Category Archives: Travel

A market town on the delta

The Cao Dai temple from the water. Another tender has just unloaded passengers in orange life vests

The Amalotus remained at anchor in the middle of the river overnight. After breakfast we all piled into the tenders to visit the town of Sa Dec which is situated on the river bank.

Dara, our guide, took us to Cao Dai Temple just over the road from the jetty where we alighted from the tender. Founded in the 1920s, Caodaiism blends Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism, and Islam into one monotheistic religion. Its saints include Buddha, Confucius, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Pericles, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, and the Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen. You’ll see some of them above the altar in the picture below. Its followers comprise the third largest religious group in Vietnam. Read more about this fascinating religion here. I think it’s a fantastic idea. It’s often said the great religions have more in common than their differences.

Inside the temple. Note all the saints above the altar

Buddha, Confucius, Mohammad, Jesus etc

A funeral vehicle

Our next stop was all about Vietnam’s Romeo and Juliet story – only nobody dies. As a fifteen-year-old celebrated French novelist Marguerite Duras had an affair with twenty-seven-year-old Huyen Thuy Le, son of a wealthy Chinese family. The pair wanted to marry but both families frowned upon the relationship and Le was forced to marry a suitable Chinese girl. Duras eventually wrote an award-winning novel, published in 1984, about their affair. The movie version was popular in Vietnam despite the removal of some more erotic scenes.

We visited Huyen Thuy Le’s house, an example of a wealthy Chinese home, where we were served a cup of ginger tea.

From the house we went into the markets. Markets are the equivalent of supermarkets in Western countries. People come every day to buy fresh food for their families. But this market was for the people of the delta. I’ve mentioned before that the Vietnamese cheerfully admit that if it moves, they’ll eat it. One of the staples, carefully displayed on ice, was rats, skinned and gutted. Our guide said he loved them. Kentucky fried rat. Yummy.

Produce being delivered to the market

Some of those fish are tiny. I can’t see how it’s sustainable

This man is putting gutted, skinned rats on ice

More seafood

As usual, fish was kept alive if possible. But so were chickens. My Western sensibilities were jolted when I saw them on the ground, their legs tied so they couldn’t run away.

Fresh chicken, legs tied

It’s a whole different world.

Happy to pose for photos with our guide, Dara

We returned to the ship for lunch. There was another outing in the afternoon, to a village where sweets were made (we call them lollies) but I think it says something about the pace of activities that only about six people actually went. You’re right, we were not in the six. We’d started longing for home a few days ago. In fact, Pete didn’t go on the trip I’ve just described.

That night it was our farewell dinner. Some of us would be going to Saigon and from there, home. Others would be spending a few days in Saigon, doing the parts of the tour we had done first.  Overnight the Amalotus sailed on to an industrial port where we disembarked for a two-hour drive to Saigon where we waited in the hotel lounge before leaving for the airport in the evening. Although we were in business class, neither of us lay down during the flight because of coughing. After the long flight and the three-and-a-half hour drive to Hervey Bay, It was nice to pull in to our drive at home, even if the atmosphere was smoky and it hadn’t rained.

That said, it was a terrific trip, a mix of so many different layers of the two countries. We saw Imperial Vietnam at the Citadel and the poorest of villagers, the grandeur of the abandoned temples at Siem Reap and the trading city of Hoi An. We learned how to make spring rolls and saw how the food was grown. We watched fishermen ply their trade and rode in basket boats. We diced with the traffic in Saigon, Phnom Penh and Hanoi. We saw the horrors of the killing fields. For me the enduring memory will be two magical nights and days on the waters of Ha Long Bay. We were offered many different options for outings, something suitable for the most active to the most sedentary and being able to eat at different restaurants in Hanoi and Siem Reap was fantastic. And we met some great people.

My only advice to anyone going is try not to get sick!

And remember, if you want to revisit any of the posts for this trip, take a look at the summary page. They’re all listed.

Into the delta

Houses along the water way

On this day we went to visit a village in the delta, travelling by tender through waterways that flowed from the great river. We passed fish farms raising the fresh water fish, basa. You’ve probably seen it in the supermarket.

A floating fish farm. The nets are underneath the platform

From there the channels became narrower. The banks were lined with fields of vegetables and fruit and we passed many fishing boats, large and small, as well as rows of houses built over the water. This was real Vietnamese peasant country where the villagers grew crops, tended animals and fished as they’d done for centuries. Except now they received extra money from tour groups.

Washing day

I’d guess people live on these

Harvesting bamboo? Reeds?

The ground is incredibly fertile

A house in the village

We were taken into a village where the people have lived in the same way for centuries. Except for motorbikes, schools, and satellite dishes. Fruit trees grow between the houses and chickens run around. Cattle are raised for sale to third-party merchants.

Chillies are dried the old fashioned way

Cock fighting is illegal in Vietnam but it isn’t in Cambodia, so a few choice cockerels were being raised to sell in Cambodia. They’re worth a lot of money to poor farmers.

He’s going into a ring in Cambodia

We were invited to climb the stairs and see the villager’s houses but some of us declined. I know they were paid for it, but still it seemed… inappropriate. This was a Saturday and the kids had the day off school. They were delighted to see us and we received many smiles and waves. We were wearing our little wireless devices around our necks and at one point a few kids stared at the ear piece. Pete took his out and let a number of kids listen to what our (quite distant) guide was saying.

Listening to the guide with Pete’s ear piece

You’ll never see an overweight person in this country, which wasn’t true of our group. One man who I’d guess was in his thirties was most amused by Pete’s belly. You could almost hear him wondering when the baby was due.

It wasn’t only the kids happy to have us there – the old people were, too. Everywhere we went the old women, in particular, were very happy to pose for photos. But I don’t think all of the generation in the middle were quite so pleased. They watched us as we wandered through their village, some more resigned than anything else. I do have to wonder how often these tours invade their privacy. Still, I’m sure the money helps.

On the balcony of her home.

A big, friendly smile

If I got myself into this pose I’d never get up again

Our guide said it was great for the kids to see these groups. They learned there was a wider world out there – we must look like aliens to them – and how important it was to learn English. One day they might get to be tour guides just like him.

From here we went on to a small factory where rattan goods were made. Occupational health and safety would have a pink fit. It’s a cottage industry in this village. They pick the rattan, strip the stalks and dye them, then the weavers create mats and bags. It was a noisy, smelly business but I’m sure that’s how things were in Europe during the early industrial revolution. At least here there’s plenty of food.

Weaving rattan and developing a hearing problem

From there we all boarded a local rickshaw – a bucket-like contraption towed behind a bicycle. It was without a doubt the most uncomfortable vehicle I’ve ever been on. Needless to say the wiry little fellow doing the peddling had to negotiate between motor bikes and some cars but I was used to that by now. There’s no back support so you sit upright without moving for fear of shifting the rider’s balance. After about five metres my back was complaining.

