Monthly Archives: April 2019

The River Kwai and its deadly railroad

I missed a day with the blog. Friday was a total wash-out. I must have eaten something at Thursday’s dinner. We all said good bye to Linda and Deb and Nina and Dave after supper on Thursday. I was feeling fine then. I even told Nina that the trip had been especially great because we all got along and no one got sick. She told me that I would jinx the rest of the trip. I jinxed myself cuz as soon as I got to the room I knew things weren’t quite right. It went downhill from there. By morning I was emptied out. I told the others to go on without me. They were going to see the reclining Buddha and then check out a park.

I stayed in bed just drinking lots of water. I tried to join them for lunch when they got back but couldn’t eat anything. I was much better by the evening but still not up to going out.

Woke up with a bit more spring in my step this morning. We had an early pick-up to go outside the city to see the Death Railway by the River Kwai. A couple of movies have been made about the Japanese occupation of Thailand during WWII but the more accurate one is The Railwayman. The music from the Bridge on the River Kwai is really good though. Over 60,000 British, Dutch, American and Australian POWs along with over 200,000 locals were forced to build a railway for the Japanese to support their Burma campaign in 1943. It stretched for 415 km and took the lives of more that 12,000 POWs and 90,000 civilians. The Japanese were brutal, feeding the workers twice a day with mainly rice – no protein at all – and next to no medical facilities, and only basic tools like shovels and hammers. Despite that, the railway and its 600 bridges was built in just over a year. As the workers died they were buried along the tracks. Some bones have been recovered but most remain lost.

We stopped first at Kanchanaburi cemetery where the bones of 6,982 POWs have been interred. It was a beautifully kept cemetery and there was evidence of people visiting some of the graves. There is supposed to be 8 Canadians buried there but we did not find them.

Next stop was the JEATH Museum which depicted a typical POW hut with a long bamboo cot along one side where each prisoner was allotted a space about 2.5 ft wide. Another bamboo structure held pictures taken during the railway construction and paintings done by prisoners after the war. The conditions were horrendous and anyone who survived was just skin and bones.

Nearby was the railway bridge that was bombed by the Americans at the end of the war. From here we caught a train that took us up to Hellfire Pass – the section where the labourers were forced to cut sheer rock with next to no tools working day and night.

There is a large cave near the pass which currently is used as a Buddhist temple but during the war would shelter people from the American bombs.

Next stop was lunch at a lovely roadside stop but I was still not able to eat much other than some rice. Then a 2.5 hr ride back to Bangkok. I forgot to mention that they drive on the left in Thailand (unlike Vietnam and Cambodia) so it took a bit of getting used to.

So now I am back in my hotel room putting off packing. The others went out for supper but I am still not on top of my game so decided to call it a night. Up tomorrow for a 4:30 am departure.

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Palaces and Back Alleys in Bangkok

This was the last official day of our G-Adventures tour so we met with Bun in the lobby of the hotel after breakfast and said our goodbyes. He was an exceptional CEO and we let him know how much he was appreciated. Hopefully he will be chosen to come to Canada for the G-Adventures conference in Toronto. That way maybe we will get the opportunity to give back and guide him round some of the sights of southern Ontario.

Now on our own we were able to navigate our way to the Chao Phraya River that winds its way through the heart of Bangkok. Like the Bolivian Sky Train in La Paz, there are a number of coloured ferry lines that take people up and down the river. We figured how to get to the Grand Palace stop and off we went.

The Grand Palace is on a large man-made island surrounded on the one side by the river and on the other sides by a system of canals. It was built in 1782 when King Rama I moved the capital from upcountry to Bangkok. It is one of the most elaborate set of buildings I have ever seen. There is so much 24 carat gold leaf that the place simply sparkles. It is made up of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and three layers of courts – Outer, Middle and Inner. The walls are covered in murals depicting historical and legendary tales. Statues and paintings of fantastical beasts – half man and half bird, half woman and half lion, warrior monkeys – abound. There was just so many opportunities for pictures that I overdid it and finally had to quit and just absorb what I was seeing. We hired a wonderfully energetic woman to guide us around. She knew her palace and gave us an excellent tour – constantly lining us up for pictures – but filling the tour with the history of the kings. The last king died three years ago and his son’s coronation is coming up so there was a lot of prep activity and yellow bunting everywhere. The king no longer lives in the Grand Palace but a number of royal ceremonies are held there.

There were a lot of people and the heat was intense so we chose to follow our guide’s advice and take a boat cruise. What we didn’t realize was that the cruise would take us along a number of the canals on the west side of the city. It was like travelling down back alleys but it was waterways. We passed all kinds of houses from small stilted shacks all the way to fancy mansions. We passed a number of egrets and even caught a crocodile swimming rapidly away from our boat.

For lunch we sought out an air-conditioned restaurant in Chinatown where I had dim sum and spring rolls along with a lovely cold glass of beer.

Now back at the hotel where I have cooled down in my air-conditioned room. I’ll meet the others for Happy Hour and supper and we’ll plan tomorrow.

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We were up early to hit the road for Thailand. A 2-3 hr drive before we got to the border but then the fun began. We got through the Cambodian side quite easily. We all had our paperwork ready and the Cambodian authorities processed us quickly. But then we had to walk about 100 metres in the hot sun to the Thai processing section. That’s when the waiting began. Bun had never seen such crowds and when he looked into it he was told that it was people coming back from celebrating the Cambodian New Year – but that was 10 days ago. Who knows? Anyway we waited in the broiling heat for ages before we were allowed to go upstairs to the processing level. There must have been 500 people up there sweltering away and we were at the end of the line. After at least two maybe more hours of waiting there, someone decided our group (as well as some other foreigners) could be moved to another area. This proved to have a somewhat faster line and somewhat better fans. About another hour later and we were all through the Thai border security. What a bizarre situation!

