Tag Archives: Vietnam

An Imperial experience

The front door to the Citadel. Only the Emperor (and our group) went through the door in the middle

Travel mornings are always the same. Have your suitcases outside your rooms at (say) 7am ready for collection by the hotel porters and meet in the foyer after you’ve had your breakfast and vacated your room at 7:50. We identify our luggage before it’s placed in the bus, then we board and hit the road.

A glimpse of one of the marble mountains

It’s a shame we didn’t get to see the shrines in the marble mountains but we stopped for a while at a factory/showroom where artisans worked with marble and other stones. It’s well worth reading a little about the mountains and their history and certainly the pieces on display in the showroom were dazzling. These days the stone is sourced from elsewhere to preserve the mountains here.

A stone mason works on sculptures

We drove from Hoi An to Da Nang in daylight and stopped briefly at what the US Forces called China Beach. This was a popular place for R&R and also the name of a TV series in the eighties which centred around a nurse in a military hospital and an orderly in the morgue. Every time I watched it I’d end in tears and ask myself why I watched the bloody show. But I did anyway.

The white column across the bay is the Lady Buddha

Far across the bay there’s a sixty-seven-meter-high statue of a Lady Buddha (see more here). Long told us that there had been a lot of fighting in this area and the buddha offered peace to restless souls. It’s open for visits but not on this trip. We crossed over the Dragon Bridge before heading for the the mountain pass into northern Vietnam. A tunnel has been built through the mountains. It’s quicker, but the views are ordinary.

The dragon bridge

Taken from the bus as we drove up the pass. Da Nang is visible in the distance

Our bus shared the road with many other vehicles and any pull-over point was packed with sight-seers. Long pointed out that he’d seen many motorbikes with Hanoi registration and speculated that a lot of people were going home for the up-coming Tet celebrations. Family is important to the Vietnamese – to the extent they’d throw in their jobs to be home for Tet.

We noticed many, many eucalypts on the hillsides. They were a clear marker that these areas had been decimated with Agent Orange. Scientists discovered that not only are gum trees fast-growing, they provide an important source of lumber. [1] So there’s more than a little bit of Oz in Vietnam.

We squeezed into a lay-by for one photo opportunity at a place overlooking a picturesque village nestled on a river beside a bridge. We were told to avoid the locals trying to sell us their photos, taken on brighter, prettier days.

One of the most important aspects of long-distance bus touring is finding suitable rest stops with what is called in Vietnam a ‘happy house’. So called because you come out of there greatly relieved and VERY happy. Apart from that, of course, the driver needs to take regular breaks. With only ten of us on the bus, finding suitable locations wasn’t quite so difficult as it would be with, say, fifty passengers. The bus pulled into a hotel area beside an inlet under the mountains. Those of us in need went and did their stuff and we all went to take photos while the driver had his break. Vietnam, like many Asia countries, doesn’t do much about litter except in the big cities. This place was no exception. Such a shame.

Lunch was enjoyed at a beautiful restaurant in a lovely tropical garden setting and then we were off to Vietnam’s equivalent of Beijing’s Forbidden City – the Citadel. This site tells you all about it.

A courtyard in the citadel. Note the ceremony being performed.

Koi in the moat

The complex was built by the Nguyen dynasty which ruled Vietnam from 1802. I was constantly reminded of China’s Forbidden City in layout, decoration, and lifestyle – which is hardly surprising since China ruled Vietnam for a thousand years. The Citadel was badly damaged in a major battle in 1968 [2] during which the city of Hue was virtually destroyed. Thousands were killed. After the war, the site was left to stagnate until it was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1993. Money has been poured in to rebuild many of structures and repair the art work. As well as restoring the buildings and gardens, the Government has provided a little more context to life here with performances of ceremonies conducted in the past. The colourfully-dressed performers added a touch of realism to what would otherwise be a series of museums.

