A Travellerspoint blog

More travels to the Mekong ... and other shenanigans

But with pictures this time ...

sunny 35 °C

Yet again I realise that it is too long since we have told you all what we've been up to. It's been a busy few weeks but (unbelievably) our first year is nearly at an end, the end of term is a mere four days away, our trip to Japan is only 7 days away ... so we should tell you about our latest adventures up country.

So, we headed down to the Mekong the other weekend so that Jill could see the wonders of the region, find some peace and quiet from the hustle and bustle of the city, and generally just see a bit of greenery. The bs journey from Mien Tay bus station was as eventful s ever, with people squeezed in left, right and centre, and quite possibly other places as well. The street and bus hawkers were out in abundance, selling everything from fruit and bread to shirts, fans and other household implements and I was very, very excited to purchase (for 30p no less) a hugely impressive lighter / torch. It has a torch on one end and a lighter on the other! Jill thought I'd been fleeced and declared it a serious health hazard and has banished it to the nether reaches of the kitchen cupboard. But it will see the light of day very soon. You wait until the next power cut ... then she'll be saying what an excellent purchase it was. Or the house will go up in flames and there'll be no need for a torch anyway. A win win situation.

Down in Ben Tre we met up with the redoubtable Ken and Lieu at the Oasis Hotel again and spent a beautiful afternoon lazing in hammocks, having a dip in the pool, watching the Mekong and its boats flow gently by, and indulging in good food and lovely ice cream. Ben Tre is just such a peaceful and easy going place and the people are so open and friendly. You can't help but feel relaxed. On Sunday morning we hired a sampan with a wonderful lady who rowed us down the river and around the quiet tributaries that lead off it. We took the hotel cleaner, Tung, with us as he needed to practise his English and could translate with the boat lady and spent a scenic and tranquil three hours on the river. We just dangled our feet in the water, did a bit of rowing, and watched the world go by. It was stunning. At a riverside cafe the owners invited us to see their garden and house. From the river or road you cannot imagine that there are so many houses hidden away, but behind their cafe they had a lovely garden where they grow vegetables and flowers, and there are lots of little two room houses that are really simple, quaint and a world away from life in HCMC.

We finished off the day with hu tieu chay noodles and a gentle bus ride back home. A terrific weekend.

Last weekend we headed north to visit the centre of Vietnam's cao dai religion and check out their amazing temple. The caao dai religion is very new, having sprung up in 1926 after some guy had a series of visions, and is a mix of protestantism, buddhism, taoism, vegetarianism and probably a few other isms too. Charlie Chaplin and Victor Hugo were heavily into it apparently. They love a bit of colour (and the third eye) and the temple is a riot of blues, yellows, pinks. It's pretty spectacular. We watched one of the services and all the worshippers dress up rather colourfully too. All in all a good trip.

This weekend we've stayed in a hotel in the city. Oddly enough. However, the hotel is called the Alcove Library so it was a bit of a busman's holiday for me. It's not flash or anything (but the bed was really, really comfortable) but, sure enough, when you walk in the hotel there is a large library of books (which you can borrow) and you are given chocolates and a short story when you go to bed. It's also in a really local Virtnamese neighbourhood with a good Buddhist temple and a nice easy going feel to it. If I'm honest their lack of Dewey Decimal classification disappointed me a bit, but overall it was a great little place to stay.

So, that's our latest few wanders about the area. Next topic will be Japan so we'll be in touch in about three weeks or so. And we're also looking forward to Linda and Peter coming to see us. And Chris and Pat. Can't wait! Love you all. Massively.

Posted by TheBackyard 04:13 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

A visit to the Mekong Delta

Up country ... or down country ... I haven't quite figured out which

sunny 35 °C

So, it's been a couple of months since we last wrote and we've been busy at work but Jill has now shuttled off back to the UK for three weeks to see Daisy and Joe and I'm on holiday for a few days. So, I decided to hop on the bus and head yonder to the Mekong Delta to see a few orchards and coconut trees and spend some time on the water ... and there's plenty of water to spend time on. I caught the 102 bus to Mien Tay bus station and grabbed the first bus out of town to Ben Tre. The bus station is huge and a bus spotter's paradise. It's utter mayhem but hugely entertaining to watch. The bus to Ben Tre had 32 seats but with a little bit of squeezing and total disregard for health and safety we brought in 14 plastic chairs and so 46 of us headed yonder.

