A Travellerspoint blog

Laos: Vientiane

Poor Laos

semi-overcast 41 °C
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John:....We had a fierce but brief storm a couple of nights ago. 1 minute perfectly still the next minute rain lashing down, palm trees bent nearly to 90 degrees in the hot wind. The rain poured through the window, exploiting the unfilled gaps in the window frame. The glass covers on street lights outside started to crash onto the road below and the frequent flashes of lightning seemed to hit the ground near the hotel. Above us the red neon hotel signage seemed to be on fire although this was a trick of the fierce wind and torrential rain. The first rain we have seen since mid January and a spectacular reintroduction. The temperature barely moved, steady at 38-40 degrees outside but as close to 20 degrees in our room as we can get it.

A sudden start and, as suddenly, the storm abated 40 minutes from the outset. The next morning we woke to what sounded like 3 policemen loudly blowing whistles. We looked outside to see....3 policemen loudly blowing whistles. The electricity supply in Vientiane, tenuous at the best of times, was seriously disrupted over night. Trees down, traffic lights out and other such damage. They give the Police very good whistles here.

We're in Laos having arrived on the straight forward Siem Reap - Vientiane Laos Airlines flight. Our hotel, 15 minutes walk from the centre of the town, is ideosyncratic to say the least. Staffed by very nice people but hopelessly organised it currently scores 1 out of 5 on the Trip Advisor ratings. In some ways I can understand why but I also think that is a little harsh and reflects the difficulties experienced by places like this where the rating scale is the same wherever you are in the world. Anyway it is cool and comfortable and that is good enough for us at the moment.

We are struggling to 'get hold of Laos'. It has had a miserable recent past history, first badly treated by the French and subsequently bombed by the USA under Nixon (US$ 7.2 billion, 580 944 sorties, 2.1 m tons of bombs. Per head of population the most heavily bombed country ever). Internal power struggles and fighting resulted in the Laos People's Democratic Republic headed by the Soviet and North Vietnamese styled communist party Pathet Lao. As with Vietnam in recent years there is a gradual relaxation on restrictions but Laos has a long long way to go to reach the level of development attained by Vietnam, if that is where it wants to be. The Laos National Museum is a good indicator of the national and spritual ambivalence about how to deal with the past. In parts an interesting collection of artefacts relating to the various sub-cultures in Laos, accounts of the wars over the past 200 years and in part a bewildering array of photographs of men in suits seemingly doing little to help their people. If reports of corruption are anything to go by many of these 'good party members' are the ones riding around town in black Mercedes, Lexus and Honda cars. Go to the museum if you want to catch glimpses of where Laos has been and the burden that it still bears.

COPE is the name of the NGO running the National Rehabilitation Centre. A large concern that has an interesting exhibition on the problem of traumatic amputations through unexploded ordnance being salvaged for scrap metal value or through children stumbling across some of the hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs (and bombies, the ironically cute name for the small anti-personnel bombs that are scattered from cluster bomb casings). The display also illustrates the creativity amongst the rural people in using wartime scrap metal, making leg prosthetics from shell casings, fishing traps, oil lamps, cooking pots and a whole range of domestic items. There is a top class ABC produced DVD showing the work of an Aussie guy who is training up local people to deal with the UXB problem in their own districts. Full of interest, pathos and humour this is a really engaging film. Another film tells the story of a young boy's journey to Vientiane to have his below knee stump refashioned and a prosthesis fitted. This involved his first sight of an airplane, 'the big city' of Vientiane and lots of other things. Another place well worth visiting.

We have spent most of our time here so far in Vientiane, the nation's capital city. Our hotel is situated on Th Lan Xang at one end of which is the Presidential Palace and the other is the extraordinary monument Patuxai. This is clearly a nod to the French. It is an immitation orientale of L'arc de Triomphe in Paris and, like its French counterpart sits on a large roundabout. At that point the comparisons start to run out. This one was built from American concrete reputedly designated for the building of an airport. Apart from stylistic differences Patuxi differs in 'build quality' with large chunks of concrete falling from some of its higher surfaces from time to time. On an official sign some distance from the monument is a statement that reflects the Laos characteristic of honesty: "From a closer distance it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete."

The city itself sits on the eastern bank of the Mekong River. Across the river is Thailand, occasionally troublesome neighbour. The river is low. Towards the end of the dry season and possibly the partial result of several large hydro electric schemes built by the Chinese further up river. One of the attractions here, eating al fresco on the river bank was quickly rejected by us as the river bank is a building site at present and the early evening breeze whips up a little sandy seasoning for your food. Together with the squadrons of flies chomping away at the fish and chicken we shied away from this treat. Instead we have found several really good eating spots.

Makphet Restaurant is down a little side street and has some really tasty Lao cuisine. Like so many of the excellent food places we found in Vietnam and Cambodia the restaurant provides training in cooking and the hospitality industry for street children. The most unexpectedly good eating experience was accidently brought about by our Tuk Tuk driver Mr Lin. We were looking for a place, recommended by the Lonely Planet, which has since closed down. Mr Lin said "You want good Lao food?" to which we replied yes. "I know good place with Lao food where many farang (foreigners) go. I take you". A short distance on and Mr Lin dropped us off at the Ban Moon Restaurant and Beer Garden. We were met by the diminutive Lao lady owner and her husband; Barry from Perth.

"Come in Mate, make yourselves at home, we've just made a stack of pies this afternoon...would you like steak and kidney, steak and bacon or steak and mushroom?". No Lao food available here. Barry's business card carries the line 'Home of King Bonza's Pies', their own make, and after readjusting our taste buds enjoyed an excellent steak pie each with what has to be the coldest, teeth numbing beer I have drunk since hitting the hot places (Barry 'finishes' the beer in his freezer before thrusting them in a neoprene insulator to keep the chill in). The coldness of the beer was in direct contrast to the molten volcanic lava temperature of Barry's home made gravy. We had a good yarn with Barry, he heads back to Perth twice yearly for a couple of days to register for his pension then out to Laos again. He gets the Aussie rules and cricket on the Australian Network and his pension goes further over here.

