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Bob & Margot's travels Thailand, Vietnam & Cambodia

Asia; Vietnam August 2013

VIETNAM | Friday, 2 August 2013 | Views [553]

1 August

Asia Airlines flight to Hanoi leaving very early in the morning. Although I had a window seat I didn't even think of taking pictures until we almost landed. I think that has something to do with the time we had to start our day.

It was interesting to see extensive areas of wild mountainous jungle which didn't appear to be inhabitated. Flying into Hanoi was interesting. Wide green areas, island sections of the city which appeared lush and expensive, development of extensive roads and bridges.

Almost immediately on arrival we had a good feeling for the place. We boarded a public bus and waited for 40 to 50 minutes whilst more people piled on.  It was interesting to observe the interactions between the guy arranging the luggage and selling tickets and the public. What struck us was the warmth and humor of people. When you meet someones eye, a smile comes across their face, it is as if their whole being lighted up.

Bob's summing up on our first evening:-  

Hanoi has been AWSUM (to coin a teenage phrase) so far and we have fallen in love with its graceful buildings, crazy traffic, friendly and helpful people, and amazing food.  Hey, with $1.50 beers how could you not like it?  It is quite a contrast to Bangkok in that it lacks the rawness and rubbish scattered everywhere, while the people of Hanoi seem to have a real sense of pride in themselves and their city.  They aren't shy to engage you on the street and while there are touts, their sell is fairly congenial.  There are lakes and parks scattered around with lots of mature trees and the citizens appear to enjoy these open spaces. Bargaining is still an art form, unlike Thai marketplaces and the smile and sense of humour are always` there. We'll spend at least 5 days` here and then take the train to Sapa for a home stay with local tribal people and will then go on the mandatory cruise at Halong Bay, stopping at Monkey Island, etc before working our way south.

2 August

We walked from our hotel in the Old Quarter to the Museum and Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. Fasciinating and very informative. The walk there and back is interesting. We left the densely populated Old Quarter, and headed out along past parks and wide avenues. The museum & Mausoleum is surrounded by huge open spaces and gardens. Today I think it got to 35degrees, so of course we had to keep hydrated, bia's (beer) and mango shakes did help. There are little coffee bars / cafe's all over, situated in tiny rooms spilling onto the street and in leafy, tree shaded outdoor areas. very pleasant.

5 August

We are leaving Hanoi for 2 tours north to Sapa and then to Halong Bay. Back on the 10th before we travel south. Continuing to love it here.

15 August

We return again to Hanoi. Tonight we head south to Dong Hoi and out to a National Park. We have spent 11 nights here, so we begin to feel it is a little like home. The reason is mainly related to health issues which I wish I could say are all resolved. But, for now Bob continues to suffer, this time with a cold. He is right at the raw stage when it is at its peak and I am on the other side, mine almost gone.  A cold in the tropics! Crazy! Air conditioning in hotels, buses, trains, shops and restaurants is all very wonderful, but clearly has its down side. Unfortunately, Bob started this journey with a boil being treated with antibiotics and he seems to have lurched from one, usually minor, bump, scrape, tummy upset to another. The worst being a drug reaction to the anti-malaria drug he took just before coming to Vietnam. We ended up having to seek medical attention and to stay here for 5 days. That, I am happy to say is almost resolved.

It could have been worse in that we could have been some where with less medical options and fewer attractions. But, we have extended our visa's by 1 month taking pressure off seeing all we want to see.

