Published: January 2nd 2007December 30th 2006
Hats And Thongs
Outside The Cao Dai Temple, Near Ho Chi Minh City
Happy New Year greetings from Pnomh Penh, where we're hanging out and enjoying copious amounts of chicken amok and banana lassi, washed down with the ubiquitous beerlao! It's been a while since my last update which covered Tiger Leaping Gorge and trekking in northern Laos, but it's been a very busy few weeks since then. Not least as I've met up with Danielle who I met in St Petersburg. Regular readers will know that a group of us travelled from there and through Russia and Mongolia together on the Trans-Siberian railway. Danielle had to fly home from Beijing but she's since flown out to meet me in Ho Chi Minh City - and the plan is to travel through to Australia together over the next few months!
So after picking Danielle up in Ho Chi Minh City and checking in to a rather fancy hotel, it was time to explore. Back in a large, loud Vietnamese city again it was time to get used to the plethora of motos, greeted by beeps and shouts of "motorbike, sir?", and hawkers asking "would you like to buy a book/t-shirt/marijuana?". More often than not, if you say no, it's usually greeted with a
Cao Dai Temple, HCMC
"why not?" or "maybe later?". You either get used to it and enjoy it as part of the experience with a smile and a wave, or let it grate and annoy you - and what's the point of that?
Whilst travelling in Viet Nam, it's very difficult to ignore the impact of the American war so like so many other travellers to VN, we wanted to learn more about it whilst travelling - A Level history at school seems a very long time ago now so time to refresh the memory! Several people along the way had recommended visiting the Cao Dai temple near HCMC - a very brightly coloured place, celebrating a combination of Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism as well as native Vietnamese spiritualism, Christianity and Islam. The religion reveres spirits who have been in contact from the afterlife, including Victor Hugo and William Shakespeare amongst others. We spent some time watching a service - the men and women strictly separated but wearing the same long, white gowns whilst nearer the front, older worshippers wore garish yellow, red and blue robes with tall hats, bearing a third eye on the front. This third eye is present on many of
Dressed In Colourful Clothes - See The Third Eye In The Hats
the images around the temple and everywhere you look it feels like you're being watched. Whilst the service went on, a group played a selection of instruments up above and a bell chimed when it was time to bow and chant. It reminded me of how similar in many ways it was to the monks I'd seen in Tibet - praying to the chime of a bell and dressed in brightly coloured robes.
After spending an hour or so at the temple, we headed onto the Cu Chi tunnels. The tunnels extend for around 250 kilometers throughout the area, dug by hand during the American war allowing the Vietnamese soldiers to penetrate areas impossible to do above ground - including into the otherwise secure areas of American bases. The tunnels here have had to be widened to accommodate larger westerners but are still very narrow and claustrophobic inside and they still manage to give an idea of how difficult life was underground. The tunnels even included medical areas allowing the wounded to be treated, as well as a number of kitchens incorporating chimneys many metres away to ensure the smoke did not give the location of the kitchen away.
Cao Dai Temple, Near Ho Chi Minh City
The display also includes a number of the de-fused bombs that were dropped by the US, as well as the gruesome man traps dug by the Vietnamese - involving various trapdoors hidden in the undergrowth, resulting in any unfortunate soldier being impaled on the upright bamboo spikes exposed underneath.
Bizarrely, as in other war sites, you can shoot guns such as M-16s and AK-47s and as you walk through the jungle area between the tunnel entrances thinking about how terrible it must have been to have been a soldier here, you hear people shooting the guns for fun that were likely used to kill people in this area. Rumours that you can shoot cows here for fun fortunately stayed just as rumours.