We loaded onto two smaller air-conditioned well-equipped and comfortable vans and headed out for another three hours drive to Bangkok. Right from the start it was obvious we were in a much more wealthy country than the last two we had been travelling through. We were on a dual carriage-way with a speed limit of 120 kph. Houses along the route were much more modern than those in Cambodia. We even had a rest stop at a 7-11.

The hotel is well equipped though I wouldn’t say it is any nicer than most of the hotels we have been staying in. The city of Bangkok is huge with towering modern skyscrapers. We are right across from the railway station. The lobby is on the 12th floor and you have a lovely view of part of the downtown area from the patio off the lobby.

After we settled in Bun took us out for supper to a restaurant across the street. I had the Pad Thai with shrimp as he recommended and I really enjoyed it. Back to the hotel to end the night with a Long Island Iced Tea and Dawne regaling the group with stories of crazy teacher antics.

Tomorrow Vikesh and Paras will leave us to head home to Britain after four months of travelling. Hard to believe this trip is coming to an end.

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Bird Watching

I am so glad I chose to go bird watching. Only four of us went – Bruce, Beth, Dave R. and myself. We got up early to meet our driver and guide at 5:30 am but that meant we were out in the fields before the extreme heat of the day had begun.

At first glance we wondered whether we would see many birds but immediately Somphear pointed out the weaver nests and all the weaver birds flitting around them. After that we ended up seeing a huge number of different species. Normally there would have been a lot more water where we went – about 3-5 km south of Siem Reap – but we are in the dry season and this year has been exceptionally dry. Despite that, we saw close to 50 different species of birds. Beth kept the full list. Somphear carried a wonderful Swarovski telescope so the detail we missed with our binoculars showed up clearly in his lens. It was a lovely, quiet way to spend the morning and we all quite enjoyed ourselves. By the time three hours had passed the heat had fully set in and we were ready to call it a day.

The rest of the group had gone off to see more temples and weren’t back yet so we had a dip in the pool then wandered around town a bit. We were just heading out again for lunch when the rest returned so Dawne joined us. We found a nice western-style place with good ceiling fans and enjoyed some down-home food just for something different.

Dave, Dawne and Beth rushed off to join a group to see the “tunnel rats” that are trained to find unexploded incendiary devices. I decided to take it slow this afternoon because tonight we are going to the circus and tomorrow it is another early morning to head to Bangkok.

The circus was fantastic. It was held in a tent with steeply tiered seating and it was packed. They gave out hand fans which were absolutely necessary. The whole show was a Cirque-de-Soleil style event with a group of very athletic acrobats performing a story of a young man cast out from the village because he had a facial deformity but then eventually he gets welcomed back into the fold. They were incredibly talented and seemed to totally enjoy what they were doing.

Afterwards a group of us took the tuk-tuks back to the restaurant where Bun had once been the manager and had desserts and drinks before walking back to the hotel.

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Angkor Wat

The standard plan for Angkor Wat is to get there for sunrise so we had to be in the lobby by 4:30 am. Despite the hour, the Angkor Wat was hopping with people – the majority were from other countries.

Unlike most temples, Angkor Wat is oriented towards the west so when the sun rises it comes up behind the temple and on solstices some of the towers are precisely lined up with the sun. Whatever the celestial significance, the reflections in the large pond in front of the main structure as the sun rises are mystical especially when a white horse is tethered beside the pond.

The temple complex is vast with a number of outlying buildings which were libraries holding sacred Sanskrit texts at one time. The place was built over a 73 year period starting in the early part of the 12th century as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu. By the end of the century it had become a Buddhist temple but retained much of the original Hindu architectural influences. The temple is constructed of volcanic rock and a hard sandstone and is literally covered with elaborate carvings. It is quite beautiful.

We also visited two other sites, Ta Prohm and Bayon, that were even older but not in as good a condition. They were each quite beautiful as well. Ta Prohm was used in the Tomb Raider movie because it was taken over by the a number of strangler trees (called spung trees here) that create a truly eerie atmosphere. Bayon is inundated with towers each having four serene smiling faces.

We were very hot by the time we emerged from the three temples. I personally felt like a dishrag that needed a good wringing. We ended up by going to a Planeterra school for a great lunch served up in those containers you saw in the LunchBox movie. Little kids were running up and down (it was a primary school after all) while we ate and then we were given a tour by a young woman working there. The restaurant is supported by G-Adventures and trains young people in the hospitality industry and in English.

Back at the hotel most people chose to dip in the pool then take a siesta. A couple of showers and a refreshing moment in the pool but I still wasn’t able to nap so I did a tour of the area and picked up a few necessities.

Tonight Bun took us to a wedding of a fellow G-Adventure guide. She was marrying an Aussie and they were having a large party. We dressed up and went along. There were drinks on the table when we arrived and they kept bringing new dishes of authentic Cambodian dishes the whole time we were there. The music was popular Cambodian with a DJ and various singers. The Bride and Groom came by our table to say hello. She wore a traditional dress that was very elaborate. Later she showed up in a beautiful traditional western gown. And then when we were leaving she had on yet another dress – but more of a party dress. It was quite amazing to be able to join in on the wedding celebrations.

Tomorrow morning it is up early again to go bird watching. Only Beth, Bruce, Dave R and I are going. The rest will go see some more temples.

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Goodby Phnom Penh

Love those air-conditioned buses. It certainly helps manage the six hour road trip. We are sharing the bus with another G-Adventures group but they are half our number and I’m not sure if they are quite as lively as our bunch. They kept pretty quiet.

