Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Day 18 - Last Day in Luang

We woke up fairly early. About 2am... and then again at 2:30... 2:45... 3:00 etc etc.

The monks were driving us insane . Closely following them were the staff of the hotel. You might remember we had no towels or hot water the day befroe. This time, we had no glasses (useful for brushing your teeth when you can't drink tap water) and no second roll of toilet paper. Oh yeah, and we'd come back one night to find all our windows wide open and the room freezing. Add to this the fact that we'd been bitten by mosquitos the owner said couldn't possibly exist at this time of year and the horrific suburn we'd picked up from our tubing the day before and you can understand why we weren't quite up to much on our last full day!

What we did do was explore the town a bit more. We'd seen signs here and there for Mister Mouse and we'd wondered what it was all about so were pleased to find ourselves outside the office in the early afternoon.

Mister Mouse is a fantastic literacy project that was started by a university student who grew up in a village nearby. Having been taught English and how to read his own language as a child, he got a vision for passing on the privilege to others who lack the opportunities in the villages of northern Laos. Returning to Luang Prabang after university, he gathered other student and youthful friends and set up a literacy project creating books in both Lao and English. These are illustrated very well by teenagers with stories of local traditions alongside health and social issues such as AIDS and international relations.

We were very impressed partly because we ourselves are considering working in a similar area in the future and the art element really appealed to Sheena. What impressed us more than anything though was their vision and attitude. With very sparse resources and no training whatsoever, they were managing to have a very positive impact in some of the most needy areas of their country. Very worthwhile.

We meandered around the streets making the most of the evening light. In Luang Prabang the sun sets down all the streets that run east-west and the sunlight is a photographer's dream. Streets, temples, everything was lit in the most intense and piercing light.

Returning to our favourite watering hole for a last dinner, we watched the boats slipping by in the dusk on the Mekong, then did a bit of final shopping at the night market before making our way back to endure another night of hellish chanting from the everpresent temple. For once, the staff had got it right, we had everything we needed for a good night's sleep except silence.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Day 17 - Rub a Dub Dub

We awoke this morning, despite inserted ear plugs, to the sounds of the people in the next room and the persisitent chanting from the local temple playing as it had been when we'd gone to bed and was still.

A buffet breakfast in town lured us in to enjoy fruit, homemade yoghurt, museli, toast, bacon and even pancakes on a terrace overlooking the Mekong. John even tried a local breakfast - rice noodles with a spicy soup with fried garlic, beansprouts and fresh herbs. It smelled good but not my cup of tea in the morning!

After being well satiated we headed over to the tour office where we had booked to go tubing the day before for the bargain price of $5 each. Tubing is all the rage in Laos and it's great because it is completely environmentally friendly. It involves drifting downstream in a giant inner tube. We piled into the back of a truck with two Germans and the giant inner tubes we would soon be riding in. The staff drove about 20 minutes out of town, dropped us off at the bank of the Nam Khan river, helped us into life jackets and gave us a waterproof bag to put any personal belongings in.

Before we set off on the river - we all slathered oursleves in suncream and changed into swim wear. The river looked good and surprisingly clean. In the water, we could see lots of feathery seaweed being swept in the flow. It made the river look a brilliant green colour from a distance.

The morning had started out so chilly with such low cloud that we feared it wasn't the right weather, but it seems to be the norm here that by 11am the clouds lift ansd the sun breaks through and it is a different scene altogether. Now it was nearly twelve and warming up.

One by one we plonked into the tubes and off we went. The water was refreshingly cool, the current quite strong in parts and it was surprising how fast you could move in places. When you looked down at the water under you you could see more clearly the speed you were going. But in other places the flow was very slow and sometimes stationary. It hardly mattered. The scene was so tranquil and pleasant we were in no hurry.

The plan was to float down river for about 3 hours and then be picked up at the other end. It was lovely just drifting enjoying the sunshine, leaning back and closing our eyes breathing in the stillness that was periodically interrupted by village life on the banks or in the river itself: children at play in the water, locals rowing boats going about their business, cows and water buffaloes drinking and bathing at the water's edge.

It was so funny how we all went at different speeds with the currents and sometimes one of us would be separated from the group for some time. This happened to me - I lost sight of the others ahead of me for ages and got stuck in a very slow patch. During this, I drifted into a group of young guys going out in a boat and some standing at the bank. They seemed very surprised and curious to see me and said greetings in Lao and English and some tried to ask my name in very basic English. They were embarrassed and so was I and I was trying hard to paddle out of their area and away form their staring. As I passed them on their boat, the boy at the back coyly called "I love you!" Embarrassed, I hurried to paddle away.

Later, I found John and one of the German guys disembarked and waiting on a small sand bank. Then we set of together again.

Downstream, we came across a busy operation of people in the river with boats scooping up stones in various sizes and sifting them into their boats and others collecting large bucketfulls of sand form the riverbed. Obviously, they must sell this for building materials, but we wondered what effect this must have.

We could have happily floated all day I think but eventually, we came upon a sign boldly informing us to "STOP TUBING " But it was difficult to do so there as the current was quite fast and in my case the guy had to come in and get me!

We'd lost sight of one of the German guys - getting out the water only one bend before the stopping point, he'd wanted to get something to eat. We ended up waiting for him to come back so we could all return in the truck together. After about 40 minutes he turned up. Apparently he'd been invited in by some locals and they had given him food and beer and he couldn't get away!

We returned to town in the truck for a well-earned cool drink in a cafe and watched the street life in the late afternoon sun. It was there we discovered that, despite our best efforts with factor 75 suncream, we had some souvenirs that would last us a week or more. John's knees were particularly red. If it hadn't been for this, we'd have probably done it all again the next day!

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Monday, January 01, 2007

Day 16 - Loafing in Luang

Luang Prabang is a really sleepy town. This is a good thing. After our hectic time in Vietnam, we were grateful for the small scale and quieter mood of Laos.

This said, we were rather put out by the temple behind our house. Buddhism has quite a name for tolerance and this too is a good thing. Why they need tolerance was very apparent to us when the temple behind our hotel began broadcasting chanting through loudspeakers in the wee hours of the morning.

You know how uplifting Buddhist chanting is with its lilting melodies and energising rhythm? Well, by the time we pulled ourselves out of bed, we'd had just about as much lilting as we could take.

What made it worse... much worse... was the fact that our hotel room walls, while appearing to be made of teak, were in fact made of nothing at all. The priest and his monotonous drone could have been right there in bed with us. In fact, thinking about it, that would have been much more convenient. We could have just smothered him with pillows and helped him on the path to enlightenment.

This also meant that the temple had several accomplices. Our room was one third of a traditional Lao dwelling. We could hear conversations in other rooms, whenever they walked across their floor, the moving floorboards in our room made the bed sway, and when a group left early on wheeling their luggage past our door it sounded like they were dragging heavy machinery over gravel. Add to this the incipient whine of the water pump under our floor and you'll understand why we didn't get a great night's sleep.

But the gardens were lovely and we were right by the river and, surely, the temple would stop soon right?

We found our own way into town along the Nam Khan river through some ramshackle buildings (all of which toted satellite dishes despite being on the verge of collapse) and over an open sewer that had been a stream in some long-forgotten previous life back at the dawn of time.

First stop was the Sticky Rice Exhibition. We'd been told about this by our hotelier but hadn't really intended to go. But there we were standing right outside it. Good thing too because it really was excellent. Very well produced and extremely informative both about rice itself and the culture of Laos. There were insightful exhibits though such as the Contented Rice Farmer Song, a good glimpse into how socialism has become part of the mindset here.

Town was sleepy by day too. There were restaurants, Internet cafes and tour offices lining most streets in the main area but still plenty of areas of temples and houses where the locals lived. It was a great town to walk around. Better still to bike and we rented bikes for the three remaining days we were to be there.

We didn't do much but explore that day. We'd toyed with the idea of doing some trekking, rafting or even some mountain biking out in the forests but Vietnam had scared us out of the idea of an organised tour. Then we hit on something which turned out to be one of the best things we did on the whole trip. We booked it for the next day and spent the rest of the day in cafes or exploring.

We got back to our hotel late, but the Buddhists were still at it in the twinkling darkness. To add to our joy, the hotel staff had left us without any towels. We had to get the owner out of bed to get us some. It hardly mattered though. There wasn't any hot water either.

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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Day 15 - Laos at Last

For more pics, click the links below.

Well, we had 12 days in Vietnam and I think that was enough. It was interesting but the full-on hassle was starting to wear us down by the end. Originally we had planned to do this trip clockwise going from Laos to Vietnam. I think that would have killed us actually. Going the other way was just perfect. Laos is a refuge after Vietnam.

We didn't do much on our last morning in Vietnam. We'd forgotten it was a Sunday and some of the stuff we would have done was closed anyway. We sat by the lake and Sheena enjoyed a coffee and then headed to the airport in a taxi.

The flight was uneventful. It was Lao Airlines and so we exchanged Vietnam Airways' horrific pate for some strange green goo. Ah well, at least it was edible. The flight into the town was quite spectacular. You fly right down the main street quite low.

We landed on what looked like a cloudy day. It was early evening. By the time we made it out of the airport it was dark. It took immigration quite a while to process everyone's visas. A sign at the counter informed us that we had to pay an extra couple of dollars because they were working at the weekend. Poor dears.

A guy was waiting to take us to our hotel. This was pretty close to the airport and was off the main road set alongside the river in some great tropical gardens. These were lit when we arrived and we were welcomed by a couple of friendly dogs and the Australian wife of the ex-pat who own the Nam Khan Villas.

She showed us our room. It looked very rustic and we changed and headed to the restaurant for something to eat. She'd encouraged us to have a bite to eat there before we headed into town. It was New Year's Eve and we were anxious to see if we could find somewhere to catch the vibe.

Our first impression of the menu was that it was a bit limited. This became acute when we discovered that of the buffalo steak, chicken and fish available they were out of both buffalo and chicken. Suddenly, fish seemed a capital idea. We had fish... er two fish.

It was obvious that the staff were learning the ropes. While the manageress taught the cook to cook, we chatted to Joy, our waiter. He wasn't local. He was from Udomxai north of Luang Prabang. He was here for university and he was amazed at how developed it was. This only left us to imagine how undeveloped Udomxai must be. Luang Prabang is little more than a large village. We described Seoul and, thankfully, he wasn't able to imagine it at all. Seoul has nearly twice as many people in it as the whole of Laos put together. Hmmm...

We'd already exhausted conversation topics a number of times when the food arrived. It was okay but neither worth the wait nor the price. This was to become the trademark of our stay at the hotel but little did we know.