So after a day visiting 2 such diverse places, we headed north-west towards the Central Highlands. We stayed in an old, French colonial hill-station called Da Lat, perched on a hill 5 hours away from the noise and smell of HCMC, it felt a world away. We hired a tandem to explore the quiet town - harder work than it sounds so not entirely sure if Danielle was pedalling behind me ;-) ! After exploring for
Cu Chi Tunnels, Near HCMC
One Of The Tunnels On The Ho Chi Minh Trail
a day or so, it wasn't long before we were approached by our first Easy Riders. These guys take tourists on tours of Da Lat and surrounding countryside on the back of their motorbikes - a great way to see the area and definitely beats sitting in a bus! Charming as well as informative, the 2 guys that approached us turned out to be fake Easy Riders but quickly won us over with the talks of a tour of the area over a coffee and we weren't disappointed.
We headed out the next day - Danielle on the back of a motorbike whilst my rider was on a small moped as his bike was off the road, and actually asked me my weight as he dropped down the gears to get up the smallest of hills! We quickly left Da Lat and rode into the hilly countryside, stopping to look at the farmed areas where flowers are grown in their thousands and exported all over the world. The soil is very fertile being a formerly volcanic area and it seems it's an area which will see huge growth. All of the talk seems to be of Viet Nam's entry
Swivel Door Man Trap
Complete With Bamboo Spikes, Cu Chi Tunnels, Near HCMC
into the World Trade Organisation and it's new ability to enter the world market. How long it'll be before people are drinking coffee from beans grown in Da Lat in cafes and homes around the world, who knows, but it can't be too long before the area really takes off.
With the wind in our hair (okay, we were wearing helmets but that doesn't sound nearly as good) we rode off through the forested areas, home to tigers and elephants only 50-60 years ago and now sadly wiped out by poachers and finished off by the war, and passed large areas of pine plantations. Pine exists here as it's a very fast grower and it's used to replace the forests destroyed by Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the Americans during the war. It's then divided up amongst the farmers who mainly consist of the many ethnic minorities in this area of Viet Nam and any subsequent harvesting of the wood is strictly monitored by the government.
Passing through more coffee plantations with the chatty riders telling us what was growing where, we piled on through until we arrived at a silk mill. The village where I live
used to have lots of silk mills many years ago so it was interesting to take a wander around a working mill and understand what is involved. The mill was a hive of activity - scores of girls worked frenetically at machines that seemed to scream industrial injury. The silk cocoons bobbed in the water as the 700 metres or so of silk on each cocoon was unravelled by the machines as it was collected on large spools to be washed and woven. In a large furnace the dead cocoons were burnt and the ash and dust stuck to our skin and hair as we walked around, unable to hear much above the roar of the mill. The girls all turned to watch us walk past and as we smiled, they stopped and stared. We quickly realised that they were looking at Danielle's fair skin - and it wasn't long before one of the girls approached us to stroke Danielle's arm, comparing their colours, making us all laugh.
We continued on our way through the hilly countryside, weaving in and out of the traffic, with the drivers providing a running commentary as we made our way to a row
of houses full of people making bamboo baskets to hold rice. Each house had a different role - one woman sat next to a pile of bamboo poles, splitting them down to get thin slivers of flexible strips, which her young son took over the road to the man to make baskets with. Everyone from the family was involved - from the small children ferrying materials from house to house to the older family members doing the harder manual work. The rest of the time people would rake the coffee beans that are laid out on the front area next to the road, as they lay drying in the sun.
We stopped for lunch at a family house overlooking some fields where all the ingredients for our meal had been grown - from the bamboo shoots and rice to the carp that swim in the lake. This delicious food was washed down with an obligatory slug of rice wine and we then went for a look under the house to see how the wine is made. The rice is fermented over time and gradually bottled and quickly drunk at the first available opportunity. The alcoholic rice is then fed
to the pigs, who lay next to the vats of wine, snoring the effects of it off.
After being well-fed and watered once again, we headed home and back to our guest house in Da Lat. The Easy Riders (including the fake ones we took) are a great way to explore the area and it definitely beats sitting in a sweaty bus for hours on end, being herded from one tourist site to another.
