Archive for July, 2007

Seductive Saigon (HCMC) – South Vietnam

July 31, 2007

In the Cu Chi TunnelsWedding CoupleHi All

Well only my tenth bus it feels like many more. This unlike the last one was quite late so thinking I’d arrive at 5.30pm we then turned up at 8.30pm. Oh well it’s cheap and convenient so can’t complain. There was also a screaming baby which the mother insisted on walking up and down. At one point the driver stopped and took her off the bus – maybe he needed a break too. Luckily we were dropped right in the backpacker area so I made my way to the alley I wanted and although the original option I wanted was full another guesthouse which was better was available. I have an inside room – no window. It’s very cosy and no window means no noise – hurray!! (The hooting is out in force)
As it was so busy I decided to go straight out and explore. Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) or as it’s still known by non government officials – Saigon has a certain buzz about it and just reels you in. The backpacker area has loads of cafes and outside eating places, dirt cheap of course. Despite the hellish journey I was starting to feel very happy that I’d arrived. I suddenly developed a sweet tooth so ordered some pineapple fritters with ice cream and a local glass of pure sugar cane juice. I think it’s an acquired taste something like watermelon and honey combined. It was okay. I went back to my room and just as I’d got in to bed something fell out of the artificial tree in the corner (obviously compensating for the lack of a window). I turned on the light but couldn’t see anything. Then all of a sudden a rather large cockroach scuttled along the wall. I don’t actually mind them but don’t particularly like the idea of one crawling across me in the night so tried to catch it. They’re pretty quick so I couldn’t. He couldn’t have been very well as thirty minutes later he was upside down on the bathroom floor. I put a glass over him and he was removed by the cleaning service the next day – poor thing !
I was going to stay for 2 days but decided to squeeze as much out of my visa as possible so managed 3. I had been told Saigon is double the size of Hanoi in terms of traffic and population (8M) but there’s a kind of organised chaos about the place. It has benefited from it’s colonial past with grander buildings, now occupied by government or museums and it’s more of a business place. It does warn you in the guide books that you need to be more careful because of street crime and as I type this the girl sitting next to me is calling home to say she’s just been robbed. Apparently she was on her way to the cash point and a couple of guys just came by on a motorbike and grabbed her purse. I must admit I’ve been trying to go in to closed areas when making a withdrawal. Generally, I’ve found it very safe.
Sunday I decided to get up early and do the walking tour recommended by the Lonely Planet as it takes in a lot of the cities main sights. I went to one of the outdoor street places and ordered some pho (the breakfast noodles). I ended up chatting to people so started later than expected.
The first thing I noticed apart from the usual motorbike and cyclo shouts was that they have tourist police in the main areas. They are in quite a bright green uniform rather than the usual khaki colour of the main force. They seem to be there to help with directions, street crime and crossing busy road junctions. Mind you I still got offered marujuana in front of one last night.
My first stop was the indoor market, there are some other items that weren’t in Hoi An so I just checked the prices and went on my way. Next stop the “Fine Arts Museum”. That was in a beautiful old French building. There was a special exhibition by artist Le Thi Kim Bach. It was described as a friendship exhibition but most of the pictures were titled comrade and if the subject wasn’t from Vietnam then they were from Ukraine or Cuba.
Next stop the local street market, that was quite handy as I needed to pick up some cotton. Parts of my bags are literally bursting at the seams. On the way I discovered a lovely street with antiques – more on that later. Then a quick visit to the Municipal Theatre in the other main tourist area of Dong Khoi and then on to the Ho Chi Minh museum. This again being in a splendid colonial building just looked far grander than the Hanoi version and seemed to be a popular spot for couples to get their wedding photos taken. One couple kindly let me take a picture which I’ve attached. The museum had a lot of information on the make up of Ho Chi Minh city and again quite a few artifacts from the war as well as agricultural and farming information.
Then it was lunch time so I decided to walk towards the War Remnants Museum and eat nearby. Due to the heat I ordered a salad but I could have chosen such appetising delicacies as gruel, grilled cartillage or rooted pigeon (as least it would have been cooked with a smile on it’s face) from the menu. Then on to the “War Remnants”. It’s a bit of a shame that apart from a French guillotine it seems to be dedicated to the “American War”. Although there was a great exhibition of photos taken by press journalists who unfortunately lost their lives during the conflict. Agent Orange was also a clear feature. They actually had some encased in a display along with several photos of the type of defects it causes. It mainly seems to affect children born to agent orange inhalers. There were some awful foetuses in jars. They also had a large appeal in place as some of the defects suffered by surviving children involve missing limbs and bodies totally contorted. It was shocking. Then to jolly things along they had some examples of tiger cages. These are small prison cells where prisoners are kept in the dark apart from bars along the roof – hence the name. Time to move on and go to Independance Palace. The old headquarters of the South Vietnamese president. Apparently there were some famous press stories in 1975 with the VC crashing through the gates in tanks to declare a reunified country. The gambling room had a particularly seedy 1970’s feel to it. Time to go to Notre Dame (yes they have one here) but just as I arrived the heavens opened so after taking shelter under the nearest awning I managed to find a taxi and high tailed it back to the guest house. When it rains which it tends to do during the night or in the afternoon (it’s rainy season)- you know about it. Although so does the UK these days.
The next day I’d booked a trip first to go to the Cao Dai temple. It’s 2 hours out of the centre so another early start was required. Cao Dai has 3 Million followers in Vietnam and was started in 1926. It’s a mix of Taoism, Confucionism, Christianity/Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism and Vietnamese spiritualism. So it’s takes the “best of breed” philosophies from each. It was set up by an ex civil servant, Ngo Minh Chieu after he’d had a series of dreams. Their symbol is a huge eye known as the divine eye. Due to all the religious mixes the elders wear different colours like blue, red or yellow depending on their faith leanings. While the youngest members wear white. The temple was really decorative and in order to encourage the religion they allow tourists to go to an upstairs viewing balcony to watch the mass. It was a wonderful spectacle of chanting.
Time for lunch and then off to the Cu Chi Tunnels (the world famous ones). These are 200km long and the area was always controlled by the Viet Cong despite being in the South. We got to see the various traps they used on the enemy and the booby traps for the tunnels themselves. There again were 3 levels and some parts were just too small for Americans to get through. The cooking areas had ingenius vents that expelled smoke more than 100 metres away and food was only prepared between 4 and 6am. It was raining heavily. Luckily I was fully prepared – boots, camouflage top and of course the brolly.
We actually did quite a big tour overground and again there were B52 bomb craters and even an M41 tank that had been stopped when a land mine blew up it’s tread. Then it was tunnel time. Unlike the Vinh Moc tunnels these were a lot smaller, you had to crouch down and also there was no lighting so it was pitch black. The section opened was only about 50 metres long but a lot of people went straight down and then straight back up. I wouldn’t advise it if you suffer from claustrophia. I’d forgotten the torch and then remembered the lighter so flicked it on every minute or so to make sure of steps and turns. I’ve attached a photo. If I look like a rabbit in headlights it’s because I cannot see my photographer – it’s so dark.
Time to journey back to Saigon and some local food and a couple of beers. I, like most people have taken to beer here. It’s so hot it quenches your thirst.
Today, yes amazingly I’m right up to date I had a lie in and then went to a local cafe for breakfast. I bumped into Miriam from Sapa/DMZ (we may yet run in to each other again in Thailand) over breakfast and then decided to potter around town and complete my halted walking tour. I very nearly bought a Vietnamese Wedding Cake Box in the antique area but think I’ll leave that as a future holiday purchase. Although I thought they were bluffing regarding the age but they don’t seem to make them any more and there was an exact copy of the one I wanted in the history museum. The history museum (again a wonderful Sino French building) was really good. It explained all about the various dynasties and had a lot of exhibits going back to the Bronze age. Of course as usual it only mentions successful Vietnamese battles but that’s probably a cultural point about “not losing face”. I then walked back along the river and am now up to date. I leave at 8am for Cambodia, a 6 hour journey by bus straight to the capital Phnom Penh.
I’ve had a wonderful three and half weeks here, I would have liked to have gone to Dalat but ran out of time and have heard mixed reports on the Mekong Delta – another time. Certainly if I hadn’t been travelling on my own I would have gone more off the beaten track. Saigon is wonderful and I can see why expats live here but my favourite has to be Hoi An. Bring those examples of clothes you want made here (even just pictures) and it will cost a fraction of the price. If you come hear on holiday with money you can live like a king on less than most places. It’s certainly cheaper than Thailand or Bali. I also prefer Saigon to Hanoi and do skip Natrang.
I will be back but for now it’s “Good Evening Vietnam”.