After dinner, we headed into town on a tuk-tuk. At $3 each way, we knew we had to solve the transport situation. That was simply too much to be spending on this kind of holiday. Town was, well... quiet. Lovely and quiet.

We were dropped off on Sisavangvong Street which is the main one. All along it were cafes and restaurants overflowing with tourists. The atmosphere was great. Nice and relaxing. Best of all was what we found at the end of the street.

I wanted to explore and we set off down some inviting side streets. We found a beautifully lit temple and then, as we were passing, I caught sight of something interesting in the grounds of a house. Being a tourist grants you immunity to take risks sometimes. Wandering into someone's private property wouldn't normally be okay but we were welcomed curiously.

What had caught my eye was the sight of a long row of fires on which something was cooking. It turned out to be rice cooked Lao style which I'd never seen before. Rice is put into baskets and these are suspended in the mouth of metal pots of boiling water. The rice is steamed. Even more curiously for us was the quantity these people were making. It seemed to be, and turned out to be, one family. But they were emptying the cooked rice into a coooler box that was almost full. It would have fed a hundred people.

We were invited to sit down. They brought us some beer and we began the lengthy process of figuring out what they were doing. Only one guy spoke any English at all and this was minimal. He also had terminal pronunciation and it took us a long time to figure out that he was saying "monk" We eventually realised that they were cooking rice to give the temple monks in the morning and would be cooking all night.

Luang Prabang has something like 16 billion temples and between them they have more monks than any country could possibly need. In the morning, every morning, a sea of saffron greets the dawn and the local people hand out alms consisting of rice mostly but also other types of food. We wondered but never discovered how often this family did this. I guess it must also be a sign of wealth to be able to give this much rice to the monks.

Sisavangvong Street hosts a night market. It is very tastefully done on a small scale that perfectly fits the town. Immediately we noticed that we got no hassle. Everyone left us alone. If we wanted to look, they helped us but they were never pushy. Sheena was in her element!

Time was moving on. It was getting near 11pm and we had no idea where to go to see in the New Year. We walked and walked but just couldn't settle on a place. In the distance, we could see lanterns rising on the horizon. In the end, we followed the crowds to their source and discovered a huge open-air party going on. It was really quite wild with a band and dancing and everything.

For a price, you could purchase a huge rice paper lantern and a paraffin burner. These were what we had seen rising thousands of feet into the sky. Groups bought these and lit the paraffin. They then held them over their heads until the air inside had heated up enough before releasing them. They looked beautiful as they rose up and drifted away. Not so beautiful was the one that caught a downdraft and landed on the wooden roof of the adjoining French colonial building. A fire engine turned up and doused the building but there was no damge.

We hung around until about 2 and it was getting quite chilly. We headed home eager to cosy up in our nice bed...

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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Day 14 - Tam Coc

Should we or shouldn't we? That was the question. After the Mekong tour, we'd had enough of what being a sheep was like. We'd thought our Dragon's Pearl experience would be different. Having paid a vastly larger amount of money only to find that it was pretty much the same, we were now pretty much convinced that another tour was exactly what we didn't want for our last day in Hanoi and in fact in Vietnam itself.

Which was, of course, why we'd found ourselves handing over $30 to a tour agent the evening before. Now we were sitting on two stools outside the the tour office watching the morning bustle as we waited for our tour bus. We were off to Tam Coc via some temples in the old capital of Hoa Lu.

"Ha Long Bay on land" promised the advertising. We were all set for karsts. Clearly, we couldn't get enough of them. Karsts were all we lived for. What it felt like though was that we were really living for hours of bone crushing misery on tour buses. This one was relatively empty when we got into it. By the time it picked up it's last passenger, a lone Japanese, it was so crammed that she visibly recoiled in shock as the door slid open to let her in. "It's just like the Tokyo subway!" I encouraged her in Japanese.

Hours later, we were poured onto the gravel outside our restaurant. We'd had our appetites whetted by the site of four men carrying an enormous dead pig, skinned and gutted up the road nearby. All of a sudden, kosher seemed the way to go.

Just beyond the restaurant was a flailing mass of rowing boats. The Vietnamese had capitalised on the local beauty by building quite an impressive dock and lake housing something like 200 long narrow rowing boats. Each was manned by a desperate farmer. Allow me to explain.

Some decades ago, when the tourists realised they could come here without being hit by shrapnel, someone paid someone to row them along the river through the karsts of Tam Coc. Someone told his brother and pretty soon there were hundreds of someone's wanting people to row them through the fast disappearing mystique of the idyllic valley. Competetion for this new trade among the local people, devastated and impoverished by war, was fierce. Things got to a head not so long ago when registration took place and a rota was established. It was decreed that whoever wanted to row could do so only they had to do it once a fortnight and do it only once.

While this spread the wealth so to speak, it meant that it spread it so thinly that it now provides hardly any supplementary income at all for the local farming community per individual. This is communism in action in fact and, just like in capitalism, it results when taken to extremes like this, in greed of the most insidious kind.

So, amateur capitalists that we are, we suspected nothing too extreme as we lowered ourselves into our boat. The rower was a middle aged woman with a smattering of French and no English whatsoever. I quickly dragged my French from the bowels of my subconscious where I'd last left it after a less than memorable five days in Paris 15 years ago. We got on okay. She explained how much she got paid for the two hour row and how many children she had and how dependent she was on all this and, fools that we were, we didn't really see anything coming.

Meanwhile though, the scenery was amazing. Picture if you will silence of an intense nature, stillness of water scattered with pond weed and the thrust of immense limestone upward so shearly it almost screams as it rises from the shallow, still waters. Got that? Good. Now add in approximately fifty boats of noisy, camera toting tourists, rowers calling out to each other, boats of touts trying to sell you photos of yourself and louts amazed at the obvious, generating echoes in a cave that is only slightly higher than your own head as you pass through it on your boat. It was a curious mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous. Again, it was Vietnam concentrated.

The ride took us through this stunning landscape and two caves until we came to what was suddenly The End. All this consisted of was a few bamboo poles across the river. You could easily have got out and waded further. But no, the tourists had their own defined area and we had to make do with that.

On the way back, the softsell got harder. We pulled alongside another boat and a small metal trunk was brought on board. From this, regular souvenirs were revealed as if they were the treasures of the orient. We really weren't interested. She persisted. We really weren't interested.

We pulled up closer to the dock. She slowed her rowing and went into overdrive. Apparently, there's a whole family starving in Tam Coc now because we didn't give her a dollar tip. You know, the irony is, we would have tipped her had we not been pressured to. And the pressure was intense. As I got out of the boat, a guy on the dock grabbed me forcefully pushing me back towards the boat screaming "Tip! TIIIIIPPPPP!!!!" at me.

I fought my way to our tour guide who was standing in a yellow suit and high heels on the dock. Then began what was by far the most bizarre insight into Vietnam we had while we were there. I asked her how much the rowers get paid for their two hour fortnightly trip. It was a paltry $2 and the price was fixed by, who else, the tour operators.

"But we paid $15 each for this trip." I began.

"Oh but you pay for much more than the rowing," she countered, "You have to pay for me all day but them only two hours." She'd done little more than walk us around some temples earlier and give us some memorised details of their history. Hardly taxing stuff.

"And," she continued unashamed tapping her head, "You pay for my thinking." I was amazed. I wanted to push the boundary here.

"But Vietnam is a socialist country." I ventured. "Aren't you supposed to treat each worker more equally?"

"No!" I was surprised at her conviction. "We need to change this country but change comes too slowly."

What could I say? She was young and the winds of change were definitely blowing through her hair. I honestly don't think anyone would have said something as boldly as that ten years ago in Vietnam. Change seemed, to me at least, to have come so rapidly the country was almost falling over its own feet in an effort to modernise. How she could be impatient with it I really wasn't sure. When she had been born the country was dragging itself from the devastation of thirty years of the most intense and brutal war the century had seen. Now its cities were screaming maelstroms of development. It bewildered me.

Back in Saigon we headed over to an Internet cafe. It was there we learned the sad news that Sheena's grandmother had passed away probably very close to the time that I'd had this conversation. Being 90 it wasn't exactly unexpected but it still came as a shock to Sheena especially. And, as if it knew she needed comforting, the Internet cafe cat walked across her keyboard and curled up on her lap. It was kind of crusty... but comforting at the same time.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Day 13 - Dragon's Pearl II

John attempts to warm himself over the toaster at breakfast...

Our humble homely cabin

We woke to the sounds of other boats pulling away. It was an overcast chilly day - a perfect day to be inside. This was a good thing. First item on the itinerary today was a visit to the Amazing Cave. Well, I have to say, cynic that I am, that I was quite prepared to be less than impressed.

It took ages to dock our immense vessel as smaller, less cumbersome boats nipped in to the dock ahead of us. We finally emerged and climbed the steps to the entrance. Sure enough, we entered a small-ish and much molested cave complete with graffiti. It was amazing the amount of stuff that had been destroyed by wandering souvenir-hunters over the years. It almost made me weep when you considered the millenia it took to form the stuff in the first place. The only consolation was that they'd installed some pretty lights... (click to enlarge pics)

But then we moved on...

and on...

and in the end, I was very impressed indeed. Not by the intricacy so much as by the sheer scale. It really was well worth a visit.

At the exit of the cave with the bay and boats behind us.

Most of us on the boat retreated down below decks until lunch. Sheena did her best to brave it, writing postcards up above.

By lunch, we'd figured out where the vast bulk of the $100 per person we'd paid had gone and it wasn't on the trip itself. It was on the food. The lunch buffet was great. We'd wondered why we hadn't had the luxury of a buffet before after we'd sat through interminably long courses twice before. Someone in the kitchen though obviously had too much time on their hands...

I shouldn't mock it. It was the only glimpse of a junk's sails we'd had on this boat!

By the time we were finishing lunch, we were arriving at the dock. They really rushed us off, quite forcefully evicting us from our cabins mid tooth brushing which wasn't nice at all. The Vietnamese can be really pushy when they want to be (like when people invade their country and so on) and we were getting pretty fed up with this after our tenth day.

The ride back to Hanoi took forever and wasn't worth describing. We'd found ourselves a much cheaper and nicer hotel option close to where we were dropped off. We had a nice meal in a restaurant nearby at the Bamboo Hotel (which interior isn't worth the time to describe - you can guess right?).

Sitting next to our table was a young man, obviously an East Asian tourist, poring over a guidebook. We didn't realise he was Korean until his fried rice came. He then promptly whipped out what looked like a toothpaste tube and covered his meal with red chilli paste. I guess it's the equivalent of us carrying tomato sauce with us and slapping that on everything. It makes you wonder why people bother to leave their countries sometimes!

