September 2008, Catch up time
On the 22nd September I flew from Edinburgh to Paris then onto Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon. So here I am in Hanoi until mid March or until I get asked to leave !
Ho Chi Minh City
Officially it is known as Ho Chi Minh City but everyone calls it Sai Gon or Saigon
For a couple of days we became tourists In Saigon while we acclimatised - to the climate, Vietnamese life and the motorcycles !
Using our bible - The Lonely Planet, we walked the streets of District 1, the central area of the city and Cholon. The colonial French influence was everywhere we visited - The General Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral, Ben Thanh Market and even in the Reunification Hall.
For me the highlights of Saigon would be the Reunification Hall and the Ho Chi Minh Museum - where we were asked to leave at 11am because it was 'nap time', most museums close for a few hours at lunch time but we loved the term used by one of the staff who asked us to leave.
For a variety of reasons including wanting to see some of the countryside, way over the luggage weight limits for flying on a domestic airline etc., we decided to take the train from Saigon to Hanoi - a 34 hour journey if it runs to schedule. We booked two berths in a 4 berth air conditioned 1st class sleeper for 1,125,000 dong each (£36 / €46 / $68). So on Friday 26th September at 19:00 we departed Ga Saigon aboard train number SE1, the Reunification Express. 1st class, eh no - basic and grubby would be more descriptive and as for the A/c - ferrocious ! now I know what it feels like to be a tomato in a fridge.
It was a pleasant but long journey and some of the scenery was spectacular especially around Danang and Hué. There were not many stops enroute but at a couple, where we stopped for a longer period, Barbara got off the train and bought some food from the vendors that lined the station platforms - there were some interesting choices !
Two rather bedraggled foreigners duly fell off the train in Hanoi at about 6am on Sunday morning - about 30 mins late after a 1726km journey.
The noise and motorbikes
There is about 5 minutes per day when there is silence around our hotel - approx 3:22am !
At all other times there is the incessant hooting of motorcycle and car horns - not warning you of their presence but telling you to get out of the way.
Waves and waves of motorcycles coming in all directions, no one giving way and remarkably it works - there are few accidents, and the traffic just flows like water around any obstacle. Traffic lights and pedestrian crossings exist but seem to be ignored - well that's how it feels.
Anyone crazy enough to want to cross a road usually survives, the code - don't think, walk slowly and continuously and the traffic should flow around you - so far so good.
Settling into a daily routine
I have been looking around for some work but it is the usual situation - their nationals take priority, got to speak Vietnamese etc.
In the meantime I am being kept busy doing the domestics, doing some touristy things and getting my website back up to date.
I have joined the Army - Hotel division, well sort of. I have taken out a membership at the Army Hotel swimming pool so I get to swim in their pool. It is an outside pool - wonderful in the current heat but what will it be like in mid-winter ?
Earlyish to bed, dawn is about 5:30am and the city is already well and truly buzzing. We usually go for a walk around the nearby lake - well Barbara usually jogs - too fast for me, I have got scared of speed :-)
However the Vietnamese are exercising en mass, step aerobics, Tai Chi, weight lifting - anything and everything, totally amazing / crazy / delightful. There is group of mixed age women who do a synchronised dance routine with a sort of tennis racket and ball, lots of movement but at all times balancing the ball on the racket and the music - Que Sera Sera, truly wonderful. I will try to get some video of them and post it here.
I usually pick up some fresh bread on the way back or if I feel indulgent some lovely real croissants (29p / €0,37 / $0.54) - the remnants of the French Colonial influence !
27th October 2008, Sapa weekend
Last weekend we went up into the mountains NW of Hanoi to a town called Sapa. During French colonial times it was developed as a summer retreat away from the heat of Hanoi.
We got there by sleeper train, again ! - but this time, for a few dollars more (good choice of words believe me) we had the chance to upgrade to wooden class. We duly arrived at Ga Hanoi, boarded our sleeper and found out what wooden class was - wooden laminate everywhere, floors, walls, ceilings ! As for the A/c - even more ferocious than our previous 1st Class experience and the coach attendant refused to alter it. Two Italian men, who shared our compartment, couldn't even 'persuade' him to do anything. So 4 gelatos defrosted on the platform of Lao Cai (station for Sapa) early the next morning.
A 45 minute crawl up the mountains by minibus delivered us to our hotel in Sapa. From a hot and humid Hanoi we went to cool, rainy and misty Sapa - just like Scotland in summer, I felt at home - instantly.
After breakfast we had a morning trek down into a valley to the village of Cat Cat. There were 9 of us plus our guide plus an ever changing entourage of Black H'mong women and children who, very friendly and with the usual language barriers, tried to get us to buy some of their handicrafts. Where you from - Hanoi (usually met with No, yes (from me) then laughter), how old are you - 21, what's your name - Ron and you? Me / Yu / To - you could tell they were having fun with us ! Eventually I tried selling them some of my stuff - to save me carrying it, but they were having none of it. I saw an information sign, at the French Church in Sapa, which stated these people were illiterate - a horrible description to cast on these people, maybe they couldn't read or write, I don't know, but they were certainly intelligent in their own way.
We descended down into the warmer and drier valley, past paddy fields of recently cut rice, water buffalo eating the new growth on the rice plant stems, pigs, ducks and hens foraging, past and sometimes into (by invitation) the homes of some of these people. A steep climb back up the mountain to the still wet Sapa for lunch and an afternoon free to wander about the town, its church, market and a wonderful coffee shop selling wonderful coffee and cakes !!!
The next morning was still damp and misty in Sapa. With our guide and our entourage of Black H'mong we headed out of town and down into the drier and occasionally sunny valley to the villages of Ta Phin and eventually Ta Van by which time we were in Red Dzao territory who were equally adept at trying to get us to part with our money. The scenery was much the same throughout but wonderful to experience with the occasional shaky, 2 person wide suspension bridge with missing planks thrown in, some bamboo forest, waterfalls etc. Saturday night was spent in a homestay with another group of walkers - about 20 in total, of mixed nationalities. Our hosts prepared fresh food and cooked it in a solitary wok over a wood fire - it took several hours but it was delicious.
Sunday morning, an early morning walk before breakfast saw us encounter a herd of water buffalo very close up ! We got some good photos. Some more walking and then it was back to Sapa with just enough time to visit the coffee shop which sold the wonderful coffee and cakes !!! During the drive back to Lao Cai station you could feel it getting much warmer and drier as we headed down from the mountains. In Sapa (1650m) the local population were wearing warm clothes, in Lao Cai (650m) they were wearing t-shirts.
We got dropped, with all the returning visitors, at a hotel a few hundred metres from the station and left there while our drivers / hotel reps. 'obtained' our return train tickets to Hanoi. The train tickets were duly delivered, we were pointed in the direction of the train station and that was the last we saw of them. At the station, after a 10-15 min wait we got on the train, found our reserved berth - 1st class but not wooden class for what we had paid extra for. Got off the train, tried to find the tour reps. / drivers who were now conspicuous by there absence ! Another night in a mobile refrigerator and it was back into a warm early morning Hanoi (4:30am).
We decided to walk the 30 minutes or so back to our hotel, it was a good decision. Within those 30 minutes dawn broke and the city woke up and by the time we reached Hoan Kiem Lake the keep fit classes were in full swing. Around our hotel in the Old Quarter, the early morning and now illegal street market was under way - what would you like for breakfast? some lovely fruit? a piece of fish - how about this one swimming in the basin alongside the chopping board and cleaver or some meat - thankfully already dead !
30th October 2008, Croissants
Went out as usual for my semi comotose, early morning fast stroll around the lake and stopped to buy our croissants. I pulled out the usual 18,000 dong for 2 and the lady shook her head and pointed to the price. They were now 15,000 dong each ! 30,000 dong for 2 ! A 67% increase in price, now that really woke me up instead of the usual coffee.
Dear IMF, I need a bank loan to pay for my croissants. If you can loan money to one of the perpetuators of the current financial meltdown (GB #10 Downing St and who has the audacity to claim to be saving us from the effects of it - how can I laugh and be sick at the same time) then you can trust me with a loan - honest !!
Ok I can hear you all reaching for your calculators and exchange rate tables so I will save you the bother -
When we arrived the xchange rates were - £ / € / $ respectively 30,957 / 24.378 / 16,603 so a 9,000 dong croissant cost - 29p / €0,37 / $0.54
Now the exchange rates are - £ / € / $ respectively 27,121 / 21.397 / 16,785 so a 15,000 dong croissant costs - 55p / €0,70 / $0.89
For anyone intested I will post the daily croissant exchange rate - let me know the currency required and I will create a column in my spreadsheet !
Barbara's input to this - A lesson in Vietnamese. Croissant = bánh sung bò. bánh = bread, sung bò = horn+cow so you have bread in the shape of a cow's horn. Try asking that in your local deli tomorrow but remember to get the vocal tones correct otherwise you might not get what you expected !
4th November 2008
It's been raining heavily - feels almost continuously, since Friday and there has been a lot of flooding, deaths and damage in Vietnam and into China.
We have been fortunate and have only suffered getting very wet. The Old Quarter of Hanoi, where we are located, has not suffered except that the Hoan Kiem Lake overflowed onto the surrounding street and caused some localised flooding. There is (are) turtles in the lake - a supposed myth until one was recovered several years ago and was stuffed and is now on display in Ngoc Son Temple, and I was expecting / hoping one would be seen crawling about the flooded streets but sadly no - it's supposed to be lucky if you see one.
Ironically we went to the famous Hanoi Water Puppet Theatre on Friday night - it is beside the Hoan Kiem Lake and the street outside was flooded. They could have done the performance in the street instead of inside, the flood water was deep enough. The show itself was based on Vietnamese stories acted out by puppets on water with live music supporting the performance.The water puppets had the last laugh as the departing audience left the theatre and had to wade their way though the flooded street.
6th November 2008, Swimming
I went swimming this morning - no not in the flood water, but at the Army Hotel pool. It's a good sized swimming pool for doing 'length's' in so I get a bit of exercise to burn off all these veggie stir fries I have most nights as we have no cooking facilities in our room at our hotel - oh what a hardship. Anyway the pool is outside in the gardens of the hotel and is unheated, air temperature is about 25°C and the water temperature is a few degrees cooler so it is a bit chilly for the first few minutes.
Question - what does one do when you are swimming and it starts to rain? Even though you are already wet do you get out and shelter until it stops raining or do you continue swimming, get even wetter and provide amusement to the passing Vietnamese - crazy foreigner swimming in the rain! By the way, the Vietnamese already think the weather has turned cold at about 25°C and have already started to wear warmer clothing so a foreigner swimming in an unheated pool is crazy anyway !
The rains have eased here and are now scattered showers - we even had some warm sun today, but the forecast is for more heavy rain tomorrow and Saturday.
Thanh Niem Daily (Newspaper) Friday November 7 2008 -
......the drainage system was capable of handling rainfall of 172 mm in two days. But the recent flooding saw rainfall of up to 600 mm.
The historic downpour that lashed Hanoi beginning last Friday killed at least 22 people, submerged many areas of the city, causing losses amounting to trillions of dong.
Eleven areas in Hanoi remained flooded Thursday, city authorities said, adding they were strictly monitoring the dyke system. Mass evacuation of residents was also being considered, they said.
Schools are set to resume today, except for those in Hoang Mai District which was still heavily flooded Thursday.
Cuc Phuong National Park - Wednesday & Thursday 12th & 13th November - Far too short.
Cuc Phuong National Park is located approx. 87 miles / 140Km south west of Hanoi.
From the guide books - Cuc Phuong is Vietnam's first NP and was established in 1962, covers 86 sq miles / 223 sq Km of largely primary rainforest, home to an impressive variety of flora and fauna - 100 species each of mammals and of reptiles, 300 types of birds, 1000 year old trees etc.
Reality - wonderful, beautiful and so peaceful after Hanoi, but it is not easy to get there - public transport pretty much ends about 15km from the park in the town of Nho Quan and the only way to get from there is by walking, pillion on a motorbike taxi or by taxi. Apparently buses to the park stopped last year due to lack of custom.
There were very few visitors and the on-site hotel was really quiet with few guests which made their prices seem expensive compared with what we could have got in the nearby local village. Everything was so quiet, the place was crying out for visitors to help sustain the local economy. One lovely small hotel we checked wanted $10 US for a double, clean, basic room with a/c, tv and fridge, the National Park was $20 (We were pre-booked so had no choice)
Officially this was a business trip for Barbara to check out 'Volunteerism' possibilities in the NP.
Please don't ask how but I ended up on a small tour bus with 17 Germans who were on a 21 day up market tour of Vietnam - considering the quality of their hotels, transport, guide etc. I think they got a pretty good deal for €1800 including flights from Frankfurt. Flights to Vietnam are usually the most expensive part of such trips easily £800 / €1000. But sitting on buses, trains for hours on end then sometimes having only a few hours at each site (2 hours in the NP!) is not what I want for a holiday but everyone to their own.
Anyway, there I was sitting in this bus, old t-shirt, worn shorts, muddy walking boots, hairy legs et al trying to look inconspicuous amongst these well dressed Germans - didn't work ! but they were nice and friendly and seemed especially friendly towards me when I finally left the bus at the NP about 3 hours after leaving Hanoi.
Barbara had arranged a meeting with Tilo Nadler at the Endangered Primate Rescue Center but no matter how hard she pleaded she could not persuade him that I was an endangered species and required taking into care. Seriously though, have a look at what this place does - www.primatecenter.org
After her meeting we wandered around the centre and saw some of these endangered primates, photos do not do these beautiful animals justice. The colourings on some, especially the Red-shanked douc langur, were wonderful - they looked as though they were wearing delicate, colourful clothes and as for their faces and their young !
We left the Centre and wandered into the nearby village of Cuc Phuong it was typical of what we have now become accustomed to in Vietnam but it's surroundings ! By the time we got back into the NP it was getting dark ~ 5:30pm, so after a bit of writing up notes by Barbara, guide book reading by me we headed out to the only restaurant at this part of the NP. They could do so many simple things to improve this place and attract more overnight visitors but from a basic menu we actually had a good meal with our waitress willing to provide a meatless version of a dish for us.
A short walk followed on the road into the rainforest accompanied by the restaurant's Labrador dog - it was dark but the full moon lit up the road ahead. Fortunately we didn't come across any werewolves (maybe the Labrador was one in cunning disguise) - also probably something to do with the amount of garlic that the Vietnamese use in cooking - a clove at home = a bulb here ! I have just remembered its vampires and garlic, nothing was nibbling my neck anyway not even Barbara. The rainforest is so noisy - whistling, whooping, croaking how can anyone get any sleep in a place like this?
Dawn. In Hanoi the motorcycles and cars tooting their horns waken you up from about 5am, here it's the primates and birds whooping and screeching - I know which I prefer !. It was cold and misty outside our hotel room which overlooked the NP's 'Botanical Gardens' - it was a lovely setting.
After a simple breakfast we headed off on a 4 hour walk into the NP to the site of a cave where evidence of Prehistoric Man has been found. It was a lovely walk albeit on a surfaced road with rainforest on either side.
Back at the NP entrance / hotel was the starting point of our next adventure - How to get back to Hanoi ?
An overpriced taxi (by Vietnamese standards) to the bus station in Nho Quan. It was downhill most of the way, through villages, rice fields, past water buffalo, oxen, school children and the view over the valley ! The effects of the recent rain was plain to see - what is classed as wetlands alongside the Da River including the Van Long Nature Reserve was now one huge flooded plain with the roads on causeways and the town of Nho Quan on the only higher ground in what seemed to be the middle of the valley and this was still the effect 1 week after the rain stopped. The ever present paddy field ducks were in their element - water everywhere.
