The Vietnam / American War

Vietnam is a country that has spent hundreds of years involved in one war or another. Originally China was the protagonist having invaded the country and holding reign for a thousand years. The Vietnamese managed to kick them out in the 1400’s and reclaim their country. Tribal loyalties split the country into north and south through the following period of history with many domestic wars fought between the feuding regions. The French invaded and took over in the mid 1800’s and held power until 1954 when the communist lead Viet Minh armies of the north forced a surrender. The time of the French occupation was a brutal period in Vietnamese history and the conditions for political prisoners was horrific.

The country was split into north and south with the signing of the Geneva peace accords. North Vietnam was communist and Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Minh) was the supreme leader of the region. It was his belief that Vietnam should be joined into one unified communist nation. In 1959 the campaign to unify north and south began. This war is what we, in the west, called the Vietnam War but here in Vietnam it is called the American War due to the contributions of the USA (and allies) in the conflict.

Militarily and politically the USA had been in Vietnam for many years, from the time the French were struggling with the Vietnamese. Initially they supported the French however after their ousting they turned their support to the south Vietnamese government/royalty. As such they were involved pretty much from the beginning of the war until they were pressured by the world to get out in 1973, the year in which the Paris Peace Accord was signed by USA, north Vietnamese, south Vietnamese and the guerrilla Viet Cong of the south.

This war is the most prominent feature of every museum we have visited. The information I have given above was never represented in a complete manner in any of the museums we visited, it has been gathered from various sources both in country and online.

In Hanoi the message was very much that the north were trying to bring the country together into some glorious communist collectivisation for the good of the people, and that the American forces were unwelcome invaders who deserved to be beaten. The emphasis was very heavy on the international condemnation of America’s involvement and room after room was filled with photographs and petitions demanding that the US leave Vietnam. I have never been to museums that tell such an obviously biased story of a historical event. I would not suggest that they were not welcome to present the information in any way they saw fit but it was quite strange to see a war painted in such blatantly propaganda filled language. We figured that perhaps we might find a more balanced view when we got to the south.

In Ho Chi Minh City there is a War Remnants Museum that we had heard was very good. We were hoping to find a different view to the vision presented in the north. We certainly got that but it was not what we were expecting. The whole museum is made up of photographs, most images taken by international photographers who were here covering the war. The images themselves were graphic and often hard to look at but the information presented with them was a lot more unbiased. Ok, yes it was still “the Americans are bad people, see what they did to us the poor Vietnamese people” but it was a lot more factual.

The things that shocked me in the end was the facts of Agent Orange. I had heard about this chemical being used and I understood that it was a defoliant used to clear the land so that the Viet Cong (southern supporters of the north) and the North Vietnamese Army were a lot more visible. What I had never really considered was just what that actually meant. It was mind boggling to read the statistics of Agent Orange and how much damage it has done to the country and the people. It is a truly evil chemical that was known to be incredibly toxic to the water supply, the land itself and to anyone exposed to it. 2 generations on there are many families who suffer from terrible birth defects because of the spraying.

I found it heart wrenching to see the images and read the stories. But more than anything it made me mad. I was profoundly angry. I understand that power and politics are part of the reason that wars are so fiercely fought and that allies (which the USA was, sort of, to the south) are called upon to help out in times of war, but to allow anyone to knowingly use such a lethal chemical and just walk away from it in the end made me sick. I know that this blog is not a place to rant, and I also know that my knowledge comes from a rather tainted source but sometimes I just want to speak my mind and this is just one of those times.

It was a rather shocking experience to go to that museum and see it laid out in a hard light but for me it was a valuable lesson in the biased nature of all information, especially when the information is only being represented by the victors (the north Vietnamese). That said, just goes to show, what we think we know, what we are told, is so often not the whole truth from either side.

Onto our last war experience though, and we went to a place called the Cu Chi tunnels just out of Ho Chi Minh City. It was the strong hold of the Viet Cong and they built a 250km network of tiny tunnels from which to run the war effort. They had hospitals down there that could care for the wounded, rest stations and safe havens in times of bombings as well as being a way to bring weapons and soldiers into then Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). We were so lucky. Our tour guide was a 67 year old veteran who had actually lived and fought from Cu Chi. Therefore we literally got the whole experience firsthand from someone who had been there. And not only was he interesting and quite excitable but his accounts were generally well peppered with humour and sound effects. He was delightful and I think that for me it certainly gave me yet another perspective of a war that until we arrived in Vietnam I knew very little about.

I hope that in no way have I offended anyone with this blog. I am a believer that all wars are terrible, many horrific things happen on all sides in a war and that no matter how much I dislike them they are a part of our history and have lessons for us all. I could not write about our visit to this country without including something about such an important part of their history.

And do you know what the best bit is…. Nowhere have we seen, heard of or felt any animosity toward any tourists from any country. Truly, Vietnam is amazing!!!!

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This is an aerial shot taken in Binh Phuoc province in 2009 in the dry season showing the level of ground cover laid out in the bombing runs. Estimates are that there are still 600,000 tons of bombs left from the war.

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A US tank that had been destroyed by a mine in 1970.

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Mangroves after the use of agent orange. Nothing survived in the aftermath of the chemical bombing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUH – 1 H Huey helicopters, used for transport, ambulance, air convoying and scouting missions.

