Wednesday, December 12, 2007

So I think I will leave you on the topic of our trip to Vietnam and elsewhere with this little video of Hanoi traffic:

video


I actually took about 3 minutes of video (laughing at the absurdity of it the whole time) from the 3rd floor bar overlooking the 5 or 6 way intersection at the Northwest corner of Hoan Kiem Lake. I minute after this clip a full size tourbus appeared and made a U-turn in the middle of the intersection!

The original video looks much better, but Blogger modifies the image quality to reduce the file size.

Friday, December 07, 2007




It has been over a week since we came back from Cambodia and we are slipping back into normal Vancouver winter mode. I don’t know about “normal winter” though, as they say it’s going to be a cold one and we have already had a good snowfall in town. It has gone back up to warm & wet though and as I write this about 7pm it is at least 10 degrees outside.

Arriving back here last Saturday was a bit of a shock, as my jacket and long sleeve shirts were buried deep in my pack and we ended up outside longer than expected as Linda’s car battery was dead and required a boost out at the airport before we could get home. No big deal though.

Our trip was really great despite the problems we had. Linda and I really do like to travel and do it well together, except when she tries to navigate. Since we have known each other we have been in various parts of Canada, the US, Europe, Australia, and a few times to Asia. Separately we have also traveled extensively and, until this trip, have never had any serious complications. This complication was obviously serious.

With respect to our stolen air tickets, we have been in communication with Vietnam Airlines with whom we had tickets from Siem Reap to Saigon and they have said that a refund is possible if after a year the tickets have not been used. Not the best result, but acceptable and much better than Hong Kong Airlines. This is officially a pan of Hong Kong Airlines in that they say there is nothing they can do for us to help us with the stolen tickets we had from Saigon to Hong Kong. In the case of both of these sets of tickets there was absolutely no way we could either use them or purchase replacements with the same airline (as HK Air wanted us to do), as we could neither leave Cambodia, nor enter Vietnam because of the lost Visa’s that were in the passports. Hong Kong Airlines will never get business from us, nor should it from you; thank you very much for your support, or lack of.

We have not calculated exactly what it has cost us to have pack stolen as it is quite involved, but it is in the thousands of dollars. Actual cash, Linda’s daypack and MP3 player, non-replaceable air tickets (more on that soon), fees for replacement documents, graft to the “police” in Cambodia, other miscellaneous expenses, plus costs for new documents for both of us here at home. Please add to that the stress involved, especially for Linda, which can not be quantified or as MasterCard might say, is “priceless”.

I also say for Linda deliberately. Yes it hurt me, but it was more visceral and real for her as she was the one holding the pack and the one almost assaulted in the ripping of the pack from her arms. As mentioned earlier she was nearly pulled onto the street when the bag was grabbed and could have been seriously hurt. She also felt much more violated than I did, and blamed herself somewhat for the loss. That was not something I can find fault with her over, nor should anyone else. As I have mentioned before, there was a series of circumstances that led us to have all this stuff stolen, some of which could have been prevented but on that particular day in that particular place, were not. Enough said…

I am getting back into wearing shoes again after probably the longest stretch of sandal wearing I have ever had, and I may still have some of the Chaco Tan (http://backcountryblog.blogspot.com/2007/10/chaco-summertime-z-photo-contest.html) left by next summer. Personally I think it is unfair that the contest at the above link ended on Oct 22nd as our trip began Oct 25th when my Chaco Tan began!




Some of the recap things from our trip that we will miss are the friendly people, the dramatic scenery from Halong Bay to the Mekong Delta and Angkor Wat, simple but incredibly good food, shopping and paying less than half the asking prices, opportunities to eat bugs, a new beer or snack food that goes with beer in every town, geckos, boat rides and on and on.

Things we won't miss so much are the constant horn-blowing and traffic snarls, persistent souvenir sellers, shower heads that can't aim above my chest, oily spring rolls, bureaucracy, butt-numbing bus rides, and of course thieves!

Weird & unusual tidbits from the tip:

-People in the Hong Kong restaurant (a very clean one) washing the dishes at their table before they would use them to eat

-A marching band on the street outside our hotel in Saigon...at 4:30 in the morning!

-The 20 foot tall chicken sculpture in the village near Dalat

-5 cel phone stores in the block across from the hotel in Pingxhiang, with a dwarfish guy singing (pretty well actually) with a PA system on the street in front of one of them.



-The old guy on the outskirts of Pingxiang who insisted I was a "Rrrruskie!"

-the phallic cave feature in Halong which had our guide Hien so fascinated



Of course there were lots of other things we will miss or not about the trip. We';; just have to go another trip soon to remind ourselves of what they are!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Made It!

Home now, and catching up on sleep and posts here and picture editing. I have almost 8 gigabytes of photos, and will be tweaking them and uploading some of them to Flickr and/or Picasa. I will also be adding to earlier posts and rearranging things here so please watch for updates over the next few days. Scrolling back through the older posts you will already find changes and additions.

Please check back again...

Way Home

Now in Taipei, with an 8 hour layover. I may just have to drink my way through all the duty free shops...whaddya mean? I CAN'T drink it here? Crap!

I will be filling in lots of blanks later, but in case anyone was checking up on us at least you know things are coming to a close on this trip! Catsitters, we'll will be there in about 20 hours or so...

Meanwhile, with all this spare time and about 20 places in the secure area of this airport where I can use a computer I can get some writing done.

Friday, November 23, 2007

3 ROADBLOCKS




Driving back to Phnom Penh was arranged once again by the hotel and we hopped into a tuktuk for the 2 or 3 km to the Bus depot, basically a dirt lot, down a dirt road with numerous buses parked there & guys at portable tables checking tickets. We had purchased with the same company as on the way to Siem Reap as they had such a nice & uncrowded bus on the way there. This was not the case coming back though, and we had to endure a more cramped dingier experience this time. It still made pretty good time for the bulk of the trip, that is until we got to the outskirts of PP.

At our late morning lunch break I resisted once again the urge to eat bugs. At a roadside stand there were some rather yummy looking grasshoppers and 4 inch long beetles, or where they cockroaches? I'll not likely find out now.



We virtually stopped at about noon, by my estimate less than an hour from the scheduled end of the trip. For a while we crawled along through thick traffic, becoming less comfortable as we went due to the air-conditioning having broken down not long before.

Soon we came to a complete stop, and the sight of many vans and other vehicles parked in the fields beside the road and lots of folks walking did not bode well. The bus then turned off the road itself, police directing it to do so, into a large dirt lot full of buses and other large transport. With very little explanation we soon had to disembark as it was obvious we were not going to be allowed to travel any further into the city that way.

The bus driver and attendants provided nothing in the way of explanation and I got a little pushy in demanding what was going on, at least for the benefit of other English speakers on the bus a for myself. The Tuktuk drivers were the only help, explaing that with the Water Festival going on the bus would not be allowed in.

A driver, whose English was very good, said he wanted $5 each for 4 of us to go the last 15 or 20 km to the riverfront where we were going (back to Indochine). We had befriended a French couple on the bus & they did not yet have place to stay. We wanted them to come with us as we knew about the secret petite rooms at Indochine, and how hard it was going to be to get a room otherwise. We also moved quickly to get a driver and agreed to his asking price despite my earlier advice to the other couple that you could often get close to half the asking price for rides. The barrel we were over at this point was fairly significant.

Roadblock #2 came pretty quickly as the driver and another one with 3 tourists negotiated through the rough back end of the big dirt field. Several more police watched that side, and after some back & forth chatter we were through, and managed to make another several minutes on what were practically ox cart tracks along the river, before another uniform stopped us. This time our driver told us he was lying to the cop, saying that all of us were on our way to the airport and had to get through.

He must have been convincing as once again we were soon going again, and even more remarkably, with no money changing hands. The dirt path also turned into pavement again so we picked up speed and only stopped again once in sight of the hotel.

I think in this case the driver probably earned his dough as the quick thinking on his part about the airport may have saved us either a long walk or a healthy bribe or 3 to get into the city.

