se asia 2003
Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos 2003
Sunday 19- depart LHR
Monday 20 – arrive Saigon/Ho Chi Minh via Singapore
Tuesday 21 – walking sighteeing in Saigon
Wednesday 22 – motorcycle pillion sightseeing tour of Saigon with Tan
Thursday 23 – hydrofoil trip down the Saigon river to Vung Tau
Friday 24 – Cu Chi tunnels
Saturday 25 – flight to Phnom Penh
Sunday 26 – sightseeing around Phnom Penh including the Royal Palace
Monday 27 – sightseeing around Phnom Penh incuding the Wat Phnom temple
Tuesday 28 – the killing fields and the Toul Sleng museum
Wednesday 29 – taxi to Kampot and bike to Kep
Thursday 30 – bike up Phnom Bokor
Friday 31 – return taxi to Phnom Penh
Saturday 1 – hydrofoil to Siem Reap
Sunday 2 – sightseeing around Siem Reap including the silk farrm, crocodiles and butterflies
Monday 3 – guided tour of Angkor temples
Tuesday 4 – boat to floating village
Wednesday 5 – flight to Vientiane, Loas Thursday 6 – bus trip trip to Vang Viene
Friday 7 – biking around Vientiene including the Friendship bridge over the Mekong river to Thailand
Saturday 8 – flight to Luang Prabang
Sunday 9 – boat trip on the Mekong, tuktuk to Kuangsi waterfall and return flight to Vientiane
Monday 10 – flight to Hanoi
Tuesday 11 – sightseeing in Hanoi old quarter
Wednesday 12 – Halong bay
Thursday 13 – Halong bay
Friday 14 – Perfumed Pagoda
Saturday 15 – sightseeing in Hanoi including Ho Chi Minh museum
Sunday 16 – sightseeing in Hanoi including Hoa Loa prison
Monday 17 – sightseeing in Hanoi
Tuesday 18 – flight to Singapore and SIA tour bus
Wednesday 19 – sightseeing in Singapore
Thursday 20 – Turtle island
Friday 21 – return flight to LHR
Tuesday 21st Oct 4.30 pm I am now in the uncharted territory of Saigon. I arrived safely yesterday with only two glitches – my new passport did not arrive until 6.30am on the Saturday morning (I had to collect it from the Post Office on my way to the London train!) of my departure and I was almost not allowed on the plane as I had discarded my ‘used’ flight ticket. My refusal to pay a £25 fee bore fruit after a prolonged argument. My initiation into Saigon was through a well organised airport and a 30 minute $6 minibus ride to my internet booked hotel. The whole journey was totally dominated by motorbikes. My hotel, the Dong A1 in the Pham Ngu area of district 1 is a characteristicly narrow tall (5 storeys in this case) building in which I have an en-suite aircon room, with balcony, on the 3rd floor, for $10 per niglt. It is basic but very clean. Yesterday evening after my late afternoon arrival, I ventured out for an evening meal on a cyclo (pedal rickshaw) where the passenger sits in front – quite unerving in the dense, fast flowing evening traffic. I enjoyed crispy spring rolls, stir fried beef with rice, aided by a couple of Tiger beers for $4 or 60,000 Dong. Great value. Needless to say I chose not to have the skunk or the boiled pigs lining. My cyclo driver took me on a brief tour of the city centre with the main emphasis on massage parlours! He was stone deaf to my requests to go the shortest way. This morning I tried the most common form of ‘taxi’ transport (by a factor of infinity), riding pillion on a motorbike. I was pleasantly surprised and mightily relieved to find it was not the white knuckle experience I had anticipated. I took a 2 hour, 50,000 Dong ride around the city centre just to get my bearings – a mistake, as the complicated streets many of which look the same plus the hazardous traffic got me lost after about 4 turns. At least I found the Sai Gon river and a quite boring military museum. Whilst writing this diary I have just witnessed my first rainstorm-quite a downpour but still remarkably warm.
