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Beyond the Mekong

Welcome to our travel blog. Back to South East Asia, starting in Bangkok and this time crossing the Mekong into Laos and Vietnam.
Feel free to leave a message on this site, or email us at colinandsuetravel@yahoo.co.uk
Hope to hear from you.

Diary Entries

Thursday, 04 December 2008

Location: Saigon, Vietnam

Saigon is quite different from Hanoi – bigger and brasher and without the charm of the Old Quarter. It’s also more Christmassy with trees, decorations and Santa suits appearing everywhere. The trafiic is amazing with endless streams of motorbikes – apparently about 5m in Saigon alone. Although it’s the law to wear helmets, only adults do and they ride along with toddlers sandwiched between them or in wicker highchairs tucked in front of the seat.

We’re based in the backpacker district which is really small but packed with all the essentials of bars, restaurants and tour agents so there’s no need to see any other part of the city and presumably some people don’t. By an amazing coincidence, Nils who we met in Halong Bay (and who features in a photo) was staying at the same guesthouse and we went out for a Thai meal with him as compensation for not being in Bangkok.

We’ve had two days of tours – yesterday down to the Mekong Delta on a very touristy trip. Just like being on a production line as we moved from bus to big boat to smaller boat to sampan etc. But it was good to see the Mekong again and we had the added bonus of being able to hold snakes (and buy snake wine – much less tempting).

Today has been a war day – the French and American wars as they are known here. We went to the Cu Chi Tunnels this morning – at the height of the American War the Vietcong had over 250km of tunnels in the Cu Chi area near Saigon – we got to crawl through a section specially enlarged for Westerners, see the sniper holes and traps set for the US troops and see B52 bomb craters. We had a very interesting guide who spent five years working for the US Navy and then five years in a Re-education Centre defusing landmines by day and reading Marx, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh etc in the evening. Not put off by all the grim warlike stuff, we bought ourselves some bullets and had a go at firing an AK47 under the supervision of an Army officer. There was quite a selection of guns and a teenage boy described his choice of weapons as “the most important decision of his life” and him and his Dad spent a fortune while Mum and sister went for icecreams. Afterwards we went to the War Remnants Museum – lots of war photography and details of American atrocities.

It’s our last day tomorrow so our plan is to see a bit more of Saigon and maybe do some last minute shopping. Thinking about buying a fleece for the journey home. We're off to the Russian Market so maybe fur hats as well.

Tuesday, 02 December 2008

Location: Saigon, Vietnam

We should be in Bangkok now but are in Saigon instead. We've spent the last couple of days rearranging everything and it seems to have worked out quite well We were due to fly to Bangkok today and home tomorrow. Fortunately Qatar Airlines fly out of Saigon as well as Bangkok and we've got a flight home on Friday so only two days later. We were slightly concerned as we will be overstaying our visas so went to the Immigration Office who assured us it would be fine - but obviously not in writing.

We seem to have been very lucky compared to lots of other people who are trying to get to Singapore or Kuala Lumpur not to mention all the people stuck in Bangkok (although there are worse places to be stuck in). We just need to find some Thai restaurants for those final curries.

We had a good trip to Halong Bay - again we seemed quite lucky. As we booked at the last minute, we spent our first day and night on one boat and then moved to a different boat the next day and spent the night on Cat Ba Island. From the sound of it our cabin and food was much better although over the course of three days, we had five virtually identical buffet lunches and dinners. Mind you the veggies with us had seven omelettes in a row.

Halong Bay itself was lovely - sitting on the top of the various boats looking at beautiful scenery going by and great sunsets. We also visited caves, cycled on Cat Ba and did some kayaking on Monkey Island - although it was too windy to kayak right round.

Back in Hanoi, we did a bit more sightseeing including going to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum where he is on show. It's just re-opened - apparently he gets sent to Russia every year to be "refreshed". Poor man wanted to be cremated ("hygienic and doesn't waste farmland") but instead ended up embalmed with people filing past him every day.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Location: Hanoi, Vietnam

Sunshine and blue skies at last now we're in Hanoi.