So now we were at the bus station and immediately got a friendly escort straight to the ticket desk, no questions asked two tickets for Hanoi were written out - are the Vietnamese psychic or what? What if we were going to Hue ? anyway we parted with 2 x 52,000 dong approx £2 / €2,50 each, not bad for a 2½ hour bus ride. Then we saw the bus - oh shit !! Think Mad Max - after a few battle scenes ! I will post one of Barbara's photos in the photo section soon. Blindfolds were handed out as we boarded, the air conditioning was switched on (windows opened) and off we trundled. Slowly at first as we picked up momentum
passengers on the 20Km or so to Highway 1, I said passengers, well there was also some huge bales of freight added periodically - pushed in through what we ordinarily be the emergency door at the back. I was waiting for the chickens and goats but none boarded.
The flooded wetlands created a different panorama - the burial structures that are ever present in the fields, were now islands sticking out of the water, where workers usually work the fields they were now fishing from small boats, what is usually termed as the 'Dry Halong Bay' now matched Halong Bay - both now had the same limestone 'islands' surrounded by water.
Then we reached Highway 1, currently being re-built! Speed limits - how fast could the Mad Max bus go ?? - faster than I would have wished, suspension - yeh right !`
Overtake anything you can while you are in the wrong lane and only go back into your own lane if something bigger than you comes towards you - like an articulated truck or a bigger bus, use the horn as much as possible - try to scare the traffic blocking your way. They should issue ear plugs as well as blindfolds with the 'courtesy pack'.
Catering - yes, I was surprised too ! At 2 of the bigger towns we passed through, women with baskets of goodies got on, went through the bus selling a few things while the bus trundled along then they got off at the other end of town.
Toilet - not on board, we did stop a couple of times while the men dampened down the tyres, no women seemed to be inclined to help out !
Hanoi appeared on the horizon, it might have appeared earlier if I had blown the dust off my glasses but that is by the way. The nearer we got the slower the traffic became and eventually it was down to a crawl - pushing / forcing a way forward, cutting up here, cutting up there - who would be a bus driver in Vietnam.
The bus station in Hanoi, to / from destinations in the south, is at Giáp Bát in the SE of the city, another bus was required to get us up to our hotel in the Old Quarter.
A bus drew up going where we wanted to go - the driver wouldn't open the doors, foreigners with rucksacks at rush hour - No Way ! He totally ignored / blanked us. A few minutes later some Vietnamese came along and wanted to get on, he had had to open the doors then didn't he ? - oops how did I mange to get on his bus !
Who would want to be a bus driver in Hanoi ! absolutely crazy driving by everyone - 30 mins later we got off, I really needed some beers but a shower was desperately needed first.
Fell asleep to the sound of motorcycle horns ! I want to go back to the NP - NOW !!
The hotel's name is Cao Son in the village of Suoi Hai. Tuesday-Thursday, 18th-20th November
These were the directions given to me by Barbara so that I could meet up with her. Granted she did tell me which bus station in Hanoi the bus for Bat Bat left from - the bus's final destination, and that the hotel was just past a dam.
Barbara had left on Sunday on a tour bus again but this time with a group of volunteers going to work for 4 weeks in an orphanage 70Kms west of Hanoi - note I said tour bus. How was I to get there - public bus !
So that is why on Tuesday morning at 9:30am I got on a bus to cross Hanoi to the My Dinh bus station in the west of the city. 30 mins later, after an interesting drive through some areas that were new to me and that I had marked down for possible future visits, the bus arrived at My Dinh. The exit doors were immediately surrounded by 'touts', everybody exiting the bus got asked whether they wanted a taxi or moto (motorbike taxi), I got VIP treatment !
Inside the bus terminal, and fortunately for me, the large departure-timetable board had Bat Bat listed on it but it had only 1 bus per day and at 13:00hrs - 3 hours away !
Well at least I can by the ticket, listed at 20,000 Dong (80p / €0,94 / $1.18). At the first window I showed my bit of paper with Bat Bat on it and pointed to piles of tickets, got directed to another window. Several windows later I got rescued by an official who by various means made it clear I had to come back to a particular window at 12:30 to buy the ticket.
Ah well that had used up 15 minutes, what to do for the remaining 2¼ hours until I could buy a ticket. A quick look around the area said it all - nothing unless I wanted to play on the busy dual carriageway or wander around the big building site opposite, or the factories / warehouses or business skyscrapers.
I found what I hoped was a quiet spot and started to read the Lonely Planet but as the only foreigner around I attracted those that wanted to speak to a foreigner even though they spoke no English, those who wanted to practice their English and those who wanted to re-organise my travelling arrangements.
Eventually 12:30 arrived and I went back to the specified ticket window to buy my ticket. The lady held up a sheet of paper and shook her head. I was clueless as to what was meant but I knew I wasn't getting my ticket just then. Then she disappeared for about 10 minutes before returning with her lunch. I tried again to get a ticket, again the sheet of paper was waved and no ticket. Meanwhile I was fending of the touts trying to sell me stuff, get me to take a taxi, private car, moto - a particulary enterprising one got a friend to send a text in English to his mobile for me to read, it was offering me a car ride !
Someone who had earlier tried to get me to follow him tried again but this time was a bit more insistent and ignored my gestures about buying a ticket, he was carrying official type papers so I trusted him up to a point and followed him. Through the entrance, past the touts wanting to 'assist' you to the buses, past all the food vendors, through the throngs of people, squeezed past crammed together buses to a corner of the bus station and there sat Mad Max's sister, from my trip from Cuc Phuong National Park to Hanoi, with the destination board Bat Bat.
With a quick thank you and handshake to my saviour I boarded the bus without a ticket. Bat Bat I said as I boarded and some voices replied - I hoped yes, the nods of heads confirmed it. Needless to say I was the only foreigner on the bus, yet again.
1 o'clock came and went. 1:10pm the engine got started and then we edged along with the other buses to the exit to be 'signed out' by an official. I sensed we were going in the wrong direction then realised why, there was no crossing point on the dual carriageway. After about 5 minutes we did a quick U turn then stopped at the side of the road beside a makeshift repair shop. The driver got out, picked up some tools and started poking about at the back of the bus. 10 minutes later we were on our way again, past the bus station we had just left and me praying that we weren't going back in again. We didn't.
The Hanoi suburbs quickly ended and the scenery changed to a construction site. Kilometre after kilometre of motorway construction and at the early stages - lots of earthworks, drilling machines and the start of concrete work. However, the recent rains and flooding had taken it's toll, there was a lot of heavy machinery still stranded by flood water, some part submerged in mud, what a mess.
The bus fare was collected but no tickets issued, 25,000 dong was now the fare. Everybody was charged the same so this wasn't a case of a foreigner being charged more as is often the case.
It was the usual type of bus journey, lots of horn tooting, crazy overtaking, sharp braking to pick up passengers, and, even though this was a very busy road, there was the occasional cow sitting in a lane refusing to move and with traffic swerving to avoid it. Maybe the cow knew it was going to the abattoir tomorrow and thought that suicide was a better option - who knows.
1½ hours later we rolled into the town / city of Son Tay. We drove up one street, turned around and drove back down it. We did this several times on different streets eventually I started suffering from deja vu and what seemed to be a small town was now becoming a major metropolis based on the driving time - distance covered. Eventually we stopped, at the side of the street and at the Vietnamese equivalent of Kwikfit, yep we had a puncture.
There was none of the please get off the bus and get on the next one - the next one was 24 hours from now and this was probably the bus anyway. Some of the passengers got off and were spectators as the rear wheels were removed, one tyre and it's inner tube was removed from it's rim, a new tube fitted and everything refitted back - all within 30 minutes. Off we went again, back into the countryside and then the road signs changed, now Suoi Hai was being mentioned - 19 Kms. We drove through some lovely rural countryside with lots of rice fields but still some flooding was visible from the recent rains.
At last Suoi Hai. Now the next clue, 'past the dam'. Through the village and yes here was a dam, we drove along an embankment holding back the water and then some large buildings could be seen and yes, the Cao Son Hotel was one of them. Now how to stop the bus and get off. Fortunately the conductor had remembered my bit of paper with the village and hotel name on it and just as I stood up he signalled the driver to stop.
The hotel reception staff couldn't speak any English and no amount of writing down names yielded any reservation and they weren't particularly friendly. They made a phone call and passed the phone to me, someone spoke some English and with some phone passing back and forth a conversation ensued. The hotel was full tonight and they were trying to find us a room in other hotel nearby for the same price - $17. Barbara then called my mobile and was also trying to find a room and had got one at $9. Surprise, surprise it was at the same hotel that this hotel was trying to make a reservation at ! This hotel was going to charge us $17 and pay the other one the $9. I was none too amused and they knew it.
I sat outside on a concrete wall to wait for Barbara, a few moments later I was ushered back inside and directed to a couch - they didn't like me sitting outside, it certainly didn't seem to be a friendly gesture of me being comfortable while I waited.
The alternative hotel wasn't a hotel after all, it was guest house with a friendly owner who showed us several rooms before we chose a top floor room overlooking the lake and towards the cloud shrouded Ba Vi mountain. The room was apparently better quality than the 2 star hotel we had just come from.
It was now dark and any exploring would have to wait until tomorrow.
The next morning Barbara gave me directions to the orphanage so that I could meet her there at 11am, have some lunch then we would walk back to the hotel together.
Because it was still early - about 7:30am I decided to walk in the other direction and on the road that ran close to the lake and judged that I could walk for 1 hour before turning back. The road was quite quiet apart from the occasional scooter with school kids passing by and practising their English as they went - Hello they would shout, waving and giggling, hello I would shout in reply - end of today's English lesson.
It was a nice walk, I think the road would eventually take you to the Ba Vi National Park but for the moment the mountain lay hidden behind cloud and I couldn't judge where it should be or how far away it was.
By the time I turned around to walk back the road had left the lake side and it was difficult to tell whether I had reached the end of the lake or not, but it had been a nice enough walk but nothing wonderful.
Last night I had met the volunteers, all women, and heard some of there stories and views of the day's events and the problems they were experiencing. One 'problem' seemed to be about buying small amounts of fruit and veg in the local market - buying 1 carrot seemed impossible, always 3-4 i.e probably a kilo's worth, and also the lack of food / canteen at lunchtime at the orphanage. Worst was what you ordered from the menu at dinner being taken out the back squealing and howling, then silence and a short time later being served up on a plate. A few new vegetarians have been added to the cause.
Back in the village I stopped at the market - it was just a row of stalls or mats on the ground on either side of a short lane off the main street. It was quiet, only sellers no buyers, ding - no it was wasn't - a foreigner has just walked in ! Everything was now for sale. A big fat solitary carrot was held up and offered to me to the howls of laughter from the other stall holders - what did they mean ! I put on an astonished look and shook my head for a no, more laughter.
I decided to get some bread, tomatoes, fruit and cheese (if I could find any - I didn't) and take it for the volunteers - I should have bought the solitary carrot but I forgot ! Lots of smiles, laughter and some good deals (better than in Hanoi) later, I managed to escape the market and started on the road to the orphanage.
Barbara's directions - turn left out of the hotel and walk in this direction until you come to a junction at the other end of the village, take the right road and the road will go uphill and downhill, cross paddy fields and keep going until you see a pile of bricks and the orphanage is beside there. Distance - 20 mins or so on a bicycle ! Great!!
I got to the end of the village, yep, no junction. I walked another 5-10 minutes and came to a junction. Who could I ask - show the address of the orphanage to and get directions? Ah, there was a woman at the side of the road, cleaver in hand chopping up meat. She read the paper and directed me down the road on the left and then stuck two fingers up, I took that to mean 2 kms. Nice countryside, paddy fields, fields of assorted crops, water buffalo and oxen - some wandering along the road to slow down the traffic, maybe we should try this in Scotland - instead of speed humps to slow traffic on the roads let Highland cattle wander on the streets.
Another 15 minutes and no sign of any bricks, time for another status check. A lady in her garden read the paper and pointed me in the direction I was already travelling, no fingers this time - maybe I was less than 1 km. !
Meanwhile school was now out and there were kids on bicycles everywhere, lots of smiling faces - hello, hello; hello, hello; hello, hello; I tried to vary it with an occaisonal Hi or a German Hallo but still Hello, hello ......
A pile of bricks, well 3 piles actually within 20-30 metres of each other, appeared and yes there was big building inside a compound. I went to the security gate, showed them the paper and got directed back onto the street and onto the lane off the main road.
A few minutes walking on this lane produced nothing, then a building with some children laughing - a quick look inside showed that it was a hotel / restaurant serving lunch to a large group of people. Back onto the street and more walking, I was clueless and had no more information not even a 'take the 3rd buffalo on the right'. Then a shout from behind me, it was the volunteer's Vietnamese translator who had spotted me passing by. Saved ! Where the orphange was hadn't been on my list of directions and where had she parked her bike - no idea, a volunteer had to help her out !
It was an uneventful walk back to the hotel - at least I knew the route !
Last night there had been some Vietnamese veterans - some in uniform, wandering about the hotel, the men were friendly, smiling and I got occaisonal waves when I met them. None of them spoke any English. The women wore black headscarves and were quite shy but smiled when you met them. We got told that some of them had never seen a foreigner before except in photos or films.
I spoke to the Vietnamese translator and got this information about them. Every year groups of these veterans, and the widows of their comrades, are taken from their village or town and get taken on holiday. They stay full board in a hotel for several nights and are taken on bus tours of the surrounding countryside - all paid for by the government. This is deemed a poor Third World country, contrast this with what the UK government does for it's war veterans - nothing ! They depend on the Earl Haig fund - a charity, it makes me so angry.
Next morning was another early start - the bus was supposed to leave at 7:30am and it went dierctly to Hanoi. A quick breakfast of steamed rice and fruit courtesy of some of the volunteers in one of their rooms - thank you ladies, and it was out sharpish in case the bus arrived / departed early - not my idea.
The veterans were all up and wandering about outside, a gesture of a camera and photo and they were instantly into a group and we were pushed into the middle and got our photos taken with them. So much for me wanting to take their photograph - I didn't get any, so I had to get copies of someone else's photos. Handshakes all round and off they went for their breakfast.
It was an un-eventful bus journey back to Hanoi except it took a different route back for the first 30 minutes or so - same bus, same driver, same conductor so I have no idea why the different route. A quick change of bus at My Dinh bus station and we were headed back to the Old Quarter of Hanoi. At the second or third stop the bus filled to sardine occupancy proportions, college classes had just finished for the day. I was standing and then I got a - 'can I review you?' from a young Vietnamese woman, 'You don't know me enough to review me but you can talk to me if you want' was my response. So she and her friend started to talk to me about general stuff, where I was from, what was I doing here, did I like Vietnam / Hanoi / the food etc. One of them was also learning French and was being sent to Paris next year for 3 years to study (physics?) - paid for by the government.
Wedding - Saturday 29th November
A week or so ago one of the young Vietnamese receptionists at our hotel told me she was getting married. I told her I was disappointed that she hadn't asked me, her response was to invite us to her wedding !
So after a few days of how are we going to get there, offers of car shares then changes, a minibus was finally organised for some of the other hotel staff, their partners and us.
The wedding location - the bride and bridegrooms home villages about 1½ hrs drive to the NE of Hanoi. Be at the hotel reception at 8am we were told, so we were. You are too early we were told, the bus wont be here until 8:30 - communications in Vietnam ! 8:45 the bus arrives and now there are only 8 of us.
I had looked at a map and, although the village wasn't on the map, I had managed to roughly identify where the village was - I wish the driver had looked at a map and knew where he was going. We crossed the Red River and headed for Haiphong, so far so good. We drove for about 20 minutes before doing a U turn, that was okay because there were few gaps in the road dividing barriers to allow a turn off but just as long as he didn't drive back to Hanoi. But a few minutes later he turned off the main road and onto a side road, and the first of several stops to ask for directions ! This happened most times we turned off the road we had been on but we eventually got there !