Wednesday 22nd October 5.15pm I have just completed a busy sightseeing day via Tan’s motorbike – I can’t say I am any better off knowing my way around Saigon. Last night I pushed the boat out and went to Mandarins – the most expensive restaraunt in town according to the LonelyPlanet. I had a superb and pampered meal – vietnames salad followed by crispy duck – for only D3,000,000 – and that included two Tiger beers. I have discovered that the ideal breakfast is fruit salad – an enormous plate of banana, watermelon, mango, grapefruit plus some umknowns for D10,000. Having decided that 3 more days will be enough for Saigon, I bought an air ticket to Pnom Penh, through the hotel, for $80. The hotel receptionist, Nhung, is very helpful, with no extr I booked Tan for the day and set off on a tour oc the city. First stop was the War Remnants Museum, relating to the French war of Independence, the civil war with the South followed by American intervention, all of course seen through the eyes of the northern victors. The exhibition consisted mainly of photographs, a number of American tanks guns and planes plus a re-constructed prison cell. Very graphic nevertheless, as indicated by the total silence and the solemn look on all the visitors faces. Next stop was at my first Pagoda, Giac Lam. It was a dark and relatively low tiled roof building containing numerous Buddhas and a large number of funeral tablets with’young’ photographs. An adjoining building was full of numbered glass fronted shelves, brightly lit, with photographs of deceased relatives. After lunch I went to see another piece of propoganda, the Reunification Palace. Originally the residence of the French Governor General, after alterations, became the Presidential Palace of General Diem. It has been preserved as it was in 1975 – best known for a tank bursting through it’s main gate virtually at the end of the Vietnam war. A plain palace with only history to commend it. I completed my sighteeing with visits to two more Pagodas. The first, Vinh Nghiem was the most spectacular of the day with an enormous gold Buddha. The final visit was to the Xa Loi Pagoda – a small, but ornate affair where I inadvertantly went up the female entrance steps. I can’t read Vietnamese! My evening meal, in an outside restaraunt next to the Ben Than Market, was my first disaster meal. The spring rolls were tolerable but the chicken in the chicken and lemon grass stir fry were mainly chopped lumps of scraggy chicken wing, bone splinters included. Myexpression of dissatisfaction did not go down well.
Friday 24th October 6.30 pm On Thursday I took a hydrofoil to Vung Tau which is about 120km south down the Saigon river, a trip of about 1.5 hours. The journey down was occupied talking to Collum an Irish guy withan oil company in Vung Tau and married with a Uietnamese wife. He had a typical expat outlook of looking down on Vietnamese developments, but he might not be far out. Vung Tau did not have a lot to offer. I took a taxi up a small mountain to the French built lighthouse and this did give me a magnificent view of the island. I lunched in a restaraunt virtually over the sea in Mulberry bay. The fried sqid and egg fried rice were superb. On Collum’s advice I went pillion to the only museum. My bike driver, despite his initial geographic confidence, took me all round the island , regularly stopping to ask most of his mates on the way, before finding it about 1 km from where we had originally set off from. There was virtually nothing to see when I got there other than a beautiful table and chairs with inlaid pearl. My return journey leaving at 4.00 pm was dominated by the Singaporean business man sitting next to me, and like Collum, in the oil business. I can’t recall a subject we did not thoroughly discuss. It was raining on return to Saigon, and Collum, returning from his day in the office, kindly gave me a lift back to my hotel. I ate a pleasant evening meal of Vietnamese beef stir fry in an Italian restaraunt surrounded by Frenchmen. A chance remark to Nhung, the hotel receptionist, revealed my need for a Cambodian visa, which she agreed to obtain for me the next day. I spent toay, my last day in Saigon on an organised visit to the Cu Chi tunnels, about 70 km north-west of Saigon. Our guide was an ex South Vietnamese pilot who had no reservations about criticising the communist victors. But he gave a first class account of Uietnamese history leading up to the wars in the last century plus some excellent detail cf how the Viet Cong planned and executed thier campaign. The VC certainly outwitted the Americans, not to mention the French before them! Quite remarkably, the Americans built there main miliary base on the ground above the tunnels built originally by the Viet Minh and subsequently re-opened and extended by the VC. I, along with some of our group, entered a c.100m length of tunnel via a disguised and incredibly small manhole. Crawling along was quite terryfying especially when the guy in front of me got stuck and a bit of a panic set in – I didn’t really know what blackness was like until this experience. We returnd to Saigon (about 2 hours each way) to a late lunch in the tour operators ‘office’. Styled as a traditional Vietnamese meal it consisted of a table top gas ring boiling soup, into which we cooked shellfish (includinh sea slugs) and a range of fresh vegatables eaten on top of a bed of noodles. Delicious, particularly as it was washed down with some homemade rather sweet white wine. My impressions of Saigon were; a huge sprawling city with very few pedestrians, cars and even less buses resulting in free spirited free flowing traffic on relatively clean streets with an absence of any sign of road rage; no beggars and no persistent street sellers; no obvious crime, street hoolaganism or excessive drinking but much evidence of the extended family exampled by a lot of family pavement eating; an abundance of inexpensive food and consumer goods in the shops; a vast number of hotels in all shapes sizes and price range; considerable air pollution; and finally, universal politeness.