The couple from France were also quite appreciative of the help. They spoke some English but were new to the city and would likely have had a very difficult time finding a room. The petite room I mentioned was almost perfect for them and was only $12, but perhaps I should explain the petite part of it.

We had seen these small doorways above the ground floor of the hotel, and had been amused and puzzled by them. I could not come near to walking through them upright, though Linda could just barely. We asked about them and took a look inside a couple of them one day. They were about 6'5" at the ceiling and correspondingly smaller in other respects. They were held in reserve by the hotel staff as a last resort and even though I said I would take one if they had nothing else they were pretty horrified that I would try. The couple from France, being about 5'4" and 5'8" I would guess, were almost perfect for them. Almost is the right choice of words, as Michel told us he DID hit his head at least once!





I talked about the Water Festival a few times already, and I mentioned that the city was busy as a result. That's an understatement.

The 1,000,000 strong city of Phnom Penh basically doubles in size during the 3 day event that marks the full moon in November, and most of those people congregate a stone's throw from our hotel location. The events primarily consist of races of boats similar to Dragon boats rowed by as many as 50 to 60 men and women. They take place in heats on the Tonle Sap River near where it meets the Mekong and apparently the winning team gets all of $100!

The sky also lit up with fireworks and the river later had a parade of sorts of elaborate light displays on boats or barges slowly moving upstream. Or was it downstream? Apparently at this end of the rainy season the Mekong has such an excess of water that the Tonle Sap changes direction and flows backward into the Tonle Sap Lake, doubling its size.

We hung out at the river for a while cheering our favourite team (always the one in the rear) and later got out of the madness to our favourite restaurant and then a Lao beer at Broken Bricks with a couple from L.A. (soon Montreal) while Ruby the cat sat in my lap and then finally some CNN at the hotel. Our last night in Cambodia ended on a calm note, though we did get a bit concerned about the guy in the army uniform gesticulating with his handgun before we re-entered the hotel.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Angkor, What A Place!

N13 24.748

E103 51.908

24m elevation

Try Google Earthing that one and see if you can see us waving from the front steps of Angkor Wat!




The greatest reason we wanted to visit Cambodia was to explore Angkor Wat.

For us to be stopped by the theft in Phnom Penh when so close was going to be a huge disappointment, and we finally felt we could go only after all the papers to get us home were in place. There are many buses that make the trip, you can take boats on the Tonle Sap river and lake, and you can fly from PP. We opted for the bus as it was cheapest (though my butt was not looking forward to it) and had our tickets arranged by the hotel only a couple of hours before departure. $10 each and a 6 hour trip on a big comfortable bus, with only 3 Lazy Boy size chairs per row...hardly any numbbuttness!

Cambodia's "best" highway is still not that good, but at least between towns we were able to make good time. The scenery was very nice, the verdant rice fields dotted with pineapple trees, and there were rocky outcroppings (great bouldering and single pitch aid-climbing) occasionally and many wet sections. This area of Cambodia is very flat and obviously floods at times too, as the standard for homes is to be on stilts. Except for a couple of towns and occasional small groups of homes there was little in the way of habitation along the 315 km route. When we did make the obligatory lunch stop about 2 hours in the local woman across from me on the bus bought several pineapples. I joked that there was no food in Siem Reap, and she responded that the local pineapples were particularly good, then gave me a card for the guesthouse of which she was part owner.

Again we had the hotel call ahead for a room and they arranged a place at the Golden Angkor II. It was not in the old town where we had planned for, nor mentioned in the Lonely Planet but a room guaranteed was a room. The bus stopped some distance before it but a Tuktuk driver was there with a sign waiting for us. Apparently you have to even watch those carefully, as guys will see a name on a sign and quickly scrawl the same name trying to take you elsewhere. We did not get fooled and soon were at the place, a somewhat fancy location heavily decorated in beautiful wood and just slightly gaudy glass chandeliers, and again it was our usual $20 for the better locale.

The driver wanted to be our guide too and before entering the hotel he stopped to negotiate with us for our temple visits. The usual thing there is to go before the sun is up and arrive at Angkor Wat to see sunrise over the temples. We agreed on 5 AM as a start time and $15 until the afternoon, though he said it would have to be his friend, Sup ('Sup, Dude!), who would take us. With our revised schedule we only had one full day to visit an area one could easily spend a week or more exploring.

Being out on the highway and not having a feel for the town yet we took our usual walk to find supper and not having many choices in the area ended up at another hotel. The blackened Catfish with green papaya sauce was to die for and the battered fried (kind of like tempura) vegetables were not too shabby either.

Next morning came early and we were soon on the road to Angkor, several km away to the north. We and several hundred or more friends...

The dark road was a steady stream of tuktuks, minibuses and motos, passing some impressive museums and luxurious resort hotel developments. Eventually we arrived at the entry booth, where we paid $20 each for the day. This allows access to all the temples and ruins within the area and was very high as entry fees go, but they have a lot to see here scattered over several kilometers in each direction, so we really could not complain.

Once we arrived the tuktuk parked outside the area and we walked in the dark across the 200 meter wide moat to the main entrance. Linda jumped as she saw a figure looming over her in the pitch-black entry. It was just Buddha or one of his relatives and he was basically harmless, unless he fell on you, being made of stone.

With the hundreds of others we jockeyed for a good position to see the sun rise behind the main temple of Angkor. This area is considered to be the largest religious monument in the world, and so far all we could tell is that it was BIG.

In fact I think the sunrise was no big deal, though the early morning light after was the best time for picture-taking as the bright flat tropical lighting to follow the remainder of the day does wash out the the interesting details in photos. I did try for a couple of longer exposure shots to get some approximation of the effect, but was not greatly happy with the results. My camera (Canon S3 IS) crapped out several days earlier on the boat from Vietnam, and the A620 that Linda was carrying was now our only apparatus and we had no tripod.



The temples must also be suffering under the weight of the gazillions of pixels of photos taken there. The crowds at least thinned out as the day progressed but in the early morning it was hard to get a shot of anything without a white face in it. Later the faces were not quite as white when we started running into the Asian tour groups.




Nevertheless the place was amazing and we wandered much of the grounds which measure about 1.5km by 1.3 including the moat. The central palace itself is over 330 meters by 250+ meters, and is heavily decorated with friezes and other sculptures. The condition varies, as there has been much erosion and degradation from the jungle encroachment. Restoration work has been under way for quite some time, though it was subject to a large gap due to the Khmer Rouge and the ramifications of their terrible reign. The French, once colonial masters here, have been helping to make some reparations as well as other countries.



This site was built in the 12th century to honour Vishnu by King Suryavraman II (Survivorman?) and a few hundred thousand of his slaves. What is now vacant grassland occupying most of the compound was once grass and wooden buildings as this also was a city. We explored for at least a couple of hours, before walking back across the causeway to find our driver catching some ZZZ's.

...more to follow...

After a few hours we traveled a short distance to Angkor Thom. This area is the largest of the ancient Khmer cities and is a walled area several times the size of Angkor Wat. It includes within it's walls a large number of temples and structures, some of which are of unknown purpose. Occupied from the 12th century until perhaps the 17th, some of the components date from as early as the 9th century.



Once through the South Gate we soon arrived at the riotous mass of stone known as the Bayon. This complex arrangement of towers and chambers is most notable for the faces in the rock, as they are everywhere and pointing in many directions on the dozens of towers.



We explored quite a number of other towers and structures before lunch, fended off the most irritating souvenir vendors yet while eating, and then went to one other area before returning to town in the mid afternoon.



The last area we visited that day at Angkor was called Preah Khan. Another spot we had wanted to visit was not accessible due to bridge problems after the long rainy season, and it's main attraction was the fact that much of it is still jungle covered. Preah Khan, probably once a Buddhist University housing about 1000 monks has some of the same characteristics.







