Monthly Archives: June 2014

Hanoi, Monday 23/06/14

From Ho Chi Minh City we took a bus to Da Lat in the central highlands. It was the summer retreat for the Emperor and the French when they had control of Vietnam, so I expected it to be cool and pleasant. Instead, on our first night there it was cold and wet.

The rain held off the next day, when we took a tour of the surrounding countryside. We were joined by three young women, two from Vietnam and one from the Philippines, who were on a team-building weekend from work. Our tour included a coffee plantation, where they grow arabica and moka on the hilltops. The coffee is superb. The real problem is that they also sell “weasel coffee”. They make this from coffee beans excreted by weasels which they keep confined in unacceptable conditions.

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The animals are fed coffee for two months of the year on the ridiculous premise that the coffee so produced has a better flavour. As the price charged for this product is much higher than normal, it is unlikely that this practice will be discontinued.

We also saw raw silk being manufactured. I have seen silk weaving many times, but this was the process of rearing the caterpillars, placing the cocoons in hot water and unravelling them.

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Just to let you know, I ate one of the caterpillars that are discarded from the cocoon. Nicer than grubs, locusts or crickets that I have also eaten on my travels. Insects could be a main source of protein for us in the future if we don’t mend our ways, so I’m prepared to try them out.

Ended up at the old train station in Da Lat. here’s a picture of the group with Halley on the right.

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From Da Lat to Nha Trang on the coast was a marvellous trip by bus. At first you travel between plantations of rubber, corn, cassava and tall pines thrusting out of the red earth , then into the indigenous and impenetrable
forest cascading over mountain peaks, with the “South China Sea” glimpsed in the distance as you descend towards the shore.

Nha Trang has become a holiday destination for Russians and menus and tourist information is all in their language. There is a long expanse of beach, frequented as much by the locals as by the visitors. After a walk along the waterside the first day, Halley and I met up with a mutual friend, Rachel, to visit the Cham Towers at Po Nagar. This is perhaps the most mysterious site I have visited yet. The towers are made of brick and have been restored, but date from the eighth century.

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Within there are strange figures of veneration, where female devotees crawled around in the semi-darkness, caressing the lingam and in one case anointing herself with water from a cup on the altar.

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Inside the museum there was a statue of Yan Po Nagar, the goddess of the country – most definitely a powerful deity.

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Further up the coast lies Hoi An, now a World Heritage Site. By the river, the old town has been preserved and is a unique collection of houses, assembly halls, temples and workshops. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Hoi An was the international trading centre of Southern Vietnam and Chinese, Japanese, Dutch and Indians came to market and established their own quarters there.

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Quan Cong Temple.

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The Japanese Covered Bridge

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Interior of an old house.

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Outside a Chinese Assembly Hall

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Lanterns made and displayed in old shop.

At night the town is transformed by lantern-light, candles floating on the river and musicians on the streets.

I took this picture of a fruit and veg vendor on a street in the town outside the old complex, because it shows the richness of ordinary Vietnamese life in a simple way.

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Hoi An is also noted for its tailoring trade. Halley needed a couple of things for her trip to the U.K., so I took the opportunity to have a light summer dress made-to-measure. It was a new experience for me and I am very pleased with the result.

I would have happily stayed a bit longer in Hoi An. People and children called hello from their homes. There were plenty of restaurants to choose from. There were things to see and do in the countryside around, most notably Tra Que herb and vegetable village, where you can help out in the organic gardens.

However, time was running out on the visa and there was still the old Imperial city, Hue, and Hanoi and the North to explore. Time to move on.
(N.B. WordPress has uploaded 2 sequences of photos in the wrong order; the silk worms and the Cham Towers. Can’t be bothered to go back and sort it out. Sorry).

Hue, 20/06/14

We entered Vietnam on 5th June at Ha Tien and took the bus to Can Tho. It was a long and rather tedious journey. We must have crossed 100-200 bridges along the way, the road was lined with houses and we spotted funfairs and playgrounds in every town. Can Tho is a pleasant city on the Song Hau River, so we decided to take a tour on the river while we were there.