Transport count
Plane = 5, Bus = 10, Train = 2, Boat = 2, Sunglasses = 3, Mosquito repellant = 4

Take care

Sally x

Vietnam – The Beaches – Mui Ne, YES, YES,YES !!

July 31, 2007

My view of Mui Ne from the sunbedssl20171.jpgHi all

Well my 8.30am bus turned up at 8.05am and nearly missed it. Time to go to Mui Ne a less developed beach area a 5 hour drive down South. On got the Brits from my bowling team in Luang Prabang although they were going straight to Ho Chi Minh but it gave me someone to sit with at our rest stop. For the second time that day the bus started to leave without me, but got on just in time.

I could tell we were getting close to Mui Ne when I could see sand dunes appearing at the road side. As the bus stopped for lunch for the Ho Chi Minh passengers, I had arrived. The bus company recommended some accomodation and they came to pick me up. At $15 I have a bungalow located about 15m from the beach. The room isn’t great (a damp smell probably due to the sea air) although the toilet roll holder in the bathroom does have “Sally” on it so made me feel at home and the location makes up for it.

The sand dunes in Mui Ne create their own micro climate, so when it’s rainy season in Natrang the surfs up here. Unlike Natrang the beach is not on the road it’s just lined with palm trees and every now and again has small low rise resorts or guest houses which from the beach side are not obvious at all. There was a lovely breeze, the tide was out and so I decided to walk about 5km down the beach. In total the beach is 22km long and pretty empty. I love it !

It’s now late afternoon and unlike the mad tourists the local children wait until then to come out to play football or swim. I’ve attached a picture of some by one of the boats. They made me take several as they thought it was brilliant that they could immediately see what they looked like on camera. Unlike the large towns they didn’t expect anything in return. Just more photo posing opportunities.

After my tour I found a way through to the road and walked down to find something to eat. The place seems really quite quiet apart from the locals. I ended up eating quite near my hotel. Oh and what food! My squid and prawn salad cost 60p – and we are talking a lot of seafood. I then had a mini charcoal bbq put on my table and the fresh fish was brought out and cooked in front of me. Then in a Vietnamese form of Fajita you roll it up in rice flour pancakes with salad and dip it in chilli, soy and tomato sauce – another 60p well spent. I then just chatted to the locals and drank copious amounts of fresh lemon juice (I’m addicted to it).

I went to bed early determined to get up for sunrise on the beach and a whole day of dedicated sunbathing. Everyone looks a lot more tanned than I do. It rained during the night. I woke up before sunrise and then fell asleep and missed it. I did get up at 5.45am and there were other people who’d had the same idea and succeeded. Damn. Back to bed then a gorgeous breakfast of the best omelette so far followed by fresh melon and pineapple and my sunbathing plans were thwarted. It was overcast, so I relaxed in a hammock and finished my book. “When heaven and earth changes places” by Le Ly Hayslip. If you want an understanding of how the “American” war really affected the Vietnamese then this is brilliant.

Finally at 1pm the sun came out so 3 of us went on to the beach. The usual cockle pickers were out, so were the crabs and even a herd of cows, but attached is the view from my sunbed.

I had been promised sunshine by the restaurant for the following day so thought I could some more sunbathing before departing for Ho Chi Minh. Not so, it was overcast and then rained from about 12, just as well I missed the sunrise again. I did have the company of a rat with breakfast though – thankfully on the sand rather than my plate.

Oh well time to go to Vietnam’s old capital of the South.

In the words of Groove Armada from “At the river” -“If your fond of sand dunes and salty air” then Mui ne is for you…it’s definitely for me.

Transport count
Plane = 5, Bus = 9, Train = 2, Boat = 2, Sunglasses = 3, Mosquito repellant = 4

Take care

Sally x

Vietnam – The Beaches – Natrang, NO NO NO !!

July 27, 2007

Hi all,

Well I set off on my first overnight 12 hour bus ride to Natrang. I was immediately soothed by the daunting prospect of trying to sleep by the “Union Jack” head rests that all of the seats had. Luckily I was one of the first on so managed to put my seat straight into a slight recline. As usual the bus is filled to the rafters and my initial seat mate had her companion sitting on a stool in the gangway next to her. This meant that she took up some of my space. Luckily some locals got off early on so they moved by as if by magic another Vietnamese female appeared to take her place. (They must keep reserves in the luggage hold!). I got out at the first rest stop and hadn’t eaten so looked around for something edible but I’m sick of baguettes and otherwise it was a sit down situation so decided I’d get by on my water. Miraculously I slept the rest of the way and awoke about 15 minutes before we reached Natrang.

I’d decided not to book ahead after last time and sure enough the motobikes were waiting to take us to guest houses and earn their commissions. I knew roughly where I wanted to be and couldn’t have ended up with a better location. Across the road from the beach but right in the centre, although the main areas are in the two streets behind that was great as I wouldn’t hear any noise. I haggled the room down from $12 to $10 and could get in straight away (it was only 6.15am). So I decided to relax for a couple of hours before checking out the area.

