Saturday, 27 February 2010

Saturday 27th February

We started the day walking to some of the sights around Hoi An - there's a strange system where you buy a ticket at the start of the day and you can use it to get into one museum, one house, one assembly hall, etc. If you want to go into another one of anything you have to buy another ticket. The old houses are built in quite an eclectic style - a mixture of Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese almost on top of one another. They haven't quite got the hang of subtle, light-weight engineering yet though... We've included a selection of pictures from a Chinese Assembly building, domestic temple etc. The Chinese Assembly Building had some giant incense coils suspended from the ceiling (smoke taking your prayers to heaven - and the ash falling on your head).
After a couple of sites it was time to visit Caroline's first tailor... The summer dress actually turned out quite well and she decided to wear it for the afternoon. A bit cooler in the scorching heat that starts at 10am and doesn't abate until about 5pm.

Later visits to tailors 2 & 3 also proved successful. They've made the usual mistakes with Olly's suit - no he doesn't have a waist quite that large, just believe the measurements you made... Caroline's winter coat looked really good, but it's not quite the climate for trying it on. Second fittings tomorrow... We'll try to get a couple of photos.

In the evening we strolled through the Full Moon festival which is held every lunar month. Sounds like a good excuse for regular parties really. They launch hundreds of little candle boats out onto the river - it was beautiful. Also strange games (including a violent variant of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, where blindfolded contestants tried to break clay pots full of ???) and communal pavement dinners.

Coment of the day came from an American lady in the hotel. When discussing our holiday her comment to Caroline was: "You don't look like a trekker - you look too good." :-)

Read in the news about the 8.8 earthquake in Chile. It was only 70 miles from Conception. Rather glad we're not there now!

Friday 26th February

Early morning flight to Danang followed by a brief trip to Hoi An, stopping at the Marble Mountain (one of a series of small marble hillocks surrounding Hoi An), China Beach and a local stone carving workshop (which was producing some quite spectacularly hideous creations).

Hoi An is lovely; old wooden houses and narrow cobbled streets, cars are banned in the old city, so at least you only have to look out for the mad midget motorbike maniacs. The city floods to a depth of about 3m every rainy season, but everybody just moves upstairs and boats replace bikes.

Most of the shops are tailors, cobblers, lantern makers, art galleries or restaurants. All in all a good place to part with some cash. Which is what we spent much of the afternoon doing. That and getting measured; in every shop doorway you see tourists sucking in their tummies, wishing they were several sizes smaller. The tailors will make absolutely anything you want, with no reference to any style concerns. Caroline has heavily bastardised 2009 Vogue so we'll have to see whether she looks like Victoria Beckham! (Olly hopes not.) Results tomorrow... We both have some feelings of trepidation.

Found a little woman cooking on the side of the street (possibly skewered pork) - whatever, it was very tasty and we haven't suffered any side effects yet. :-) Sitting on children's stools in the dust at the side of the road we were looked down on by numerous American tour parties. We know we've gone native because Olly was complimented on his haggling skills.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Thursday 25th February

Bit of an admin and sightseeing day - we booked tickets to fly to Hoi An tomorrow (only $20 more than the train and $460 less than a motorbike - also considerably quicker). Also posted some stuff back home; paperwork in triplicate / quadruplicate is alive and well here. To get our presents out of the country we had 28 different stamps and nearly as many forms...

Went to see a gallery of beautiful black & white photographs by Long Thanh (see We've copied a couple of samples for you...

Also visited one of the local pagodas with a 24m high buddha and the usual plastic paraphanalia, and the Pasteur Museum of Alexandre Yersin who discovered the microbe that causes bubonic plague (and developed an antidote and a vaccination) and pioneered quinine production in Vietnam. He was also an avid collector of scientific toys in the early 20th century - all for serious scientific research of course... Possibly the only Frenchman the Vietnamese admire, he has also become plastic paraphanalia and has a pagoda in his own right as a protecting divinity.