While there we came across a very strange insect (I think it was an insect! or maybe a reptile???), with the permanently curved tail, and when leaving the area we initially took the wrong way out and found 2 boys harassing a snake in the underbrush with their slingshots. I could not get a good shot of the snake (Understandably I did not want to get too close!), but it was actually screeching at us, a sound very bird-like and not something I expected from a snake. In their rudimentary English they said it was some kind of Boa, but that may just have been their word for "world's most poisonous snake" so I stayed pretty well back, though not as far as Linda liked.

We headed back to town after the snake refused to come out and play, and would have gone to the Cambodian Land Mine Museum on the way back to town, but it has recently moved much further away than our Lonely Planet Guide told us, so could not be on our agenda this time. Our shortened time here (2 days shorter than planned) meant we had not enough time to visit all the temple areas we would have liked either, but we think we did get a good sampling of the region in the 5 AM to 2 PM time we did have. For that day at least we did get somewhat "templed-out" after 6 or 7 hours and wanted to see some of the town too in the remaining daylight.

After getting back to town we walked into the old part of the city to check it out. The river we followed was crowded with boats practicing for the races to come on the weekend, not to mention lots of spectators on the banks.

The bulk of the Lonely Planet suggested restaurants and guesthouses are in the old area, as is the more interesting mid century French architecture, about 2 km or so from where we stayed. The old market we explored where Linda found a shirt for herself and we found a nice bakery where we bought muffins for the early morning bus trip back to Phnom Penh.

Having a restaurant called Amok in mind led us on a bit of a search, and we eventually found it in an alley. I don't know who runs Amok (sorry, couldn't resist), but they charge at least twice the prices we had become used to paying so we kept on going to the Khmer Kitchen where I am sure the food was nearly as good though the tablecloths may not have been as clean. Main dishes about $2-3...

Amok (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuisine_of_Cambodia) is sometimes called the national dish of Cambodia and features a type of catfish in a coconut curry-like sauce, and is very yummy!



After dinner we strolled back to the hotel along the rivers other side, stopping to check out some of the boats on banks and absorb some of the party atmosphere of the teams and their fans, but after our early morning it became another early night for us.

Siem Reap Our Current Home

The Visa extension office in PP came through as requested and our papers were ready to pick up at 8 and a half yesterday morning (Kmer Keyboard, and I can't find a colon!).

After that we tuktuked back to the hotel and soon had our Bus tickets to Siem Reap plus a hotel booked. Getting a room is not that easy right now as the Water Festival is on this weekend and it is a big event in all of Cambodia but especially the cities. It involves Dragon Boat type races on the Mekong in PP and Tonle Sap River here. The boys and girls are out practicing right now.

Before we left for our bus ride to here at 12 1/2 hours we went for brunch at a restaurant that supports a nearby orphanage with the proceeds. We tried to support them by buying their shirt as well and are going to try to do more from home (I don't mean by that we will order takeout!).

While there we saw a tiny, painfully skinny girl on the sidewalk, trying to find morsels of food in discarded wrappers in the dirt. She was one of the ubiquitous book sellers of travel guides and other books that we do not need and we usually ignore them entirely. Her situation was obviously not great, so we asked the staff person in the restaurant if he would ask her if she was hungry and wanted some food. He had come from the orphanage himself so easily understood where we were going with our request.

She was extremely shy and barely raised her eyes to us, but when she did they were huge, occupying half her face, which despite her thinness was pretty. Her arms were like pencils.

She asked for fried rice and chicken and asked to take it away, but we asked him to ask her to stay to at least eat some in the restaurant. Our fear was that she would be compelled to give food to older and perhaps bullying bigger kids, as we have seen these kids working in groups. They have to bring home the proceeds of their selling but I expect her success was not good as she seemed so quiet.

With a little coaxing I got her name (Thi?) and her age of 6. She had 2 sisters and one brother, she being the youngest. She worked about 12 hours per day and had not eaten that day nor the night or maybe even the day before.

With great care and polite manners she devoured the food and a bottle of water we also bought, and when done disappeared with very little fanfare, though she did quietly thank us and then scooted away. However the real thanks came a few minutes later when we passed her a short distance away down a cross street. She threw us the most brilliant movie star smile I have seen in a while and waved as we crossed. It certainly made it worthwhile for us!

We are in Siem Reap til tomorrow am when we go back to PP, about 6 hours by bus. Then the next day it's on a plane for home.

I'll fill in details of here later, as this computer (like most we have had here) is a tank. So called "high speed" at Internet shops around here is about the technical equivalent of 2 cans and string, though I think it just means they use a larger can, or is it a fatter string?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Close To The End

Not just of the trip, but also hopefully of the bureaucratic hurdles that will allow us to return home.

Today meant another early morning trip back to the Canadian Embassy to get our Emergency Passports. We then had to take our faithful tuktuk to the Cambodian Immigation office next to the PP airport. However we managed to to arrive just after the 2 hour lunch/siesta began at noon.

This did lead to a nice little side trip however and a pleasant interlude. The road we were on (Russian Federation Blvd) also happened to be the way to the home of Chhayny our driver. He offered to take us home to meet his wife and see his home, so we gladly accepted. Several kilometers out into the country past rice fields and skinny cows and a military base with gatehouses shaped like giant artillery shells we arrived.

He is a soft-spoken gentle man and so is his wife. It turned out of course that she had absolutely no English and we have no Khmer. Chhayny has a very small amount of the English needed to do his job and tries to learn more with a dictionary and a white board at home.

It was the first time he has ever brought a customer home and we were flattered. His house is owned by the company he drives for and he does not pay rent, though does pay to rent his tuktuk (about $3 per day). To the casual glance the home would look to us like a fairly deep single car garage with a bit of furniture thrown into it. It has a kitchen and WC behind a divider near the back and a double bed just ahead of that. A clothes rack hold Chhayny's shirts and a small rustic armoir holds (I expect) the rest of the family clothes.

Other than that there are one or 2 plastic chairs, an electric fan, a small TV, and a treadle sewing machine. A small motorbike leans against one wall, and near the front is a small counter holding some basic household products for sale, and a cooler box for drinks. Other than that a couple of bags of rice and 2 small Buddhist shrines complete the decor.

It was about as basic as you could make it, and all one (or 3 people) could need. The 11 year old son was away at school (7-12 and 1-5pm) so we did not get to meet him, though we know he likes to paint so hope to send him something from home.

It was a real pleasure for us to go there, but we only wish we could have had better communication.

Tomorrow we have to take another trip back to the Cambodian office to get our (final?) paperwork and retrieve the passports. After that we should be able to leave.

We bought tickets yesterday on China Air from Phnom Penh through Taipei back to Vancouver. If we had tried to retrace our original itinerary we would have to make embassy/consulate arrangements and spend more money at each country along the way, not something we have the time or energy for, and maybe not even the money. We are now thousands of dollars poorer than we should be but hopefully all of the "extra" expenses are over now. That is except for the replacement of Linda's driver license, credit cards, and the official standard passports.

Phnom Penh has grown on us a bit. Our little corner of it has been pretty good. The hotel in particular has been good, and we have a few favourite spots to eat or drink nearby. Specifically our little friend Heng looks forward to our visits to Broken Bricks and we do too, not to mention they are the most relaxed bar we have found and have the best music. They do have to throw the odd drunk and "massage girl" complete with pimp out of the joint and we still can only understand about half of what Heng's dad David says as he mumbles so low and so fast.




We also have really enjoyed the Khmer restaurants and the Muslim Malaysian one from last night (and maybe tonight too), and the Hope & Anchor from breakfast today.

The city is just as hectic as many others we have been in but they don't honk their horns as much as some. As in Vietnam, road markings & lanes don't mean anything (as many as will fit is the rule), and direction of traffic can be any way you want to make it too. There are many more cars and trucks here in proportion to motorcycles, made up of Honda's Toyotas Ford and Lexus, as well as some Asian only brands. We saw our first Hummer today and the other day a car that must have taken the wrong turn at Albuquerque, with California Plates! We also saw our first real taxi too.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Theft Day Plus 1


Today we did make it out to the S-21 Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. We had to do something to brighten our mood.