We initially stayed in a hotel called the Rising Dragon for 2 nights and subsequently have enjoyed a very comfortable experience at a hotel with an equally interesting name the "Splendid Jupiter", situated adjacent to the beautiful St Joseph Cathedral. We hear the bells and now can view the top of the towers as we are on floor 5. The manager, Jenny and staff have great English and are very professional. We are greeted with complimentary 'welcome drinks' & fruit - tea, coffee, pineapple, orange or passion fruit juice. There is not a lot more to ask for, other than a cold shower, in this heat and humidity (up to 90% & between 29 & 36 degrees) 
Hanoi has a wealth of history; museums, citadels, statues of Lenin, Emperor Ly from 1010, Ho Chi Minh etc. We have managed to get to see:-
Hoa Lo Prison which housed US prisoners of the Vietnam war, the Women's museum, a fascinating account of roles, relationships, challenges & womens'  contributions to society. History Museum, Military Museum, Fine Arts Museum and the Museum of Ethnology. We saw the Opera house which was closed, but offered a cool outdoor cafe for a refreshing drink.
And a few days ago we loved the evening 'Water puppet show'.
Vietnamese are amazingly resilient people who has experienced unrest for much of their existence; 1,000 years  of conflict with China, effects of colonisation  by the French until 1954 and being bombed by the US into 1975, in spite of the 'Paris Peace Accord' January 1973. They continued to experience unrest through to 1979, between invading Cambodia (Pol Pott era) & experiencing retaliation from China.  
We have experienced a 15minute bicycle rickshaw ride in the searing heat. We were so concerned about him carrying us all that way in the heat of the day that effectively we bargained a very cheap ride. I read in the paper that they are considering taking rickshaws off the roads as the roads become more and more congested with millions of mopeds /scooters, cars, trucks and buses. As with many Asian countries people carry enormous and often very unstable loads which I have tried to capture on film.

Public bus travel is easy and comfortable once we convinced locals we prefer that to taxi. For 5,000 dong a trip, it's great when traveling a little further out from the centre. (n$1 = 16,000dong)

And we enjoyed viewing the upmarket residences from an electro car on an hour circumnavigation tour of the 'West Lake', situated north of central Hanoi where we're based.

 We have been soaked in an instant in one of a couple of typhoons and seen and heard spectacular storms with lightening and thunder; here, in Sapa and less so Halong Bay - hence our early return after only 1 night in Halong Bay. Warning of a big storm is yet to eventuate. 
People in Hanoi do truly live their life on the street. Narrow empty alleys turn into buzzing evening restaurants. The ubiquitous blue plastic tables & stools are set out. Moreish smells fill the air & the crowds turn up. The street vendors squat on the pavement displaying live fish, fresh fruit & veges, flowers and all other imaginable wares. Vietnam's population is 90.5 million, the Lonely Planet reports 98 million cell phones! We spotted a man who appeared to be in his 90's squatting in his doorway with an iPad! Businesses are set up in the many narrow homes and spill out over the pavement. Needless to say there are many scooter / moped repair shops which create quite an obstacle, having to step over or around gas tanks, sheets of metal, power tools and containers of oil which makes life interesting.
Sapa, in the north, about 8-10 hours by train & bus, is truly spectacular. Rugged jungle clad mountains & deep ravines with gushing wild, rivers. The hillside are decorated with fields of corn, indigo (natural black dye), hemp for weaving cloth, and beautiful sculpted rice fields as far as the eye can see. 
We woke about 5am as the train pulled into Lao Cai, and with efficiency of a German army, probably 100 tourists were selected, gathered and ushered to a parking lot of minivans. The narrow road became a series of switchbacks winding up through the mist and into the mountains. Within an hour we arrived at Sapa, the 10 or so passengers were dispatched to various hotels where we were fed, given a room to shower & rest, then introduced to our guides. 
Tee or Tuong', our private guide was charming and sweet. A newly married young man soon to expect his first child. It was interesting to hear of his choice for his father to find him a bride.  

Our private tour was a mix of transport and walking due to uncertainty of terrain, distance and my capability. As we drove the few kms, passing many tourists walking ( trekking). We are happy to miss that bit, so we began our hike down a rough rocky road accompanied by about 4 'Black Hmong' (hill tribe) women. They are very friendly and chatty seeming to merely enjoy our company as they walk home from the market. However, the ultimate aim is to sell their wares with the patter "Buy one from me. maybe you buy later." Very smiley and lovely women.