Wednesday 24th February

Activity for today was snorkeling - we were picked up from the hotel and headed down to the harbour, past numerous shops that had aquariums full of seahorses outside (presumably for eating).

The boat was bigger and the sea less choppy than our last excursion so it was a considerably more comfortable trip out to the nearby islands for "Vietnam's best snorkeling". The snorkeling was indeed excellent, visibility of about 15m and loads of coral, colourful fishes and assorted marine lifeforms as yet unidentified. We really must get better at this fish identification thing.

We had two stops for getting wet at which we spent a little too much time in the water - with only six people on the boat it was a pretty relaxed schedule.

Tried lobster for dinner - tasted very good but really not sure that the hassle is worth it; particularly when you don't have any cracker things to get the shell off. They're damned spikey on the fingers.

As we walked back to the hotel we saw da Vinci himself at work...

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Tuesday 23rd February

Today we traveled from Da Lat to Nha Trang. Rather than waste another day on the bus, we hired a guide, some bikes and some kayaks and did the 90km the hard way. Da Lat is up at about 1700m and Nha Trang is right down on the coast so most of the cycling was whizzing downhill. :-) There was a killer 3km climb in the middle though, so not all easy riding... You may not believe this, but the road we cycled down was a beautiful new trunk road with smooth tarmac, totally devoid of traffic for two reasons: a) they haven't quite got round to finishing a 4km section to join the two ends together (no one quite knows when this is going to happen), and b) apparently people don't like the new road - it has too many bends (?!?!) so most continue to use the pot-holed dusty single track hellhole death track that is the alternative. Weird!

However the views of jungle covered ravines were beautiful. We saw local people gathering grass to make brooms, baskets of sugar cane and coffee. Also, slightly strangely, men snorkeling in the river looking for "beautiful rocks". This was all we could get out of the guide. Possibly the activity was illegal, but I'm not sure in what way. Maybe just what they'd been smoking beforehand.

On reaching Nha Trang Caroline was offered Marijuana by a stoned motorcyclist. She told him it was bad for him in her best Emma Thompson impression, and gave him a short lecture about the evils of such vices. Middle class breeding comes out... Olly just kept his distance.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Monday 22nd February

Trekking around Da Lat today with a tour guide we booked yesterday afternoon. Countryside is lovely here; rolling hills clothed in pine forest and steep terraced farmland growing coffee and market vegetables. Temperature and humidity are also great (lower sweat factor than in the lowlands further south). Trek was interesting, about 17km including a couple of dodgy suspension bridges; Indiana Jones style with thin cables wrapped around trees for support and numerous missing wooden slats. "Go Ape" eat your heart out.

Also visited a hill-community village only accessible by track (no running water or electricity). The only modern conveniences in evidence were the ubiquitous motorbikes and even they look old and decrepit. The tracks themselves are a single foot-wide strip of concrete winding across the hillsides and heading up slopes that are difficult to navigate on foot.

The main viewpoint on the trek was Tiger Falls, and pretty waterfall where the last wild tiger in the area lived, before being killed in the 1950's.

On returning to Da Lat, Olly had a hair cut. It was a somewhat nerve wracking experience; he had to keep the clippers plugged in with his foot whilst they were being wielded, sparking wildly all the time. Caroline just sat looking smug.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Sunday 21st February

7 hour bus journey to Da Lat. There were only 5 of us on a big bus - made for a nice relaxing journey, though somehow Caroline managed to turn into an A.A.Milne character part-way through!

Saturday 20th February

Sightseeing in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh)

Started on a walking tour of the city, although Caroline was enjoying SHOPPING, which distracted us (her) somewhat. Net purchases (very restrained): half a kilo of lychees, shampoo and two snakeskin belts.

Road crossing here is unbelievably scary, you just have to start walking slowly and hope the two hundred motorbikes and taxis avoid you on the way over. When it's a five or six way junction with several lanes running in random (literally) directions it's sort of down to an act of god to get you across in one piece. Caroline found herself making strange whimpering noises in the middle of a particularly bad one.