The passing scenery was again wonderful - all so rural and very little by way of big scale manufacturing. I think I have already said that villages seem to specialise in a particular industry - near Hanoi there are villages specialising in e.g. pottery, silk production and noodle production. On this drive we passed a village specialising in metalwork. The first thing that caught my attention was small copper cylinders - I thought surely not, and the next thing I noticed was a pile of copper tubes shaped into spirals, yes ! I was right, copper stills for making spirit - how to get one of these home ?
There was other less interesting things being made - all by hand - metal pots, woks, utensils etc. but the stills were the best.
At the Bride's village there was already a big crowd in the wedding tent that gets set up for these occasions - you can see them wherever there is a wedding, relatives in their best clothes and other guests (the rest of the village ?) in their 'day' clothes.
I think we got introduced to every family member, lots of handshaking and smiles - but sadly no dialogue because we couldn't speak Vietnamese. A few of the younger guests and our hotel staff could speak some English and they helped us out by explaining what was occurring.
Foreigners, for whatever reason, are welcomed like guests of honour. We were included in the Bride's group of friends for the meal in the courtyard of her parent's home. A couple of opened bottles of Hanoi beer were put on the table - Oh nice I thought some beer, no stupid they contained home brewed rice wine (spirit). How good were these stills that I had seen shortly before, I was about to find out !
The Vietnamese threw the small glasses of spirit back in a one, me, I had to sip it ! Memories of rice wine in Beijing came instantly back to my stomach and instantly transmitted warning messages to my brain. Sipping was the best bet !
Male relative after male relative sat down at our table and had a toast, me a sip ! I would never have seen next week if I had drank like these guys.
Then it was back to the 'wedding tent' where we were taken from the back of the tent to a central spot and seats with family. Men on one side, the women on the other - Barbara was amongst the men but nearer the front !
There were celebration plates of betel nuts, biscuits and green tea placed on the table. My cup of tea got constantly refilled, I was offered biscuit after biscuit and then the dreaded betel nut wrapped in lime. I had read about them and didn't really want to try but I couldn't upset my hosts, I was watched as I chewed (very gently) and it had to stay in my mouth until I got outside later. I hear you get used to betel nuts and they become addictive - not with me.
There was some singing by a host, then some speeches before the Bride and Groom made their grand entrance. Then there were more speeches by the bride's parents, her grandparents and various relatives (I think).
Then that part of the wedding was over and we went outside and into our minibus to drive the short distance to the Grooms home, we were told, for the next part of the wedding. This time we were ushered into a church hall, I'm don't know why but probably for more space for more people, for more speeches by the Groom's parents, grandparents etc., again treated like VIP's but fortunately only green tea this time.
The celebration continued without us, we had to return to Hanoi to allow the staff to get to work. We took a different route back, one the driver seemed to know, and we got to see some more of the countryside.
Off on my travels - Tuesday 2nd December
Hanoi Long Bien to Haiphong by train. At the ticket window I asked for a soft seat - not that I am getting soft in my old age but the thought of 2½ hrs on a hard seat with my svelte bum, no thanks.
I paid 30,000 Dong (now approx. £1.16 / €1,40 / $1.77) for my ticket with assigned seat for the 09:15 train and went onto the platform where the train was already standing. I found the coach, boarded and yes, you already guessed it, hard seat. There were no soft seats on this train, only wooden seats.
From Long Bien the train first crossed the Red River on the old steel cantilever bridge that was frequently bombed, damaged and repaired during the Vietnam War. Only a short section of the original bridge still exists, the damaged sections having been replaced with 'flat decking'.
But the poor bridge is still being attacked. Recently a truck with a container on it's trailer got stuck underneath one of the onshore spans. It was reported that the bridge actually shuddered with the force of the impact. The truck and container were left there for several days (I saw it) before it was removed and props put in place to support the damaged section until permanent repairs are done. Meanwhile trains, motorcycles and pedestrians continue to use the bridge as is usual.
The original 2.5km bridge was built in 1903 by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame and there are plans and funds available to restore it to its original state.
The Red River is now back to its 'normal' level but the effects of the recent flooding are still plain to see. It's name is apt, it's colour is a very dark muddy red which, I would guess, is from clay which would account for the potteries and brickworks on the delta.
The distance from Hanoi to Haiphong is 102 km, (source Vietnam Railways) journey time is 2½ hrs my maths calculates this as 40 Km/hr. The train travelled faster than that, stopped only at a few stations and for only a few minutes at each; it doesn't add up ! where did the time go ?
Vietnam is one of those countries that have allowed buildings to be built right up to the edge of the railway track, so it is not unusual to be trundling along and be literally less than a metre from someone's kitchen / lounge / shop etc. It is strange to see railway track running through cities like this and trains to suddenly appear from between two buildings.
The French influence is again evident in the buildings and the charming old street cafes that still exist in the city centre. There were so few tourists, well 'foreign' ones anyway. Just outside the city centre it was street after street and alley after alley of specialist little shops selling every conceivable item - a shop for cable, a shop for ropes, a shop for tea, a shop for beds and on and on. These shops were interspersed with repair shops - do you want a motor rewound, blinds made, signs made ...... this went on for kilometre after kilometre in every direction.
Haiphong - Cat Ba, Thursday 4th December
From Haiphong I decided to go to Cat Ba island by boat rather than the hydrofoil. The hydrofoil takes 45 minutes the boat 2 hours but I prefer boats - well I did until I saw what I had booked myself on, I later saw the hydrofoil and it would have been a tough choice anyway !
The 200 + passengers were all seated and off we chugged down river and past the docks. I was looking at the cranes and because we were going down mid channel and therefore quite a bit away, I was having to focus hard on the lettering on them, but there was something about the lettering - Kranbau Eberswalde. Eberswalde, north of Berlin, is where I stayed for about 10 months - ironies !
After a brief stop at Cat Hai we continued to Cat Ba island and the flat delta landscape eventually changed to the karst mountains sticking out of the sea forming the famous islands.
Memories of Greek island hopping came flooding back as we docked at Cat Ba town - do you want a room? sure, how much? where is it? I got B&B for $7 with a view over the bay albeit on the fourth floor and no lift! Ah well some practice for hill walking in the following days.
Cat Ba town is just somewhere to sleep and eat while visiting the National Park on land or on water. The bay is filled with a floating village of houses, fishing boats and service boats. There are tiny boats serving as taxis ferrying people to the shore and back - I didn't see any meters on them so all payments by negotiation ! A close look at these boats revealed their construction - basket weave with a bitumen coat on the underside - so simple, but I did see one doing quite a lot of bailing out.
The day I arrived the sky was clear and there was a lovely sunset over the bay. The following days a sea mist lay over the outlying islands and the temperature dropped !
I booked myself on a one day trip - it was a trek through part of the National Park, followed by lunch then some more walking before sailing back through the islands to Cat Ba town's second port.
The park was similar to Cuc Phuong National Park and just as spectacular. The hike was described as easy, sandals would be okay said the salesman. I wore my walking boots and was glad I did, scrambling up and down rocky paths, some steep, was not so easy but it was worth it - the hotels stair training was worthwhile.
We passed Frog Lake but it was the wrong season to see frogs - go to the Old Quarter market in Hanoi if you want to see frogs !
After about 3 hours walking in forest we suddenly came out into the open and back into a rural, agricultural landscape. We had lunch at a village before continuing our walk - easy now as it was on concrete roadway. Towards the end we walked through a tunnel linking two valleys and shortly later we came to a a 'fjord' where or boat lay to take us back to Cat Ba town.
The one hour boat trip was wonderful. The mist hadn't lifted but the scenery was spectacular, we weaved past island after island and floating village after floating village. It went past far too quickly.
Sunday 7th December
Last night I booked a bus and boat ticket to Halong City with the intention of continuing to Quan Lan Island. But yet again I awoke to a misty morning and the temperature had dropped with a cold wind blowing. I decided to abandon Quan Lan and instead head for Ninh Binh to the south of Hanoi. I had seen an advert for a boat and bus combination to Ninh Binh via Haiphong and tried to change my booking but it wasn't possible and the suggestion was that I had more opportunities from Halong City anyway, which turned out not to be true.
At 8am I was crammed into a minibus with too many other passengers and luggage, and headed north to the port now used by the ferries to Halong City (it's not mentioned in the guide books and only on some maps !). It was a nice ride through the National Park - well the scenery was anyway.
At the port We stood around for about 45 mins while our 'guide' obtained our tickets for the journey to Halong City. It rapidly became obvious he was trying to get the best possible deal (for himself ?) to get us on a tour boat returning to Halong City - there was no ferry ! A fleet of tourist boats had arrived while we had been waiting and their passengers were bussed of to various locations on the island. Eventually we were ushered onto an almost empty tour boat and headed out into the bay and towards Halong City. Apart from the cold wind and the mist it was as good a journey as I had had yesterday afternoon - sailing between the karst islands, they were stunning and it would have been so nice if the sun had shone.
Eventually the islands gave way to open bay and Halong City could be seen through the mist. We docked at the Tourist Boat terminal, and with a quick check of the Lonely Planet map of Halong City, I headed towards the bus station. I got the usual offers from car taxis and motorcycle taxis but continued on my way, then one asked where are you going? the bus station, the bus staion has moved. What? The bus station has moved to 6km west of the port, I was heading east ! Expletive, expletive. Some small city buses were heading west and I took a chance that they were going to the bus station and got on one. I showed my Lonely Planet Ninh Binh page to the conductor hoping he understood that I wanted the bus station for Ninh Binh and not did his bus go to Ninh Binh. He said something in Vietnamese which caused some laughter on the bus and took my money so I guessed I was on the correct bus. Sure enough, about ten minutes later we arrived at the bus station.
In the ticket office I looked for Ninh Binh - only 3 buses a day, not what had been suggested at the hotel and the next one (the last one) was at 13:00 and it was now just before 12. I went to the ticket window, showed the lady Ninh Binh and got a ticket, a small bottle of water and one of those packaged cleaning wipes ! all for 70,000 Dong (£2.70 / €3,25 / $4.15), I have never had such freebies on a bus before and my suspicions started as to what sort of journey I was going that I would need a bottle of water and a wet wipe.
While I waited I noticed buses departing for Hanoi every few minutes - I was tempted !
13:00 came and went and no bus. I showed my ticket to what looked like a bus company official, he checked inside and returned gesturing I should wait. At 13:15 a big minibus arrived with a destination board of Ninh Binh, it had two empty seats near the back, which were blocked by to two big bales of goods sitting in the aisle. My rucksack was grabbed from my back and thrown into the luggage hold . To get to the back seats everyone had to climb onto these bales and crawl to their seats, I was ushered into one of the empty seats - all eyes on me, Vietnamese eyes ! First statement / question from the conductor - pointing to himself, Vietnam then pointed to me, Scotland I replied. My reply got translated into Vietnamese, a few discussions and then smiles all round.
On the separate routes between Halong - Haiphong and Haiphong - Ninh Binh there are lots of buses, some quite modern ! so this minibus didn't pick up so many passengers, it mainly took through passengers that were going beyond Haiphong and stops to Ninh Binh.
I am now getting quite accustomed to the Vietnamese countryside and, for the last few months the paddy fields have not been obviously tended - the stalks of the last crop of rice harvested have been left to turn brown. But now that is changing and there are signs of the next crop of rice being prepared, small squares of emerald green are appearing in the fields which I take to be seedlings almost ready to be planted out into the bigger fields.
But some sights still take me by surprise - a fairly large pig, alive, strapped to the side of a motorbike passed the bus going in the same direction. It shouldn't really have surprised me because everyday you see the same things on the back of motorbikes - other than passengers ! you see big fridges, TV's, washing machines, baskets of live birds or animals, huge mirrors, paintings, crates of beer balanced on either side, you name it goes on a motorbike.
Four and a half hours after leaving Halong City and just for dark, the bus arrived in Ninh Binh and a few minutes later passed one of the hotels listed in the Lonely Planet. The bus stopped a block or two later and I got off and got reunited with my rucksack, a few smiles and byes I left another bemused group of Vietnamese and headed back to the hotel. With a heavy rucksack I am not inclined to wander about from hotel to hotel trying to find the best deal in town, if I have a recommendation, the price is reasonable and the room is okay that will do me fine. The hotel met all the criteria, I was happy enough.
Unlike most tourists / travellers I am not on a time limited 2 - 3 week trip through Vietnam so I take my time and one of things I like to do is to take some time out and just wander around a town regardless whether the guide books tell you it is worthwhile or not. I believe there is something worthwhile to see anywhere - I guess it depends on your point of view and the time you have available.
Ninh Binh is described in one of my guide books as being un-remarkable.
Well I found two markets and re-stocked on bananas, mandarins, apples and a mango. As usual I kept it light, lots of smiles, rubbing fingers together indicating how much, holding up a few fingers roughly indicating what you think is a good or the correct price, look of shock when a few extra digits get added, some laughter, number of fingers get agreed, a deal is struck and everybody is happy. Sometimes you know you have paid a bit more but so what. Away from Hanoi the prices are much cheaper and I sense that I am paying local prices rather than tourist prices.
By the way, the fruit is delicious. The bananas have a taste especially the little stubby ones, the mangoes - heaven, the mandarins juicy and sweet.....
My thoughts were elsewhere when I reached a busy intersection and, for once, the traffic was obeying the traffic signals so I wasn't paying too much attention until the lights changed and the 'Green Man' came up and just as I started to cross I glanced round and there was a slow moving ox, pulling a cart, lumbering towards me. So in Ninh Binh as well as contending with buses, lorries, taxis, cars, motorbikes, bicycles you also have to contend with ox drawn carts !
Tam Coc - Tuesday 9th December
According to the guide books there are a couple of tourist 'must sees' in the Ninh Bin area - Tam Coc and Hoa Lu.
The hotel had photocopies of a hand drawn map of the main streets of Ninh Binh and of the surrounding area, it wasn't to scale but it had little cycle symbols on it so I guessed it was accurate enough for cyclists to use and so therefore walkers too. The distance to Tam Coc was marked as 6km each way - fine for me.
Before leaving I checked at reception about the accuracy of the map. Straight away they tried to sell me the guided tour with bus, lunch, entrance fees, guide etc. all included. No thanks, just tell me if this map is accurate enough to be usable. No, not advisable, it doesn't show all the turn-offs etc. Okay, how much for a taxi, how much for motorbike (passenger). Then suddenly I was offered another tour - a bicycle tour for $10!
Me on a bicycle ! does it have stabilisers? I cycle as if I am drunk, my balance is terrible. Against my better judgement I agreed, with the proviso that we would go slowly and with a man walking ahead with a red warning flag !
Then I discovered it was a tour group of 1 - me plus the guide, the guide being the young receptionist selling me this tour.
At 9am, I wobbled, she gracefully, cycled off up the street - fortunately not Highway 1, but busy enough ! We passed two hospitals and I joked with my guide about just leaving me there and save her the trouble of getting me there later. After about 10 mins. we were in the countryside and the road surface was rapidly deteriorating into ruts, potholes, gravel. The bicycle, like me, had seen better days; the brakes weren't too good and my bum told me how good the suspension was !
We cycled past paddy fields, scattered a flock of ducks - they saw me coming and rightly guessed to get out of the way, passed through tiny villages until we reached our first stop - Mua Groti. I paid my entrance fee and my guide led me to the bottom of some steps leading to the top of this mountain / hill and gave me my instructions: 15 minutes to the top, take a few photos, 15 minutes down, have a look around here and be back at the entrance in an hour. Yes boss, she was obvously not guiding me up! Being on the 4th floor of all of my hotels so far had got me partly trained for this.
The steps were high, even for me, and the slope quite steep but I made it within the 15 minutes allocated. The view, although misty, was great - as far as you could see, in the direction we had come from, it was a huge flat plain with these rugged karst mountains sticking up straight out of it. I had read somewhere that the plain was once under water so that would explain why it was so flat, and I suppose it would once have looked just like what Halong Bay now looks like, hence the reason why this area is called Halong Bay without the water.