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Day 12 - The Dragon's Pearl I

John looking dissaffected?

We hadn't slept badly in our strange room at the Lotus Hotel, but we didn't want to pay for a place that wasn't where we didn't want to stay. First thing, we packed up and crept out. Thankfully, there wasn't anyone at reception so we just left the key with $12 under it.

We lugged our packs the 20 mins north past the lake that sits in the middle of old Hanoi. All along the shore the world and his wife was out getting their morning jerks. In several places, they'd strung badminton nets across virtually the only place you could walk. Rather than playing badminton though, they were playing a game we'd seen all across Vietnam. Using something that resembles a shuttlecock but seems heavier and a bit more flexible, they were kicking this over the net volleyball like in teams of five or six. Oh yes, we did see one game of badminton - six-a-side!

Some old ladies were leading tai-chi sessions. Other, less martially qualified old-ladies were leading aerobics workouts to what sounded very much like communist marching songs. In this, the old North Vietnamese undefeated capital of the communist victors in the American War (aka the Vietnamese War), that would hardly be surprising really.

We made our way sweatily to the offices of Handspan, the tour agency that we'd booked a two day and one night trip with to Ha Long Bay. A bit pricey, we'd decided to book with them on the recommendation of a freind in Korea who'd been on three separate Ha Long Bay tours. Their office was located deep inside a cafe in the heart of the old quarter.

This cafe stood in stark contrast to the rest of Hanoi. Pushing past the glass doors, you left the screaming world of mopeds and hassle behind you and entered a sanctuary of waffles, westerners and wi-fi. It was early but the place was packed, mostly with people, like us, on tours leaving that morning. Entering was also to leave behind one thing which, above all, makes Vietnam worth visiting: dirt-cheapness. Everything was in dollars on the menu which is a bad sign for backpackers in SE Asia usually. We contented ourselves with watching others eating breakfast. We'd already got ourselves something from a nearby bakery.

Soon though, we were bundled into a minibus and were off to fight the rush hour tide as we left Hanoi south east. Our tour guide was cut from the same cloth as all the others we had in Vietnam. As we left the city, she did a spiel about the trip and that was about it. Tour guides are allowed to say whatever they want to each bus-load they accompany as long as it includes the following: ironic comments about how long it's going to take to get there, apologies for the traffic, warnings about how many people die every day on the roads in vietnam, reassurances that the driver is the best in the company, apologies for the traffic, how many mopeds there are in Hanoi/Saigon [delete as necessary], why no one ever wears a helmet, apologies for the traffic, explanations as to how difficult their name is to pronounce and claims that in "your country" the journey that we were now on would only take ten minutes and not over three hours because of the (sorry) traffic. Apart from that, they can say whatever they want.

A long time later we were sitting on the deck of the Dragon's Pearl, a junk with an engine that was state of art and sails that were a right state. Still, they did give us a nice drink on deck and a wet towel to rid us of the dirt of the road. And the sun was out. It wouldn't last long. We were treated to a barely comprehensible speech by the chief man wearing a white uniform and then shown our cabins.

The man in white is visible on deck... (click to enlarge)

We were two decks down and had a teak-panelled nook with twin beds and a little shower/toilet. Very nice it was too. As lunch was being served we headed for the restaurant as the boat pulled away from Ha Long quay.

The attraction, according to our guide book was the World Heritage Site of Ha Long Bay with it's innumerable karsts rising from the calm bay. But according to the brochure for the boat in our room we'd entirely missed the point: "leaning over the railing you can feel like a character from a film" I can't tell you how grateful we were that we'd found this out right at the start. After lunch we hurried up to the sun deck to find out which particular characters we were going to feel like.

Well the sun deck should really have been named the "windy haze deck" We weren't there at the best time of year and it was pretty chilly in the wind. Unfortunately, having lured us all the way here from the four corners of the earth, the staff onboard had done their best to keep us eating our way through 17 courses of food below decks while the World Heritage rolled past. By the time we got up there, we were miles into the bay. It was stunning through (stun deck?)
Sheena takes in the view (click to enlarge)

Free filter... use your sunglasses! (thanks dad!)

The bay is immense and there are literally thousands of karsts ranging from immense islands to tiny pinnacles. In the haze they only had to be a few hundred metres away to be silhouetted. This gave the whole place a very surreal atmosphere. There wasn't another boat to be seen. It was dead quiet and peaceful. We just lay back and took it all in.

We passed through a couple of floating fishing villages on the way. These are small communities that live entirely on the water. Because it's a national park, no settlements are allowed on land. These twin girls stared in wonder at our boat as it passed their home. Apparently, they were new arrivals and hadn't yet had time to build a proper floating home.
After a while, we docked at a small island which had a beach not 50m wide. There was a path up the mountain and we went for a stroll. Curiously, only one other man apart from us from the 30 or so people on our boat bothered to climb to see the view. The water was pretty nippy so Sheena simply paddled. We managed to get 10 mins in a kayak that was supposed to be for another tour group. We'd have liked longer but that may have to be for another time.

Click to see the view from our kayak under a karst.
Back on board we chilled out as the sun disappeared taking with it whatever heat remained. Dinner was again 24 courses or something including what apparently have the honour of being one of the most expensive delicacies in Vietnam: dragon prawns. I was the only one on our table who could be bothered to fight their way into them for the scant meat that they supplied. Not bad but hardly worth the effort.

We finished the night off with a game of Scrabble with another guest as our boat nestled among the seventeen hundred other boats that ply the bay with tourists every day. Dreams of nights in secluded isolation have given way to the terror of nights of piracy it seems.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Day 11 - North to Hanoi

On the river terrace on our last morning in Hoi An.

And so it was time to say goodbye to Hoi An. We were up early to make the most of our last morning. Trouble was, our shoemaker was being a pain in the... well a pain in the foot really.

We'd gone in two days before and been measured up and chosen some designs from a couple of magazines. The next day, we'd had a late fitting and things had not gone well. All our shoes had either been too small or the soles way too thin. Design-wise, things were fine.

We'd told them clearly that we had little time to lose on this day as we had to leave from the hotel just after 12. They'd said this was fine but when we went in at 10, they told us to come back in half an hour.

Half an hour later we were told to wait. It was getting perilously close to 11am. Then, back came the shoes. Mine seemed to fit (it was only when I got back to Korea that I realised they were too small!) but Sheena's boots were so narrow that she couldn't zip them up. I have to say this though, the Vietnamese reputation for tenacity and pursuing something to the very end, which the US discovered to their cost, is absoluately true. Putting Sheena on the back of a motorbike wearing her boots, they drove her over to one of the workshop which serve all the shoe shops in Hoi An.

Flying through the town on the back of a stranger's motorbike on her way to who knows where, Sheena found it all slightly bizarre and amusing. She turned up at a place where tens of shoemakers were crafting footwear under mountains of leather and rubber. In this hive of activity, Sheena was remeasured and her boots altered magically so that, within minutes, they fitted.

Sheena came back to the shop and then headed back to the hotel to pack up our stuff and get ready to leave. This left me to pay. Now, the first thing I'd said to the woman running Happy Soles (for this was the name of the shop) was that we'd have to pay by Visa. No problem she said. But it had been a problem when it came to paying the deposit. She couldn't use the machine and had to call some guy who came and did it for her. It was too much to ask that she would pay attention enough to do it hereself when it came to the final payment. She tried it three times and even took my card over the road to a friend's shop to try it there. No joy.

I was getting a bit irritated now as I had precious little time to waste before we had to leave to catch our flight to Hanoi. She was being very pushy, demanding cash which I didn't have and refusing to give me my credit card back. Eventually, there was nothing for it but to call the same guy again to do the same thing again. Thankfully, it worked. I virtually ran back to the hotel.

If you're ever in Hoi An and need shoes, don't bother checking out Happy Soles - Unhappy Sales more like.

But we had another city to get to grips with, a few hours later, we were picked up from Hanoi airport by a man with hairiest mole we'd ever seen. At first we thought it was simply a fetish he had... then we spotted lots more men sporting hairy moles. It seems they must be revered, perhaps as indicators of wisdom. A macabre tendency to scare people more likely. The hairs on these moles are usually white and we saw some at least ten cm long. The men who sport them are always clean shaven except for the mole. It's a little bit like someone keeping a bonsai tree. I imagined them spending hours pruning and carefully training the hairs to grow in particular directions.

Perhaps the mole was an omen and we should have taken notice. It turned out that the man was taking us not to the Old Quarter of town, as we had thought but to just south of the lake about 2km from where we'd booked. There seemed to be a simple explanation for this: we were going to the Lotus Hotel and, sure enough, the Lotus was on our map just south of the lake. THe only spanner in the works was that we had booked at the Tung Trang Hotel north of there. When we arrived outside it, it looked nothing like the place I'd seen on the web and inside it looked even stranger.

The entrance was through a restaurant and then up some ladder-like stairs. Our room literally opened onto a reception that the receptionist slept in (and watched TV in until we told him to can it.) The room had twin beds and was filled with furniture that was obviously leftover from a car boot sale that hadn't quite been succesful. We had a wardrobe but couldn't get into it as it was blocked by a coffee table and a chair covered in spots of paint. Our "bathroom" resembled a greenhouse of frosted glass. Clearly, this was not what we'd booked.

If they hadn't had our name on a sign at the airport I'd have thought we'd been snatched by a rival hotel. But they'd even spelled our name right so it wasn't completely bogus. Perhaps the orignal hotel had been overbooked and they'd passed us on to this place. But it was a room and we knew we could look elsewhere. We dumped our stuff and headed into town.

I guess experience has taught me this but, just before we left, I clarified the room rate with the receptionist. $25 I was told. Surprising this as it had been $12 in an email I had a copy of. Okay, $15 then with breakfast. No, er, $12 or nothing.

Teddy bear anyone... please someone take a teddy bear!!!

We walked through town discovering Hanoi (basically Saigon with trees and older buildings) and headed for an obscure travel agent's office in the Old Quarter. We were going to the nerve centre of the place that had booked the hotel in Hoi An for us, the Vinh Hung resort. There, we pleaded our case and asked for a $40 refund, the difference between the room price we'd paid and had actually stayed in. After a bit of persuasion, and a call to the hotel reception to check we weren't pulling a fast one, we were very glad that they paid. Nothing but an apology though for not telling the hotel we needed a car to collect us from the airport.

A typical street with typical tourists in the Old Quarter of Hanoi

Take your pick ladies: wood, copper, rubber or stone!

We ate out and went home to our strange room...

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Day 10 - Trying things on for size

If you want something tailored in Hoi An, you need at least three days there. If you want to enjoy yourself, you need much longer. We had three full days so you can guess how we felt.