Saturday 25th October As arranged through Nhung, a taxi arrived at 9.30am to take me to the airport. By 12.30 I had uneventfully arrived Phnom Penh. A $7 airport taxi took me the 15 minute journey into Phnom Penh centre, to the Riverside hotel and booked in to a room overlooking the Tonle Sap. The room and the newish concrete hotel had a typical tired look associated with a developing country. I followed the journey on a map in order to get my bearings from the start, not like Saigon where I was lost from day one. I left my rucksack in the hotel and took a moto to change some dollars to Riels (4000:1 or £1=r6000). My moto driver then took me, by reques, to a Cambodian (not tourist) restaurant for a superb chicken fried rice lunch. During a post lunch Tiger beer I observed the traffic, confirming my view as I had travelled from the airport, that I could cope with driving in this traffic and I could find my way around as the streets are mainly on a grid pattern similar to New York. Next stop via moto was Lucky Lucky’s, the motorbike hire shop recommended by Lonely Planet. I hired a crap 100cc 4 speed clutchless bike.. I had a trial run on the bike to ‘test the water’ in the traffic and went out as far as the airport, as I knew the road. Phnom Penh traffic is similar to Saigon, but even less dense but with a few more cars.The whole place seems tidyer and more organised than Saigon. Liz flew in in late afternoon to join me for a few days.Not being totally brave at night we took a moto each to the Khmer Surin restaraunt and had a superb meal washed down with a very acceptable french wine costing £2.50 a bottle
Sunday 26th October We moved hotel to the Indochine, which was about 0.5 kilometres south, but still overlooking the Tonle Sap. This hotel was much more in keeping with the rest of the town. In the morning we rode south to see the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap. The afternoon was spent looking around the Royal Palace, the home of Sihanouk. The most speltactular building was the Silver Pagoda.The hotel owner very kindly allowed me to park my bike in the hotel entrance hall, despite it being very narrow.
Monday 27th October In the morning we went to the Wat Phnom temple, built on an artificial and where Phnom Penh (which literally translate to Penh’s hill) was founded in 1373. The visit was somewhat overshadowed by some persistent begging. Liz enjoyed a ride round the hill on a rather decrepit looking elephant. Following a refreshing beer in the unremarkable Gold Fish restaurant, and on our way to lunch, a policemen stepped out in front of us and as I stopped he switched of the ignition and demanded a fine. It quickly became apparent that ‘Fine’ was the only english word he knew. As he circled the bike, watched by three of his mates, he pointed to various bits of the bike and boreingly kept repeating ‘fine’. My response was to equally boreingly say I didn’t understand, supported by a similar body language message. After a few minutes of this repetitive scene, I sensed the guy’s heart was not in it, so I switched on the ignition, and as that didn’t elicit any response, pressed the starter and drove off. As we rounded the bend and out of gunshot I thought ‘One – Love’ to me! With a distinct feeling I needed a drink we crossed over the Tonle Sap on the Chruoychangar bridge (Japanese Friendship bridge) and found a superb restaurant on stilts on the riverside where we tucked into fried fish with ginger plus our own crap hostess complete with kareoke. Later that afternoon I returned the bike to Lucky Lucky and at a travel agent booked a 5 hour boat journey north on the Tonle Sap to Siem Reap plus flights from Siem Reap to Vientiane (Loas) with an open onward ticket to Hanoi.The evening meal was in the Gold Fish restaurant.
Tuesday 28th October Arranged by the hotel in the morning we took a taxi to the Choeung Ek Memorial in one of Cambodia’s notorious ‘Killing Fields’, 17 km south of Phnom Penh. A large part of the journey on very rough unmade road where we passed a number of ‘Petrol stations’ consisting of a rack of lemonade type plastic bottles filled with petrol!. This Killing Field itself was previously an old orchard and Chinese cemetery, but now it is just a small field with an uneven surface grassed over, containing a few hollows which are the locations of some of the mass graves. In the centre of the field stands a Budhist Stupa, the Choeung Ek Memorial, full of human skulls. 17,000 men, women and children, were executed here, many of whom were tortured first in the Toul Sleng prison. As I walked across the field I scuffed the ground with my shoe and uncovered bits of clothing – very moving. The return to Phnom Penh, was quite sombre with the thought of the people who had passed on this road 25 years ago.The sombre mood was consolidated as we stopped on the way, to visit the Toul Sleng genocide museum in what was previously an old school in the outskirts of Phnom Phen. After a late lunch of fish amok (fish cooked in a coconut curry and served in a banana leaf) in the Veiyo Tonle Pizza we wandered around the central market where amonst other strange foods, was a huge pile of crispy spiders. I easily, if not strenuously and firmly rejected the offer of the stall holder to push one in my mouth – so he cruched it himself! I was persuaded to buy some cards from a guy who had lost both legs after stepping on one of the huge number of landmines left behind by the Khmer Rouge. The day was wrapped up with a drink in the Foriegn Correspondents Club.