We walk down into the valley,  passing or walking with many women, see examples of fabric weaving & dying with indigo. Local dwellings. water channels, rice crushes and corn grinders. We cross the river via a swing bridge, pass a Community Centre, Hospital (clinic), power station and arrive at 'Lao Chai' (a Hmong village)  where we have lunch.  The  restaurant is large and is filled with tourist like us. Many small girls with very quiet voices crowd our table. "Buy one from me" Our no thank you is mirrored by a "Yes thank you" with matching tone.  They all sell the same
woven bags + jewellery. The moment we are served all leave us alone to eat. And once we continue our walk after more than an hour, the women rejoin us.

We continued walking.The path changes from dirt trail, to rocky, to concrete. We pass through 3 villages; first of the 'Black Hmong' people who wear predominantly black, then to the adjacent village "Ta Van"  of the Red Zay people (distinguished from the Hmong by the red headdress). We then came to "Glang Ta Chai"of the Zao people who wear green, blue or pink.  This is where we stay the night. 

There are 400 homes here in which 3,000 people live. 

 Not at all tired, but happy to relax and enjoy the serenity of the sculptured rice fields, the river below and distant villages across the way, we settled into our home stay.  With shoes and pack off, a cold  beer on the table, this is bliss. .....
Until, peace and illusion is shattered. A group of 10 rowdy young people appear.  (One particularly obnoxious character who loved his own voice apparently for a good distance into the night & possibly before his eyes opened in the morning) This NOT a home stay, but a very basic hostel. 
But, all is not lost. We did get to experience a personalised meal with the couple & the two guides. Complete with celebratory home made rice wine. What a banquetWe sat on tiny plastic stools as we would find in a NZ kindergarten, the little table laden with local delicacies: with spring rolls we had helped to make, chicken, pork, cabbage, steamed rice and a couple of dishes I struggled with. I couldn't stomach the stuffed pork stomach and although Bob claims to have tried everything  I didn't see him eat a pigs eye!!

Tourism is big business in Sapa. The French saw the area as a place for rest and rejuvenation especially with the fresh clear mountain air. The first tourist operator was established in 1917, tourists were brought to Sapa from La Cai in 1920 and the road was built in 1925.
We bought some "North Face" gear here. I have yet to try out my new gortex jacket in a good downpour and have my day pack packed into my larger pack. Bob bought some shorts. Apparently a lot of NZ clothing is made in Vietnam 

 Halong Bay

Unfortunatly due to unsettled weather we were unable to go on our planned trip. We were encouraged to upgrade for a 1 night trip. We were really disappointed. I guess it had been built up so much that what we experienced was far short. From talking to others it would have been quite different with the additional day. For some reasons:-  we arrived 1 hour late, so the whole day from 1pm was rushe, we have had wonderful guides, but did not gel with this one, when we got to the key spot for day 1 there were so many other boats it looked like a major harbour, we were quickly shunted onto a smaller craft and ferried ashore to climb many stairs to the top of a fairly spectaular island. Probably due to the pending typhoon, it was hazy and incredibly hot and humid. We were absolutly dripping and there wasn't a breath of wind. The pristine beach was poluted and extremely touristy..... touts selling all kinds of stuff including for US$2 the opportunity to sit on a beach lounger. Heaps of people, many smoking, butts in the sand. The water looked poluted with rubbish floating and a muddy brown colour was not inviting, other than the opportunity to cool down. I had a 5 minute dip which did not achieve the desire to be cooled.

Back onto the smaller boat, off to the cave. We climbed several dozen more stairs... the cave was indeed spectacular. We were given a reasonable amount of time so didn't feel rushed for this part.  It was then off to a floating kayak rental. Kayking was fantastic. We had a sit in double, others 'sit on'. We did note a big hole in the back of ours so were a little anxious about how seaworthy it would be. We paddled across the bay and through an expansive arch way at the base of a cliff into a huge enclosed lagoon.  It was so very peaceful and enjoyable. After an hour it was back to base to find out another couple had dashed back early as their freeboard was fast disappearing. The guy was using his cap to bail, but in the end they were up to their waists in water. 