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Me, emerging from a secret entrance to to the Cu Chi tunnels.
Ok well, not really. There was no way I was going into those hands-and-knees hot dark holes in the ground (Dave did) but I did get to drop into the hole from the top for the obligatory tourist photo op 🙂 The tunnel construction and the inventiveness and determination of the Viet Cong was truly mind blowing.

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Nha Trang

As we have travelled through Vietnam we have met heaps of other travellers. Because the country is long and thin the tendency for most people is to start at one end and make their way to the other. For us it is north to south but many of those we met were going in the opposite direction. Part of the fun is finding out where other travellers have been and getting their recommendations of the best places to visit and things to do.

One of the quirks that we found was that many people said that the city of Nha Trang was one to miss. The main complaint was that it was too busy and touristic (which is quite strange considering some of the towns we have visited have been almost exclusively catering to tourist markets) and that it was ‘full of Russians”.

For us though it seemed like a good place to break the southward journey between Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City so to Nha Trang we went. I cannot imagine what other people saw that we didn’t but we loved the place. Yes, there were lots of Russians but with 6 direct flights from Moscow every week it is not that surprising. What was surprising was that the whole city caters to them. Almost every sign was written in Vietnamese, then Russian and maybe English. The menus in all the restaurants were the same. For Russian tourists Nha Trang must seem like heaven on a stick.

That said they certainly were not a problem for us in any way. Why would they be? They were the same as everyone else, there for a good time at a beach town for a relaxing holiday. Sometimes I wonder about the opinions of others when it comes to large populations of a particular nationality.

Either way we found Nha Trang to be awesome. It had some of the most beautiful beaches we had seen (which seems like a theme all the way down the central section of Vietnam). The bars and restaurants had a great selection of local and international foods and we even found a bar that played the Australia vs New Zealand Bledisloe Cup football match. Another night we found ourselves in the midst of a huge group of Dutch, English and German travellers that made for a crazy night in another one of the many bars. It is an eating and drinking paradise 🙂

To top it all off I even managed to get a bikini custom made for less than $25 done in 1 day!!! No where else have we seen that kind of service. Suits and clothes yes, but not swimwear. I took it to the beach to try it out and have to say it seems to work just fine :).

So in a nutshell I would have to say that Nha Trang is well worth the visit. It may be a little Russian but the upside of that is a vast selection of vodka ;). And for us it was just too gorgeous to have missed. Definitely on the “return for a second visit” list.

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As you can see – terrible beaches – NOT!!!!!

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Tourists fully catered for.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA little bit of Russia

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We were in a taxi heading in to town and I could hear ducks, and the sound seemed to go with us as we drove down the street. A quick glance outside explained why. Hard to see but there are 3 baskets full to the brim with ducks all hanging out quacking like crazy. Very cool 🙂

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Central Vietnam and the gorgeous beaches

Leaving Hue we headed south to the region made famous in the Vietnam/American war as the place for American soldier’s R&R– China Beach. The beach itself stretches for miles down the central coast of Vietnam and I can see why the GI’s loved it as a place for taking it easy. We visited the two biggest towns of Da Nang and Hoi An over a period of a week and while neither of us are real beach bunnies we thoroughly enjoyed our time here.

Da Nang is a big commercial city with the main part of the town across a river from the beach side. We stayed just back from the beach and again hired a scooter to go and check out the area. The beach itself is gorgeous white sand, stunning blue water and being in a bay it is a calm safe place to swim. We ventured out onto the northern headland and while the views were awesome the roads themselves were super steep. At one point we had to give up and turn back as the poor old scooter just couldn’t make it with 2 of us on board.

I think the highlight for us in Da Nang was a place called Murphy’s Steakhouse. It was 3 doors down from our hotel and the food (while not cheap by Vietnamese standards – $15/main) was amaaaazing! The guy who runs it is an ex-pat British Aussie who has only been there for 7 months but has he ever nailed the hospitality thing. He was a great host and we ate here every night we were in Da Nang, enjoying not only the awesome food (imagine a perfectly cooked fall off the bone lamb shank when you haven’t seen one for 7 months) but also great company. Chris the owner had so many insights into Vietnam and so many stories. I think it would have to be some of the best nights we have had in ages and he is another one of those people that we have met that we will try to catch up with again at some time in the future. Travelling can often be a case of meeting people and then they disappear but sometimes we are lucky enough to meet some people that are just terrific and we try to keep in touch with these special folks. It is a real treasure find when you do meet someone like that.

So, from Da Nang we went an hour south to Hoi An and found a completely different town. This place has a historical centre that is heritage listed and as such the buildings are all pretty well preserved externally. Where originally it was a bustling commercial hub for the area with the waterways being the inroads to the warehouses and retailers, silting of the river moved the shipping to Da Nang and Hoi An seemed to stop in history right where it was. After the war years when tourism returned to Vietnam and with the heritage listing it has become a mega town of tourists, tailors and restaurants.

The architecture is really lovely with many of the really old homes preserved for tourists to visit (much to the upset of some of the families still trying to live in them). There were several old Chinese Assembly halls, each one was slightly different to reflect the different geougraphical regions of Chinese merchants that gathered for meetings. Now many of these assembly halls have temples where the smoke from hundreds of incense wafts around bizarre dragon statues. They certainly were impressive to visit though.

A highlight of Hoi An was definitely the food. Where in the north we found the food to be of a certain style, a lot more soup and noodle dishes, in Hoi An as it is literally slap bang at the half way mark there was food from north, south and regionally specific. And it was all good!!!! There were so many restaurants that we were literally spoilt for choice.