To the south I could see my next destination, the river at Tam Coc with the boats on it, just like the advertising photos I had seen.
I made it back down, again in my allotted time and had a quick look around. My guide hadn't told me about a tunnel linking this site with the river and it was a nice discovery. It didn't look like a natural tunnel, the walls and ceiling were too rough for that, so I guess it had been man made but for why? Anyway it led to the river's edge and no more, there was no pathway going on from there, so unless there was a boat you were going nowhere. But it was a nice view of the river and from a different perspective, I would guess the bussed in visitors wouldn't have seen the views I had just seen.
With my 1 hour up, I headed back and rejoined my guide and my bicycle. More villages, more country lanes and more bone rattling we eventually arrived at the entrance to the Tam Coc cave complex. I paid my entrance fee and boat fee and was led down to the boat and introduced to the lady who was going to row this boat for the next 2 hours. The boat would have held 4 including her and I thought she would have waited for more passengers, but no, I was a group of 1 and off we went. Her English was as good as my Vietnamese so there wasn't much of a conversation other than what's your name and where are you from? I remember she was from Vietnam but I can't remember her name, sorry about that.
When we left I could see there was some other boats in the distance but she rowed at a speed that kept this distance, but then an oar got shoved into my hands and I was expected to help out ! But I had paid to be rowed ! Anyway the extra muscle meant that we soon gained and then passed the boats I had seen in the distance.
The scenery was stunning and as we came near to face of a karst mountain an opening would come into view and we would go in and through and come out in the next valley. We arrived at the turning point about 10 minutes earlier than we should have done. Just before the turning point the food / snack boats appeared trying to sell you all sorts of goodies for you and latterly for you to buy for your rower. The guide books warn you of this so you are prepared for it.
So it was turnaround time and we went back the way we had come and I saw everything again but from a different perspective. Part of the way back the oar was taken off me ! Obviously we were going too fast and maybe it would get noticed that we were back too quickly.
I was met by my guide, then we had some lunch before continuing to Thai Vi temple. Anyone who has seen the movie 'Indochine' would recognise this area and this temple, various scenes were shot here. Parts of the movie were also shot at Hoan Kein lake and the railway station in Hanoi.
On our way back we passed my guide's home in a small village and she kindly invited me in for tea. It was a small farm with some vegetables growing in the garden and chickens and puppies running around. She told me her family's recent history - how her grandmother had left some money which had allowed her parents to build this house, and how her uncle had been killed in the Vietnam War. It was all quite humbling.
Hoa Lu, Ancient Capital - Wednesday 10th December
Masochistic or what, a 2nd day of cycling and this time to the Ancient Capital of Hoa Lu.
Another scenic ride through the countryside and this time we got really close up to some karst mountains. But then we crossed a road under construction, it was already concreted and it was 4 lanes wide - apparently the road is to allow more coach loads of tourists into the area.
My poor bum was now feeling the effects of the rough and pot holed road / track surfaces compounded by the soreness carried forward from yesterday.
We got to the Ancient Capital after about 1 hour's cycling and I am sad to say I was disappointed. The guide books had said there wasn't much to see here apart from two temples and an exhibition area and they were correct but the hype was 'this was a must see' and I expected more.
The temples were interesting and, for once, I had someone to explain more about them to me. The exhibition had a model of the site and some photos of archaeological digs that had taken place. Apart from that there was nothing to see, nothing on the ground to give an impression of the size this city had once been etc. My enquiries about the location / the remnants of the ancient walls that had run between some of the karst mountains remained unanswered.
We took the same route back, stopping briefly at Bang Long Pagoda which had an approx. 3 metre high wartime bomb, standing on it's end, in the middle of the compound. My visit was extremely brief, I just hope it had been defused, explosive removed etc.
So what next I asked, pulling the hotel map from my pocket? How about here, or here or here? Too far, too many mosquitoes there etc. i.e the day tour was over before 12, needless to stay a whole day trip fee was expected !
Ninh Binh to Dong Hoi - Thursday 11th December
I had read both my guide books and decided that Dong Hoi was the first place south of Ninh Binh that interested me. It is not a usual tourist city but it got recommended as a good stopover location and it apparently has got some fine beaches and I like a good beach - to walk on !
So yesterday afternoon I had walked to he station and booked a ticket on the only train that left at a reasonable time and didn't arrive at some ungodly hour. I booked myself on train # TN1, departing 12:35 arriving 21:48 and feel my pain, there were only hard seats on this train ! Price 120,000 Dong (£4.75 / €5,50 / $7). There was an air conditioned coach, which I had booked a seat on, for an extra 30,000 dong for no other reason than, to hopefully, avoid overcrowded carriages of people and luggage which I was contributing amply to anyway.
After breakfast I paid my hotel bill. The $ -> Dong conversion rate had been inflated, I politely said so and it was altered without question !
A lengthy visit to the bank - paperwork, paperwork ! replenished my wallet and then it was off to the station. The station got busier and busier as the train departure time drew near. Then a bell went off and there was a rush to the locked door leading to the platform. The door was opened, a ticket check done and everyone crossed the tracks onto an 'island platform'. A kindly official directed to me to where I should wait so that I would be in the correct place for the coach I was booked on would hopefully stop. The train arrived on time (from Hanoi) but I was nowhere near my coach, I had to rush to the second last coach on the train and got there just as the departure whistles were being blown.
The train was crowded, but the coach I was booked on wasn't too bad. The train left on time but by the time we had left the next staion 30 minutes later we were already 10 minutes late and it got progressively worse as did the hard seat on my posterioir !. Next time I will make sure I get soft class, I'm getting too old for hard seat class!
For the entire journey during daylight hours - up to about 5:30pm, it was almost one paddy field after another and many of them were being ploughed using either oxen, cattle or water buffalo - not one tractor to be seen, some of the ploughs were wooden, others metal.
The train would stop and would wait for what seemed ages to allow northbound trains to pass - most of this main rail route between Hanoi to Saigon is, I believe, single track, which explains why there are many late running trains.
It was now completely dark and some of the stations we were stopping at were only lit immediately around the station buildings, at others some platforms weren't long enough for the train and passengers were getting off and having to walk along the edge of the track to get to the station building.
I hoped that the station at Dong Hoi didn't have shortcomings but just in case I got my torch out !
Almost 50 minutes late at 10:30pm, the train arrived in Dong Hoi, it was well lit and it had a long platform - a sigh of relief. It was also one of these stations that the train stops at for a period of time to allow passengers to get off the train to buy food and drink form the stallholders lining the platform.
No messing about - the train station is 3.5Km from the city centre, I showed a taxi driver the name and the address of a hotel I had picked out of the Lonely Planet, he indicated he knew it, I got a price and off we went.
The hotel was full, no rooms available!
The lady at reception was kind, she spoke some English and offered to take me to a nearby hotel that had rooms available. On the way there I found out that I could have a room in her hotel tomorrow if I wanted it, we agreed a time for me to go back at and a price.
This other hotel was obviously empty. The two owners / staff were sitting watching TV when we arrived, they spoke no English. My 'helper' told them all they needed to know and left. I got shown to a room on the first floor by the younger of the two women and got a guided tour of the room and the bathroom. I got shown everything right down to the fact there were toilet rolls, but I did have to point out / mime that there were no towels.
Then she wanted my passport, she stood over me while I got it out and then left. Ok I thought that is it for the night, I can have shower and get some sleep. I had partly undressed and emptied out some of my rucksack when there was a knock on the door. Trying to be respectful I stood behind the door before opening it, she was having none of it. She pushed the door open and handed me a form to fill in - it was a police registration form. I hadn't see one of these before, all the other hotels had just logged the passport details in some sort of ledger.
I sat on the bed while I filled it in, she sat beside me.
I completed the form, handed it to her and stood up. She took the form, stood up, hugged me and left. She hugged me !! I couldn't believe it.
I had my shower and went to bed but not before barricading the door.
Dong Hoi - Friday 12th December
It was still dark, I checked my watch, 4:30am, no visitor phew! The barricades were still in place, back to sleep.
It was still dark, I checked my watch, 7:45am, what is going on? There were no windows in the room !
A quick shave, dressed and back to my first choice hotel. Yes they had a room. Back to where I was staying, only the older lady was about but I stood well back while I paid my bill and got my passport back - I was taking no chances. I got my luggage and left.
I didn't have long to wait for my room to be prepared and to move in.
A quick unpack and I was out for a wander about town.
According to my guide books, Dong Hoi was pretty much flattened during the Vietnam War and has been completely rebuilt. I went round the Lonely Planet's things to visit within a couple of hours - the two gates that had once been part of the citadel, parts of the wall can still be seen as can the moat that surrounded it; one of the two markets where I had my usual fun and games buying some fruit; and then to the river.
The river is wide and there are lots of fishing boats of varying sizes moored on it. There are also nets being periodically raised and lowered to catch fish swimming past - I didn't see anything being caught. The other side of the river is a sand spit and is built up with mainly houses. I crossed the bridge and walked to the lovely wide beach about 1km away - I looked right, I couldn't see the end of the beach it just disappeared into the horizon. To the left I knew there was the river mouth about 1km away so, it was off with the shoes for a walk in the sand with the sun beating down - lovely !
There was only one hotel, a big one, adjoining the beach, but for how long before there are more? I reached the river mouth, fishing boats were arriving and leaving, and to the north the beach again disappeared on the horizon.
Dong Hoi - Saturday 13th December
A bit cloudier today, not so much sun and in the afternoon I thought I would try to see how far I could get on the north beach.
After 1¼ hours walking I still couldn't see the end of the beach and I had to turn around and come back. What a beach and so few people on it and then mainly fishermen - either in small boats, fishing from the shore or close inshore sitting on tyre inner tubes with nets - ingenious improvisation!
Tomorrow, shall I try the south beach? Maybe I should set out in the morning!
Dong Hoi - Hue, Tuesday 16th December
Next stop Hue, Vietnamese Capital of the Nguyen Emperors, 150 Km south of Dong Hoi but how to get there?
Train - same problem as getting here - departures at ungodly hours and arrivals at even more ungodly hours! So it had to be by bus.
There is a concept here called 'Open Tours' and there seems to be several companies operating it. They link the major cities stopping at tourist sites en route and you can hop off (easily done) and on (not so easy) at specific places. They are more expensive than the regular buses but for a traveller they can give you a bit of flexibility and opportunity to see sites that you might not otherwise get to.
I wanted to visit the wartime Vinh Moc tunnels on the way to Hue so I tried a travel agent on the main street advertising Open Tours, I just pointed to Hue and got a curt no! So that was the end of that idea then.
Back at the hotel I asked for their advice on how to get to Hue, they advised that I stood at the edge of Highway 1 and stop a southbound bus. So that is what I did and I hoped the destination board stated somewhere I knew so that I could do a quick mental check that it was okay or not to take. Here there are also buses going to Laos so I had to be careful - nothing wrong with going to Laos but I hadn't done my usual 10 mins preparation for going to another country so I wasn't ready, oh and I don't have a visa for Laos, now that would have been a bigger issue. After about 10 minutes a minibus came along and it had a destination board of Hue, no complications here. I flagged it down and got on.
There were lots of empty seats but I got directed to sit beside the driver, I'm privileged I thought, great views etc. but then he started to use the horn ! I was directly above it - where are my ear protectors? We left Dong Hoi at 09:50, distance to Hue 150 km. arrived 12:45 by then I was a bit deaf.
On the way it started to rain and I seriously considered getting another bus from Hue to Hoi An to try to escape the rain - just have a day travelling.
From the map I had seen that my route was through the old DMZ - the border between what was North and South Vietnam. We crossed the Ben Hai River on the 'new' bridge passing close to the old reconstructed one and the monuments to the Vietnam War.
I also noticed several Vietnamese War Cemeteries near the road.
There were no immediate differences between North and South apart from noticing the first tractors in paddy fields and they seemed to have sort of rotating paddles to churn up the mud instead of wheels. There was the same nurseries of rice, oxen and cattle walking at the roadside, no difference really.
I had wondered if the long distance coaches stopped anywhere for any length of time to allow passengers a break, get fed etc. I saw several buses stopped at, what were at first glance just big sheds, but they were the Vietnamese equivalent of service stations and they were just that, big sheds with rows of benches and tables and the passengers seated there eating - I later heard it being called mass feeding.
For the last few Km's into Hue we drove alongside the outer wall of the citadel. The bus terminated outside the main hospital - it was not a bus station.
The rain had stopped, what to do - stay in Hue or find the bus station and continue to Hoi An? Decisions, decisions - I got swooped on by 'want moto', 'want taxi', decision made - get away from this lot and find a hotel. I had a rough idea where I was and walked a few blocks to get rid of the touts before checking the map.
I was one street out from where I wanted to be, I got on it and walked to the Lonely Planet recommended lane 66 off Le Loi street, which was supposed to be full of little hotels and guest houses. I made a mental note of not going anywhere near house 6 in lane 66, that would be just too much (666 - mark of the devil !) Got there, hotel touts swooped and then reception staff swooped. 1st offer $10 in a hotel, then got interrupted by another and offered $8, I wasn't even 10 metres into the lane. Her hotel looked nice, I pushed my luck but she wouldn't go lower and no breakfast. I had a look at the room, 4th floor and recently refurbished, great value and much better than I had hoped.
I spent the afternoon across the river in the citadel which, apart from the Forbidden Purple City, is a city itself but surrounded by an ancient wall.
Hue, Wednesday 17th December.
Weather map on the internet - cloud over Dong Da all the way to Hoi An with Hue in centre. Its been raining overnight and its drizzling now.
An 8am pick-up for the Perfumed River trip visiting several temples, pagodas and Emperor's tombs - cost $2, so I can't expect too much and a free lunch is mentioned !
A gaudy tourist boat with two dragons on either side at the front and a big enclosed deck for the victims
, sorry that should read clients!
The boat filled slowly and we finally left at 8:45, with approx. 25 passengers. From the manifest that was passed round for us to fill in, there was a mix of British, German, Finnish, Chinese, French and a lone Scot - me.
They were so well organised - not ! The lady that seemed to be in charge disappeared at the last minute, returned a few minutes later on a moto with two big jerry cans of fuel strapped to the back of it. What was the captain thinking of, that the boat was going to run on dilithium crystals at warp speed ? Not a good omen.
Mid stream and we were a captive audience and they new it - postcards and books brought out, then silk clothes, then drinks, then food.......
Sadly there was no commentary so we did not really know what we were seeing except at the locations we stopped at. So guide books were put to good use as we tried to figure out where we were and at what we were looking at. The views were not so good due to the drizzly rain and mist - terrible for taking photos.
At one point we slowed to a stop and came alongside a police boat that was anchored in the middle of the river. A tourist boat employee went aboard with the manifest - there was no police to be seen, he returned seconds later and we continued on our way. Looking back we could see the police inside staying warm and dry on the bridge - they smiled and waved ! Nice policemen.
On the river there were numerous little boats that were dredging the river with the most basic of tools. Someone would be controlling a long pole with what seemed to be a container with a lid on it, this container was lowered to the bottom and with movements of the pole, I assume, filling it with sand. Two people seated on the boat would then, using their feet, turn a spoked wheel that raised the bucket to the surface where the contents were emptied into the hold.
At this point I had no idea what this sand was for and, considering the width of the river, I didn't think these small boats would have much impact if they were actually dredging a channel. The next day I saw similar boats somewhere else and they were emptying the sand onto a wharf, close by lorries were being loaded with the same sand - it would appear it was being used for construction work. So much work and for how much reward?
Back to the Perfumed River Trip, our itinerary and what occurred -
1st stop - 45 mins at Thien Mu Pagoda - free entry. Quite interesting but busy with tourists as we were still so close to Hue.