Natrang – well it’s the Benidorm of Vietnam. Personally I wouldn’t come again. It’s quite a nice beach but there’s a main road running behind it and really you could be anywhere. I spoke to someone who’d been passing through 8 years ago and they couldn’t believe how much it had grown. It’s also summer holidays here so a lot of Vietnamese are visiting from Ho Chi Minh which makes it even busier.

I had a long walk around. One dilemma is while you’re looking around you’re not looking down and so stubbed my toe on a brick. I’m not quite sure what’s happened but cuts and bruises just seem to appear. Travellers look like they’ve been in the battlefield. I guess it’s just the perils of wearing flipflops. I took my time picking a nice place for lunch and then decided to spend the afternoon at the beach as it was a glorious day. The beach wasn’t too crowded (locals don’t sunbathe), I sat in the shade as various ladies with their wares tried to get me to buy something from them. I pretended to be asleep as much as possible. I did actually doze off at one point but then didn’t know if I’d wake up if someone tried to grab my bag. In the end I gave in to a massage, well I love the coconut oil they use and although it wasn’t the best you can’t really complain at $5.

The following day I’d booked a boat trip “Mama Hanh’s”. They are famous and have been going for years. She’s now rich and has homes in America, where as 8 years ago she would be on her one boat with the tourists. Kevin an older Kiwi guy (Clive James springs to mind) was also going from my guest house and  he relayed stories of how  far out to sea they’d gone and the partying on board etc.  Not any more. We got to the boat and it was full of Vietnamese tourists apart from a couple of Spanish and Germans. We stopped off for some snorkelling (not a patch on Cham Island and Natrang is supposed to be the no.1 diving area) but the masks were a bit leaky so just had a swim. After more sailing we moored for lunch and then the boat men turn in to a singer, guitarist and drummer and set up a stage. The singer was our guide for the day anyway and was quite funny but then it turned in to an open mike session. I had to go back on the top deck – it was too painful. Then another boat boy jumps in to the water with a floating bar and wine and everyone grabs a rubber ring (to support their cup) and jumps in. Once the wine is finished it’s off to a further island. I think Hon Tam was it’s name, a purpose built place where you pay to get on and use the beach. I decided it was beer o’clock. Time to get back on the boat and visit the aquarium, I’d heard this was  not great so didn’t bother. I really wanted to get back – there’s commercialism and then there’s “it’s just not fun”. Finally dry land beckoned.

Kevin was also travelling on his own so we decided to go for a couple of beers and dinner. I’d been recommended to go to “Good Morning Vietnam” by the American girls I’d met in Halong Bay, they said it had the most amazing food. Sorry but no. After dinner I was knackered (must have been all that sea air) so headed straight back.

Sorry but Natrang – not my cup of tea…..hence no pics.

Transport count:

Plane = 5, Bus = 8, Train = 2, Boat = 2, Sunglasses = 3, Mosquito repellant = 3

Take care

Sally

  

Ahoy !! Hoi An – Central Vietnam

July 24, 2007

Cham Island - Local Fishing net manufacturersMy SonHi all,

Well after Hue it was time to carry on down to the central area to Hoi An. Everyone has been absolutely raving about the place. It is the place to get clothes made and for the first time since I’ve been away I was going to do some shopping.

I boarded my bus at 8am. Bad news, I was the first on. Somehow they always manage to fill every seat so it meant that I was going to be ferried around town. At 9.45am we finally left. We’d had to wait for a bus from Hanoi which was late. They had overbooked the seats but luckily 2 people cancelled. On the way we must have stopped at what was the most scenice roadside cafe ever. The chairs looked like they’d been made up for a wedding and it was right on a deserted beach. My motorbike burn had now turned in to a beautiful blister.

Arriving in Hoi An I was picked up by my guest house. The room was gorgeous, kingsize bed and all the trimmings but no wonder the pick up was included it was a bit of a trek to town with nothing really around it. There was also a power cut and the swimming pool was unfortunately covered, so much for relaxation and a sun tan. I decided to walk to town and found the hotel I originally wanted and booked that for the rest of my trip. The swimming pool was not covered – hurray ! I decided as shopping was a main priority I’d check out tailors and prices of other household bits and bobs I wanted to buy. I also booked a discovery scuba dive (details to follow) and then after doing a book exchange at the local shop it was dinner time.

Hoi An has 3 real local specialities : Wonton Soup, White Rose and Cau Lau.

Cau Lau is a noodle soup made with water from the Hoi An well and pork. White Rose is like a dim sum with prawn in the middle, I managed all three during my time here.

I ordered the Wonton Soup, it is still the best thing I’ve eaten here and sat at a bar on the river front with some local beer by the glass. The beer cost a princely sum of 10p. I’m liking this place already and over the river bank music was playing. It was just a great spot to people watch. After a few more beers I trekked back to the hotel. At least all this walking around has caused me to lose quite a but of weight. I have no idea how much but I feel almost skinny again. So girls if you want a successful diet regime come to Vietnam.

The next day I woke up feeling rather guilty about having to check out of the hotel. My new check in time was 10am and as if by magic at 8.30am there was yet another power cut. I waited for about 15 minutes and asked how long the power cut would last. They weren’t sure so I said that as there’d been a power cut the majority of the time I’d spent there it wasn’t good enough and had to leave. They tried to persuade me to stay but I insisted they called me a taxi and I went to my new hotel. Yes there was a power cut there but they had back up generators so I still had some power in my room. Then it was off to the pool to relax for the afternoon.

Early evening and as I went out to get some food I bumped in to Roisin and Sarah from the Laos boat. What a cooincidence, they had both had some clothes made at the tailor I was going to go with, so it gave me a chance to see how theirs had turned out before ordering mine. As it turned out very nicely !! So I left them with an order for 3 suits, 2 dresses and 3 shirts and we all retired the a cafe called “Treats” to treat ourselves to some long island iced teas. I felt merry after 2, not sure whether my alcohol tolerance is dropping or they were just strong !!

Saturday morning and I was up at 4.30am to do the sunrise trip to My Son (me son). The idea is that you get there in time to see the sunrise. Unfortunately it’s summer so the sun is up far too early to actually see the sunrise. My Son is the Vietnamese equivalent to Ankor Wat (Cambodia’s huge complex of temples). There were about 70 structures built by the Champa people from the 4th -10th century. Of course the Viet Cong used to hide there so now there are only 20 structures as they were heavily bombed but there is yet again a huge amount of restoration work going on. It was incredibly hot and my main aim for seeing it was because of how old it actually is. Apparently the Champa people were Hindu’s that came from near India and at that time Vietnam was actually 3 countries : Vietnam (North), Kingdom of Champa (Central), Khymer (South). There are still around 19,000 Champa left but they now live around Ho Chi Minh in the south. I have attached a picture.