By now I'd been fitted for everything from shorts and shoes to shirts and a suit. Sheena had not only ordered shoes but three lots of clothes from two different tailors. This meant that we had unintentionally filled our days with repeated fitting sessions at each of these places. You also had to take their requests to come at a certain time with a pinch of salt. Even when we turned up intentionally late, we'd be asked to come back in half an hour.

We did still manage to fit in bits of Hoi An in between though:

Idyllic scene? Shortly after this, she squatted down and urinated in the alley!

I was going to play pool but after reading this, I decided on a spot of idol worship. (Click to enlarge)

The woman here is wearing traditional Vietnamese dress called Ao Dai. She's a high school student and this is what they wear.

A range of eggs. The ones on the top left in the green bowl were so large they must have split the chicken.

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Interlude - Bike loads

Just what can you get on two wheels if you try hard enough? Here are some suggestions from what we've seen in Vietnam:
jerry cans of petrol
a four foot wide hunk of ice pouring rivers down the road
a family of five with the driver on a mobile phone
a computer monitor and tower on the back with the keyboard across your lap
baskets of piglets
3 bonsai trees each over 3 feet high
a 15 foot stepladder
huge shanks of pork in a plastic tub
a circular pane of glass
a bookshelf
a medium sized fridge
ten foot lengths of bamboo
...and the most ironic of all...
another motorbike


Monday, December 25, 2006

Day 09 - A (Not That) Merry Christmas

The lovely riverside terrace. Looks deceive.

Our dreams of a great night's sleep were shattered around 5am when the entire fishing fleet of Vietnam rolled past our bed on their way to an outboard motor expo. At least, that's what it sounded like. The romance of a riverside room vanished in an instant. Hardly a great way to start Christmas Day.

When we'd finally given up trying and had got up and had breakfast (pretty good buffet), we headed to reception to request another room. Their suggestion initially was to give us a room two doors away on the river. Er... no... that's hardly going to be any quieter is it. Then they showed us a room where workmen were laying a stone path outside complete with angle grinders. They weren't quite getting the point. Eventually, we had to settle for a cheaper, smaller but quieter room on the other side of the pool away from the river.

Great... but then the sink didn't work and the toilet wouldn't stop flushing and the electronic safe wouldn't unlock itself. Got that sorted out and by now half our Christmas day had vanished.

Headed into the historic town of Hoi An.

Tip for nations at war: Not bombing your enemy's towns can pay dividends in the long run. Hoi An shares this distinction with Kyoto, neither of which were bombed by the US out of concern for their cultural value. Shame Dresden didn't make the list but you can't be picky when you invade all of Western Europe I suppose.
Hoi An is a town with severe schizophrenia. It's first personality is that of a 19th century trading town which is exactly what it would look like and probably be if there weren't any tourists in it. It's second personality comes from the influence of tourists and give's the shells of its buildings contents at odds with its image. Beautiful buildings house backpacker cafes offering fruit shakes and an internet connection. Townhouses that once contained the families of traders in exotic silks have been gutted and filled with the less exotic silks and cheaper cottons of families now desperate to fill the rucksacks of each traveller with hastily tailored clothing.

Each day we went out into the town we had to run the gauntlet:

"Hello you want shoes?"
"Hello you want suit?"
"Hello you want laundry?"
"Hello you want motorbike?"
"Hello you want postcard?"
"Hello you want boat?"
"Hello you want food?"
"Hello you want push me in the river because I'm driving you up the wall!?"

Kind of detracted from the beauty and charm of the place really. Vietnam in a nutshell as our experience finally proved.

There's a roaring trade in silk lanterns here too.

We really splashed out for our Christmas lunch though. Finding a restaurant that was completely deserted we realised that this was because it was extortionate; they were offering a set lunch for $4 each. I know, we really do indulge ourselves but you can forgive us this once can't you - it was Christmas Day after all. We had free champagne to start with and a cocktail each to boot and the bill came just short of $10.

Spent the rest of the day exploring the town including getting fitted for some shoes.

If our lunch was sublime, our evening meal was ridiculous. From across the river it looked great. But you shouldn't trust anything that looks its best at night. What to us looked like a bustling balcony terrace covered in vines and romantic riverside tables turned out to be a shabby collection of tables with plastic tablecloths advertising drinking water under hanging gardens of assorted plastic plants. Unfortunately we'd already ordered and started eating by the time Sheena spotted the rat coming out from where they seemed to be preparing our food.

At least we had a quiet night's sleep though!

Sakura, our restaurant for Christmas lunch, by night.

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Day 08 - Descent to Hoi An

At 5:30am we bundled into a waiting car in the chill morning air in Dalat bound for Nha Trang airport and our flight to Da Nang. In putting together the whole SEATour, we'd aimed to fly everywhere to make the most of the time. The only fly in that ointment had been getting from Dalat to Hoi An our next destination. There simply wasn't any way to go north from Dalat without using four wheels and no wings. For $68, we'd found a driver and a car. What we hadn't expected to be thrown in for this price was the incredible sunrise we got to boot.

At first it seemd the driver spoke about four words of English: yes, no, stop, go. He then rapidly expanded this limited repertoire adding toilet, smoke, sandwich and the phrase no problem so ubiquitous in Vietnam, we were beginning to wonder if the English had in fact borrowed it from Vietnamese.

Perhaps it was because everyone in the country guesses (spectacularly wrongly) that we've been married only four months. Perhaps it was simply that tourists he usually drives are heartbroken at leaving Dalat. Perhaps it was simply that he couldn't find his way out of town. But our driver went round the lake twice and meandered through some of the older parts of town before finally pulling up outside a bakery. He flashed his first word at us (sandwich) and motioned inside. We went in and got some delicious pastries (custard tarts!) and a filled baguette each for the ride.

Then we were off down an avenue littered with colonial villas, many inhabited now by Vietnamese I'm glad to say, and we began our five hour descent to Nha Trang where we were due to check in around 11am.

The sunrise consisted of the most amazing light we've seen in a long time. We stopped off repeatedly to photograph both the sun and its effects on the surroundings. That route is a photographer's goldmine at that time of morning.

Sheena fell asleep pretty soon after we hit the plains but that wasn't before our driver pulled over to have a pee. I joined him and afterwards, he asked me if I smoked. Thankful yet again that I didn't, he pulled a bong out of his boot, a stash out from under the boot floor and set about lighting up a nice strong puff of what I hoped was simply tobacco but might well have been something slightly more narcotic.

Whatever it was, our speed drastically improved. I'd been following the route with interest with my map and had estimated that we were behind schedule. But soon he took a shortcut and we sped off on a secondary road across some of the most interesting and untouched country there must be in this area. The villages were simply three or four huts around a courtyard surrounded by dense forest. But every now and then, a village appeared sharply at odds with this consisting of row upon row of identical concrete houses hardly any of which had open shutters. Some were definitely occupied. Many seemed empty. I couldn't help thinking that people had been resettled there under some grand socialist plan. It didn't seem to be working, whatever the ideal.

Having met the main road, we slowed in the mass of traffic heading up the long road linking Saigon and Hanoi. Things seemed to be going well until the driver suddenly took a strange turn south onto a heavily potholed road and then a huge dual carriageway rolling through landscape that was entirely sand. This wasn't right and we tried hard to let the driver know. We only had thirty minutes until we were due to check in. He was absolutely unmoveable though and ploughed on to what signs were telling us was Cam Ranh airport, at least forty kilometres south of Nha Trang where our flight departed from.

I have to be honest and say we were pretty panicky now. We seemed to be in a complete wilderness with a driver heading the opposite way from where we intended with absolutely no time to spare and a schedule that would punish mercilessly any missed flight or hijacking. Adamantly our driver kept on until we finally rolled across cracked tarmac and derelict billboards flanked by dead trees to Cam Ranh airport which seemed abandoned.

This was in fact because it had been. In April 1974, the fleeing USAnians, who'd built it to bring in a ton of America's finest young men, had left it for the North Vietnamese Army to overrun. It looked as if nothing much had been done to it since then.

The handwritten flight info board confirms that we are in the right place after all.

Inside, I quickly apologised to the driver. He was absolutely right. All flights for Nha Trang were now to go from Cam Ranh. How he knew this, we never found out. Why this was also remained a mystery. We were now early for our flight in fact which gave us time in the restaurant. Food wasn't that good though:

Our flight left a bit late and soon we were standing outside Da Nang airport looking for our invisible car from the Vinh Hung Resort in Hoi An, our next destination 25 km away. It was nowhere to be seen. An exorbitant phone call later, we established that they had no idea about sending us a car and we were constantly badgered by taxi drivers who treated us as carrion. Picking out the only one who was standing quietly leaving us alone, we got into his car which the others found hilarious and soon we were riding parallel with China Beach, the infamous R&R destination for American troops during the Vietnam War. I half expected to see Caucasian faces among the locals. They'd be about my age by now.

Turns out the hotel knew nothing about a car for us despite it being confirmed in an email I had a printout of. That was only the first of our hassles with this hotel but I'll keep all that for another day. We were shown to a fantastic room at one corner of the hotel overlooking the river and were left to freshen up. We instantly attacked the fruit on the coffee table to rid ourselves of the memory of yet more VNA pate!

We spent the evening having people gauge our vital statistics. Hoi An, for some reason, has become the tailoring capital of the land. Clothes, shoes, even furniture can be made to your design or any you happen to pick out of a catalogue. We were after clothes and spent a few hours choosing the designs, materials and getting measured up.

Back at the hotel, we'd been invited to the free Christmas Eve buffet. The food was great, the entertainment decidedly less so and this must have displeased the Powers that Be because a couple of hours into the evening it began to rain. We'd eaten enough by then and sauntered back to our room to try out our jacuzzi before a great night's sleep.

John tucks into noodles at our hotel's Christmas Eve buffet - just before it started raining.

The jacuzzi was an enormous corner bath. The two of us fitted into it with no problems. What we had problems fitting into it though was enough hot water. The immersion heater (for this is what the Vietnamese use to heat their water in every establishment in the country) was only big enough to fill the bath to approximately five inches deep and, crucially, to just short of the jets for the jacuzzi. Patently, it was useless and we were somewhat disappointed. Never mind, at least we had the luxury of a blissfully quiet night between the sheets of our huge comfy double bed...

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Day 07 - Easy Riders

Easy Riders eat your heart out. Free as the open road in Dalat...

Infesting Dalat and its surroundings like woodworm are the Easy Riders a group of motorcycle afficionados who do their best to catch tourists as soon as they arrive in town. To be fair, they are, on the whole, a great bunch of guys who give us visitors an excellent introduction to the town, its surroundings and, often, much further afield. But this comes at a price.