We stopped first at Skun where we were invited to taste some deep-fried tarantulas, crickets, silk worms, frogs and I’m not sure what else. Bruce and Beth didn’t hesitate. I eventually tasted some tarantula legs but drew the line at anything else. It seems they are usually eaten as a snack with beer though I imagine they provide a fair amount of protein and would be an inexpensive addition to any diet. The tarantula legs were crispy and sort of reminded me of deep fried smelt.

We stopped for lunch at a lovely restaurant overlooking the Stung Sen river. It was very picturesque. I had bought some bakery goods last night so ate them and shared a plate of spring rolls with Linda. We each topped it off with a glass of fresh passion fruit juice.

Just before we got to Siem Reap we stopped to try bamboo sticky rice by the side of the road. One foot lengths of bamboo are stuffed with sticky rice, soya beans, sugar and water and are lined up on a long coal burning contraption where they cook for 35 minutes or so. Then they shave the bamboo down to the point that it is easy to peel away from the rice. The concoction was delicious.

So now we are at our hotel in Siem Reap. I have a lovely big room with two beds. Linda and Deb have already headed for the pool to cool down. I should go out and look for a shirt with short sleeves for tomorrow. I have a long sleeved shirt and I can use that in a pinch. There is a strict dress code for Angkor Wat and I don’t want to disrespect the temple. We have to catch our bus at 4:30 am to get the sunrise at Angkor Wat. That’s a darn early start!

After a dip in the pool and a drink to celebrate Happy Hour we cleaned up and headed out for a quick orientation of the area by Bun. Half the group decided to go to a dance show that included a buffet dinner. The buffet had more choices than any I have ever seen and everything I tried was delicious – especially the fish dumplings.

The dancing was beautiful – what I would call Siam dancing – where the dancers seem to be able to balance on one foot as if they were born that way. The costumes were colourful and elaborate.

To bed…

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The Killing Fields

Breakfast at this hotel isn’t quite as good as the previous hotels. Certainly not as many fruits which I really have enjoyed. But the coffee is good and that is essential.

We loaded onto an air-conditioned bus and headed off with our guide to Choeung Ek, one of the areas of mass graves found about 15 km south of Phnom Penh. During the Khmer Rouge occupation of Cambodia nearly 3 million people died – 1.7 million through execution and most of the rest through starvation. Choeung Ek alone was the site of a number of pits containing the remains of 8,895 men, women and children. Our guide described some of the horrific methods of torture and execution of the Khmer Rouge. Listening to these stories was painful but to honour the dead we need to listen so that we don’t allow anything like it to happen again. I say that but then what is happening right now in places like Syria and the Congo?

At least there is a quiet spirituality at Choeung Ek now where people wander the boardwalks and speak in hushed tones.

There is a beautiful stoupa filled with skulls and bones where we laid flowers and incense.

From there we drove to the notorious S-21, site of a former high school that was used as a prison, torture and execution chamber. Only seven people came out of that place alive out of over 14,000 that were sent there. Four of the survivors were children and we met two as we left. I bought a book, The Survivor, from Chum Mey one of the children (now my age) that didn’t get adopted.

The bus took us back to Phnom Penh where Bun directed us to yet another of his excellent restaurant suggestions. I had a delicious pineapple and pork stir-fry along with two local draft.

We all went in different directions after lunch. I just had to have a quick shower. The 38 degree heat was a bit much so I went back to the hotel.

I was hoping to meet up with the group that had chosen to go to the Royal Palace so I took a tuk-tuk after I had freshened up but I never did meet up with anyone inside. The architecture of the palace is exquisite. There were some excellent musicians playing on indigenous instruments that I quite enjoyed.

Later I met up with Linda and Deb and we walked round the Central Market just to get a feel for it. The beautiful bouquets of the flowers section has to be my favourite.

When we came across an air-conditioned mall after leaving the market we decided to check it out and ended up sharing a mango ice cream “boat” for supper.

Now I’m back in my room. I’ve just had my fourth shower of the day and ready to organize my stuff for our 6 to 8 hr ride to Siem Reap tomorrow.

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Cambodia bound

They said we would be taking public transit to Phnom Penh so I envisioned six to eight hours aboard a decrepit tro-tro. Instead we traveled on an air-conditioned comfortable bus that provided us with bottled water and crackers and a number of pee breaks. It was a long trip and half-way through we crossed over the border from Vietnam into Cambodia. The transition took a bit of time but it was quite smooth and before we knew it we were on the road again.

Waiting for the lights to change in Saigon

We began to see more and more houses built on stilts. I understand this is common practice here especially in areas of rice farming where annual floods are the norm. We are travelling a highway that follows along just west of the mighty Mekong River.

Cattle graze all over. In Vietnam I don’t remember seeing cattle though we did see water buffalo. Here cattle are more common.

We arrived at the Diamond Hotel in downtown Phnom Penh around 4:30. It is clean and quite comfortable but it is an older hotel than the ones we’ve been staying in. After the air-conditioned bus, the heat seemed pretty intense. I understand Cambodia is even hotter than Vietnam.

Time for a quick settle into our rooms and we met up again for a cyclo tour around some of the main attractions of the downtown. We peddled past the Phsar Thimey or Central Market which is housed in an old French market building and on to the Wat Phnom.

This is a beautiful Buddhist temple with a large working clock laid out on the grass in front. There was a bamboo pig in front of the clock to honour Cambodian New Year that had just passed. (This is the year of the pig). Across the street from the temple is a statue of Grandmother Penh who according to legend had the temple constructed after a flood when she found a floating tree containing four statues of Buddha. The city derives its name from this woman.