We spent two nights at the seaside in Nha Trang dodging showers - the sea is supposed to be a beautiful shade of blue but the sea and sky were always grey for us. We had a day cycling visiting some Cham towers ( same period as Angkor Wat) followed by the only mud baths in Vietnam. The mud bath was very strange and not 100% pleasant - it wasn't particularly warm and was very gritty especially when the mud got in your eyes - we were persuaded to tip mud over our heads by an Aussie woman. The hot mineral pools on the other hand were lovely and very relaxing. Just a pity they were followed by a bike ride home in the rush hour risking life and limb in the crazy traffic. Colin suggested that we could have saved some money and bathed in the giant mud filled potholes on the way back.

We flew up to Hanoi arriving to 24 degree temperatures - just right we thought as the Vietnamese locals put their coats and jackets on bracing themselves for the cold. We're staying at The Ritz Hotel - not quite on a par with it's London namesake but only a minute away from the Hoen Khiem Lake in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. It's a typical Vietnamese building - very thin but tall. Apparently, land is sold in plots 4m wide and 18m deep so lots of properties are three or more storeys high but very narrow. The staff are very friendly and keen to improve their English including a lengthy lesson on how to pronounce "sheet" as in bed linen so it doesn't sound like "shit". An Irish guy confused matters by introducing "shite" to the discussion - their only Irish word is "Guiness".

Hanoi is a geat place to wander round the old streets - literally as the pavements are taken up with parked motorbikes! The only problem is crossing the road in the endless streams of traffic. The strategy is just to walk out and keep going - preferably not in front of buses but the motorbikes just swerve around. Our preferred method is to attach ourselves to locals, preferably the elderly, and cross with them as shields. The lake is very picturesque and we saw a big turtle earlier today - very auspicious according to the hotel staff.

We had some culture today at the Water Puppet theatre which was surprisingly good. Quite hard to explain but it's performed in a pool of water with the water surface being the stage. The puppeteers stand behind a screen in the water and control the puppets using bamboo rods and strings hidden beneath the water. It was a series of sketches with a mixture of rural life such as "Rearing ducks and catching foxes" and mythical creatures - "Unicorns play with ball".

We're off for 3 days to Halong Bay tomorrow - one night on a boat and another on an island. We seemed to spend half the day visiting several tour operators and checking itineraries to get the right mix of kayaking and walking only to get back to the hotel to a message saying the boat was "broken". So we decided not to waste any more time and booked a similar tour through the hotel - we'll know tomorrow if we're going to be another Halong horror story.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Location: Dalat, Vietnam

We thought Dreams Hotel was good but it got better and better. Just after updating the blog we were told that it was Madame Dung’s (the owner) birthday. All the guests were invited downstairs, we expected maybe a drink and cake but instead were treated to a feast of homemade Vietnamese food – deep fried prawn spring rolls, do it yourself spring rolls, salads, duck, pork and other delicacies plus instructions from the family on how to eat everything and which dipping sauce went with what. Not to mention wine, beer and whisky followed by a birthday cake. It was a really good evening.

Next day, we decided we needed some exercise to burn off some of those calories so we hired mountain bikes. The owner of the bikes suggested a trip to Tiger's Den Falls – 13km each way he said and a bit up and down. This was something of an understatement - there was the 5km climb out of town (great on the way back) and then a long descent into the valley of the Tiger's Den Falls.

It was a really lovely journey - every spare inch of land is cultivated and as it's temperate, it's the main area for growing vegetables, salads, flowers and fruit such as strawberries. Also grapes but the local wine is not recommended - one glass was quite enough. The roadsides are full of wild flowers too. Tourists on bikes were obviously a novelty (probably wondering why we weren't on motorbikes like all the locals) and we were greeted by smiles and waves especially from the kids who all say "hello, hello" and "bye bye".

The traffic wasn't too bad, once we got used to all the overtaking traffic hooting madly to let you know they're passing and the merging system in the town. There's no traffic lights or priority as everyone interweaves quite slowly. It works really well as the traffic flows but it can be a bit daunting (some people took the option of walking across some junctions).

The Tiger's Den Falls name derives from a legend of a wild animal living in a cave by the falls. According to the sign, It was shot by a hunter, "got into a bit of a flutter " and went off with "deep resentment" never to return. In honour of the legend, the area round the falls has several tiger models including a giant one. There was only us and 2 Vietnamese tourists, one of whom showed us where to go. It was incredibly lush and full of ferns and mosses - just like a rain forest.