We'd been told that you don't really need to find one of these guys in advance as they find you. That advice was true enough. At Pongour waterfall, we'd met Kenny, our first Easy Rider who spoke excellent English and was happy to show his own book of recommendations that they all carry, cram full of glowing comments in several languages of tourist from the four corners of the earth. $20 a day per person was all we needed to pay and we'd have two bikes, two guides and a great day discovering whatever took our fancy in this area.

But did we tell you we had a cash-flow problem? We'd worked out that we had something stupid like $15 a day to make do on for the rest of the trip unless we got a cash advance from Visa and simply bite the credit bullet. But at that point, we hadn't seriously considered this. We'd also done what many travellers do and can be fatal: forget which day of the week it was. This had meant that we'd been faced with limited options for changing money today as it was a Saturday. Thankfully the main bank opened from 7am until noon. So, we really didn't want to spend $40 in this state.

What we decided to do instead was get our own bike at $10 for the day and explore on our own. It was the best decision we made in the whole holiday and we had a whale of a time.

At 7am, our 100cc bike was waiting outside our hotel with a tank full of petrol. A quick warmup around the hotel grounds was all I needed to get back into the hang of riding a motorbike and we were off. First into town to change money and then to a local shop to get baguettes (eaten by everyone here... those darned Frenchies!!!) yoghurt and cheese (Laughing Cow... darned Frenchies again!!!)

Leaving town heading north, we aimed for Lang Bian, the highest mountain north of the town. We'd made enquiries into treks that do this mountain. At $15 a head, these were much steeper than the slopes and we were certain we could do it ourselves for nowt. We were right. The road was a pleasure to drive on and the villages we drove through interesting to look at. Most people had traded their straw and wood houses for more durable concrete ones but everyone was friendly and curious and engaged in daily life; cooking, cleaning, chatting, sitting about, playing, repairing and a hundred other things.

At the foot of Lang Bian there's a car park and beyond this you are not allowed to proceed under your own motorised steam. At least this was what we were told despite the fact that later we saw a number of obvious tourists on their own bikes on the torturous road up to the 2100m summit. We decided against walking. It was $1.50 for us both to sit in the back of a jeep for the ten minute ride up. We bounced around in the back as the driver twisted and turned on a road he could doubtless have driven with his eyes shut. At the top, we were greeted by a stunning view over the surrounding rolling hills and tribal villages.

Sheena atop Lang Bian

Right in front of us, a small river had been dammed into a lake stretching a slender kilometer along a lightly wooded valley. Hills that seemed to have been sandpapered smooth bubbled from the valley floor and were dotted with a patchwork of farmsteads connected by red dirt roads. Amidst all this, tribal villages were scattered with their grass huts and outhouses. Across this landscape, hardly anything moved. It seemed idyllic; a different universe from the Saigon we'd left the day before.

We'd hoped to walk down ourselves but this almost came to nothing when the driver of our jeep and the rest of the passengers pressured us to go back down with them an hour later. We didn't want to. We wanted to walk. I think they would have felt happier had we said we wanted to grow wings and fly down. It was obviously unheard of. We began to saunter down the road. They followed us in the jeep gesturing and barking at us to get in. Only the driver seemed really put out by this. The others seemed just amused. Eventually he gave up and we were left to ourselves.

On a hunch, we headed into the forest and found one of many trails we knew would snake down the mountain. The ground was very dry and littered with a blanket of long pine needles which, if you weren't careful, would avalanche downwards when you least suspected it. We both fell over at least once at some point. But the forest was beautiful and the air warm and clear. All that we needed was for someone to assassinate the guy doing karaoke down in the valley which we could hear above the birdsong. It was hardly sublime.

We had lunch on a rock, discovered some plants we'd never seen the likes of, washed in a

Small, hard, crimson and with no visible stalk, we had no idea what these were.

mountain stream, got rid of the leech on my thumb and lost my five-year old sunglasses by the time we emerged onto rolling grassland out of the forest a couple of hours later. We tramped back to our bike through heavily tilled farmland where the lush green spinach contrasted sharply with the bright orange richness of the soil - bit like the French Open really.

With the afternoon before us, biking into the surrounding hills was inviting. We didn't get far on paved roads though before we encountered dirt and the dirt was very bumpy indeed. We meandered around, dozed on the grass under some pines, and found a good road heading to a nearby town which we struck out on. It was wonderful to be so free to explore. The road was really nice, threading through pine forests, valleys and passes and eventually leading us to the far side of the dammed lake we'd seen from Lang Bian first thing in the morning.

There was hardly anyone on the road. Occasionally, a tribal family all mashed onto one bike would pass us and gape. At one point, a family pulled up and started a conversation with us which lasted as long as our language resoures and petered out at the next bend. We stopped at one point and Sheena had her first driving lesson on a bike it was so quiet. But even this road, nice as it was and signposted to places tens of kilometres away, suddenly ended at a random point and became a rutted track that we had no inclination to continue on.

A wonderful day on a shoestring and, no, we hadn't had the insight and help of any Easy Riders, but we'd certainly had an easy ride. The only disappointment, apart from the fact that we discovered that we were pretty sunburnt, was that we didn't find the horn until just before we got back to our hotel. I reckon we must have been quietest motorbike in the whole country that day.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Day 06 - Destination Dalat

Dalat: hill station destination for the French, honeymoon destination for the Vietnamese, holiday destination for us.

Nestled in the rolling verdant hills just north east of Saigon, Dalat is a world apart from the humid, heady life of its big brother Ho Chi Minh City. Our flight left at 7:45 am and only took 45 minutes. Shame it took us longer than that to get out of the airport but that was due to me getting confused about whether we'd asked the hotel to send their car for us or not. In retrospect, I don't think I did. But at the time, I could have sworn I had and I wasn't happy. Because of the hills, Dalat is nearly an hour away from its airport by car and we were left with no option but to get a taxi.

We wrestled with the touts until we found a guy who didn't seem to be as pushy as the rest. Our plan was to take in two of the many waterfalls that Dalat is famed for and then head for our hotel. As these waterfalls were nearer the airport than town, this seemed a good idea. And it was.

Our guide was a young careful driver but he spoke almost no English at all. Helpfully though, he lent us his copy of English for Taxi Drivers and, as Vietnamese is written in Roman script (thanks, again, to missionaries), we were able to use some Vietnamese with him. The book would have been useful for the whole trip and we wished we had our own copy - more for the humour element than actual language value. Beginning with a section entitled Accosting, the book was a riot from start to finish.

In the section Riding Tandem on Honda one of the phrases that the authors expected a foreigner would be likely to say was "I don't want to be hospitalized by your aggressiveness." to which the appropriate reply, with transliteration to help the driver say it in English was, "Don't worry I am first rate Honda driver. Be calm. I never risk my life and yours for nothing." It was beyond our ability in Vietnamese to clarify exactly what he would risk our lives for, but that was probably just as well.

The transliteration for the English was a bit haphazard. Take the question Is that the front gate? To help the taxi-driver pronounce this, it was written as I-zo dat da fo-rona ghe-to? Foreigner ghetto? There were other gems too: I can't speek well English: you're telling me! and the rather unhealthy sounding How could I contract you? Somehow, using just this, we managed to keep talking until well after lunchtime and thankfully we didn't contract anyone in the process.

We wanted to visit two waterfalls we'd heard about. As one was a pale reflection of the other, I'll only bother to describe that one. This was Pongour Falls and after a thirty minute drive on an appalling road through fields of cows and corn, we arrived there. We didn't really think of Vietnam as a place of waterfalls and weren't expecting that much. So we were pretty much blown away by the view when we finally got down to it.

The view as you see it end-on at the bottom of the steps down to Pongour Falls.

Sheena takes in the view.

Stretching over 100 metres the falls cascaded over several terraces to create a myriad of smaller falls and, to top this off, at the far end, a huge burst of water plunged into an inaccessible pool. We wish we'd spent longer there and not bothered with the other one. This was very simply water falling over a rock and was so forgettable we've forgotten the name of it. Apparently, the government is on to this. Next year they'll be building a hydro-electric powerstation there and that'll flood the valley. I wish China took this approach to dam-making and only flooded forgettable landscapes.

Early afternoon we arrived at the Minh Tam Hotel. Set amid gardens with some very exotic plants and hydrangeas so big they sagged onto the ground under the weight of their blooms, the hotel was a former colonial building with high ceilings, heavy wooden doors and great big thick walls to keep out the chill of the night and the heat of the day. For $20 a night, not bad at all.

The view from our balcony.

Never seen a turquoise flower like this before. Really amazing flower.

That hydrangea big enough for you?

We walked into town later. I have to say, we really liked Dalat. One of the main reasons was that the place was cram full of tourists. Now, I know this may sound confusing; tourists usually detest tourists more than any other lifeform. But while tourists elsewhere (I hesitate to use the cliche "traveller") are foreign i.e. just like us, in Dalat they're mostly Vietnamese. Which means dollars get passed over in the rush for dong (for this is the currency in Vietnam - and many a laugh it gets from the Korean visitor for ddong in Korean means poop!).

So, we enjoyed a relatively hassle-free amble around town. Imagine Disneyland without a touch of creative foresight and you've pretty much imagined what Dalat has to offer the domestic tourist: swan-shaped pedaloes on a man-made lake, tritely-named Valleys of Love and over-hyped cafes and restaurants promising the romantic dinner that seals the wedding to set the marriage on course for Destination Happiness... but I digress and choke back bile at the same time.

If you can avoid the tack that is the Dalat the Vietnamese come for, and we did, it is a really nice place to be in. Decent places to eat and drink, quaint-ish streets to walk around, a ton of colonial French architecture and countryside that is very much worth exploring (more of that tomorrow). In retrospect, we'd have skipped Saigon and the Mekong completely and come straight here. It was the first place we agreed we wanted to come back to.

But we were having a bit of a cash-flow problem. I'd underbudgeted considerably for some reason and so we were on a prowl for places that took Visa. Finding one, and considering we hadn't had any lunch at all, we settled on a nice long evening meal that started around 4pm.

Walking back to our hotel, we passed along an avenue of some of the biggest French houses in the town, almost all derelict but preserved (possibly to be restored soon?) Sodium street lighting seemed fitting for these dead monuments to imperial rule.

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VNA Update

Well, we're back with the answers you've all been waiting for (see earlier post on Vietnam Airlines (VNA)).

Actually we only have one of the answers to the two questions we challenged ourself to answer on our last flight out on VNA. Unfortunately, what we actually got on was not a VNA plane at all but Lao Airlines so please forgive us for not finding out what was actually in a VNA sandwich. It's probably more fitting that we never know actually as it was pretty indescribable anyway.