Musicians perform in one of the courtyards

The citadel was clearly one of Long’s favourite places. He told us so much that it’s hard to remember everything. But one part that resonated for me was the concubines. As was usual with royalty everywhere, marriages were arranged for political purposes, so the Emperor had wives, of course. But he also had hundreds of concubines. These were well-born women – children, really since they were taken to the court at the age of fourteen or fifteen. They were selected by the emperor’s mandarins and looked after by eunuchs. This fascinating article gives an insight into the structure of the royal family and the concubines. Have a look at this one, too.


A map of the citadel

The sheer size of the site meant we did a *lot* of walking, including stairs, and by the end some of us were fairly tuckered out. But we had one more place to visit before we went to our hotel in Hue – the Tien Mu Pagoda, at 7 storeys high, the tallest pagoda in Vietnam. We had to negotiate a lot of stairs to reach the pagoda where it rose above the Perfume River (the name comes from cinnamon). The monk who self-immolated in Saigon came from here and the car he used to drive to Saigon is on display.

The Tien Mu Pagoda

That evening our group was treated to an Emperor’s Feast in the dining room at our hotel. Peter and Gloria got to be royalty for the night, while the rest of the group were mandarins – high ranking officials.

The court in all its splendour

I didn’t attend. I developed a sore throat on the previous day and after all the exertion at the Citadel and the Pagoda I wasn’t hungry and just wanted to sleep. I heard all the commotion from the stadium next door, though, both times somebody scored a goal.

Anyway, this is what I missed.

The Imperial menu

Presentation was just as important as food

Tomorrow we’d be flying from Hue to Hanoi.

A wonderful day in Hoi An

Situated on the Thu Bon River. Hoi An was a trading port, at its height between the 15th and 19th centuries. The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site and you can read all about that here. The city lost prominence when trade moved to the nearby city of Da Nang but because of that Hoi An remained intact.

After landing at Da Nang airport we were taken in a large bus to the outskirts of the old town of Hoi An before transferring to the hotel in smaller buses. My main memory of the drive was the clothing shops with dressed dummies showing off their wares. Apart from the historical importance of the town, Hoi An is noted for its clothing industry and for making lanterns. But that evening, we booked in to the hotel and had dinner.

The next morning, we set off on a fascinating journey learning about how the ordinary people live. A bus took us to the outskirts of town where the houses were interspersed with rice paddies and vegetable plots. We transferred to a cart drawn by a water buffalo and ambled along down a lane between the fields. Nobody has a European-style garden. Any arable space is given over to rows of well-tended herbs and vegetables. Geese and ducks paddled in the rice paddies and often we’d see women turning over the soil with hoes, preparing the land for the next crop.

We noticed what appeared to be grave markers in many vegetable plots. If I got it right, that was what they were. Vietnamese bury their dead twice. After a death the body is interred near the family home, where it stays for three years. Then the body is removed and the bones carefully collected and placed in an urn in the family plot, also close to all the family homes. Buddhists believe in reincarnation so it’s important to collect ALL the bones.

The family altar

Next we went to the home of a poor farmer, to whom we were introduced. The main room at the front of the house is only used by men, another reminder that this is a strongly paternalistic society. Pride of place in the main room was an altar to the ancestors. We were invited to take pictures. I felt uncomfortable about that, but Pete took a picture. Furnishings were simple, with hard floors. In this climate, mould has to be an issue, as it is in Queensland. A covered area at the back of the house is where they ate meals. Also very Queensland.

At this property we were taken for a walk through the gardens while our guide pointed out and named the herbs, vegetables, and fruit trees. Our host demonstrated how the gardens were watered in the past – two watering cans on a yoke worn across the neck. Pat did a great job.

Farmers are poor and they supplement their income with fish. We boarded a boat to see how that’s done. Some farmers build floating platforms using drums to support a net, and construct a simple shed which they use when they tend the fish in the net. I expect the Vietnamese barramundi we buy (if we don’t mind muddy fish) is raised in places like this. Out on the river it was clear fishing was a big deal. We saw many boats and several villages along the banks of the delta.