Wednesday 29th October In order to see a little more of the country we took a taxi, for $20, to Kampot on the west coast. It was a 3 hour high speed white knuckle ride along quite narrow undulating roads, with very fortunatly, little traffic. Just as we left urban Phnom Penh the driver, without warning, the driver opened all the car windows – it transpires we hadn’t paid for airconditioning! It was of no surprise to me that about half way, the ancient Toyota started to boil due to electric. cooling fan packing up. It took the driver about 15 minutes to get it going again, I think by swopping a few components around. I was quite surprised that it took us the rest of the way without breaking down again, not to mention, without colliding with vehicles or animals, or running off the road. We booked into Borey Bokor hotel in Kampot for $15 including airconditioning. I hired a small motor bike from Cheang Try, $3 for 24 hours, and after fried eels for lunch in the Ta Ou restaurant we rode 24 km to Kep along a pothole strewn road. There was absolutely nothing there other than a virtually desrted beach, so after a bit of sunbathing we returned to Kampot. On the return journey I spotted a group of people playing snooker in the open underneath of a farmhouse about 40 metres from the road, and just for curiosity, I walked over to watch them. They insisted I played a shot, and much to my amazement, and their adulation, I slammed one into the pocket over nearly the full length of the table. They were all incredibly friendly and took me to see their cows, which, from my Young Farmers condition scoring days, rated very low down the scale. The evening meal was in the Tea Garden in the company of some Belgiums in the Lions club.
Thursday 30th October After breakfast in local restaurant by the bridge I changed the bike to a 250cc Suzuki dirt bike for $5 per day and set off for the Bokor Hill station on Phnom Bokor (Bokor mountain). The station was built by the French in the 1920’s to provide an escape from the intense summer humidity and heat of the lowlands of Cambodia, much in the style as the Brits in India. And what a horendous journey it turned out to be. The road up the mountain used to be a steep narrow tarmac road, but now it was a mixture rocks, sand, gravel and small projecting lumps of tarmac, made worse by serious water erosion. Add to that lot a pillion passenger, a scorching hot day and a ropey bike and are you surprised that we didn’t manage to get all the way. But we did reach the highest point, about 1000 metres above sea level, and get a magnificent view of the coastline.Two hours going up and two hours coming down (including an engine failure which managed to cure itself) and was I ready for a beer in the Garden bar, back in Kampot followed by the evening meal in the MountainClub.
Friday 31st October The day started with a walk to the Mountain Club for breakfast, and taking the advice of the locals, we took a short 3 km bike ride along the Kampon Bay river valley to the Tek Chhouu rapids – an immediately forgettable tame experience. On our return to Kampot, and mutually deciding the guide books were spot on when they said Kampot was a quiet town, we decided there was nothing worthwhile left to do other than to find a taxi and subject ourselves to another hairaising ride back to Phnom Penh. Back in the capitol, I confirmed my flight to Hanoi and then enjoyed a beer in the Foreign Correspondents Club overlooking Tonle Sap. Today is King Sihanouk’s 81st birthdayand we had to make our way through the crowds celebrating the anniversary of this very popular but somewhat controversial monarch, en route to the Amoc restaurant to enjoy, once again, fish amok. We were entertainment later by fireworks over the Tonle Sap
Saturday 1st November Today was a sparrow fart start with a 6 am breakfast, a precarious moto ride with my large rucksack to the boat terminal and a 5 hour boat journey north on the Tonle Sap on the Hydrofoil Mekong Express to Siem Reap. A short taxi ride took us from the unsalubrious docking area to the town centre, where, after a rece of 5 hotels, booked into the Neak Pean, complete with a tidy swimming pool and breakfast for $25 a night. It was quite hot, probably 30+ so an early evenong swim before walking across the Siem Reap river to the Chivit Thai restaurant for our evening meal.
Sunday 2 November Not for the first time, taking Lonely Planet advice we engaged Chaina as ourTuk-tuk driver/guide for half a day for a whole $5! Chaina was a 16 year old student who had made his own Tuk-tuk – a small motorbike with hitch fitted in place of the rear seat, pulling a two seater shaded trailer. The first place he took us to was a silk farm/training school where the silk producing process (Sericulture) was explained. The silkworm moth lays it’s eggs, 3-400 at a time, and the larvae hatch after about 10 days and then for the next 4-6 weeks are fed vaste quantities of chopped mulberry leaves. Mulberry leaves produce the finest silk and the farm had 5 hectares of mulberry shrubs which may seem a lot, but not when we were told that the larvae will eat 50,000 times it’s own weight.The larvae now constructs a cocoon around itself by secreting a jelly like substance which hardens on meeting air, and they start to look like puffy white balls.. After about 8-9 days 80% of the pupa are steam killed (20% are retained for breeding) and washed in hot water, softening the fine filaments which are now unwound with 3-8 strands twisted together to make the final silk thread. The thread is then dyed and woven into garments. 100 students grouped from different deprived selected areas of the country are given a 1 year course. The first 6 months are free and the second 6 months are self financed from the sale of the products they weave in the school. The next visit was to an outdoor War Museum comprised mainly wrecked tanks and field artillery( Russian or USA ) plus land mines and rifles. Our guide was ex Khmer Rouge soldier who had leg amputated below knee after stepping on land mine. We then returned to Siem Reap to a boring crocodile farm where 100s of crocodiles were bred and reared for their skins. Our final visit was to the Butterfly Bar inside a butterfly garden set up and run by a fascinating elderly English guy who started the enterprise 3yrs ago. There are 35 species and 1500 butterflies under this netted small garden. I was able to force down a cool beer in his bar. The afternoon was spent resting by and in the hotel pool. The evening meal was in the Red Piano restaurant with a delicious fish amoc, again.