 The evening meal was very nice and beautifully presented. The next morning we were offered brunch at 8am then raced back to Halong Bay to disembark by 9am. They didn't seem to understand that brunch is a leisurely affair mid morning. It was not possible to eat the huge quantity of breakfast immediactley followed by lunch. Maybe there was a method in this... possibly someone else got to eat the left overs?? We would never recommend this trip on our experience. Hopefully they will sort some of these issues and manage their tourism a little more effectively.  If not this 1994 World Heritage site may be ruined.

Hanoi - Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
We had an uneventful night on the 'sleeper bus' from Hanoi to Dong Hoi which was somewhat surprising but reassuring. 
Luck, or recent development, is on out side when it comes to bathroom facilities in general. However, there is no avoiding train & bus station toilets. We did stop at one truly disgusting squat loo, but I have to say I got in & out of that one unscathed. 
Although we arrived about 5.30am there was plenty happening. A cafe was being set up, so I had a drip coffee - offered with a big chunk of ice which I declined and managed to get some hot water and sweet milk instead.  We had watched whilst the ice was tipped out of a jute bag onto another on the ground. It was then attacked with a rusty hatchet and placed in a bowl.  As the morning progressed large groups of children rode past on their way to school, women on scooters, smartly dressed complete with high heel shoes, headed for office work, other scooters carried food, building materials and even lifestock.  At 7am a minibus fetched us and after an hour's drive delivered us to the 'Phong Nha Farmstay', owned & operated by an Aussie guy & his Vietnamese wife, Ben & Bick. This attractive series of buildings; rooms, restaurant courtyard and swimming pool is built on family land.  Many family & local people are employed on site and run a range of tours. It is a well oiled accommodation & tourism business. 
Later that day we biked 7kms, after a few trials, to a nearby village, (actually Bob doubled me on the bicycle as I just could not do it, much to my frustration, my leg fell off every 10 to 15 metres due to the high humidity). We took a small boat up the river into the 'Phong Nha caves'. What a hidden gem.  With the engine off the 2 women positioned themselves at bow & stern & artfully powered us with sweep oars into the non-descript grey opening.

For one km and more than an hour we were mesmerised by the expansive beauty; the cathedral ceilings scalloped to a pearl smooth lustre by the ocean about 10,000 years ago. The draped columns of limestone, hues of silver, white, brown & black. We rounded corner after corner to enter yet another cavern, accompanied only by the soft  rhythmic sound of paddles on water. 

The cave is around 55km long. Travel by river boat to & from the caves is a great way to observe local life; lounging water buffalo, farmers working the fields, gathering river weed from their boats to feed fish they farm. Catholic church steeples on the north shores are reminders of French presence until 1954.  This cave system was used extensively during the American war and although the Americans attempted to close it off by bombing the cliff above the huge entrance remained open. 

Day 2, we joined a tour from the farmstay. 'Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park' (885sq kms) is a wild and mostly unexplored mountainous area, the oldest karst mountains formed approximately 400million years ago! It lies on the western border at Vietnam's narrowest point. Best explored by tour. Designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 2003.

Guides with a wealth of knowledge informed us of the historic roadways and incredible tenacity of the young workers. We traveled the Ho Chi Minh highway, different from the trail, onto the 'Victory Highway' or Highway 20'which was built by volunteers average age of 20.  A temple / war shrine, in the middle of the jungle commemorates all those lost in this area of road construction, mainly due to the heavy bombing by America. A very humbling experience to step inside the shrine and to place incense to remember all of those young lives lost.  There were more Vietnamese people visiting than foreigners. Apparently a very important temple for people all over Vietnam. It is unique in that it is not claimed specifically by locals.

The people continue to impress us. They are so gentle and positive. They recount their nations hardships with a quiet accepting manner.  They welcome westerners, are very keen to speak English and are clearly benefiting from the tourism boom.
Our tour was predominantly in air-conditioned vans, stopping at significant spots.