As is typical for us, with no planning at all we managed to arrive into Hoi An on the one night of the month that they hold a big festival – the full moon lantern festival. It seems that lighting a candle and sending it down the canal is good luck and the tourists and locals alike all get into the action. Unfortunately it just became a bit of a money grab with sellers pushing lit candles into our faces every second step and the crowd crush was quite astonishing however it was definitely something to see. Of course the next night was much the same and the night after that as well (when you are onto a good thing stick to it??) but the crowds were less and we were glad to have been able to see the big night.

Again the beach here was spectacular (the southern end of China Beach) and I actually got it together enough to go for a swim. I would have to say that other than beaches in the north of Western Australia I have not ever been to a beach as nice. The water was crystal clear, no waves, not too many touts, drinks available, beach chairs and coconut huts to lounge and the warmest water you could ever wish to find. It was truly divine and I would recommend it to anyone!

So I would have to say that the region of central Vietnam around China Beach was absolutely fantastic and while I would love to be able to show you some amazing photos of the area it seems that my photo mojo was on the wane that week and looking over my shots there really wasn’t anything to write home about. I have included some shots to give you a bit of an idea but I am not sure that I have done justice. Ah well, that’s life and I am sure that the camera and I will become friends again soon 🙂

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‘Everyone’ trying to get their lanterns floated down the canal. Many people hire a boat to get out to the middle of the flow instead of placing the candle at the edge.

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Typical old Hoi An.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese rickshaws are still in use throughout Vietnam although most are a bit more modern but not by much.

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These are not the lanterns that are floated down the river (smaller and made of candles and cardboard) but they are the ones that every shops tries to sell to tourists to take home. Beautiful when they are all lit together.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese ladies brought this entire restaurant (and that is what this is) on their shoulders in 2 baskets supported with a bamboo pole. It is amazing to watch them move through the crowd and to set up a feast.

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Fishing village nestled in a cove.

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Looking back across the bay form the beach at Hoi An. Further up the beach on the right of shot is where the town of Da Nang lies on famous China Beach.

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Ancient City Of Hue

South of the gorgeous Ninh Binh is the capital of the ancient kingdoms, the city of Hue. We arrived early evening and over dinner met some fellow travellers who had just finished with the city highlights and could give us a quick rundown of the worth it-not worth it choices. The interesting thing about Hue was that pretty much everything on the tourist list (of which there are probably only 6 things) they considered to be on the worth it list.

So next morning we set out to visit the main feature of the city, the ancient citadel. The palace of the kings was generally in poor repair but the pieces that were still standing were amazing. It was built in the early 1800’s and unfortunately was bombed again and again, first by the French in the French War of the early 1900’s and again in the “American” (Vietnam) War of the 60’s and 70’s.

We found our way to the main gate and entered through the impressive high walls and ornate entry way. Inside the walled city was the palace grounds of the emperors and their families. There are still quite a few intact buildings to view (either unscathed or restored) amid the rubble of the site in general and we really enjoyed the experience. There were plenty of info boards around to let us know what we were looking at and a great exhibition of historical photographs. It really was impressive and we could really feel the glory of the emperors and the incredible grandeur where they lived. The citadel would definitely rate as well and truly worth a visit.

From the citadel we headed to Thien Mu pagoda beside the beautiful Perfume River. This pagoda was pretty neat because of the tiers of the pagoda stretching up in a small glade of pines but further into the complex we found a lovely temple where prayers were in session. There was the usual bunch of monks chanting and dinging their bells but this group contained a collection of “baby monks”, children who are learning their religion through joining the priesthoods for a period of time. They were just gorgeous and I had a terrific time just watching them all fiddle and shuffle as little children do in any church of the world.

To round out the day we headed to one of the imperial tombs. Everywhere you look in Vietnam there are graves. Either small family plots alongside a field or acre after acre of huge mausoleum type graves. It is quite an eye opener so we figured if the local regular burial practices are so elaborate then the imperial tombs must surely be something else. Well…. Have to say – not so much. They were in expansive grounds undoubtedly but the actual tomb itself was a bit dull. Some of the local gravesites were jazzier. That’s not to say it was not worth the trip to see it because it was, if for no other reason than to get that comparison of emperor and normal people. Emperor definitely bigger but not exactly mind-blowing.

Having ticked off all the major touristic things that interested us we decided to grab a bike and head to the coast road to check out the scenery. Lots of rice paddies and plenty of small towns but definitely some of the most gorgeous beaches. There was no one there (I think we saw 4 other tourists) but I should imagine in peak season it would be fantastic. Just mile after mile of white sand. Little clusters of restaurants and if you go far enough you come upon the real local life of the fishing villages. It was awesome and a lovely way to finish off the northern part of Vietnam.

Hue, Vietnam

The citadel – Hue.

Hue , VietnamOne of the citadel gates – Hue.

Hue, Vietnam

Main emperors receiving hall – Hue citadel.

Hue, Vietnam

Hue, Vietnam

At the Thien Mu Pagoda.

Hue, VietnamSending prayers to the Gods.

 Hue, Vietnam

Tu Loc Tombs.

Hue, VietnamDave trying his hand at a little grave robbing 😉

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The boat is swiveled back and forth to get it up the beach.

  Hue, Vietnam

As the fish are taken off the fishing boats they are sorted, weighed and removed by the on-sellers.

Hue, VietnamBaby octopus inside an egg we found trapped in nets. Very cool!!!!