What we can tell you though is that the three individuals banned from ever being served by VNA were all banned for "joking" about having bombs in their bags. In each case the flight was cancelled and, according to our source in Hanoi, they claimed that they were using the word "bomb" to refer, not to explosives but to money in actual fact. Likely story. As a result, they were taken to court, fined and banned from ever using VNA again.

We did go to the airline office to preorder a vegetarian meal this time in an effort to avoid the VNA sandwich. When we checked in, we enquired as to whether our request had been fulfilled."Ah yes," beamed a check-in clerk obviously in the running, if not the favourite, for the happiest employee of the year award "You have special meal."

When the Lao Airlines cabin crew came round with refreshments then, we were kind of excited to see what we'd get. In the end, it turned out to be exactly the same as everyone else i.e. a vegetarian meal anyway consisting of two sweet pastries and free keyring each (Happy New Year!)

So much for that then...

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Day 05 - Mekong II

A pig greets us at the rice paper producing plant. Might not be kosher then...

Mother and child in the market at Vinh Long

Quite what the story in the HIV sign picture was we didn't really want to know...

Boy in Mekong Delta market town

The largest floating market on the Mekong was our destination this morning: barges, boats, floating homes, skiffs, paddling boats, rowing boats, boats laden with wares, sinking under loads of pineapples or rice or melons or people moving to and fro in an aquatic reflection of Vietnamese roads, but without the constant blaring of horns. Replacing the horns was the put-put-put of the long-tailed motors all the boats have and which many people control with their legs, leaving their hands free to sell, to buy, to pick their nose.
An unlikely place to film a pop video but that's what they were doing. Note that from a health and safety point of view, having lifejackets seems to be equivalent to wearing them.

Our boat stopped in the midst of this and a smaller boat drew alongside to take us off around the market. It was only big enough for half of our group so we waited while the first group went round. We had no shortage of entertainment as little boats constantly drew alongside: "Mister you want buy something." "I give you good price." Some had even roped their children into the game and it was hard to resist some of their charms.

But all we did buy in the end was a pineapple, deftly cut and halved for us by the vendor. He must have sold a good twenty or so to our boat alone. The rest of the boats we repelled until it was our time to browse.

Boats come here to sell goods and to buy others from villages further up the Mekong. What they have for sale, be it garlic, melons or rice, they hang from long bamboo poles erected on deck. These act as flags of a sort, enabling you to take in from a distance what each boat sells without having to pull alongside and run the risk of a hard sell. As elsewhere in the country, there was little variety with many boats selling almost exactly what the boat alongside was selling. How they make a living is beyond us in the face of such competetion.

As per the pole, these guys are selling pretty much every item of veg under the sun.
The boats remain here for a few days hopefully selling out and then loading produce to trade on their return to their villages. While they remain, the family lives on them sleeping in hammocks, eating on board and defecating who knows where. It seemed a confined and monotonous life although the guides do their best to romanticise the whole affair. We enjoyed the atmosphere but it didn't seem half as crowded and colourful as we'd imagined. The guides were also quick to dismiss anything Thailand had to offer in the way of floating markets. Perhaps they're too crowded and colourful.

Back on the boat we headed to a rice husking plant. The process of husking rice is hardly new to us. Sheena had after all grown her own rice in a field in Japan and was no stranger to the grain. But it was amazing to see the machinery that they currently use to do it. The machinery was antiquated, ramshackle and downright dangerous but fascinating all the same. If anyone is familiar with the work of Heath Robinson you'll have recognised it immediately. If not, shame on you. Get to Google right now.

We also visited a local market and this was one of the most interesting things we did. We wandered around the sights and sounds and even sampled some roasted banana. What we didn't touch though were the various bits of duck left lying around...

Later we visited a place where they make rice paper. This would have been interesting had we not already been shown this process the day before by a different guide. Thick rice water is ladled onto a cloth stretched over a pan of boiling water. No more than 30 seconds later, this is peeled back and lifted off as a film of translucent rice paper. In case you wondered, it is this that holds the spring in your spring rolls. In Vietnam you can eat your spring rolls deep fried or fresh. If it's fresh, it's wrapped in rice paper just as it comes from this process allowing the vegetables to be crisp and fully flavoured.

We were surprisingly tired when we finally were dropped back into the madness of Saigon. Back at the hotel, Sheena checked email and availed herself of the free offer of coffee too.

Sheena checks email at the Buddha-laden reception in Madame Cuc's.

Vietnamese coffee is served like this with a metal filter over your cup/glass. The water filters into this. Finish this off by adding from the tin of condensed milk on the left. Hard to find "fresh" milk (as normal milk is called here) and Sheena can't say she enjoyed the coffee here until she got to Hanoi and it more resembled French coffee.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Day 04 - Mekong I

Rice turns to popcorn as it meets heated sand. This was then used to make honeyed sweets. No Mekong Delta tour is complete without visits to several local craft-making sites.

Baaaa Baaaa Baaaaa: this was some of the language we needed as we were herded from street to bus to boat to shop to local craft industry to boat to bus and finally installed in the cheapest hotel they could find in Can Tho today.

We rarely touch organised tours. But it's very hard to beat two days with a guide in the Mekong Delta plus a night's hotel accommodation for $15 each. It's worth it just to avoid the hassle of arranging your own transport in this region, veined as it is with the Mekong's fingers reaching finally for the sea after a journey from Tibet.

If you're into rice, or water or both, this is the place for you. I like boats and rice isn't bad, so it wasn't a bad place to be. Looking back though, I think we both agree that one day would have been fine. Difficult to think what we would have done with a whole day in Saigon though so probably best we stayed in the Delta another day.

In fact, if we hadn't, we would have missed the best bit: a morning market on the river. But my fingers are ahead of our feet at the moment...

We got into our minibus around 7:30. Shortly thereafter, four hundred other tourists, many of them with rucksacks big enough for transporting a small cow also got on. Once we were all crammed in, the driver took the bus and aimed it southwest. We bounced and beeped our way gradually along route 1A towards Vinh Long where we would board a boat. It was a hot day and I was sitting on the sunny side of the bus. The AC did it's best but failed valiantly. I boiled silently for the 3 hours it took to get there. I offered to serve myself with the orange sauce I'd been making for lunch but they turned me down.

On the way, our guide filled us in with tidbits about the delta, it's history and it's place in the economy of modern Vietnam. All very tourguide-like but I don't think it really enhanced the journey. You could've enjoyed it just as well without any info.

Children loved to greet the boats of tourists. We guess these two were twins.

Once onto the boat, things got much more interesting. We were taken to see a floating market, shown how they tie items they have for sail on long poles above the boat (hanging poles of veg!) and got a glimpse of how they trade boat to boat and live on them. But the market was pretty dead actually and we were promised more the next day. For those who had only the one day, they must have got very different impression of what it was all about.

Sheena enjoys some coconut juice on the Mekong

The scenery was nice. The river was a dark murky green with lots of water hyacinth in places. Sometimes, we were in waterways metres wide, other times miles wide. Shipping varied from little skiffs being rode by old ladies to full blown ships with loads of gravel and sand. It was heaving with activity and life everywhere we went. The riverbanks were lined continuously with palms and houses among them. People waved and kids went wild shouting hello and waving like crazy. We waved and shouted hello back - for the uninitiated, this is how you know backpackers are having a good time.

Boats are rowed standing up in many cases and facing forward. Very different from back home.

Suddenly the boat stopped. We were told we were going to a local house for lunch. Sounded good to our naive little ears. They gave us mountain bikes and we had a fun ride 20 mins through the undergrowth until we stopped not at a house but at a restaurant obviously set up to cater for the likes of us. After a nice lunch Sheena and I decided to ride off and explore on our own. Everywhere people were welcoming and friendly, obviously curious about us, the children especially so. There were so many different kinds of fruit trees everywhere too.

The afternoon carried on back on the boat and we eventually arrived late afternoon at the town of Can Tho where we were to spend the night. As we followed the guide through the town, we kept seeing hotels and hoping they were ours. They weren't. Down a dark dingy alley, next to a building site where they were noisily digging foundations, we were taken into our place: functional, basic and obviously where all the boat trips take their sheep to fleece them. "$5 if you want airconditioning." Those who didn't cough up heard their AC go off shortly after they arrived in their room. We paid but it was a ridiculous amount of money for a country where you can eat dinner locally for less than $1. Still, in retrospect, it may actually have been worth it as the hotel promised "Warm Service - Elegant in performance" on its advertising. Hmmmm...

Nokia cornering an emerging market

The guide took us to a restaurant which was, again, obviously one set up for the purpose. We didn't care. We'd got to know some of the other couples on the tour and were happy to sit on a balcony overlooking the river and talk the night away. We didn't need the help of the snake alcohol they offered us though...

Ho Chi Minh himself stands sentinel in central Can Tho.
That has to be the coolest communist fencing we've ever seen.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Vietnam Airlines

You'll be pleased to hear that Vietnam Airlines (VNA) have recently expanded their fleet to a total of 38 aircraft and started a new route from Hanoi to Luang Prabang in Laos. The latter is particularly good news for us because we need that route later in the trip.

But all this expansion is no use for Bach Trong San, Nguyen Thai Son and Lam Tuan Nagen. Lam is only 20 years old and you can find him at 287/2/A2 An Thoi, Ho Chi Minh City if you'd like to know why. Alternatively, just pick up a copy of the latest VNA in-flight magazine and flick it open to the History of Vietnam Airlines page.

On that page, there's a box entitled Key Events. There, the names and addresses of these three individuals are listed along with an intriguing note to the effect that VNA "permanently refuse to serve" them because they have "damaged VNA prestige." Quite what they've done to deserve being not only banned for life but also being publicly named and shamed we don't know. We've made a note to find out and let you know.

We will have travelled five times on VNA by the time we leave Vietnam the day after tomorrow so we think we have a pretty good idea what they're like. So far, the planes, big and small, have been clean and the flights have been on time on the whole. Take-offs and landings have been smooth and we've no complaints at all there.

Our flight to Hanoi awaits us at Cam Ranh

Airports have been a very mixed selection. Hanoi, the capital, boasts a relatively nice terminal. Ho Chi Minh City's new terminal (which isn't finished quite yet) also looks nice. But Nha Trang seems to have fallen into disuse. On the five hour drive from Dalat to Nha Trang to catch our morning flight, I followed the drive closely on my map. Panic set in as, with 90 mins before our flight was due to take off, the driver veered south and headed, not for Nha Trang as arranged but Cam Ranh instead - a much smaller destination.