Ben Tre is not really on the tourist map and is just a beautiful old Vietnamese town with delightfully friendly people and a very laid back atmosphere. After a wander through the market (spectacularly colourful and pungent) I found myself at the quayside drinking coffee with a lovely bloke who owned a small boat and persuaded me to take a trip on the river. It was absolutely brilliant! He took me around all these beautiful, serene, and peaceful rivers and canals full of coconut groves and loads of kingfishers and butterflies and three hours laters dropped me back at the quay and onwards, via scooter, to the hotel. A fantastic afternoon. The Oasis Hotel is run by Ken, a New Zealander, and his Vietnamese wife, and they were just the loveliest people. They were very accommodating and full of great local information. After a fine dinner of hu tieu chay (vegetarian noodles) and a top night's sleep I borrowed one of their bikes and headed out to explore around Ben Tre. Once off the main roads you find yourself in a completely different world of small roads and tracks that lead you through more coconut groves ... you just find yourself getting lost and then finding your way again ... it's just stunning scenery. I hopped a ferry to one of the islands where there are not cars and just concrete paths for you to cycle on and after 6 hours of cycling found my way back home. A wonderful day!

The next day I asked Ken the best way to get to Tra Vinh and he phoned up a cargo boat and they came and picked me up. So began a leisurely 5 hour ride down the tributaries of the Mekong, picking up and dropping off goods to people, and generally relaxing and watching everyday life pass me by. It was just one of the most beautiful days I have had since being in Vietnam.

Tra Vinh is like a throwback to the 1960s. It's like time has stood still. It's a chaotic and bustling town, also way off the beaten track, but still very laid back and when it gets dark it has the best radio tower I have ever seen, lit up in all it's glory. It's like Pathe News for Vietnam. It is spectacular! Tra Vinh has a big Khmer population as it was, until quite recently, part of Cambodia so there are lots of temples and shrines dotted about the place. Like Ben Tre, the people are incredibly friendly and welcoming, they all say "hello" and they all want to stop and talk to you. It's really lovely.

The next day I took the bus to Can Tho, which is the capital of the region. After three days of sleepy towns it felt very hectic. It's a town that has seen better days and seems to be crumbling away somewhat but it is still quite endearing. I got collared by a bloke in the street who persuaded me to stay at his hotel for $10 a night. I know you shouldn't do such things as you always end up getting fleeced but the room was remarkably good and a bargain! The next day I hopped a small boat and visited the local floating markets and fruit orchards. The floating markets are (sort of) unique to the Delta region and both markets I visited had lots of boats selling fresh fruit and vegetables on the water. It was a great spectacle to see and a fine end to a few days in the country. Vietnam's Norfolk Broads ... sort of.

Back in the city I've managed to cram in visits to the Reunification Hall (stunning), the War Remnants Museum (grizzly), three more pagodas (all highly recommended), 2 games of basketball (Saigon Heat really are rubbish!!!), and a chat with a Vietnamese bloke about English football ... which really revolved around me practising the scores in Vietnamese and him shouting the teams out very loudly indeed. Hugely entertaining. I hope Jill is having a lovely time back home and she'll no doubt fill you in on all the details in a week or two. Alas, no photos of the Mekong as Jill had the camera. Sorry. As ever, we're missing you all. Massively.

Posted by TheBackyard 04:05 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

Hanoi ... the capital of Vietnam ... amongst other things

... Like a whacking great big United Nations school

semi-overcast 20 °C

A fortnight ago Jill and I headed north with 12,15-16 year old pupils from school to attend the 5th United Nations International School Model United Nations conference ... which meant we got to see a lot of the school and just a bit of the capital city. However, what we did see was very exciting and completely different from HCMC. For a start, we thought moped riders in HCMC were maniacs but they are remarkably tame compared to the suicidal tendencies of bikers in Hanoi. They are just plain mental and crossing the road is, quite literally, murder.