See that bike in the background? Imagine yourself sitting on that little carriage

Oh my aching back

We stopped off at a rather larger factory where they manufactured the highly prized black silk. It’s a laborious dyeing process that thickens the fibres and gives it a lustrous shine. This factory has large old machines to weave silk. They’re relatively simple devices using templates as patterns. They look a lot like the punched cards of the early days of computing. And they’re very, very noisy. I’m sure the operators will have hearing problems in the future.

Inside the factory

Note the template that’s fed into the machine to create patterns

Then we had to get back on those bloody bucket things for a final trip beside the river to where our tenders waited to take us back to the ship. This was a classier neighbourhood with underground power and street lights.

My peddler and the road by the river. I couldn’t wait to get off

I’ve already told you about our dinner at l’Indochine. Tomorrow would be our last day of excursions.

Cruising the Mekong

It’s a busy water way

We left Phnom Penh and sailed down the Mekong toward Vietnam. There would be no excursions today although guests could join the chef for a cooking class in making fresh Vietnamese spring rolls or attend a lesson in fruit-carving. I think some of these activities were more for the benefit of passengers who joined as at Siem Reap because our group had already done some of these things at Ha Long Bay and at Hoi An. In any event, we took the chance to rest and watch the comings and goings on this very busy river.

A crane fills a barge with sand. I suppose it’s like dredging

We passed any number of cranes dredging sand from the bottom and loading up barges. I assume they would be headed for the building projects in Phnom Penh.

At one point our ship stopped and presumably dropped anchor. That would be where the Vietnamese border authorities came aboard to check passports and visas. Long had to leave us in Phnom Penh and return to Saigon for urgent family reasons but he had collected our documents a day or two before and his replacement handled the formalities without any more interaction from us. We didn’t see the officials come aboard and didn’t see them leave.

Packed above the gunwhales

I don’t think they could have crammed any more on there

This isn’t a fishing boat. We know this because it has eyes – and they scare the fish

The floating debris is water hyacinth (which is native here). It has been ripped off the banks and drifts on the river, providing habitat for small fish and places to land for herons and other water birds.

Sand bags? Cement? Seems you put on as much as you think she’ll carry.

I took the opportunity to take some sunset photos from the top deck.

The after-dinner entertainment that evening was a trivia night with teams of up to six people. That’s always fun so we joined the other folks upstairs and with Mike and Linda set ourselves up as a team of four. To our everlasting astonishment, we won! The prize was two bottles of sparkling wine. All of us were booked to go to Amalotus’s special fine dining restaurant, l’Indochine, the following night so we agreed we’d share the wine with our special friends that evening.

Way back when our cosy little group of ten who’d started together in Saigon suddenly swelled to twenty-seven, the ten of us agreed to make a booking at l’Indochine on the last night of the cruise as a kind of fond farewell. As it happened, Mike and Linda had booked on the same night, although they sat at a different table with another group. The original plan was that our tour guide, Long, would join us at our table but he’d returned to Saigon so we drank a toast to him and wished him well. He’d been an excellent host and we thought of him as a  friend.

Cheers

Next time we’ll visit villages in the delta.

The killing fields

On our final day in Phnom Penh Pete and I visited the Killing Fields. I’d prevaricated about going but I’d visited Auschwitz and this couldn’t be any worse. For those who don’t know, the killing fields were places where perceived enemies of the communist party were taken to be killed. Cambodia’s communist party, known as the Khmer Rouge, was in power for nearly four years  from April 1975 to January 1979, when it was defeated by the Vietnamese army. In that time the regime was responsible for slaughtering up to two million of its own citizens.

It’s tempting to compare the Holocaust with what happened here but it’s different. The Holocaust was about eliminating a subset of people based on religion or ethnicity. The same can be said about the ‘ethnic’ cleansing in the Balkans, and in Rwanda. The events in Cambodia are more easily compared to Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and China’s cultural revolution. The Khmer Rouge targeted anyone with education or skills that could pose a threat to them – government officials from the previous regime, soldiers, teachers, students.

When Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 they wanted to impose a socialist agrarian state. Those living in the cities were forced into labour camps where hard physical labour and malnutrition led to many deaths. Others were taken to the killing fields to be executed.

Our bus took us to one of the many, many ‘killing fields’. As of 2009 the Cambodian government has mapped 23, 750 mass graves. They may well have found more in the last ten years. The one we visited, Choeung Ek, is close to the city and it has been set up as a memorial of what happened in that time.

On arrival your eyes are immediately drawn to the beautiful tower that dominates the site.

And yes, it is very beautiful. But then you take a closer look

The tower is full of skulls

People can go inside but this was close enough for me.

From here our local guide escorted us around the site, often using board walks built over mass graves.

Two or three times a month trucks arrived full of shackled and blindfolded prisoners. Families were separated. Often executions took place immediately.

If there were too many new arrivals to process immediately they were herded into unlit sheds to await their turn.

The chief executioner lived in relative luxury with electric light so that prisoner documentation could be filled in at night.

While the German concentration camps were well-oiled factories of death, the killing fields were much more hands-on. Prisoners had their throats cut or were murdered with pick axes. Children were brought here, too, probably the offspring of men and women who were to be killed. That way they wouldn’t need to deal with orphans.  It’s clear that prisoners were tortured. Who knows why? To implicate others? For fun?

Why beat a child against a tree? Those offerings were all brought by visitors. And in a mass grave where the remains of many children were found, people have tossed in money, grave goods for the victims.

It never ceases to astonish and disgust me how easily these murderous regimes recruit people to carry out their atrocities.

From the killing fields we were taken back to the city to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which had been one of many prisons set up by the Khmer Rouge. This site used to be a high school. We were not permitted to take photos in most of the rooms.

This photo gives some idea. Many of the classrooms were divided up into makeshift tiny cells where prisoners were incarcerated.

This article will tell you more about the place but let me quote one paragraph.

“From 1976 to 1979, an estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21 (the real number is unknown). At any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. In the early months of S-21’s existence, most of the victims were from the previous Lon Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. Later, the party leadership’s paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered. Those arrested included some of the highest ranking communist politicians such as Khoy Thoun, Vorn Vet and Hu Nim. Although the official reason for their arrest was “espionage”, these men may have been viewed by Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot as potential leaders of a coup against him. Prisoners’ families were sometimes brought en masse to be interrogated and later executed at the Choeung Ek extermination center.”

Like the regimes in Russia and China – and, indeed, Vietnam – the communists targeted anyone with an education or skills who could become a threat to them. This wasn’t about ethnicity or religion – it was all about power. Prisoners were routinely tortured to extract information, especially to implicate other people in traitorous activities.

When we finished the tour we were introduced to a man who had actually survived his time at this awful place. He was selling his book. This article from the BBC tells a little of his story and shows photos we couldn’t take. Please take a look.

A commemorative sculpture inside the old school’s garden

Several of the rooms in the prison displayed black and white photos of the inmates, all long-dead. Perhaps their skulls are some of those in Choeung Ek’s tower. Men and women of all ages, some staring at the camera with defiance, some afraid, some hopeless. We were told more than one visitor had recognized a face, a relative who had disappeared without a trace.

