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Cyclos rank

Today was another early start, this time for our first experience of an Open Tour bus journey within Vietnam. The Open Tour is a series of buses geared to foreign tourists that run up and down the main Route 1 Highway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. You can choose between express buses and others that stop along the way so that you can see a few sights. It is a very packaged affair but it is a cheap way to travel.

Our bus toured around the centre of Hué stopping at various hotels to pick people up before heading out and down the main road. The bus was pretty full of western tourists, another sign that Vietnam is fast becoming a popular spot on the South East Asia back packer trail.

After about an hour we pulled in for our first stop at Lang Co beach, or rather Lang Co Beach resort. For those in need of retail therapy a small souvenir shop was on hand to relieve them of their Dong. Most people simply used the washrooms, had a drink and strolled down onto the beach which had beautiful soft sand. In season the beach must be fabulous but today the wind was up and the sea did not look inviting.

Back on the bus we continued southbound and to the Hai Van Pass, a tourist sight for the views it gives over the local area from an elevation of just under five hundred metres. The only slight snag was that as the new tunnel under the pass has now been opened our bus took this route, saving time on the overall journey. We missed the views from above but it must be the longest tunnel I have driven through ever. It took about ten minutes to get from one end to the other and I am not sure if I was reassured or disconcerted to see escape exits along the way.

From here we carried on following the coast of the South China Sea down to Danang. As we neared the city signs of its recent return to commercial success were evident. A wide road has been built along the coast with a large promenade to one side and plots of land ripe for development on the other. Old houses that had definitely seen better days were still evident and lived in but here and there a very smart, and large, new house with a walled and gated courtyard at the front had been built. No doubt the well heeled of Danang are starting to spread along the coast to enjoy the beach and the views of the sea.

We did not stop in Danang other than to let someone off the bus. As a town it looked just like many others with people going about their daily business, shops selling their wares and the usual traffic chaos that is a characteristic feature in Vietnam. Just under twenty kilometres north of HoiAn we made our next and final stop at Marble Mountain.

As the bus got near to this site the shops lining the roads changed to become almost exclusively ones selling marbles statues in all shapes and sizes. The most noticeable were pairs of huge marble lions, carved in a Chinese style and certainly big enough to make a statement, more likely than not one that the owner has dubious taste. There were statues of ladies, Buddha’s, all sorts of animals and no doubt you could have whatever you wanted made to order and shipped to anywhere in the world.

We pulled in to a small car park at the base of one of the mountains. Souvenir sellers soon were coming to greet us as we got off the bus. There was not really enough time to fully explore the mountains but we did have time to go into one of the cave entrances, for a fee! A passageway soon widened into a large chamber with natural holes in the roof letting in sunlight and fresh air. Bats were flying around in the darkness, evidenced by their screeching and the smell of their droppings. The cave network here is pretty extensive but we had time to see just a small portion. Temples inevitably have been set up in the caves and we quickly realised that there was a rabbit warren of tunnels that you could explore.

The bus finally took us into HoiAn, a town that is much larger than I had expected. It stopped outside a “preferred” hotel and there was some pressure for people to stay here but definitely no hard sell. We had already booked ahead and took a taxi out to the Hoi An Beach Resort about five kilometres out of town. Once our reservation had been tracked down the staff were all sweetness and smiles and told us that they had prepared a very nice room for us. Phoning ahead definitely paid off as we had just over a thirty percent reduction on the room rate and had a quiet room overlooking the river.

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Beach at Hoi An

We took some time to cool down and explore around the hotel a little, checking out the two swimming pools and getting Stef a slightly dubious haircut before taking the free shuttle bus into town. It was a quick whiz in and out mainly to make sure that we had enough cash to see us through the holiday season and to start to look at options for getting down to Da Lat. Our plan is to travel on Monday but as it is the day after Tet we quickly realised that that was not going to be an option. Cash in wallet but onward travel not resolved we headed back to the hotel and hit the beach.

The hotel has a small bar (now closed as it is the off season) and some parasols with sun loungers reserved for the use of its guests. We picked our spot and settled in for an hour or two’s relaxation, watching the waves. Stef performed his usual important task of testing the waters which he reported back were cool but not too cold. Vendors plied their way up and down the beach selling fruit, sweets, tiger balm (local equivalent of Vicks VapoRub) and other odds and sods. Each time we said “no thank you” they always told us their name and asked us to buy from them if we changed our mind. Once the vendors had gone the mobile beauty parlour moved in offering manicure, pedicure and massage. You can definitely be pampered while you sunbathe here.

In the evening we stayed in the hotel, enjoying a couple of drinks in the bar before we had dinner in the riverside restaurant. At about eight o’clock a stream of candles floated down the river, a daily event organised by the hotel. They are nightlights in a flower shaped holder in various different colours and it is a relaxing and calming sight to watch as you sit and ponder how lucky you are to be sitting here enjoying the view.

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Even Indy had to start somewhere!

Today we were off on a tour to My Son (pronounced "mee-suhn", not "ma-sahn"!), a large Cham Temple site. The Champa Kingdom lasted from the second to fifteenth centuries AD and they are best known for the large brick towers they built, many of which are found at the My Son site. We had decided to go on a tour rather than travel independently and when the hotel said they could arrange one for us yesterday we opted to go with them. We thought that as a smart hotel it would be a small group tour but I should have known better. The old adage “you get what you pay for” certainly came true today and we got US$6 worth of tour.

The bus picked us up at eight in the morning with not many people on board. The fact that it had seats that could fold down in the aisle was another warning sign and by the time it left Hoi An it was packed to capacity. Next to us was a British woman who seems to have been teaching English as a foreign language in various different places but is now cycling her way down through China and Vietnam. It was not long before she was winding us both up and by the end of the tour we were glad to see the back of her. She was one of those people who has an opinion about everything and most of them we disagreed with. Unfortunately, others were lapping up her advice so I suspect there will be some who miss the best parts of a trip to Halong Bay and others who will be paranoid about travelling in South America. Contrary to our own experience she was convincing people that it is a dodgy and dangerous place to be.