First stop was Ben Thanh market; a very sane affair compared with those in Cambodia. Next was the Fine Arts Museum - lots of pro-revolution Glory of the Fatherland stuff. Best seen at speed. It was in a lovely decaying French colonial house though. Gave the war remnants museum and the ex-presidential palace a miss although we did admire the captured American armaments displayed like enormous gnomes. The Post Office was a pleasant surprise, all wood paneling and old-style booths which provided telephone services, banking, post and even flower deliveries. You could have filmed a 1920's drama in here with little amendment. Next door to the Post Office was "Notre Dame", the Vietnamese version... All locked up so no prayers today - even when crossing the street.

Our confidence growing we went in search of the Jade Emperor's and Tran Hung Dao Pagodas. Bizarre! Vendors selling goldfish and terrapins outside which appeared to be offerings to be placed in a large pool - where they proceeded to eat each other. The temple was chaos: worshippers were practically stabbing each other with their joss sticks and the floor was knee deep in spent lottery tickets. We needed a Mocca Frappachino to recover. We are off into the wilds tomorrow so need to get in the delights of civilisation whilst we can.

In the evening we browsed a few art galleries and enjoyed the beautiful Tet lights.

In summary we quite liked Saigon, although it would not win any beauty contests; there were good shops and transport links and it's easy to walk around. Sounds like Birmingham.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Friday 19th February

Bus journey to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) today - about 6 hours of slightly cramped seats and a screaming child (at least for part of the time). Met a nice french couple who live in Singapore - shared a taxi into the city center with them. We're planning to do the walking tour of Ho Chi Minh tomorrow and see how we go!

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Thursday 18th February

An early start this morning to catch our little boat (one of the small longtails we've seen on various rivers and canals already) captained by a cheery PJ'd woman with a perpetual smile. She didn't speak any English, but was a great non-verbal guide, pointing out things on the bank and stopping so that we could get off and climb over monkey bridges (the somewhat scary and dilapidated single-plank affairs that the government is trying to condemn).

First stop was Cai Rang - one of the floating markets - very different from those in Thailand with large barges stacked with farm produce almost to sinking point. It's fairly quiet at the moment since we're still in the holiday period following Tet, but it was fascinating to see. Each of the barges had a long bamboo cane stuck vertically from its prow with a sample of the wares for sale hanging there so you could see what was on offer.

We also stopped at some rice fields and a fruit farm where we breakfasted on freshly picked mangos, pineapples and milk apples. There are still occasional colourful paper and wood boats that had been floated down the river for Tet. Some of the backwater canals were incredibly verdant and peaceful - just like English canal boating. More people drink straight out of the river here though...!

Have checked into a decent hotel for the night since we could do with some sleep on a good mattress. Didn't realise large pink bath robe for Caroline was also included. The fantastic transformation to human marshmallow is complete. Olly decides the best way to cure Caroline's persistent hiccups is to force feed her beer. Sadly Vietnamese beer is the worst in the world. It makes Miller Extra Lite seem excellent! Really looking forward to that fermented yak's milk in Bhutan..yum ...yum ....yum.

Wednesday 17th February

Ha Tien - a breakfast desert - unless you like rice and fried eggs, which we found in a little pavement stall - amazing what you can eat if you are hungry enough!

Bus to Can Tho was only an hour late starting ... to be compounded by the driver's genius plan to stop for an hour for lunch at his mate's cafe. Eventually peer pressure reduced this to thirty mins. Finally arrived in Can Tho at 7pm. Booked into a cheap hotel and organised a boat trip for the morning.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Tuesday 16th February

Up bright and early to catch bus to Vietnam – our penultimate stop :-(

Our chosen border crossing has only been open 3 months and the bus company only operating 16 days – not sure if this is a good thing. We buy a large packed of oreo’s - emergency supplies!