2nd stop - 1 hour total at Tu Doc Tomb, we all needed motos for the 2-3kms each way otherwise we would have seen nothing if we had walked. 30,000 Dong round trip on the moto and 55,000 Dong entry fee.
3rd stop - 15 mins at Hon Chen Temple, 22,000 Dong. I didn't go in, only a few went in, I was already feeling that things were too rushed and we were not getting time to appreciate the sites.
Lunch - rice, a cabbage dish and tofu.
4th stop - 1 hour total, 10 minute walk each way, Minh Mang Tomb. It was a beautiful location and by the time we had walked around the various buildings we only had a few minutes to look at the extensive grounds they were set in.
Stops 2 & 4 were the best but the time at each was far too short, more time is needed at each.
Most people skipped stop 5 - Khai Dinh Tomb - it was another moto ride and 55,000 entry, for less than 30 mins at the site. I think we all new it was too rushed and therefore not worthwhile.
The trip on the river was a nice experience in itself but to see the tombs and their surroundings I personally would organise it on my own and be selective as to which sites to visit.
Hue, Thursday 18th December.
I visited a bank this morning to see if they were solvent or needed a Government bail out. I assisted them, in my own big way, by way of transaction fees to get at my own money. I hope the CEO enjoyed his / her lunch today, at my expense.
In Vietnam they seem to like their sculptures. Every town and city, I have visited so far, has had its own collection of modern sculptures in parks and grassy areas. Hue was no exception, close to the river there were several areas of sculptures, some easily interpreted, some not, but most I enjoyed.
On to the citadel, the Imperial City and the Forbidden Purple City.
My overview - there at not so many original buildings left standing: the Queen Mother's apartments, the citadel, Ngo Mon Gate, Thai Ho Palace, the city walls and gates and a few more, but the bulk of what was there is gone, mainly due to war damage. There is a huge amount of open space with some re-construction going on.
What has been reconstructed is done well but it is too new, it needs to age to give a it feel of authenticity.
The high surrounding walls - internal and external are impressive as are the gates. The external wall and its gates are in continual use by traffic and pedestrians coming and going to the city within the external wall.
Of the original buildings / structures, some are in not very good condition - the current damp climate (monsoon season) is causing black patches to form on the exterior artwork.
Sadly the library is in a bad condition and it has such wonderful rooftop mosaics and woodwork.
There are several touristy bits - dress up in Emperor's clothing to get your photo taken and some of the old buildings e.g. Halls of the Mandarins, turned into cafes - it didn't seem right.
I spent 4 hours in there at a comfortable pace. In comparison with the Forbidden City in Beijing, sadly due to the damage and disrepair they just can't be compared.
Hue, Friday 19th December.
DMZ Tour $15, 6am - 6pm. I wanted to see the Vinh Moc Tunnels - Vietnam War era tunnels dug by the North Vietnamese and, for me, the only practical way of seeing them was by taking a tour which also included visiting what was the DMZ.
The first stop was at about 8am for breakfast in Dong Ha, at a restaurant that had has some basic western Christmas decorations mixed with Chinese Lanterns - a weird combination. I wonder if the decorations will stay up for Tet in mid January.
Sadly we didn't stop at the reconstructed Hien Luong bridge over the Ben Hai river that linked north and south Vietnam. But we did see it as we slowly passed as well as the massive monument nearby of a woman and children looking northwards (apparently) waiting for their menfolk to return - the guide did explain why but her English was difficult to understand and I missed the point.
I saw many war cemeteries near the road but none were pointed out to us by the guide.
The Vinh Moc Tunnels - a bit claustrophobic and these are bigger tunnels than at Cu Chi (Saigon). If I remember correctly, they are 1.9m at their highest point and 1m at their widest, but they are generally smaller than this so I had to walked stooped to avoid banging my head on the roof.
Short sections of the tunnel were wood lined but they were mostly earth (clay) walls and all floors were of earth which was wet, almost soggy at the lower level.
They now have some lighting in the tunnels but is still dark in sections - I should have taken my torch.
We went into the tunnels at the museum entrance (level 1) after a short walk from the bus and passing, not so well concealed now a days, entrances / exits on the way.
Almost immediately the tunnel twisted and turned and it was the same throughout, and because there was only the occasional light, it was very dark in places. We dropped down a level using steps cut into the soil, more twisting and turning along corridors before dropping down another level and then we came out just above the beach (level 3). We walked a few metres along a coastal pathway, climbed some steep stairs and went back into the cave system at (level 2). Along a passageway, climbed some stairs back to level 1 before passing some things we already seen, then exiting close to our bus.
In the museum display there was a map of the tunnel system and it showed family rooms, maternity unit, meeting room etc. In reality the family room was an alcove that would have held 2-3 people at most, similarly the maternity unit - everything was so small.
Shortly afterwards, back on the bus, I chillingly saw another of the big posters I have seen dotted across the countryside which depicted children, buffalo, fields, a road and the skull and crossbones logo - the message is clear, stay on the road and don't go wandering in the fields because of bombs, mines etc.
At Dong Hoi I saw vehicles belonging to the UK's mine clearance charity (MAG).
The stats state there are 46 tonnes of unexploded ordnance per sq km and when you consider that most of the hostilities were concentrated away from the extreme north then that figure must go up exponentially in the more central areas.
There is no centralised data collection and under reporting is suspected but in in 2007 there were - 48 people killed and 62 injured, From 1975 to the end of 2007, MoLISA recorded 104,701 mine/ERW casualties, including 38,849 killed and 65,852 injured. - the war continues.
A report ( http://www.icbl.org/lm/2008/countries/vietnam.php ) states that in one heavily contaminated area, between May and July 2008, VVAF reported clearance to a depth of 5m over an area of 2.12km2, with some 7,000 items of UXO destroyed.
If you think Vietnam is bad, apparently Laos is worse.
The tour included pointing out old American bases and stopping at one - Khe Sanh. Now, like most of them apparently, there is very little to be seen unlike 40 years ago when this was the scene of one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of the war, not only for the armies but for civilians as well.
Today Khe Sanh is surrounded by coffee plantations and rubber plantations surround the Vinh Moc Tunnels.
Hue - Hoi An, Sunday 21st December
Weather - sunny at last !
To get to Hoi An I thought I would give the 'Open Tours' type operation a try. An 8am pick up from my hotel turned into an 8:35 pick up along with a group of French - one of whom I spoke to. He liked Edinburgh, he went there for the rugby but he was diplomatic enough to not discuss score lines.
Our pick up only took us as far as the main bus station. The bus arrived from Hanoi? at about 8:50, it was a part sleeper bus with beds at the back.
I was seated beside an older French lady, she had been travelling for 2 years now and not been back to France in that time - she had been to S. America, India, Nepal, China and now Vietnam, next on her list was Cambodia and Malaysia - just going along as and when she pleases.
Arrived in Hoi An and it was hot and sunny - wonderful.
I had a recommendation for a hotel and I wanted to go there to check it / check availability. I found the street and I wanted #19, I was only at #551. I got stopped outside a hotel and offered a room for $8, the room wasn't great but ok, I took it. Later I tried to find the hotel I had wanted, the street numbering was being changed ! I found #17 and #21 but strangely there was no #19 and no hotel and worse, if it had existed, it would only have been 1 block away.
I walked to the Old Town, it was only about 10 mins. away. It's wonderful, a bit touristy, but definitely old with lots of charm - and a sign states that only 'old style vehicles allowed' to enter - even better, therefore no cars / motos ! There are 3 longer roads running in the same direction (as the river) with numerous connecting side streets.
There are lots of shops selling silks, lanterns, local crafts etc. interspersed with the touristy stuff like T-shirts etc.
Most of the buildings are old and wooden with lots of style, I loved it. I walked around the old town for a couple of hours just looking, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the sunshine.
I bought some fruit in the big market - lots for sale including the usual fruit and veg, meat, fish, poultry but also touristy stuff including even massages and pedicures, I declined both!
It was really hot and along the riverside were cafes, bars and restaurants, a few of the cafes had signs for fresh beer at 4000 dong a glass, who could resist in this heat. 1 glass later I was persuaded to have another, I did but called a halt after that - they didn't have much of a taste but they did have alcohol.
As the day went on it got quieter as the day trippers and weekend visitors left. In the evening there wasn't so many people around and the streets took on a different charm in the darkness and the shops were better lit so you could see their interiors much better. Down by the river, there were some lantern shops with lanterns lit up, the lights were reflecting on the river - it was beautiful.
I found a 'street food market' with a central sit down area. It was divided up and serviced by different people with differing menus for each section. I had lovely veggie wanton and a beer, after that she persuaded me to try the veggie spring rolls - I relented on condition they were steamed and not fried, they were the best ever. My bill - 45,000 dong (£1.75 / €1,85 / $2.65)
Hoi An, Monday 22nd December
Dull and overcast - not what I hoped for and yesterday's weather had been so promising.
I walked straight down to the river and crossed onto An Hui peninsula. My maps don't cover a big area and I wasn't sure what was beyond that so I walked for a few minutes to the other side - river or sea? I couldn't tell which but there was more land a few hundred metres away.
I followed the Lonely Planet's 'Walking Tour' of the Old Town, looking at the places of interest that were mentioned and deciding which ones I would come back to visit later. The Old Town has a ticketing system for entry into some of the properties mentioned - 75000 dong for 5 tickets, about £3.
I passed an Art Gallery that had original paintings and sculptures and decided to go in. It was the artists own gallery in an old traditional house, which in itself was great to see. If I had the money some of his sculptures would be mine by now !
As I walked along the streets I heard music being played, mainly piano pieces and it was really nice and without realising I thought it was coming from individual properties here and there. It wasn't - it was coming from the ever present street speaker system, for once it was a soothing and pleasurable experience instead of the usual, occasional but daily, diet of Vietnamese music interspersed with speech.
Just outside the Old Town I passed a big new hotel which had a sign outside welcoming a group from a certain city in Australia - my immediate thought was of a local government jolly / junket trip, but maybe not. However, there was a big reception committee waiting outside for the group to arrive. I just continued on my way, down the side of the hotel and towards the rear there were tables laden with plates of food ready to go into the restaurant, further back still there was the typical 'street food' scene of food preparation and cleaning dishes - running hoses, basins full of food being prepared or crockery being washed and people squatting while they worked
I wondered if any of these Ozzie dignitaries would ever have considered eating street food - little did they know !
Me, I went back to where I had dinner last night at 'Street Food' corner and had stir fried veggie noodles - 6 hours later as I write this, no dubious effects !
No breakfast was available at the hotel so I just had some fruit today and so I didn't have my first coffee until quite late in the morning. Hot and black please, and it duly arrived in a glass. Vietnamese coffee does take a bit of getting used too but this offering was like concentrated coke, as in cola! I think if I had let this go cold, added some water and some fizz I would have had a coke. Have I stumbled on the mega secret coke recipe?
The rain started at about 10:30, not too heavy but it was not what I wanted. It went off eventually and I continued on for a while longer before returning to my hotel.
About 2pm it was still dull and overcast but I took the risk and went out and walked the 5km to Cua Dai beach - some research for Christmas Day. Dear Santa - I want it to be sunny and I want to be on a beach. It was a nice walk through the edge of town then into some countryside with even a water buffalo being used to plough a paddy field and then, within 1 km of the beach, the rain started and it was heavy ! I sheltered for a while until it eased off a bit before deciding to continue to the beach - in the interests of research! It was palm lined, the rollers were crashing in from the China Sea and it could have been beautiful but there was rubbish lying around and it appeared grubby / dirty, maybe it was great a few hundred metres away but just where most people would get onto the beach it wasn't so appealing.
There were vendors about though - 3 of them, one tried to sell me something to drink and I decided what the hell, it's raining, I can shelter under a big straw umbrella canopy on the beach and have a coffee and I did - with the 3 vendors. They cheered me up no end, lots of smiles, laughing and joking in just broken English.
5km back to Hoi An and the water was running out my clothes, motos offered me a ride but I was already soaked and it wasn't cold anyway.
Hoi An, Wednesday 24th December
Awake and up early again, I can't sleep beyond 5am these days. It's dry but overcast outside.
I have booked a trip to My Son at 8am, so I was at reception for 7:55 - they wanted me to have breakfast - plenty of time they said, the bus came a few minutes later !
My Son - A Cham religious centre dating from the 4th to the 13th Centuries located at the foot of some mountains in a densely vegetated valley and now a UNESCO world Heritage Site.
Definitely ruins ! There is apparently evidence of about 70 temples on the site of which only about 20 are in reasonable condition. The most and the best are as per the guide books - groups B, C ,D (this is how the authorities have named the groups of monuments at each location on the site). I also visited groups A, E and F but E & F were pretty much trashed by the USAF and bomb craters are evident within a few metres of what remains of the structures.
The structures are amazing and the carvings more so. The bricks and mortar; the mortar is invisible to the eye yet is still sticking the bricks together, apparently scientists haven't yet figured it out. The wonderful carvings, some in really good condition, were done once the bricks were in place.
I'm again making comparisons with the Incas / Aztecs / Egyptians etc., the ruins - all these structures have such a basic similarity. How could all of these ancient civilisations have developed independently of each other yet had similar knowledge of building, astronomy, farming etc. It's too much of a coincidence.
There are other Cham sites in Vietnam - the Cham Dynasty lasted about 1600 years from 200AD to 1832, as I head further south I will try to visit some more Cham sites.
It's Christmas Eve - treat time ! I went to Cargo - a Western coffee shop / restaurant and had a latte and cheesecake - wonderful, the first latte (and cheesecake) in months. The usual Vietnamese coffee options - black and strong or black, strong and with condensed milk.
Hoi An, Thursday 25th December
I awoke early but I had no visit from Santa, I must have been a bad boy this last year.
I went out mid morning, it was drizzling rain and cool but it was Christmas Day and I was determined I was going to the beach even if it snowed !
I stopped off at the Cargo Deli and bought (to go) a Greek salad and a small baguette not realising there was lovely small rolls supplied with the salad.
Thankfully the rain stopped as I walked to Cua Dai beach but it was still grey and overcast.
I had my Christmas lunch on the beach under a straw umbrella with a cold wind blowing off the sea which, incidentally, kept my beer nicely chilled.
The Greek salad was wonderful, real feta and olives, lovely dressing ... so were the rolls (where did they get the feta from ?, I haven't seen it in any shops) all the time listening to Christmas music on the ipod, nice !
I turned right (facing the sea) and walked as far as I could, ~ 2km's, before being stopped by the construction work for the next hotel being built on this beach. I guess I had to turn around somewhere on this peninsula.
Where for dinner? in Hoi An you are spoiled for choice, you can eat as cheaply or as expensively as you want but it is all good quality. The rain decided it for me, it was back on again and heavy. Back to the lovely 'Laugh Cafe' and had the veggie version of the local delicacy Cao Lau again.
After dinner it was still drizzling, sod it, back to Cargo for my 'Christmas Cake'. Cheesecake and an espresso with an ice cream in it - lovely, must try that again. 58,000 Dong (~£2) a bit OTT I know but its Christmas - I'll cut back tomorrow !
Hoi An, Friday 26th December
Weather: it rained all night and the noise of rain running off one roof onto the metal of another woke me up several times.
Today's options -
visit some of the old houses in the old town.
Visit and walk one of the islands - maybe cycle, no too wet.
Decide about leaving tomorrow and where to go.
The rain decided it for me - I was leaving, this rain was getting me down. I decided to return to Hanoi - at least the weather forecast for there was dry.
Hoi An has no train station, the nearest is in Danang. So to go to Hanoi by train, involves taking a bus to Danang, walk / taxi to the station to get the train. Alternatively take a direct bus from Hoi An. With all of this rain, there was no contest, bus - especially if I could get one with beds.