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Karst Mountains of Ninh Binh

The plan was to get up at a reasonable hour and go and see Ho Chi Minhs mausoleum but like so many plans it kind of went awry. We had been trying to get there all week and we had one last shot at it but poor planning meant that whereas I thought it was open until 11.30 it actually closes at 10.30 and we had left it too late. Just means that we have to come back again J

From Hanoi we decided to go to the south to a town called Ninh Binh where they have some amazing limestone karst mountains nestled into rice fields and local village landscapes.

The standard line is to take a local tour to one of three main boat trip destinations and cruise through the paddies and into river caves while being wow-ed by the landscape. Thankfully for us we did a bit of reading beforehand and opted to find our own way on a scooter and therefore could go wherever we chose at our own timeframe.

Just outside of the town of Ninh Binh is Tam Coc, famous for its classic “rice fields with a river flowing through it surrounded by karst mountains” type of landscape but because of its fame it is a tout nightmare with heavy handed tactics being used against tourists. We decided to avoid it and instead went for the more laid back general area of Bich Dong for our first day of wandering.

Through the area there are not only the impressive mountains of the karst limestone rising up from the landscape but also a myriad of caves. We found a really cool temple that unbeknownst to us had a huge cave in behind it. There was no lights and all we had was a small head torch in the bag. I, of course, bailed on the dark hot scary expedition but Dave was full speed ahead. He ended up on top of the mountain with amazing views. By the time he got back to me he was dripping wet with sweat and well happy with his adventure.

We finished the day at a private nature reserve called the Thung Nham bird park. The sad thing was that we were in the wrong season for the birds but there was plenty else to see. This park had a selection of different caves to access so we started with 349 steps up to the top of one mountain where a big cave awaited (Vai Gioi Cave). The cave was too much for me but Dave went in and said it was pretty good. My caving pleasure came from further in the park where we boarded a small boat and were rowed into a lovely river filled cave with interesting stalactite/mite formations and plenty of tiny bats. It was cool and peaceful and quite enjoyable.

The following day we just cruised the countryside checking out any small road and getting plenty of wry looks from locals who assumed we were generally lost. It is such a joy to just roam anywhere we like with the freedom of the scooter.

We finished off the day with the classic 2hour “cruise” through the karst. We went to La Trung and found a group of lady rowers who all take turns in rowing the tourists out into the waterways. Our lady spoke no English but was really delightful and very strong. She rowed us for the full 2 hours without breaking a sweat. I would have to say that the quietude of being one of only 3 boats on the waterways was just lovely and certainly matched the inspiring serenity of the landscape.

For anyone considering the Ha Long Bay experience (which is the karst mountains springing from the ocean) and finding the costs prohibitive, I would certainly recommend Ninh Binh as an affordable and equally beautiful alternative.

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Tiny little village house tucked under the shadow of the mountain.

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Spraying the rice.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur little boat, boat lady and her friend helping to park it 🙂

 

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A glimpse of Hanoi

Ha Noi city is proving to be a great place. With lower expectations sometimes comes great surprises that make such an impact. Hanoi is certainly a big surprise.

Compared to other cities we have visited the traffic here is one of the biggest shocks. Crossing the road in India was always a bit of a game of Russian roulette. Everyone drove aggressively and with maximum speed that they could muster in the traffic. Any ideas of pedestrian crossings was risky at best and we adopted the ‘move with the crowd’ method for safe crossing. Thailand is more like a western culture where they generally obey road rules and traversing a street is not such an issue. Here however is a whole new ball game. The roads a literally jam packed with scooters, motorized pushbikes and cars. To cross the road you try to find a less intense moment with no cars and just step out into the flow. As long as you just keep walking at a very slow and measured pace everyone just goes around you. The first couple of times are a bit hair-raising I can tell you. There is something very unsettling about slowly walking through a moving wall of vehicles and just relying on faith to get you through. It does seem to work though, thankfully. We have seen many less brave tourists stranded on the footpath waiting for a break in the traffic that will never come. I almost want to tell them – just be bold and be steady and you’ll get there.

The footpaths here are beautifully maintained and would be a pleasure to walk on if only there were room. It seems that a footpath is the perfect place to park your bike, set up your restaurant, play a game of cards with your mates or just hang out sipping tea. Inevitably a wander up the street means exactly that – out onto the street you go. That said, it is just like crossing the road. As long as you don’t make a sudden move everyone just cruises around you. It is quite a fun experience and certainly the life on the footpaths is one of the really neat things about Hanoi.

The restaurants that are set up daily on the footpaths are another quite unique thing compared to other Asian countries we have visited. In Thailand for example the street food vendors pay to keep their tables and chairs and the mobile cooking stall in one place and they break it down at the end of each night and cover it with tarps, before setting it up again the next day. Everything is collapsible, with trestle tables and stacking chairs and simple kitchen set-ups. Here in Hanoi it is completely different. Instead of a mobile kitchen they work out of their small restaurant in the back with all the elements of the dishes on display. The dining area is out on the footpath as the space inside is taken up with food cooking and display. The tables and chairs are childrens plastic sets with tiny little stools and communal tables of 4-8 people.

There is usually some kind of menu in English but it will only have a couple of dishes. Our technique so far has been to find somewhere that is packed with locals (and some places literally have a line up of people waiting for a seat) and then forgo the menu in favour of the point and nod method of food selection. And we have been scoring big time!!! Pretty much everything we have eaten has been amazing. Using ‘I’ll have what they are having’ means that you can see the dish and make sure it is not a collection of ricepaddy snails with calf liver served over who knows what. All of that said there are of course normal restaurants with proper menus and meal descriptions but we are quite enjoying the adventure of ordering dinner by sight.