It was about an hour or so in the bus to get to My Son. The drive was through pretty scenery with lots of rice fields lining the road on either side. Along the way we were asked if we wanted to buy our entrance tickets (60,000 dong each) ourselves or if we wanted to give the money to the guide for him to get them for us. His spiel was that there would be long queues and it would be quicker to get him to buy the tickets for us. As it turned out this was total tosh and we would have been better off being self sufficient.

The state of play worsened when he hopped off our bus and on to another equally packed one, saying as he went that both bus loads (over fifty people) would join together and go in one group around the My Son site. When we finally got there we were dropped off at a café about five hundred metres walk from the entrance. For no explained reason, but to give us time to buy breakfast, we simply hung around for about half an hour before heading towards the entrance. We quickly realised that giving the guide our entrance money was a big mistake. Those that had not were already ahead of us and making their way into the site while we were hanging around. As soon as we could we ditched the tour and made our own way.

About two hundred metres beyond the ticket office is a control gate where they check you have a ticket. You then walk over a bridge to where jeeps and minibuses run a shuttle service taking you one and a half kilometres further up the road. You then walk a further five hundred metres before you reach the site. All in all it was a bit of a disorganised process for getting there and had we stayed with the group it would have taken ages to get there.

The site is now simply ruins but in its day it must have been a pretty incredible sight to see. It was mainly a religious site dedicated to Cham kings who were in turn associated with Hindu divinities. Archaeologists have found traces of 68 different structures at the site. The site was occupied until the 13th century and since then only 25 escaped without pillaging. Unfortunately the Vietcong used My Son as a base during the American War so it was bombed liberally by the US. Of the 25 non-pillaged sites only 20 were spared damage from the bombs.

All in all it adds up to an atmospheric visit, if you can block out the inevitable groups of tourists. The archaeologists have not been very imaginative in their labelling of the site and have simply clustered buildings together and called them group A, B, C etc. Even though our guide book has brief descriptions of each of the groups we couldn’t work out which group was which so quickly ditched the book and just wandered around.

The buildings have all been made from red bricks, some of which have intricate carvings on them. Apart from one group which is cordoned off for safety reasons, you are free to amble around and on top of all of the ruins. Considering it is a UNESCO World Heritage site little seems to be being done to protect the remains from the hordes of people walking all over them. We only saw one building that had had a shelter built over it to protect it from the elements but there were no signs of ongoing conservation or preservation.

We made our way back to the bus, with Stef doing a quick detour through the jungle to a building along the way. By the main gate there was a small museum with photos and information panels of how the site was found in the early 20th century. Most people were back at the café’s at the allotted time of 11:45 for the bus back to Hoi An so it was frustrating to find that our driver and guide had just sat down to eat lunch. Stef gave them about fifteen minutes and then asked when we were off to be met with a “you sit down and have lunch” from the woman running the café. It seemed to do the trick though because within minutes we were getting on board the bus only to find that one person was missing. The irritating British woman was a lone voice saying we should wait longer but everyone else wanted to go so off we set.

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Beach vendor ("Buy from me, be lucky for me!")

Back in Hoi An we escaped as quickly as we could to the retreat of our beach resort and tried one of the local restaurants for lunch. Tanks at the back were home to large lobsters, one of which was huge. We had a very tasty and garlicky lunch which set us up well for a couple of hours lazing on the beach. A quick dip in the hotel pool rounded off our afternoon and we showered and changed and caught the hotel’s shuttle back into the town centre.

Today is Tet Eve, or Chinese New Year as we more familiarly know it. There are a range of different activities taking place in town tonight and although we had initially thought about going along a re-read of the information the hotel had given us swayed our minds and we decided to get the shuttle back to the hotel instead. It had started to rain before we left the hotel, good luck for Tet apparently, and the river was running very high in town. We ambled along to look at some of the riverside restaurants and dodged the water on the pavement. A little more rain and the whole thing will be flooded.

There were lots of people out and about with their Lonely Planet all enjoying their Western food and banana pancakes. There are noticeably few local people about, probably in part because they would eat in other places but mainly due to Tet. It is a very family focussed festival and very few shops are now still open. Most people are already at home with the celebrations underway.

We had a not very remarkable meal in a place that was very busy. Our food took ages to arrive which we wouldn’t have minded if they had just kept letting us know what was happening. We had much more fun in the bar next to where we picked up the shuttle back to our hotel. Although it was a hotel bar it was definitely not a tourist place and I think we were the novelty for the night there.

There are lots of celebrations today. Firstly it’s my Dad’s birthday but it is also Tet or Chinese New Year, Chuc Mung Nam Moi. To celebrate both we had a totally lazy day.

Picture uploads on our website are grounding to a halt to Stef decided we needed to cull some volume. We had a bit of a disagreement on the definition of “cull” with me as usual wanting to chuck more than Stef so rather than having a big barney I left him to it. Unfortunately the weather here today has been pretty crap so rather than enjoying a day soaking up the sun around the pool or on the beach I chilled out in our room reading my book and watching TV.

Calls home in the evening to wish my Dad Happy Birthday and to generally say hello confirmed that all seems well back in Europe. We went back over the road in the evening for something to eat and then headed off for an early night. It’s tiring all this travelling!

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Old Town, Hoi An

Today we went into town to explore the centre of Hoi An. In some ways it’s a bad day to visit because as it’s Tet it means that most places are closed. On the other hand it gives us a rare chance to get unobscured views of the buildings of the town, one of the main heritage reasons for coming here.

Once an important trading port for the Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese among others Hoi An today is now a UNESCO tourist site, sorry a UNESCO World Heritage Centre that just happens to be packed full of tourists. We decided to have a cyclo tour of the town before then ambling back around at a more leisurely place.

Hoi An is an odd mixture of cultural influences. The design and style of the front of many of the buildings would be equally at home in a small Mediterranean village. Some of the shops and houses still have strong French influences in the signs they have outside but there is equally a very strong Chinese influence. This is seen in the style of the doors, many of which are wooden slatted and Chinese lanterns and tiles abound. The roofs of many of the buildings are made from semi-circular tiles linked together almost forming a wave pattern running across the roof.