I had arranged to go by bus and return by boat. As we were waiting to leave for the boat I noticed the blister had burst without any untoward mess so that was great. Arriving at the boat quay there was no boat. It had broken down but within 30 minutes it turned up and we were taken back to Hoi An an hour away. I sat at the front in the sun and have now have the mark of the official traveller. Yes the motorbike burn is the Vietnam sign but the true traveller has a white V on their feet where they have been wearing their flip flops – and I got mine today…

Back in Hoi An I popped down to the local market to see what I could potentially buy and then back to the tailors to try on my clothes. I had been warned to shower to cool down first as trying lined clothes on in 40 degree heat is no fun and you may not bother getting alterations done. Everything was fine apart from 1 jacket and 1 dress which were altered again, of course it means I can’t put a lot of weight on when I get back but that’s a good enough incentive to me. Clothes currently in sea freight back to the UK, let’s hope they arrive.  I then decided to look at the shoes – you can get anything but I decided on a couple of pairs of trainers and then went for a couple of beers with Roisin and Sarah as it was their last night in Hoi An.

Sunday – I woke up with a really queasy feeling this morning. I had to do my discovery scuba dive. The last time I tried a PADI course in Thailand over 10 years ago I couldn’t go through with it. I just had this complete phobia about clearing the mask under water and taking the regulator (breathing apparatus) out of my mouth. It is by far my biggest fear. I did just think we were going straight under and knew the swimming around part would be okay. With me I think it’s just the sea seems a bit unknown.

The day started off with a fiery start. As I waited in reception for my bus to arrive there were a couple of old Vietnamese women on the hotel steps abusing the receptionist. Then the local street vendor got involved. It’s annoying when you have no idea what they are saying but you had the feeling it was something to do with a man. The dive company arrived and there was another 3 people from my hotel coming too. The mini bus driver had to semi push them away for us to get in. Then all hell broke loose. A younger woman ran up and punched a younger guy in the face and then he actually hit her back. Mean while the Aussies in our van were saying “man, don’t hit a woman”. They were literally landing against the van. People were trying to split everyone involved up and the receptionist sped off on a motorbike. We then left and Kate, the dive instructor said that was the first fight she’d ever seen. Normally they just shout at each other so they don’t lose face.

We arrived at the boat and were split into divers and snorkellers. There were 2 other discovery divers and we sailed to Cham Island. We were to be taken down by Alex. This was great news as he was the person recommended to me by a fellow traveller in Hue.

Alex gave us a pep talk about the equipment and then explained that we’d need to do the mask and regulator tests on the bottom of the sea. Panic set in but he just said if you worry just keep breathing and think of Buddha. I managed to get the wet suit on the wrong way around – great start. Kitted up I jumped in – so far so good. We cleared our masks and then let the air out of our life jackets so we floated to the bottom and knelt on the sea bed. I was fine but Caroline another learner had to go up a few times. The regulator test went fine. I was so amazed I messed up the mask test but we went anyway. It was great. I can’t see what I was so afraid of. We had great visbility and went down about 9 metres. They had been saying we might see whale sharks but thankfully (that’s what all first timers say) we didn’t. That’s it I’m definitely going to get the PADI certification in Thailand, I’m hooked.  A big thank you to Jon for all the snorkelling he made me do in Egypt, I’m sure that helped and a big thank you to Buddha. I did have one buoyancy issue and pressed the wrong button so went up but got myself straight back down. That was actually great fun but you wouldn’t want to do that when you’re really deep.     

Time to come up, I was on cloud nine and lunch was great, lots of sea food and then time to relax in hammocks on the deserted beach. After lunch the divers were going down to 30 Metres – a bit far for me at this stage so instead Ludo the dive company owner took us by boat to the local village where 400 Cham Islanders lived. We were the only 8 Westerners there so were quite priviledged. It seemed that the towns business was fishing nets, I’ve attached a picture. We walked around then stopped for a beer with some locals and had a local delicacy of dried squid. That was gorgeous, a squid version of beef jerky. The journey back to Hoi An was a bit rough. Alex told me to get my visa extended and do the PADI dive certification with him but so much to see and so little time. The local Hoi An beach was crowded with people waiting for the fisherman to cook their catch, it was gorgeous.

The following day was all about shopping and shipping. The post office is open 7 days a week from 6.30am until 9pm and they wrap and pack for you. It’s like a military operation. With everything done time to catch the overnight bus to the beach area of Natrang. I have to say Hoi An is like Ubud in Bali but better and cheaper. I am definitely coming back. Although if my clothes do turn up they keep your measurements for 3-5 years, so I can keep ordering.

Transport count :

Plane = 5, Bus = 7, Train = 2, Boat = 2, Sunglasses = 3, Mosquito repellant = 3

Take care all

Sally x

       

Historical Hue – Central Vietnam

July 24, 2007

American Veteran’s Comments in the Memorial Book at the Combat Base MuseumAmerican Veteran’s Comments in the Memorial Book at the Combat Base MuseumThe Outer Walls of the Citadel in HueHi all,

Well I have arrived in Hue pronounced H’way and I have to say this place has grown on me. The guest house people are lovely. In fact people had said that the Vietnamese were not as friendly here but I think they are even nicer, you’ll see why later on. I tried to look for somewhere in between here and Hanoi to go but the book didn’t rate anywhere and after speaking to people who stopped in Vinh I’m glad I didn’t bother as people were trying to rip you off left right and centre. You seem to get that in the less travelled areas, westerner equals money to them which is fair enough when you’re very poor.

I got up the first morning and did my usual tour of the town to get my bearings. It seems that there’s more to do just outside the town than in it. The cry of “motorbike, motorbike” is still here but it’s now competing with “cyclo, cyclo”. A kind of rickshaw but you sit at the front and they peddle behind you. Thankfully the roads are a lot easier to cross than Hanoi.

I walked first to the local Dong Ba market. I was pounced on by just about anyone and offered haircuts by the local hairdressers (after my Bali experience – I don’t think so). I haggled for my 4th pair of sunglasses, hopefully these will last longer and then stopped at a local cafe for lunch. A bit disapointing as my pancakes did come with the meat, shrimp and peanut sauce but only beansprouts not the promised fig and green banana and it was swimming in grease.

I then walked to the Citadel, unharmed by the war and like a lot of attractions in Vietnam undergoing major restoration work. There’s a huge moat all around the perimeter and the 19th century emperor used to live here. It felt very peaceful.