On to Independence Monument which was designed as a lotus-shaped stupa. On the other side of the square is a statue of Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s first prime minister after their liberation from the French. Bun gave us a talk on some of the history of the Norodom family and then a taste of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. We will get more when we travel to the Killing Fields.

Back onto the Cyclos and off to a wonderful restaurant I will have to get the name of. Bun recommended a few dishes and I chose the Khmer Amok which was a delicious curry. We washed it down with two mugs of local draft – all for a very reasonable $5 USD.

Up early tomorrow.

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The Mekong Delta

Today’s trip was a two-hour drive out to the delta of the Mekong River which has wound its more than 4,000 km journey from China, through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and finally into Vietnam where it empties into the South China Sea. The mouth of the river is a broad flat plain where 80% of the agriculture of Vietnam takes place. It is an extremely fertile and very essential part of this country. So today we headed out to check up on some of the farming activities of the delta.

A boat shuttled us over to Unicorn Island so we could see some fruit plantations and sample the exotic tropical varieties. Chau, our guide, pointed out a number of plants and let us sample mango, dragon fruit, longan fruit and pineapple chased down with Jasmine Tea as we were serenaded by some local musicians.

We walked across to the other side of the island where we visited a bee operation and bought royal jelly.

Next to the bees was a cocoa plantation and we got to sample some of the best chocolate I have ever tasted.

A boat took us off the island over to the other side of the river where we were loaded into small three-wheeled “trucks” and were taken on a tour of the farming areas down narrow lanes and around some very tight corners until we ended up back by the water in an area of water palms. We went by threes into some rickety narrow rowboats and taken through the palms to see how they are used to help control the erosion of the delta.

Last but not least we ended up taking a short trek over to a beautifully laid out restaurant area where we were fed traditional lunches. Many of the dishes were local fish.

Fully sated we launched ourselves into the original boat to head back across the river then onto our bus for the two hour ride to the hotel.

A number of us took advantage of the Happy Hour and pool offered on the seventh (top) floor of the hotel where we stood in the shallows, drinks in hands and gazed out over the cityscape.

Bun took us to one of his favourite spots for dinner – a short walk from the hotel – where we enjoyed our last supper in Saigon. Sekyiwa will be pleased to know that I had Pho and it was delicious.

Tomorrow morning we catch a local bus and head for Cambodia.

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Not for the Claustrophobic

Today was an early rise because we were taking a bus out to the Chu Chi tunnels that were used by the Viet Cong during the American War.

Back in the 1940’s during the French IndoChina war many of the people living in the Cu Chi section of Saigon began building tunnels under their homes leading to underground chambers where they could store food and hide during the terrifying bombing raids. To allow for alternate exits many families began to connect their tunnels with their neighbours.

Later, during the American War these tunnels became very strategic to the Viet Cong. They could make their way south through Laos and Cambodia via the Ho Chi Minh Trail and sneak into the Cu Chi district of Saigon. They began to use the tunnels, enlarging the network and adding multiple levels with chambers for food storage, sleeping and hiding out during American bombings and raids. Even some bunkers were used as basic medical centres.

The whole area was ingeniously developed using an elaborate system to dispose of the soil that came from digging the tunnels. Some of the soil was scattered over large areas using basket sieves. Some was added to or made to look like termite mounds. Sometimes they would set off a small bomb to create a crater and then add the extracted soil around it to make it look like a larger bomb had been detonated. Every so often a bamboo stick was inserted into the ground to provide air shafts. Many of these came out of the ground through the termite mounds. Entrances to the tunnels were camouflaged by leaves laid out over a wooden cover. The tunnels were very narrow and there is no way anybody suffering from claustrophobia could have entered them even if they were small enough.

The area was protected by booby traps of all kinds. Any one of them would have dire consequences to the person who set them off. This proved to be an effective method of wearing down the enemy who outnumbered them and who also had much better weaponry. The Americans were at a distinct disadvantage because even if they did discover a tunnel they were usually too large to get through. They used sniffer dogs to help find the entrances to the tunnels and then used specially trained personnel called “tunnel rats” who were smaller in stature and usually wiry to enter them and force out any Viet Cong hiding there. It was a dangerous mission for all involved especially because of the booby traps. This was also one of the areas where Agent Orange was used to defoliate the surrounding trees and bushes to aid in finding the tunnel entrances.

Some of our smaller and more courageous actually did a foray through one of the tunnels. I decided it wasn’t my cup of tea but the excursion itself was certainly educational.

An hour or more on the bus before we got back to our hotel but the air conditioning made the ride quite comfortable. Our guide, Bien, gave us a bit of history about his own family who were living in South Vietnam during the war. After reunification his sister had to undergo two years of re-education since she had been working for the South Vietnamese government.

A group of us chose to go just up the street from the hotel to a restaurant for lunch where we made plans to visit the Fine Arts Museum. The Museum wasn’t quite what we expected. There was a huge emphasis on paintings done during the war, many of which were not overly inspiring. It seemed that so much of their previous history and the current cultural works have been lost in an obsession with a terrible but relatively short period of time. The buildings housing the museum need a lot of maintenance and there seemed to be minimal security even where there were more valuable exhibits.

It was very hot so we lasted only about an hour before heading back to the hotel for Happy Hour and a dip in the pool.

We ended the day with dinner at a French restaurant called Le Garlik which was a bit more expensive but still well within our range and the service was excellent.

When we emerged from the restaurant the streets were alive with people and music and noise, so we strolled up and down to breathe it all in then made our way back to the hotel.