Tracts of what appeared to be coconut palms grew in the water. I thought at first they had to be mangroves but they weren’t. Our guide called them water coconuts or mangrove palms. They do have a small fruit – which, like everything else in this country, is eaten.

Further out in the river an elderly couple in a small boat demonstrated how they cast a drop net to catch fish. The lady handled the boat while the man dragged in the weighted net and cast it. Tony and Mark accepted the offer to give it a go.

If we caught these in Oz we’d be fined.

Another fishing technique was to place a net in the water and leave it for a time, then lift it using a simple pulley. Peter and Mark had a go at that. It proved to be hard work and as soon as the net began to rise, the herons joined in, leaving the boys with one fish to show for their trouble.

As our boat sailed closer to one of the villages we noticed lots of small, round coracles, each containing three people, clearly having a whale of a time. Several of the little boats were joined together and music was playing. I asked our guide what was going on. He grinned. “They’re Koreans. Crazy. That’s a karaoke machine.” They were certainly having a wonderful time. Apparently Vietnam is a cheap holiday destination for Koreans. They stay in Da Nang and make day trips to Hoi An. This must be a pretty lucrative side trade for the people in the fishing villages. Like the farmers, they’re down the bottom of the pecking order and it seems everybody know how to propel these little boats in a straight line.

Then it was our turn to hop into the basket boats. It’s a good name for them, woven out of young bamboo. This fascinating article will tell you all about them. It’s so appropriate – the French taxed boats, so the Vietnamese used ‘baskets’ instead. One person in the boat with one oar propels the boat. Two other people sit across the central seat. Our guide demonstrated the technique for getting in, which ended up being easier than you might think, and we were off.

The boat went past the village and then our lady took us into the little channels between the stands of mangrove palm. During the typhoons which hit these areas regularly the fishermen hide their large boats in these channels to keep them safe.

We drifted past a group of Koreans surrounding one basket boat that put on a show. One of the two passengers disembarked. The oarsman stood up and used the oar to whip the boat into a wild circle. The audience loved it – but I’m not sure if the remaining passenger was all that thrilled. It must have been like a carnival ride.

Our pace was a lot more sedate.

Back at the hotel we were left to our own devices and warned that a ‘light lunch’ was advisable because we’d be going to a restaurant for a special dinner. Our main concern was laundry. Anyone who has travelled knows that mounting pile of dirty clothes is always an issue. In our last hotel we received a special offer – one full laundry bag (not very big) for only one million dong! (That’s about AU$62) But our APT guide told us the laundry over the road from this hotel in Hoi An charged a fraction of that price. However, he warned us not to use the laundry bags in our hotel room. This hotel was very happy for guests to souvenir anything in the room – duvet, pillows, robes, slippers, laundry bags – but there was a charge for everything. We had our own laundry bags so it wasn’t an issue. We organised our laundry and headed over to Mrs Anh’s. She weighed the bags, told us it would be 180,000 dong (about 11 bucks) and we could pick it up tomorrow. I’m sure she did a roaring trade.

The covered Japanese bridge in old Hoi An

That evening we were to have a lovely dinner at a restaurant in Hoi An old city. When night falls the town turns into a fairy land of lights and lanterns, with boats on the river and busy tourist shops along the waterfront. This was one of the few times in our trip that it rained and the reflections off the wet pavement added to the spectacle. We took our chances walking to the restaurant, but the rain set in and Long went off to buy as all disposable ponchos for the walk back to the hotel. We gave ours to Mrs Anh when we picked up our laundry.

Plastic ponchos like the two people are wearing. Not elegant.

Not an elegant look at all. But practical.