Despite, or because of, this error we kept Mr Lin on. Nice young guy with great English. Unlike a lot of the other Tuk Tuk drivers he doesn't have a hammock slung in the back of his vehicle, he's out looking for work (he can also use the gear boxon his converted 1970s Suzuki 125 unlike a lot of the drivers ). We asked him to take us out and about, firstly to a silk and cotton weaving cooperative and then on to the pre eminent Stupa in Laos.

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The cooperative was really interesting although we weren't encouraged to see the work in progress, rather we were invited into the sale room where we saw some beautiful work but out of our price range. From there on to the Stupa, a symbol of Buddhism and also of Laos sovereignty. The whole structure is painted a golod colour and begins as a cloistered square enclosing a brick and concrete monument which uses architectural devices to represent the Buddhist faith. Very striking it is too with columns and prayer arches. The central column rises 45 metres and gleams brightly in the strong sunlight. On either side of the Stupa are Temples or Wats, both with beautiful carvings and paintings. In the background monks young and old going about their business, washing their robes, worshipping, chatting to visitors.

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We met a novice monk yesterday as we visited the Si Saket temple. A nice young chap called Pomh Penh who explained the significance of the burial Stupas around his temple. Vientiane has many many temples and lots of monks. Their saffron coloured robes stand out vividly in the dusty dry streets of Vietiane.

Our penultimate evening meal in Vientiane was at the excellent Tamnak Lao Restaurant just a stones throw from the hotel. The menu is Lao cuisine. A duo played traditional Lao music and a male and female couple performed dances to some of the pieces. Costing no more than a regular meal in town this was a real find. There was a large group of local people in the restaurant and in no time at all one of them had located the microphone. I was dreading this becoming just another karaoke night but the singing was beautiful, the food great and if you are visiting Vientiane a real high spot in the town. The restaurant has several very large fish tanks as well. Not sure if they are a multi media extension to the menu or there for decoration. I ordered chicken just in case.

Thoughts on Vientiane? Probably the least congested capital city in the world. Possibly also the least frantic. As our first exposure to Laos it provided an interesting counter point to Vietnam and Cambodia. Unlike Vietnam who everybody knows about, Cambodia who many people know about; Laos is a place that not many people know of and yet their experiences at the hands of the French and USA followed by their own internal fighting have left their mark. Perhaps when we get to our next stop, Luang Prabang, that impression might change.

Our coach trip through the mountains promises to be both scenic and long, 8 hours long. Beyond that hopefully uneventful.

p.s. re my previous blog reference to the strange Dr Fish Foot Massage experience, here is Jackie's foot undergoing 'treatment'. These were the lucky fish. The others got me. This has to be one of the all time strange experiences in world travel. You don't get this even in Business Class on Emirates!

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Lots of love and best wishes to family and friends.

Posted by JohnandJac 19:27 Archived in Laos Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Cambodia: Siem Reap and the Ancient Angkor Kingdom

sunny 39 °C
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John:.... and so, from the Peoples' Republic of Vietnam to the Kingdom of Cambodia. A short, 50 minutes, flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap in the northern third of the country. Given the short time that we had in Cambodia we decided to stay in one place. Having spent a bit of time in some of the bigger cities in South East Asia and with Bangkok still to come we chose to stay in Siem Reap. Siem Reap is the city surrounded by the World Heritage Site of ancient Angkor and associated temples. Rather like Machu Piccu in Peru this was, for me, one of the most eagerly anticipated stops on our journey. Through using www.agoda.co.uk we got an excellent deal at a hotel with air con and a pool. The former fairly important the latter a nice bonus.

It isn't often that a place exceeds the hype poured upon it but the city of Angkor Thom and the temples surrounding Siem Reap easily eclipsed my expectations. Angkor Wat is the big name in all this. Reputedly the biggest religious building in the world and one of those places where the magic and mystery are equal to the magnificence of the building itself. At the time we visited Angkor Wat was not as photogenic as the other places we saw, essential conservation and restoration work altered that but never-the-less its majesty was still very evident.

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All of the temples, and there are many, have something very special for the visitor. The intricacy and sheer number of carved figures, the bas-reliefs extending many metres, the intricately tiered towers, the perfect symmetry, the setting, the fantastic carved creatures, saffron coloured robes of the monks, dressed buddhas and the smell of incense in the jungle where previously cordite and sweat had been the prevailing smells...every temple is different. For some, the temples have a continuing role as places of worship. In the recent past these beautiful places were strongholds in the war between the Vietnamese Army and the Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot. Given the ferocious carpet bombing campaign by the USA followed by the destructive power of the Khmer Rouge it is nothing short of a miracle that any of this survived.

We bought a ticket allowing us entry to the temples for up to three days in a seven day period. This proved to be a good plan as it allowed us to avoid 'temple fatigue', alternating days at the temples with other activities. Our plan involved hiring a Tuk Tuk for a couple of days, driven by the charming, obliging and very helpful Chandra. For the uninitiated a Tuk Tuk is a motorcycle (around 100 cc) with a two wheeled, articulated, covered passenger trailer on the back. No air conditioning but when Chandra wrung the throttle and got her up to 40 or 50 kph the breeze was wonderful.

Our first day here we spent walking down to the town; 20 minutes or so at the kind of slow walking pace that 38 degrees forces upon you. As with Vietnam the frequent question "Motorcycle Sir?/Madame" is politely and frequently declined although during our short stay here we have been happy to shell out the small asking price for a ride in to town or out to the temples.

We drifted the kilometre down to the sluggish Siem Reap River, moving even more slowly than us, and walked along towards the Old Market. The difference between here and Vietnam is marked. The traffic is much less manic, people obey most of the road rules (except the one about not cutting corners when turning in to a junction!) and there is a lot less noise from car horns. There seems to be a quiet determination about the place; less in-your-face commercial than The Peoples' Republic, more considered and a gentler place. Its recent history is horrific and, rather like Vietnam, there are mixed feelings about the extent to which this should be remembered and explained or put behind it and move on. During this stay we have visited places that mark the war and its impact on the people of Cambodia (The Land Mines Museum) and others where there is little or no mention of the war (Various temples, The National Angkor Wat Museum). There seem to be equally compelling reasons for both views. The photocopies of books available on every corner reflect this ambivalence with the main titles being from the Pol Pot period (The Killing Fields, S-21, and various accounts of the horrors there-in) and from ancient Angkor. The city is full of NGOs undertaking a range of missions including working with street children (around 25 000 in Cambodia), mine clearance, education programmes, assisting with disability, running hospitals and so on.