Monday 3 November Today was a serious days sightseeing around the temple remains of Angkor, the capital city of the Khmer civilisation, built between AD 900 – 1200. We breakfasted at 6.00 am and were collected at 7.30 am by Chaina and his on Tuktuk who guided us around the sites for a $10 fee. The Angkor temples area is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a $20 24 hour entrance fee which contributes to the slow restoration programme. Angkor was the largest pre-industrial city in the world estimated to cover 400 square miles in which over 1000 Hindu temples were built of which about 100 remain. Not all were completed and ones we saw ranged from the magnificent Angkor Wat (the largest religious building in the world today) which has been partially restored, to piles os stones with trees sprouting out.The first temple we visited was Angkor Wat itself which you enter via the nnnnnn causeway over the surrounding 50 metre moat. Some of the reliefs carved on the walls are still intact, such as in one corridor where the creation of the world is depicted. The whole building is on a truly grand scale and very impressive, but clearly a huge sum of money is needed if it is to be preserved for posterity. Next stop was Angkor Thom (the ‘Great City’) which is built in the form of a square, surrounded by a wide, now dry, moat. In the centre is the Bayon temple with the smiling Khmer faces.Next to Bayon is the pyramid shaped Baphuon temple and a terrace of carved, nearly lifesize elephants.In turn we the visited Chau, Thommanon, Banteay Kdie and Ta Prohm temples, the latter fighting a losing battle against the fast growing jungle trees. It was a very hot day and with no shade when scrambling and climbing in the temples, we took an hour off to enjoy lunch in a cafe near Angkor Wat. In the afternoon we visited Pre Rup temple, another pyramid shape which may have been a royal crematorium, East Mebon temple guarded at the corners by well preserved, stone-carved harnessed elephants, Ta Som, the only temple with visibly active restoration (by the World Monument Fund). Our final temple visit was to Preah Khan where we entered through the north gate and left through the west gate. Under strict instructions from Chaina, we climbed (laboriously with crowds of similarly tired tourists) to the top of Phnom Bakheng to watch the sun setting over Angkor Wat and take a memorable photograph which didn’t come out! Back to the hotel for a gin and tonic and to reflect on a exhausting but seriously worthwhile temple bashing day. The day was completed by spring rolls and dry beef in the Dead Fish restaurant.
Tuesday 4 November Today was identified as a more restful day so a quiet swim after breakfast, a short boat trip down the Tonle Sap to the floating village where the Vietnamese inhabitants were identified by their pointed ‘coolie’ hats, followed by a super tuna baguette in the Red Piano and an afternoon by the pool reading and writing a few cards was just the ticket. We enjoyed an excellent meal in the Indochine on the main drag – for the first time we had to take our shoes off in the restaurant.
Wednesday 5 November Flew today to Vientiane in a small (c. 60 seater) propeller ‘plane, and having estimated from the map that it would take about 90 minutes, got off the plane when it landed 90 minutes later. I did think it strange that we were the only passengers getting off, and that we seem to have landed in a very thinly populated part of the world and only a small tin shed in sight in the corner of the landing field..but got off in Pakxe much to the amusement of a large contingent of French on the plane. When we eventually arrived in Vientiane we booked into the rather colonial looking hotel, the Douangdeuane for $22 a night. The evening meal was in the Kua Kao restaurant where, as we walked in through the door to the inner dining room, we were instantly recognised by the french people who on the ‘plane, and they all spontaneously stood up and sang the ‘Dam Busters’ accompanied by the wings action. They were all very sociable so a great evening was had by all despite the meal of a skinny and dry partridge.