It’s ironic that Vietnam, having only recently been reunited under a communist regime, should rescue the Cambodians from the murderous Khmer Rouge. Although some of the Khmer Rouge leaders were put on trial and convicted, Pol Pot was not. He died in 1998, apparently of heart failure, but possibly of suicide. Good riddance.

 

 

A mooch around Phnom Penh

This isn’t our ship but it’s a similar design. That’s how Amalotus was tied up

This morning the Amalotus was moored at a wharf in Phnom Penh. For the lucky folk on the starboard side, that meant sweeping views over the river. At this time of year the water is low, so for those of us in port side cabins we had a rather uninspiring view of the pylons and the mud flats under the wharf. That’s life on a river cruise.  At the next stop we might get the nice view. We didn’t see much point in complaining about it, although one passenger did. She insisted she’d paid just as much to go on this cruise as the people in the cabins on the other side. Which was true, but I’m not sure what she wanted the tour director to do about it. Make the captain turn the ship around?

Today’s options were a Buddhist blessing ceremony at a place out of town, then a visit to a village making copperware or a slow trip on an oxcart. Although organised tours can be great, sometimes they become limiting. Together with Mike and Linda we decided to do pretty much what we’d done on our first day in Saigon and explore the city on our own.

The catwalk under the wharf.

Getting off the ship was a tiny adventure in itself, walking along a narrow catwalk under the wharf to a set of metal steps. When we emerged, we waved away the waiting tuk-tuks, insisting that yes, really honestly, we wanted to walk.

Phnom Penh’s traffic is rather like Hanoi’s. The biggest difference is the plethora of tuk-tuks which are used as commercial vehicles as well as taxis. Major roadworks were occurring not far from the wharf area and all the pavements were parking areas for motorbikes, so we found ourselves walking on the road. Eventually, not far past the hospital, having consulted Mike’s GPS, we turned right into a lane which was clearly an area where people lived. Stalls lined the roadsides selling clothing, leather goods, shoes. This would be where the locals shop. The prices were quoted in Cambodian riels – nowhere near the prices in the touristy markets. That’s understandable. US$1 is a lot of money for ordinary Cambodians. Average salary is US$270 per month and rent is around US$80. US$1 equals about 4,000 riels.

Cambodia, like Vietnam, is in the throes of an industrial revolution. Most of the population had been farmers but the younger generation don’t want to live on the farms anymore. They move to the cities to find work and earn more money and that results in overcrowding. Pete noticed an apartment building with shanties built on top. That said, we didn’t encounter any beggars although we did see one blind man playing a musical instrument being led by a kid who looked about twelve.

Where the ordinary people live

The electricity commission. Government, of course

We noticed plenty of building sites along the river. These will become five star hotels or apartments for the very rich. There’s room at the top trough even in a communist country.

Those stairs are steep and there’s a lot of them

Our first stop on our self-guided tour was Putkhosacha Pagoda a large pagoda on the top of a hill in the centre of the CBD. Locals could enter for free but tourists had to pay – which was fair enough. The usual many-headed snakes and lion figures guarded the stairs but the carving seemed primitive in comparison with others we’d seen. It’s a fair hike getting up the stairs. The temple at the top is quite modest as these things go and clearly used by locals. A traditional orchestra played and visitors burned incense and prayed.

The orchestra at the temple

Worshippers

We walked back through the extensive park surrounding the building, heading for the city markets. This involved crossing roads but we’d had lots of practice. At the markets we split up, having arranged to meet at a café on a corner. The market was built in 1937 and boasts a beautiful art deco dome. That’s where you’ll find items like jewellery watches, cameras and the like. But the market spreads much wider than that into the surrounding streets. Pete and I wandered around the outside past many stalls selling clothes, a whole row of flower sellers, the usual knick-knacks and souvenir items and then, of course, fresh fish, meat, vegetables and fruit.

The cupola at the central markets

We went and found the designated café. Just as well I had Pete with me. I’d still be wandering around Phnom Penh like a restless wraith. I kept the seats warm while Pete went in search of a pharmacy for more paracetamol. When Mike and Linda arrived we ordered coffee, the closest we could get here to a flat white, which would be a latte or a cappuccino (no chocolate). Linda asked for tea. The coffee came pre-sweetened and Pete asked for a replacement. Linda had just finished telling us about hating sugar in her drinks when her tea arrived. It was sweetened, of course. Her face was a picture.

The museum

After a quick orientation on Mike’s phone we made our way to the museum which turned out to be closed. The entrance fee was quite steep and that was one of the tour options for tomorrow so we passed on that and hailed a tuk-tuk to take us back to the ship. The driver took us along a road beside the waterfront, where we admired a wide path with not a single motorbike parked on it. That was probably because the royal palace was a couple of blocks further down from the museum. It wouldn’t do to spoil the royal view.

The elegant esplanade near the palace

Things progressed well enough, the driver negotiating the traffic with practised ease. Until we were about halfway there. Remember the road works I mentioned? This was like any huge traffic jam anywhere in the world. We’d move a metre or so, then stand for ten minutes. Motorbikes tried to get into spaces too narrow even for them. We almost got to know some of the other people – the lady riding a motorbike with her little girl, who clutched a balloon on a string, in front of her. Another tuk-tuk driver who grinned and waved at us. The fellow with his entire shoe shop on his motor bike.

His shoe shop is on his motor bike

Caught up in traffic

Then suddenly a gate opened to our right and an official came out, blowing a whistle to let an Important Person’s car out into the road. Somehow the traffic snarl dissipated and we were back at the top of the stairs to the walkway beneath the wharf.

(The next day, when the Scenic ship arrived and parked behind us we noticed they had a different system. They’d erected a little bridge extending from the ship’s sundeck directly onto the wharf. Much nicer.)

That evening a group of children came on board to perform dances. They brought beautiful costumes and an orchestra with them and opinion was that they were better than the performance we saw at the hotel in Siem Reap.

After dinner those interested saw a documentary about Pol Pot, a suitable introduction for those people visiting the Killing Fields the next day.

 

 

On board the Amalotus

The Amalotus in the middle of the river

We set off from our hotel in Siem Reap at 8:30am for our five-and-a-half-hour bus trip to Kampong Chan, where we would board RV Amalotus. It’s a long drive through Cambodia’s countryside on the M1, which is a two-lane road. I always feel for the guides on these journeys. They’re supposed to tell us things about the country and he did his best, pointing out houses built on stilts to protect against wild animals and rising water, and indicating rubber plantations and the like. But to be honest, after a while it tends to go in one ear and out the other.

Taken from the bus

We made a major stop at what you might call a roadhouse situated near the long lake that starts near Siem Reap and feeds the Mekong. It was about the only place on the road that could accommodate buses and large numbers of people, and the place was crowded. The toilet facilities were adequate, if pretty basic. Inside, travellers could buy food, ice cream, cold drinks, souvenirs etc. We were warned to get back on the right coach – there would be more than one APT blue bus in the carpark because passengers from the Amalotus were going to Siem Reap. That also explains why the driver was taking his time rather than driving at the speed limit. Staff would be cleaning up and resetting everything for our arrival.