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Saigon Sensations

I’m not sure that I’ve mentioned that the coffee in Vietnam is really good. It’s a great way to start your day along with all the fresh fruit from our regular breakfast buffet. After yet another delicious breakfast we loaded all our gear onto the bus and headed for the airport to fly to Saigon via VietJet Airlines.

The flight itself was short and uneventful and before we knew it we were in a bus wending our way through a steady stream of motorbikes and cars that seem to flow like a very technical white-water river. Somehow it works though we did pass a fender-bender.

Our hotel is the Lotus Boutique. It isn’t quite as classy as the one in Hoi An and the rooms are much smaller but it is clean and will do the trick.

Ho Chi Minh City (AKA Saigon) is a teaming sea of humanity (approximately 9 million) and vehicles – mainly motorbikes – in constant motion. Crossing the street is an acquired skill requiring dollops of courage, focus and chutzpah. I try to get in the middle of a crowd and just let myself be carried along.

We had about half an hour to settle into our rooms and then we were off by taxi to the War Remnants Museum. We had about an hour or so to absorb this testament to the horrors of war. We started off by making our way around some of the left-over military machinery and then wandered into the museum. We moved slowly from room to room taking in the terrible pictures, reading some of the personal testimonies, viewing the devastation of war. The room dedicated to revelations of the effects of Agent Orange was particularly awful. This war I heard about as a teenager that was raging half-way round the world was right here.

We quietly gathered outside the museum under the bamboo trees where our guide sat patiently waiting. He took us from the depths of personal reflections to the edge of our seats as he loaded us onto Cyclos. Our Cyclo drivers expertly joined the rushing traffic to take us on a wild ride to view some of the highlights of the city.

Our first stop was to view the statue of Thic Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk that set himself on fire to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government in 1963. The statue is right beside the intersection where it happened.

Next stop was the Independence Palace on the site of the Norodom Palace which had been built by the French and had been named after the Cambodian King of that time. It was the home of the French Governor-General until the Japanese took it in 1945 but soon returned it to the French at the end of WWII. But by 1954 the French had to hand it over to the Vietnamese people as part of the Geneva Accord when they withdrew from Vietnam due to their defeat at the hands of Ho Chi Minh. Diem took over the palace as President of the Republic of Vietnam but during the Vietnam War it was bombed by two of his pilots as a coup attempt in 1962. Diem escaped the assassination attempt and rebuilt the palace by the end of 1963.

Our last stop was to view Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral as the original in Paris was burning. Across the street is the iconic Post Office built by the French in the Gothic Renaissance style with many of the flourishes the French are known for.

A final dash of our Cyclos through the mad traffic back to our hotels to clean up and get ready for supper. Then off to the Street Market for a true-life experience. We made our way round the various stalls choosing our meals then gathered on the second floor to gorge on Vietnamese fast-food.

Now I am back in my room and I really have to get to bed because we are up very early tomorrow for our next adventure.

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Bicycles and Bumper Boats

Another delicious buffet breakfast with lots of fruit and an interesting dish labelled – fish with lemongrass. The lightly battered fish was wrapped around a twig of lemongrass. The lemongrass taste was in the fish but the texture of the fish was unlike any fish I have eaten. It was more like calamari.

We met in front of the hotel at 8 am ready to mount bicycles and head out for a countryside trek. Our guide was able to avoid most of the busier streets and led us down quiet streets and alleyways. It wasn’t long until we were riding along beside rice fields. Where we are staying in Hoi An is a major tourist centre so it is nice to get away from all the hubbub. What we all enjoyed about the bike trip was that it took you into areas where the regular Hoi An people live. We saw families heading off to work and school, regular shopkeepers opening up for the day, farmers out in the fields hoeing and watering their crops, fishermen laying their nets. We checked out a place where lotus plants were growing and our guide and Bun told us of the uses of the various parts of the plant. We saw snails and their eggs. We checked out birds – egrets, a myna bird, a cormorant, some other white and brown bird I have to try to identify. We visited an organic herb farm and its 96 year old owner. We checked out a home-grown rice wine and banana wine operation complete with an excellent tasting. Back home in Kaladar he would have been the local bootlegger. We stopped for a banana pancake snack and drinks by the riverside and then were loaded into a number of little basket boats for a sashay out among the water palms. A few of us got to help paddle and played bumper boats with each other. Once back on shore we mounted up and pedalled off to meet up with a ferry that took us and our bikes up-river back to the old section of Hoi An. Off the ferry, back onto our bikes and we were soon back to the hotel ready for a shower and/or swim in the pool.

Some time later I headed back into the UNESCO Heritage site to watch the theatre presentation I had missed yesterday. I’m really glad I did that for a number of reasons: 1) the place was air-conditioned and I had heated up yet again. 2) there were only two other people when I first got there and we started talking. It turns out the young woman was from Uxbridge, had been taught by Derrick Connolly (a canoeing buddy) and loved him. What a small world! 3) The show was really cool with lots of music and dancing and beautiful costumes.

We finished off the evening at The Noodle House where I tried the Cao Lau style noodle. It is more like fettuccine and the pork dish was very tasty. There are many different styles of noodles ranging from the soft mushy (used in pho), bun (vermicelli style) through various widths right to the flat crepe style.

Tomorrow we head for Ho Chi Minh City by plane so I will have to organize my things.

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Down-time Day

We finally got a day where we didn’t have to get up early. Our first and only scheduled activity was meeting at the Oodles of Noodles Restaurant that is funded by G-Adventure’s Planeterra foundation. The foundation works to get young people off the streets and into hospitality and restaurant trades. They learn food preparation, cooking, restaurant management as well as English and receive a host of other benefits from the program. So after a morning of visiting a number of the suggested buildings in the UNESCO site we made our way to the Planeterra restaurant.