Our next stop was
to visit the Paradise Cave, one of many in the park. Enormous and impressive. Only officially discovered in 2005 & opened to the public n 2012.
  We were transported from the parking lot by eco / electric carts, then  climbed 100's of steps to the entrance of this dry cave high on the cliff. The mouth of the cave is quite small, so absolutely stunning to stand at the top of the climb and look down to a  wooden staircase and boardwalk disappearing into the darkness.  Our guide told us of another reported to be the largest cave system in the world. It's so huge the Empire State  Building could fit inside & be turned around. For US$3,000 you can do a guided 6 day hiking trip inside this cave.

We spent two days in this beautiful inland area and were offered guided stops on route to Hue. Although we had not specifically decided to visit the  Vinh Moc Tunnels and the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone), the experience was worthwhile and shocking. The tunnels are very small even for the people who are very small in stature. I was a little fearful that Bob would get stuck and indeed he and another tall, Dutch guy, came out with considerable soil marks on their shoulders. There was a question as to whether I could manage the steps inside. I happily sat the experience out. The tunnels are built on 3 levels with designated family areas of about 2sq metres for 5 people, meeting, hospital, maternity areas and the lowest level at 25-30metres depth stored weapons and ammunition. 17 babies were born in here over a 4 year period and 16 are reported to be still living. Many huge bomb craters still exist here.  Many replicates of these tunnels existed for all the 60 plus villages along the coastline in this region.
Hue  (pronounced Whey)  18 - 20 August

A new gastronomic experience.  The food is unique in this region and considerably spicier than in the north.
Pork roll cooked on a stick of lemongrass which is wrapped in a rice paper sheet with lettuce and herbs, then dipped in a peanut sauce, 'White Rose" -  made of rice circles / dumpling like texture but flat, sprinkled with tasty dried shrimp. Another meal at a recommended restaurant was a challenge as neither the menu nor the staff offered any English. We had to take pot luck. We had no idea what we ordered, so were happy albeit a little overwhelmed with the spread we received; 'hot pot' - a cooking dish over a flame, filled with liquid to which we added leafy plants and a range of other vegetables and meats, plus a very tasty steamed rice pancake and spring rolls.
The Imperial City
The emporer Gia Long formed the Nguyen (pronounced win) dynasty in 1802 and moved the capital from Hanoi to Hue in an attempt to unite northern and southern Vietnam. The city is built around a huge walled city or citadel. In fact originally there was a citadel built within a citadel within a citadel. The Nguyen Dynasty era ended 30 August 1945.  
We walked all around the area attempting to get into the palace or 'Purple Forbidden City' and eventually came to the entrance at the point we had started. The whole inner city is surrounded by a moat from which people are fishing. The water is stagnant and black. Once inside there is little to see as it was badly damaged by the French & American wars, which was dissappointing. The 'Purple Forbidden City' was a secluded area inside the palace where only the emperor could live. He had something like 40 wives and 400 offspring and would only allow eunichs to be his servants.
It is much easier to go on organised tours in Vietnam and there is a tour for almost every situation, so on the 2nd day we did a full day boat and bus tour. 'The Perfume River Tour', visiting temples, pagodas and tombs of some of the Emperors. Astounding. The Minh Mang Tomb of the 2nd Emperor built from 1840-1843. He is claimed to be the most important Emperor due to his knowledge of rice growing and irrigation etc. As he was loved by people the built this enormous tomb.
The magnificent grounds and buildings represent the Emperors body including the legs which is the divided channels of the adjacent river. The tomb is guarded by warrier's, horses and elephants. of the 3 entrances the middle door through which the Emperors body is brought is locked & never again open. The steps & buildings represent the stomach, chest and head. The Emperor is buried beneath head and the arms are represented by an extensive lake either side of the buildings. It is all quite amazing including the decorative details inside.
Hoi An - a quaint fishing village,
6 nights in Hoi An,  20 – 26 August