I don't of course really mean that. Our losses obviously pale infinitely in comparison to those atrocities committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. We watched the film on the life of a detainee, later executed, named Bophana. We were humbled by the experience, dismayed and angered.

Our driver today was the same fellow as yesterday. He has become our man, as he felt terrible from the experience as well. He had to witness our papers yesterday and told us today that in 2 years driving tuktuk and 10 before motorcyles for tourists it is the first time anything like this has happened to him. We talked to other drivers on the waterfront last night and they were of about the same mind I think.

However the Australian Consul employee, said "I probably shouldn't tell you this, but..." He then told us a French woman was pulled from the back of a motorcyle the day before and was then hit by a car. I don't know if she lived.

As we work this out I am getting over my anger though we are both still pretty upset. Yesterday I could have clobbered anyone on a motorcycle who came too close, and they come too close all the time in this insane traffic. I also felt like telling every driver who said "tuktuk sir?" last night to fukfuk off.

Today the driver asked me if I wanted to go shoot guns (you can fire AK47 and other classic military hardware on the outskirts of the city). Yesterday I don't think they would have had anything large enough in calibre or explosive enough, but today I told the driver "only if the guy from the moto is there to aim at", so in other words, declined.

Ramifications:

We can get an emergency passport here but it is only good for getting out of here. If we transit through Vietnam and Hong Kong we may need to get additional documents each place which will be tricky, and we may not be able to leave the secure area of any airport we can't show enough paper for...

We can't go to Siem Reap/Angkor. Today is the 17th and our tickets from there were for the 20th back to HCMC (Saigon), but it takes 6 or more hours to get there and same to return so 2 days of daylight lost in travelling alone. We need to keep the ball moving on replacement papers and can only really get that started on Monday the 19th from here. The tickets were Vietnam Air, and they confirmed the seats yesterday, but told us we can't get a refund until a year has passed.

We had tickets on Hong Kong Air from HCMC to Hong Kong and we have yet to contact them, as those tickets are for the 23rd and we may still be ok with those. They don't have an office here but we will be checking with an agent somehow today or at least by Monday. Especially after talking with the Canadian Consul and the Vietnam officials here we will know better how to proceed. We hope we can use those tickets.

Time for a walk now, I'll be back later or tomorrow. I think I can still afford a T-Shirt or 2.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Cambodian Horror Show

I was hoping our next couple of posts would be catching up on our trip from Saigon to the Mekong Delta and the 2 days we spent there on our way to Cambodia, but not so.

You might also assume from the title that I am referring to the Teol Sleung Museum on the Khmer Rouge atrocities, or a visit to the Killing Fields of Cheung Ek, but it is not that either.

We were actually on our way to those 2 sites today in Phnom Penh this morning at 9:30 traveling by Tuk Tuk. Linda had her small pack on her lap with her arms through the straps. I was looking the other way, when I heard her yell.

I looked around just as she had to let go of her pack as a young man on the back of a motorcycle was hauling on it. He managed to get it from her grasp and they sped away, at least twice as fast as the crapheap we were in could go. She was bruised in the process and HAD to let go or she might have been hauled into the street. We yelled for help but nothing could be done and the motorbike was lost in traffic almost instantly.

Today has been spent counting our losses and trying to arrange to replace our Passports, Air tickets, Vietnam Visas, Exit paper for Cambodia, canceling credit cards and more...

All of that stuff was in the pack unfortunately and it really sucks. The "Tourist Police" were really mickey mouse, and several of them polished off a bottle of vodka while we were at their post this afternoon to get some paper work back from them.

We still have my credit card and most of my ID (except Passport) so money is not a problem, even though we lost a bunch of it. Traveling on or even home will be if things don't turn around though.

The Canadian Embassy shares facilities with Australia here, but the Canadian side was closed today (it's Friday here), and will not be open of course until Monday. We had planned on going to Siem Reap tomorrow, and flying back to Saigon from there and from there to Hong Kong and then home. That however is very complicated by the fact that all we can get here is an emergency replacement passport. Of course our multiple entry Visa for Vietnam is in that stolen papers...Yikes...

Well that's all I have the strength to write for now, except that so far I have to say we don't like Cambodia!

Updates as we have them.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Dalat Day 2

Dalat day 2

After arriving pretty late in the day with the nasty driving conditions, and no guarantee of good weather the next, we decided to take a minibus tour. It was kind of expensive at $18 each, but we had become tired of just walking about. In Dalat the sites are also fairly spread out, so it made sense. Our other alternative which might have been fun was to take a similar tour on classic motorcycles, but with sketchy weather conditions we opted for the save route, though as it turned out we need not have bothered.

Sidebar: Our "traveling companions" keep changing, but they also stay the same. The route we are taking is much the same as many other tourist backpackers, and we run into the same folks days & 100's of km later. For example Sarah & Ben from Australia we had met in Ninh Binh and later slept with...almost literally... them in the back of the bus to Hue, and then found them in the cooking course in Hoi An.

Ulf & Cora from Germany we had met at our guesthouse in Ha Noi, and then on the bus to Da Lat. They went on the minibus tour with us, and we later went for dinner with them. Other folks pop up as well, but often we don't know names, so it's the "French couple", the "Aussie guys" or the "Dutch girls".

Another Sidebar: Words in Vietnamese never have more than one syllable, so Hanoi is actually Ha Noi, Saigon is Sai Gon. The combining of them is for convenience for all us other folks. And Saigon I am using interchangeably with Ho Chi Minh City (or HCMC) as that is also normal here, and everyone does it.

When we got off the Bus in Da Lat it was at the usual kind of hotel that the tour companies use. It was only $6 per night, but looked like it too. We wandered off to find the Lonely Planet recommendation we had hoped for but it was also full so ended up in $15 & $20 rooms much further out. The wonderful and varied breakfast spread did help make up for it.

Anyway, our tour was about 14 strong in a minivan and car. The guide was pretty good at English though not terribly exciting. He took us to a variety of the local grow-ops, showing us the goods that made up much of the local economy.

IMG_0104

Da Lat, with it's altitude and milder climate has less rice and vegetables grown there but more real cash crops, much of it for export.



First was a flower greenhouse, then later coffee and tea plantations, mushroom growing and the site we all agreed was the most interesting, a silk operation. Here they went from silk worm cocoons right through to motorized card looms producing the raw silk fabrics and finished, patterned scarves.



We also saw a Buddhist temple and near it one of 2 waterfalls, both beautiful things but the second waterfall was uglified somewhat by the amusement park sprung up around it. We did take some thrill of using the roller slide thing to up and down though. This was kind of like a cross between a bob sled and a roller coaster, in that it was gravity powered and we operated the brakes, but it was solidly attached to a fixed track.



We did not partake of whatever the smoking man in the bear suit had to offer though, whatever it was, and let him finish his game of chess.

A visit to a Montagnard village followed, which I found somewhat sad. They were obviously poor, as is much of Vietnam, but this was the first time it really felt like we were viewing animals at a zoo. The kids played & posed for the photos, and Linda noted that one sad looking young woman (girl?) with baby seemed to try to get in front of the camera a lot.

Sidebar again: The term Montagnards was coined by the French when they occupied Vietnam to describe any one or all of the miscellaneous ethnic minorities that occupied the highlands or "montagnes" of Central and Northern Vietnam. Hill tribes if you prefer.

Anyway there was no outright begging at least, but of course there were a lot of things for sale. There was also a chained monkey and a 20 foot chicken.

Chicken sculpture that is. Sort of like the giant Canada Goose in Wawa, or the Sturgeon in White River. I am not quite sure the inspiration behind it, but incongruous it sure was.

Da Lat is like that. Mickey Mouse and Santa Clause would be at home here, in fact this is a popular Christmas destination for the Vietnamese people. It is very kitschy, and we saw at least a few Christmas tree light type displays. There is also what looks like a 1/2 size Eiffel Tower near the lake in the center of town.