Thursday 6 Nov Another early start, up at 6am, to take a 3 hour bus journey to Vang Viene. Fortunately it was a VIP coach with a decent suspension as the road was uneven, but surprisingly, not potholed. The first 2 hours were through mountains on twisty roads, and despite a rather fast driver, we were OK as we had a front seat. It seemed a little incongruous, but the roads were better organised than in Cambodia with all the villages and rivers named in english. Vang Viene is a backpackers paradise and looks like the ideal place if all you want to do is chill out. It is by the small Nam Song river which we crossed on the most fragile wooden bridge – the friendly tollkeepers gave us some papaya fruit to eat and tried without succes to hold a conversation with us. Just another example of the friendliness of the people in this region. We took a tuktuk ride to what appeared to be the only attraction, only to find it was closed. Our stay was limited, not that there is much more to the town than a large number of bars with no chairs, as we had to catch the 2.00 pm bus back to Vientiane or chance it in the back of a seriously overladen pick up taxi. The drive back was much less comfortable as we were in cramped seats next to the back row with very noisy, arguing fellow passengers. I enjoyed what was possibly my best evening meal to date, of sea food gratin plus sqid stuffed with pork in the very french Vendome restaurant.
Friday 7 November I hired a small motorbike from the hotel – they are very well organised and it is welf maintained and good bike. We took the scenic route to Friendship bridge and observed some very organised farming, manly vegatables. Lunch was in a rather ramshackle rickety restaurant on stilts overlooking (and underneath) the Mekong river with Thailand on the opposite bank. I thought we might be able to just jump into the boats that were crossing the river, but there was a dicrete, but effective, border control, similarly on the Friendship bridge. On the way back to Vientiane we stopped to see some home silk weaving under a house in a small village and speculated as to whether they were beneficiaries of a similar course seen at the silk farm/training school in Cambodia. Behind the house, on the bank of the Mekong river were some interesting looking floating fishing nets. Later in the afternoon we visited a very crowded and somewhat gold encrusted That Luang temple in north east Vientiane. That Luang is Loa’s national shrine and features on the contries coat of arms. It was a jolly friendly and noisy affair with the bizzare sight of millions of very high denomination Kips pinned to all the Buddhas and other effigies surrounding the temple. The army/police failed to extract a 50,000 Kip fine from me for parking my bike in the entrance to the temple – this guy could speak a little (enough) english so I had to direct him to one of his colleagues about 50 metres away whom I claimed had given me permission, giving me a 30 second window to beat an exremely hasty retreat. The evening was rounded off with another fine french(canadian) meal of leg of lamb in the Le Silapa restaurant.
Saturday 8 November Took a 35 minute flight to the north east corner of Laos to Luang Prabang on the Mekong river, the old Royal capital before the communist takeover. We got a room for $30 in the Sai Nam Kan hotel overlooking the small Nam Kham river and the highly productive looking vegatable fields either side of the river. In the afternoon we did some sightseeing around the city incuding the unimpressive Haw Kham, the former royal palace and now a museum, and climbed up Phou Si – great view of the city from here, but we left it a bit late and dusk spoilt the best views. I had a fascinating chat to a young monk about our comparable lifestyles, but not in too much detail!
Sunday 9 November Whilst eating breakfast in the hotel overlooking river I watched with interest someone watering the vegatable field by the river, carrying the water literally a bucketful at a time. We then hired a (very narrow) boat with a small sundeck, to take us upstream along the Mekong river for about 1.5 hours, to see the Pak Ou caves – natural caves by the riverside and another Buddhist shrine – alledgedly it contains 7,000 Buddhas of all shapes and sizes. The Mekong was wide (2- 300 metres) and quite shallow passing through virtually unhabited jungle. The river was flowing quite slowly and by the signs on the banks, we were in the dry season, as you could see the effects of erosion from the rainy season 3 – 4 metres high. The only very noticeable sign of activity were the exremely fertile vegetable plots temporilaly ‘rescued’ for the period the river was at this low level. The $1 sweet buffalo for lunch was neither tender nor tasty – just different. In the afternoon we clung on in the back of a Tuktuk (pick-up) for a 30 km $10 rough, fast and dusty ride to see the Kuang Si falls. I managed to climb to the top and it was quite a spectacular view. I was able to indulge in some farm mechanisation on the return journey I stopped to watch a rice harvester at work. A preflight relaxing wine aided the 7.70 pm flight back to Luang Prabang and day was luxuriously ended with a top class meal in the Vendome – seafood souffle followed by filleted mekong fish with florentine lemon sauce, souffle potatoes stuufed tomato and a fig.