In the centre of the Old Town is a gorgeous little lake with a couple of small temples, one accessible by bridge where seemingly everyone makes a stop and one on its own little island. Surrounding the lake is a spacious green area where locals and tourists alike go to sit and take a break from the heat and bustle. We ventured down and grabbed a bench to just sit and relax and were approached by a group of young Vietnamese students who asked if they could practice their English. It is a fun way to spend half an hour. They had all finished college and were keen to start their own businesses or get into their chosen university field of study. It was so nice to see these keen and enthusiastic people talking about their aspirations and dreams, and their English was certainly good enough to understand. Looking around the park it seemed that pretty much every tourist had a small group eager to test their language skills.

Hanoi is a city with plenty of tourist attractions and we have been out and about learning about the Vietnamese culture and history through museum and gallery visits. It is so lovely to be in a new country where we know comparatively little about and to be learning new things.

Still a few museums and Ho Chi Minhs mausoleum to check out so stay tuned for more adventures 🙂

Portrait sketches in HanoiAround the lake artists sketch people. I thought this guy was doing quite a good job.

Hoan Kiem LakeTemple in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi.

Water puppets HanoiWe went to a famous water puppet theatre here in Hanoi and it as all in Vietnamese but the stories were nice and easy to follow and it was certainly entertaining.

Crockery seller HanoiEverything imaginable can be sold from the back of a scooter, including ceramics (wouldn’t want to crash with this lot on board).

Scooters HanoiOne of the small street/footpath scooter carparks.

Hoan Kiem Lake HanoiA lady and her daughter were feeding the lake fish.

Asleep HanoiTypical late afternoon scene. Hot days make for tired men 🙂

Thousand Arms and Eyes HanoiThe one thousand eye and one thousand arm Guan Yin at the Fine Arts Museum of Hanoi. Very impressive in real life. About 300 years old, made of wood and laquered.

 

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On to Vietnam, hello Hanoi

Koh Chang was blissful for us. After so long of moving constantly it was a joy to just sit still for a bit. Admittedly it did take me a week or so to get used to the idea but once settled in properly with favourite spots established I found myself really getting into the groove. We began our travel break with big plans of daily exercise, clean living (read ‘drying out a bit’) and a list of things that needed doing. Of course in the end almost none of that was the reality. We just chilled out and relaxed.

Most days were a combination of reading or internet browsing until the rain cleared, then off for a bit of a poke around the island (waterfalls and such) then sundowners on the beach at one of two favourite spots close to home. Dinner then beers back home on the verandah, either sitting around chatting or playing scrabble. We did make friends with a fantastic Aussie bloke who owns a restaurant and for the last couple of weeks we made a visit to him several times a week for fun adventures. Indeed, one night after closing he took us out to one of his favourite bars and we were treated like royalty just because we knew him. Great times. (For anyone looking for good food and a lovely bloke on Koh Chang go and check out Strawberry Moon Restaurant) 😉

While perhaps little was achieved of our initial plans the upside was that we now start the next part of our adventures fully recharged.

We have a couple of months to kill before we head to Africa with a couple of close friends so decided to go and check out Vietnam. Neither of us have been before and it was close enough to get to so decision made, visa applied and approved so flight booked and away we go.

We found cheap tickets to Hanoi in northern Vietnam so chose that as our starting point. Now I should clarify here that I had heard and read a huge mix of things about Vietnam. Most of the reports/blogs/articles I read said that it was another love/hate type of place. Most people felt that at some point in their travel they had been blatantly ripped off and for many travellers that happened too many times for them to like Vietnam or to even speak kindly of their travel there. Others raved about it and travelled there often.

We decided to just go along and see for ourselves. Fore warned is fore armed so at least we were ready to keep an eye out for obvious scams etc. At worst we could always leave before our month visa and go somewhere else.

With a bit of trepidation we landed in Hanoi and I have to say that we were pleasantly surprised. Apart from the standard “pay too much” to get from the airport to town (which is not uncommon in any country) we have been pleasantly surprised.

While I don’t think the people are as openly friendly as some other Asian countries, the upside of that is that we are finding that they leave us alone a lot more, less hassling. The city of Hanoi (such as we have seen in 2 days) is really nice in the Old Town area, lots of little streets with people, scooters and few cars thronging the roadways. Plenty of small streetside stalls selling food of all kinds. While we have only had a few meals they have all been good, tasty and cheap. Beer here is about $1 for a pint glass for tap beer, meals range from about $3 upward. For example last night we had 3 beers each and a tasty noodle and meat meal (pork and beef) for a total bill of $11!!!! Fantastic!

Seems that Vietnam will suit us just fine. 🙂

Koh Chang beach elephants

These baby elephants take tourists into the surf at Khlong Prao beach on Koh Chang. The little one kept popping under the water and rolling in the waves.

Vietnam Hanoi garlic shellingA lady shelling garlic – just sitting on the street in front of her shop.

Dried shrimps - Hanoi, VietnamThe main market in the Hanoi Old Town area has a large dried food section. There were hundreds of different sized dried shrimps. Smellllllly 😉

Our new church Found a new kid of religion that I really rather like.