After the citadel I walked to the other main back packer area to look around and went to buy toothpaste and a cold drink. There was nothing apart from milk drinks in the cold section so two middle aged men who were sitting on stools in the shop poured me a cold glass of beer and I had to race to down it with one of them. How lovely !! My thirst quenched I started to walk back to the guest house. Vietnam were playing Japan at football in the Asian football championships so there were a lot of locals out watching the game. As I passed quite a local bar more older men called me and asked me to sit down and got me a beer. I like this place. After some stilted conversation and more beer I said goodbye and called it a night -like I said Hue grows on you.

The next day I had booked a tour to the DMZ. This was the demilitarised area during the Vietnam war or the American war as they refer to it. Despite the fact it is supposed to be demilitarised it saw some of the heaviest fighting of all. In all around 3 million Vietnamese died. We set off at 6.30am on the bus to Dong Ha the nearest town 2 hours away for breakfast and the Dutch father and daughter Hans and Miriam from my first trek in Sapa were on the bus so that gave me some instant friends. After breakfast we went to “The Rockpile”. Actually it is just a huge rock but the Americans dropped men by helicopter on top so they could see any Viet Cong movement in the area. It really did give you a good view. The vegetation has started to grow back but the area is still highly toxic with Agent Orange, a chemical weapon used by the Americans. Then it was off to the “Dakrong Bridge”. We went to look at the Ho Chi Minh trail from there. That was how the Viet Cong moved around the country.     

It was then time to go to the “Khe Sanh Combat base” which claimed 500 Americans and 10,000 Vietnamese in all. They still have the old Chinook helicopters, tanks and bunkers there. There’s also a memorial museum with a comments book. On a touching note there were comments from American war veterans. On a comical note a lot of hatred re the gulf war and people being very patriotic about what country they came from. Any time a German wrote something derogatory about America there would be comments below like “so you thought Hitler was cool ?”. And so on depending on where the author of the comment was from. Outside the museum some locals were selling Viet Cong medals and American dog tags. Of course they said they were original and they looked quite good but it just didn’t seem right to buy them. The person could have been killed so you don’t really want that on display.

Back to the town for an extremely bland lunch. I can’t say I’ve been that impressed with the food overall, apart from the noodle soups it just doesn’t match up. After lunch a flying visit through the Doc Mieu base and the Ben Hai River and on to the Vinh Moc Tunnels. These are the more unknown Vietnamese tunnels and unlike the ones in Ho Chi Minh have not been altered for tourists although I think they were built larger anyway. The tunnels are on 3 levels and reach 12 metres under ground. For once my height was a benefit and I hardly had to crouch down at all (thanks parents). The walls were just made of clay. You could press your nails in to them ad leave a mark. They had built them with small tools and their bare hands. They had tiny alcoves which were sleeping areas, a meeting area that sat 60 but looked like 5 people would be a bit tight and then they had a small maternity alcove. They lived in them for 5 years and you could still see many bomb craters which had landed right next to the tunnels. If they had had a direct hit or the bomb had gone down the covered well it would have killed or buried alive a lot of people. The sad thing was they were right next to the most amazing beach, although as it’s more attractive for them to be pale that probably wouldn’t have interested them. Time to do the 3 hour bus ride back to Hue.

The next day I had booked a boot ride along the perfume river to go and see the various emperor tombs. AsI hadn’t been hiking for a couple of days I’d dispensed with shorts for skirts (it’s so hot!!). Unknown to me I was getting picked up by motorbike. I just about managed to get on to the bike without causing a gross act of indecency and whilst trying to cover my modesty with the dismount I managed to burn my leg on the exhaust. Actually I am not alone I have since discovered that this is a sign you have been to Vietnam as have since met many tourists and even Vietnamese with the burn.

Oh well on to the boat. We motored slowly down the river and visited various temples and tombs of the emperors (Minh Mang and Khai Dinh)  from the 19th and 20th century. They all seemed to have a multitude of wives and concubines and all faced death threats due to their vast displays of wealth by building these huge tombs/summer homes whilst still alive. I also bumped in to Roisin (another Irish girl) who had been on the Laos boat. In fact Anne Marie and Maria had come back to Hue tonight but got the message too late so I missed them. All in all it had been a lovely day and a rather cultural time in Hue.    

Time to go to Hoi An, everyone has been raving about it. I think it’s time to shop !

Transport count 

Planes = 5, Boats =2, Bus = 6, Train = 2, Sunglasses =3, Mosquito Repellant = 3

Until next time , Sally x

Stunning Sapa – North West Vietnam

July 18, 2007

Views Of SapaSo I returned from Halong Bay with an hour to spare before going to Sapa. Sapa is in the North West of Vietnam about 400km from Hanoi and is known for being a beautiful trekking area. The above is a view of the valley. I repacked my day sack (I get  to leave the main rucksack at the guesthouse) and then the guy from the guesthouse took me to the train station by motorbike. That was an experience, no stopping at cross roads just the usual hoot to let them know you’re coming. I asked him about the lack of crash helmets but basically they will have to from 2008.

I’d got a bit of a refund as he’d explained there were no 1st class train tickets available and I had to go 2nd class. No problem I thought until he led me through the throng of the station to my train and carriage. The carriage contained 4 pull down beds and mine was already occupied with 2 Vietnamese men and 1 woman. I had a top bunk, it was covered in a sort of red coloured plastic leather. I wasn’t at all concerned until he told me to make sure I had my passport now and to make sure it was still there before I got off the train. (Why, what the hell was going to happen to me?) . The Vietnamese woman was then replaced by a man. They spoke a little English and said they were going to China on business. Then the train pulled away and they started to play cards for money. It seemed like a form of poker and money was exchanged with lots of high drama involved in throwing down the cards. This drew an audience in the corridor. Everyone seemed to smoke and then the beers came out. Not being able to understand the game I decided to read. I spread out the dirty white grey sheet and put my backpack behind the pillow (to rest and protect the passport). It was then I noticed the rather unfragrant smell of urine. Had someone mistaken my pillow for the toilet ? It certainly seemed that way. At least we had a fan and they opened the windows to create aircon. I decided the best course of action was to remain nil by mouth soI wouldn’t need to use the toilets – that worked. After a couple of hours everyone went to sleep. I then had a nightmare that someone was stealing my passport so woke myself up by shouting “No”. Thank goodness they didn’t wake up. Eventually the loud speaker came on and they told me to wake up as we were here. “But it’s not Sapa”, I said and they explained that I needed to get a further bus. Getting out of the bunk I noticed an even stronger stench, maybe all of the pillows had been mistaken for toilets. I left the station and found the bus. Some Americans were on them complaining about 1st class – lucky them !!