Good luck messages are painted vertically in red and yellow on either side of the door frames and other symbols are carved onto doors and printed into the roof tiles. Most doorways have small holders either side for incense sticks. If not, there is usually a little niche between one building and the next just large enough to hold a stick or two.

It makes for a very pretty town and with a little imagination you can still imagine this as a bustling harbour town of yester year. To be here listening to so many different languages and to see the exotic goods being loaded onto ships sailing to different parts of the world must have made for interesting times. Now though large black patches of damp are climbing up most of the buildings and the original yellow paint, which must be blinding in bright sunshine, is flaking away and in need of a fresh coat.

At the river the water level had dropped noticeably overnight. The pavements had already dried out and the river front cafes had escaped another soaking. Even the fishermen seem to get a break for Tet and their blue boats were lined up along the river almost looking as if they were on parade. We ambled through the covered Japanese bridge, with its decorative tiled roof and Stef fell sucker to a lady in traditional dress with a conical hat who agreed to him taking her photo but then charged him for the privilege. A little old chap pulled the same trick later in the day.

We stopped at a café for a drink and to try the local Tet speciality, banh chung. It is a sticky rice cake with bean paste and pork in the middle. There is quite a complicated process to making it, mainly because it has to be steamed for ten hours. Whilst I was glad we had tried it I don’t think either of us would seek it out again.

From here we started our amble back through town stopping to visit the Tan Ky house. It has been handed down through seven generations and the current occupant opens it up to visitors. It is a beautifully restored house with heavy dark wooden furniture engraved with mother of pearl designs.

As we were making our way back to the shuttle we bumped into some familiar faces, Vivien and Jason who were on our boat trip in Halong Bay. They off down to the beach to enjoy the sun and sea and although it was also our next stop we didn’t see them again. The beach was evidence that a major holiday was taking place because it was pretty full of local people. There is a stretch of beach which is lined with restaurants and simple shelters where people can come and cook their own food. Here whole families had de-camped from town for the day and large groups of young people were milling around.

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On the beach at Hoi An

Stef has mused several times on the sociability of the Asian culture. People here seem to gain comfort and reassurance from being in large groups all huddle together. Whether it is just a habit that has formed from high density accommodation is hard to say but it is almost as if they are afraid of solitude and space. Another, to us, strange habit is that when they go for a swim in the sea they go fully clothed. With the heat, wet clothes dry out pretty quickly so maybe it is us that are the strange ones changing into different clothes for a swim!

Walking up and down the beach there was a steady stream of local ladies plying a variety of wares. If you wanted to you could have bought anything from pineapples, snacks, Tiger Balm (an Asian cure all), jewellery and other trinkets through to getting a massage, a manicure or a pedicure. They were persistent but friendly with it and when they finally accepted that we weren’t going to buy they always parted with “you know my name, you remember me and if you want to buy you buy from me”.

As we were concentrating on having a hard afternoon of doing not a lot on the beach a couple of Swedish guys from our hotel provided a great source of entertainment. They had hired a windsurfing board for an hour or so and were having great difficulty getting up and staying up. I’m not sure who laughed the most at them, us, their wives or the chaps running the surfing school. Every time they managed to stand up, they were just getting their balance when a wave came along and knocked them off again. They had great perseverance and were getting better by the end of their session.

After the beach we had another dip in the pool and again met a family we had been chatting to on the hotel shuttle earlier. They are from Australia although the wife is German. They have just moved to Hanoi where they husband has taken a four year contract with the embassy. Work for him and school for the kids starts next week so they have decided to break in their entry to Vietnam with a trip to Hoi An. You could sense a real mix of feelings coming through from them. On the one hand I felt they missed home already but on the other they were also looking forward to the adventure that faces them.

We recommended to them the place we had eaten at yesterday and as we went in search of a new place for dinner we saw them in there. I only hope they had as good a meal as we had. We carried on round the road and a little further up into the beach village and went to My Dong. The food here was probably even better than the one by the hotel but it also looked a little more hygienic and the people running it were very friendly. It made for another relaxed and lovely evening.

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Green rice fields outside Hoi An

Today we hired bikes from our hotel so that we could get out and about and see some of the local villages. The bikes weren’t great and neither of us was very comfortable although Stef’s bike was a better bet than my own. They did have better ones but they all had flat tyres and there was no sign that they could be pumped up so no doubt they all have punctures. We worked out that the last time we have been on a bike was a little over a year ago in Holland. Before that I can’t remember cycling since my teens, more years than I care to remember now!

We set off along the road to Hoi An so that we could take some photos of the rice fields along the way. They stretch for quite a long way back from the road and are very green and colourful at this time of year. I soon found out that with a day pack in the front my bike is not well balanced. An attempt at a 180 degree turn ended up with me sprawled on the road and Stef doing his best not to laugh too noticeably.

Heading back down towards Cui Dai beach we turned off left as we entered the village. The road here follows the path of the river and leads through several long villages. People here were simply sat outside relaxing and enjoying the Tet holiday. Their houses were small and modest but very neat and tidy and well kept. Through the open doors you could see that they were getting themselves set up for a Tet meal and the ancestor shrines were all full of New Year offerings.

As we cycled through the villages, shouts of “hello” and “happy new year” accompanied us along the way. We had the feeling that although Hoi An gets lots of tourists, not many make it out to these villages. After a while the road changed from a small village lane to a large new dual carriageway road that is still under construction. It seems to be there to link up the big new hotels that are springing up all along the beach. I doubt it will be long before the locals find that they have restricted access to their beach with large chunks being roped off for tourist use only.

The villages we passed through all seemed to be pretty simply affairs. They all had a very old fashioned petrol pump, only really geared to filling the tanks of scooters, the main source of transport. Most had some sort of meeting or communal hall. I couldn’t work out if they were being used for some sort of religious ceremony or whether it was a Tet karaoke competition. It definitely sounded more like the latter. Most of the villages also had a little café of some sort and we stopped at one to cool down and rehydrate.