We found ourselves at the Old Market on the banks of the Siem Reap River and in the same district as many of the eating places and art galleries for which the city is justifiably well known. Perhaps the strangest thing we have done here was to hand over money (not much) to a young person supervising a large paddling pool full of fish and immerse our feet in it. The fish set to, nibbling at toes, ankles, anything they could reach really and the sensation is unlike anything I have experienced before! I suppose we could have tried this when we were in the Amazon Basin where any number of fishes and other creatures would have been happy to nibble away at toes, legs, torsoes etc.

Siem Reap is a rapidly developing city, recovering from the awfulness of its recent history (Pol Pot wasn't overthrown until 1990, died in 1998) when between the USA, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and the Vietnamese Army a reported 3 000 000 people died or disappeared in Cambodia (the current population is around 15 000 000). Several governments from the late 20th century have a lot to answer for here and many of them, and others, are doing their bit to help with the recovery. The USA, France, Vietnam, India, Japan, China, European Union, Canada, Belgium and others are all represented either through the NGOs mentioned above or, more formally, through direct Government contributions and presence. A whole generation of children grew up as orphans and the country's doctors, teachers, academics, religious leaders were killed or driven into the fields.

Many Cambodian people are doing a great deal themselves either with the NGOs or entirely through their own efforts. Aki Ra, director of the Land Mines Museum, was recruited by the Khmer Rouge as a child, taught to shoot when his AK47 was almost too heavy for him to lift. He survived and absconded, joining the Vietnamese Army as, at the age of 14, a mine clearer, clearing many of the mines he had laid as a KR soldier. He transferred to the Cambodian Army and with training in disarming unexploded ordnance from the British in Salisbury he set about training a team with the task of clearing up villages, roads, paddy fields and so on. Children are still losing limbs here in Cambodia by stepping on mines when playing or gathering wood or looking after the cattle. The Land Mines Museum has now expanded to become home to 20 plus children maimed in some way by mines or bombs. More poignant because of its unpolished presentation, the museum with its piles of disabled mines and bombs, manuals for the mines, photographs and personal stories is a good place to visit. Combined with a visit to the exquisite Banteay Srie temple makes for a full day to reflect on the beauty and horror of Cambodia's past, ancient and modern.

Our first sight of the ancient monuments around Siem Reap was Bayon...

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...we had wisely waited until late morning before getting there. Why waste all that heat! The flagstones shimmered and the view of the temple from the entrance took my breath away. It was hard to believe that you could actually walk on it. Around each corner were intricate carvings and here and there doorways through the very heart of the temple leading to views of the many carved faces looking out to the 4 cardinal compass points....

Cambodia, Bayon, Face Tower

Cambodia, Bayon, Face Tower

As with many of the other sites we went to Bayon has more than historical significance and is still a place of worship. The scent of incense sticks and the sight of the saffron robes of a monk or the dressed buddhas are a reminder of the need to treat these places with due respect.

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I am trying hard not to turn this blog posting into a book on the temples of ancient Angkor so not too much more; hard to know what to leave out because, like Machu Piccu in Peru the impact of such places is really profound. If you are planning to visit, the following may be helpful advice:

1. Give yourself plenty of time and do some preparation - each temple is different
2. Follow the dress code
3. If you are going to get a guide get a good one (if you can find one who will explain the significance of the layout in Buddhist terms all the better). If you can't get a good guide don't bother. We invested in the excellent book Ancient Angkor, Jacques 2003) available as a bootleg copy in most places but if you want something that will last spend a little more and buy a genuine original copy
5. Take more water than you think you will need
6. Spread your visits over a few days
7. Visit the National Museum of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap...it provides some great explanations and presents statues and carvings really well - ignore the sniffy review in Lonely Planet.

As we walked along the track leading in to the wonderfully evocative temple Ta Prohm we heard the gently hypnotic sound of traditional Cambodian music being played. As we got closer we saw a group of six Cambodian men playing traditional instruments. Each man carried an injury, a missing leg or arm or blind from facial injuries. Their sign told the story and that they had been beggars but had got together, learned to play and now wanted to earn money from playing their music. In the heat of the day, in that place, the ancient and recent histories of Cambodia came together. I sat under a shady tree in the heat of the day and watched and listened to them play...and of course we bought their CD. Of interest, as always, was the behaviour of other travellers. Some read the sign and put some money in the hat, some passed by deep in conversation and others read the sign, pushed a camera at the musicians and walked away...and the band played on.

Ta Prohm is an interesting temple, not least because of the courageous decision not to attempt to restore it but to preserve it as it was found by the French in the early 20th century. Controlling nature isn't easy but those working on the site (from India) are working hard to retain the atmosphere of the place with its cottonwood tree roots and strangler vines entwined with the masonry. So atmospheric that the temple was used as the location for the Angelina Jolie film Tomb Raider. For some reason I can't move the Ta Prohm photos into this page but some are in the photo gallery (if you 'google' Ta Prohm images there will be many more)

At one temple, clambering through the partial dereliction and dodging the bead selling children and their tee shirt selling mums I saw this young woman, sleeping in the shade. It seemed entirely appropriate that she should find shade and peace in the temple....

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Anyway, enough about temples for now. I'm sure there will be many more as we move slowly through Laos, Thailand and India.

I mentioned the eating places in Siem Reap. They are plentiful and reflect the city's colonial past and its international appeal today. French pattiseries, Khmer, Indian, all kinds of fusion foods and the ubiquitous burgers....Jackie saw a lovely quote from a young Cambodian man..."as a child I had often dreamed of having a real hamburger. When I eventually did I realised it wasn't nearly as tasty as Cambodian food"...I suspect he wasn't talking about the subsistance diet eaten by around a third of the population. Certainly the restaurant Khmer food is excellent. Less fish orientated than the Vietnamese diet, the rice served drier, the curry a little spicier and the use of herbs and spices subtly different.