Journey to border was uneventful - increasing sightings of water buffaloes (cool!) and paddy fields as we travel further south into the Mekong delta. An excellent experience leaving Cambodia – no bribes or “additional expenses” required - they even had a feedback form! Even on the Vietnam side there is only a ½ hearted attempt to extract a “quarantine fee”. After a five minute stand off - us demanding a receipt and the official demanding the money he gives up on us and turns to easier pickings. After the horror stories we have heard from other travelers about border crossings in the region we feel as if we have got off lightly.

First impressions of Vietnam; much clearer and better infrastructure than Cambodia. Less obvious signs of poverty. We manage to find a hotel with a bath for 10 USD or 200,000 dong. :-)

We have a wander around Ha Tien and the place is completely dead. The day after Tet tho’ everyone seems to be nursing a monster hangover.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Monday 15th February

The Cookery Course

Run in a local building where the entire top floor has been converted into a kitchen, we were lucky to be in a group of only three with a lady from New Zealand who now lives in Ho Chi Minh. We gleaned lots of useful information about Vietnam from her.

The food preparation and consumption, of which there was lots, were good fun and even Olly doesn't have too much excuse for not being able to cook the dishes with reasonable confidence. We did spring rolls, fish soup, beef lak loc, and a sticky rice dessert.

Following the course Caroline decided that a massage was definitely in order, all that work and effort is a strain after all!

Sunday 14th February

Chinese New Year / Valentine's Day

Snorkeling trip today; met at 7:20 and then waited for everyone to turn up. Went to pick up one girl who had managed to abscond from a cruise ship for the day, then went around to meet the boat.

Stopped outside a rather run-down pair of houses, then traipsed along an incredibly rickety pier built out into the sea on stilts, and surrounded by houses constructed in similar fashion. All of the dive party were conspicuous in walking above the support joists, rather than on the dodgy planking suspended above some fairly unsavory water.

The boat was on all wooden fishing boat that had been converted, by the addition of a marine (i.e. what goes in, goes out) toilet, a bench down the middle for air tanks, and a "sun deck". Once out on the reasonably choppy sea (6' - 8') waves it also became apparent that the thing had scarcely any keel and no vertical stability to speak of. Put bluntly it wallowed like a pig.

Three hours later we finally reached the first dive site and, whilst the others kitted up, Caroline and Olly donned fins and snorkels and went looking for things to see. And were disappointed. Visibility was fairly rubbish and there wasn't anything of import on the rocks other than a bit of weed and one or two fish. The only real entertainment was when Olly first put his head underwater to see a crab hanging from Caroline's bikini bottoms. It was quite a big crab too...

We returned to the boat to find that a couple of the divers were also unhappy, but all settled down and had a bite of lunch before setting out for the second dive site. Here we hit gold. The visibility was much better, we could easily see the bottom at 4-5 meters, and there was lots more marine life. Before we got to see much though, we were suddenly surrounded by literally hundreds of thousands of fish - an entire shoal of them swimming so close together that we couldn't see the bottom, and stretching out in all directions as far as we could see. It was incredible; like being in a David Attenborough documentary.

When we swam free of the shoal there were lots of other fish and corals as well, though unfortunately we're not very good at identifying them. There was a very cool Moray Eel; yellow with brown spots and electric blue eyes, zebra fish and loads of others. Apparently the divers saw a puffer fish... :-)

The boat journey back was slightly less uncomfortable with the wind behind us. We docked having been given the warning to keep hands inside the boat because "sometimes they crash". Great.

Tried a different restaurant for Valentine's and Caroline received a handmade card from an anonymous suitor - looked suspiciously like a page from our notebook though...

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Saturday 13th February

Spent day catching up on internet, booking accommodation and transport to Vietnam. Other than that a lazy day on the beach with books. Lots of firecrackers and locals wandering around with hangovers due to impending Chinese New Year.

Friday 12th February

Bus journey from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville again the bus made it with breaking down tho' the gearbox sounded dodgy. There was a very annoying screaming child in the seat next to us tho', and the music videos they insist on showing were truly horrendous. Never again will be complain about UK public transport. We booked a snorkeling trip around one of the nearby islands for Sunday and a cookery course for Monday.
Pictures are from the beach 100m from our guest house. :-)