We were met here by two little kids who went scuttling off to bring us bottles of coke. Next up was Granny who had been chewing some sort of nuts for far too long. Her lips and teeth were all stained a dark purpley red colour and the dribble running down her chin was the same colour. We got a very toothy grin from her and then her had was pushed out and she was asking for money. Stef being the kind soul that he is gave her some, intending it to cover the cost of the drinks as well as being a small Tet gift. Canny old thing that she was though was not going to part with any of it so we ended up handing over more money to her daughter who runs the café!

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Just to prove it!

From here we cycled back down along the beach road which is now the new main road. There was no traffic around which for me was just as well. I had one of those moments when your brain tells you you’ve got a problem and then instructs your body to do something totally stupid about it. I was cycling too close to the kerb. I knew I needed to do something about it but also knew that for some reason I couldn’t steer away and that I was going to hit the curb. I pre-empted the crash and took a dive off my bike onto the side of the road. Fortunately where I landed was one of the few places with clean sand rather than rocks, rubbish, dirty water or animal dung. My fall was cushioned and as Stef turned around exclaiming “what are you doing?” and all I could say was “I crashed”.

Just past our hotel there were another couple of large tourist hotels and then nothing. Here the land is still open country but there are signs that it won’t stay like that for long. Plots have been marked out and some have big bill board posters showing you the layout of a proposed new hotel or village development. It is probably inevitable that beach holiday style tourism will increase here because the beach is good and the sea is pleasant to swim in. Hoi An in years to come will be very different to today.

We went back to the hotel so that I could get rid of the sand that was in my hair and down my clothes. It looks like builders sand rather than beach sand and has left nice red stains on the back of my t-shirt (which now after several washed are still there!). Our little local café provided lunch and a local farmer entertained us by herding his cows along the road in front of us. We then headed back to the beach for a while, lazed about, swam, showered, had dinner and crashed. Another wonderful day!

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On the beach at Hoi An

We were out early for our last spot of beach and headed for a walk up and down. The local fishermen here use coracles for fishing and they were all lined up along the beach. It’s amazing to think that someone can go out in a basket with a large fishing net, haul in a catch and not sink. Different coloured flags were tied to the nets in each coracle so they can easily identify their own nets when they are out at sea.

The beach was almost deserted. There were a couple of local men doing their morning exercises and just one or two boats already out fishing. It reminded me a lot of Mahabilapuram on the east coast of India. Soft sand, long beaches (this one runs for over 30km), wide enough so that there is lots of space but not so wide that it’s miles to get to the water. As we walked we said again how lucky we are to have the opportunity to be here and to have this experience. The sun was shining, we had warm water splashing at our feet while we walked along a golden palm tree lined beach.

We stopped at a café on the beach for a drink and got thoroughly ripped off. The menu’s have no prices and knowing the local rates for things we stupidly assumed they would apply at the beach but not, things cost twice as much here as they do one hundred yards down the beach on the main road from town! The vendors appeared as usual all wanting us to be their first customer in the New Year and to bring them luck. We left the café telling the owner we would tell everyone we met how she had ripped us off and that it would not bring her good luck. She really didn’t seem to care.

Stef had a last dip in the sea and then we headed back to our room to shower, pack and wait for our lift to the airport. We have to go to Danang, about an hour’s drive north from Hoi An. Our car turns up early and before long we were off, not really wanting to leave the beach but knowing that there are still lots more adventures waiting for us to come.

As it is still the Tet holiday we struggled to get a flight and had to slum it again on business class. Our plane was a large one and we had really comfy seats and good service. But the highlight was the in flight video show. They have cameras mounted somewhere outside the plane so as we took off and landed we got a pilot’s eye view – fabulous! We had clear skies for most of the way and I took a couple of photos of the landscape as we passed over the beaches. The sun then started to set and there were beautiful views of the clouds lit up by pink and orange sun rays.

We soon landed at Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC is much easier!) and there was a noticeable increase in the temperature and the density of the heat. Here we are staying with family so we haven’t had the usual soul searching about where to stay and the prospect of turning up at a hotel that’s grotty. Tim and Erica (Tim’s brother Andy is married to my sister Caroline) have very kindly offered to put us up for a few days. We took a taxi to their compound and were all (Tim and Erica included) surprised that he found it first time round.

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Dragon fruit

We worked out that it must be fourteen years since we last saw each other. I was a bit concerned that I wouldn’t recognise either Tim or Erica but I needn’t have worried. As our taxi pulled up to their door a very Sarney style figure was lit up through the doorway and it was definitely Tim. Erica said she also knew that I was very definitely a Voogd. We were given a very friendly welcome and we instantly felt at home.

They have a bright and airy house on a mainly ex-pat compound on the outskirts of HCMC. Throughout it is decorated with Erica’s collection of textiles, wicker, wall hangings and countless treasures that she had acquired in the two years that they have been here. They are soon to be packed up and shipped home to the UK, along with Tim and Erica who are coming back to colder climes after being ex-pats for the last eleven years. Our room was the largest we have stayed in for ages with a really comfy bed and an en suite bathroom. It was a real home away from home.

We’ve been in touch by email over the last few weeks and Erica had picked up on our need for a taste of home. She had prepared a real treat for us – a full blown roast chicken dinner with loads of veggies and all the trimmings. It was fabulous and went a significant way to curing and easing some of the pangs of home sickness that haunt us (me more than Stef) from time to time. We sat around the table chatting and really just getting to know each other a bit before heading off for a great night’s sleep.

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Enjoying a dip with Tim and Erica
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Colourful bougainvillea

As it is still the Tet holiday Tim was not working today soothe four of us had a totally lazy day. Tim popped up to the shop and bought tasty croissants for breakfast which we had with a huge plate of fresh fruit sitting out on the patio. We spent most of the morning just chatting sharing stories of our travels and the experiences that Tim and Erica have had in the various parts of the world they have been to.

We met Tho, who looks after the house for them and does whatever household bits and pieces they ask her to. She has had a good Tet although it was a little soggy. Tho’s house is near the river and although they have already raised the level of the floor once it still gets flooded every time there is a high tide, so basically once a month. Over Tet they were under water for three days. It must be soul destroying.

