Best of Cambodia and Vietnam 2006 - Southern Vietnam

Full details of the intended trip can be found on the Intrepid Website.

Link to Travel Diary (Cambodia).

3rd November - Into Vietnam (Chau Doc)

Quite a lazy transit day. The ferry between Phnom Penh and Chau Doc in Vietnam runs one a day and only carries about 30 or 40 passengers. Travelling down the Mekong with the flow of the river, only stopping off for the formalities at the border crossing which is shown below. The bags are meant to be removed from the boat and passed through airport style checks but a few dollars changed hands and they stayed on board the boat. All up the journey took about 5 hours.

Now for a bit about the rivers of Cambodia. Weird, weird, weird. The only river system like it in the world. The main river artery of Cambodia is the Tone Siep which runs north to south and includes the Tone Siep lake where we visited the floating village. The Tone Siep river meets the 'Mighty' Mekong at Phnom Penh. During the rainy season the Mekong River completely floods and the Tone Siep flows 'backwards' up into and filling the Tone Siep Lake. When the rains stop the Tone Siep changes direction the the water from the lake flows back out. The direction of flow changed about 2 weeks ago.

Travelling down the Mekong you can see the whole Mekong Valley is flooded with stilted houses and the tops of the mangroves marking out the dry season river bank as you can see above. It was an interesting journey giving a good look at rural life, which in this area is completely based on the river.

We reached Chau Doc at about 6 and ate out at the floating restaurant by the ferry terminal. The first thing that strike you is how much cheaper Vietnam is compared to Cambodia which was hardly expensive itself. The local currency is the Dong and I am a millionaire. I went to the cash point and took out 1,000,000 Dong! I think the exchange rate is about 27,000 to the pound.

After dinner the more energetic and adventurous of us hopped onto cyclos and got a tour of the town. It a rural port town, not at all touristy (it can't be when only 30 or so pass through in each direction on any day. They cyclo guys then took us to a locals bar. We invited them in to drink with us. We started on the beer which came in slightly dubious litre bottles. The the cyclo guys asked us if we wanted to try some rat, bat or snake. Soon we had a plate of bbq rat. It was good, tasted a lot like rabbit. Then we got a bottle of banana wine, which tasted quite like sherry and finally onto the rice wine which just tasted like alcohol. So all up we had 6 litres of beer, half a litre of each of the wines and two huge plates of rat between the 6 of us and our 6 drivers. And it came to $10 in total, less than a dollar each. The half litre of rice wine was 16p.

Above left is the group of us sitting and drinking with our cyclo drivers. On the left is a plate of BBQ rat.

4th November - On to Saigon (Ho Chi Min City)

8 hours by bus to Saigon, including 2 river crossings by ferry. In the evening we took a cyclo tour of Saigon being driven around on bikes with mopeds flying either side of us taking in the sights. Saigon looks quite modern and glitzy. Architecturally and geographically the whole place is very French, reminds me in many ways of Paris.

Tonight was the final night of the of the first part of my tour, of the 11 only 5 will go on the the next part. Spent the evening in a great restaurant, we ordered beef and prawns which we cooked for ourselves at the table. The prawns were brought out live. The waiter removed the central nervous system (so they wouldn't feel any pain so he said) and we put them on the BBQ still wriggling and jumping around.

5th November - Saigon (Ho Chi Min City)

Today we had a completely free day as one part of the tour ends and next part begins. We lose Kirsty and Louise, Joe, Max, Grant and my the party animal that was my room-mate, Mario. We also lose Scotty who was fantastic all trip and Ainsley who followed us for most of the trip after 'losing his passport'. Whatever the story the blend of Scotty's enthusiasm and freshness with Ainsley's knowledge and passion for the area was a great combination.

Tonight I get to meet the 7 girls (women) and female group leader that will be joining Paul and Jane, Andrew and Amber and Me for the next part of the trip. One big bonus being the only single guy on the next stage of the trip I get a room to myself.

Saigon is a city of motorbikes. Everyone, everywhere on mainly Honda Moped. Whole families on a single bike the most I've seen on any bike is 5, a woman with 4 children. They use them to carry just about anything and we used them as taxis to get around town. We're riding on the back of a moped with no helmet, no idea where we are going with a driver who doesn't speak English, weaving in and out of the other mopeds all around us. Crossing the road is also fun. With roads like the picture on the left above, you just walk out amongst them, and cross slowly and deliberately as the bikes fly along either side of you. Watch my Road Crossing Video.