We tried to communicate our panic to him to no avail. He could hardly understand any of our English and the only thing he could say was "Nha Trang no Cam Ranh okay". He then pulled onto a stretch of abandoned tarmac surrounded by sand and dead trees to a derelict building that had a sign above it saying Cam Ranh International Airport. On closer inspection it was actually a functioning airport despite its resemblance to some long-forgotten film set. We never did find out why Nha Trang airport had been abandoned in favour of this dump. Neither did we find out how our driver seemed to know. But he was right.

Cam Ranh airport - serving the wilderness...

If I may use a pun, our only "beef" with VNA is the food. And if I may be allowed to borrow an American phrase: it sucks. It really does suck. It sucks so much that for our next and last VNA flight to Laos, we've preordered vegetarian meals, something I've never done in 30 years of flying. When we got on our first flight in Cambodia, we were offered a choice of water, beer or Coke. We only later found out that this was three times as much as domestic flights where you get water or water.

Along with this dazzling array of beverages, VNA also gives you a little box. In it are the worst sandwiches I've ever had on a plane. Even the stewardess couldn't describe it in any more detail than simply "meat" when we asked her what was in it. It seems to be some form of pate and they serve it on every single flight. It's horrendous.

Now we know that it's only a matter of time before we hear the whispered "What is it?" "I don't know but I think it might be pate." conversations around the plane as other unsuspecting travellers discover the wonders of VNA cuisine. Occasionally a child is quickly smothered but not before they blurt out the inexorable plea "But I don't like it!" And who can blame them.

So, the day after tomorrow when we take our final flight, we have two missions to accomplish. Firstly, to discover what the content of a VNA sandwich actually is and secondly to discover what it is that Bach, Nguyen and Lam have done to so incur the wrath of the airline. Maybe they complained about the food!


Day 03/02 - Simmering Saigon

Our tuk-tuk driver drops us at the airport in Cambodia for the flight to Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon.

You know those warning signs outside the more daring rides in amusement parks? Well Saigon should have one. And if it did, it would read something like this:

Danger: we warn those who suffer from the following not to enter Saigon
aversion to noise in any form
fear of two-wheeled transport
inability to haggle in the fact of emotional blackmail, tears, prostrations and threats
feelings of regret at paying seventeen times more than the next shop you find the same item in
concern of any kind about the possibility of being run over
irritation from the same phrases repeated every time you see a local
sensitivity to other's feelings during interpersonal communication
need to maintain eye contact during conversation
need to actually acknowledge someone during a conversation
need to actually be understood during a conversation

Come to think of it, now that we've been in Vietnam long enough to make sweeping generalisations about as many as 83 million people from nearly 20 ethnic groups, this might not be a bad list to give to anyone coming here. But Saigon seems to be where this is concentrated most.

And so into this we descended from the tranquility of rural Cambodia. It was a bit of a shock. The blow was cushioned by the air-conditioned four-wheeler that met us at the airport and dropped us at Madame Cuc's guesthouse in the centre of a screaming whirlwind of traffic. We had a room with a balcony over the street and, if you closed your curtains, your windows, the door to the balcony and lay down on your bed, you could hear the traffic using it as a shortcut down the street. At least, that's what it sounded like.

The first obstacle we had was money. We'd run out of cash. No, they didn't take Visa and no, they didn't accept traveller's cheques. Hmmm... strange. So, I had to tramp off twenty minutes into the sprawl to change money at a bank. This involved crossing a number of roads. In Saigon, you step out and gently walk across. Don't run; mopeds can smell fear. Cross in a straight line at a steady pace and the traffic will simply go round you. That's the theory anyway and, so far, for us, it's worked. You don't half feel vulnerable though. If you're having trouble imagining it, imagine the busiest road you have where you live and being asked to cross it in your underwear. Now you have some idea of how vulnerable we feel.

The reception staff having relieved us of cash and our passports, we were left to ourselves. I was going to say "we hit the streets" but, in Saigon, the streets hit you. We ended up in a little restaurant overlooking the street downing coconut shakes with rum and eating some fantastic Vietnamese food. Very relaxing meal but as we had a bus to catch the next day, we tried to get an early night...

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Day 03/01 - Close-Up Cambodia

... fleeing the madness of the Christmas Eve entertainment here in Hoi An, Vietnam, we've come inside to write this...

We were up for dawn again on Day 03 except that this time, we wanted to see it at Angkor Wat. This has become something of a must see experience and so we were hardly surprised when, as our tuk-tuk bumped through the gloom, we joined an eerie procession of other tuk-tuks bearing tourists to the entrance of the temple.

Inside, people were scrambling for the best positions. We weren't really sure where to go really but Vannak had given us a choice bit of info the day before. He'd told where the sun would rise at this time of year. At spring and autumn equinoxes, the sun rises directly behind the temple making the main gate the best place to view the sunrise. At this time of year though, it was to rise far over to the right. Main gate viewers would see the sun rise to the right of the temple. The best place was over to the temple's left and that's where we headed.

We had the steps of one of the outlying buildings all to ourselves and waited for dawn. The sky was pitch black except for a faint glow in the east. The moon was a sharp crescent and the night was so clear you could see the new moon in shadow. Through the darkness came the flashes of cameras and here and there the laughter of some of the louder nationalities represented there.

The sunrise was spectacular and it really put the temple into perspective. Here was this edifice, the handiwork of 80,000 people and the largest religious complex in the world. Yet, it took a simple sunrise to make it look much like a child's attempt at model-making. It drove home to us just how magnificent our God is and how banal are even our greatest attempts to emulate his creative ability.

Back at the hotel for breakfast we rationed our last remaining hours: a couple of bikes would help us spend an hour roaming through local villages, a dip in the pool would take up the rest.

The villages were great. We just went where the path took us. We stumbled across a large school, perhaps junior high age. The teacher was leading chants of something in Cambodian. Outside children were digging in what looked like a patch of dirt - their dreams of vegetation taking root only in their imaginations as we watched. We found ourselves in front of a temple complex being built and chatting with a young Buddhist monk in a saffron robe. Standing looking at a grass house, we were invited in for hot tea and the host answered our questions about the shrine he had in his garden. A woman restoring a statue of Buddha got up to open the gate to her garden when she saw us watching over the fence. It was great to simply wander and be welcomed everywhere without question, without hindrance.

Too soon afterwards we were at Siem Reap airport having checked in and were enjoying a coconut shake at a coffee shop while we wrote postcards. We'd recognised a couple there who we'd seen in a restaurant in town. They looked pretty miserable for some reason. Later while sipping our shake, a woman spoke to an airport official and we overheard her story. She'd come to collect two tourists who'd arrived for the flight having left one of their passports at the hotel. Despite sending a driver back for it, they'd only got hold of it once their flight had left. Sure enough, a moment later, the very couple we'd seen before came out of the terminal building. What a complete nightmare. We talked about what we'd do if it happened to us.

But it hadn't and a few minutes later we were walking across the tarmac to our waiting Vietnam Airlines plane...

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Day 02 - Templeland - The best one

... more from the smoky net cafe in Dalat, Vietnam...

There was one more temple we wanted to visit: Ta Promh. This isn't the biggest. It isn't the most famous. In fact, the only thing it's got going for it is the undergrowth. No joke. Let's introduce it with a photo which some who've seen a few recent Hollywood flicks might recognise:

Suryavarman II and his royal ilk had realised that kings with spectacularly long names were never going to be remembered simply for having them they had died out, the Khmer kingdom, like all kingdoms, fell to the dust of time. The jungle crept back into the sanctuaries it had been banished from and started to let those who remained know who was boss.

All of the temples in Cambodia were found in various stages of disrepair. While many were cleared of vegetation (and the obligatory Cambodian mines) and reconstructed to bring in the tourists (sorry) preserve the heritage of the world, Ta Promh wasn't.

Now, while many in the archaeological community may lose sleep over this, the tourists actually love it. Ta Promh is one of the most popular temples because it hasn't been reconstructed and because it's overgrown. Well, it has been cleared up a bit but just to help with walking about the place and other little things like not getting crushed by falling masonry.

We loved it. The trees are stupendous. What a root can do to a stone is beyond our understanding. If I was a rock I'd be weeping right now in fact (eat your heart out Paul Simon). But as I was a human and a great lover of trees to boot, I laughed with glee at the way the rock moved aside to let the life through. Kind of reminded me of another story I love...

Well, we were pretty much templed out by now. As we left, we were entertained by a band of musicians all of whom had been injured by landmines and had abandoned begging in favour of playing music. We bought one of their CDs as a souvenir. It was quite a reality check to see a man playing a fiddle with a stump instead of an arm.

By now we were very aware of the fact that we had less than 24 hours left in this country. We wanted to see something a bit more real. We asked Vannak and Chuot if they could show us a little of real life. They took us for a walk through some villages.

This was one of the things we'll remember most about our trip here. The villages were really clean. Bare swept earth sprinkled with fruit trees and palms surrounded houses on stilts and through all this ran dogs, puppies, chickens galore and everywhere welcoming people with smiling faces and mutual curiosity.

Typical house in the villages around the town of Siem Reap, west Cambodia. The lower room is solid and secure and used for storing a motorbike or other valuable equipment. The upper room is for the family. There's usually a shared toilet somewhere in the village which is basically a cement platform over a cesspit surrounded by a wall or screen.

John makes three fruits; these are breadfruit, sometimes known as jackfruit.

At one point, we came across a family group around a well. The grandmother who I'd say was somewhere between 60 and 412 years of age was washing herself. As we stood there using Vannak as a translator asking them questions about their lives, she suddenly gave a shout and had us all in fits of laughter. She'd soaped and lathered her head and wanted to pose for the camera!

Granny strikes a pose. Note the chick/ens running around. They were everywhere.

We found it very endearing that someone of her age (and goodness knows what horrors she's seen in her long Cambodian life) should bridge the cultural gap with some humour. We left these people with a really strong desire to get to know something more about them, determined to hire some bikes from our hotel and go exploring the next day.

Meanwhile, our guides were done for the day and they dropped us off at our hotel. At the last minute, we remembered that our long lost bags were in the back of Chuot's car! Almost lost them again.

We decided to go up the tower again and take in the sunset with a fruit shake to help us get through it, and then we had a dip in the pool.

Sheena reflects the sunset. On the left on the horizon you can just about see the tethered air balloon that really sad tourists can use to see Angkor Wat from the air.

We decided to head into town for a meal and so called a tuk-tuk from reception. These are contraptions with a motorbike on the front and a little carriage behind. Very comfy and a great way to see the streets without being in an air-conditioned sanctuary.

We went to La Noria and had a fabulous meal of Cambodian food in luxurious surroundings for all of about $4.

And when we finally made it back to our hotel, we had a visitor...