In the rain - Hanoi, VietnamNot one to let the rain stop her this lady just popped on a poncho and kept on going.

In the rain - Hanoi, VietnamTorrential downpour in Hanoi. Well, it is the wet season in the tropics!

 

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My best travel tips

Now that we are five months into our journey I thought that I might just share a few travel tips I have learnt along the way. Some of this is from my own experience and some from other travellers.

When we left home neither of us were rookies. We had both travelled before and, indeed, Dave and I had done a 7 month trip a few years before with only carry-on luggage. I thought I had it down pat but of course time tells a different story.

I managed to pack 2 things that to this day I have not worn (taking up precious bag space) and a couple of really poor choice items. So my first little pearl of wisdom would be that anything that goes into a bag (especially a small one) should be comfortable, not so worn that it will fall apart with repeated hard washing and potentially big enough that a couple of gained kilos won’t make it too tight 😉 . If you are going to be travelling for a while try to bring clothes that you can happily throw away as you make new purchases that way your wardrobe can be a constantly evolving entity, as well as potentially providing clothes to charity or other travellers when you discard them.

Pretty much everyone when they travel sees things that they would love to own. Some call them souvenirs, I call them memories. Either way they take up space. So there are a couple of ways around this. One would be to work out postage on an item and then send it home. We have done this with a few things, the biggest being a 1.5m x .4m teak carving we bought in Thailand last time we were here. We paid $15 for it, then paid $30 for shipping with instructions that if it required any handling costs at the other end we would go as far as another $20 and anything above that was not worth it. We now have (in storage) a lovely teak elephant carving that cost us $45 instead of $100-200! Well worth it 🙂

Alternatively you can start with empty bags, sometimes one packed inside another works well, and fill the spare, or buy a new bag when you start shopping. Again, I must admit to doing this myself. Last big trip, after travelling 6 months with only carry-on luggage we hit Europe and Egypt and ended up with nearly 35kg of luggage and a new bag. I have heard of people bringing a spare bag that is collapsible inside their luggage and filling that one as an addition. If it is a soft bag though I would certainly only put clothing inside, luggage handlers are not always gentle.

That said, another tip regarding baggage handling (other than I hope the obvious that you NEVER put anything valuable or breakable into checked luggage, always take it carry-on) is that if you are one of those who hate hanging around the carousel waiting for your bags to turn up, and who doesn’t, apparently putting “fragile” stickers on it means that it is last into the hold and first out. I personally have not tried this but have heard that it does work.

Also, if you are travelling as a pair or group with people that you trust (eg: husband/wife combo) and are checking in your bags, make sure that you mix the contents. What I mean is that don’t just pack a bag for him and a bag for her, mix-up the clothes and toiletries. That way if one of the bags is lost you will have something in the bag for both people. The likelihood of both bags going missing at the same time is less than just one. That said, as a solo traveller, do put a spare change of clothes in your carry-on when practical. Could mean the difference between clean clothes the next day and not.

One of the things that I wish I had brought a lot more of are ziplock bags. These little beauties take up practically no room but are a godsend. I use them to keep documents dry, keep random spare money in when we have left a country, store sunscreen and insect repellent in my handbag to stop leakage, keep medicines dry… all sorts of things. I am so wishing I had a dozen all in different sizes. When we were in the mouldy room I would have loved to put our passport wallets in a ziplock. It would have meant that I didn’t have to wash the money with the mould on it – no money laundering 😉

As for money, well that is very much a personal preference. No one that I know of uses travellers cheques anymore. There are specific traveller debit cards that can be pre-purchased at home and have a set amount in it (like a bank account) and you can use them at atms. For us we just use our normal banking cards. We have visa debit card and a mastercard credit card. The fees are not too bad (although each bank is different and this would be worth checking before leaving) and the convenience is priceless. The reason for 2 cards is twofold. If a machine eats a card then we are not left with no access to money and some atms are very fussy about visa vs m/card. I have friends that travelled with a m/card and the whole city was visa only. They were in quite a bind until a hotel agreed to cash advance from their card. It is definitely something to consider. We also make sure that we have a stash of hidden money in US dollars. If all else fails and we are robbed of obvious money (wallets, credit cards etc) then we can still get by for a few days while we get things sorted.

And finally I will leave this here with one last practical tip when travelling to hot countries. If your budget doesn’t include air-conditioning (or there is none) getting to sleep at night in muggy conditions can be a bugger. A fan is great but it doesn’t always do the job. So, I take my specifically bought sarong, dip it in water, wring it out so that it is still damp but not really wet, and lay it across your feet. The water evaporates and cools you down enough that you should drop off and once asleep, just hope you stay that way 😉 (Thanks for the learning of that Mum 🙂 )   It is simple but it does work.

Below I have included a few other things that I have found useful when travelling:

  • Sarong – as mentioned above but also useful as a towel, sheet, makeshift bag, curtain
  • Pegs – a dozen stashed away for hanging clothes (or money after laundering), closing curtains, securing mosquito nets, closing half eaten chippie(crisps) bags
  • Kids library book bags – or any lightweight drawstring bag; keeps clothes separate eg: underwear, handy as a spare shopping bag, great for keeping all electrical cords in one place
  • Bright ribbons to identify your bag on the carousel, tie it round the handle to make it easy to spot
  • A decent padlock – a lot of rooms in Asian hotels have padlocked doors so to prevent someone else having a key we always swap their padlock for ours.