I used free day to get a bit of normality after 12 days of back-packing. Got the laundry done and as you can imagine it really did need doing. I took a look around Saigon and then sat down a cafe on the corner for a leisurely lunch, watching the chaos on the road in front of me and hooking up to wire-less to see what's going on in the real world.

Met up with the rest of our group and we're travelling with the Golden Girls. We've got 6 Aussie women all of an age where you don't ask their age, but they've all got kids that have left home. Get them on the Chardonnay and I can see them being a handful!

6th November - Saigon (Ho Chi Min City)

Took a trip out to the Cu Chi Tunnels 70kn Northwest of Saigon. It is a network of tunnels used by the Vietnamese first against the French and later in the American War. The tunnels are tiny, less than half of our group could even fit into the original tunnels let alone move around in them, needless to say, I couldn't! The tunnels were used for defence, for living in and for attacking and trapping the enemy. We were given an idea of how they lived and fought, shown examples of the traps they set and tactics used.

We the got to walk, crouch and crawl through some tunnels that have been specially widened for tourists. These were plenty small enough to manoeuvre around in. We then went down to the firing range where they have a range of guns that we could fire for $1 a shot. The minimum purchase was 5 shots so all the 'boys' got to shoot an AK47.

In the evening a few of us went out for a quit bite to eat and after went up on to the roof of the hotel to watch the traffic chaos from above, it was like a motorcycle display tem with streams of mopeds coming from different directions, interleaving and coming out the opposite side. Check out the woman with the red bag crossing the road. To download videos right click the link and select Save As.

7th November - Hoi An

Up and out to the airport for a flight up to Nanang which is about half way up Vietnam and an hour from Saigon by air. As soon as we're off the plane it's obvious that we're heading north. It's overcast and a chilly 25 degrees. We hop on a bus and we're in Hoi An in time for lunch. I the spent the afternoon walking around town.

According to Wikipedia, In 1999, the old town was declared World Heritage by the UNESCO, as a well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port of the 15th to 19th centuries, whose buildings display a unique blend of local and foreign influences. The old streets run back from the river and are full of shops of all descriptions. Over 200 tailors, some fantastic cobblers, decorative bowls and chop-sticks, paintings, clothes and fabrics. There is some fantastic stuff but I can't buy any as I don't plan to carry anything more than I have to on this trip. I walked along the river-front where boats were unloading and the little old ladies in their traditional hats rushing about. I've been surprised that the conical hats are actually worn by women throughout Vietnam.

But the weather was closing in. First it started to get misty and then some drizzle. And then as I was sitting at a bar it started the piss down, heavier and heavier, a torrential downpour. Water everywhere pouring off the roofs and along the streets. The locals and tourists alike scurrying around in their plastic ponchos. Then rain just went on and on with some thunder and lightening in the distance. There are some nice beaches around Hoi An which sounded so tempting when we were in the hustle and bustle of Saigon now don't hold the same appeal.

In the evening we went to a Gourmet Restaurant which serves Asian Fusion Food. The Mango Rooms. The chef has trained in Europe and the food was amazing. So many flavours. I had the beef with a rum, mango and pineapple salad it was something special and the main course was still only £3.50. The back of the restaurant opened out on the the riverside street, the same street I had walked down in the afternoon. The river waters had swollen from the downpour and were upto the second step of the restaurant, the waters had risen about 18 inches in 4 or 5 hours.

8th November - Hoi An

The wind and the rain continued all night, thankfully no more than a decent storm, 2 weeks ago a typhoon went through and destroyed buildings and trees. Not one to be put off by a bit of rain (it's only a shower) Me, Paul and Trace (our group leader) hire bikes and set off out into the country. Along the roads of various quality, splashing through the puddles we get a good view of life beyond the tourists. All the local kids we pass shout out hello and we get a lot of laughs from the older ones who shout stuff at us and laugh. Probably something along the lines of 'What bloody idiots, out cycling in this weather'.

We cycled along the roads raised above the flooded paddy-fields. It was raining so hard I only once dared take my camera out, but the sight of the water buffalo posing for us amongst the rice paddys was too good to resist.

Time for lunch (this trip seems to be one gorgeous meal after another) and Hoi An has some great local specialities. Cao Lau - A pork and noodle soup with basil and mint, Banh Vac (White Rose) - steamed dumplings which come from the Chinese influence in the area, Hoanh Thanh Chien - Shrimp Wantons topped with hot sauced vegetables and pineapple salad.