Our ‘sleeper / open bus’ arrives at Hoi An mid-afternoon.  We find our hotel, have lunch in a little street restaurant, then take the free shuttle into ‘the old town’ in time to join the celebration of the monthly lunar or "Full Moon Festival”.  We are walking down a major road together with throngs of locals. This arterial route, connecting the ocean at An Bang beach to the Old Town, suddenly narrows to a lane & still we are passed by scooters.  Suddenly we emerge on the river bank.  Wow! Lanterns everywhere; hanging from all buildings, restaurants, ice cream parlours, cafes.  Families line the pavements selling small paper cups each with a glowing candle balanced inside.  Choruses of "buy one from me". One burst into flame, there's a flurry of activity to stomp it out.  A lantern is hooked onto the end of a long pole and carefully lowered into the river, creating a magical scene.

Dozens of restaurants, on the shore and on boats, to choose from, all dimly lit using no artificial light.  We enjoyed a relaxing evening; a ‘happy hour cocktail’ (half price and for us usually involving mango), and a set menu for two.  The only downside was the slow pace meant that we missed the last complimentary shuttle at 9pm back to our hotel.  Not so bad as walking the streets is the usually the very best way to orientate and get a feel for a new place.  At 9.30pm to 10pm the street was packed with all the locals returning home. Apparently the city monitors the late night activities closely.

Returning to the old town the next day dulled some of the magic. As with many Asian waterways the river is silted, polluted and choked with garbage.  The boats, romantic in the dim moonlight, now appear scruffy and lodged in place, unable to move.

Water is such a valuable commodity; we only hope that these third world countries in their quest to seek parity with the western world are able to clean up the rivers, lakes and beaches.  There does appear to be a drive to ensure food and water safety and although many kitchens are very basic there is evidence of water purifiers and locals drinking bottled water.

Areas of old Hoi An boast whole blocks of typical French colonial houses, painted in mustard yellow. Much of the rich history of this area was saved from destruction of recent wars with the French and America. 800 buildings have been preserved by UESCO and many are currently been renovated. There is evidence of Chinese, Japanese as well as French influence and records indicate that human habitation dates back 2,200years.

We visited the ‘Japanese covered bridge’ near the old town, built in the 1590’s and were shown through a Vietnamese house built 250 years ago, by a family stating to be the 7th generation living here. It was so austere and authentic looking that it appeared more like a museum. The brothers and sisters fell over each other to point out special architectural features - the ‘kings book’ carved into the apex of the roof, ornate carvings framing doors and windows, intricate sliding wooden window frames which  enable residents to check out visitor, and a whole array of ancient wood & silver making tools. But then the hard sell began. Oops, a little embarrassing.

We rented a. scooter to explore the beaches. An Bang recommended in the LP was not to our liking, offering only the rented beach umbrella & loungers.  But Cua Dai, the local area, 2 Km's south along a stretch of beautiful beach, is great.  Many coconut palms offer shade, the whole area is uncrowded until about 5pm when all the locals arrive on mass.

The sand is golden & clean, that is except the cigarette butts left behind. The locals work hard to keep it clean.  An old lady squats on the sand quietly watching.  She is covered head to foot to avoid the darkening properties of the sun, complete with a straw conical hat tied with a ribbon. Occasionally she stands & shuffles to collect an empty water bottle and at the end of the day she has a garbage bag full. Her lips red and full with the juice of the betel nut she chews. Her whole being lights up with a smile as our eyes meet.

 The ocean is as described in the guide books; clean, blue and clear. This in addition to the small surf and the views out to the Cham Islands, has to be close to a perfect.  The salt water is cool, refreshing and healing. We spend the best part of 4 days here and my man is finally healthy again.

We took advantage of the pleasant hotel amenities on our last day in Hoi An dealing with a few chores such as sorting bills, accounts and GST, before reading and relaxing by the pool until it was time to catch our ‘sleeper bus’ again for a 12hour journey south to Nha Trang, which is described as the beach capital of Vietnam.

Nga Trang 26 - 29 August

This time we took a public minvan to Dalat for 3 hours instead of the 'Sleeper bus' which was to take 7hours

Nga Trang 26 - 28 August -  Known as the party capital of Vietnam. 