After an hour we reached our hotel and got bombarded by local women and girls from the H’mong tribe from the local village. They dress in an indigo dress made from hemp, have head bands, jewellery and black velvet like leg warmers – hopefully the pictures attach. Their English was amazing (practising on tourists) and they all asked me to buy from them when I came out later. I was then warned by a 14 year old H’Mong not to say maybe as they will take that as a yes.

The room wasn’t ready so I had breakfast, showered and met my trekking guide Zan for the day. Yes it was raining I finally got to wear my jacket that I’ve been carrying for the last goodness knows how many thousands of miles. Also in the group were a Dutch father and daughter, an Australian couple and a Korean girl. Today we were trekking to Lai Chau Village for lunch and then walking through a couple of further villages in the afternoon. Apparently around 17km in all. We stopped to buy bamboo canes to help us along and I put on my black gaitors really to match the H’Mong legware. Some new villagers had decided to come along with us and I got talking to Jo a 40 year old with 5 children whose husband had died last year (that did it, I’d have to buy from her). The paths were pretty muddy and then we came to a very steep muddy slope. I managed to get down ok and then just waited at the bottom in horror as the rest of the group apart from the Korean were all falling over. The H’Mong’s in their little sandals then grabbed their hands and led people down safely. No one got injured. We had a brief stop by the river and were bombarded by tons of yellow dragon flies. They have become my favourite insect over here. I have met loads of girls who have got tatoos since travelling. I wouldn’t but if I did that would be what I’d get.

On arriving in their village we had lunch and then as promised I bought some bracelets from Jo. They all seem to have one syllable names so I also met Me, Mo, Ma, So, Si, and Sa – it did get a bit confusing. After lunch we went to a H’Mong house and watched them flattening then hemp material to make the clothes and then weave it on the loom. We then went to another village which belongs to the Zay tribe. Their houses were so much bigger and more solid but apparently that’s because they save while the H’Mongs spend every penny they get – bless ! I got back to the hotel and had the most amazing view so far.

Day 2 and our guide was Chi. She is a H’Mong so I guess she’s moved up the career ladder. Today was just a short trip to the cultural village. A new procession of the villagers joined us (more bracelets no doubt). The power station is driven by the water that comes down the valley. It looked such a simple idea but obviously works well. We saw the indigo plants being boiled so they could get the colour for their clothing and lots of marujuana crops growing in the fields to get the hemp for their clothes. I asked Chi if the villagers ate dog as there were a lot of puppies around. They did once the dogs got older but she didn’t as she didn’t like the smell of it when it was cooking. Time to go back to town buy some more bracelets from Mo and shower before the 1st class train journey.

I entered my first class carriage and to my horror discovered that someone had a duplicate ticket and was already in the bunk. I opened all carriages and the final one had only 3 Aussie girls who said I could have the 4th bed. I waited for the train to pull away and to my relief noone got on. Oh the difference…….a mattress with crisp clean white sheet. A side table lamp. A clean pillow, it was so comfortable and the toilets and sink were pristeen. Never will I travel 2nd class again.

I got back to the guest house in Hanoi at 5am. They had kindly given me a room from 12-4pm but in the mean time were fully booked. So at daylight I decided to take to the streets. I walked around the old quarter and then back up to the Ho Chi Minh museum. I was looking for a cafe for breakfast but everything was closed. Not surprising really as all the locals seemed to be up already. What an active lot. Older women doing Tai Chi with very dangerous looking swords at several venues. Boys playing football, bands marching, people watching and several badminton courts etched on the pavements with people putting their own nets up. All ages converging, made me realise what a lazy lot us Brits are. Where are the Brits? Everyone visiting seems to be French, Australian or American.

I went to a beautiful park, again the same level of activity and then decided I really did need a coffee so jumped on a motorbike and went to a really popular not for profit cafe for Vietnamese street kids. Smoked salmon for under $4 – I love Vietnam. Back to the Ho Chi Minh museum. So many Vietnamese were there. I’ve calculated I’ll spend less on all my museum visits in the whole country than I would do to see one exhibition at the Tate. After the museum I queued (Vietnamese have a masters in jumping the queue) for the Mausoleum and then saw the 20th century Vietnamese idol. They call him Uncle Ho and many Vietnamese added Ho to their name as they loved him so much. He was just in a glass cabinet laid out with some subtle lighting, he looked pretty good for someone who’s been dead nearly 40 years but apparently he gets sent to Japan once a year for a little tlc. Then off to see his old houses next store.

It was still only 11.30am so decided I’d walk to the West lake to see one more temple. Just as I arrived I got approached but another scam. A student comes up to you and pretends she’s collecting for the disabled “What another student , I just met some over there” I said. With that she walked off, must use that one again.

Oh well time to say goodbye to Hanoi. The train was fully booked for Hue so I’m flying rather than the 20 hour bus journey. Off to see if Central Vietnam can live up to the North.

One of my old Novell friends Denise, asked me to do a Bridget Jones scenario as in weight lost/gained etc but thought I’d keep a tally of my transport and no doubt this is going to increase over the coming months. So far :

Planes = 5, Buses = 4, Trains = 2, Boats = 2, Sunglasses = 3, Mosquito repellants gone through = 3

Take care all

Sally x

Heavenly Halong Bay – North East Vietnam

July 14, 2007

Halong Bay at NightHalong Bay from the pagodaOur Junk        I have wanted to go to Halong Bay ever since I saw the film Indochine. It’s been one of my intended highlights of the trip. I hope I’m not going to be dissapointed. The mini bus picked us up at 8am for the 3+ hour trip. We got to the dock and after a bit of waiting around were led to our junk. Looking at some of the others ours looked a little more up market and comfortable. It is a boiling hot, sunny day.Our group consisted of a French couple, 2 Americans on their way back from 2 years in the peace core in the south pacific,4 Italian Australians who were only doing the 1 night (big mistake) and Randy an American who teaches Eskimos Maths on the edge of the Arctic circle. He was also with his Thai wife and her daughter who are emigrating there from Thailand later this month. I just cannot imagine moving from Thailand to -30 degrees, but at least it will only be for 4 years until they retire back in Thailand. I was sat with them for meals on the boat. Luckily for me Randy and his wife had a shellfish allergy so their daughter and I ate most of the food.

After an hour or so sailing we reached the start of the bay. The limestone rocks which legend has it were caused by a dragon diving in to the sea and creating lots of fires to ward off the enemy are absolutely breathtaking. (Hence the name Ha Long – means descending dragon). Halong Bay definitely lived up to my expectations. It is just so beautiful. I hope the pics attach ok. After lunch we docked at one of the islands to visit the caves. We then carried on and moored at a beach on another rock. I decided to climb the 426 steps up to the pagoda (I counted) to get more of an overview of the whole area. In all there are 1969 limestone islands – what a great year! We then headed back to the junk which then moored for the evening and swam off the boat. Unfortunately the junks moor in the same area but that’s for safety due to a few of them sinking in the past. Then for dinner and I had a chat about Eskimos and the Arctic circle with Randy before retiring to my cabin. Their daughter was supposed to share but she went in with them so I had it to myself – hurrah!