Monday 10 November I left the hotel at 6.30am for 8.05, 1 hr flight in Airbus 320 to Hanoi. I hitched a tortuoros 1 hr ride in an over crowed (with backpackers) Vietnamese Airways minibus into city centre and dropped off at my hotel, Minh Thu in the Old Quarter In Pho Hang Than. $22 a night including breakfast for a large ac ensuite room with own balcony. I am not certain it the one I asked to dropped off at but it is fine. I had a super lunch of scallops in delicious sauce in a lakeside (Ho Tay) restaurant and in the afternoon explored the area around my hotel. It certainly lives up to it’s name ‘Old Quarter’ as it is all narrow streets with small shops and hotels. Most of the streets, particularly the narrowest ones of the main drags, are devoted almost solely to one line of buiness and they are named accordingly. My street is Pho Hang Than – charcoal. In other streets there were only tinsmiths manufacturing pots and pans, linen shops sewing and selling ‘unmade’ cloth, music shops and one strange one selling only ‘ghost’ money to give to their favourite Buddha. I finished off an interesting afternoon with a beer in the Legend Bar looking down on a magnificent 5/6 road junction where the weaving, mainly motorbike traffic, was more like the Edinburgh Tatoo on wheels. My evening meal in the Seasons of Hanoi on Quan Thanh – Duck samosas followed by a fish in 5 sauces accompanied by aubergine – was yet another gourmet delight.
Wednesday 12 November Yesterday I completed a walking tour of the Old Quarter and finished at the Son temple on the Hoam Kiem lake. I had a long chat to a swedish couple who wanted to know all about Angkor Wat and highly recommended a visit to Petra in Jordan. I booked a 2 day trip to Halong Bay (better known to some as the Gulf of Tonkin)I enjoyed a delicious fish cooked in a banana leaf in the Le Brique for my evening meal. Today I took a 3 hour aircon bus ride to Halong City – at our half way comfort bay stop I was quite taken by the chicken transporter on a motor bike. About a dozen of us boarded our boat and were allocated cabins – it was a wooden motor/sailer about 50 long, very basic structure but in reasonable condition – and we were given what I can only describe as a very modest lunch. We sailed through parts of the bay in the afternoon, around the truly spectacular limestone islands which rose majestically out of the tourquoise water – when the visibility was clear as it was in the early afternoon the whole scene looked almost nreal – almost like an overdone acrylic oil painting. We stopped off at the Sung Sot cave which is in reality 3 interconnecting large natural caves with colourful stalagmites and stalactites. During the war the caves were used as a bomb proof munitions shelter and were only opened to the public 4 years ago. There was a bit of a kerfuffle with military looking people when we moored at Cat Ba island for the night, the outcome of which was that we were told nothing, other than we had to disembark and get on a bus where we were all taken to hotels. We came to the conclusion that the company did not have permission or licence for us to sleep on board. I was ‘biletted in the Sunflower 2 Hotel, with just one other passenger, an Aussie woman who was not the most scintillation person on the planet! After an evening meal with my Aussie I made a 1 km walk into Cat Ba and met the rest of boat passengers for a drink on the promenade and then to the 8th floor bar of their hotel to a disco. On my way back to my hotel, for some entirely inexplicable reason other thanthe possibility that it was there and open at the unearthly hour of 1.00 am, I dropped into a barbers and had my hair cut.
Thursday 13 November We were collected from our hotel at 7.30 am and returned to our boat and motored very slowly amongst islands back to original embarkation place just west of Halong City. En route we had a minor confrontation with a fisherwoman trying to sell us fish from her little boat – all sweetness and light until nobody bought any fish and then, to no avail, became highly aggressive and abusive (I assume). We were given what you could only descibe as a reasonable lunch in restaurant and then taken on the 3hr return to Hanoi in a newish comfortable coach where I was fortunate enough to grab a front seat with a good view.
Friday 14 November Today’s journey in contrast was much more uncomfortable. I was picked up at 7.15 am for 2 hour, 70 km, very rough minibus ride to go and see the Chua Huong (the Perfume Pagoda) at Huong son – it is actually 4 Pagodas. When we got off the minibus we walked a short way to the Yen Vy river and four of us, 2 Dutch girls and a Canadian guy, were paddled along a slow flowing river, for a very long hour in a very uncomfortable flat bottomed metal boat. We were still not there – next was a strenuous 3 km walk up a rough steep stone path passed 3 Pagodas, climbing c.1000 metres to the sacred Buddhist Pagoda, the Huong Tich grotto. This Pagoda is a large overhang cave which you enter through an archway and down 120 steps. We returned down the path and had some lunch next to the attractive Thien Tru Pagoda which is remarkably good shape as it was resored 25 year’s ago, having been destroyed by the French in their anti-Buddhist campaign. The return journey was much more comfortable in a newer minibus. I enjoyed a drink with the Canadian guy before freshening up and having a very pleasant evening meal in Quan Bia Minh 7a Din Liet in Old Quarter on balcony which you share with a small electricity sub-station.