We were taught how to make rice noodles by steaming a mixture of rice flour and water ladled out crepe-style on a cloth stretched over a pot of steaming water. Five seconds under a lid and the rice crepe was ready. A bamboo stick dipped in the boiling water is then slipped under the crepe and used to carefully lift it off the cloth and onto a plantain leaf. The crepe can then be cut into strips or used as is. We all got a chance to make a rice noodle crepe and then eat it mashed into a rice biscuit and dipped into various sauces as a snack. It certainly beats crunching on the rice cakes we get at home.

The rice noodle creation technique was followed by a delicious lunch served up by the young kids in training.

I wandered back to the hotel to cool down first in the room then later in the pool. Actually the pool was like bath water but sitting on a lounge chair air drying worked. Dawne, Dave, Linda and Deb were already at the pool when I got there. We had a lazy chat then made plans to meet up and head back to the seamstress’ shop to try on the clothes we had ordered.

My outfit needed some minor adjustments. Linda and Deb were persuaded to have some more clothes made. Dawne’s tops didn’t quite meet expectations so some adjustments will be made and tomorrow we’ll see how they turn out.

The lanterns were out in full force tonight.

We found a restaurant near the river in the Old Town that was on the third floor so we could look out over the people on the street (and there are a lot of them). We had some really good dishes – mine was a vegetable and cashew curry – and yet the bill for the five of us came to less than $42 Canadian including beer and other alcoholic drinks. Not too shabby.

Tomorrow it is up early for a bicycle ride.

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Motorbike Madness

The Benadryl worked like a charm so I was ready for today’s adventure.

Breakfast at the hotel was an elaborate array of fruits, breads, crepes, egg dishes and many different Vietnamese dishes. We’ve been eating especially well and I’m afraid it will be showing by the time I get home.

All but Vikesh and Paras had agreed to do the motorbike tour so we gathered in the lobby of the hotel with our luggage to check out, leave our larger bags and then meet our drivers. I had to bend over so Vin (my driver) could set my helmet in place. I hopped onto the Honda behind Vin and off we went weaving in and out of cars, trucks and other bikes – a long line of red-helmeted bikers. It was a blast.

They took us out into the countryside to see close-up a rice paddy – explaining the planting methods. It’s a very labour-intensive business and one that many of the younger generation are reluctant to take on.

Most of the biking was down country or village lanes and along a small river. It was a beautiful drive. We checked out a village market by the river and then had a demonstration of the rice harvesting techniques by an 83 year-old woman who chose Mike to act as her water-buffalo.

At one point they took us off-road up into a wooded area that led to some bunkers used by the Americans during the war. The area over-looked a bend in the Perfume River so it must have been a strategic military spot.

Another stop was to have refreshments and see how the conical hats are made. The woman making the hats was missing her right arm from the elbow yet she made these lovely hats.

The last stop was a monastery where we were served a huge lunch set out by the nuns though we only saw one nun. We were deep into conversation after we had eaten when she appeared – shushing us because the nuns were resting and encouraging us to eat more. That was our cue to return to the bikes and head back into the city to weave and dodge our way to the hotel.

Another comfortable bus ride while Bun regaled his captive audience on a variety of topics from rice farming to religion.

The inner section of Hoi An is another UNESCO Heritage site and our beautiful hotel is in the old town just outside the site. We did a walk-about of the UNESCO site noting the ancient architecture. We have two more days here so we will visit some of the more interesting buildings later.

We did spend a bit of time with one of the renowned seamstress shops where some of us ordered clothes.

For supper I had the red curry dish that Bun recommended and I had absolutely no regrets.

We seem to be in the middle of a Vietnamese holiday and there are a huge number of visitors here. Many people had crossed over the bridge into the UNESCO site and bought little paper boats with candles that they set floating in the river with a wish. It was magical in the dark but I do wonder how many of those little boats line the river bottom.

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Happy in Hue

As it turns out I didn’t get any sleep so it was a long night on the train. The other two G-Adventurers in my room seemed to have no problem though Bun pointed out that they were quite drunk when they went to bed. That group is a younger crowd.

The wall of heat and humidity struck as we stepped off the train and I instantly broke out in sweat. We were too early to check into our lovely hotel so we wandered over to the cafe across the street and had some strong coffee.

With still a couple of hours to fill we roamed the few blocks towards the Perfume River. Hue appears to be quite a pretty city and somewhat less crazy than Hanoi. Back towards the hotel to find the wonderful Ushi restaurant where we had scrumptious rice pancakes.

By the time we finally got our rooms we were in dire need of showers.

A bus picked us up about an hour or so later to take us to the Imperial Citadel a UNESCO World Heritage site. Hue was the seat of the King of Vietnam of the Nguyen dynasty until he abdicated in 1945 handing over to the communist regime of Ho Chi Minh. We visited the palace (complete with moat) which is under restoration since it was severely damaged during American bombing raids. It is a huge sprawling complex where the king and his concubines had once lived a strictly ceremonial life.

The bus loaded us up again and took us off to the Tiên Mu Pagoda found on the grounds of a Buddhist monastery. The impressive pagoda is seven stories high. The grounds and buildings were beautifully kept by the monks with waterfalls and pools filled with koi.

Our last visit was to the Royal Tombs – a place in need of much restoration but seemed almost sacred. Of course, the serenity of the place may be simply due to the fact that we were the only ones there.

Back to the hotel to rest up a bit and then get ready to go out for supper. Bun had recommended a place for a number of dishes but his favourite was the crispy noodles. They were wonderful! I had mine with a chicken and vegetable sauce and even managed to eat the whole meal with chopsticks.