We found several places that were either directly or indirectly involved with rebuilding work, eco tourism and providing education and training for young Cambodians. Others involved in preserving traditional crafts and culture. We really enjoyed the food and atmosphere at The Villa, run by an Aussie couple from Melbourne and staffed by the most delightful young people eager to practice their language skills and learning the hospitality industry. The food was outstanding, as it was at Alliance Art Cafe where a local school provides an evening of shadow puppetry, music and dance.

We visited the Artisans d' Angkor workshops where youngsters are taking apprenticeships, learning how to carve wood and stone, do lacquer work, print and paint. In their annex is a silk farm and silk weaving place. All the looms are wooden and hand operated producing beautiful pieces. People train there, taking a year or more to get on to the more complex pieces. All are on a 'fair trade' rate and collectively are partners in the company with a 20% share. Our tour was fascinating, not least because of the snake we encountered on the way round!

Our decision to centre our visit on Siem Reap was entirely vindicated. Good value hotels, excellent and reasonably priced food, a manageable city actively working hard to develop a sustainable future and surrounded by the type of World Heritage Site that could have kept us there for another week easily. Most of all, by staying in the one place we got a chance to chat to some Cambodian people about life and the future. Left in the hands of the people we spoke to Cambodia will have a gentler more positive and productive future. There is so much more to say but we are already in Laos (rhymes with 'now' as in how now brown Laos). Laos is, indeed, very brown. Hotter than the fires of damnation at 39 degrees and desperately in need of rain (due anytime), Laos sits on the banks of the Mekong River. On the other side of the river, Thailand. More of that and reflections on this fascinating place in the next blog. Lots of love to family and friends, especially those enjoying the end of term and having a birthday too. Go The Crusaders

Posted by JohnandJac 02:55 Archived in Cambodia Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Vietnam: Sai Gon and The Mekong Delta

sunny 37 °C
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John:...We have just left Ho Chi Minh City (or Sai Gon as the locals call it) for the last time. It was beyond steamy. The sort of heat and humidity that saps the strength and increases the thirst. Re the latter I discovered the two best beers in Vietnam - Bia Viet, a dark, German style lager and Bia Sai Gon, a tasty light lager beer. Served cold they are a powerful restorative.

Sai Gon is the commercial capital of Vietnam. A huge city of nearly 8 million people, 1 800 kilometres south of the capital, it plays second fiddle to Ha Noi but only in political terms; this is the centre of commerce at the other end of the country. Many of the local people continue to use Sai Gon as the name for their city stating several times that only politicians and people from the north call it Ho Chi Minh City. We have used the city as a base, establishing ourselves in District 1 and using the time to explore the region as well as getting to know some of the local landmarks.

The last vestiges of communism are disappearing fast from Vietnam generally but Sai Gon in particular. District 1 is home to the restored Opera House, the large and opulant hotels (Sherraton, The Rex, The Continental as featured in The Quiet American, and numerous others around the Le Loi area) as well as more humble establishments like ours. Around the hotels, the big fashion names are writ large, Gucci, Versace, Luis Vuitton as are the watchmakers, Tissot, Rolex and so on. Duty Free shops abound and it seems that every other building is either a restaurant or cafe. Several high quality bookshops (i.e. no copies) mark it apart from other cities in Vietnam.

Night view of Sai Gon from the roof of The Sherraton Hotel

Night view of Sai Gon from the roof of The Sherraton Hotel

Sai Gon's recent history is reflected in the huge amount of rebuilding, the Reunification Palace, once the Presidential Palace for the South Vietnamese, The War Museum and beggars in the street with a range of traumatic amputations, birth deformities and burns.

The Reunification Palace is frozen in time, 1975, with the campaign and map rooms, bunkers, decor, life sized model of US army helicopter on the roof and the two tanks from the North Vietnamese Army that burst through the Palace gates still, to one side now, on the lawn. A fascinating visit with guides too young to remember anything about the war themselves but who's parents would have been involved. Unlike other accounts of The American War the guided tour was somewhat dispassionate, stripped of the bluster and propaganda. Unlike the War Museum, the curator of the Reunification Palace felt that the facts of the NVA advance/SVA retreat spoke for themselves. Some of our fellow tourists sniggered at the fact that the Palace's decoration and furniture seemed dated. They missed the point completely.

The War Museum was well worth visiting. Whilst there was rather a lot of the sort of caption that started "Our courageous comrades victorious against the imperialist...etc etc" there is no denying that the images portrayed were poignant and, at times, horrific. Data about the amount of (defolliant) Agent Orange, Napalm, and ordinance generally, are breathtaking. Missing from the museum was any reference to the 're-education camps' and retributive treatment dished out to South Vietnamese civilians, including the minority peoples, instituted by the North Vietnamese after 1975. The exhibition of pictures by the world's war photographers was outstanding. All the more moving as many of those whose work was featured had, themselves, become casualties of the war. If you are visiting Sai Gon and want to understand modern Vietnam, and measure the huge progress it has made in 35 years, this is a must visit place.

The beggars are sad. Surrounded by the glitter and flash of the big names in the luxury travel world, many carry injuries that would be associated with wartime. In the past 10 years Sai Gon has changed beyond recognition and the quiet begging words are drowned out by the motorbikes and big cars. It takes about a dollar per day to eat to survive here and for many that is a high target to reach. There is little by way of state health care, no free education or much by way of government welfare in this socialist republic. The poor, infirm and aged are often obliged to seek the kindness of strangers. Several of our guides have suggested that Canada, United Kingodom, New Zealand, Sweden, Australia and others are more socialist than Vietnam.