We scrambled down that slope to where the man is standing bottom right.

I suppose I was expecting the Amalotus to be moored at a wharf. She wasn’t. At this time of year, the river is low and we had to negotiate our way down a steep slope to a narrow gangway onto the ship while balancing our carry-on luggage. A number of our less mobile friends found the task somewhat daunting to say the least. Staff were on hand to help guide us across the gangway, no more than two at a time. On board we were a little too enthusiastically welcomed with a squirt of hand sanitiser, a cold towel, and a cold drink, all offered at the same time, while we juggled hand luggage. We were immediately ushered into the dining room for a late lunch, the hotel manager fending off any requests to go to rooms. (I suspect that was to give Housekeeping time to finish setting up.)

Lunch was excellent, with a wide selection of items on the buffet and extra choices on the menu which were served at the table. In fact, the food was excellent on the whole trip. Breakfast was also buffet style but eggs were always freshly-cooked to your liking – fried, poached, scrambled, omelette. Dinner was full service, with a good selection on the menu and a handful of staples (like Caesar salad) if nothing else appealed.

After lunch we found our room. It was nice, with anything you’d need as well as a narrow balcony so we could sit outside and admire the view – and use the two chairs for drying hand-washed knickers. (One of the nice features of this tour was that it included two pieces of laundry per cabin per day but we left that for our shirts and shorts, and hand washed smalls.) We did need to contact Housekeeping on our first day, though, because our bathroom sink was blocked and the floor hadn’t been cleaned behind the bathroom door.

APT had organised a short afternoon tour, a tuk-tuk ride to a nearby island (they drove over a bridge). Pete and I stayed on board and joined everybody else on the sundeck that evening for the rather perfunctory safety drill. After that it was time for a pre-dinner drink. On APT’s European cruises all alcohol except the absolute top of the range offerings were free. We’d assumed that was the case here, but the fine print (which we hadn’t read well enough) stated that ‘local spirits’ were free. One glass of the house whisky was enough to have me revert to house wine from then on.

As the ship sailed we noticed a Scenic vessel – moored at a wharf just around the corner from where the Amalotus had been tied up to the river bank. Interesting.

Phnom Penh just up there

The following morning saw the Amalotus again tied up on the river bank with the towers of Phnom Penh visible in the distance. The two tours that day were a visit to Angkor Ban, a village of traditional stilted houses which the Khmer Rouge had not destroyed in their reign of terror. Later, passengers went to Oknhatey Island, known as silk island, to see the traditional process of silk weaving.

By this stage of the trip Pete and I felt the need to pace ourselves, so we stayed on board. It was entertaining just watching life on the river from up on the sun deck.

A mosque and a fisherman

A temple

Fishermen preparing their nets

Bringing in a catch

Hand fishing

There was one highlight – I was on our little balcony late in the day when a local farmer brought his cows down for a drink and a bath. He stood in the water washing the calf. It all looked suitably bucolic – until the farmer started to hit one beast to get it out of the river.

A farmer brings his cows and a calf down to the river

The following day we’d be hitting the bright lights of the big city.

Dawn at Angkor Wat

The sun is still below the horizon

The alarm went off at 4:15am but we were already awake. You know how it is – we knew we had to be in the lobby at around 4:40 and the body clock did the rest. Everybody had elected to go out to Angkor Wat to see the sunrise over the towers, so we piled into the buses and hit the road.

And so did about a million other people. This particular Sunday was the date of an international half marathon, starting and finishing at Angkor Wat. We’d seen quite a few people wearing shorts and numbers in the lobby, obviously participants. When we arrived at the carpark, it was apparent that a lot of people had been awake earlier than us, setting up the course and support facilities for the event. We had to detour around the course to get to the relative peace of the viewing area opposite the temple, lighting our way through the darkness with (provided) torches. We’d been told the site wouldn’t be crowded and I suppose it wasn’t if you think a few hundred people isn’t a crowd. Most of them stood crushed together around a lake where they could get a photo of the temple reflected in the water. We parked ourselves further up the hill on another ruin. We waited in warm darkness as the temple’s towers started to stand out black against the background. A hint of deepest crimson stained the sky, then lightened to blood red.

The sun’s almost up and the lake is a mirror

To be honest, I was disappointed. The temple was a silhouette. A little later, when the crowd around the lake had dissipated somewhat, I managed to get a photo of the reflection. I expect anyone who has been to Angkor Wat has one of these. Then we joined Linda and Mike on the causeway in front of the building for more photos.

A few of the throng of tourists reflected in the lake

Our guide had given everyone careful instructions on where to meet at a designated time for a tour of the complex, but somehow we managed to lose the group. We saw them from a distance, dutifully made our way across the grass – but by the time we arrived they had disappeared.

On these excursions we were all given little radio receivers with an ear piece. That way the tour guide didn’t have to shout and we could be some distance (not too far) away to hear what was said. Having arrived where the group was supposed to meet, we headed inside, hoping to catch them. Every now and then we’d hear a snatch of words through the ear piece and changed direction on that basis, following the sound. The reasoning went something like ” we heard him going that way, so if we go down this corridor we should catch up with them over there”. This happened several times. I felt a bit like Merry and Pippin in the Mines of Moria. As a result, we saw a lot of places we might not otherwise have seen, walking over planks laid to protect the uneven paving as well as the tourists. At one point Mike went off to look at something, Linda waited for him so now there were two… But if we met any orcs they were well disguised as foreign tourists.

Sunlight rims the spires as a saffron-clad monk enters the temple. This was where we entered, as well. Those stairs from the ground are steep.

Steps leading to yet another corridor

A portal from the outside

Vast ceilings. The place reminded me of Khazad-Dum

One of the internal courtyards

We did eventually catch up with the group at the place where visitors could climb a stairway to stand on the top ramparts to admire the view. Mike and Linda found us there and did the climb. We didn’t. It wouldn’t do to have a coughing fit on the stairs. In all these temple the top of the building is the pinnacle, the closest place to God. It’s as true of Christian churches. In this case, not everyone could climb up, that was limited to the king and his senior people. The stairs we tourists use is recent and is built over a steep ramp – which was how the climb used to be made, no doubt virtually on hands and knees.

One staircase up, another going down – and the number of people up there was controlled.

I think you’d have to crawl up these steps. And that would be the intention, to show humility in the presence of the Almighty

The main buildings

Angkor Wat is enormous. It was never overgrown with trees like Ta Prohm, and it was never completely abandoned although it was sacked by the Khmer’s deadly enemies, the Cham. Read all about Angkor Wat here. One reason for the lack of intrusion from trees is the tightness of the joints between the stones. We’ve all seen pictures of the buildings at Machu Pichu but these constructions were almost as good. Holes were bored into the stones and then the edges were ground against each other to make a perfect fit. There’s no mortar.