Travelling into Nga Trang we are again struck by the beauty of landscaping to really show off a beautiful curving coastline. We arrived about 6am after a long night on a claustrophobic ‘sleeper bus’.  Our ‘Nice Hotel’ is a 2 minute walk down an alley and after catching another hour or so of sleep we head out to explore. We are amazed on our return, to find that we have the only room on the top / 10th floor, complete with our own large balcony with a fabulous view over the bay.  

We took in the ‘Alexander Yersin Museum’ on Pasteur St. Dr Alexander Yersin is an important character here in Vietnam having spent much of his life in Nha Trang. He grew up in Geneva, trained as a doctor, studied and worked with Pasteur. He established Nga Trang’s Pasteur Institute 1895, introduced rubber and quinine producing trees and discovered the rat-borne microbe that causes bubonic plague.

Day 2 we took a full day boat tour which was really great, particularly the snorkelling off an island. It was just perfect. We escaped the crowds gathered in a packed cordoned off area and swam toward the turquoise water. Yes! Peace and quiet. And a good range of fish & coral with reasonable colour.

We actively tried to avoid the ‘Party’ aspects of these tours, but that was not possible and actually was really funny. Our guide was the ultimate extravert. He sang rather raunchy songs to us, coerced people to get up and karaoke and had us all diving / jumping off the boat to partake in a ‘drinking and floating’ in a floatation ring activity.

The next day we enjoyed an early morning swim right in front of our hotel. We were impressed with the number of people, tourists and locals, out and about exercising and enjoying this beautiful stretch of beach. The water is reasonably clear and drops away for pleasant swimming.  Then after relaxing the remainder of the morning we were back on the bus for 3 hours to Dalat.

We travelled inland through jungle covered mountains, following the switchback roads.  The flora is quite different to everywhere else we have been so far, waterfalls gushing and vertical cliffs dropping off the side of the road. It reminded us of bush clad NZ.

Dalat  - 29 August to 2 Sept.  Established as a Central Highland resort.

 Dr Yersin apparently explored this area & suggested to the government in 1893 that a hill station resort be established due to the clear air and cooler temperatures.  Dalat is at 1500m & Vietnam s second highest mountain "Langbian" at 2,200m can be viewed from Dalat’s outskirts

There are so many bakeries offering baguettes, sticky rice cakes, and many European style cakes. Again, a gastronomic experience.

During our 4 days here we hired a tandem bike and circumnavigate the banana shaped, man-made ’ Xuan Huong Lake’.  As some of the terrain is quite flat, traffic is less crazy and it is a very comfortable temperature of 25 – 28 degrees, biking was perfect.  We then walked for miles, explored Vietnam’s first railway station built in 1928. Not surprising, given the terrain to get here from Nga Trang or Saigon, it only functioned until 1964. We discovered a new mall which seems to be built underground. And along with masses of Russian tourists we clambered around a bizarre "crazy house".  The Crazy House is a work in progress over many years. Designed & lived in by a now 72 year old female architect who gained her Architectural PhD in Russia in 1972. We paddled around the lake in ‘swan boat’ and on another day, we took another tour. This time a highland countryside minibus trip to visit; the local horticulture, there are hundreds of flower green houses and Dalat has a significant flower festival every December. Dalat means water of the ‘Lat’, or the local minority hill tribe people.  We met a 68 year old woman in her village, who has 11 children & something like 60 grandchildren.  We hear d that in marriage, a woman’s family pays  up to 5 water buffalo for a very strong man. You only need to pay 1 - 2 buffalo for a weakling.  And that to become stronger they eat monkey brains. And to make you very strong they boil the monkey bones & eat them.  We felt a little sorry for the monkey on chain.  The couple lives with the wife’s family & take woman's name.  This is one of a few Matriarchal societies.

Today is one of several firsts.