Later in the morning we ambled round to the An Tho sports complex within the compound where they are tennis courts, a gym and a couple of swimming pools. It was very quiet and we had the pool pretty much to ourselves. The sun was really hot and already by midday the floor around the pool was too hot to walk on without shoes. For us it was a good way of acclimatising to the heat.

We walked down and along the river to get back to Tim and Erica’s. The compound is very quiet and each house is tucked away behind a high fence. In a lot of ways it reminded us of the estate we stayed on in Florida when we popped down there to meet up with Caroline and Andy in October, the only difference was that the houses on the estate in Florida were not fenced in. Colourful trees and flowers lined the roads and everything was spotlessly clean.

Back at the house we were spoiled again with a huge lunchtime spread which set all of us up for a hard afternoon and a little siesta. I sat in the garden which is a riot of colour. When they moved here the garden was in a pretty dire state with not much in it. To the horror of Tho who felt Erica should not be doing the gardening, Erica set about planting a whole load of different flowers and shrubs. The result now is fabulous. Later in the afternoon we headed into HCMC. Their driver is on holiday for Tet but plenty of cabs were on hand on the main road and within about fifteen minutes we were clambering out in the centre of the city. And it was very very hot.

We hopped out at the Square in front of the Opera House and the Caravelle Hotel. The Continental Hotel, a prime location in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American was on the other side of the square. We ambled along Dl Le Loi stopping off at a few shops along the way to see if we could get a replacement lens for our camera but with no joy.

A little Vietnamese restaurant near to Tim’s office provided dinner. From the warm welcome we received it’s obviously a popular watering hole of theirs and having eaten there we can see why. The food was unfussy but extremely tasty – tamarind prawns was the highlight for me. Afterwards we wandered a short way up the road back to the Caravelle Hotel and went up to their Saigon Saigon bar on the top floor. Cocktails and beers were supped as we looked out over the night time skyline of HCMC (Saigon sounds much more romantic!) before heading back to bed.

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Little army of crabs (live) at Ben Thanh

Today we benefited greatly from Tim and Erica’s driver Cuong. He dropped us at the Sinh Café so that we could ask about options for travelling on to the Mekong and to see if it is possible to cross over to Cambodia by boat rather than land. We had not planned to go to Cambodia but have met a few people along the way who have talked a lot about the Angkor Temples at Siem Reap. Tim and Erica were there at New Year and also said they were worth the detour so hence yet another change to our planned route.

The Sinh café lived up to its reputation of being all things to Backpackers and they had a full brochure of different tours and trips you can do with them. Before long we had booked a three day two night tour that would end with us being in Phnom Penh all for the bargain price of US$38 each. No doubt we will get what we pay for but at these prices you cannot really complain.

With tickets in hand Cuong then dropped us at the Ben Thanh market, a large covered market close to the centre of the city. It sold a wide variety of goods and at the main entrances there was a colour coded map on the wall telling you what type of things were where in the market. It was easy to spot the things that tourists mainly look for as the legend next to those colours was in English as well as Vietnamese.

We started in the fish section where there was a wide variety for sale. There were fish of all different shapes and sizes including some that looked like small sharks. At one stall where very small fish were for sale there were all neatly arranged in rows in a big plastic box with tails down and heads gaping at the waterline. The crabs were also neatly arranged in rows. Snails and other shellfish were also available as were frogs. These were still very much alive a large bag on the counter was squirming from the frogs inside. If someone wanted to buy them they were taken out of the bag and slammed firmly down on the counter to kill them before they were weighed and bagged up to go.

The fruit and veg section was by the fish and meat and we had the usual problem of not knowing what many of them were. Strong wafts of coffee from the many stalls selling freshly roasted beans then led us into the rest of the market. This was a warren of tightly packed aisles full of fake big brand name items from shoes through to undies. It was also the place most geared up for foreign tourists with ladies thrusting clothes and scarves under our noses assuring us that they had sizes to fit all. We later found out that some of the big clothes retailers in the UK (from memory Gap and Next) have factories here so no doubt the markets here are a good source for selling their seconds.

We survived the heat of the clothes stalls and wandered through the household goods in search of a good conical straw hat to bring home with us but to no avail. Other stalls back towards the centre were very geared to the tourist trade selling the usual collection of souvenirs, most of which were pretty tacky. It was a very hot half hour that we spent there but as many of the stalls were still closed from Tet it was cooler than it can otherwise be.

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Musician

From the market Cuong then took us to the War Remnants Museum, a chilling place to visit but one that it is well worth taking the time to go to. The museum focuses mainly on the American war in Vietnam. The first room has facts and figures about the war to try to give a sense of the scale of operations that were undertaken. One fact that stuck in my mind was the number of bombs dropped by the US. During the war in Vietnam they dropped around eight million, compared to the two and a half million they dropped in World War II.

The main exhibits in the museum are photographic displays that show what the war was like. Many of the photos are from Western (and some Japanese) news journalists who all lost their lives in the war. Short biographies of the journalists are included with their pictures and tell of the brave deeds some of them undertook including leading troops of soldiers out of tricky situations. Many of the photos are of American soldiers in action and some are pretty sickening.

In one a US soldier is swinging part of a body, the severed head with gruesome dangling attachments, of a Vietnamese soldier from the end of his rifle while grinning demonically. The caption claims that he is smiling but I am not sure I agree with this “spin”. One caption told how a journalist, knowing that the US soldiers he was with were about to execute some Vietnamese prisoners, told them to wait until he had taken photos of what were very scared looking people. He then turned away and waited for the gunfire, and hence the executions, to finish.

In a different building other photos tell the story from the perspective of the Vietnamese people and these were much more harrowing to see. One that stuck in both of our minds was a picture of a Vietnamese mother with four or five young children swimming across a river to safety. They had absolute fear on their faces but the need to escape drove them on to complete what looked like a fairly risky crossing. Another showed the sewer that three young Vietnamese children hid in to escape the US soldiers. The soldiers found them, executed them but them proceeded to cut open their stomachs. Why they performed such a barbaric act on already dead children is not explained.