The joints are incredible – no mortar, just human elbow grease

The bas reliefs were fascinating. There are lots of warfare, of course, and crushing of enemies under our feet. But this was originally a Hindu temple and while Buddhists don’t believe in hell, Hindus have a version. Some of the carvings show some pretty awful practices, such as cutting out someone’s tongue. There are plenty of gods and demons, too. One shows the five faces of Shiva. Another shows a deity riding a water buffalo.

Goddess on a water buffalo

The five faces of Shiva

Demons flinging people down into hell

Someone having his tongue cut out (left) and other nastiness

There are plenty of monkeys in the forest surrounding Angkor Wat (not inside). Our guide warned us not to get too close or try to touch. They do bite and rabies is a thing here. On the way back to the bus we came across a tree where a dozen baby monkeys played around, being supervised by one old aunty. Maybe it was the kindergarten?

Monkey kindergarten

After we’d crossed the wide moat surrounding the complex we had to get to our bus, parked somewhere in a distant corner of the car park. The half marathon was finished and the crowds were prodigious. It was all we could do to keep an eye on that bobbing blue APT sign as we fought our way through. When we finally made it to the bus at least we got to sit down in air-conditioned comfort while the driver tried to get out of the place. It took about an hour.

Crowds after the half marathon. We had to follow that blue APT lollipop

After lunch we had a whole swag of choices – horse and cart ride, quad bike excursion, an artisan’s workshop, a Buddhist blessing, shopping – or a relaxing spa treatment at the hotel. After all that walking, we were both happy to chill out at the spa.

In the evening APT gave us a list of places to go to for dinner, depending on food choices. The cost of the meal and the tuk-tuk ride there and back were included as part of our tour. About fourteen of us elected to go to the ‘Kitchen’, a restaurant which offered real Khmer food. We had a great evening. The food was delicious and the staff cheerful and informative. Pete asked about one of his dishes, bamboo sticky rice. The young lady serving us explained that the sticky rice was cooked inside a bamboo stem. She was lovely. Pete and I had ordered a second glass of wine (the first was complimentary) and at the end of the evening she presented us with a bill each. I looked at mine and thrust it at Pete, which raised a laugh from our friends – and also from the waitress, who gave me a broad smile and a thumbs up. Two of the dishes were presented with a bit of theatre, requiring the restaurant manager to light alcohol fumes (flambe). He had a bit of trouble the first time because his lighter didn’t work but in the end it was suitably spectacular.

Flambe

It was a lovely evening ending a memorable visit to Siem Reap. Tomorrow we’d be off to board our river ship, the Amalotus.

PS If you ever want to find earlier posts, they’re all listed on this page for easy reference.

 

 

 

Temples in the jungle

The Bayon and just a few of the visitors

Our visit to Ha Long Bay was over. We disembarked the ship at mid-morning and boarded the bus for the trip to Hanoi airport. We’d be flying from Vietnam to Cambodia’s Siem Reap airport. Lunch (and Happy House) was at a swanky golf course. Judging by the buggies and caddies for hire – and the course itself, the green fees would be expensive. We were told no more golf courses were to be built in Vietnam. They needed the land for farming. And fair enough, too.

At the airport Pete and I decided to try Vietnamese coffee – black coffee with condensed milk. Actually, it reminded me of the coffee my parents drank at home when I was small, but they used evaporated milk, not condensed milk, and the Vietnamese version was too sweet for my liking. Coffee is a major export in Vietnam, including the special type where beans are collected from the droppings of civets. It’s supposed to taste better. Here’s the story.

After we’d been through immigration, Long collected our passports and our payment in US dollars (something like US$ 30 or 40 – don’t recall) for our Cambodian entry visas. APT would get these sorted for us in Siem Reap so we’d not be delayed.

We arrived at Siem Reap in the early evening, collected our passports and visas from Long, went through immigration and customs, and were driven to the Sofitel Hotel on the outskirts of the city. Dinner was a scotch in one of the hotel’s bars and room service club sandwiches while we watched the CNN news.

The following morning after breakfast we set off first to collect our photo ids for the visits to the Angkor temples. By now our numbers had swelled to ninety-four, with new arrivals joining the group at the hotel, so Long had to juggle four buses, each distinguished by a group colour. Pete and I and our other friends were in the blue group. We all headed off to have our mug shot taken to slip into a plastic holder to be worn around our necks. They were checked at each temple we visited. There was a bit of toing and froing as a few people got on the wrong bus and were re-directed. It’s important for the guides to know how many people they’ve got so they know if anyone is missing. Anytime this happened the errant individuals tended to be the same people and it was nice to see everyone helping them to get where they needed to be.

In the flow of human history, the temples at Angkor are not particularly old, having been built in what we would call the Middle Ages. They are contemporaries of the Gothic cathedrals of Europe. The difference is that the Cambodian structures were abandoned and largely forgotten until the French rediscovered them in the 19th century. Our local guide told us that they were abandoned because of invading armies. The people relocated elsewhere and never came back. The name Siem Reap means ‘victory over Siam’ and that illustrates the state of relationships between the two countries over many centuries. Like the Egyptian pyramids, the temples were not built by slaves. Working people had to serve the king and the choice was the army or temple-building. And while the Gothic cathedrals in Europe took hundreds of years to complete, these Angkor temples were built in a couple of decades.

Our first stop in the Angkor complex was The Bayon. Built in the 12th century by Cambodia’s most powerful king, Jayavarman VII, this temple is famous for the bas relief faces in the towers. Although most Cambodians today are Buddhist, the country was Hindu for a long time in its early history and this blend of two religions is evident in many places, not least this one.

The elephant terrace with the king’s reviewing stand

Detail of the wall covered with elephants

Before we went into the temple itself our guide pointed out the elephant terrace which was once a parade platform for the king. Our attention was distracted by an elephant taking tourists for a ride. Our guide told us that the practice was to be stopped and the elephants set free. I clapped.

The temple was packed. Siem Reap has no shortage of visitors and people swarmed all over the building’s pavements and staircases. It’s nice to see the country is earning tourist dollars but I longed for a bit of privacy to reflect and enjoy. I tried to do that with my camera. The faces are amazing. It’s almost as if the tower is alive, with only the face visible smiling down on visitors. The features are unmistakably Khmer. The bas relief could have been the face of our local guide cast in stone.

Apart from the faces, there are statues and other bas reliefs that look more Hindu. Many depict battles, with the king or generals shown riding elephants.

We were taken back to the hotel and left to our own devices for lunch. That suited us. The hotel porters fetched us a tuk-tuk (see picture) which would take us to a pharmacy and back for US$5. We had brought a course of amoxycillin with us from Australia and used it between us to keep our illness at bay, but we needed more to cover both of us. You can get antibiotics over the counter in Cambodia so we stocked up on amoxycillin, paracetamol, mouth wash, and hair gel, then went over to a French bakehouse for a croque monsieur and a flat white. We’d explained all this to our tuk-tuk driver and he was happy to wait.

The traffic is nowhere near as chaotic as Hanoi. Nobody obeys the road rules, but there are a lot less vehicles on the road, mainly tuk-tuks, motorbikes, and tour buses.