Examples of institutional paranoia dumplings can be found in amongst the spicy soup of NGOs, exciting charity projects and innovative business developments. A frustrating attempt to post a parcel home to NZ from the central post office here in HCMC is a good illustration. I had already decided not to post from Da Lat, our previous stop on the journey as they seemed uncomfortable about letting me send CDs of photos in the post (post offices insist on looking at the contents of each parcel before they wrap them for you) and outright refused to let me send a memory stick of same photos. Their discomfort made me a little wary about sending anything. In HCMC central post office I was told that I could send the prints but not the negatives, no CDs and no memory stick...we'll probably wait until we get to India to send it home.

Aside from that minor frustration HCMC is a big, bustling, cultured city. Where we were, in District 1 is the home of the big hotels, The Continental (seen in The Quiet American), The Caravelle etc (as well as more humble dwellings. As the rule as and regulations around income and expenditure and imports and tourism were relaxed in 1995 vast amounts of development have taken place in the area. This trend looks set to continue with foreign money pouring in to the country and, in particular Sai Gon. Sai Gon is a shameless hussy of a city, one with a history that it is trying hard to deal with, torn between putting the past behind it and exploiting the opportunities that the past provides.

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Not far away, in the district of Cu Chi, nearly 200 kilometres of underground tunnels kept the Viet Cong hidden and close to the enemy. I crawled my way through a sanitised, enlarged and well-lit version of the tunnels for just 50 metres and found myself having to supress some urges to panic as I turned corners, dropped down a level and finally, with great relief, saw daylight. People stayed down here for many days. I would have struggled to do so.

We had a fascinating trip to the Mekong Delta, travelling the first few hours by bus before arriving at Cai Be and climbing aboard the first of many boats we would ride for the next 3 days. With the sound of tearing canvas and large gulps to dispose of the evidence, our bus driver set about clearing the frontal sinus problem that had clearly been troubling him for some time. More worryingly for those of us sat in the very front of the coach he behaved like somebody taking under the counter medication and we saw him take more as our trip was coming to an end. Taking stimulants is a fairly common practice for some of these drivers as a way to stay awake on the roads. The result is a twitchy, aggressive driver. We were concerned.

After Sai Gon the Mekong, once we left the chaotic traffic behind, was a haven of tranquility. Arriving a little late we just about caught the sunset as we set off up the river to our first overnight stay at Can Tho. As we slowly chugged our way up one of the nine branches of the Mekong we saw the contrast between the river as a focus for family life (washing, playing, laundry etc) and as a matrix for the huge agricultural production that keeps Vietnam fed. Vietnam is now the world's largest rice exporter and has a considerable, small scale, industry based on fish farming. All of this is evident as boats large and small head down to the local rice mill with loads of freshly harvested rice. The scale of production is both huge (86 million people to feed plus exporting 8 or more million tons of rice) and small, much of this done by families and communities.

Large boats are on this river. I couldn't tell you the tonnage but they carry a lot of silt and gravel dredged from the river bed and carried to points on the river where the silt is taken off and used for farming. These big boats contrast sharply with the tiny gossamer light boats that older men use for fishing, their nets stretched out hopefully, looking for fresh water shrimp and smaller catfish. Nobody with this kind of gear wants the father of all catfish, a breed that grows to 3 metres in length. There are some very big fish in this river...and snakes!

However big or small the boats are, they are loaded to the gunwhales. Like motorbikes and people, boats work hard to justify their place. The family boat is as essential as the house .....

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The children run along the river banks, waving at us and shouting loudly "Hello....Hello". We wave and call back and they giggle and squeal! Some of the bigger boys carry out acts of bravado for the tourists, and possibly their friends, doing somersaults off the hull of old boats or some other tricks. Children are herded (but need little encouragement) towards the river for bath time which becomes, as with children in many parts of the world, playtime. The evening meal, food washed and prepared in the khaki green river, is cooked on charcoal and the smell of little cookers drifts through the stifling evening heat. It is around 37 degrees. The world around us loses colour as darkness descends on us fairly quickly. The last few glimpses of this sepia world are supplemented with the chatter of families at the end of the day. Occasional electric lights offer a little window to peep through but soon thoughts turn to our destination and the fact that we have another early (05:30) start to the day.

We enjoyed a great meal at the riverside in Can Tho. "Hot Pot"is the local specialty, spicy and flavoursome with steamed rice and cold beer. Eating al fresco at this local favourite gave us ringside seats to watch the shipping continue throughout the dark evening and watch families at play.This town has a population of over 1 000 000 and is the capital of the region, acting as port and tourist hub and business centre. We only stayed overnight so didn't see too much of the place.

Up in the morning to see the local floating market, a fascinating confederation of boats and families selling, mainly, fruit and vegetables. These, in turn, are served by an armada of smaller boats selling coffee, hot food, cold drinks and such like. Toursit boats are chased by small boats selling beer, coke and other cold drinks....

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...these two little chaps were examples of children working to help keep the family afloat.

The bigger boats hoist the vegetable(s) and fruit that they offer up a pole that can be seen by those looking to buy. The range of goods is impressive. Cabbage, pineapples, melons, turnips, potato, melon and much much more. Families live, work and die on these boats although things are changing as the motorbike rather than the boat becomes the dominant form of transport in the region. Land markets may soon take over.

Vietnam Mekong Floating Market 1

Vietnam Mekong Floating Market 1

Back in in Can Tho and a quick go on the Internet where the hits of yesteryear are enjoyed by many; Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, Kiss Me Honey Honey and Auld Lang Syne...all the latest. The music set me thinking about my top 10 for river music so here they are:

The River; Bruce Springsteen Old Man River; Paul Robeson Moon River; Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany's)
Take me to the River; Al Green Ganges Delta Blues; Ry Cooder and MV Bhatt In the Mississippi River; Mavis Staples Lazy River; Satchmo Find the River; REM Going to the River; Fats Domino Green River; Creedence Clearwater Revival The Water Music; GF Handel....(well 11 then)

3 days of cruising on Mekong took us to a rice mill, past cargo ships, to fish farms, temples, a mosque and, before we turned to chug back to our coach, an overnight stay at Chau Doc, just 1.5 hours south of Phnom Penh up the Mekong River in Cambodia. This is a huge river, sustaining a very large population. If predictions about rising sea levels are believed then much of this low lying countryside will be deep under salt water. Who knows what will happen then.