Talking of rain, it was also very wet again and we were splattered with mud. The journey home was a bit of a slog especially when we took a wrong turn - long downhill and uphill - fortunately a local stopped us and looked appalled when we said we were heading for Dalat, pointing us back the way we came. We needed a pitstop for sticky buns to revive us. Back to Dreams to try out the steam room and jacuzzi on the roof - just what we needed!

Friday, 21 November 2008

Location: Dalat, Vietnam

We arrived in Nha Trang at 6am after a very bumpy overnight bus ride. It wasn’t raining so we decided to head to the beach for a quick walk before breakfast and the next bus to Dalat. We were paddling when we noticed that the island which had been really clear moments ago was shrouded in mist and the rain was heading for us – too late as the storm hit giving us no time to put our waterproofs on. We ran for shelter but once again were soaked which greatly amused the other people on the bus who had sensibly gone straight for breakfast.

We had a typical English discussion on the weather and said we were hoping for better weather in Dalat (guide book: “the best time to visit Dalat is November to May when there is little to no rainfall”). A disillusioned English girl said she was just hoping for showers rather than relentless rain. Another slow bus journey - this time the bus ran out of petrol.

Dalat is a former French hill station situated on a plateau in the Central Highlands of Vietnam about 1,500m above sea level – so it’s positively chilly and we’re finally wearing the socks we’ve been carrying for 4 weeks not to mention fleeces in the evening. We are staying in a very nice hotel (Dreams) with a brilliant breakfast – not just the usual eggs and baguettes but a wonderful selection of fresh fruit, proper strawberry jam and even Marmite and Vegemite (can’t imagine why).

Although it was raining when we arrived, the next day dawned dry if not exactly sunny. We decided to take advantage and go for an “Easy Rider” tour. Dalat is famous for its “Easy Rider” motorbike tours of the highlights of Dalat and the surrounding countryside. The Easy Riders have to pass tests, be accredited tour guides and have decent bikes. Fortunately it’s the law here to wear helmets so we felt much safer than our last motorbike taxis. Our guides were very amusing, Thiet, Colin’s driver was a source of all knowledge and Moi was obsessed with “romantic love”, vitamin L (for love) – found in persimmons which grow everywhere here. Our lessons in Vietnamese included hello, goodbye, thank you and “I love you” – man to woman and woman to man.

We tried to book flights to Hanoi from Dalat but they’re all full – so it looks like the bus back to Nha Trang, a day at the seaside and then a flight to Hanoi from there – but no more overnight buses this trip!

We've now uploaded a video of Colin on the zipwire in Vang Vieng - not sure how easy it will be to view but worth a go.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Location: Hue and Hoi An, Vietnam

Vietnam is wet, very wet. We had spent longer in Laos to avoid the flooding in Hanoi but the whole of Vietnam seems to be suffering from bad weather.

Vietnam also seems incredibly noisy with lots more people endlessly trying to sell us things which takes a while to get used to after laid back Laos. We were probably quite lucky starting in the small town of Hue rather than one of the big cities.

On the other hand, the Vietnamese food is much better than in Laos with lots of regional variety but lovely spring rolls everywhere. Definitely not a good place for slimming!

Hue used to be the imperial capital and the main things to see are the tombs of the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802 - 1945) and the old citadel. We booked a tour that took in 3 tombs, the citadel, conical hat and incense stick making village, a pagoda and a dragon boat ride on the Perfume River. We were lucky that we had a sunny day for our sightseeing as Hue is one of the wettest places in the country and November is the wettest month.

We caught a snake-free bus down to Hoi An, a really well preserved old port (a Unesco World Heritage site) which National Geographic has just voted as the 83rd top tourist site in the world. It's famous for its silk and tailors - lots of people have clothes made while they are here. We just bought some ready made lightweight travelling trousers, a silk wall hanging and a lacquer picture - a very good shop for us and our bags are definitely getting heavier, although that could be because everything is just a little bit damper here.

We had hoped to hire bikes and cycle down to the beach but it really has been too wet. The town floods regularly and the waters have risen to cover the riverside streets since we've been here - which is a shame because we wanted to go back to a really nice riverside restaurant that is now unreachable except by boat. As well as shopping we've taken in the cultural sites and a display of traditional music and dance.

To keep dry, we bought some rain ponchos - de riguer for all the tourists despite making us all look entirely ridiculous. The words pantomime pixie sprang to mind describing Colin modelling his yellow outfit.

