, but overall it was actually fine and a good experience to have achieved (not like the next one we did, but we’ll come to that another day). Ten hours later we arrived in a town called Dong Hoi, knowing we had to catch the local bus to Phong Nha national park, we had no idea where the bus stop was, but we set off walking towards the bus station on the map. We got to a dual carriageway with no paths, so decided a taxi might be a better option than walking, as soon as we got in the taxi we both doubted he knew where he was going when he drove straight past the bus station and ignored our repeated calls to stop.

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Hanoi and Halong Bay

Following two quick days in Hong Kong, we then flew to Hanoi to start the Vietnam adventure. On arriving we plan to spend about five weeks here travelling from north to south by trains and buses, before crossing in to Cambodia overland from the south.

We checked in to quite a nice hotel in Hanoi, nothing too expensive, but we thought we would treat ourselves to a hotel with it being our anniversary while we were there. The staff were so friendly, and after a day of travelling and walking through the manic streets of the old quarter to get to the hotel, it was a welcome relief to see really friendly and happy faces.

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Hong Kong; The Sequel

We left the Guilin hotel about 7am and walked to the train station. It was one train to Guangzhou for three hours, then we had 20 minutes to connect to our other train in what is surely the largest train station in the world, bigger than most airports. Thankfully we made it as we could just transfer straight to the right platform we need for the next 30-minute train to Shenzhen. Then it was a metro across the city for 30 minutes to the border between China and Hong Kong, we got stamped out of China, walked a little, then entered Hong Kong at the other side then it was another metro train for an hour in Hong Kong to get to the centre.

So after about six hours on five different trains, lots of transfers and some walking we weren’t too impressed when we arrived at the hostel in Hong Kong and were told to wait in a queue of people to check-in. It was one check-in desk for many hostels, so lots of people waiting, but it didn’t take long thankfully and we were soon out in Hong Kong, a little more civilised than we had for the last three weeks and we were actually really happy to be here.

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