Next stop on our trip was Nha Trang, enticed by the beach here and put off by all the bad things we'd heard about Mui Ne, this was a great place to relax and unwind. However, it was only a day before Typhoon Durian swung in after devastating the Philippines and we watched the waves get larger and larger until the beach was closed and people were moved out of their beach front bungalows. We retreated to our 3rd floor room, 100m from the beach armed to the teeth with supplies (beer, wine and chocolate) - enough to last a couple of days and watched the huge waves crash onto the beach with another couple, as the power went out and we lit candles.
The next day the streets were empty apart from other backpackers looking for a place to sit in the dry whilst the locals appeared to have left town, giving the place a ghostly feel to it. Fortunately for Nha Trang, the typhoon changed it's course at the last minute and swerved south, but sadly it meant it hit areas more unprepared and scores of people lost their lives as it passed overhead.
We hired a moped to explore Nha Trang, visiting several temples and museums along the way and nipping in and out of the traffic became almost second nature - although I think the locals seems to be born with an innate ability to swerve just at the right time!
We left Nha Trang after a few days and headed to Hoi An. I'd visited here a couple of months ago and knew that Danielle would like to see it so it was good to get back and wander the narrow streets, past the scores of tailors and through the market where fresh fish and fruit was for sale. Hoi An had also been hit by the heavy rain and high winds of Durian so the road
next to the riverside was completely submerged - old women in rowing boats had replaced the young lads on motos to ferry people around and it wasn't long before a couple of boats would be waiting for your custom as you walked past.
In Hoi An we did what any self-respecting traveller to these parts should do - and that's sample the local brew! Bia Hoi is fresh beer - so no preservatives and is served ice cold - 2000 Dong for a glass - which works out as the best 8p I've spent in a long time! We made sure we did our bit for the local economy in a few of these bars and tottered home, saying goodbye to Hoi AN after a few days and heading south again, this time by overnight train to Ho Chi Minh City.
We were now on our way to Cambodia - collecting our visas on the way. We had a couple of days to kill in HCMC so visited the War Remnants Museum - formerly known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes but the name was changed to avoid offending foreign visitors. It's fair to say
2 More Easy Riders
Your's Truely And Danielle, Da Lat
it holds no punches - the descriptions and the photos of the impact of war are very graphic, including an interesting section on the effects on the population of Agent Orange - birth defects and cancers to name but a few which have affected not only the local population but also the foreign forces that were present at the time - including Australian and US. It's definitely well worth a visit and the place was packed with western tourists when we visited.
About a month ago, I'd sprained my ankle in Pnomh Penh and unfortunately it was still painful and swollen, so Danielle convinced me to visit a doctor in HCMC to have it checked. After giving me the once over, and having had a bit of a telling off from the doctor at not having rested it, he said he thought it might have been broken but it was now too late to do anything about it apart from bandaging it until I get home - in about 5 months! Hey ho, my own fault for tripping over. Anyway, little did I know he'd use a sticky bandage so no sooner was I being told what damage there
was, than a nurse was shaving my leg to stick the bandage on! Needless to say, a somewhat hysterical Danielle was now taking pictures as fast as she could as I lay, unable to move!
So it was complete with sticky bandage and shaved leg that we headed off along the Mekong River towards Cambodia. We took a 2 day trip by bus and boat, visiting floating villages and fish farms along the way before arriving in Pnomh Penh. The local communities here (in Cambodia) are made up mainly ethnic but stateless, Vietnamese. Living on the river is a lot cheaper than paying for land and they make their money by selling produce to passing boats as well as farming fish.
We arrived back in Pnomh Penh from where I'm now writing this and we're about to head to Laos before heading to Thailand, arriving in the next 3 weeks or so. We've had a great time in Cambodia - already high on my list of favourite places to visit - but I'll cover that in my next blog.
I hope you all had a great time at Christmas and New Year and I hope that 2007
is a great one. Bye for now.
There are more photos below