I went looking for the bus company that I had used from Hue - the bus from there started in Hanoi and was part sleeper, so that I could, as much as possible, be guaranteed a bed and not a seat on the coach. I found the company and yes they had space available on the 2pm ex Hoi An to Hanoi - $18. I booked it.
I went back to the hotel at 10:50 and told them I was leaving, they told me checkout was 11am! Everything was thrown into bags and I was back down to reception for 11am! After paying I re-packed my bags at reception.
The bus arrived at the hotel to pick me up at about 1:40pm, after that it drove around the town for another 20 minutes or so picking up other passengers before heading north to Danang.
The front part of the bus had seats and the rear part had about 13 basic beds, although raised a bit from the waist up the were surprisingly ok for sleeping on.
It was raining when I left Hoi An, it was raining in Danang, it was raining in Hue, every time I woke up during the night it was raining, 5:30am in Ninh Binh raining - the weather forecast said it would be dry, 7:30am Hanoi - seriously raining !
Hanoi, Wednesday 31st December 2008
The last day of the year and it was just another day in Hanoi.
A flower festival has being set up on one side of the Hoan Kien lake. There were some nice displays the best being two huge dragons created from flowers and leaves on either side of the statue of Ly Thai To. Somewhat bizarrely most of the displays occupied one lane of the road adjoining the lake, visitors took up most of the next lane leaving just a couple of lanes for the traffic that was still flowing past in its usual crazy way. Later in the day when thousands of people descended on the area the traffic was prevented from entering but this caused total gridlock in the streets to the south of the lake, a gridlock caused by motorbikes with the occasional car and bus thrown in for good measure. I have never seen so many motorbikes in one place before, all these bikes, their drivers and passengers going nowhere and crammed together unable to move in any direction.
Re-visiting the flower festival in the evening was as chaotic as the gridlock in the surrounding streets, but this time people gridlock !
A Hanoi, maybe Vietnamese, tradition tonight is having an ice cream. Some shops who ordinarily sell the mass produced ice creams, the equivalent to Walls, installed extra chillers to cope with the demand. So much ice cream was bought, the ground around these shops was covered in empty wrappers just like leaves fallen from trees, you couldn't see the paving underneath.
The crowds got bigger as the night went on, hundreds of paper lanterns with burners were lit and floated into the night sky creating temporary 'stars'.
Almost midnight, what was going to happen? We anticipated some sort of countdown. Nothing happened. Then we realised it was a minute or so past midnight, were our watches ahead of time? had something being delayed? A few minutes later the crowds started to disperse, that was it - nothing, not one solitary firework !
Happy New Year Vietnam !
Tuesday 14th January 2009
We're well into the Western New Year now, an event that is not really recognised here, reference is repeatedly made to the new year but the Vietnamese are referring to the Lunar New Year - Tet here, Chinese New Year elsewhere.
Hanoi is now gearing up for Tet which starts at midnight on January 25th. We will see if there is any difference between the West's New Year and the Tet celebrations, but the way it is shaping up so far it's looking good.
With 11 days to go to Tet -
In the few supermarkets around the Old Quarter, the shoppers are pushing trolleys around stacked up with goodies while the staff are busily refilling the shelves from boxes lying on the floor, congestion everywhere. Me and my tiny basket try to time it so that we don't end up in a queue of any length at the checkout, especially now.
A typical checkout scenario - an item is taken out of your basket, the cover is taken off the scanner, the item is scanned, the cover is replaced, the item is compared with what comes up on the screen, then the item is put in a bag, next item, cover off the scanner...... It takes ages to go through a checkout. What is it about a cover over the scanner? Is it a weapons grade laser? does it burn a hole in the ceiling if left uncovered? No idea !
Meanwhile out on the streets; the Old Quarter is a warren of streets and in most streets or parts of a street the shops specialise in something different from other streets e.g. there is a street where the shops only sell rice and they have big bowls of different types of rice sitting on the pavement, another street has huge piles of garlic, ginger and chillies in baskets - a lovely sight, another has various types of dried fish and so on.
I wont mention the sweet streets - there is more than 1 of them, other than to say I have paid the occasional visit !
The shops on alcohol street now have their stocks overflowing out into the street ! Cases of beer, wine and soft drinks are stacked up and block the pavements. Beer is being bought by the case, stacked up on the back of motorcycles and off they go, weaving and tooting down the street. Johnnie Walker whisky is sold everywhere, whole shops are fitted out with expensive display cabinets etc. In these tiny shops and in their 'basic' surroundings its an amazing sight and its great for Scottish exports.
On Sunday we walked along / near the east side of Ho Tay lake up to the Tu Lien and Nhat Tan districts and to the markets there. Both markets are close to the Red River so you can go and stand on the nearby embankment and look down to the river flowing below - apparently 13 metres below. Where I was standing was under water in November.
One of the markets sold pottery, a mixture of articles but mainly plant pots. The other market was km after km of allotments growing mandarin trees that were to be dug up, put into pots and given as gifts for Tet. Small trees, big trees, some shaped, most not, but all covered in fruit. For several days now I have seen big mandarin trees whizzing about Hanoi - I've taken nothing stronger than coffee or beer I assure you, they have been strapped to the back of motorcycles, I assume being delivered. But it is a crazy sight seeing trees being driven about on the back of motorcycles in all this manic traffic.
It's been sunny for days now and its back up to 20ºC during the day but down to 7-8ºC overnight. Sun is forecast until Saturday, Sunday = rain.
I'm glad not to be in Germany this winter. The German Tv channel DW is relayed here and I am seeing that northern Germany is suffering from temperatures of -15ºC and sometimes -20ºC. The River Oder, close to where we lived in Eberswalde is frozen over and ice breakers are being used to allow barges of coal to get through to power stations in Berlin. I'm shivering at the thought !
7 days to go to Tet -
Monday morning 7am, the streets are quieter, you can now walk on the pavement for a longer distance without walking into the road because your path has been blocked by parked motorcycles - well ok, maybe an extra 5 metres or so instead of the usual 500 mm.
Around Hoan Kien Lake it is quieter as well, there are fewer people exercising. The journey home for Tet has started; the cities are emptying; the trains, buses and planes are full; signs are going up in shops and restaurants saying they will be closed for 7 days / 10 days etc.
The bread shop that sells really nice bread closes on the 22nd, what am I going to do ? I suppose I still can get those lovely croissants from a shop at the lake !
However, in a few of the small streets in the Old Quarter it has become even busier with more shops suddenly springing up in house fronts, street vendors seated at the edge of the road in front of shops and all are selling Tet related goods - dried fruits, nuts, boxes of locally produced biscuits alongside expensive imported boxes, all kinds of brand name spirits, beer, wine etc.
Then there are some streets where they are selling all kinds of Chinese New Year decorations - this is Vietnam and they celebrate Tet not the Chinese New Year, its the same day in the Lunar calendar but its Tet. There are streets filled with mandarin trees for sale also various fruit trees in blossom and lots of flowers. A tree is bought, it gets put on the back of the buyer's or the delivery person's motorcycle and another tree whizzes through the city street to a new home.
I had to duck out of the way when a tree riding pillion came too close to me, the tree was a pomello with fruits the size of footballs swinging about. The fruits were inside plastic bags tied to the branch the fruits were hanging from, this was to stop the fruits falling off the branch in transit.
In the markets it's not a good time to be a chicken! and I have spotted some small turtles, big baskets full of frogs and the usual assortment of fish - big fish, still alive in small basins, cuttlefish, squid, eels, prawns etc.
For the last few days I have been woken up to the sound of cockerels crowing. No I am not dreaming, I am still in Hanoi and still in the crowded Old Quarter.
I have two theories -
1. The city has become so quiet that I can hear the cockerels whereas before they were drowned out by the rest of the noise.
2. They are for dinner on Tet.
I'll let you know what wakens me up on the 26th !
Some hens are kept in the city, usually in baskets or cages and you notice them occasionally, sometimes on the street, sometimes on balconies. There is a street just off the square at Hoan Kiem Lake i.e. it's the city centre, it's a very busy street and because of the motorcycles parked on the pavements, you end up having to walk on the roadway for a lot of the time. So you are constantly watching out for the kamikaze traffic; avoiding tripping over the stools at food stalls - also on the pavement; saying no thank you (politely!) to offers from cyclo, motorbike and taxi drivers; and then there are these 2 or 3 chickens wandering about outside a particular shop. I don't know how often I have almost fallen over them, inadvertently played football with them etc. but they are an extra hazard on this road. They seem to be so used to humans that they don't react as you expect. There is an electricity pole close by, made from concrete and an open lattice type design - like steps, and the chickens use these steps to rest on when not wandering about.
The military have cordoned off two sections at the southern end of the lake and surrounded it with razor wire and posted guards. There were racks of metal tubes lying on the ground and then it clicked - this was for the firework display on Sunday night, well I hope so.
It's so quiet, no sound of anything, not even a cockerel ! What's that cooking smell?
I went out for a walk around the lake, more for curiosity than anything else but also for my croissants. It was like being in central Glasgow at 9am on a Sunday morning - very few people and only a few cars, it was so strange - here it is usually busy 7 days a week, one day is as busy as the next - it was so eerie.
No croissants ! - civilisation is at an end !
Last night we went out a few times in the evening to see what was going on in the run up to midnight. There were several stages set up around the lake and various performers were doing their stuff - some singing, some dancing, some acrobatics, some animal acts - monkeys, snakes, dogs...
The sky was full of floating lanterns again, drifting away up into the sky in the light wind.
At about 11:30pm we went back out again and back to the lake. On the way we saw the small temples, that are usually inside houses, shops, hotels, etc., had been brought outside and had an assortment of offerings on them. One common one was of a whole plucked chicken - feet, head etc. still in place and with a flower in it's beak. There was also a lot of alcohol as an offering!
At the lake it was crowded and, somewhat thankfully, we weren't in the front few rows - a little push from the back and it would have swim time and I didn't have my costume with me !
Midnight, 'Mung Dang, Mung Xuan', the sky lit up as the fireworks started. It was a lovely setting with the illuminated temple on an island to the left and the 'Turtle Tower' on an island to the south. There were at least two fireworks that I hadn't seen before and it was the one that exploded into a heart shape high in the sky that I liked best.
The fireworks ended and the crowd moved, fortunately it moved where we wanted to go to, we gently moved to the right and caught the next flow and so on until we got to the street we wanted and we gently and slowly flowed back to the hotel.
Earlier we had seen whole sugar canes for sale, 2.5 - 3 metres long with roots and leaves. On the way back from the lake these sugar canes were walking alongside us.
There was a lot of burning of offerings going on beside the small temples we had seen earlier - there is a lot of tradition here, religious and family.
Back at the hotel, we had a New Year drink with two of the staff that were on duty and we were told about the sugar cane - a sign of Spring with the leaves indicating growth.
Something that we both noticed, so little alcohol is drunk on the streets - in bars, restaurants, street food stalls; yes, but few people are seen with cans or bottles on the streets that you actually notice those that are drinking; I don't think it's illegal to drink on the streets but then again... Also you very rarely see any Vietnamese drunk but apparently there is a serious alcohol problem in Vietnam.
My last full day in Hanoi !
My bags are almost packed, thankfully 1 bag is already in Saigon to be collected before I fly out of there on the 17h March but that still means too many kilos to be carried around Vietnam in the next 4 weeks.
It's now 3 weeks since TET and everything is now back to what is normal for Hanoi. It took much longer than I thought it would, the first 2 weeks after TET were quite quiet but last week it was back to business as usual.
At TET it was cold, about 10ºC during the day, and had been for several weeks so I guess that was Winter. Now 3 weeks later and we are cooking again +30ºC and it's sweltering hot, last week it was back into shorts, T shirt, sandals and the sun tan cream. Dare I guess that Spring has arrived?
Autumn never materialised until last week when the trees started to shed their leaves and in places it's like confetti falling from the sky. Around the lake some of the leaves on the trees have taken on Autumn colours and it is quite beautiful. Confusingly some of these same trees have new leaf growth already, the outside cherry trees are starting to blossom and today I spotted, in a tree lined street, what I was told was an Apricot tree, it had beautiful yellow flowers.
Last night at dusk I spent more time than usual at Hoan Kiem Lake, small bats were swooping about all around the lake. I was back there again just after dawn this morning and they were either still out partying from last night or they were early risers! But as the sun rose higher into the sky they 'disappeared'.
There have been a couple of Kingfishers also at the lake, ignoring the No Fishing signs !
Last time at our favourite restaurants, last time walking our favourite walks, last time this, last time that - still time for a favourite ice cream tomorrow though !!
I don't suppose there are so many cities in the world quite like Hanoi - wonderful, chaotic, historic, maddening, polluted, congested, beautiful, great food, lovely people (mostly) - I'll miss the place.
Tomorrow night I'm on the overnight train back to Hue and back on the road again for the next 4 weeks, in Vietnam anyway.
Last day in Hanoi, so sad; last Highlands coffee, last Fanny's ice cream - well maybe one from their Saigon shop, last walk around the lake.
Said our goodbye's to the hotel staff, into a taxi with the piles of luggage and off to Hanoi station and the overnight train to Hue.
At 7pm the train slowly left an already dark Hanoi, past the queues of motorcycles lined up en-mass at the numerous road-rail crossing points, past the houses, shops and restaurants that stood within touching distance of the passing train, past some familiar places - Lenin Park, the bus station where buses had taken us to Ninh Binh,.....
It has been more complicated than usual to get train times, ticket prices, availability etc. because of TET. The schedules and prices changed, the website came up with a 404 message - page not found, and the only place to get information was by going to the station. So a week or so ago I went to the station to get sleeper tickets and was confronted by huge queues - I took my 'queue ticket' and was about to sit down for a long wait when I had an idea. In Vietnam private companies attach their own carriages to scheduled trains and one of their offices was close by, so with time to kill and curious about their prices I paid a visit to their customer-less office. These carriages are usually up market and therefore more expensive but my luck was in, they had reduced their prices to the same as Vietnam Railway's prices - better sleeping at the same price ! I was popular that night !
Hue, 18th February
The air conditioning in the private carriage (Livitrans Company) was as vicious as previously experienced in the Vietnam Railways coaches. What is it with the Vietnamese wanting to experience life in a fridge, go to Scotland in Winter if you want to experience this. A/c apart it was a comfortable night and we awoke to an already different countryside to that around Hanoi. Around Hanoi they were just starting to plant out the rice seedlings in the paddy fields, here the fields were already bright vibrant green with well established growth.
The train arrived early into Hue and our complimentary hotel transfer was not yet there, a quick phone call, some unwarranted apologies and our car arrived. I was recognised ! It was the same at the hotel, the receptionist and the owner both recognised me and warmly greeted me.
During the two days we spent here I revisited the Citadel and the Purple Forbidden City, and took a taxi to visit 3 of the Emperor's Tombs - more expensive yes but it allowed us to visit different Tombs and to take as much time as we liked unlike the organised tours which I had previously experienced - 30 mins here, 45 mins there etc. This visit to the Tombs was in sunshine unlike my last visit when it never stopped raining / drizzling.
Hoi An, 20th February
We went to a new hotel which I remembered had special room rates, we got a big double room for $18 and it had a lovely swimming pool to cool off in and it was needed.
I went back to the Laugh Cafe and got instantly recognised and warmly greeted, they were so nice; once again great food and so cheap.
It was such a good feeling being back in Hoi An, wandering about the old streets down by the river. Hoi An was so quiet and peaceful after the day trippers left, it was so nice.
The next day we took the public ferry to 'Woodcarver's Island' - we got charged double the fare compared to the locals but arguing was pointless, it was cheap enough anyway. The island was lovely, wandering about along paths between paddy fields, through hamlets, children shouting Hello, where you from?, what's your name? We even got a gift of a watermelon from a young woman tending a field of them, she didn't speak any English but just handed it over with a big smile, so kind.