A tuk-tuk – a little carriage attached to a motorbike

Siem Reap is a nice city

Our local guide had been at pains to explain that Cambodia is a poor country and everybody’s trying to make a living. We should NOT let a tuk-tuk driver take us shopping. They had arrangements with the larger retail shops to bring in unsuspecting tourists, for which they’d make much more than just a fare. And the shops that made those deals were outsiders offering merchandise made elsewhere. Not that it mattered to us, since we already have enough dust-gatherers to last us until we pop our clogs.

That afternoon we were taken to Ta Prohm, the temple used for Angelina Jolie’s version of the movie Tomb Raider. No faces on this building, but lots of fig trees, their roots scrambling over the walls and through the doorways. After all this time, if the trees were removed much of the building would collapse. Walking could be difficult on the uneven surfaces where tree roots had shifted the paving, and in some places board walks had been erected to make life easier.

Trees crowd around the temple

Note the board walk. The paving would be a mess

It’s almost as though the tree is trying to lift off the roof

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the Opportunities of Development through Art centre, (ODA) an organisation that provides opportunities for disadvantaged children. APT has assisted in establishing three schools around Siem Reap and every year a percentage of profits made from tours in the region goes towards ODA and its projects. Education is seen as very important, especially learning English which opens up so many employment opportunities for these kids. While we were there the children performed some traditional dances for us. Quite a few of us bought some of the children’s original art work in the form of cards and prints. It wasn’t cheap but it was going to a good cause.

That evening we were treated to a Cambodian dance show performed by professional dancers in beautiful costumes, supported by a band using traditional instruments. The group performed three dances – a sacred dance performed in offering ceremonies and palatial festivals; a ritual courting dance; and a goddess defeating a demon. The dances are stylised and precise, with every gesture and expression having meaning. One day maybe one of the kids we watched perform at the school will be working here.

A rustic dance

The demon vs goddess dance

Then it was time for dinner and an early night. We’d be up early to watch the dawn at Angkor Wat.

Ha Long Bay – where a picture isn’t worth a thousand words

Ha Long Bay from the port – mountains shrouded in mystery

Ha Long Bay is part of the Gulf of Tonkin, a couple of hours’ drive from Hanoi. It’s an amazing place, a shallow bay where something like three thousand islands tower out of the water. The vast majority present vertical cliff faces, so they’re not the sort of places you’d call home. Unless you’re one of the many raptors we saw floating on the air currents. The islands are limestone, formed when the land was flooded by rising seas some eight thousand years ago. The softer limestone eroded away leaving the harder islands (called karsts). When the sea level receded, the bay took on its present appearance. Read more here.

Back in the olden days Ha Long Bay was a haven for fishermen and pirates but these days it’s a world heritage site, visited by millions since the early 2000s. The surge as a tourist destination might have happened earlier had not the Vietnamese Government made an error of judgement. The James Bond movie, The Man with the Golden Gun, was supposed to be filmed in Ha Long Bay but the government suddenly withdrew permission, no doubt because of decadent western morals etc. That was in 1974. Undaunted, the film makers moved the location to Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay, near Phuket. Of course, the tourists flocked to Thailand instead of Vietnam.

As our bus approached our destination, I noticed a range of mountains in the distance. They were the islands, looking weird and mystical in the haze.

MV Auco

Our cabin

We arrived at the docks in Ha Long City around noon and boarded our vessel, MV Auco, where we were welcomed by the staff. The cabins were simple and comfortable each with its own en suite and a little balcony wide enough to hold a chair so you could sit and watch the scenery down here if you wanted. However, there was plenty of seating on the top sun deck or a deck behind the vessel’s restaurant. After we’d tossed our overnight bags into the room, we were summoned to lunch in the restaurant. Both sides of the room were glass so we could watch the view slide past as we ate.

It tasted as good as it looks

The food was magnificent, all served Masterchef style. Even so, I couldn’t help but pop outside to take photos. That was me getting over-excited. The scenery was amazing for the whole trip.

Photo opportunities everywhere

Busy bay

Auco was certainly not the only ship in the bay. There were hundreds, ranging from huge cargo vessels to large floating hotels and cruisers like Auco, to quaint day-trip boats right down to the local people’s fishing boats, all taking advantage of cloudless skies and calm seas.

This is the bit where I wax lyrical. You know how they say a picture is worth a thousand words? Sometimes that’s not true. This was one of those times, even if you took a video. A photo doesn’t capture the mind games, the changes of perspective. You look between an apparent row of islands and see a boat, then it’s gone. A little further on you see it again, appearing around what you think is another island. Or it might be another island. Or a different boat. It’s like being in the middle of one of those “where’s the pea” sleight of hand games. It’s an ideal setting for pirates preying on the trading ships coming to Ha Long port. They could hide anywhere in this maze and appear and disappear at will.

Layer upon layer upon layer

We were given opportunities for several off-ship excursions. Out at the edge of the islands the crew launched kayaks for those feeling energetic and a tender for the rest of us to visit a little beach. Even out here garbage had made its way to the shore – but it was nice to see visitors and crew collecting the rubbish to take away. Those feeling particularly fit could also enjoy a swim.

Kayaking for the energetic

There’s a little temple on another of the rare beaches. We were taken for a visit but I didn’t get any photos inside. Our guide told us it was dedicated to the three mothers, a faith that pre-dates Buddhism, Confucianism and the like. The three mothers are earth, sea, and sky, all important elements to the superstitious fisher folk who live here. Although these days being homosexual shouldn’t be a stigma any longer, long ago a man displaying feminine characteristics would become a servant of the mothers, attending to the altar and performing rituals.

The temple

It’s said women and children are never taken on boats beyond the islands because the sea gods like women and children and it’s more likely the boat will sink. If boats do sink and the men are drowning, they won’t be rescued. It’s seen as the sea gods taking a sacrifice. Nobody interferes with the deities.

That evening after dinner, our host, Kevin, told us why the ship is called “Auco” and the legend of how the bay was created. Auco was a fairy with healing skills who hailed from the mountains. Wanting to share her skills with those who needed them, she left the mountains and went down to the plains. But there is danger everywhere for a single woman and she was set upon by thugs. Seeing this the great sea dragon rose from the waters and rescued her. Of course, they fell in love and were married. Auco bore one hundred eggs which became the forefathers of the Vietnamese people. As the legend unfolded on the screen, members of the hard-working staff performed a traditional dance illustrating the words.

It’s a lovely story and it’s somehow very fitting in this setting of mountains surrounded by sea.

One of the chefs gave us a cooking lesson on the back deck behind the restaurant. He showed us how to make fried Vietnamese spring rolls, except this time, he used premade wrappers. Then he invited members of the audience to give it a try. As the evening progressed degrees of difficulty were added to the task eg rolling the spring roll with one hand, rolling the spring roll with your back turned. At the end the remaining two contestants had to roll their opponent’s spring roll with their back turned. The winner of the best spring roll won a chef’s apron and hat to take home. It was lots of fun, enjoyed by the spectators.