This blog has been posted from Siem Reap. We decided to skip Phnom Penh and spend the week or so that we have in Cambodia based here near the ancient Angkor City. The temples monuments have been magnificent. Breath takingly beautiful in a way that no photographs can prepare you for. In this respect it is rather like Machu Piccu, that rare phenomenon that can exceed the considerable hype poured upon it. More of this in the next blog.

Lots of love and best wishes to family and friends.

Posted by JohnandJac 01:29 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

Vietnam: Hoi An, Nha Trang and Da Lat

sunny 37 °C
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John:....

....This actually happened somewhere along the Vietnam leg of our trip:

Guide: "What your name?"

Jackie: "Jackie"

Guide: "Hi Jackie"

Guide: "What your name?"

John: "John"

Guide: "Hi John"

Guide: "My name is Ho"

John: " Hi Ho"

Jackie: "Hi Ho"

...and before we knew it we were off to work....

The last blog signed off from Hoi An and I forgot to include the following:

In the centre of the town is a shop selling replica model boats. The models are of historic ships including the HMS Endeavour, HMS Victory, The Mary Rose and several of the ships from the ill fated Spanish Armada to name but a few. Now I'm not qualified to comment on just how accurate these replicas are but they looked very convincing to me (and I've been on the Victory many times). These models are, in some cases, huge. The largest models are over a metre long, fully rigged and very detailed. So large in fact that you have more chance of sailing the thing home than getting it through the Vietnam postal service, more of which in the next posting.

To get to our next stop down the coast, Nha Trang, we had to drive back up to Da Nang and catch the train south. The Reunification Express is an old train and like much of the rail service here desperately in need of investment in both rolling stock and track. The latter so uneven that writing was out of the question as we rolled and rattled our way slowly towards our destination. No remarkable sights on the way, the rice crop was further advanced the further south we went and occasionally there was some maize or bananas to break the pattern but in the end the rice came back; always the rice. And with the rice fields the irrigation systems, water buffalo and hard working farmers in the blazing sun.

We had plenty to see and do however and towards the end of our 8 hour trip we were joined by the guard who had been putting himself through English classes back in Ha Noi, where this train originated. We enjoyed the best conversation we all could manage and when the three of us ran out of words we just sat quietly. Phuong was an example of a young (ish) man doing the best he could to get on despite not much schooling earlier on in life. With twin girls aged 5 and a 3 year old son he has to work long shifts to make ends meet. The run from Ha Noi to Sai Gon is around 20 hours. He will sleep from 04:00 when the train gets to Sai Gon and will take the return trip at 19:00 to Ha Noi. He doesn't earn a lot for this.

We arrived in Nha Trang, unashamed seaside resort with great beach and all the usual trappings that go with it; hotels, eating places and so on. We landed on our feet when we booked into the excellent, family run Ha Van Hotel, just back from the seafront. Home to the longest cable car run across the sea which leads to possible the emptiest 'theme park' in the world, VINPEARL. I went across the 3 km stretch of sea to get some pictures of the cruise liner below us, P&O vessel The Arcadia,

In the park itself there was little of interest to me except for the wonderful aquarium. Before the inevitable tunnel going through a tank full of sharks, rays, turtles etc. there was an excellent display featuring the fish from the Mekong River - there are some very large fish there I can tell you. Catfish seem to do well in the Mekong as do various other armoured and odd looking species. Must remember not to trail my fingers in the water next week...

Nha Trang is not, on the face of it, one of the great cultural centres of Vietnam but with a little effort there is plenty there. The Yersin centre, next to the Pasteur Institute, occupies the sort of beach front real estate that large hotels must be falling over themselves for. Instead the site combines the vaccination centre for the region and a fascinating museum dedicated to Yersin himself. Scientist, astronomer, writer, historian, inventor, he devoted himself fully to his new country Vietnam after leaving France. For a nominal entrance fee you can learn a lot about early 20th century Vietnam and this Frenchman's outlook on life, France, Vietnam and, through his very large telescope, the universe.

We enjoyed the above very much but were both moved by the gallery of the 60 year old Vietnamese photographer Long Thanh. Working only with black and white film, he has been taking pictures of Vietnam and Vietnamese people since the age of 13. Interupted by a stint in the army during the war but otherwise his work reflects the rural and urban heartbeats of Vietnam. All of his work involves people: his landscapes are populated and the people in his photographs are both posed and candid. I don't know a lot about Long Thanh but if my interpretation of his photographs is right I suspect him to be a humanitarian, respectful of his subjects and with a great sympathy regarding the lives they lead. These are not politicians or show business types but ordinary people who, through Long Thanh, make extraordinary images. For me his talent is in the way he can elicit stories from a face. Like so many talented people in this country his work reveals a humility that far less talented people could learn from. He wasn't in when we went but he is happy to offer advice, conversation and stories if he happens to be ariound when you go. If there is one 'must do' in Nha Trang then this would be my nomination, closely followed by the Yersin museum. Read more about Long Thanh and look at his beautiful pictures at:

http://www.longthanhart.com/images.htmhttp://www.longthanhart.com/images.htm

Talking about photography the most significant find, for me, was a shop selling second hand camera lenses and as luck would have it they had a Nikon compatible 70 - 210 mm lens. Slightly overpriced but optically and mechanically sound I was back in the picture taking business.

Such a tourist trap is always going to have great food. At Le Petit Bistro the best of the French influence with fine cheeses, pate and bread and at the wonderful restaurant 'Lanterns' some of the very best Vietnamese food we have tasted. If this wasn't another 'good cause' restaurant it would still have been very good indeed. The fact that it was training street kids in the catering and hospitality world made it even better. This compared with the awfulness of The Four Seasons on the Beach Front where, on checking the bill I discovered that they had charged us for use of the napkins!

Time for our bus trip to Da Lat. 7 hours across country with a driver, surely, on a care in the community programme for the criminally insane! One of the more uncomfortable journeys we have taken on our 7 months of travelling. For 8 kms of the journey there was no road, just the places where a road used to be and another road is expected to be. We felt really sorry for the people living alongside this stretch of deep dust. The air pollution whipped up by works traffic and a succession of coaches must have some impact on the lungs, food, vegetation, washing etc...