The Cai Rang Floating Market is a real market garden. The boats are loaded with fruits and vegetables and a long pole at the front carries examples of what each has for sale.

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There are different types of boats, but many have two “eyes” painted on the front, which our guide insisted were to scare off crocodiles.

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There were also many women steering in and out of the general commotion using long oars.

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We wandered down a slow backwater to see a small private fruit garden.

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The owner of the garden was a lovely man of eighty-one, whose most prized possession was a Japanese porcelain cup with a relief of a lady’s face in the bottom, which he proudly brought out to show us. He was always smiling.

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Soon we were on our way to Ho Chi Minh City, where I met Nemo, thanks again to Servas.

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Nemo is a puppeteer and freelance translator. He is such a likeable character and was very informative about his country and its history.
He invited me to an exhibition at the university showing maps of Vietnam over several centuries. I was able to talk to some students about Vietnamese sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, which are the cause of a dispute with China at the moment.

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He and a friend took me to the Reunification Palace, which is on the site of the Presidential Residence under Ngo Dinh Diem and his successors in South Vietnam. On 30th April 1975 a tank of the North Vietnamese Army bulldozed through the gate and signalled the end of what the Vietnamese call The American War.

On a lighter note, Nemo also introduced me to some of his puppets

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and to some of the troupe who work with him. For a link to the company and their work go to
http://www.muaroibaby.com/

I hope to keep in touch with Nemo, as he is a very creative and enthusiastic person who also has a playful side, like so many of the Vietnamese.

We spent several days in Ho Chi Minh City, as there was so much to see and do. For me the two most interesting museums were the Women’s Museum and the War Remnants Museum.

The Women’s Museum covers everything from beautiful fashion –

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to typical activities, like weaving and farming. A large part of the exhibition concerns women’s role in the war and in protests and peace initiatives. They were largely involved in carrying supplies and transporting the dead and wounded. They formed the greater part of the fighting force in the South, as men were conscripted into the army of the “Republic”, (ARVN). They were imprisoned and tortured for their actions. Their strength and resilience during the war and their campaigning for peace are inspirational.

The War Remnants Museum is harrowing. There are exhibits of American air power . . .

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prison conditions . . .

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War journalists and their photographs and important political events.
The war is familiar to me and most of my generation, as there were films and photos every day during my teenage years. I read magazine articles at the time and several books since.
Nevertheless, the enormity of the tragedy displayed here still had the power to appal me. The room showing the effects of Agent Orange left me deeply troubled. It was not just the immediate effects of deforestation

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but the horrific nature of the cancers and genetic disabilities which followed and will continue for generations.

The spirit of the Vietnamese shone through even here, in their ability to face up to the past, but look to the future.

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Halley and I also thought it important to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, used by the Viet Cong in the South as hideaways, escape routes, living quarters and routes to battlefields. They were very narrow, built in three levels and fitted with booby traps of a very unpleasant nature to prevent the GIs from gaining access.

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The size of the original entrances.

There was a storm while we were there, which somehow made the experience more authentic, with mud and pouring rain. As I am quite small, I managed to complete the 120 metre tunnel run, which you should do in a crouch, as they did, and not hands and knees.

Although I am very interested in seeing the realities of the war in Vietnam, this by no means all that we have experienced here. The people have a real love for life and for a laugh. They are keen to help. In the park on Pham Ngu Lao, in the Backpackers area, people would do communal exercises, work-out on the free gym equipment or practise their dance moves in the special bandstands. Students stop you and ask to speak English with you, then cluster round to share their thoughts and experiences.

One of our favourite evening pastimes was to enjoy a beer sitting on the pavement surrounded by locals keen to chat., while they consumed their food.

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There’s so much more I could say, but I will tell more about our travels in Vietnam another day, as once again the WiFi is on the blink.

09/06/14

From Siem Reap I went to Battambang in Northwestern Cambodia. The Sangkae River divides this old town, where I spent a couple of days.