Another Sidebar: Eiffel actually designed one of the main bridges across the Red River at Ha Noi, another French connection.

The other wacky (and last) thing on the tour was the Crazy House. This place is actually a hotel, but a tourist attraction as well, for the odd ball architecture and themes. Each room is completely different from each other, and of concrete in free form abstract shapes. There are few straight lines, with stairs going off in all directions, windows and skylights at all angles. Each room has a different animal (bear, parrot, pig, etc) as a theme centerpiece.

The place is designed (and still being built and expanded) by an rich eccentric woman architect. It reminds one of what might happen if Dr Seuss met Rube Goldberg and they decided to build a house. Each room of the building has a different theme and some kind of animal critter works it's way into the design. For example a larger than life-size bear has a fireplace built into his belly in one of the rooms.

After the tour we did the shower thing (sometimes we take as many as 3 a day when it is really sticky), and walked downtown with Ulf & Cora for dinner on the lake. The locals do have some difficulty with special food requests such as "no onions", Cora discovered, but once again the food was terrific. I had some kind of cute little bunny, grilled on a stick.

Cooking in Hoi An and Bus Trips

Hoi An was a very neat little town, except for all the tourists. I guess we are part of the problem.

It is apparently THE place to go if you want a silk suit (or anything) made, having about 200 tailoring shops. I had a shirt made, not being of the suit type. It was ready the next morning and $10 later.

The place is full of souvenir shops and the usual crap. I bought a NORTH FAKE fanny pack camera bag, for $5. It might last the duration of the trip.

There are however some ethical shops making crafts and selling them to support causes such as the the WWF (not the wrestlers; the World Wildlife Fund), for example there are several threatened monkey and Langour species and some Montjacs (which is a deer like beast) they specifically speak of here.

We spent some time and money in a shop which is staffed by handicapped young people, and I had a pleasant conversation with one young man who lives in the country nearby and rides a 3 wheeled scooter to work as he has crippled legs. I wish I could remember his name.



Another definite highlight here was the cooking course I mentioned before. It involved a tour of the local market being introduced to the local produce and varieties of seafood etc. The old ladies chewing on betel leaves were pointed out with their characteristic purple lips from the mild stimulant. A 20 minute boat ride up the river to a beautiful resort like setting followed. Here they grow many of the herbs, though I think as much for demonstration purposes.

After that we were sat down in a grass hut with a cooking table set up for the chef, complete with angled mirrors for better viewing. There were cooking stations for all 20 or so of us as well. Lectures, demonstrations and hands-on stuff followed and I think Linda and I did alright! At least we did better than the German and Aussie guys there, which I hope is no great surprise!



After we cooked what we had eaten plus some other dishes there was not time for us to make. We had our own spring rolls (we even made the rice paper wrap) and saute squid salad in a pineapple and eggplant in a clay pot for example.

The setting and surroundings were exquisite, and it was all lead by a Jamie Oliver wannabe, Vietnam style. He even had the accent (though a bit Aussie tinged, which he said came with the T-shirt) and the jokes.

Back up the river later we had delicate French pastries and then bought some original modern paintings from some young Vietnamese artists.

Despite all the neat stuff here, we were glad to get out as it was just too crowded by westerners. They may have outnumbered the locals.

The next morning we set out on another bus for Dalat, passing through Nha Trang on the way. I already mentioned the torrential rains, but I will again!

The rain was so hard and the flooding over the road so bad, that we had to stop at one point and take all the packs from underneath and chuck them through the back window and fill the back row of the bus with them. Being near the front of the I was commandeered or was volunteered into doing the chucking. Linda's pack was one of the wet ones, mine not so bad.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Rainy Season Is Over...Yeah Right!!

Dalat
Thien An Hotel

N 11 57' 10.5"
E 108 25' 56.0"

Elev: 1486m

11567km from Home

(GPS Readings)


This morning in Dalat is a little bit sunny, though still the clouds are around. The mountains are a nice change from the coastline. The humidity has dropped today, and the temperature is around 20 right now just before 8am, which is pretty typical around here due to the elevation.

Yesterday we travelled from Hoi An in a regular type bus, which left an hour late and got here at least 2 hours late. I'm not sure why we left late but I do know why we took longer than expected to get here.

The weather was definitely monsoon if not typhoon conditions (well maybe not that windy), with it practically impossible to see it was raining so hard. One of those days that you say "just when you thought it couldn't rain harder,...". It also came and went though, at times almost stopping. The road and villages we passed through were flooded in a number of places and not just along the coast to Nha Trang. After Nha Trang (which looks like a very nice beach town), we eventually turned inland toward the Central Highlands and Dalat. After another hour or more of flat land we began to climb upward on a very twisty and often quite steep road, not a Tour de France kind of road, more of a Giro D'Italia in the Dolomites style. We could frequently see the road below us, and I do mean below.

Torrents of red-brown muddy water crashed down the hillsides in what might be gentle brooks in dryer seasons. River banks, what river banks? The hills were also steep enough that the bus spent a good amount of the climb in second and even first gear.

For entertainment today we have decided to taka a minibus tour aorund the area. After yesterdays weather we did not really expect to be able to see very much on our own by walking, and things are stretched out here. Renting a moto also does not seem like it would be a lot of fun if we get that weather back today.

Around this area are some nice waterfalls and other sites like silk farms and small villages a bit further afield, so the guided bus thing will be nice anyway.

We are spending more here than any other hotel yet and the tour adds to our costs. The hotel room last night was $20, though tonight we will move to a $15 one on the next floor up. The hotel is very nice and only recently built. In Canada it would be a $200-300 room we guess, so we are not complaining.

Breakfast was included, and it was outstanding. Mangoes, pineapple, pomegranate, bread, cheese, eggs, coffee, milk and on and on.

Gotta go now our tour will be here soon!

Hué and Hoi An





Hué and Hoi An

Hué was an overnight sleeper bus away from Ninh Binh, and a more interesting town for it's own sake. Not that Ninh Binh was bad but the character was not very distinctive and it was the scenery outside that made it memorable. I also thought that the hotel while nice enough and pretty full service, had a pretty cloyingly pushy manager. Our motorcycle guy was also maybe a bit too nice, but maybe I might just be overreacting to his demonstration of how Linda should hold onto me while on the back of the bike.

Hué has a nice setting along the River Phoung, and has kilometers of park-like grounds bordering the banks. The backpacker hotels and most nice ones too seem congregated in a small district close to the river. 2 bridges cross the river, one of which does not allow cars & trucks but takes everything else. We walked everywhere here, and strolled both sides. Most commercial stuff is south and historical sites north.

The most significant history lesson here that we know of is that this was the capital of Vietnam during 2 dynastic periods around 1000 AD. Maybe if I were not on a bus as I write this I would look that up...I might later.

There is an impressive citadel here that is 2-3 km per side, stonewalled and surrounded by a wide moat. It housed the capital of course and within it lies the Forbidden Purple City where the emperor's concubines and eunuchs could do their concubining & eunuching. Unfortunately they were not there for us this day, so we had to deal with the world's most persistent cyclo driver, who must have dogged us for a kilometer or more. "Maybe later" was his constant call, and he did not seem to get our "go phouc a duc" attitude. Linda and I are stubborn types and even if we had decided to take a cyclo we would have sought out another to spite him.



Hué is just south of the DMZ, the onetime boundary between north & south Vietnam. The bus had stopped not long before Hué, a deliberate attempt to entice us to purchase from the cafe we parked at but also to try to sell us tours to the heavily shelled, scarred & mostly barren landscape. There are tunnel complexes here but we do hope to view a similar site near Ho Chi Minh, so we took a miss.

Hué has its own DMZ, which is a bar frequented by tourists a couple of blocks from where we stayed, but we thought why go there when we could go to another called Why Not? It was also a tourist haunt, but our fast food joint we went to for lunch was not.