So now I am back in the room feeling the exhaustion of the past couple of days. I think this may be a Benadryl night just to make sure I sleep.

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Midnight Train to Hue

My room on the “junk” was as nice as any hotel. The boat was definitely no garbage scow and the meals they served could have come from any classy restaurant in Hanoi. I slept really well and was ready to tackle today’s adventures.

The first one was a boat ride to Song Sot cave where we joined members from many of the other boats in the armada to trek through this amazingly big cave. The ceiling of the cave was formed by wave action over millions of years so it looked like icing atop a cake. You could actually tell the direction of the waves in some sections.

Back to our boat to shower and pack up and enjoy yet another wonderful meal. This one had crab cakes wrapped around sugar cane twigs along with a number of other beautifully presented dishes.

We disembarked our junk and onto the bus to head back to Hanoi. Along the way we stopped at a pearl factory. We were given a live demonstration of cultured pearl production. It was fascinating to watch someone place the irritants taken from another oyster along with a rounded piece of shell into the reproductive organs of an oyster and then to see the final result that would appear a couple of years later.

Back in Hanoi we broke into splinter groups. Some went to see the water-puppet display. I went along with Nina, Dave, Paras and Vikesh to check out the Ho Lan prison where John McCain had been held. It was a terrifying place built by the French in 1896 to restrain the incalcitrant Vietnamese. It is a sad testament to the inhumanity in humanity.

Back to the hotel to get organized for the overnight train to Hue. We stocked up on wine to enhance the adventure. Now I am in the lower bunk of a four-bed room trying to type as the train rocks from side to side. I have had a number of glasses of wine and I’m not sure whether that is helping or hindering. Above me sleeps my CEO and in the other two bunks are a couple from another G-Adventures tour. I wonder how much sleep we’ll get.

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Halong Bay and the Vietnamese Armada

Our group is finally all together. Bruce and Beth arrived in Hanoi while we were in Sapa and Linda and her sister Deb arrived from Canada about an hour before we got back. We didn’t meet up until breakfast this morning.

Bun is our G-Adventures CEO and Chien is the guide for our Halong Bay excursion. Bun is very personable – typical of G-Adventure CEOs. He herded us onto the bus after breakfast and then introduced us to Chien who took over the task of enlightening us on some of the area’s history. Hanoi is over 1000 years old so this is a very old culture we are visiting. Chien touched on some of the influences of the French and the changes to the area in the aftermath of the American War.

While he talked I realized that beyond the old section of Hanoi where our hotel was is a modern clean city with wide streets and bustling businesses.

A few things of note: the temperature up in the hills of Sapa were much better than down here in the lower lands. Perhaps it was the continual breeze but here I can sweat just sitting. Also, there do not seem to be a lot of birds here. Someone mentioned that most of them have been killed for food though maybe not anymore either because of laws or lack of prey. Another thing of note: though electricity in the Sapa region is hydro, down here it is thermal – produced by the burning of coal.

We arrived in Halong and found hordes of tourists. It is not the peaceful serene place of the brochures anymore. As our junk (not very junky) took off we joined an entire armada of boats heading out towards the 1000 or so islands that dot the bay.

My room is lovely with its own bathroom. If not for the gentle rolling and hum of the engine I would think I am at a hotel.

Lunch was especially good with many different dishes – shrimp, squid, tofu, pork, salad and I don’t know what else. Now I have to try and fit into a bathing suit to go kayaking.

The serenity and peace we usually associate with kayaking was somewhat lost in the crowds of rafts and other kayaks but the rock formations were quite unique. I believe they are called karsts. Lots of caves and sharp projections of steep cliffs. We paddled through a cave and circled the lagoon looking for little macaw monkeys that never made an appearance. But it was nice to be on the water again.

The next activity was to boat over to a small beach and climb the 200 or 300 steps to the lookout at the top again surrounded by a zillion other sweating people. The view from up top was spectacular but the low-lying clouds limited the distance.

So now we’re back at the boat. I’ve showered to wash off that layer of sweat and will head up to a comfortable lounge chair to enjoy Happy Hour.

Supper was another feast for the gods beautifully decorated with carved vegetables shaped into flowers. After the meal we had a fascinating demonstration on how to do it by the chef himself.

This was followed by a fruitless attempt to fish for squid with a bamboo pole and then exhaustion won out.

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The Mini-Inca Trail

No problem getting up in time this morning but Nina didn’t take any chances and knocked long and hard at my door.

Breakfast was an expansive smorgasbord and we dove in.

By eight o’clock we were ready for Ku and he herded us down the hill to pick up the Lithuanian couple who had joined us on yesterday’s shorter trek. To Ku’s dismay she again wore a dress and flat-soled canvas shoes. I’m really glad I bought my knock-offs because they had real grip. We trekked some very steep and rocky trails today. I have to hand it to the Lithuanian girl though – she never seemed to have a problem. Too bad I didn’t get their names. They were a lovely young couple who declared they were only friends who liked to travel together (as they held hands and cuddled).

The scenery was spectacular with terrace-laden mountainsides, deep valleys and rushing creeks.

Dave R and I heard a lot of interesting birds but rarely spotted them. The cicadas were out in full force and we did spot them. Their deafening chorus surrounded the hilltop rest stop where we had a delicious lunch and cold beer. There were beautiful cabanas there that could be rented for overnight stays with glass fronts facing the valley and mountains.

Near the end of the trek (which turned out to be more than 13 km) we spotted a bright green snake that certainly startled Ku. I think it may have been poisonous. We also saw a couple of geckos but that is about it for wildlife. We did pass a number of grazing water buffalos along the trail. I’m not sure I would get too close to them.