If you have any tips to add or want to know more let me know in the comments below. Cheers for now.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd this is Harry, the Tokay gecko. He is a nightly visitor to our light hoping to catch some big moths. And when I say big that is because Harry is huge. He is the second biggest gecko in the world and when fully grown will get to 40cm!! Our Harry is only a teenager at about 20cm but he is still one very impressive bloke 🙂

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Thongs and toilets

As we are now done for a little bit with the travelling I thought that I would take the time to tell you about a few things that hadn’t made it into blogs. You see, while we are on the move so much is happening and I try not to make the blogs too long so there are bits and pieces that are left out for the sake of economy. Well, now is the time to look back and write about a few of those things. So today I thought I’d share some traveller knowledge gleaned along the way and tell you about thongs (of the feet kind) and toilets.

Now the first thing to know is that these 2 things are incredibly closely linked – a lot closer than you might think.

When we left Aus I had my trusty thongs packed and ready to wear. As with all choices for a long trip, clothing and especially footwear have to be comfortable (I know through hard experience that trying to break in new shoes while travelling can be very painful). My thongs were well loved, comfortable and I knew could withstand the rigours of being worn day in and day out.

Because I knew we were heading into warm weather I only packed my thongs and a pair of hiking shoes as footwear. There was no plan or likelihood of us flouncing into a fancy restaurant where I might need “real” shoes so thongs were my daily go-to shoes.

I’m not sure how familiar you are with thongs (that being of the footwear variety 😉 ) but they come in 2 main types; pluggers and for the sake of a better name, non-pluggers. Pluggers are usually a thin rubber base with a rubber strap that runs between your toes, through the base of the thong and ends with a ‘plug’ to stop it from pulling through. The other non-plugger type of thong has the toe piece sewn into a thicker base and doesn’t involve a hole through the sole.

Now that hole is what is so important. And it is the joining point for thongs and toilets, as I’ll tell in a second. First though lets examine developing country’s toilets, yahoo I hear the crowd cry.

Every place we stayed had a normal western toilet. Depending on the country you may also have a basket/bin where you are expected to put your used toilet paper. Many places do not have the sewerage system to deal with toilet paper. It is not as bad as it sounds – you just use it and pop it in the bin and the cleaners come daily and take it away. Easy and sanitary.

Unfortunately though when you are out and about (restaurants/bars etc) they do not necessarily have the same standard. Well, in nicer places the odds go up but as budget travellers we were usually in local restaurants and bars so we seldom encountered what I would call a nice bathroom. Often there might be a western toilet but it may not have a seat (not that you would ever sit down on one anyway – trust me on that) and it might not flush. The giveaway for the no flush is the large bucket/tub of water with a dipper. Once you are done, fill the dipper and use the water to flush everything away. Again, sounds icky but it is pretty effective and a simple process.

Now if you are very unlucky it will not be a western toilet but a squat. That is a porcelain ‘hole in the floor’ with 2 footpads where you are expected to do exactly as the name implies – squat. These, while purportedly very good for both the back and the bowels (????) are completely unpleasant. The main reason being that in many places there is just one unisex toilet and I am here to tell you – blokes have rubbish aim. The walls and the floor are usually unfinished concrete and urine soaks right in and the smell at squat level can be appalling. I had forgotten how bad it can get until our first bar outing in Sri Lanka and I can tell you – it’s enough to make the eyes water.

So that’s thongs and toilets. But how do they connect. Simple – think about splashing water into a toilet to flush it, or worse still a unisex toilet in a bar with badly aiming blokes. The floor of these toilets can sometimes be nightmarish. Now add a pair of thongs that have a hole in the sole (pluggers) and you can see where I am going with this.

At the bar in Sri Lanka I literally borrowed Daves thongs (non-pluggers) to go to the toilet. The smell was bad enough but the thought of that ‘water’ gooshing up between my toes was too much for this shrinking violet. So, my advice… If you are going travelling in developing countries I would strongly recommend a pair of thongs that have no hole in the bottom and thick soles. Saves a lot of ick and also the hassle of trying to buy a comfortable new pair while on the road 🙂

Oh and even if you are not going to local restaurants and bars a lot of travellers will wear thongs in their hotel/hostel shower to avoid the chance of catching anything foot diseasey – I would still go for non-pluggers for that as well. Trust me – that feeling of liquid-between-toe seepage is not nice.

So on that note, having educated you on the thong-toilet connection, I will leave this delicate conversation and post up a few random piccys. If there is something you would like to ask about our adventures or experiences so far please ask in the comments below. I have plenty of time to share my ‘wisdom’.

Next blog will be about packing and travel in general. A few things I have learnt over the last few months 🙂

Asian toilet sceneDidn’t feel right posting a blog about toilets without at least one toilet photo. Admittedly this is a pretty clean example but it does show the whole idea of the concrete, the dipper and the rubbish bag. Definitely don’t want plugger thongs with that floor 😉

Waterfall Ko ChangSomething a little bit nicer 🙂

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA rusted out old pier in Kerala, India.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASunset swing here on Ko Chang.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese kids were screaming with delight as the guy was using man-power to turn the “ferris wheel”. Delhi, India.

Klong Prao RiverThe view from our verandah at night in black and white (although this is the way it looks with the fluro path lighting).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd to finish – this is my idea of money laundering 🙂 The mould had gotten into our passport wallets and the left over money from previous countries had gotten mouldy so I washed it and hung it up to dry heheheh Never know when we might go back to either Nepal or Malaysia and need some rupees.