Supper later was a rice wrap, peanut saucey "roll your own" kind of affair we sought out on the opposite side of the river. Staffed by deaf-mutes, except for the guy trying to sell us paintings (whose attempts fell on our deaf ears), this place was worth raving about.

The restaurant, recommended but spelled wrong by Lonely Planet, was called LAC THUÂN, & occupied about 200 sq. ft. over 3 floors the middle of which was the kitchen. The stairway was about 18" wide and I clocked myself on the low concrete ceiling on the way up. It was worth every Dong, all 45 thousand and one of them, and the long walk.

Hotel touts were also very persistent here, but we headed off to where we planned the day before, the Halo in the alley at 66 Le Loi. A nice clean low-key place at $10, once again the alley gave it the quiet edge. It was steps away from our second choice, but we did not need to try it out.



Once again we decided not to stay long in this area. Everywhere there will be things we don't have the interest or time to do, even with 4 weeks total to travel. We are more or less decided to push pretty quickly to Ho Chi Minh, though there have been concerns over the weather. There have been typhoon conditions and apparently another approaching the central and southern region so it might not be wise, but our agenda means we should get through to Cambodia fairly quickly and if there is an extra day or 2 near the end there will be options near Saigon before the flight back to Hong Kong.

The bus hop to Hoi An is a shorter one, and in the daytime. The views are very nice as we have ocean & mountain scenery. Some of the climbs put our older, slightly rickety bus to the test but it is fairly comfortable and the brakes work well enough when a small cow contingent crosses in front of us.

Another mandatory rest stop on the option provides a few more photo ops and then we climb the Marble Mountains, before descending to Da Nang. On the climb we passed through the most impressive engineering feature I have seen so far in the form of an uphill tunnel several km long. It took about 10 minutes to traverse at about 40km/hr, so do the math. Not one of those places you want to be after a fiery bus crash (Tip: if you have the option after escaping from said bus, run downhill...smoke and flame rise).

Our bus did not crash, and we soon exited and descended to Da Nang. This city appears downrite affluent, at least the main drag anyway. It was wide, clean and nicely treed, and had stores with large showrooms at least for the ubiquitous motorcycle dealers. It actually had kind of a Venice Beach feel, and had the only large sports facility (a stadium of some sort) we have seen. It also had the most overtly nationalistic sculpture so far, an unidentifiable man with an upraised arm and guns carved into the pedestal. I wanted to get a picture but the camera was not ready & we passed too quickly.

The beach was close, China Beach in fact. This area was a major R&R area for US troops during the war, and was at least partial inspiration for the surfing scene in Apocalypse Now. Surf was up as we passed many kilometers of almost white sand.

Speaking of Apocalypse Now, the night before in Hué I had a sort of half dream pre-dawn as I heard one of the diesel powered river boats thok-thok-thok its way done the river. It reminded me of the helicopters in the Charlie Don't Surf scene and all it needed was Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries.

When we got to Hoi An, we headed straight to Minh A Ancient Lodge. We had good intel on it and knew it only had 3 rooms, so were wanting to get there early. It was available and turned out to be a good choice. I don't know about "ancient", but it was old and in a style of Chinese home that was similar to what Linda's mother would have once lived in.

It was all deep dark wood, with fat columns supporting the upper floor and roof. A Buddhist shrine dominated the front room, and the rooms opened onto an open air courtyard, complete with well, stone benches, and orchids. There were no glass windows, only sliding slats, and the double doors could be locked from the inside only with a beam you dropped into the cradles on each side. We had the modern conveniences of a padlock for the outside of the door, a private bathroom down the hall & through the kitchen and an already stocked fridge in the room. The room could sleep 6, with 3 solid wood 4 poster Chinese carved beds, complete with mosquito nets (Another Tip: when offered a mosquito net, use it. Especially when you don't have windows in town as wet as Hué).




I said wet, and I meant it. Hué is right on the water, and is partially made up of islands. Remember I talked about Typhoons? A few days ago one passed through and this part of town was close to waist deep in water, and though it was not raining the day we arrived much of the place was still wet. We were only spitting distance from the river; when the tide was in it was still sloshing past the benches along the waterfront and into the first street.

The wet weather is another reason we sometimes move on, before seeing all we could. Renting a Moto (Xe Om in Vietnamese), or bikes would be conceivable in some of these smaller places but still pretty miserable in the wet. Renting other types of transport like a taxi just gets expensive. Probably the biggest reason to move on from Hué is the tourists. There are just too many of us here.

This is a very neat little town and THE place to go for many types of crafts and especially the place for custom made silk clothing (like suits). We are not suit people (maybe you've noticed?), so did not have as much to spend our money on as some. However we did spend considerably here, compared to other places. In particular other than the cooking course, a shirt and some other crafts we bought some local artists work. In this case it was original art, and though modern it was inspired by traditional themes. See below, the artist explaining his early influences:

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Overnight to Hue

We took a sleeper bus to Hue, about 600 km, and 11 hours driving.

The bus was modern and large, and has only about 36 bunks, that have some adjustability to bring the back up to sit, or down to sleep. Blankets are provided, shoes are taken off at the door and there is a WC on board. Not really bad except both times in the so far we have ended at the back over the engine where it is louder, bumpier, and cramped. There are 5 "seats" across the back (3 in the forward areas), stacked 2 high and they are harder to get into and shorter in length. Not so good for yours truly and really not that good for Linda either.

We did get a few hours sleep and had a bit more room after about 5am when my neighbour got off. We will be on one again tomorrow for a shorter jaunt to Hoi An (about 3-4 hours).

Today in Hue we wandered the grounds of the old citadel here. Tonight we plan taking a cyclo to a well written up but terribly cheap restaurant on the other side of the river. Near the citadel we came across these Back-Flippin' Birds

video

The hotel touts and cyclo drivers here are more persistent and bothersome than anywhere else so far. One cyclo driver followed us for at least 15 minutes! "maybe later" he kept saying even though we had clearly said "NO" and studiously ignored him!

Oh well.

In Hoi An, which will be the smallest community we will sleep in to that point, we hope to spend 2 nights and do a cooking course here:

Sounds like fun, and education when it relates to food is a good thing.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Driving Like A Local!




Well I would not say I quite drove like a local really, but I tried.

We took the bus to Ninh Binh last night and were dropped off on the highway about 2 km past our hotel, of which we were barely aware of the name. We walked in what we hoped was the right direction, asked some cops, and then about half way along 2 motorcycles pulled over and one guy said "are you the white guy we are looking for?". Well, that's not exactly what he said, but I was the only white guy in sight...

Anyway they were looking for us and soon had us at our hotel. Supposedly we had booked a $10 room but ended up with one for $15. nnyah...who cares? The place is quite nice, restaurant inside, menus in Vietnamese, English, French and German and even a Norwegian guy working here. Very helpful, but maybe a bit pushier than some we have found. Not really annoyingly, so it is tolerable.

To see the sights here we rented a motorcycle (a Taiwanese SYM 110cc was pretty much the standard issue, if not a similarly sized Honda), for $7 for the day. Never having driven one before, at least not one with foot shifting (scooters only), it was a bit tricky. I am also used to making bikes go with my feet not my right hand, so I have tendency to not let go of the throttle when I should! Linda never fell off the back, or front or either side for that matter so it all worked out ok.

We probably did about 50km, some on the highway (not intentionally) but mostly on back roads and narrow paths and dirt roads. We traveled to Tam Coc, and took a foot rowed boat for an hour along a slow moving river through the monumental limestone hills, including through 3 caves. A very touristy thing, sometimes referred to as "Halong Of The Rice Paddies", but it was still stunningly beautiful.



We were early enough in the day that there were more tourists (read Tour Buses) around when we were on our return trip than on the way out, and we were not hounded too much by the soft drink and souvenir vendors. Many of them were in other boats but they mostly ignored us. We had 2 rowers, one using her feet with 2 oars while the other had a single paddle. We seemed to be the slowest boat on the river, maybe because they chattered constantly to each other and to every boat we passed.