In war, there are no winners

Vietnam was the war of my generation. While I marched in moratoriums, my male peers were conscripted into the army. About sixty thousand Australians served in Vietnam, a small number in comparison with the nearly three million Americans but even so the war left its battle scars. Five hundred and twenty-one Australians died and over three thousand were wounded. The American dead isn’t far off sixty thousand. And all of those who returned were scorned for decades for having fought in an ‘unpopular’ war. There were generational scars, too, the long-term results of exposure to Agent Orange.

And I haven’t even mentioned the Vietnamese casualties.

As it happened, one of our group of ten was a retired career soldier who had served in Vietnam back in the sixties. We were given a choice of visiting the area around Long Tan where the Australians won a significant battle, or to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, part of the network the Vietnamese used in their battle with the US Forces which included troops from South Korea, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines. We all elected to see the Cu Chi tunnels.

Tranh, our guide for this tour, was a lovely young lady whose family had fought for the South Vietnamese forces. She explained to us the North Vietnamese army was known as the Viet Minh – soldiers of Ho Chi Minh. They came down into South Vietnam using the Ho Chi Minh trail and recruited villagers to their cause. Poor subsistence farmers were easily persuaded to believe the basic teachings of communism. Everyone is equal, share the wealth. They became the Viet Cong, farmers by day and guerrilla fighters by night. I remember a former Australian soldier telling me they’d go through a village and they’d never know what side the people were on. That’s what led to the notorious Me Lai massacre.

The Vietnamese largely used guerrilla tactics. They couldn’t compete with the American helicopters, bombers, and tanks. They used the tunnels to move troops and many actually lived in them. The tunnels at Cu Chi are just part of a network stretching for hundreds of kilometres. This article is an excellent summary of how the tunnels were created and how they were used. The part we visited has been opened up for tourists and the tunnels enlarged so that people can actually experience what it’s like to be down there. The Vietnamese soldiers had to crouch, moving on their haunches to move between the rooms. There were no lights down there, just flickering candles. I’m a bit claustrophobic and I can’t imagine spending hours and days in these places. Add to that the constant use of booby traps to deter US forces who might have found an entrance. Just the thought makes me shudder.

US tank

On our way to the tunnels we paused to take pictures of several military vehicle which would have been used in the war, then moved on into the jungle. The ground is gouged with craters – the legacy of bombs dropped by B52s. We stopped at a termite mound and the guide explained the Vietnamese used artificial termite mounds to disguise positions where soldiers could hide and fire on the enemy.

Tranh gave us some graphics to illustrate the location of the tunnels and who controlled what areas, and a second graphic showing how the rooms in the tunnels were used. This was how people lived. Children were born down there. After the war some ended up with diseases resulting from time spent away from sunlight and I imagine cramped conditions would have been hard on muscles.

The location of the Cu Chi tunnels

Cross section of the tunnels

The US forces didn’t have the local knowledge to combat the VC guerrilla tactics. But they had technology. I’ve mentioned the blanket bombing. They also dropped Agent Orange to defoliate the jungle so the fighters couldn’t hide in the scrub. And they used napalm to clean out fox holes and trenches. Read this article for more information.

By Huynh Cong Ut (also known as Nick Ut) – Widely available; This version available at http://www.elenaphotograph.com/blog/noticia.php?id=36, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36615211

This is the famous picture of the ‘napalm girl’ which shocked the world when the devastating results of napalm bombing were displayed for all to see.

When all of this failed they used soldiers of small stature to go down the tunnels. They were known as ‘tunnel rats’. Maybe terriers would have been a better description. The US forces used dogs, too. The dogs would detect the presence of Vietnamese soldiers by their smell. The VC learned that if they killed the dogs that act would reveal their presence. So they deceived the dogs by eating US rations and wearing US uniforms – all stolen from bodies. The VC improvised because they had to, using any raw materials they could find. I don’t think the expression IED ‘improvised explosive device’ had been coined then but it might as well have been.