Da Lat was not quite what we expected it to be. Not that anything we had read was misleading., just that, as Jackie said, it was more of a 'town in the mountains' rather than 'a mountain town'. As with our experience in Da Nang this isn't necessarily a bad thing and it was really interesting to watch a 'real' town at work without the tourist trappings that go with a place like Nha Trang.

We enjoyed a great meal just along the street from our hotel, Dreams 2, at a little local spot called Nhat Ly followed by trip to a 'New Zealand ice cream' place. We were the only people in the place and that was a shame because the ice cream was all that ice cream should be (the vanilla was the best Dad!), although, for some of the options, overdressed with syrup, foolish confections and other such nonsense.

We visited the Crazy House, expecting to see our coach driver there. This is an ongoing life project by a fascinating woman who put herself through Architecture school in Moscow and investing huge amounts of money in this fantastic building. Some may find it kitschy, others magical but it is certainly one of the least 'socialist republic' type building you could imagine, all aerial walkways between pretend trees and themed bedrooms tucked away behind giant giraffes. She paid the price for her individuality in the pre relaxed rules of the Socialist Republic with the local 'People's Committee' ordering one of her buildings to be torn down because it wasn't socialist enough! What a tragedy that such a rare commodity and, in her own way, revolutionary (educated woman, innovative architect, visionary), in the midst of a new country should be treated so.

The centre of Da Lat is a huge lake, beloved of honeymooning couples and visitors from all over Vietnam. At least one cafe rides out over the lake and several hotels look down on it. Once every ten years the lake is drained for maintenance...how lucky were we to get there as the maintenance is underway! Otherwise the busy market is a great place, and the Da Lat Flower Gardens, as well as having a great display of orchids hold the largest collection of badly copied, painted concrete Disney characters you could ever wish to see. Snow White was such a busty beauty that I suspect she was originally part of some other slightly seedier project...even Grumpy looked hopeful.

We met an extraordinary old gentleman, Duy Viet, in his home which is also the 'Stop and Go' cafe. Accessed along the driveway, past the flower houses and up to the lovely old rambling French style house. Warmly greeted by the multi-lingual and multi-talented Duy Viet we enjoyed some excellent, strong coffee, cherry tea, artichoke tea and some bullet proof sponge cake. Duy Viet is a poet, philosopher, painter, photographer, raconteur, singer, conservationist and great conversationalist. Duy Viet is a diminutive chap, sporting a beret and wearing a dark suit in the French style. The walls of his cafe are covered in pictures of him (mostly) and his wife (a few) plus old guitars, brush stroke quotations and all sorts of ephemera. We looked through one of his poetry books and I noticed some music at which point he brought down his 50 year old guitar and played away while I approximated the tune. The other most famous singer to have warbled here was Peter Garrett, one time singer with ace Aussie band Midnight Oil and now (?) Environment Minister (?) in the Australian Government. Duy Viet told me that he, Peter Garrett, had sung the same song, recently, in that room, accompanied on the same guitar by the same guitarist (and there is a signed entry in Duy Viet's visitors book from PG)...eat your heart out Peter!

The best of Da Lat for me was, as often happens, an accident. We visited the lovely park overlooking the Quang Trung Reservoir on a blisteringly hot day. The light breeze was a relief as it dispersed the scent from the pine trees and gently broadcast the gentle sounds of the large chime bells on the corner of the Truc Lam Pagoda. This is a large complex with residential quarters for the monks, facilities for visitors to meditate and so on. Finding myself alone, I thought, in one of the temples, marveling at the sculptures and the peacefulness of the place my peace was disturbed by a gentle touch on the arm. "Please, will you help my English?" This was Thung Hoa, one of the monks attached to the Pagoda. Next thing I knew I was sat, leaning against the wall with Thung Hoa's English exercise book between us.

We worked our way through 6 exercises involving dialogue between buddhist monks in retreat. Now I have never taught English formally but I would have thought that words like 'VENERABLE' and 'REVEREND' would have come in a little way further down the line that where Thung Hoa was at this stage...never the less every time he got VENERABLE right and I congratulated him he chuckled with glee from his shaved head right down to his bare feet. Before I knew it an hour had passed in his company. Soon he was joined by his friend, Thanh Ngo, and then by an older monk. he took it in turns to break off from the lesson and help worshippers by lighting their incense sticks and sounding the temple bell before trotting back for more practice. Perhaps a once in a lifetime experience with these lovely people and just by chance.....

John, Thung Hoa (left), Thanh Ngo (right)

John, Thung Hoa (left), Thanh Ngo (right)

These are they and Thung Hoa may be laying his head on my chest out of relief that the lesson is over!

So Da Lat, not what we were expecting but, for me, one of the high points of our time in Vietnam happened here, in the mountains. I am posting this from Sai Gon. I think I shall continue to call it Sai Gon because that is what the people who live here call it. As our guide from a recent trip said..."There is a Sai Gon River, no Ho Chi Minh River. There is a Sai Gon Newspaper, there is no Ho Chi Minh newspaper and most importantly there is Bia (Beer) Sai Gon, there is no Bia Ho Chi Minh." More on Sai Gon in the next posting.

In the meantime lots of love and best wishes to family and friends, especially if it's your birthday this week ! x

Posted by JohnandJac 03:44 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Vietnam: Hoi An

To market to market...

sunny 30 °C
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John:....Today is our last full day in Hoi An and a thoroughly fine place it has been. Last night took us into the Old Town to eat, each of us taking our new clothes out for a trial run. Another of Vietnam's many contradictions as we walked through the lovingly restored temples and houses, the essence of Vietnamese architecture from a by gone time, the piped music in the background throughout the town was Richard Clayderman playing For Auld Langs Syne.

Almost saving the best until last we were up early this morning to get to the fish market by 6:30 am. Our walk took us along nearly empty pavements, normally congested with parked motorbikes, pho stalls and overflowing shop fronts. The 5 minute walk to the water's edge took us past several Tai Chi groups performing their routines gracefully to over amplified music echoing across the incoming tide..