We also resisted our rowers attempts to sell us embroidery, which they had in a covered box on board. However even though we planned to give them a tip when we reached the end of the trip anyway, they asked for it before we docked. They probably don't want to be seen asking as this might not go over well if other tourists see it happening before they get on board. A dollar each was all we felt necessary, though they pressed for $1 from each for each. A simple "no" stopped that.



In general tipping is not done here, but we have done so sparingly. Our tour guides in Halong we gave a small amount to, and maybe only one other time. The tour guides are paid the equivalent of about $7 per day, so an occasional extra $1 is fairly significant, and we felt they worked for it. We prefer to reward hard work, extra service and genuine helpfulness and we felt we did get that in Halong. "Power" (we forget his real Viet name), our guide the second day, was especially good so he got a reward. He was also less annoying and cliche then Hien our day 1 guide.

Anyway, after the boat ride and lunch we starting backroading on the moto. We passed though a couple of tiny villages, weaving through the chickens, cows and "dinner dogs" on the roads. We saw very few cars for quite awhile, and more ramshackle tractors, bikes and pedestrians than anything else. Many people, especially kids, waved or smiled "hello". Rice paddies, water buffaloes and goats were on both sides, and the whole area was surrounded in the distance by the beehive shaped karst mountains.

At the end of one of the tracks was Bich Dong, a Buddhist temple on the cliff side with shrines in a cave above. As we admired the sights we were clapped at to get our attention by a small man above us on the hill, and soon walked up to greet him. He turned out to be deaf and dumb, though could make some sounds. He wanted to guide us up the cliff to the top for the stupendous views, or at least that is what his signing and gestures indicated.

We started up with him , but Linda was winded soon and ended up waiting at one of the shrines along the way. I continued along with the agile man and after about 15 minutes of sometimes precarious scrambling we finally clawed up onto the peak. He was right about the view; it WAS beautiful and we took a lot of photos from there, including several he took of me. The paddies and villages lay far below and it was one of those places you could go back to again and again, or I suppose you could likely climb most of the other rocky outcroppings. Of course he chose to have a smoke at the top, while I was sweating like a Canadian.



On the way back down we saw goats on the next peak over, and he tossed a few rocks to get them into "action poses". However Linda waited so we soon ended up down at her level.


Following the back roads for quite a bit longer we stopped for pagoda breaks, goat breaks, water buffalo breaks, lily breaks and rice paddy breaks. Eventually having to turn back however, we ending up on the highway one more and another turn at Vietnamese traffic jamming and actually I did not do too bad! It really is quite remarkable how the roads rules work around here. Beeping to let people know you are coming, no shoulder checking, almost no signaling, almost no regard for one way streets and traffic lights, and merging wherever and when ever you will fit. 2 Lanes? Nope, once again as many as will fit!

All in all a great day, and now finally my tan is really starting to kick into gear!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Back From Halong Bay (& on to Ninh Binh)



We just returned from a 3 day 2 night trip to Halong bay and Cat Ba Island. Just a short post about it now, more to follow.

It was just short of spectacular, certainly in the scenery and in the value for dollar department.



$48 got a pretty nice package. First we took a bus to Halong City (about 3 hours), and the remainder of the first day cruising and kayaking through the amazing scenery. The water around the 1969 islands on the edge of the Gulf Of Tonkin was calm and the weather a bit cool and cloudy but still comfortable for us Canucks. That night we slept on the boat in a very nice and large room on the lower deck of the all wooden boat.

The next day we cruised and kayaked some more and stopped at another island to ride bikes to a small village and back, later switching to another boat to travel to Cat Ba. Then a short ride on the back of motorcycles took us to our hotel, where we had a tremendous view over the water as the sun set (yes the sun came out after several rany & overcast days!). A beach resort kind of town, it was still small enough especially since it is the off-season to not be too loud or difficult to manage.



Today we took the small boat back and once again switched mid canal to the larger sleeper boat to return to Halong City on the mainland and then bused back to the bustling insanity of Hanoi. My butt is just starting to recover from minibus numbness.

Soon we will be picked up to board our soft seat bus to Ninh Binh, and should be paddling down a river through some caves near Tam Coc. Tomorrow night a sleeper bus should be taking us to Hue.

All for now, more detail later.

Friday, November 02, 2007

It's All About The Food, Vegetarians Need Not Apply




People ask us why we like to travel in places like S.E. Asia. Culture and history yes, scenery certainly, local crafts for sure, but mostly we love the food.



You may have seen the recurring theme in earlier posts. Today we had our first Western food of the trip and it was just as yummy as the indigenous stuff. Of course it had a French flair as could be expected in Vietnam.

Breakfast involved baguettes, croissants and coffee. Lunch was in a yuppified cafe called 2gether where we had quite fine dining with Julienned beans, Sweet & Sour Mackerel, and Peppered Prawns. It all came with delicious coffee and coconut juice with a straw direct from the nut, served on glass and bamboo tables, in white shirts and black pants with accordion music in the background and free WIFI. All of it for only 107,000 Dong or about $7 Canadian.



Last night was quite different, street hawker food and it only cost about $5, with beer. This involved child size plastic stools and tables on the sidewalk practically in the traffic. You put the raw or semi cooked food you wanted, all of it on skewers, on a paper plate and they seared it on a coal burning grill, and threw it down in front of you. Our selection included tofu, sweet potato, beans and corn alongside the chicken, lamb and some "other" meat products. The scraps ended up on the ground around our feet. Scraps did not come from our table as we found it finger-licking good, though finger licking around here is not generally recommended. Food-Safe? What's that?



When we were almost ready to leave we took a look at a plate on another table, and wondered out loud what kind of worms or fish they were. "Penises" was the response, "oh, what kind?", "oink,oink!". There are a few things I have not tryed yet and this was one of those opting out kind of times. We soon headed back out to Hang Non or was it Dong Long Street? I felt a little more like myself once we reached Hang Manh.



But back to today again, and it was spring rolls and noodles later on but not until after we had toured the Women's' Museum, and Hoa Lo Prison, the infamous "Hanoi Hilton".

The Women's Museum celebrated the achievements of Vietnamese women in the struggles of this country against the French and then later the Americans. Their were many poignant displays of the tools and tasks the women performed in both covert and outright military support in both of those conflicts. A display on an upper floor spoke of the success on women in the Capitalist field of business. Not as dramatic, but still somewaht interesting. Unfortunately due to renovations the display of the ethnic garb of the different tribal cultures was not open for viewing.

Hoa Lo, once the site of a small village had been a French built prison for Vietnamese dissidents where they underwent many forms of torture and often death. If not through direct means, such as by one of the guillotines on site (one is on display) they were often killed by the horrendous living conditions. Many prisoners did escape through the sewer system on at least 2 occasions.

During the Vietnam war, quite a few shot-down American pilots and crew were also detained here. The displays of course propagandized their treatment, showing a number of photos and/or describing the men as playing games or guitars and being well fed and cared for. Not likely very close to the truth, of course. The uniforms and some other effects are on display as well as pictures of Richard Nixon and B-52's over Hanoi.

Tonight on a lighter note, we checked out a night market that went on for miles, and the had a drink overlooking one of the craziest intersections around. There must have been about 100,000 bikes and motorcyles per hour not to mention pedestrians and buses doing U-turns in the middle of all of it. One thing I will say for them the people here sure do have bike handling skills!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Hanoi But It Ain't The Hilton




Here I am in the Thu Giang guesthouse. Free Internet and an English Operating System help, not to mention there does not appear to be any weird clampdown on internet access. I may make a few more spelling mistakes than usual as the keys are all worn, but small potatoes really.

This place is cheap, even more so than the last 2 nights in China. The room is actually kind of dingy; the room for the last 2 nights was probably worth at least $10 per night relative to the price of $7 here, but they do take Visa and the family that run it are pretty nice. I think though the biggest thing this place has going for it is that it is a VERY quiet location relative to the place in Pingxiang and to just about every other street we have been on in Hanoi so far.