We had breakfast one morning in the courtyard of an art / sculpture shop, I wish I had enough money to buy some of the sculptures, they were wonderful. There was also an art gallery close by that had a seriously tempting painting of Hoi An at sunset, but sadly I had to resist. If I ever win the lottery you will know where to find me !
My Lai, 24th February
I hope the name My Lai needs no explanation. It's almost 41 years ago - 16th March 1968, since the massacre took place but standing at the edge of the paddy fields with bright green rice plants waving about in the wind it is so hard to comprehend what happened here. It is now so blissfully quiet but the memorial museum and gardens are a stark reminder of that day. There are memorials in the nearby lanes with plaques on them telling you how many people died at that spot, it is harrowing.
504 Vietnamese died, only a few survived.
A few kilometres to the east there is a long wide beach which, with a good clean up, could be one of the best beaches in Vietnam. We walked to the end of it and reached a natural harbour full of fishing boats, along the way coracle type fishing boats were being launched from the beach.
At night the bay had what looked like a string of pearls strung across it - it was the lights of the fishing boats and they stretched for as far as the eye could see.
On the road running part of the way alongside the beach there was one restaurant after another, they were almost completely empty. We had a wonderful dinner at #56, on the edge of the beach and it was so cheap and the owner so friendly; afterwards I got introduced to her whole extended family - mother, father, grand mother, grand father etc.
Nha Trang - Ho Tam Eco Resort, 26th February 2009
We had a nice drive from My Lai with wonderful coastline for roughly the last 100 kms to Nha Trang, with isolated beaches, small fishing towns etc. Potentially great beach walking but they will have to wait for another visit.
We stopped for a short while in Quy Nhon and saw the Cham Towers there, they were quite stunning, we also stopped off briefly at the town beach, it looked good with lots of fishing boats in the harbour. There were very few tourists visible here.
9 days into the trip it was time for a bit of luxury and indulgence so we pre-booked 2 nights on an island resort.
In Nha Trang there were a few problems locating the pier for the ferry to Ho Tam island but we got there eventually. The resort is upmarket and the mainland reception had an area to wait in for the speedboat with lots of personal attention, the personal attention was the same at the other end, .. Sir,... Sir...
Nice speedboat trip ~ 15 mins to the island past island fishing towns, floating villages etc.
The resort - 4* @ $99 Intro / Opening Offer inc buffet breakfast, in other words we were guinea pigs for staff training, ironing out problems and faults prior to the official opening in April. We got a wonderful room on the hillside overlooking the resort, it had a huge bed that nearly filled the room and the view from it, through the huge glass windows, was to the gardens outside and to the sea beyond. It had a wonderful part open roof bathroom, you could look at the stars as you showered, bathed, shaved.... but a sign of the corporate times - a telephone capable of conference calls next to the toilet. I guess if your company / net worth is hurtling towards negativity then sitting on the toilet may well be appropriate as you talk to your financial adviser !
The swimming pool was stunning, not only it's size, location and surrounding gardens but it was lined with black slate which gave it such an exotic look.
It is described as an eco resort but sadly I saw no evidence of the eco. There was no sign of solar heating, solar electricity panels, waste water treatment etc. but this is phase 1 of the development, maybe the eco comes with later phases and phase 1 gets hooked up then - I do hope so.
Two days of being a guinea pig was not enough, I could get used to this standard of life but not the constant ... Sir, ... Sir
Nha Trang, 28th February 2009
Back to reality and an afternoon and night in Nha Trang.
This is a tourist and party town and the guide books say it all; bars, restaurants, beaches, proximity to Saigon etc. and it was. Our hotel room was on the 7th floor, the disco was on the ground floor but you wouldn't have known it ! I was never a great fan of techno music.
We did a whistle-stop tour of the cathedral, pagoda and onto the Cham Towers.
A suggestion for sunset drinks on the rooftop of one of the hotels, even better it was a 2 for 1 Happy Hour, 1 beer and 1 cocktail turned into 2 beers and 2 cocktails, definitely Happy Hour. The sunset and dusk views from the rooftop bar were great.
We booked the next step of our trip, an Open Tour bus to Da Lat, 240,000 dong for 07:30 tomorrow.
Da Lat, 1st March 2009
The bus to Da Lat didn't pick us up until after 8:30am, there were only a handful of people on a big bus that had seen better days. There were 2 drivers, one seemed to be a trainee who drove the coast road section and then the older driver took over for the mountain climb up to Da Lat. We drove on a new dual carriageway along the coast with some nice views along the peninsula. There was lots of areas zoned for new developments amongst the sand dunes, what will this are be like in a few years time. The dual carriageway stopped at the new airport and turned into a wide, single track road that crossed back onto the 'mainland' through an unmanned military security gate - an old military zone? and onto Highway 1.
At Phan Rang the bus turned inland and then the horn failed which resulted in the 2nd driver standing at the open door shouting warnings to motorcyclists to get out of the way. The motorcyclists were startled because they are used to horns but not shouted warnings. To a Vietnamese no horn is the equivalent of castration, the horn is used incessantly whether required or not.
The road ran along a plain for many kilometres with occasional glimpses of the now abandoned railway to Da Lat before starting to zig zag up the mountains to the plateau on top. On the plateau it was market garden after market garden with all kinds of vegetables being grown. The road continued to climb gently except for the last few kilometres into Da Lat which was again quite steep.
Da Lat - In the sunshine it has the feel of a north European town in the Autumn, I can't describe why, it just had that feel. The climate is a big contrast to the coast which is why the French developed it and it became decidedly chilly after sunset - is this what I will experience in 2 weeks time?
The guide books describe the town as Vietnam's Disneyland, well not quite the Disneyland that I am aware of but in my opinion Da Lat is now grossly over rated, the descriptions of the place may have been relevant 20-30 years ago but not now. There were a few interesting sights but really it wasn't worth the effort and cost of coming here. Even the hills with hiking paths to the summit now have roads going to the summit - what's the point ! It is certainly a useful jumping off point for the rest of the Central Highlands but not for much else.
Day 1 - we took the train on a restored section of track to the next village and visited the pagoda there.
- walked to a hotel garden which was quite nice and much better than the botanic gardens visited later.
- to the palace of the last emperor which was a very austerely furnished Art Deco building in some woodland.
- walked to the Crazy House, hints of a Gaudi imitation but a very poor one.
- to the market, and we had what we called a 'Da Lat' burger consisting of some kind of bread filled with sticky rice, bean paste and various sauces, no idea what it was but it was delicious; then onto to the flower market which had some beautiful orchids that I had never seen before.
Day 2 - Walked to the Botanic Gardens - it was not worth the effort, it was more like a garden centre selling plants and garden ornaments.
- Dinner at the Peace Cafe (backpacker hotel) and had our best meal in Da Lat, we met a Czech green keeper who travelled in the Czech winter months when there was no work and an Irish couple who were headed into the Central Highlands and onto Hoi An with the Easy Rider bikers.
Day 3 - early start to Mui Ne using Sinh Cafe bus.
Mui Ne, 4th March 2009
At the Sinh Cafe there were 6 passengers going to Mui Ne so the big bus changed to a mini bus then changed to big taxi which meant we could take another route and get to Mui Ne 1 hour earlier.
We started on the main road and just after the airport (30Km south of Da Lat) we turned off onto side roads which were often badly rutted and potholed meaning an often bumpy ride but what scenery and views. The scenery was wonderful as we dropped from the plateau back onto the coastal plain. We drove through coffee plantations with the plants in flower, we could smell blossom (or was it Latte) but we couldn't be sure that it was the coffee plants. As we went downhill the temperature went up noticeably - wonderful, heat again !
About 50 kms from Mui Ne the landscape turned red, red sand everywhere that duly turned into sand dunes. In the distance the sand dunes were yellow - white and alongside the road there was a narrow long lake edged with water lilies in flower. Then the coast, fishing villages, boats, what beaches, tropical foliage - picture postcard Tropics !
We managed to get a great deal at a nearby hotel with bungalows at $20 (Golden Hoang Kim). The bungalows were set in a nice but small garden with a swimming pool, there were steps down to the sea but there was no beach except at low tide and then only a few metres worth. There was no beach at our hotel because of obvious coastal erosion, and there were concrete protective sea walls for many km's to the south. The southern beaches were taken over by kite surfing and the southern area was obviously a Russian tourist destination - Russian signs were everywhere.
The next afternoon we took the tour to the red canyon and the sand dunes [see the photos for what can't be described]. We walked with a bit of difficulty on the soft sand to the top of the nearest dunes, it was a great experience with desert like views into the surrounding dunes and with the late afternoon sunshine it was quite spectacular. Some enterprising local kids were hiring out squares of plastic to use as sledges to slide down the faces of the dunes. In the lakes below there were some water lilies in flower.
Dinner tonight wasn't as good as last night's, Barbara's squid was the Grand Mother's Grand Mother - i.e. tough !
The next morning we walked on the beach to the North; there were small fishing boats pulled up onto the beach and some moored just off the shore; Barbara picked up a lovely big shell only to find it occupied by a crab and there were ducks on the beach one of which was having a fresh water bath in a stream running into the sea.
A few days later I heard about a bus travelling from Da Lat to Mui Ne containing Russian tourists that had crashed with some fatalities on a 'back road' that was unsuitable for through traffic - I suspect it was the road we had travelled on.
Saigon, 6th March 2009
Mui Ne to Saigon, we took the 1pm Sinh Cafe bus to Saigon and on the way we saw the remainder of the southern section of Mui Ne, it had more shops and restaurants but not much more beach than we had already seen. Sadly Mui Ne appears to have lost the beaches that the guide books rave about. There was fewer paddy fields as we headed south but they were replaced by numerous Dragon fruit plantations some of them with fruit, I was surprised to learn earlier that it was a type of cactus that produced this fruit. We travelled to within 60kms of Saigon before stopping at a modern service station, the last section took 2 hours because of the volume of traffic - it was slow and tedious ! We arrived in Saigon after dark and straight into hassle with touts.
That night we went out to Fanny's Ice Cream for their 1st Friday in the month's special - 75,000 dong for all you can eat ice cream buffet, it was absolutely mobbed, and we were told to come back +9pm. We did but it wasn't much better so sadly we had to abandon our ice cream dinner and settle for noodles instead.
Saigon, 7th March 2009
We left Saigon for our organised Mekong Tour at 07:45, we picked up a few others enroute before heading out of Saigon with an excellent guide giving us some great snippets of information on all sorts of aspects of life in Vietnam, some political ! We boarded a beautifully finished small sampan with young staff dressed in black 'judo style' clothes, they were quite elegant and they took us on a tour through the remnants of a floating market that was now almost finished for the day, then onto some smaller canals stopping off to visit small businesses producing rice paper, popped rice, rice candy, bricks and palm tree fronds made into roof panels. The bricks are produced from the river clay, formed and dried in the sun before being put in a kiln and fired for a month using rice husks as fuel. The remnants of the burned husks are sold back to the farmers as fertiliser. Nothing from rice is wasted.
During our road journey to the Mekong our guide offered us the chance of staying at a homestay tonight and he would make the arrangements if we were interested. The deal was that we would get picked up after lunch and taken on a 1½ - 2 hour boat journey to the homestay, overnight accommodation, dinner and breakfast for $45 for two. Not much discussion was required so it got arranged. After lunch, at about 3:30pm, we left the others and went back to the river with our luggage to await our boat pick-up supposedly 5 mins later = 30 mins Vietnamese time! The boat duly arrived and Phu introduced himself as tour guide and owner of the company, apologising for the late arrival blaming it on a police inspection of the boats on the way here. We went back along some now familiar canals and then crossed the Upper Mekong river dodging the bunches of water hyacinths as we went, I would guess the Mekong was at least 2km wide here, and then we entered a French dug canal that had widened due to erosion.
We passed many little villages, canals going off on either side, small businesses - many associated with rice, little ferries crossing where there were no bridges - life on the Mekong. About 1½ hours after we had started we arrived at An Long island opposite Vinh Long and walked the short distance to the homestay.
The homestay was clean with dormitory style accommodation, several showers and toilets - very good facilities. We were introduced to what turned out to be Pho's family - his wife and daughter, his wife's parents, his wife's sisters and brother and corresponding children. Dinner was arranged for 7:30pm and in the meantime Barbara had a dip in the narrow canal adjoining the house, it was high tide so there was plenty of water, at low tide there is very little water, just a a shallow strip of water with lots of mud on either side. We got a demonstration on how to make the local variation of Spring Rolls - it was heavier rice paper than elsewhere and different ingredients.
A Czech guy - Peter, 1.9m tall, was also staying and we invited him to join our table (there was only 3 guests in total that night) and we got lots of stories about his travels so far through Thailand, Cambodia and now Vietnam and next Laos and all on a shoestring budget.
Dinner was at least 7 really filling, delicious courses; we were so full that we begging no more! Tofu and tomato filled pancakes were the best, so good.
The mozzies were vicious, I had on insect repellent - they bit, I put on socks - they bit through that, I had to put on my boots for protection, I was scarred for days.
An Long, 8th March 2009
Before bed last night it was agreed (!) that we would go out for a bicycle tour before breakfast, that was assuming we could move after last night's feast !
At 7am the group set off but the narrow lanes defeated me as I had to keep stopping to let oncoming motorcycles and other cycles past, there was just not enough space for me to pass without colliding with someone, my extremely infrequent cycling sessions and thus skill was blatantly apparent. At my request, the others continued on their tour and I continued on my own and at my own pace which was much better for all concerned; we met back at the homestay about 1 hour later. We were served a big breakfast, we all struggled with it because we were still so full after last night's dinner but we managed. After a brief planning - going through the permutations session for the coming week, we decided to stay here for another day, it would have been crazy not to stay and enjoy and appreciate this environment.
Phu drew us a rough map to get us to the Bonsai Gardens and it was onto the bicycles again and a stop - start journey through some lovely countryside with orchards everywhere - Longans being the fruit in season and being harvested just now. There were also lots of capoc trees, many with 'fruits' that had burst exposing the white fluff-cotton ball inside. We crossed big canals, small canals and ditches; all were in some way associated with the Mekong either for transport or irrigation or both; so much is grown here and all so dependent on the river. Without too much trouble - navigation and cycling, we found the Bonsai Gardens. The bonsais were mainly Jasmine trees that were in flower and all around were orchids and other plants and flowers, it was quite beautiful. The adjoining restaurants were very quiet, the day visitors hadn't turned up and we learned later that it was low tide and the river level was too low to allow the tourists boats to dock near the restaurants here.
For the return journey a challenge was set, find the north side of An Long island, the challenge - we had no map and there were no direction signs on the few roads and paths. We returned part of the way, crossed the big canal again and back onto An Long island. At the first big intersection - a metre wide concreted path, we decided to try our luck and headed off roughly northwards and all the time unwinding a big ball of string in my head in case we had to re-trace our path.
Now males are useless at multi tasking, so cycling, logging our route, talking/discussing, looking at the scenery, responding to all the kids shouting Hello, where you from.. was just a bit too much to simultaneously process but I managed, I didn't fall of the bicycle once, nearly did but didn't succeed. We chose to stay on what we perceived as the main route albeit it was sometimes difficult to figure out which it was; 1 metre wide concrete vs a dirt track was no contest, 1 metre wide concrete vs 90cm wide concrete was more challenging and when 1 metre wide concrete changed to dirt track ....... However, we were cycling in a wonderful environment, it was beautiful, it was quiet (except for the occasional motorcycle) and when we met anyone, especially children, they were so friendly. We crossed numerous little bridges, passed orchards, wound our way sometimes north but mostly not and we had no real clue where we were.