The VC wore black farmer clothes and carried camouflage cloaks. The neck scarves were common wear for farmers but they could be used to signal others if knotted in particular ways. Sandals were made from salvaged rubber tyres.

A soldier took us around the Cu Chi site, pointing out camouflaged traps and tunnels.

This was  fighting bunker. That slit in the middle of the picture was where VC soldiers would wait for advancing US forces.

leaf litter – but there’s a cover in there.

Our guide illustrates how he would enter the tunnel. Most of our group wouldn’t fit in there.

He lowers the lid over his head so the path looks the same as it was. He might leave a grenade or some other booby trap. for good measure.

Several of our group defied the rules and went down into the tunnels that had been modified for visitors. I only went into the open air one, which showed living conditions.

This woman is making garments. Note the rifle hanging on the wall behind her.

Here, soldiers scavenge parts from shells.

The VC used booby traps, placing cunningly covered pits filled with stakes to trap soldiers. The stakes were coated with feces or poisons to induce infections.

Step on the pivoting cover…

… and you fall into the stake-filled trap. This was just one variation on the theme.

After we’d finished the tour, Trahn introduced us to a Vietnamese war veteran who was, of course, much the same age as us. He explained his arm was blown away when he’d been in a shooting bunker. He’d not been aware that the troops he was firing at were being followed by a tank. He said he was pleased to welcome us and that the war was in the past, something he didn’t wish on anybody. Our war veteran, Peter, had some photos taken with him. It seems many American veterans are coming to visit Vietnam to lay some of their ghosts to rest.

On our way back to Saigon Trahn talked about the aftermath of the war, when the North had won. Two things happened almost immediately. People supporting the South’s regime were sent to re-education camps (prisons) and the State took over private property. So those poor farmers who had swallowed the communist doctrine lost their land. They no longer worked for themselves but for the state and they received a proportion of their harvest in return. Vietnam was an economic basket case, reliant on overseas aid and during the eighties many people fled the country. That didn’t change until the fall of the Soviet Union which had been Vietnam’s main source of support. The Vietnam Government took a look at China and decided that model of communism might be more effective. Vietnam started to open up in the early nineties.

But the old animosities still linger between north and south. Trahn’s uncle, who had been a pilot for the south, escaped to the US. Recently he was persuaded to come home for a family reunion and he and Tranh visited Hanoi. She said they went to a restaurant, where they spoke to each other in their distinctive South Vietnamese accents. A woman marched up to their table and abused them for being there, told them to get out. Time heals most wounds, but it may take another generation in Vietnam. As Trahn said, more than once, ‘in war, there are no winners’.


The sights of Saigon

It’s amazing what you can pack onto a little motorbike

Because we’d elected to arrive a day early for our tour, we had a day to ourselves. The Park Hyatt is centrally-located, within a stroll of the major tourist stops on the map so, having fortified ourselves with a wonderful breakfast, we ventured forth.

I’ve already explained that walking in Saigon is fraught with danger. For a start there are few footpaths not covered with street vendors and parked motorbikes. Then you have to be ready to dodge the motorbikes who find the road too crowded and take a shortcut. Add to that a closed-off area being excavated for an underground rail system and one has no choice but to face the trial of Crossing the Road. We discovered that If we found a crossing with lights, we’d at least have a better chance of making it over the road unscathed. Also, you can join in with others and make a larger target.

A typical street scene. Note very low stools. It’s the kind of place most people use for lunch

Traffic is always noisy, but Vietnamese traffic is constantly underscored by the toot of horns, ranging from a blast from a bus to the polite chirps of motorbikes. While in Australia using a horn without good reason is illegal and usually means “get out of the f***ing way *sshole”, in Vietnam it’s normally just saying “hey, I’m here, coming through.” It’s important because of the absence of any regard for traffic lanes or right of way. If you don’t push in you’ll stay where you are. It’s all quite amicable. I only saw one incident where a bus pushed somebody off the road, no doubt for very good reason. And because the traffic isn’t moving fast, any accidents are minor.