The din is almost incredible out on the streets nearby but this place is in an alley with almost no scooter or other traffic. I actually saw a room at another place that had much nicer rooms for $10, but it was on one of the busy streets and was the first place we saw so we walked over here.

By The way I have noticed some similarities between the traffic system:



and the electrical system:



Even the bananas are better organized:




Once again we had some interesting travails on the way here.

Rusty (or was his name Squeaky?) our trusty Tuk-Tuk man picked us up on time (early in fact) at 7:15 this morning, stopped so we could grab a couple of Bao (dumplings) for the road and took us to the border. The walk through China exit proceedings went fine, and we strolled confidently into and pretty much straight out of Vietnam Immigration a couple of hundred meters done the road.

Our bags went into the first taxi we saw. They wanted $12 to Lak Son, but they settled for $5. It was raining pretty hard at this point or we might have stood our ground for $3. A moment later we were turned around at the next gate and headed back to Immigration, as it appeared that we did not get our passports stamped!

The confusion came from the 5 or 6 windows with different clerks handling all manner of bureaucratic affairs. They just kept waving us on, so we eventually were out the door thinking we were all done. It turns out that the 5th window had the papers we were supposed to fill out to take back to windows 1 through 6 (skipping 5 this time)...or something like that. I think they had a laugh at us over it, and so did we, sort of.

Meanwhile our bags disappeared and our taxi too.

The taxi did not reappear and after I shouldered my brash "pretending to be a rude American" way through a bus load of Chinese tourists who were blockading Vietnam with their suitcases, I found our bags and we were soon in another taxi for the same price, through the last gate and on to the next town.

The taxi guy took us to the Mini Bus station, where 500,000 Dong later we had our tickets to Hanoi and a friendly guide who took us to his favourite breakfast spot. It was kind of a Trucker breakfast cooked in sizzling oil in kind of a Fajita style, super hot cast iron platter at the table. Slices of beef, eggs, sausage mystery meatballs, French fries, buns, and some other stuff. Delicious and way too much! Meanwhile our bus left the station without us, and took our bags again!!

However our guide was on the phone with the driver and he picked us up on the way as we already on the Hanoi side of town...what me worry?

The bus ride was great, except for the perfumed ladies in the next row. The road was excellent, speed was about 80-100km/hr most of the way and we had the back 4 seats of the 16 seater Mercedes van to ourselves.

The scenery, especially the mountains we passed through, was amazing. Unfortunately hard to get photos but I still tried. 3 hours later we arrived in Hanoi, on the N.W. corner of the Old Quarter.

Now several hours later we have walked through many of the streets in the area and done most of the shopping we need to do here. We don't want to carry much more stuff with us so may send a few things home by mail from here.

Our trip to Halong Bay is also booked.

Enough for now, as we have a couple more days here and time to post later. Bia calls (bia=beer).

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Things don't always go as planned

Warning, fairly graphic photo below especially if you are a dog lover



We did not know exactly when we would get to Vietnam, and today we almost made it. So close we could see it and smell it, and almost touch it. Details to follow.

The trip has gone off very well so far. Hong Kong was easy to navigate and find the things we needed. The worst part was the crowdedness and noise.

The hardest part was finding someone who knew where we could buy train tickets to get into China. The locals most often seem to have very little sense of anything outside their own sphere (their "ken" as Robbie Burns might say), and either did not know or steered us wrong. For example one helpful guy sent us to the ferry terminal to buy train tickets, and a travel agent all of 2 blocks from the CITS (China International Travel Service), had no knowledge of it.

We eventually did get our tickets from CITS on the KCR (Kowloon China Railway) to Guangzhou, about 1.5 hours including customs. We then taxied to another station and bought tickets to Nanning, and spent about half what we expected to pay for Soft Sleeper, 550 Rmb for both of us (about 70 CAD).

We had a few hours to kill before the late afternoon train left, so found a place to check our bags and wandered. We soon came across an interesting collection of vendors. Instead of trying to sell one article at a time to tourists (we did not see anyone else who obviously were travelers), these stalls seemed to be wholesale watch and clothing sellers, actually promoting their factories in bulk.

Signs in official Communist red and yellow proclaimed that counterfeit products were a bad thing. I don't know if Calvin Klein had personally approved all the underwear vendors undercutting his drawers, but the regime had, so it must have been ok.

We saw one curious thing and one disturbing thing before getting lunch and Oolong tea and going back to the station.

The curious thing was how many black people, mostly men, we saw in this part of Guanghzhou. Dozens at least, if not hundreds. Some had slightly Muslim appearance, and we thought we heard a bit of French spoken and saw some tribal scarring. It looks like there is a west African connection here somehow.

The disturbing thing was the group of very mobile sellers of animal pelts. I say mobile, as their wares were on the fringes of this market district on hand carts probably so they could skedaddle very quickly if a clampdown was coming.




The disturbing part of course was not the how but the what. They looked like small tiger skins, and other pelts of I don't know what else. I might be looking this up when I get home but I don't think they were selling legal wares, and they knew it. They are the only people to object to me taking a picture so far so I just moved further away and zoomed in. There was obviously nothing we could do about illegal poaching of protected species, so we moved on.
.....

A bit on train classes in China; there are 4 classes: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, and soft sleeper. Prices rise with each one, but so does comfort considerably. Soft sleeper gives you a semi private 4 bunk room with lots of pillows, super warm comforters, LED lighting, slippers for everyone, frills on the mattress covers. We had a young Chinese couple for roommates, enjoyed some limited conversation with them and had a pretty good rest on the 13 hour train ride.

We were spat out about 5am, into a pretty clean and modern looking plaza, and soon had a noodle breakfast and then another train ticket to Pingzhiang. These were the hard seat type, where you really get to know your neighbours, but it was only 3 hours away.

On the way we made small talk with some locals who were friendly and curious. The older woman with the baby in the back sling sat next to the young girl taking cell phone photos of us and text messaging someone.



We also met a young couple from Canada. Their trip had begun in Japan and they also were heading for Hanoi. We agreed to try to share a taxi to the Vietnam side of the border, and once off the last train in China negotiated a cheap price of 20 Rmb via Tuk-Tuk for the 4 of us to go the frontier, 20km away.

The rattle-trap we crowded into could barely make it up the hills and the motor was shut off on some of the downhill parts to save gas I guess. I literally could have run faster in parts. If we had bounced any higher over some of the bumps I might have had to, after regaining consciousness of course.

Here is where plans went out the window. Our Visas for Vietnam would not allow us in for 2 more days!

Not knowing when Exactly we would be here, but having calculated something along the lines of Hong Kong for the 27-29, and the 30-31 to get here, meant going into Vietnam on November 1st, and when we planned this we requested the Visa entry to be from that date. However we left HK on the 29th and got here on the 30th, and did not even think about our Visa dates until on the train from Guangzhou.

They were nice enough about it, but the Chinese did not let us out, knowing the Viet side would not let us in. They even called the other side to ask, but no dice and the soldier guy at the border gave some info on hotels in Pingxiang.

So here we are Pingxiang, middle of nowhere, for 2 nights. Hotel (50¥ or $6) and everything else is cheap, and the topography is very neat, with karst mountains like Halong & Guilin. Not too hot or humid, and the air is cleaner than HK even with all the 2-strokers. There is a huge open air market with lots of interesting foodstuff. Bee wine, pig snouts and dog (!¿!) being some of the more unusual things. None of which we sampled, though had (guess what?) noodles!



We actually had great food there in the market and went back to the same stall twice. The woman running the stall was happy to see us come back and I don't think we tried even half the various pickles and other toppings for the noodles. Simple food but quite varied at the same time. Yummy!




Our friendly neighbourhood Tuk-Tuk driver and Money-Changer brought us here (we did say cheap),and will pick us up early on the 1st to take us back to the border.

And now that we have somewhat mastered this Chinese Language computer and back-doored our way into the internet (outernet to the Communist masters, I imagine), I can post this!!!