  • Drinking coffee grown and processed by the "Lat" people – their specialty is ‘Weasel Moka’- locally grown arabica beans, fed to civet cats  (weasels in a cage downstairs)  After the beans pass through the ‘weasels’ they are soaked, dried and then roasted. Vietnamese coffee is dripped through a small aluminium pot, strong and drunk with sweetened condensed milk. 90% Vietnamese people drink coffee with ice, which is nice in this heat. I did try it and can say I’m still alive. It wasn’t bad, but I don’t think I’ll be drinking it at home.
  • We tasted roasted crickets farm at a cricket farm
  • Watched someone eat a silk worm. The silk factory employing about 40 - 50 women was noisy and fascinating.

2 September - Sitting bus to Ho Chi Minh City (HCNC) still known as Saigon

HCMC – 3 to 6 September

We have 4 nights here. Another big city, it feels more western, but still has the street carts, thousands of scooters, markets,  hard sell tour operators, huge sky scrapers and a range of broad avenues and little back alleys.  Somehow the chaotic traffic feels a little more law abiding, officers assist pedestrians across some pedestrian crossings as buses, cars and a zillion scooters dart either side.

Reunification Palace: - Our guide was short on detailed history. Plush environment for Party headquarters. Originally built 1868 as residence for the French Governor-general. Then home to the South Vietnamese President who was so unpopular it was bombed 1962. Rebuilt complete with basement, bomb shelter & secret doors& passages, 1966. Taken by force, tanks crashing the gates April 75 by the Vietcong.

War Remnants Museum: - well worth the visit. Interestingly the impact of the documented horrors of Death, Destruction & Disability fallout from the "American War" was highlighted/ accentuated by the crashes of thunder overhead as the pending storm brewed.

Fine Arts Museum: - spacious colonial private home of wealthy merchant. Some interesting works.

Ho Chi Minh Museum:- a lot of photos and writing. Not as impressive as the museum in Hanoi.

Ben Thanh Market:- as other large markets, an amazing crush of stalls and products from clothes, accessories, iPhone stuff ( only the latest) to foods. We were bombarded by sales pitch from every direction. They even physically pull you toward their product. This behaviour does  recede after the initial few minutes.

Local buses:- It is so relaxing at about 60c (10,000dong) for 2 of us versus our taxi experience.  The LP warns of crooked operators, but at the time we weren't paying particular attention. It was 5pm and rush hour as we were leaving the War Remnants Museum. The sky was black & threatening & it began to rain. Requesting metered rides seems to be somewhat consistent and a safer bet. So imagining the trip home would be between 40 & 60,000 VND (n$2.50 & $4.00) we were shocked to see the meter read 298,000VND. Our driver went into an absolute tirade when we didn't cough up. To quote the LP "rampant overcharging - taxis with meters that spin around faster than Kylie in her gold hotpants".  Bob could see from his position that he was fiddling with the meter. So when Bob countered the threat to take us to the police whilst revving the engine, the meter was suddenly flicked back to zero.   Anyway, we finally got out, paid 60,000VND which was possibly too much, & he sped off cussing. So much for the gentle, laid back Vietnamese character. I'd say generally true except men in the transport business.

Sadly Bob has come down with diarrhoea again since the evening of Aug 31. Today, 5 Sept he is feeling better but not 100% and we have been out all afternoon riding the buses and walking.

We have booked a 3 day ‘Delta tour’ leaving HCMC on Friday 6th traveling by bus and a range of boats, visiting floating markets, fish farms, then travelling up to Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Sunday night 8th Sept. We will stay one night in a hotel  and a floating hotel on the second night.

8 Sept

Good Morning Vietnam.... starting at 6am.

The Delta trip was great. Last night we stayed in Chau Doc not too far from the Cambodia border, in  a floating hotel on the Mekong. It was comfortable enough, but not anything like the picture the travel agent showed us. By 7am we were on the river; visited a fish farm then a village along the way. We were done by 8.30am and we waited for the 'fast boat' to pick us up. Not so far to the border. With help to get through the border 10.30 - 11am it was quite smooth and no surises.

Goodbye Vietnam.

Then a long 4+ hour trip to Phnom Penh.  


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