It's also been very windy and we were walking past a shop that was being boarded up for the night when one of the shutters blew away and struck Colin on the arm causing a massive bruise. He was instantly surrounded by concerned women who produced what we think was tiger balm and started rubbing it in. We saw the shop owner today and she although she was apologetic she thought it was a good thing it had hit a burly Westerner rather than a tiny local whose arm might have been broken.

Our next stop was going to be Nha Trang, a beach resort, but the weather there is equally bad (the tail end of a typhoon) so we're heading to Dalat up in the mountains. We were very lucky as the bus we hoped to catch was full and we were just in the process of booking one for the next day when the Australian woman sitting next to us offered us her tickets as she and her 10 year old son have decided to fly to Ho Chi Minh instead. She wanted to give the tickets to us, but her entrepreneurial son thought she should sell them for $10 each - we agreed with him, the deal was done and we will soon be on our way.


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Recent Messages

From malcolm & linda
we are on free internet at the mo. so time to check you out.:-)...very good photo's,,you pair of David Bailey.s.
Response: Lucky you - it's freezing now we're back home.
From Caroline
So shall we expect you at Bath Place on Monday to sort BIG numbers!!
Steve says can you pick him up a Thai bride........ !!
17th December - Bath Place night out and Santa in the building
18th December - Bath Place Christmas Dinner, we've saved you a potato peeler!!!!
Safe journey and see you soon
xxxxx
Response: BIG numbers - that's a scary thought! The only numbers we've done are working out how much Bahts, Kips and Dongs are in real money. Do you really think that Steve wants to be the stereotypical old, overweight Western man with a young, beautiful Thai girl on his arm - but perhaps you're right.......
Pity we're not going to Thailand. Hope to see you all soon.
From nick
eating !have fun at halong bay we loved it. Were off to dubai on wednesday for a week so cant wait x
Response: Halong bay was great. Have fun in Dubai.
From Linda
Sounds like Wales may have been (slightly) drier than Vietnam......
Response: But Vietnam is definitely warmer - and with better food.
From Nick
Sounds great if not a bit wet...We were in Vietnam this time last year and it was pretty sunny if thats any consolation !!

Have fun and try the buffalo in Hanoi...lovely

Nick and Becky x
Response: Riding or eating?
From peter willsher
hi Sue and Colin
Following your adventure with enthusiasm. Happy to enjoy it from my armchair though! I suspect, Sue, you will not me available for the Christmas lunch at the greasy spoon in CW on 19th December. However, if you will be back and want to join the old crew, please let me know by 15th Dec latest.
Look forward to your next instalment
Take care
Peter
Response: Thanks Peter - will let you know. Saw your email - not quite the usual fare.
From Lesley
I've sent your nov 15 blog to my mother in the hope that this will stop her whining about Southport bus services.
Lesley
Response: Probably not!
From John
I'll never complain about the No.11 Outer Circle again.
Response: Only because you don't catch it any more (do you?).
From Maria
Hi Sue,

Jill sent me the link to your travel blog so I have just been getting very jealous reading about all your adventures! Sounds like you are having an amazing time!

Hope you and Colin are well,

Maria
Response: Great to hear from you, hope all is well. What are you up to?
From Jackie Calver
Great to read about all your adventures, some of which make me dizzy! Please bring me a dolphin and an elephant back. I am living a life of equal adventure as I am back on the tills at Wilkinson as a Christmas temp.What an adrenaline rush is to be had by refusing a knife-sale to an under-18! Have fun, love Jackiexxx
Response: Can only manage one dolphin - may need to extend our pond though. Colin is refusing to bring back even one baby elephant.
From Sue
Mmmmmm.... tasty fish sauce.... did you eat here?? Love the waterfalls; glad you wisely refused to cross the dodgy-looking rickedy bridge Sue. Hope your bus trip is okay- don't forget to stretch and flex those limbs! xx
Response: We haven't knowingly tried the really dodgy stuff, but have had some. Bus was a nightmare - update to come!!!!
From Carole
Hi there you two

Hoiw are the travels going.
Just dropped in to see what's in the blog (diary) to us old fuddy duddies.

Good news Cousin Mark is now the proud DAD of a 7lb 11ozs baby boy Matthew James.
Ahh.
Response: Hi
Good to hear from you and great to hear the news about baby Matthew.
From Lesley
Great photos. The mahout bit? Dare I ask, Where?