I then had a lazy afternoon looking around town and generally chilling out. Now and again I'd run into one of the Golden Girls rushing from one shop to the next buying up dresses, shoes, hand-bags, pashminas and enthusing about the latest bargain.

In the evening we did a Vietnamese cooking course. Which really was a set menu we watched and 'helped' cook. Mackerel with garlic and lemon grass cooked in a banana leaf, steamed and fried spring rolls and a papaya and prawn salad. It was good fun, as was chatting to the family who run the restaurant. The restaurant is right down on the harbour side and as the night passed the waters once again rose and rose. They pointed out a tide mark about 3 foot up the wall that's where the waters reached a month ago and then one 8 feet up that's how high the water got in 1999 and took 12 days the recede. 8 people lived in the house and when it rains, everything moves upstairs.

After the meal the waters were up to the 3rd of 4 steps and we waded back to higher ground with the water nearly up to my knees. Another night in Tam Tam's playing pool and a late and very, very wet walk back to the hotel.

9th November - Hue

We weren't leaving Hoi An until 1pm so I decided to get a local to take me out top the beach and around the countryside outside of Hoi An. So I took my life in my hands and jumped on the back of a moped and off we went, down flooded and pot-holed lanes. Despite there being bikes everywhere, the roads not being great and no one wearing helmets I've not yet seen any accidents, they all keep to sensible speeds and seem to avoid each other very well. Was interesting to see life beyond the tourists and the beach was great, pity we haven't had the weather for it.

The drive to Hoi An took about 4 hours including a couple of toilet and drinks stops. Because of the mist on the hills we took the tunnel though the hills rather than the pass over them. One of the places we stopped was China Beach where the Americans used to get their RR. Nowadays a bit of a resort. It was hit by the typhoon a couple weeks ago and there were uprooted palm trees lying on the beach.

In the evening went out for an Indian which was very good. Met Duc, who works at one of the hotels that Intrepid use. Trace has befriended him and helps him with his English every time she passes through. Lovely guy, Trace says normally he eats very little when she takes him out fir a curry he loves it and wolfs it down. Afterwards went on to the DMZ bar, full of back-packers, but fun, played pool and drank beer at 10,000 dong (40p a big bottle).

10th November - Hue

The best day of the trip so far. Out and about in Hue (which is pronounced Haway, bit like a Geordie saying Haway t' ladz.) We all jumped on the back of mopeds and off we went down side streets, country lanes, and as you can see on the left down mud tracks between the paddys.Saw water buffalo, storks and dragon flies in all colours of the rainbow. The local kids putting their hands out for us to slap as we sped by. Villagers washing clothes and themselves in the rivers, men fishing and women working in the fields and everywhere we went we were greeted by children smiling and shouting Hello.

We also made some stops on the way. The first to see a woman with only one and half arms making the Vietnamese Conical hats and then to see some girls making incense sticks. I had no idea the incense sticks are pieces of sandalwood which they roll a thin layer of clay around. The clay infused with spices, it our case cinnamon (which is a bark from a tree). They are then left in the sun to dry.

We stopped at a couple of view points on the hills above Hue, we visited the mausoleum of an Emperor which looked very Chinese in style, and was set in massive grounds with ponds and ornate building dotted around. The Emperor actually used the site as his RR area for many years before his death. With 104 major wives and countless minor wives (whatever that is, maybe one night stands?) I guess he needed somewhere to get away from it all. He had all those wives but no children, small pox as a child left him a jaffa, but he literally died trying. Cause of death low blood pressure due to sexual exhaustion!

We had lunch at a monastery. A feast of vegetarian food and it was some of the best we've had on the whole trip. In the afternoon we took a boat trip down the Perfume River, stopping at a Pagoda (which is a religious complex, including a temple and other buildings, sometimes a monastery). Again it was so beautiful and tranquil. The Pagoda has always been important but even more so because of the story shown below. As you can see this sign was in front of the car that the monk used to get to Saigon. Before setting off the monk informed all the major international news agencies of what he was going to do, so the whole affair got a huge amount of publicity. I think the picture of him burning is on the cover of a Rage Against the Machine album. The second picture shows that I can do artistic if I try ;-)

We got back at 15:30 after leaving at 8:30. All in, moped drivers, entrance fees, the boat and the lunch the whole day cost $10. In the evening I had a lemon juice, a couple of bottles of the local beer, some pork kebabs that are served with rice paper and veg (to make your own spring rolls) and a bowl of beef noodle soup and came home with change from 4 dollars. Marvellous.