Vietnamese houses tend to be tall and very narrow because the land is expensive. We were told later that multiple generations lived in the houses, one floor each. And often a business was conducted at street level. All the power poles were covered in wires – common in Asia. And street vendors were everywhere, doing a roaring trade. I have heard street food is safe as long as you see it cooked and while I know my inflexible creaking Western bones might have been able to sit on the little stools, I reckon I’d still be there trying to stand up.

Ladies in Vietnamese costume. It’s very common.

We noticed that many of the women kept themselves covered up. We saw lots of surgical masks, too, especially on motor bike riders. The city has a high level of pollution, so that was understandable. But the head to toe covering for women was apparently more about aesthetics. Very pale, ‘porcelain’ skin is highly prized in Vietnam so the women do what they can to protect their skin from the sun. For those working in the fields, that’s not possible, so smooth, pale skin is also a sign of class. There’s a roaring trade in skin whiteners, too. Just like in the West but the other way around. Fashion’s a bitch.

Vietnamese national dress for women was full length, loose trousers topped with a long sleeved, full length tunic, as at left. It’s elegant and beautiful – although it looks warm to me.

Needless to say, the shops around the Park Hyatt were the upmarket retailers, all air-conditioned and all filled with Christmas carols. It goes to show that living in a communist country doesn’t mean there aren’t any rich people. We saw a LOT of expensive cars on the road with badges like Mercedes and Audi, and lots of high-end Toyotas. It seems a Merc (say) would cost $US100,000. But the government taxes these vehicles at 200% so it’ll cost you $US300,000. That’s in a country where an average worker will earn around $US150 a month. I think it’s safe to assume some people are more equal than others. Certainly the Communist Party exercises the most control in the country.

Bookshops and shade

Harry Potter!

After dodging the traffic for a little further, Pete and I headed down a laneway which turned out to be devoted to bookshops and coffee – and NO motorbikes. It was surprisingly quiet after the crowded main road. Seems Harry Potter has been translated into Vietnamese. After a double latte in a cafe, we found that the road came out next to the main post office and opposite Saigon’s Notre Dame cathedral, which is closed for renovations.

Notre Dame de Saigon

We visited the post office, of course. Call it ex-professional interest. Like most POs it has diversified into tourism, if not up-market hotels. Once again, it was colonial French architecture.

The post office

Heroes of the revolution outside the PO

Ho Chi Minh in front of what used to be the town hall

We walked past a park fronting what used to be the town hall, built in elaborate French style. It’s now the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee Building, an official Vietnamese government site. The large golden statue of Uncle Ho was erected in the park and makes a subtle statement about the current political situation.

Very sixties architecture – for a reason. Photo by Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30078153

We visited the Independence Palace, a site redolent with Vietnam’s post world war II history. There had been a palace on this site for many years, originally the Norodom Palace which was the home of the (French) governor of Vietnam from the 1870’s. It’s fascinating how, after being overrun at home by the Germans in WW2, European powers like France and the Netherlands thought they could just return to Asia with the Japanese now kicked out, and resume business as usual. The Vietnamese had had enough of colonial masters and the French were sent off to their shattered homeland in 1954. In 1955 Diem declared himself President of the Republic of Vietnam. It wasn’t an entirely popular move. Diem’s family was notoriously corrupt and they also tried to push Catholicism on a mainly Buddhist population. Here’s more about that story – and the iconic photo of the burning monk.

In 1962 a young pilot in the Vietnamese air force let the world know his feelings about the Diem regime by bombing the palace, severely damaging the building. Diem decided to build a new palace, which was completed in 1966 and was the site of several historically important meetings between the Americans and the Vietnamese. That’s the building we visited. It was also the place where a Liberation Army tank crashed through the gates to signal the end of the Vietnam war in 1975. In July, 1976 Vietnam was reunified under a communist regime and the Independence Palace was renamed to the Reunification Palace.