I had to try the Bamboo Train and it was great fun. It’s a flatbed trolley rather than a train that now only runs back and forth over six kilometres between two villages. It was constructed in the seventies, when roads and other services were still in disrepair after Khmer Rouge, and there were once 600 kilometres of track. Originally they were pushed by poles but now there are small engines and even a cushion to sit on. It’s a single track, very low and they can rattle along at quite a pace. So when I saw another train rushing in our direction along the narrow space between dense vegetation, I wondered how they dealt with two-way traffic. This is what they do.

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First they remove the deck from the wheels and then the wheels from the track.
The other train moves forward, wheels and flatbed are replaced and away we go.

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I also went to Phnom Sampeau, or Ship Mountain. This is a sacred place that the Khmer Rouge used as a torture and killing site. There is a cave with human skulls in a glass case. People were thrown down into the depths after torture. The Khmer Rouge sent all the people out of the area and placed land-mines, so that no-one could tell what was happening.

The locals have now reclaimed the site, so it is possible to see the bat cave. For about an hour before sunset you can see a steady stream of bats exiting a cave on one side of the rock face. They then disperse across the countryside. My Tuktuk driver, who was brought up in the village and had a philosophical and poetic frame of mind, took me to the rice fields where they swarm and, as he said, look like a flying dragon. I regret to say that my iPhone was not able to capture the spirit of the experience.

I carried on my journey to Phnom Penh, a charmless city. There’s an arty area around the National Museum, but there are lots of large block-like buildings, especially on Russian Boulevard. The riverside walk was rather dreary and the Royal Palace, though attractive, afforded very limited access to tourists.

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Cambodians have been open and friendly towards me, but Cambodia is still trying to come to terms with it’s past. I took the opportunity to visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which had been a school until it was re-named S-21 and used for detention, interrogation, torture and killing over a period of four years. There are photographs of those who were murdered and the buildings have been left as they were found, with instruments of torture, shackles and prisoners’ cells. It was distressing to see. I have taken pictures, but will not show them here.

There were two old men there who are the only living survivors of that dreadful place. One of them says that he does not condemn those who made him suffer, but wonders what he would have done in their place, as they, too, were under threat of execution if they violated regulations in any way.

In the hostel in Phnom Penh I met Huan, who comes from Germany but whose father was one of the Vietnamese “Boat People” . He survived that perilous journey and was picked up by a German ship. Her mother later joined him via Thailand.

I also met Halley, an Australian teacher of English and drama, who has worked as a stand-up comedian. We hit it off easily, met up a couple of times in different places and decided that we would go to Vietnam together, as our schedules coincided. She is due to go to the U.K. in two weeks, specifically for a wedding in Ireland and to teach in Scotland, (her mother is Scottish). She is great fun and I am happy to have a companion and friend.

In Sihanoukville I sorted out my visa for Vietnam and spent a couple of days chilling out on Otres Beach,

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The beach

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The beach at night

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The hut I stayed in.

My last stop in Cambodia was Kampot, an old French colonial town on a river. I liked its faded and crumbling houses

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There were several Eco-tourist businesses and at first I stayed at Genesha, about five kilometres out of town. I was staying in another hut, this one exactly the same as those of the local Khmer.

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While this would be home for a whole family of Khmer, I was staying there alone, it was quite expensive and the way into town was on a rickety old bike on a muddy path followed by a bumpy road. So I moved into the town itself. By then I had met up with Halley again and we decided to take a local tour together.

The tour included salt fields and caves but the highlight for me was a visit to Sothy’s Farm, a local pepper plantation.

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Kampot pepper is considered to be among the best in the world and is used in three-star Michelin restaurants in France. This farm was totally organic. They used buffalo and bat manure and natural pest control. The harvest had just finished, so we were able to taste black, red, white and green. Apparently there was a farm for sale – hmmm, there’s a thought.

Anyway, we continued on to Kep beach, for an excellent fish lunch. We were supposed to go over to Rabbit Island by longtail boat, but the wind had risen, the sea was very choppy and our guide and we agreed that it was not safe.

While there was still a lot to do in Kampot and its surroundings , including a tiny cinema, showing Khmer and international films, boat trips etc., Halley and I thought it a good idea to travel to Vietnam together and she is on a tighter schedule than I. So the next day we headed off for the border crossing.