Rolling spring rolls behind your back isn’t easy

We were given a chance to see the bridge and engines on the ship, a treat for those mechanically minded.

The bridge – I reckon the captain was kept busy navigating between the islands and all the boats

The donk

You’ll have noticed already that a number of the excursions we did were visits to ordinary Vietnamese people, living life as they’ve always done, such as the farmer’s house in Hoi An and the basket boats in the fishing village. It gives these people another way of earning some of the tourist dollars which are so often limited to the hotels and resorts. The Auco itself worked in a similar way. Many of the staff were recruited from villages and given the opportunity to learn English, acquire new skills, and work their way up. One young barman came from a rural village where he was betrothed at a young age to a local girl. But after discovering a wider world he decided to stay on the ship and make his fortune.

Map of the islands

Late on our second day we were taken by tender to a village on Cat Ba Island, the largest of the group and the closest to Hanoi. Although part of the island is filled with thriving resorts, we were taken to Viet Hai village nestled in a fertile valley near the national park. Tourist dollars had created an all-weather concrete road between the jetty where our tenders tied up and the village itself. The more enterprising of our group elected to ride bikes, while the rest of us were transported in vehicles. It was a challenging ride for the cyclists with plenty of hills and valleys. The island itself is made of the same limestone as the karsts in the sea, offering an ideal location for goats.

A goat doing what goats do

Viet Hai is a fairly unspoiled village, home to around two hundred-and-eighty people living life the old way, though supported by tourists like us and, we were told, the company that runs the Auco and other ships. Like all farmers, they had acres of crops, grown organically. I gathered they supplied the tourist boats with produce. We saw horses and buffalo, and, of course, hens and geese. And dogs. Our guide agreed the dogs were there for protection but that not all the puppies would get to grow up. These people eat everything.

The mountains are just like the towers in the sea

A better class of housing than the thatched cottages of the past.

After we’d had a wander around, we gathered in the meeting hall for a short lecture. We’d heard the Vietnamese make ‘wine’ out of just about everything. This version was snake wine. Snakes are pickled in something a bit like grappa. You scoop some out in a cup and drink. But men only. (I suspect the reason is phallic.)

Snake wine

We’d heard on the boat about the conservation initiative to save the langur that’s endemic to Cat Ba Island. The monkey is wonderfully adapted to live on the razor-sharp limestone cliffs and is able to drink salt water. But until about twenty years ago their numbers had dropped from a sustainable several thousand to about fifty. The reasons are the usual culprits: the body parts are used for Asian medicine, they’re hunted as ‘sport’ by some tourists, and they were easy meat for the locals. The village spokesperson also told us about a particularly horrible practice where people ate the brains of still-living monkeys because that would make them smarter. Some of you might recall a similar scene in the Indiana Jones movie, The Temple of Doom. Traditional medicine is full of these idiotic beliefs. Obvious examples are that rhino horn and tiger penis potions will increase a man’s virility. It’s sickening.

The remaining langurs live their lives in the island’s national park, where rangers protect them from poachers and illegal hunting. It seems the conservation efforts are beginning to work as the langur population has increased to about seventy-five. Of course, the main way to protect the animals is to make them worth more alive than dead. It takes education and income exceeding the worth of a langur for medical potions. That’s where tourism comes in. This interesting article will tell you a little more about the langurs.

sunset

The sun was beginning to set when we climbed back into the tenders and returned to the Auco for our wonderful dinner. I don’t know about you but I prefer sav blanc to snake wine. And I got a chance to take some nice sunset shots.

The following morning, still in the spirit of community-based tourism we were invited to visit one of the floating fishing villages to see how the fisher folk lived. The platforms are the same as any village, with shops, accommodation, and schools – only they’re anchored next to one or more of the islands. Read more about them here. This article indicates the people don’t live on the floating villages anymore and receive most of their income from tourism. Good luck to them.

The fishing village in context

A closer shot

But while the people may not live here anymore, there’s plenty of locals out there fishing.

And another couple of locals fishing. One thing I didn’t see – much bird life apart from the raptors. They looked a lot like our black kites at home and a quick interview with Prof Google confirms my judgement. They live on the karsts. I saw one landing at a nest.

It was a fabulous couple of days. My only regret is that we didn’t get to see any of the caves. There are plenty out there, and since the rocks are limestone, there will be plenty of stalagmites.

Oh well. Maybe another time.

 

 

A busy day in Hanoi

Roadside view of Hanoi

After an overnight stay in Hue we went straight to the airport for our flight to Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. We booked into the beautiful Metropole Hotel, which has an interesting history. Built in 1901, it is on the edge of the city centre in the French Quarter. Pete and I went out to find drugs (no, not that kind) and food. We were told we could get lunch in any number of nearby restaurants, and there was a pharmacy a few blocks away on the right. The traffic in Hanoi was positively sedate in comparison with Saigon, although there were still lots of motorbikes to which traffic rules (if any) didn’t apply. Having honed our skills in Saigon, we were veterans.

Neither of us was feeling particularly sparkly and when we finally found a pharmacy next door to a McDonalds we decided on the easy option for lunch. I’m pleased to report that Hanoi’s McDonalds food is just as ordinary as the rest of them.

That afternoon we didn’t do much at all in preparation for meeting most of our new travel companions. Ten of us had taken the 23-day option from Saigon, but APT offered shorter trips on parts of the same route. Seventeen people would be joining our tour here in Hanoi and tonight was the welcome dinner. When we reached Siem Reap there would be ninety-four of us.

I’d fit right in out there

The following morning Pete was feeling unwell, but I felt OK so I ventured forth for the morning tour wearing my Asian style face mask to try to avoid spreading whatever I had to others. As an aside, when we got back home and saw the doctor, he told us the mask was a waste of time. Viruses are so small they pass through the fabric easily. Besides, the most common form of transmission is through contact on surfaces like door knobs. It’s more important to wash/sanitise your hands often.

 

We piled onto the bus, much more crowded now with twenty-seven of us, and met our local guide.Unlike our South Vietnamese guides, he didn’t have a horror story from the war and thought the current regime was fine. His only complaint was that his hometown, Hanoi, had grown from a city of half a million or so to a bustling metropolis of around seven million. Driving down the streets he pointed out the only statue of Lenin outside the Soviet Union. He stands in a park, his back turned to the Chinese embassy. Our guide said that was a deliberate snide dig at the Chinese who had strayed from the communist path to form their own version.

Ba Dinh Square and the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum

Our first stop was at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where we would see the embalmed body of Chairman Ho Chi Minh who died in 1969, at the height of the war. Read more about the man here. I was interested to learn his real family was Nguyen. Like the kings in Hue.

Embalming their leaders’ bodies seems to be a uniquely communist tradition. I passed on the opportunity to see Mao Tse Dung in his resting place in Beijing and I have no interest in viewing the corpse of Lenin in Moscow. Since the USSR was the greatest supporter of Uncle Ho, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the Russians offered a design for the mausoleum – a copy of Lenin’s in Moscow – and that they embalmed the body. The Mausoleum isn’t a copy of Lenin’s but it has that same blocky, industrial feeling so common in communist architecture.