Other photos showed the victims of the Agent Orange defoliant that was dropped across large areas of the country. Severe burns were often the result but the impact has been felt also on the next generation. Children have been born with physical disabilities, deformities and blindness and I suppose only time will tell how many generations will ultimately be affected. A somewhat gruesome exhibit was two separate large glass jars in which dead babies are preserved in formaldehyde and left on public display. One shows a deformed baby with a cleft palette and enlarged head, the other shows deformed Siamese twins.

Also in the museum were some of the Tiger Cages used to detain prisoners. The cells were small, barely the length and twice the width of a small and narrow single bed. In the dry and hot season as many as fourteen people could be crammed into the cages with only half a litre of water a day per person. It must have been hell. The prisoners would rotate who could stand by the door and benefit from the fresher air. The ceilings were an open metal grid and a walkway above enabled the guards to watch over the prisoners and no doubt inflict cruelty.

Torture was also a fact of life in the prisons and a small display details some of the methods used. Water was used as a torture method with it being dripped slowly onto the shaven head of a tied down prisoner. Although probably refreshing at first the continual pressure of the drops in the same place becomes unbearable. Others had their hands and feet tied behind their backs and were then lifted off the ground. Children did not escape with some being told their parents, who were tied up in front of them, would be shot unless they told where their compatriots were. If all else failed the guillotine, imported from France, was at hand to finish the job.

The small collection of tanks and armoured vehicles in the courtyard in the middle of the museum could not compare to the horror and gruesomeness of the pictures inside. Although busy, it was certainly the quietest museum I have visited in a long time as most people were walking around in semi stunned silence simply absorbing and taking in the horrors depicted before them. Seeing the suffering and devastation of war laid out before you like this makes you think. It would be interesting to see the reaction of some of the worlds war mongers to these displays but no doubt they would be immune to the horrors. I can think of a few I would like to bring here!

We went in search of lunch expecting to find something near to the museum. As we planned to go to the Reunification Palace nearby after lunch we had asked Cuong to come and pick us up from there, a decision we quickly regretted as we realised we were in an eateries free zone and it was baking hot. After about fifteen minutes we found a noodle bar who turned on the fans that spew out dry ice as soon as we sat down. It was a welcome place to sit and cool down for a while and they also served up a tasty bowl of noodles.

In the afternoon we went to the Reunification Palace and joined the free tour they provide in English to take you round. The original palace, a grand French colonial affair, was partly destroyed in 1962. It was beyond repair so what still remained was pulled down and a new building erected in its place. The new design incorporated many Chinese rituals and symbols with its design and layout. To us it looked like a very 1960’s style building with large, open, airy but almost soulless rooms and lots of concrete.

Left empty from 1975 to 1990 the building was reopened primarily as a museum, although the grand reception rooms are still used sometimes for meetings. The main reception rooms are very ornate and plush. A large conference room was the first we were shown and they were busy setting out seats and bringing in fresh plants so no doubt a conference of some sort was due imminently.

The President had two separate reception rooms, one for international visitors and one for domestic. The International room was highly decorated and with the Presidents chair slightly raised up on a low platform so that his visitors had to look up to him. The National room was much simpler and with all chairs on the same level. The Vice President also had their own reception room which in terms of grandeur probably falls between the two President’s rooms.

On the second floor were the private apartments of the President and his family. The tour initially takes you to the Presidential office, a spartan affair compared to the opulence of the public rooms downstairs. A door in the corner of the room is the President’s private quick escape route down to the bomb shelter below the building. The large map room next door was a key hub for campaign planning and beyond that a small library which they proudly claimed held two thousand five hundred books. Family apartments occupied the rest of the floor and these made the Presidential office look sumptuous. Here the rooms were bare apart from a few basic pieces of furniture. This floor also housed a small private chapel as the President’s family were Roman Catholic.

The next floor up was the entertainment wing. One large room had a bar (made from a wooden barrel) in one corner overlooking the centre piece of the room – a large circular table and settee which was the Presidential poker table. Other tables in the room were set up for card games or games of Mah Jongg. This floor also housed a small theatre/cinema and doors opened out onto a small flight of stairs leading up to the helicopter landing pad. On the fourth and final floor was another entertainment area. A large airy room, originally designed for meditation, was turned into a dance floor complete with stage for the orchestra.

Down in the basement were more rooms for planning campaigns and battles and the entrance into the secure bomb shelter, which we did not get to see. There were lots of small offices all crammed into a relatively small space to house the various different military and government personnel required in times of emergency. It was funny to see the state of the art radio and communications equipment, now all very obsolete.

Cuong was waiting for us outside when we finished our tour. His temperature gauge confirmed what our bodies had been telling us. It was very hot, 38C. We headed back to Tim and Erica’s did a quick change and went to cool down in the pool. Being a weekday it was very quiet and we pretty much had it to ourselves. The only noise was the sound of people sweeping up the leaves around the garden. Soon though the sun started to dip down behind the trees and the temperature started to drop so that for the first time in days we actually felt cool, so much so that we had to abandon the pool.

Erica had booked us in for much needed haircuts at the place they go to round the corner and with her and Tim having a massage we de-camped en masse. The wonky haircut that Stef had had in HoiAn was soon put to rights and I benefited from a much needed tidy up. We headed back before Tim and Erica so Stef checked our website quickly before dinner. Bad news as we think we may have had another hacker up to their tricks. If so, this one has managed to totally kiboshed our site.

We were treated to another sumptuous feast which we enjoyed under the fans on the patio outside. The conversation turned to our plans for the weekend as we are off to Cat Tien National Park, something we had looked at in Lonely Planet but discounted as a feasible option to get their under our own steam in the time we had available.

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Boat into Cat Tien

We were ready to go a bit after nine. Cuong was waiting outside to lull us into a false sense of cool with his air conditioned car. It was about a two and a half hour trip up to Cat Tien which took us initially through the outer suburbs of HCMC. The city was a large urban sprawl and it took quite some time before we broke out and into the countryside. The traffic was pretty busy, probably because it’s the weekend, and lots of people were out on their scooters with family and all sorts of stuff attached to the back.