However, if you do actually manage to cross the road(s) there's loads to see in the city and we barely scratched the surface. Our hotel overlooked the beautiful Tay Ho (West Lake) and whilst our ceiling leaked very impressively and we were woken at 5am each morning to the 80s disco keep-fit classes on the lakeside it was, otherwise, very tranquil and pretty. We also visited Hoan Kiem Lake and the Ngoc Son Temple, The spectacular Temple of Literature, the historic heart of the Old Quarter with it's 36 streets named after 36 guilds, a visually stunning flower market (hello Grandad George and Uncle Bobby), and the amazing and quite surreal Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where the great man himself (or bits of him anyway) lies in state. The Vietnamese queue for miles to see him and we thoroughly enjoyed the experience. We found Hanoi people to be really lovely, and it seemed that there was much more of a Chinese influence to the area, as well as many more ethnic minorities from the hill tribes that live in the mountains that surround the city.

In between all this we managed to get fed by the school very well indeed at two fab buffets, found a really old (1936) coffee house that did a stunning coffee yogurt thing, indulged in a Bia Hoi which is beer brewed that day and served in the evening in little more than a tin shack, and got in a cab that had the quickest and most corrupt meter I've ever seen. Blink and the fare doubled. Literally. We went three hundred yards down the road, were fleeced for about £3.00, got out and were £3.00 worse off and could still see our hotel.

As for the kids, they were legendary and we were very proud of all 12 of them. The school was amazing and their football pitches (with real grass!) covered more acreage than our entire school. The library was beautiful and when the librarian said she'd shipped an illustrator / author over from New York for a two week stay I knew we were batting in a different league. Our pupils were ace and I was extremely proud that as well representing their countries so ably, Jae Hee managed to win Girl's Hair of the conference and Bum Jin managed to walk away with the honour of being Most Likely to Cause World War III. I've clearly taught them well. Though possibly not about Model United Nations. And my organisation was remarkably good. No broken bones, no lost kids, and only one plaster needed for a blister. I went into shock when I got home.

Back in HCMC we were delighted to welcome Margaret (hello Margaret) from Bridport and it was really lovely to see a face from home. We had a great couple of days with her and we hope she enjoyed her time with us too!

And, last weekend we celebrated Mother's Day with a 5km run (which, in the 8am heat just about killed us) and then with our friends Sierra Lynn and Chuong at their brilliant D'lish tea house. We indulged in vast amounts of tea and cake and Sierra Lynn made us the best, best, best trifle type dessert ever. They are really brilliant people and they make us very happy!

Happy birthday to Daisy, who is out of her teens today and we'll report again soon. Love you all, as ever!

Posted by TheBackyard 06:54 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Monks, mountains, and horizontal-laid-back-ness in Lao

(Or Laos ... my t-shirt says Lao, my atlas says Laos)

sunny 34 °C

Chuc mung nam moi to all of you and we hope the year of the snake brings you all the delights and dreams it's meant to ... I'm not sure what they are but the Vietnamese seem pretty excited by it all.

Anyway, we're just back from our little wander around the hidden charms of Laos and we've had a really beautiful time in a fantastic country full of lovely people, stunning scenery, and general easygoingness (if that is a word). We flew into the capital, Vientiane, which turns out to be a very small and compact city with loads and loads of Westerners and very few Laotians. It's a very laid back place with lots of monks and Buddhist temples and proved to be a gentle and genuine introduction to the Laos way of living. The golden reclining Buddha was particularly good. Our hotel was rubbish, though, and is a cautionary tale about not believing everything you read in a Lonely Planet guide. I don't know where they dug their description up from but our room was nothing like they said. C'est la vie. After a couple of days pottering about we took the 10 hour bus ride north to the fabled town of Luang Prabang. Well, it should have been a bus. Actually it turned out to be some bloke with a minibus who crammed 12 of us plus luggage together and headed north. It's actually a pretty spectacular drive over some hugely impressive mountains and valleys, lots of hairpin bends, unmade roads, beautiful villages perched precariously on stilts on cliff edges, kids, cows, ducks, goats and babies wandering across the roads and stunning views. I'm not sure Jill enjoyed it quite as much as I did as she was sat right above the rear axle and felt every bump in the road for 10 straight hours.