It’s not easy to get to see the corpse of Uncle Ho in his specially-made-to-withstand-earthquakes crystal coffin. We had to go through security checks similar to an airport. These sorts of places seem to attract nutters and someone in the past had carried out an acid attack, hence the security. Large cameras like my Canon were not allowed, but I’d prepared for that and only brought my phone. Not that photos were allowed inside the mausoleum, anyway. We joined the queue being supervised by guards in white uniforms. Apparently it’s a great honour to be a guardian at the tomb and the men (all men, of course) took their job seriously. I had to take my surgical mask off, probably so they’d recognise me if I did something naughty.

When we were allowed inside, we climbed up a myriad of stairs in suitably sombre dim lighting until we reached the brighter viewing chamber. Ho lay as if asleep in his crystal coffin and we walked past in silence to file back down the stairs into daylight.

Ho’s own wish was that he be cremated and his ashes divided and placed in several locations in Vietnam. But he’d been such a powerful, larger-than-life figure in the struggle for independence that his wishes were overruled. It seems a bit strange to me, given that most Vietnamese are Buddhists and believe in reincarnation. I’m inclined to wonder if the body in the casket is actually a wax work. We’d have no way of knowing. That goes for Mao and Lenin, too.

Just as Mao’s mausoleum in Beijing is in Tien An Men square, Chairman Ho’s mausoleum is in Ba Dinh square where parades and government ceremonies are held. When parades aren’t being held its an impressive empty space. In keeping with a communist state there were quite a few uniforms around, and signs telling everyone what to do.

Changing the guard (or something) outside the mausoleum. The sign reads to keep off the pavement

And no chewing gum

 

The French governor’s residence

From the mausoleum we moved to a park that housed the buildings Ho used in his time as president. He refused to live in the French colonial governor’s palace, saying that wasn’t how he saw himself. His accommodation was simple, as were his meeting rooms.

 

 

Ho lived beside a lake

People take as little notice of signs as the motor bikes do

A soldier stands guard outside Ho’s meeting house

A child admires Ho’s car collection

We noticed a number of groups of men and women in military uniform – fatigues rather than parade dress. We guessed they were recent conscripts being taken to see some of their nation’s history.

The entrance to the Temple of Literature

Our next visit was to the historical Temple of Literature. Built in the eleventh century and dedicated to Confucius, it’s one of the world’s oldest universities. The day we went there a large number of school children arrived for a ceremony, no doubt to do with education. Like most such places it was originally open only to nobles and aristocrats. The men who passed the examinations would end up being mandarins in the bureaucracy. In time, talented ‘commoners’ were admitted if they could pass the stringent entry exams.

Reflection pools seem to be obligatory

Tributes to Confucius. The fact that this temple is dedicated to a Chinese philosopher shows the degree of Chinese influence in Vietnam, especially North Vietnam

The tortoises represent perseverance and signify all the scholars who obtained the equivalent of a PhD

When we’d finished all that, we were taken to the edge of the old city where we each climbed onto a ‘cyclo’. It’s like a rickshaw with a bicycle at the back. This is one of the ways the tour company gives back to the community (like the basket boats). An old tradition with a dwindling market is supported and the men (usually older guys) get an income. Although APT paid the riders and tipped them, I expect a few got additional tips from the passengers.

Gloria on her cyclo

It was a fascinating journey, jostling through the narrow streets with motor bikes, buses, cars, bikes, and pedestrians. The architecture is a mix of colonial French and Vietnamese and French bake houses stand side by side with Vietnamese shops There’s a mix of the old and the new here that’s more obvious than it was in Saigon. I took a little video, but my new friend, Linda, took a much better one, so here it is, shared with permission.

We ended the trip outside the hotel and went off to find some lunch before the afternoon activities commenced.

I’d had enough for the day and Pete was still under the weather so we stayed indoors. I’m here to tell you, being ill on holiday sucks. There were some great choices for the afternoon, including a visit to Bat Trang, a 500-year-old village where world-class pottery is made (including a chance to try your hand throwing a pot).

Mike and Linda visited Bat Trang and they’ve been kind enough to share some words and pictures.

Bat Trang is about 15k from the centre of Hanoi beside the Red River, pottery and ceramic making started early in the 14th century. The location was based on the availability of local clay which could be used in the processes. The village became well known for the quality of its products, to such a degree that the King of Vietnam granted it a special status which it still holds.

The first thing you note as you start to walk the village is that pretty much every building, be it large or small, modern or traditional is involved in making, decorating or painting pottery of all shapes and kinds.

Woman forming tea pot

Our first stop appeared to be a small traditional house, but once inside we could see teapots being “created”, while they use a manufactured bowl as a basis the handles, spouts and decorative pieces are all made and applied by hand in a very traditional manner.

Moulding figures

They were also making small figures which were cast and then trimmed and finished by hand. I was amazed at the detail, and the working conditions.

We then moved on to a slightly larger house where they were making large pots approx. 1.6m tall. The pots were made of two sections which were cast separately then “stuck” together and gazed using a watering can, spinning disk and a plastic bowl. Believe it or not the glaze was dry within a minute. The pots are then decorated by hand.

Although the methods are traditional the modern ipod comes in useful in aiding concentration

It’s not just pots and figures which originate from Bat Trang, there are artists who specialise in ceramic pictures which are made in individual sections and then put together. Most of this work is individual commissions, working from personal descriptions, photographs, etc.

It was an intriguing visit. I was amazed at the fantastic quality and range of products being produced in very small, traditional buildings. There is no doubt a Health and Safety Officer would have a fit just walking into the properties never mind looking at the processes.

Our little tour concluded with a visit to the town’s market, and yes you’ve guessed every stall was packed with village products, the pictures don’t do justice to the quantity, quality and range of products available – and all at very reasonable prices.

Just to cap it off on our journey back to Hanoi we were overtaken by two of the large pots – being transported on the back of a motorbike – how else!

Thanks Mike, I enjoyed that.

Here’s a bit more about water puppetry and if you wait until the words are finished you get to see the show. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rxIff980XyM

Instead of heading out Pete and I stayed in the magnificent hotel, enjoying the 5-star luxury.

Fairy lights above the swimming pool – obviously taken at night

We had a drink in this beautiful bar before we went out for dinner.

Dinner that evening was at a choice of several restaurants in the city with different styles of cuisine. Pete and I thought it would be interesting to visit the Press Club, which was over the road from the hotel. We expected to see posters and artefacts from having been – you know – a press club. Maybe articles about the Vietnam war and such. In that respect, we were disappointed. It was a lovely restaurant in French colonial style and it served French food, which was very nice. If I had my choice again, I think I would have gone to a place serving Vietnamese food.

All in all it had been a very full day, especially for those who had also done the afternoon excursion. Tomorrow we’d be doing one of my bucket list items – Ha Long Bay.