Saturday 15 November I moved hotels today from the Minh Thu in Pho Hang Than (charcaol street) to the Vinh Quang in Pho Hang Quat (fans but now Buddhist ‘regalia’ street) and I now have my own balcony on a quieter street. In the afternoon I took a bike ride to Ho Chi Minh museum – boring concrete structure and boring exhibits – mainly ‘party members’ pictures, a few artifacts and many quotes of uncle Ho on a) wanting to be at peace with all the world, and b) his comittment to improve the welfare and education ef all Vietnamese. I had a coffee outside the One Pillar Pagoda – a small wooden Pagoda perched on top of a concrete column. Again in good nick as it also has been restored since the French burned it down as they left in the 1950’s.
Sunday 16 November As if I needed the exercise I walked this morning to the infamous French colonial Hoa Loa Prison, nick named the Hanoi Hilton, used to hold captured American pilots. The emphasis of the exhibits was quite clearly depicting the cruelty of French and the care taken of Americans. Strange! In an attempt to keep pace with other matters I walked back to the other side of the city centre to a small Aussie bar, the Spotted Cow (it couldn’t be Vietnamese with a name like that) and watched England beat France in the World cup. The day was completed with an average evening meal in Cyclo restaurant
Monday 17 November I was woken up to be regaled by a propaganda street broadcast extolling the virtues and achievments of the government – or, at least that what I was told it was all about. The whole of the part of the city I was in (the ‘old’ city) is wired up with lamp post mounted loudspeakers. I took an early morning walk to Singapore airline office to check my return flight was OK and enquired if I could delay my ongoing flight to London for a couple of days to give me an oportunity to look around Singapore. No problem and they would also book me into a hotel and arrange all transfers. I returned to my hotel for shower as no water available earlier.I then visited the St. Joseph cathedral, a typical European style church, with large tranquil and well maintained enclosed group of colonial stylebuildings at the rear. I thoroughly enjoyed an excellent lunch of Cha Ca in the Cha Ca Vong restaurant – 60,000 Dong – the meal is a large plateful of fish and various green vegatables, self cooked on my own table, on charcoal burner. With a number of other customers cooking similarly, I took the precaution of checking I would be able to make a sharp exit, as well as having a large beer on standby to put any fire out!
Tuesday 18 November I took a $1 ride to Singpore Airlines to confirm my hotel in Singapore and whilst walking back to my hotel encountered my first rain in Hanoi My impressions of Hanoi were, incessant hooting of traffic, motorbikes obstructing pavements and renting pavement for parking, eating on the pavement particularly at night with families, no beggars at all – none, few cyclos and those mainly in the Old Quarter, industrious small shops with many streets decicated to one trade, vast range of excellent cheap food, humid and hot – 30+, many French buildings some restored but many in poor repair, emerging new buildings, banks, and hotels, some narrow houses and hotels similar to Saigon, tidy public bus service, no damage on cars, wide boulevards many tree lined, yet another Asian place that is safe to walk around on your own even at night, and finally nit picking on the pavement. I flew out late afternoon to Singapore on Singapore Airlines (SIA) with SIA transfers at both ends, ending up in the Miramar hotel by the Singapore river on Havelock Road.
Wednesday 19 November Included in my hotel deal is free use of the SIA mini coach circular hop on hop off city tour which I took this morning – only average but it did the basic job of a general orientation. I did a walking tour in the afternoon and early evening finished up in Chinatown for a drink, watching the street entertainers. I found Smith (Food) Street. A normal daytime street, but in the evening, about 20 kitchens on wheels (2m long and 1m deep) are lined up, each one cooking something different. Eat at each one seperately at any table or bring your selection to a table. There is a communay organised plate clearing up, table cleaning and washing up. Here, as with the few other observable menial tasks, it is the darker cloured Indians who appear to do most of the work. I ate two plate at from two stalls, the first was duck with rice (quite small) and the second was a fried egg/oyster – delicious and all for S$7 (£3) – who says Singapore is expensive!
Thursday 20 November Making use of the SIA bus I took a turn around the Botany gardens and then went into the central area, but couldn’t go into Raffles as I wasn’t dressed smartly enough. Instead I took a short boat to Kysu (Turtle) island and returned for couple of beers in a market style area near the boat landing area.
Friday 21 November An uneventful flight home on a really first rate airline.
Relections I feel I have said something like this before, but this was an amazing holiday principally due to the breadth of experience. There was the fascination of seeing communist Vietnam edging it’s way into the capitilist world, the admiration of a Cambodia emerging from the horrors of the vilest regime imagineable, the marvel of the skills and ability of an ancient Khymer civilisation, the beauty Halong Bay, and probably the most outstanding impression was the gentleness of the people, in contrast to my pre-conceived ideas. In hindsight I would like to have travelled more through Vietnam like taking a train and bus journey from Hanoi back to the south.