After breakfast, we swapped boats with yes Anne and Graham, and docked at Cat Ba (a national park) and cycled over what is the largest of the islands with 12000 inhabitants. We left our bikes, sweating profusely and walked through the new Eco Tourism village (not our definition, it still has normal electricity) and then through the undergrowth. Cuong our guide took a huge stick in order to move any spiders webs that had ben built across the path. Luckily for them and us the spiders had built webs at the side rather than across the path that day and we saw 4 huge ones, all different and a bees nest with extremely large bees. Cuong was a bit of a dissapointment as apart from one being the Red Spider he didn’t have a clue what they were. In fact he was a bit of a dissapointment generally, on that we were all agreed.

We got back on the boat which sailed around to a different part of Cat Ba and docked at the beach and went for a well needed swim. After lunch it was time to change boats once again and go kayaking. This is a must and was the best bit of the whole trip. There’s only 2 of you in the kayak and it just feels and looks so peaceful when you’re moving along in your own little world. I got paired with Cuong which was great for me as we sped ahead to Monkey Bay, although the monkeys were’nt around that day. We pulled up to the beach for more swimming. The water was quite warm but such a deep green colour, just beautiful. I could have stayed for hours. Then we kayaked back to the boat, we wanted to go the long way but the Americans wanted the short route. It was just brilliant fun. Cuong said I was very good, I told him it must have been from my old dragon boating days.

We then sailed to the main town of Cat Ba for a night in the hotel. Baring in mind I’ve been in guest houses this was 3 star and so luxury. It even had a kettle. We all met for dinner and then I retired to my oppulent room to a very comfortable bed. That was until after about 30 minutes when the Kareoke started in the bar. Was there a speaker in my room ? Vietnamese Kareoke is not the best I’ve ever heard.

After one of the best breakfasts I’ve seen we headed to the boat at 8am and sailed back to the port for lunch and then the heavens opened and streets became free flowing rivers.

Bye bye beautiful Halong bay – you certainly lived up to my expectations.

Take care

Sally x

Hanoi – What a Hoot !!!! (North Vietnam)

July 14, 2007

Typical Hanoi Housing - Old QuarterHo Chi Ming’s Resting PlaceThe AccidentJust to let you know there is a definite pun in the title.

Vietnam Airlines were pretty good although the plane was small with propellers and we had quite a bit of turbulence, I had to check where the sick bag was just incase. Unfortunately as I’ve arrived here a bit later than expected due to my prolonged stay in Laos my visa states I only have just over 3 weeks to explore. I’d pre booked the guest house as recommended by the Belgians on the Thai cooking course and my driver was there to meet me. It’s an hours drive so congratulated myself on being organised. The drive however was pretty hair raising. At one moment he was on a mobile, overtaking a bus and listening to Vietnam playing in the Asian football championships when a large lorry pulled out. I screamed, he laughed and we arrived in the city. The guesthouse was fully booked so they’d put me over the road until the morning. The room was great so I didn’t mind. That was until I was woken up at 6am by an inordinate amount of hooting. I had moved from the county of Tuk Tuks to the country of motorbikes. I couldn’t get in to my new room until 12 so had a breakfast of Pho (rice noodle soup and a huge North Vietnamese speciality) and booked my trips to Halong Bay and Sapa. I decided to write down what was included in the city tour, armed myself with a map and ventured outside.

The hooting had not stopped, if anything it was worse. It seemed as if the whole city drives around on motorbikes and all 82M of them were outside my door. It’s hard to put it into words but I can only describe it as thousands of Pac Men on motorbikes on speed. Weaving through traffic rather than driving in a straight line was the way to go and if the road was too congested just hop up on to the pavement. I felt as if I was playing chicken every time I went to cross.

Despite that, it’s an incredibly easy city to find your way around. I was staying in the Old Quarter at the unimaginatively named Hanoi Guesthouse and negotiated my way to the lake to see the Ngoc Sun temple. A rather pretty temple in the middle of the lake. It was extemely humid and within minutes I’m sweating buckets and offers of “motorbike, motorbike” are coming thick and fast. I declined all and walked around the lake, about half way round I witnessed a car hitting a motorbike. Hardly surprising but luckily the motorbike driver just seemed to have injured his foot rather than any long term damage. The ensuing traffic chaos that this created was hilarious. Never again shall I moan about people stopping to watch accidents in the UK, that is nothing compared to the utter standstill and crowd in Hanoi.

I then negotiated a Vietnam Lonely Planet (copy) at less than a third of the original asking price, I love bartering and went to see the Ho Chi Minh museum. Great it’s a Monday and all museums close at 11am so had to settle for the One Pillar Pagoda instead. A beautiful wooden structure built in 1049 and destroyed by the French but then rebuilt. The then emperor had it built for a peasant woman he married who bore him a son – how romantic!

I then walked to the Temples of Literature (my favourite so far in Hanoi). It really was the first university of Vietnam built in 1070. All the official 82 stelae from the 15th century are mentioned and have huge stone placards built on top of tortoises. It’s also in 5 courtyards so the hooting is less audible, there aren’t many peaceful areas in Hanoi so it was a welcome relief.

I again had Pho for a late lunch (it’s just so good) and walked around the old quarter some more. I started to follow Vietnamese when possible across the road as I figured they had a lot more experience than I. Apparently there is a 250% import tax on cars which will stop next year as they’ve joined the WTO so goodness knows how many accidents and congestion there will be once they move to four wheels. 

Satisfied with my city tour time to call it a day and prepare for Halong Bay. But really what a hoot!

Take care

Sally

Laos Capital – Vientiane

July 14, 2007

Anne Marie & Maria - Sunset over the Mekong in VientianeAnne Marie, Maria and I got a further mini bus and yes Anne and Graham (they’d given up the VIP route) were on it too. The journey to Vientiane the capital now seems incredibly short at 3 hours. As capital’s go we’d been told it was a bit of a dust ball. Admittedly it’s not the biggest in the world but it didn’t seem that bad, although I really couldn’t find a lot to do there. We said goodbye to Anne and Graham and settled in at “Joe’s Place” just across the road from where the mini bus dropped us off. I have to say, stay there if you are ever in Vientiane, he speaks great English and is so helpful. He helped us sort out our ongoing flights aswell. I couldn’t face the 24 hour bus journey of hell.