The Sun was already up, red and clear, the first time we have seen it in several days. Two hundred metres further along the wharf full with incoming ferry boats stacked high with bicycles, people and motorbikes, turning around quickly to make space for the next boat bringing workers into town. Each boat has a plimsoll line painted on it but if water ever reached the plimsoll line then boat, crew, passengers et al were in deep trouble and deep water.

Ferry boat Hoi An

Ferry boat Hoi An

We walked into the vegetable market, just back from the dockside. The market congested with people and motorbikes pushing through spaces that didn't seem to exist. The smell of fresh cut herbs and vegetables was everywhere. Women ran this particular show and many had their home made goods on display, freshly chopped 'salsa' of chillies, spring onions, ginger plus, of course, a secret combination of herbs with which to blend them. Cutting back towards the dockside revealed the fish market and somewhere in between the two the delicious smells of fresh fish, coriander and basil melded into one.

The fish market provided a timeless scene if you could blank out the odd detail like the plastic buckets and diesel engines. Little leathery ladies in conical hats were filleting fish and shelling prawns and crabs. Knives sharpened to beyond sharp, every action seemed careless but only because of the unconscious mastery brought about by years of practice. This allowed for a completely uninterupted conversation with her neighbour, doing the same thing. Multiply this by a hundred or so little ladies and you have the soundtrack, supplemented by the clatter and chug of fishing boats coming in and the beep beep of yet another Honda 90 coming through. Seafood of all varieties was on display, from the very dead to the very much alive.

Vietnam_Ho..arket_1.jpg

Vietnam_Ho..arket_2.jpg

The former included tuna and some other 'game' fish, snapper, whitebait and shrimp/prawns of all sizes and colours. The live contingent included crabs and fish in large buckets of sea water kept fresh by rudimentary pumps and filters powered by motorbike batteries. We passed by one elderly lady in conical hat and square cut tunic and trousers enjoying a quiet moment smoking a small hand rolled cigar. The fish market, packed onto the tiny wharf was jammed with people buying, selling, fileting, scaling, gutting and chatting. Now and again a cafe person would push through urgently with a tray of beef and noodle soup or some strong coffee. As with the vegetable market it was mostly women selling the fish. It was mostly men on the boats. We saw some boats going out on the tide with large bunches of incense sticks burning in the prow, their white plume of prayers and messages merging with the diesel as the boat chugged and clattered its way towards the sea.

We left the crowded fish market before somebody absent mindedly filleted, and scaled us and walked through the half dark half flourescent lit meat and dried goods market. Past the tobacco stall where little old leathery ladies buy the makings to roll their own cigars. We bought things we didn't need to give us an excuse stand around, a bottle of water, fresh picked and salted peanuts, two little 'sit-on-the-cup' coffee filters and a kitchen knife. We resisted, quite easily, the home made graters and zesters that looked as if somebody had just driven nails through a piece of tin. The last time we saw these was in a little village in the Amazon where I managed to shave half a thumb into the cassava flour.

The tide was coming in steadily and the water was turbulent with small fishes in seeming celebration. A three of diamonds floated slowly past from some abandoned card game. "Hey mister, Hey Mister....you want coffee". "Madam, Madam...you want good coffee?".... instinctively I said the standard "No. Thankyou" and then we wondered why...we sat on Yu's plastic stools at his pavement cafe by the dockside, watching the ferry boats come in and out in the increasingly warm sun. The coffee was good. Strong as strong can be and with a hint of chocolate or vanilla or both. No milk, no sugar for me. Milk for Jackie...either way the taste, the place, the smells, the chatter of people and the clatter of boats and boxes supplemented the taste. We were joined by a young couple from Amsterdam. Fifth year medical students with interesting tales from Thailand, swapping tips from the south with our tips from the north: Ha Noi their next stop.

An hour passed, just like that. Yu, on spotting our coffee filter arrangements became the Hoi An Professor of Coffee as he carefully sold us another drink and explained how to make the best possible coffee....in fact, he gently suggested that he happened to have a few bags to sell if we wanted...! A lovely guy with young family, working hard and doing well. Yu and the many people like him that we have met so far in Vietnam are what is driving the Vietnamese economy at the micro level....small businesses in towns like Hoi An, masses of small farms growing rice, herbs, vegetables...and Honda step through motorbikes. We have seen Honda step throughs with a couple of pigs on the back, carpets, huge rolls of wire, four people, 12 crates of beer, baskets of live hens, dozens of boxes of eggs, modified and pulling trailers of bricks or other building supplies. They take people to work, bring them home, ride on and off road, go to market, ride through rice fields, They can be fixed at the roadside...I just watched a full engine strip down on the pavement with just a small handful of tools. Unlike South America and Tanzania, by far the highest proportion of motorbikes are genuine Honda (rather than Chinese copies), followed a long way behind by Yamaha.

Girly girls ride Vespa or Piaggio scooters but they're of no practical use other than for riding and they take up too much space. Bicycles are still plentiful although proportionately less so than they were. Style resistant sit-up-and-beg is the choice for most and the bicycle bell the warning that one is coming at you. Bicycles suffer from the same degree of overloading, carrying numbers of people and piles of goods unimaginable by their designers.

It's rare for a multi cylinder bike to be seen although an old Honda CB 250 with a modified 'shark-fin exhaust' was parked up in town yesterday and against all the odds, occasional relics from the Soviet Union Minsk motorbikes and from the old Czeckoslovakia CZ JAWA.

Anyway time to move off this computer. If you are visiting Hoi An the early morning start to the day and trip to the market is well worth doing. It will cost you little or nothing. You will step back in time through the market and may end up with the best photographs of your holiday. If you stop by Yu's coffee stand you will drink the best coffee in Hoi An and possibly enjoy the best of conversations too....but don't tell anybody about either the market or Yu's...when we first arrived there were no other tourists there!

And now I can hear some lovely recorded flute music floating by. It is the call of the garbage truck advising everybody to get their rubbish out for collection.

Lots of love and best wishes to family and friends.

Posted by JohnandJac 20:29 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

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