We turned off to follow the road to Dalat and then further on turned off again to Cat Tien. We passed small villages along the way which were only distinguished from others we have seen by the crop they were growing and drying. Outside most of the houses were large bamboo racks all covered with drying tobacco. The further we went, the higher we climbed and the cooler it became outside. Here it was only about 33C in the morning compared to 38C in HCMC.

To reach the national park you have to cross a river by boat. When we got to the landing stage the park entrance person and boatman were nowhere in sight. Each side of the road was lined with a small bamboo shack selling cold drinks and we eat had a coconut to quench our thirst. The coconuts here are green and full of refreshing water. Each much easily hold more than a pint and I had to give up and leave mine unfinished.

As we were completing the paperwork necessary for park entry an obnoxious American got off the boat coming back from the park. He had just arrived but claimed they were trying to rip him off by inflating the prices for accommodation and trips. Erica reassured him that the prices are all fixed and they are not in the scamming game but he had decided he was heading somewhere else. I think we were all quietly relieved as the prospect of a weekend with such a whinger on hand did not bode well.

We waved farewell to Cuong and made our way down to the boat. It was a small rickety affair with a slightly hiccupy engine but it got us across safely enough. Most people only come to this park once so as comparatively frequent visitors Tim and Erica are well known and received a very warm welcome. Erica ensured that not only did we have our accommodation but that transport was booked up, and written on the board so it could not be “forgotten” for the various bits and pieces we were going to do.

Our accommodation was wooden stilt house out towards the end of the park grounds. It was simple but cosy and a big gecko was waiting on the wall to welcome us in. We found the mosquito nets and set them up, storing all of our stuff under one to prevent any unwelcome visitors from crawling into our boots or clothes. We wandered down to meet up with Tim and Erica, had a quick picnic lunch and then set off onto the trails.

A jeep took us a few kilometres down the path and dropped us by the river. There is a small set of rapids here but a group of local people had beaten us to it and spread out and relaxing, and dropping their litter all over the shop. We headed back up to the main path and carried on down.

Neither Stef nor I are much good at spotting wildlife, or putting a name to what we have seen, but Tim and Erica are dab hands and it wasn’t long before they were pointing things out to us. We spent the afternoon wandering down the path, enjoying the landscape and seeing what we could see. We had left the park headquarters in burning hot sunshine and were grateful for the cooling wind that had picked up. Our pleasure was soon curtailed though as the wind brought in clouds and then built them up into big dark ones. Before it started to rain, unusual for this time of year.

We sheltered under some trees for a while but with no sign of the rain letting up we soon carried on walking. The rain mingled with the sweat and I couldn’t tell which one was most responsible for me being wet. The rain brought with it a new experience for us – leeches. We expected to get leeches in the walk we will do tomorrow rather than today. Both of us were prepared to come to terms with leeches like those that beset Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen so our Cat Tien experience was somewhat of a relief.

Here the leeches weren’t big black slug like creatures. They were about two centimetres long and the thickness of a pencil lead. They are amazing climbers though and crawl up your shoes, inside your trousers and if they don’t decide to head through your socks they just keep on going. One made it up to the middle of my thigh which I only realised when I had a shower later in the day. It had obviously had its fill and dropped off when it was full. The thought of the leeches was much worse than the actual experience. With most a quick flick soon saw them on their way, the difficult ones were those that were half way through your sock when you found them.

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Spotting wildlife with Tim & Erica and a big scope

We saw quite a wide mix of birds and also spotted some gibbons swinging through the trees. Tim opted to walk back to the park buildings but Erica, Stef and I all hopped on to the jeep that had come at five to pick us up. We had a quick drink in the bar and were entertained by long tailed macaques, then Erica showed us something that they don’t publicise. Around the back of one of the park buildings is a small enclosure which is now home to some bears. They had been caught by local poachers but the park confiscated them from the poachers. They are still wild animals but have now been kept here for about a year. With no release scheme they have ended up here in these cages. It is a very sad sight to see and the bears themselves look very sad and are totally listless and bored.

A small pond beyond the bear enclosure is home to two crocodiles. A few years back the park ran a project to reintroduce pure Asian crocodiles to one of the lakes here. They genetically tested sixty crocodiles from different sources to ensure that they were pure Asian before they released them into the lake. For some reason a few crocodiles are still here. They too looked as if they were not being kept in the best of conditions.

We headed back to our room to shower and freshen up quickly regretting that we had not brought more clean clothes with us. We had an early dinner and, again with the benefit of past experience, Erica toured the kitchen to point at what we wanted rather than relying on the menu. One member of staff was on the verge of kicking us out of the kitchen but the cook turned round, saw Erica, recognised her and her face broke into a huge grin. Shortly after we were served up a tasty meal with a goodly dose of very fiery fresh chillies.

In the evening we went on a night drive to a different area of the park that was less mostly open ground. We climbed onto the back of the open jeep and a guy from the park joined us shining a very powerful flashlights backwards and forwards along the side of the road in the hope of spotting some wildlife. We were lucky and had a good show with lots of deer, a pig and civet cats. It was good fun but it seemed to be over far too quickly as I could have quite happily carried on for another hour or so.

We headed to bed for an early night doing a quick bug check as we got into the room. On a previous trip Tim had found a scorpion perched on his mosquito net but fortunately all we had was a frog on the shower hose and a large moth. We were soon snuggled up in our sleeping bags, glad that we hadn’t sent them home in Hanoi.

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On the crocodile trail in Cat Tien
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Odd shrooms

I woke with the impression that I had had a fitful night’s sleep but I woke in the morning feeling relaxed and well rested. We were out early, heading down to the crocodile lake, the current home of the crocodiles released through the genetic research programme. Leeches were anticipated on this walk so before we left we donned anti leech measures. The park provides leech socks and very strong DEET based anti bug cream. The socks are made of tightly woven cotton and fit over your own socks, coming up to the knees where you tie them off and roll the tops down. You then smear the DEET around your shoes as this acts as a barrier to the leeches jumping on in the first place.