After visiting the palace, we spent some time in a museum attached to the site. It contained audio-visual footage showing life in old Saigon and explaining some of the history.

The opera house

Although we didn’t visit the opera house, we walked past it on our way to a group dinner. The opera house is French colonial style, a remnant of the past. I don’t think the French did much for Vietnam other than use it for raw materials. It was going to be interesting to see a little more of the country’s own history later in the tour.

The group dinner was at Luc Nguyen’s “Vietnam House” restaurant. He’s just one of many successful Vietnamese refugees who made it to Australia. He’s best known in Australia for his “Red Lantern” and “Fat Noodle” restaurants in Sydney.

Yes, we did go to the central markets – but we went to markets everywhere, crowded alleys with stalls offering everything you can imagine and I’ll show you those later. This Saigon market was famous for knock-offs. Reebok, Nike, Samsung, Apple, Dior, Chanel – you name it. Some of it may well have been good stuff, too. After all, they make a lot of brand names in Vietnam. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the factories make a few extra and sell them on the side.






Season’s Greetings

So appropriate for a festival celebrating the return of the sun

It’s that time of year again – the frenetic holiday season where everybody runs around like a cut snake to celebrate… something. It’s no coincidence (as I’m sure you all know) that all the major religions have a festival that pretty well coincides with the Northern Hemisphere’s Winter Solstice. Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, Saturnalia, Sinter Klaas, and many others. Basically, they celebrate the end of winter and the return of the sun and focus on light, food, and family and friends. So whatever your beliefs, enjoy the day however you celebrate.

Here in Australia, of course, we’re having the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, and although we don’t usually celebrate the height of summer, this year I think Peter and I won’t be the only ones breathing a sigh of relief. The whole world knows our entire continent has been drought-stricken for most of the year. The fuel load has built up in forests which have evolved to need fire to reproduce, and late spring and summer arrived with a fiery blast. Bush fires (far too often deliberately lit) have devastated communities in every state.

My heart goes out to those people who have lost everything – homes, pets, stock, their livelihoods – on the eve of the Christmas holidays. I have nothing but admiration for the fire fighters, many of them volunteers, who risk their lives to fight the flames. There have been deaths – to my mind, amazingly few. Let’s all hope it stays that way. Vast swathes of territory have been burned and are still burning. Only Gaia can put them out.

And at least there’s hope she’s listening.

The positive Indian Ocean Dipole is all but finished and the negative Southern Angular Mode is coming closer to neutral so we finally have a chance of normal rainfall patterns coming soon. The model below is for 31st December. Bring it on.

Copied from John’ Weather Channel on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/JohnsWeatherChannelJwc/photos/pcb.3296783437062633/3296783327062644/?type=3&theater

A large storm moved through our area overnight, bringing much-needed rain to parched areas. We’re happy for the 4mm in our rain gauge – and also happy to miss out on damaging winds and hail. In Australia it’s so often about extremes.

On a personal front, Pete and I came back home from a three-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia about a week ago. As so often has been the case with us, we came home sick with probably a form of Asian flu. We’ve been to the doctor and things are finally starting to look up on the health front so I’ll be writing my thoughts about the journey. It was fascinating. A mix of modern history associated with the Vietnam war and the Killing Fields, and much older history with places like Angkor Wat, Hue’s Citadel, and Hoi An old city. We visited the incredible Ha Long Bay and drove over the mountains at Da Nang. And we visited villages to see how ordinary people live. It was rather like visiting a country undergoing an industrial revolution, with all the challenges associated with such a paradigm shift. Especially when you’re a privileged Westerner with all your prejudices and sensitivities. Some of our experiences at a very ordinary level were quite confronting.

I hope you’ll come along with me as I relive our journey. For now, wassail, bottoms up, cheers and all that. Merry Christmas.