The girls were off to Cambodia at 6am and I was heading to Hanoi the following evening. The heavens then opened so we grabbed some lunch at a rather nice cafe before walking around town. It still seemed incredibly cheap. I’d seen a gorgeous dress but could get it made in Vietnam although not as cheaply I suspected. But ATM’s in Laos aren’t great so decided I didn’t want to get more Kip out and not too sure what the postal service is like.

We wandered through the local markets. I think I’d buy dried food or live fish here given the amount of flies around the meat, it absolutely stunk. We walked past a couple more Wat’s and tried to find Vientiane’s equivalent to the “Arc de Triomphe”. We couldn’t find it and not many people seemed to speak English so as the street  signs are in Lao and French I tried that, but they spoke less French than English. Apparently only the very old people still do. Eventually we did find it. They call it the “Victory gate of Vientiane” and they built it in 1962 with concrete given to them by the Americans with which they were supposed to build a new airport runway. It was never finished due to the ongoing conflicts. We then strolled through the park and hitched a Tuk Tuk back to the Mekong to watch the sunset, which I have to say was gorgoeus. There are also a few places by the river where you can sit outside and eat dinner, again on cushions and this added a very relaxed feel about the place. Post sunset we headed to a roof top bar to admire the city, drink wine, watch Wimbledon and met a couple of expats who lived there. Although some had been there a few years they mainly seemed to be men working in energy or minerals, I’d get bored in weeks. 

Time to say goodbye to my Irish girls – they’ve promised to come visit me in the UK and vice versa. The next day with not a lot left to find to do I had  a lie in, went for breakfast and went to the That Dam. A dark monument according to Lonely Planet – more like a pile of bricks, oh well not to worry time to say fairwell to Laos and “Good Morning Vietnam”.

Take care

Sally x

Lazy Laos – Vang Vieng

July 14, 2007

Armed with tuna baguettes for the journey we set off by mini bus for the 6 hour journey to Vang Vieng situated midway along the Luang Prabang to Vientiane road it has become (for better or worse) the backpacker’s pit stop in Laos. Surrounded by splendid limestone hills as scenery and overflowing with activities, many prolong their stay here far longer than originally planned. However the girls were on a schedule and that spurred me on too.

After my sleep we stopped at the half way point and ran in to Anne and Graham from the Laos boat. They had taken the VIP bus, although called VIP it is not as nice as the mini bus and theirs had broken down. In fact we passed three broken down buses on route. One knocked over hen later we reached Vang Vieng (the animals do hang out really near the road). Anne Marie and I left Maria with the bags while we sourced a suitable guest house. An hour later we were back with Tuk Tuk and settled in to the Malany Villas. Another thing about Laos is places are called villas and resorts and really they are just a guest house. But what can you expect for $8 a night.

In search of food we found various cafe bars all with cushions and beds -heaven. 22 episodes of “Friends” later we went for one last drink before retiring for the night. Vang Vieng also closes around 12 midnight. Due to the traveller aspect there seems to be an awful lot of police around along with the usual “happy menu”. Must be wanting to collect those fines again.

In the morning we got up early (it seems every bus, activity, trip kicks off at 8am) as the main activity here is tubing. On the minibus yes you guessed it Anne and Graham. We headed around 15km out of town to start our day caving. We got out of the Tuk Tuk and had to cross the river in a rather narrow wooden boat 4 people at a time to get to the caves.The river appeared to be flowing extremely fast and the boat very wobbly so we had to sit down rather quickly.

First stop elephant cave. A nice cave where an elephant used to live. During the war Laos lot the majority of it’s elephant’s to American bombs, they couldn’t hide like the people did. In the cave was a buddha statue and the rock had formed to actually look like an elephant -spooky!. After some trekking (we had been assured flip flops would sufficient – yeah right) and lunch we headed to cave no.2 Loop cave. The torches provided were a like bulb hanging off something that looked like a mini car battery -no mod cons in Laos. We had to climb up a rickety wooden ladder to get in to this cave. It’s wet season and Laos has had it’s fair share of rain. Inside was a slippery mass of mud and rocks. I kept hitting my torch and so it continually went out. Maria then managed to go straight over on her backside. Our hands and legs were caked in mud but I guess it adds to the experience. Around 250 Laos people hid in this cave during the war. The names of the people had been etched in to the wall. Cave no.3 was far less challenging and we had a chance to wash. Then it was off to the lagoon to swim down a dark tunnel. Anne Marie couldn’t swim so I held on to her rubber ring and we screamed loudly in the dark. We then did it all again with the dilapidated torches but as least we didn’t get electrocuted although it wasn’t as scary so not as much fun (as you can see I’m becoming more immature by the day). More hiking through villages ensued. Young children around 3 or 4 years old were happily playing in the water unsupervised and looking after their even younger siblings, it’s just a different way of life.

Then it was time for the main event tubing down the Nam Song river. We put on our life jackets, it probably wasn’t necessary but better to be safe and grabbed a tube (huge black rubber ring) and jumped in the river. The current takes you down. As it had been raining more or less all day the clouds were hanging over the top of the hills it was really eerie just watching them as we floated past. As we’d started off I thought I could hear rave music. Sure enough around the bend we came across the first bar. It was packed. We carried on past 6 more until the last one where our guide told us to grab the bamboo cane from the man on the bank to drag ourselves out of the river. This was our mid way stop off point. This bar along with the first we’d passed had a huge trapeze like swing which you swung out in to the river on and jumped in. I’m not great in rivers but Graham was straight up there and jumped in about 15 feet above the water. Maria who had told me she wasn’t a great swimmer followed.Oh well, in for a penny, I climbed the wooden ladder and walked out. My knees were shaking, I wanted to turn around but couldn’t face the shame so after a triple swing on the trapeze, let go, screamed and plunged to the murky brown depths below. The water definitely tasted of earthy overtones and the force of the fall gave me a temporary self imposed boob job – but that’s a good thing right ? I must admit it was a thrill and it was good preparation for a future bungy jump but once was enough. Then back to tubing. All photos are on the disposable I wasn’t going to risk breaking the digital camera.

The heavens then opened further and the drowned rats trudged back to the guest houses for showers before dinner. We met up with Anne and Graham who have kindly invited me to visit them when I’m in Australia as they live on a National Park. As they only live 2 hours from Canberra where I’ll be based it would be great to see them again.

After dinner Anne Marie, Maria and I headed to the Island bar again down by the river. It was pretty quiet but you got to lie in hammocks and swat large mosquitos who managed to bite through my long sleeved shirt. It close around 12 but the adjacent bar was still busy so we stopped for one further drink. As well as restaurant service not being the best I think their memories have been impaired. It took 20 requests to finally get the drinks by which time the police had arrived shot guns over their shoulders, so we left the drinks and walked back. It would be tempting to stay here for days but the girls and their schedule meant it was time to head off to the capital Vientiane….

 Take care

Sally x