By mid afternoon, with no sign of the North coast, we started back along the route we had come. We stopped at a church where a group of teenagers had gathered outside and asked for directions to the Vinh Long ferry - we knew where that was and hoped the youngsters would understand enough to give us directions. The first didn't understand so he asked his friend, within moments the 'ask a friend' resulted in Barbara being surrounded and disappearing into the middle of the group. She was 'rescued' by someone coming out of the church to see what the commotion was about and he spoke enough English to give us directions - continue on this road for 1 Km and you will come to the main road, turn right and follow that to the ferry. 1km passed, no main road, 2km, 3km and then finally the 'main road' which we recognised.
At the junction we saw a sign for a homestay, Barbara's curiosity meant she walked back to have a look; she was away for ages and then she reappeared with 2 beers and some bananas, given as gifts - she had met the owner and they had talked for a while (swapping life stories !), the owner had given her the gifts, so kind.
We passed a house which had baskets of rambutans for sale, we stopped and an old couple came out. How much we gestured? the old man raised 6 fingers, the old lady 5 fingers - which was it? and was it 6,000 or 60,000 dong? Another old man arrived and joined in, lots of laughing, smiles and confusion. We offered a 10,000 dong note (£0.40) to see what we would get, we got 1½ kilos of delicious and fresh rambutans. We crossed the road and sat under a tree to eat a few, on seeing this the 1st old man brought us stools, then glasses of water then with long cutters he cut down a bunch of Longans from the tree above us, about a kilo of Longans were stuffed into our bag. When we eventually left there were smiles and waves all round, they were so lovely, so kind.
By the time we got back to our homestay it was nearing sunset and we attempted to get somewhere to see it but failed, but we did get to explore a few more lanes. Just as we got back there was a collision between two motorcycles outside the homestay, one cycle ended up down an embankment. Later, while having dinner, I heard a motorcycle pass then a loud splash then silence. A motorcycle had ran off the road into the Mekong, well a small channel of it anyway. Phu rushed out bringing torches, we could see two dripping wet people silently dragging a motorcycle up the embankment. Silence = embarrassment.
Dinner tonight, we begged, pleaded for fewer courses - Phu's wife, sisters-in-law and mother-in-law ignored our pleas and tortured us again with another 7 courses of wonderful food.
For anyone curious or planning a Mekong visit please consider the homestay we stayed at -
Nam Thanh Homestay - www.vinhlong-tourist.com
An Long - Rach Gia, 9th March 2009
We got up early, finished packing our bags, had another big breakfast, sadly said our goodbyes to Phu's extended family and walked to the ferry (to Vinh Long) hoping to catch the one at 7:15. It was so busy, both ways, that we had to wait for the next one but we were first in line amongst all the commuters for that one. It was a short crossing and once at the other end Phu organised Peter's onward bus journey to Saigon and motorcycle taxis for us. After a few minutes to get organised with crash helmets and with rucksacks on our backs, we took off through the streets of Vinh Long to the pick up point for the through bus from Tra Vinh to Rach Gia. The pick up point wasn't in or near the bus station but at a small cafe.
The bus arrived at about 8:10 and after a short break for the driver it left. The fare Phu had quoted, 60,000 was now 75,000 but what can you do when you can't speak Vietnamese, I suppose we did have two big rucksacks and two backpacks. It was a big old bus with not many passengers and some freight - a big sack of pomelos and some big plastic carrier bags containing live hens, I wonder what fare the hens paid !. So it was a 3 hour bumpy ride because of non existent suspension, and with hens clucking!
It was quite a new, wide road to the busy ferry port of Cai Von so the journey was quite quick. In stark contrast to the agricultural Mekong, there were lots of factories on this road. I was surprised at the number of ferries at this crossing but it did mean we didn't have long to wait before crossing the Lower Mekong channel; it was much narrower than the Upper Mekong channel. The Upper Mekong is already bridged with a huge, recently completed, suspension bridge and on the Lower Mekong a similar suspension bridge is being built and can be easily seen in the distance. The roads leading from Saigon to the bridges are or have been upgraded to dual carriageway but to the south of the Lower Mekong bridge no such work is evident, so all this traffic suddenly coming off the bridge will be confronted with narrow, congested roads but I guess eventually this will make the Mekong much more accessible - for better or for worse.
The ferry from Cai Von crosses to Can Tho where we plan to stop off at on our way back to Saigon, Can Tho is apparently close to some of the best floating markets on the Mekong. The bus travelled on a narrowing but okay road towards Thoi Not before turning south onto a nearly straight road that ran parallel with a canal for almost 65km. This road was lined on both sides with an almost complete single column of houses, shops, work places etc. for the entire distance, behind this there were occasional glimpses of huge paddy fields. On every conceivable space, including at the edge of the road, in cemeteries etc, were big plastic sheets on the ground with a layer of golden coloured rice drying in the sun. Periodically there were loading stations where sacks of rice had been brought and were being loaded onto barges and ships for onward transportation.
At Rach Soi the bus terminated, the destination board said Rach Gia, but this bus was terminating at Rach Soi !
Two confused foreigners were the last to get off, trying to get a response from the driver was useless, he was just not interested. The usual swarm of touts descended like mosquitoes and were just as irritating, we got the usual there are no buses routine, you have to take moto (cycle) 15,000 each or taxi (unmarked, therefore un-metered, therefore mega dong). There was no obvious buses to Rach Gia in the bus station so we, and our entourage, went out onto the street where there were local bus signs but no buses waiting.
We knew we were about 7km from Rach Gia so a metered taxi was an option but there were none about. Then a bus came, it was like insect repellent, the touts almost totally disappeared. Rach Gia was listed on its route sign, but the driver helpfully pointed to the other side of the road / other direction, we were on the wrong side of the road but we were getting somewhere. Some touts re-appeared to help us with our luggage to the bus stop on the other side of a road, NO THANKS. Just then our bus arrived, the #1 to Rach Gia, fare 4,000 dong each !
In Rach Gia we headed straight for a Lonely Planet recommended hotel near the ferry port, it was basic but clean.
Using our guide book we managed to visit a temple and part of the central market before a thunderstorm dumped a large quantity of water on the city. When it cleared the humidity went up and tiny flies appeared from nowhere and were everywhere. This is not a tourist town, it is a working port for ferries and fishing, and a regional town with lots of shops and markets. We walked to a modern lighthouse and on the way we passed some new, architecturally quite stylish, housing. Close by was a recently opened bar - restaurant complex built out onto the sea where we stopped to have a sunset drink, except there was no sunset because of the clouds but we had a drink anyway.
Rach Gia - Phu Quoc, 10th March 2009
We were at the port as instructed for 7:30, departure was 08:10. The boat interior was like that of an aircraft, all enclosed, with the same style of seating and it was full.
The journey took just over 2½ hours passing numerous islands - big and some so tiny, there was one tiny island with a fishing boat moored beside it and it looked like the island was a mooring buoy, it looked surreal.
At Phu Quoc the ferry was met by the usual assortment of 'transport options' ! We knew in advance that there was no public transport from the ferry and it was a straight choice of a metered taxi or negotiate with 'private' transport. Desperate to avoid 'losing' us to a taxi we were finally offered $3 each into town as long as we didn't tell the other passengers in the minibus who had paid $5 each. He wouldn't agree a fare to the north of the island where the hotel we had booked was located. After a few kilometres he pulled into a petrol / gasoline station for fuel, it was quite modern, big canopy, the usual fuel pumps etc. but the fuel pumps weren't working. There were two huge drums on the forecourt with a hand pump attached and the fuel was being pumped into small plastic bottles, approx. 1 litre size, and then carried to the minibus where they were emptied into the tank, 20 bottles later...
About 15Km later we arrived in the main town - Dong Dong but it was difficult to figure out where the centre was because we had crossed several bridges and headed in different directions etc. Eventually we reached the coast and realised we were now heading south and we wanted to go north but we were already out of town. However I thought there wouldn't be a problem going back into town or that we had come through the suburbs and hadn't been into the town yet, anyway we wanted to see what the hotels on Long Beach were like as they were apparently cheaper and we also wanted to see what Long Beach itself was like. Nothing great by the look of things as far as the cheaper hotels were concerned, there was some more upmarket hotels but there was so much construction going on around them.
We tried, along with another couple, to negotiate a fare to our hotel which we figured was a max of 15kms. The 3 men - driver + 2 'friends', wouldn't negotiate and wanted more than we calculated a taxi would charge. So we asked to be dropped off in the town which they eventually did, not particularly happily but they hadn't yet been paid so they didn't have any option. A few minutes later a taxi appeared and the four of us got in and headed north, at first on tarmac but at the end of the airport runway we turned off onto a wide, red, dusty, dirt track - just like those in the Australian outback. About 8-9km later we turned off and drove along narrower and narrower roads through tropical foliage, past farms, pepper plantations - with pepper corns drying on sheets, until we arrived at our hotel.
The hotel was in a lovely location, a big open sided restaurant / reception looking over the gardens and onto the sea with bungalows on stilts on either side of it. The entire complex was a bit dilapidated but it had a rustic charm about it, the room we got was nice but basic and for €14 was ok. Onto the beach, to the south it was rocky but to the north it was sandy beach for km's and the water was the best yet, tropical blue and warm. That afternoon we headed north and walked for 1½ hours along this wonderful beach until we reached a river estuary which we couldn't cross. There was a 'fishing port' behind the last section of the beach and the boats used the estuary to go to sea.
On the way back we came across some fishermen who were winding their net out of the sea onto the beach, they had previously tethered one end on the beach and used a boat to drag the other end out to sea and loop back to the start point catching some fish in the process but really not so many - was it worth all the effort? I guess so.
The sun set directly in front of the beach, it was beautiful. Dinner on the verandah was delicious and the setting wonderful!
Phu Quoc, 11th March 2009
In the afternoon we walked part of of the Long Beach again before returning to the hotel for sunset and sunset drinks - a whole fresh coconut, still full of milk, with a rum shot in it and a beer. It was a lovely sunset on the pier followed by a full moon. After dinner we went down to the pier again in the moonlight, we had moonlight shadows - wonderfully romantic !
The next morning I woke up about 6am, noticed through the palm trees that the moon was casting a strip of red light onto the sea - just like a sunset. I went down to the beach and saw the remnants before the sun rose and it faded away - it was a beautiful sight.
We had breakfast and got picked up about 8am for our boat and snorkelling trip. We were driven back to the town, along Long Beach to the most southern port - the old ferry terminal and still a fishing port. The drive from the town was almost continuous palm fringed beach, the beach was quite narrow and quite un-developed. We boarded what appeared to be an old fishing boat now used for these tourist trips and headed for the offshore islands to the south. The snorkeling on 2 of the 3 sites was wonderful - made me want to go scuba diving again soon, lovely corals but not so many fish and just as my hopes faded to find some of my favorite clown fish I did so along with spaghetti coral. The second snorkelling site was all sand but it did have a wonderful small beach with a beach hut - Robinson Crusoe stuff, but it got so crowded with other tourist boats and there was so much rubbish on the beaches.
Can Tho, 14th March 2009
After breakfast we checked the Tourist Office for the official rate for a boat trip to the floating markets - 330,000 dong each for 3-4 hours. We had barely stepped away from the desk when we got approached by lady selling her sister !, well actually her sister had a boat and she would take us on a tour of the floating markets. Our deal - we would get a 5-6 hour private tour to the two main floating markets in the area, we would be taken on the narrow canals for some of the journey and it was 250,000 dong for the two of us. We booked it for tomorrow morning, 5:30am start, $1 deposit. We got her mobile phone number and while she wrote out a receipt I called it, it rang, she answered and talked while I stood beside her without her realising what was going on, everyone around was laughing.
Can Tho, 15th March 2009
5am the alarm clock went off, it was still dark, on went the lights, I filled the kettle for a coffee, switched it on and off went the lights. The hotel was in darkness, was it me, was it coincidence? Out with the torches, dressed, packed our day bag and slunk down the stairs past the maintenance guy scratching his head beside the electricity box and standby generator which wasn't working.
5:30am we were at the designated pick up point at the river, it was still dark. A shout from a boat, we peered into the darkness and were about to climb aboard the boat when there was a shout from another boat with that person gesturing us to go to her. Even at this time of the morning there were touts about and we almost got caught out ! Which boat, where was our booking agent? A few minutes later she turned up and directed us into the second boat, the river level was high and we stepped almost level onto the boat, it was small, it would have just managed 4 passengers and no more but fortunately we were only two. And off we went along the edge of a wide and busy channel, still in darkness but daylight came quite quickly.
The first market was at Cai Rang and the boats were bigger than I had expected, it seemed to be more of a traders - wholesale market and more vegetables than fruit. We bought a coffee from a coffee boat, the lady was dressed in pink and was quite distinctive leading to plenty of customers ! The coffee was good and also cheap - 5000 dong. Whatever a boat sold was advertised on a pole sticking up from the boat, so there were poles with cabbage, turnip, some with several items. There was a boat, amazingly, full of garlic but typically they were full of potatoes, carrots, cabbage etc.
A few kilometres further we turned off the main channel and went ashore to visit another rice paper making factory, this wasn't just for the tourists, this was small scale production using traditional methods. However, the pigs in nearby stalls proved more interesting to some of the other visitors !
We continued onto the next market and on the way we were passed by one of the fast express passenger boats going to another town on the delta, the speed of these boats caused a big wake and this rocked the boats quite severely if they weren't steered into the wake. I would be surprised if there hasn't already been a capsizing or swamping of boats because of this.
The next market at Phong Dien was much nicer, the boats were generally smaller and some even the same size as ours. Our boatwoman treated us to pineapple, mango and some kind of seed pod with brown sticky juice on it - we didn't know what it was.
Our trip back took us along some very narrow canals with lovely vegetation, some lovely houses, and all the time watching Mekong life go by from the comfort of a boat. It was a wonderful trip, a wonderful experience.
The days and hours are quickly passing, we booked our bus tickets to Saigon for tomorrow, it's becoming all very sad, the end is nigh!
Can Tho - Saigon, 16th March 2009
The shuttle taxi picked us up at 8:30am and took us to the bus station - the one that was supposed to be closed ! where we transferred onto a minibus for Saigon. The journey took from 9am until 1pm with a ½ hr stop. Just after Vinh Long we crossed the big new suspension bridge which gave us a great view of the delta below.
At the hotel we dumped our bags and went out. Surprise, surprise to Fanny's for ice cream where we ordered their 10 portion special. The menu states that this is a dish for 3 people, but as the waitress said, if you like ice cream then it's ok for 2. We went through the menu card of flavours plus all the new 'experimental / special' flavours and chose our 7-8 favourites from 6 months of experimenting in Hanoi and decided to try the chocolate and chilli and another new one who's name I have now forgotten. It got served on a big plate, it turned heads at neighbouring tables, an extermely thin lady at the next table stared unbelievably but who cares, we enjoyed and it was delicious. Seconds, we didn't dare but it was considered !
SaiGon, 17th March 2009
Our last day in Vietnam, really sad.
We re-visited the historic main Post Office again where the maps painted on the walls of Vietnam in the 1800's took on a new significance - we now had been to some of these places and had lots of wonderful memories.
Will we have a last coffee in Highlands Coffee - a coffee Legoise (a mocha ice cream with a shot of espresso poured on top and topped off with whipped cream)? no. We stopped at The Hotel Continental, it featured in the movies The Quiet American and Indochine but the chairs and tables no longer sit out overlooking the Opera House so we had to make do with a coffee on a side terrace.
Lots of sadness, some tears as the reality of leaving Vietnam sinks in.
Taxi to the airport, it was rush hour and the the 8km's or so to the airport took about 45minutes. Once again the taxi driver tried to charge more than was on the meter, this time something to do with a fee. For that, he got the meter fare and nothing extra for his trouble, he wasn't happy but he knew I wasn't either and left.
My plane taxied out on time, was about to start the run down the runway when it turned back to the terminal - a fuel pump failure, it didn't want to leave and neither did I really.