The jeep took us 10km down the track to the start of the trail. On the way we passed two young men who looked like they had spent the night sleeping on the main track. Our trail took us 5km through the jungle to the lake. It was still cool this early in the morning and Erica led the way setting a fast pace to get us to the lake as early as possible. She is a good spotter and would often stop because she had seen something up ahead or heard something moving in the jungle next to us. Even though I was right behind her I never saw or heard what she spotted until she pointed it out to me.

Normally people have to be accompanied by a guide on any walks they do but because they have been here so often Tim and Erica are allowed to go on their own. They served us well as guides telling us not only about the birds, macaques and other monkeys we saw but also about the trees, plants, fungus and spiders webs as well. Unguided walking was stopped after a couple of Australians got themselves badly lost with less than a litre of water between them. One managed to make it back to headquarters to raise the alarm but by that stage it was already dark and to late to send out a search party. That meant the other spent the night alone in the jungle. When they found him the next morning he was in a bad way and looked like he had had a pretty hairy night.

About halfway along the walk Tim took us on a detour to show us a “small” tree. It turned out to be a hug tree stretching up to the top of the jungle canopy and with large buttress roots holding it up. Erica pointed out to us the webs of tunnel spiders. At ground level they are densely woven, leading into a hole where the spider waits to feel from the web that its dinner has arrived.

The path eventually came to a wooden walkway raised above ground level. It was a little rickety and wobbly but safe enough and it wound round to the lodge at the side of the lake. It is possible to stay here overnight so that you get the chance to see animals at night and in the early morning. There is a small lookout platform and our early start and quick walking pace paid off. We were the only people there apart from an Aussie couple who had stayed overnight and they left shortly after we arrived.

We spent the next few hours enjoying the scenery and the wildlife. Below us was a large lake with a few islands dotted along the way. Trees fringed the lake and stretched away into the distance. We saw lots of different birds and also some of the crocodiles. Our walk back through the jungle was pretty hot as by this stage it was midday. We were soon dripping with sweat and soaking wet again. As we waited for our jeep back up the road butterflies and bees darted around us trying to get the moisture we were giving off.

The jeep soon arrived and took us back to base. We showered, packed up, and had a cooling drink in the bar before heading down the river and the boat back to the other side. Monkeys came to see us off and Cuong was already waiting for us with the air con on full pelt, much appreciated.

With Tet just behind us the roads are still busy with people visiting family and friends. There were scooters all over the place but Cuong as usual steered us safely through, his lack of conversation meaning that he focussed solely on the traffic. As we reached the outskirts of HCMC the traffic ground to a halt due to the volume trying to navigate around the same island. It was chaos. Scooters and mini vans decided to go off road and bus conductors were out on the road trying to create space for their drivers to squeeze through. It was like being back in Delhi!

Back at the house we all showered and changed and headed out for dinner. We went to a local restaurant run by a young Italian couple. This is their second venture in HCMC as their local Vietnamese business partners stitched them up over their first venture. The husband is an ex-kick boxing champion who moved here to further develop his boxing skills. They are pretty busy having just had a baby as well as setting up the restaurant. We had a very tasty meal washed down with a good bottle of wine.

By the time we got back to the house I think we were four tired bunnies. I know that I nodded off pretty quickly as soon as my head hit the pillow and I suspect that was the case all round.

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Hammer & sickle symbols abound
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Ho Chi Minh City café culture

We grabbed a lift into HCMC this morning with Erica and Cuong. Inspired by Erica’s collection we were off to do a spot of shopping to pick up a few bits and pieces for ourselves. Erica asked Cuong to drop us off at “Mr Tim’s bank” just round the corner from D Dong Khoi where we tried a couple of places. One, Nuin Fray, had lots of very beautiful clothes, pillow cases and silks bits and pieces but not what we were looking for. Authentic Interiors further down the street is a Lonely Planet recommendation and is very geared for the tourist market. It was a bit like walking into a Vietnamese hybrid of Ikea and Habitat. We did see one bamboo basket but it was ridiculously overpriced and we walked out of there empty handed as well.

Half an hour of shopping was enough for both of us for the day so we settled into ambling mode and just had a bit of a look around. We stopped at a HCMC institution, the Kem Bach Dang café for a cooling drink and an ice cream (made from taro fruit whatever they are!) and to watch the world go by. They have two branches sitting across the road from each other. The one we were in was an open corner café and different street traders came in trying to sell lottery tickets, snacks and shoe polishing services. The staff seemed to turn a blind eye to them but every now and again would shoo them away.

A bit more ambling led us to the Terrace Café, a smart looking place that also provides a free internet service for its customers. That settled us for the rest of the morning as we tried to sort out what was wrong with our website with only partial success. We think that the telecoms network in Vietnam is perhaps a little on the wobbly side which is what is causing our pages to error.

We met up with Erica a little after twelve and headed back out to her house. Tho had cooked noodle soup for us for lunch and it was fantastic. She boils up beef bones with onions, cloves, cinnamon and garlic to make a stock. The beef is sliced and then marinated by resting slices of fresh ginger across the top. The ginger is then fried and the beef is then added and flash fried until it is cooked. Meanwhile fresh noodles are blanched for a minute and placed in the bottom of a soup bowl. Onto these are sprinkled some spring onions and the cooked beef. Stock is poured over the top along with fresh basil leaves (very aniseedy), fresh coriander and hot bean sprouts. Simple but very very effective and delicious.

In the afternoon we went back round to the pool for a swim and to relax. A very broad shouldered and muscley man was giving swimming lessons to two young teenagers. I thought the kids were amazing doing length after length of butterfly but their coach wasn’t as impressed. He was in the pool so he could give them practical hints and tip for correcting any mistakes. He had an assistant who was pacing up and down the pool side also watching and picking up on areas for improvement.

We stopped off at the local supermarket, very geared for expats, to top up on a few basic essentials and then went back to pack up ready for leaving tomorrow. Erica dished up yet another fabulous dinner, chicken curry with a Pataks sauce (another taste of home) and home made chapattis and by about 9:00pm we were all crashed out in bed.