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Ko Chang in the monsoon

So, imagine a tropical paradise… an island that is small enough to drive the outside in a day, the centre a mountain range with dense impenetrable rainforest, ringed with an azure sea and fringed with tiny islands edged with coral reef, all topped off with pristine beaches lined with hotels, resorts, restaurants and bars. That is Ko Chang and that is where we are.

Well perhaps I should say that is Ko Chang in peak season however we are not in peak season, we are in the monsoon season. So, what difference does that make? Well, for us not a lot really. We are still on a gorgeous tropical island but azure seas don’t shine so much under thick cloud cover and you can’t have rainforests without rain. A lot of the bars, restaurants and hotels are either closed or all but deserted but all of those things work in our favour.

The “green season” as the tourism spin doctors like to call, it is fantastic. It generally only rains a little bit each day and the rain is not the cold miserable kind, it is more the laugh and run around getting wet kind. And unpeak means cheaper prices as well for accommodation. Less tourists mean less crowds and we are happy to have a bit of a break from people.

We spent 3 days on a scooter checking out the various hotel and bungalow options before making our choice. Basically the tourist side of the island (the west) runs in sweeping beach coves with steep hills in between and each beach has its own personality. The first area we stayed in was “White Sands Beach” and has a lot of upmarket resorts with smaller places dotted between. It is only one street wide and while it was ok it wasn’t really what we wanted as a place to base ourselves for the next month or two.

The next beach is nice enough and certainly had some budget options but there wasn’t much in the way of shops or restaurants so we moved on. The middle beach of the lot is where we picked – Khlong Prao beach. It has plenty of food markets (fruit etc) as well as the typical 7-11 (Thailand has millions of them) plus a good range of restaurants catering not only to local Thai food but also a few western places, pizza etc. The beach itself is just off the main drag and has a collection of rustic bars to while away the sunset hours.

To round out the tour, there are another 3 beaches that stretch further down the island. Kai Bae is only a short hop away and has a lot more restaurants and bars than our little stretch so if we are looking for a more ‘fancy’ meal that is where we head. (Have only been once as the place I wanted to go to was closed for the wet season and the food in this neck of the woods was waaaay more expensive).

Lonely Beach is the backpacker scene and on the other side of a very scary downhill/uphill ride. Bars and restaurants crowd together over a 4 street area with cheap food and drinks and big rowdy beach parties. Not really conducive to relaxing and staying away from the party scene. Then there is Bai Lin beach which is more of the big resort, quiet family scene. Again, too pricey and not really our thing.

When we started our accommodation search we initially thought we would quite like a beachside bungalow and spent a good deal of time checking out the various options. They ranged from tiny cramped shacks to cool looking stilt bungalows but our sticking point was the lack of a fridge. We wanted a place we could bring store bought beer and relax in peace and solitude on our own deck. To do that we need a fridge. We also had decided that making our own breakfast and lunch was a better option and again, in the tropical climate of Ko Chang, we wanted a fridge. In our price range there was nothing that suited so we kept hunting.

And then we found a small slice of almost heaven. About 3 minutes scooter ride from the main drag of Khlong Prao ‘township’ we found a set of eclectic adobe rendered bungalows that front a stunning stream. We called up and yep – fridge provided, along with a kettle and yes he would negotiate a price for a whole month stay. So here we are at “The Artists Resort” paying the grand sum of $330 for a month of peace and quiet.

The great thing is that there is no one else here so we can come and go as and when we please. We can sit on our verandah at night, drinking our beer and playing our music and know that we are disturbing no one. Love it!!!

The only thing that makes it an almost is the mould factor. Unfortunately being a concrete rendered place with only a few small windows means that the constant rain brings damp and mould. We have launched an antimould attack (spraying with vinegar) and we seem to be having a win so overall we are both pretty happy.

Coming home each night has us carefully shining the torch at the path ahead of us as we have so far had 5 snake encounters (2 here and 3 on the road during the day while driving the island) and while only 1 was dangerous (a monocled cobra) we take no chances and it certainly adds to the excitement of living in such an exotic locale.

Below I have added a few piccys of the area, some waterfalls and a couple of the snakes we have met. The cobra shot was me using Daves phone as my camera was buried in the bag and that snake was not hanging around. It turns out that I am rubbish at using Daves phone so the piccy is not too good but hey – it is a cobra so I couldn’t leave it out 😉

White Snads Beach - Ko ChangWhite Sands Beach on a sunny afternoon.

Ko ChangThe eastern side of the island and the clouds that drenched us 🙂

Nang Yom waterfall - Ko ChangNang Yom Waterall.

Ko Chang - Khlong Prao beachSundowners are just awful, as you can imagine.

Ko ChangAnother empty restaurant. This one turned off the lights literally 10 seconds after this shot. There are just not enough tourists to go around at this time of year 🙁

The Artist ResortFunky little house (the stairs lead up to the roof where we go to exercise). Our house is the one next door but to photograph it I would have to be in the creek 😉 We don’t have a front path because 6 feet from our verandah is the bank of the creek.

The Artist ResortThe view from our verandah.

Wolf snake - Ko ChangWe have seen this guy, a wolf snake (non-venomous) about 3 times now. Only small but really cute.

Monocled Cobra - Ko ChangThis guy, thankfully, we have only seen once – a monocled cobra. SUPER venomous but happily this one wasn’t interested in us or the scooter. (Again sorry about the picture – it does show his hood flared though 😉 )

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