Also, where can I get Lao Lao?

Keep having fun

Response: Suspect Lao Lao is like retsina - great when you're there but it doesn't travel.
From John
I have always found being unspringy is a definite disadvantage in life. However, glad to see you are still having a great time.

John.
Response: Certainly is, but thinking you are just as springy as you used to be is just as bad.
From Bev Sutton
Hi Both,

Just been reading your diary entries. Sounds like you're having an amazing time. Loas is definitely on my 'want to go there next' list. I think you've just made it worse!

Keep having fun.

Bev
Response: Laos is wonderful - great scenery, friendly people and loads to do. A definite must.
From mark duckers
Having completed my 4th M-review of the day your photos of what life should be like has tipped me over the edge.....only 25 years to go!
Response: Don't wait that long - it's hard enough recovering from the bruises after flying off a trapeze into a river at my age!
From Femma
Hi Colin,

Sounds like you're having an awesome time :) Your pictures are amazing and Kung Fu Panda rocks :D

Take Care
Response: Glad you like the pics - lots more on now and more coming soon.
From stuart
Have you seen any rice paddy fields yet? I know how you like looking at rice!
Response: Lots - we even had an invitation to help harvest some when we stopped to take a photo. Lots more drying on the side of the road - or it would be if it wasn't raining (so much for the dry season).
From Tim Alb
Thanks for the distraction - we are 2 weeks into UAT so things are a little stressed. You definitely seem to be enjoying yourselves and it sounds as if you (Colin) are better at negotiating your way around asia than you are at finding your way home - remember your leaving do on Broad Street :-)
Response: I don't know what you mean - I made it home quite well, considering I have no recollection of how! We're going to spend this afternoon floating down a river in lorry inner tubes being fished into bars by the locals - quite relaxing really and nothing like UAT. Hope it's all going well.
From Val and Barry
Hi there, just been catching up on the blog and glad to see you are enjoying yourselves again. We wanted to send a couple of photos but can't seem to find out how to attach them to this blog! There has been ongoing activity with No.12... multiple visits from various blokes, some with shovels, some with coloured dye etc. They did ask me when you would be back to do a test flush, so I stalled and said you were at work but had left me a key in case. Lo and behold, when I went in to carry out the flush, of course I remembered you had turned off the water!! So I stalled again and said you had been having a problem and so had turned it off just in case. I got over the problem by filling our wateringcan. They said it was ok, but needed to return. They actually removed some of your block pavings, but this has been restored now. I still don't know whether all is duly rectified or not, watch this space... Now, why,whenever you go somewhere warm do we get a freezing snap and (you've gotta believe it) at least an inch of snow? Continue to enjoy - see you soon - regards us two.
Response: Wow, it's all been happening at home and snow too! In a couple of places we've stayed at we've wondered whether flushing sent it all into the local river - just like home.

You can email the photos to our normal email address or the one on the blog.

Thanks again and wrap up warm.
From John
Enjoying your blog and pictures once again - just like old times. However, I feel we need more detail on the proposed cycling museum. Will there be a "history of bicycle clips " section, for example ? Or " World of Innertubes" ? We should know.
It's freezing here and I'm off to watch Kidderminster Harriers, so think yourselves lucky on the banks of the Mekong. Looking forward to your next reports.

John.
Response: Mr Alan is donating his bike collection - not quite sure what else but definitely no bicycle clips. Hope you enjoy the footie.
From Linda
No chance of us being anywhere near the OMM - it's notorious for bad weather (in fact it was just as bad last year, but because it was tucked away in an odd corner of Scotland it got no publicity!)
Response: Have fun in Wales
From Linda
Hey, you've got an animal picture already! All sounds great, will think of you when we're in Wales.
Response: We were thinking of you and Neil when we saw the flooding during the lakeland fell race - glad you weren't involved.
From Nick & Becky
So Jealous......Have a great time - Stay off the Chang tho and enjoy the tubing if your doing it !?

xx
Response: No Chang beer yet only Chang water!
Hope to tube - had instructions from friendly Scouser as to best side of river etc.
Hope you had a good weekend in Fairford.
From Steve
So.. how do you convert an Excel spread sheet to Thai Word....
Can's seem to find that font on the tool bar!!
Hope you guys are having a fine time..
Christmas lunch is 18th Dec...
Response: Just struggled getting the keyboard back into English from Thai characters!