Luang Prabang appears to be Gap Year heaven and is even more laid back than Vientiane. It is a picturesque town harking back to the days of French colonialism and has 33 Buddhist temples (or Wats), lies at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan, and stills exudes a wealth of charm and tranquility. Things move very slowly here. Our accommodation improved here. We were picked up in an old open top American army jeep by Khone, who together with his wife Khoun, run a small group of self built bunglalows on the outskirts of town. They are pretty basic but just brilliant and set in a peaceful and pretty valley. And Khone and Khoun (and their extended family of sons, daughters, nephews, waifs, strays, dogs, cats etc.) are really lovely people. It was a stunning place to stay!

In town we visited the Royal Palace which had an amazing hall, got templed out by the masses of wats (Wat Xieng Thong was particularly good), Jill got a quality foot massage from the Red Cross, I gave blood, we ate vast amounts of cakes and drunk lots of tea in various cafes, ate the best vegetarian food since we got to SE Asia in the night market (80p for all you can eat), watched the Tak Bat at 5.30am when the apprentice monks collect alms from people, took in the local ethnic market, and generally watched life drift by against a backdrop of mountains, rivers and sunshine. It was a really relaxing and beautiful few days.

Midway through our time here we headed off to the Elephant Village Sanctuary to spend a couple of days looking after elephants that had been used in the logging industry but were now too old for work and were too domesticated to be sent into the wild. They were really well cared for and looked after here and we got to learn how to be a marhout and ride them as well as bathe them in the morning. They were gentle creatures and it was a unique experience for both Jill and I to care for them. I highly recommend it as a trip for the TAPAS group who would thoroughly enjoy the time with them. Perhaps someone would like to suggest it to Ms McBlain?

All that left time for was a return bus trip to Vientiane, this time on a proper bus which ended up as an 11 hour journey, with copious amounts of vomiting, and even more copious amounts of phlegm coughing and spitting from the crew ... one assumes they had a spittoon as they never opened the window or door to spit out. Delightful.

All in all, a marvellous week or so in an incredible country that we both loved very, very much and will return to forthwith.

So, it's back to school tomorrow, and Jill kicks off her voluntary work with the Christina Noble Foundation on Tuesday. We're off to Hanoi with the MUN group on Wednesday week so we'll let you know how that goes in due course. Until then, we hope you're all well and had a lovely half-term. Let us know what you've been up to. We miss you massively as ever. It's goodnight from me ... and it's goodnight from him / her.

Posted by TheBackyard 16:21 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Mui Ne

sunny 32 °C

It was so good to see my sister after 6 months so after a few days exploring Saigon we headed north to Mui Ne. Our luxury resort lived up to our expectations. We were right on the sea front we had a wonderful view of the lighthouse.

I managed to convince my sister to head out on a bicycle, something she said she has not done for some 12 years.

After the madness of the traffic in the city of Saigon, Mui Ne had little traffic to contend with. We cycled by the sea and stopped to look at the dragon fruit growing. ... which I am reliably informed is the next super food to hit the UK. We also saw salt flats.

The highlight for me was visiting the Ta Cu Mountain. We decided on the quick route and ascended using the cable car. Once we had climbed the remaining steep stairs we came across Vietnam's largest reclining Buddha (Tuong Phat Nam). Although built in the 1972 it is a wonderful site to see and has magnificent views from the top of the mountain.

This is a place I will definitely return to ... next stop Laos.

Posted by TheBackyard 01:42 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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