11th November - Hue

A day of two halves. In the morning we took a tour of the Citadel. This is a walled Palatial City in Hue. It took 28 years to build at the end of the 19th century. It is 2.1km by 2.1km and housed over 60,000 troops, the royal family and all the support workers to make the Citadel totally self-sufficient when under siege. The buildings are in various states of repair. A couple original, many standing as ruins and some either being restored or already restored. As with most things in Vietnam it took one hell of a pounding during the French and American Wars. (Not surprisingly the Vietnamese call the Vietnam War the American War!) Tam, our guide for both days in Hue was great, his English fantastic and he kept things fun throughout making jokes of varying quality and following most things he said with 'Do ya get it?'.

After a bit of lunch we packed up and headed off to the station for the sleeper train to Hanoi. 600kms, 12 hours up to Hanoi. The train was comfortable enough and after a couple of beers, some rice wine and many strange looks from the locals walking past our carriage on the train we all crashed out.

12th November - Halong Bay

I got an email from Mum today and she said that since the Golden Girls joined our trip all I've talked about is food and she implied something Freudian. I don't know about that but all they do is eat and shop, and I ain't shopping. So not wanting to break the trend, we arrived in Hanoi at about 5am. After a shower at the hotel, it was off for breakfast. Koko, a restaurant set up by an Intrepid Tour Leader to help the street kids in Hanoi. It's the same idea as Jamey Oliver's 15. They take street kids and train them for a year in English, life skills and restauranting (which Frontpage says isn't a word but I'm using it anyway). After a year when the kids leave they are sought after by the best hotels in Vietnam. And the food was amazing. All the more so because it was a western style breakfast which after nearly 3 weeks travelling was just what I needed. Real sausages and bacon, hash browns, baked beans. English muffins, banana cake and even vegemite for the Aussies and didn't they rave over that!

Anyway we finally tore ourselves away and jumped on the bus to Halong Bay. About 4 hours including a stop at a craft village which was solely for the disabled workers. As always at these places amazing to see how quickly they produce such intricate work. Needlework, paintings, lacquer work, woodwork, again the Golden Girls went mad, how will they ever carry all this stuff home.

Halong Bay is a spectacular area of limestone columns and islands off the north coast of Vietnam. Again Unesco listed. We boarded our boat which we were staying on over night and headed out into the bay. First thing that strikes you is how many boats are at the dock and how many are out on the bay, and secondly how hazy, boarding on overcast it is, we're told it's almost always like this. We toured around the bay area, stopped to go into some caves for a while and at around 5, dropped anchor for the night. Some of us dived of the boat for a swim, the water was a lovely temperature. After dinner I lay in the open air on the top deck with a bottle of local red wine and my book, lovely.

13th November - Back to Hanoi

Waking up in Halong Bay with a little bit of mist hanging over the water, I wish we were spending more time out here. It's going to be great to come back again in a weeks time on the way into China. We then had breakfast as we headed back to port and disembarked at about 8am. And once again as I got off I smacked my head on a low beam. I have done it so many times on this trip I've got a massive bump running right across the top of my head. The doorways etc over here are so low. I'm constantly ducking. This comes from the people here being so short, the majority of women barely come up to my chest. When riding on the mopeds I can look straight forwards over the top of my drivers. South East Asians are very small people.

On the way back to Hanoi we stopped off at the ceramics centre where they make moulded ceramics from little saucers up to 2 foot high pots. Once again it is so labour intensive and what surprised me most is that all the pots are hand painted. In the case of the big pots they can only paint 3 per day.

After a hectic last few days once we got back to Hanoi I took it easy. Had a little walk around to orientate myself and then met up with the group in the evening for the last supper. Again it's real good. We have rice paper, veggies and cat fish and beef to make our spring roll wrap things for starters. The beef over here has been invariably good, it's always cooked with lots of garlic and some lemon grass and is so tasty. After a few of us went on for some Bia Hoi (fresh beer). In Vietnam and Hanoi in particular there are a lot of micro breweries and the beer is sold straight from the barrel with customers sitting around on the pavement. The beer is good and brewed with no preservatives, it's meant to be drunk straight away. And the best part it's 2000 dong for a half pint, that's 8p. With a place opposite doing kebabs for 10000 you could have 9 beers and a kebab for £1, how good is that? On the way out of the restaurant we saw the two women and the two kids in their PJs shown left. It's amazing the Honda moped is the family car over here and 4 to a bike is not uncommon.

Link to Travel Diary (Northern Vietnam).