I was really glad when we finally met up with the bus that took us back to Sapa. Guess I’m not in quite the shape I was in for the Inca Trail.

We had little time to grab our bags and some goodies from the local bakery before we were loaded onto another mini-bus and headed back to Hanoi.

So now I am back at the Bonne Nuit. I’ve met our guide Bun and had a shower. I will finish packing my stuff for tomorrow’s overnight on a junk and head to bed. Looking forward to the horizontal.

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Sapa (Just Sapa)

I’ve been calling it Sapa Valley. I think I may have been influenced by Napa Valley. Anyway it is simply Sapa and it is nestled high in the mountains north of Hanoi. We were to get up early this morning to catch our bus to Sapa at 7:00 am. I set my iPad alarm for 5:45 just to make sure I would have time. Turns out I set it for 5:45 pm. At 6:48 I got a phone call from Nina. I have never moved so fast in my life! Luckily I had packed most things the night before.

The bus was very comfortable with just enough room for the five of us and two American gentlemen from New Jersey. They were frequent visitors to Vietnam since they had built a school for kids in need back in 2006 and come regularly to check on its progress. They were able to answer some of our questions about Hanoi and the area.

Rural Vietnam is beautiful – laden with rice paddies and dotted with a number of nice-looking homes. The further we headed into the hills the more we saw terracing of the rice paddies. There is something almost magical about it.

The steep winding drive heading steadily upwards could be classified as harrowing by some. We were all quite happy when Sapa finally appeared. We set up in the Panorama Hotel (aka Aroma Hotel according to a nearby sign). I have to admit I didn’t notice any untoward aroma.

After a very filling lunch Ku guided us into the streets of this bustling town. New hotels are being built around every corner. Tourism is really taking over the town. I soon realized the shoes I brought weren’t going to cut it so I found some knock-off North Face runners for a decent price.

The town is built in the hills with narrow winding and steep streets. Motorcycles and taxis are rife. We wound our way down through some colourful sections of town and eventually to a beautiful park with a rushing creek and waterfall. It was incredibly picturesque so our cameras were busy. We finished off the visit with a beer then had to wind our way upwards towards the road where we met a minivan to take us back to the hotel.

Shower, supper and a short wander around the streets to a lovely little bar where we could finish the evening with craft brew and Hanoi cider.

Tomorrow is the 12 km hike so I need my sleep. I will set two alarms tonight.

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Waking up in Hanoi

The flight from Hong Kong on the Cathay Pacific (or Cathay Dragon – the names seem to be interchangeable) was fine. We were fed yet again though I doubt if I needed it. My legs didn’t enjoy economy but I’m sure it was a carry-over from the previous flight. Usually I can manage a short flight.

Hanoi was dark when we emerged from the airport. We had passed through customs with no problem. A fellow holding up a G-Adventures sign picked us up and expertly drove us into the city. There seems to be an uneasy relationship between Vietnam and the big elephant next door (China) according to our driver. He pointed out some of the Japanese-built infrastructure – impressive bridges and the new airport.

The city is awash with motorcycles and people. Our hotel – the Bonne Nuit is right in the middle of it all. My room is small but clean and the bed was very comfortable. I crashed immediately.

This morning I found a note from Nina under the door. It seems they are across the hall and will meet me for breakfast at eight. I’d better go shower.

I went to breakfast but none of my group were there. The fruit and coffee were delicious and I may have overdone myself in that department. When still no one had shown up I finally tuned into the fact that the time on my iPad had not updated from Hong Kong to Hanoi time so I was an hour early. I did a wee walkabout for a few blocks around the hotel trying to set myself some landmarks.

Eventually the others showed up and I joined them in a second breakfast.

Nina and Dave were prepared to show us some of the highlights of their explorations from the previous day but first we had to spend an hour in the phone store getting local SIM cards. Turns out my phone is NOT unlocked and needed some Rogers code that I didn’t have. I’m a bit annoyed with Rogers because I had been told my phone was unlocked. But Nina and Dave Robinson were successful so they can contact each other if they get lost. Me – I’m on my own.

I think we covered the entire Old Town section of Hanoi today. Before we had gone far we were covered in a damp “glow” which necessitated numerous stops for beer and other refreshments.

Being Sunday the kids were not in school. There seems to be a dance competition because there were quite a number of groups of them each wearing matching clothes and practicing their steps in a few of the side streets. One group of university vet students honed in on the Daves and were quite excited to learn that Dave R. had worked in the Vet College at Guelph. And some elementary school kids stopped us to practice their English by asking a series of questions. It was actually quite fun.

We ended up the evening at Grandma’s for delicious spring rolls. I would highly recommend them to anyone in this part of the world.

So tomorrow it is up early and head to the Sapa Valley.

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3 am is way too early

We were warned there would be freezing rain today so we decided to head to the airport early … but getting up at 3 am is a killer. Of course the roads were dry and traffic was not too bad so we ended up at the airport with over three hours to spare. Ahh well, less stress. And we were through security in no time.

So now I am on the plane. I can’t believe how long 15.5 hours is. I have watched four movies, listened to a podcast, gone to the washroom three times, eaten a snack and two meals and we still have four hours to go. My leg got a cramp, my knees ache, my personal space has been violated multiple times and we are still not there. Arghhh.

And now I am in the Hong Kong airport having just downed a couple of beers and a wonderful plate of nachos with Dave and Dawne waiting for our next flight to Hanoi. Lack of sleep contributes to the loopiness. We have humidity, heat and sun as we gaze out at the haze of the surrounding mountains and breathe in this Asian ambiance.

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