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Day 02 - Templeland - The better one

We did interface with God, but Angkor really had nothing to do with it.
Fleeing from the camera-bearing hordes, we headed for Angkor Wat itself. The temple is surrounded by a moat that is about 200 metres across and stands surrounded by a huge wall. Approaching it across the huge bridge is a little like approaching the Taj Mahal - the stuff of dreams. You've heard about these places for years and may know nothing about them. But you've seen the images and now, walking towards it, I could hardly believe that it was all real and we were actually there.

John (right) blends in with the monks on the way to the Wat.

Again, like the Taj, you have to enter through a relatively tiny gateway which only serves to make the view and the expanse the other side all the more impressive.

We wandered slowly up to the temple's main building with Vannak filling us in on history, measurements. Occasionally he also added interesting and essential facts such as the fact that if you went to the toilet there you had to pay but the ones outside were free.

Born just before the temple opened, she's lived here all her life.

There are two pools in front of the temple. These set the building off magnificently in reflection but were actually made, Vannak said, to ensure that the building was symmetrical and not leaning. The pools were being cleaned of their rampant water lillies by some intrepid young people one of whom was wearing, quite bizarrely, a Be the Reds t-shirt. For those who aren't amazed by this, it's the Korean national football team's t-shirt. Quite how she got it we could only guess.

The building contrasts strongly with the Taj Mahal though in its appearance. Made from volcanic stone darkened by tropical rain even the restored bits looked authentic. Funnily enough, there weren't half as many people here. We explored the central part via the steepest and most perilous staircase we'd ever seen. Vannak knew this. Which was why he said he'd see us later and spent an hour or so on his mobile below us.

Sheena in the labyrinth.

Lunch led us back outside to the aforementioned toilets (and now we understood why they were free!) and some fantastic food which Vannak recommended. Cambodian food isn't spicy at all and was really good. We had Amoke, a broth cooked in a young coconut so that the fruit and milk become part of the creamy creation. Gorgeous.

Sheena runs Amoke...

And then onto our last temple...

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Day 02 - Templeland - Photo post

The sun rises on our first day in Cambodia.

Our hotel from the tower.

Vannak demonstrates Japanese body language.

The south gate of Angkor Thom.

Bas reliefs of Angkor Thom.

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Day 02 -Templeland - Getting Started

Blundering round in the dark of the hotel garden before dawn, I came across a tower just the other side of the pool. Stumbling back, I roused Sheena to climb it with me and watch the dawn.

The landscape was black with just a hint of light in the east. Stars, something we've missed in Seoul, were bright and that wasn't all that filled the night. First impressions indicated that the nation was a kingdom of chickens and dogs. Huge choirs of canines and cockerels competed to welcome December the 18th 2006. The dogs won, but not by much.

Eventually though, the darkness receded and we could see that our hotel was way out of town. Sleepy little homesteads, some built, some makeshift, some grass were dotted around a landscape littered with palm trees and tropical plants. It looked like a very peaceful place, despite Cambodia's history.

We were due to meet our guide and driver at 8:30 so we headed for breakfast on a lovely terrace in our gorgeous hotel. It turned out to be just a good as the website promised - if not better. Set in lovely tropical grounds, each room is a separate bungalow made from palm wood and lined with bamboo. Fantastic for less than 20 quid a night!

Chhuot was back as our driver and we had a new guide, Vannak, to take us around the temple complexes of Siem Reap. The most famous of these is Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world and the national symbol of Cambodia.

First though we had to find our bags. Having no luck in either calling the airport or the Bangkok Airlines office, we decided to go there first. They were very nice, even giving us all a free bottle of water each, but told us that we'd have to go back to the airport to pick them up ourselves. It wasn't far and we were glad we'd opted for a driver with a car today instead of something smaller and less useful for carrying luggage.

While waiting for the flight bearing our bags to land, we discovered that Vannak was in fact primarily a guide for Japanese tourists. Soon we were chatting away in Japanese much more fluently than in English. We exchanged languages all day. It was quite bizarre to find Japanese a useful bridge language between Brits and a Cambodian! We also tried our hand at reading and pronouncing some Cambodian. It wasn't as hard as we'd thought. The word for "king" for example is a simple sgynzkkywzgwyhh but pronounced qqydrygslkjwxe. Needless to say we didn't progress much beyond the basic oh kun - thank you.

After that, we headed off to buy our temple passes. These come in several varieties: one day, three day etc and have to be purchased from the office in town which is crawling with tourists. The passes are pretty pricey; our three-day passes were $40 each. But when you consider that this gives you free access to hundreds of square miles of antiquities it must be one of the best admission fees on the planet. A photo is obligatory and they take one for free for you. We sat in the car while Vannak picked ours up for us.

Then we were set to go...

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Day 02 - Templeland - The big one

(writing this at Ho Chi Minh airport while waiting for our flight to Dalat to board and listening to Jingle Bells by Boney M over the airport PA)

Where were we... oh yes... we'd just got our temple passes and were off to see the temples of Siem Reap.

Small historic interlude: to get an idea of the scale and achievement here, it's helpful to have a basic understanding of the historical context that gave rise to these buildings. Remember when Europeans were still wearing short trousers? Well that's when the Khmer people decided to build temples that were bigger than the average European city in area. Angkor Wat is a contemporary to Thomas Becket's murder in Canterbury cathedral to give you some idea of architectural comparison. And while that cathedral is impressive, it is dwarfed by Angkor Wat. You could fit over a hundred English cathedrals inside the temple. And the carvings don't even compare. At Canterbury, we get excited about a bit of coloured paint and a couple of saints' heads. You'd need several years to complete a brass rubbing of the bas relief carvings of Angkor.

Although bas relief does look like treatment for someone who's overdosed on classical music, it actually means sculpture which comes out slightly from a flat surface from the French bas meaning low. Angkor is absolutely covered with them including several hundred metres depicting the great Hindu myth the Ramayana.

We weren't heading for Angkor Wat yet though. We were off to Angkor Thom (Angkor Jerry's older brother) which is the biggest temple in the area. A stroll around the walls would cover 12km. Not only was it the biggest we saw, it was the most crowded. You could hardly move at points. Bit depressing really and seeing French tourists cavorting for cameras with locals in trumped up period costumes didn't really strike us as worth coming all this way for.

... more later... they're boarding our flight...

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Day 01 - Pics

Pics from Day 01

We survey our packed flight to Siem Reap from Bangkok.

Sheena has dinner enjoying the Christmas decorations.

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Day 01 - Getting there

Well, we got to the airport fine... despite there being 3 (THREE!!!) inches of snow on the ground to stop us. I was in shorts and it was before 7am and snowing as we waited for the airport bus. It arrived just as I was losing the feeling in my right big toe.

Checking in was no problem but take-off was delayed an hour due to snow making the air traffic slower than usual. We had a couple of hours to kill in Bangkok anyway so we didn't worry about it. Oh... and by the way... we landed in Hong Kong for 30 mins too. Had no idea we were going to do that.

So, we hit Bangkok's new airport late and, waiting for us, was a member of Thai's staff with one of those little buggies. In thirty years of flying I've never been on one and I confess that I've always kind of hankered after it. There's something a little bit rebellious about driving indoors and we were glad of it too because the new airport is modelled on Chesil Beach in Dorset, England. For those of you who don't know Chesil beach it goes on for miles and, being shingle, it's very difficult to get from one end to the other. Thus seems to be the inspiration for this airport.

Interestingly too, the architects took some shortcuts to make this edifice: there are no nice finished ceilings. The guts of the building lie bare for all to see although some parts are covered in grey silk. But with the concrete, metal pipework and grey silk, it does seem a bit like something out of 1984... albeit with more shopping than Big Brother would ever tolerate.

The shopping goes on for miles. I kid you not but it took us 15 mins to walk from the Bangkok Airways check in desk to our gate (and we were legging it) and that was AFTER a ten minute ride on this little golfcart thing... and 20 of those 25 mins were walking past shops and the last five was actual gates for aircraft.

Well we arrived at Gate E2a to find it said "Pnomh Penh" - not Siem Reap as we wanted - and that there was absolutely no one there except us. We were, unbelievably, 50% of the passenger list. The other 50% turned up just as amazed as us and we headed out to the small propellor-driven aircraft.

On the way, we discovered that it wasn't just passengers who have trouble getting from one gate to another at the new airport. "Sorry but I have bad news." said the flight attendant on the bus across the tarmac, "Thai could not bring your bags to us. They will send them tomorrow." We were less than happy with this. We had no clothes!

The fight was short, uneventful and, as we said, almost devoid of passengers. We landed at the small but very nice Siem Reap International Airport shortly after 8pm and were met by Chuot who was to be our driver for the next day.

At the hotel we explained the plight of our bags. They were very sympathetic and gave us two free hotel t-shirts! Couldn't splash in the pool wearing just them though. We splashed in the shower instead and hit the hay.

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Ready to Roll

Well, this is it. It's some unearthly hour of the morning here and we're just about ready to leave the house. First flight leaves Incheon airport (1.5 hours from home) at 10:50am.

One slight complication: it snowed about three inches in the night so it looks fabulous outside. Sheena is having second thoughts about going. But I've been out and it's already melting so it'll all be gone by lunch time... and so will we!

See you in Cambodia tonight we hope!


Thursday, December 14, 2006

Tickets & Visas

John holds his own bundle of tickets

Last week a big fat envelope arrived at work. Inside were all the tickets we've booked for the trip. We're not used to having so many tickets to take. Went through and checked that they all corresponded with what we thought we were getting and they did.

We've got the visas for Vietnam. Dunno why but they stuck them way towards the back of our passports. They take up a whole page and are the first visas we've ever had for a socialist country.

No other country requires visas before you arrive. But we got Cambodian visas online this week. You can even take the photos yourself - so we did! It's supposed to speed things up at the airport at Siem Reap and, as we're arriving in the evening and want to jump in the pool before bed... we're on a mission!


Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Typhoid, Diptheria/Tetanus, Hep A and Hep B... well, we haven't had jabs for at least ten years so we thought we should get up to date. And what better time than just before the SEATour!?

We've had to go twice to the Itaewon International Clinic locally to get these done over a couple of weeks. They've also given us a ton of malaria pills.

Can't type... arms... ache... so.... much...sdklfj;sd,m.,f;adkfj...........


Thursday, December 07, 2006

We Bite the Bullet

For some time now, we've been considering a trip down to Southeast Asia. It's relatively close to us, dirt cheap and cram full of some of the world's most fascinating places.

But we never have...

So, in the grand tradition of JapanTour 03 and USATour 05, we will shortly be bringing you SEATour 07.

We'll be back shortly with a more detailed itinerary. For now, you can preview our planned route. Click the pic!