Habitat Trip to Vietnam via Singapore, Malaysia,Thailand and Laos

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Asia » Vietnam » Mekong River Delta » Kien Giang » Rach Gia
October 25th 2012
Published: January 2nd 2013
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I am getting ready for my second Habitat trip of 2012. It is Oct 24th and so I have about 16 more days until I leave for Singapore via Hong Kong.I plan to go early via Singapore and then take the train through Malaysia, Thailand and Laos before flying the last part from Ventiane to Ho Chi Min City.Team this time is 14 with 12 from Canada and 2 from Germany.

Long trip to get to Asia. Left Saltspring on Saturday Nov 10 at 0630 with Ryan. ( he is off to Hawaii). I finally arrived in Singapore at Backpackers Hostel at 0030 Monday.The cab ride was about $20 SGD. BPH has a few things to be modest about but price is ok for Singapore.I slept a bit then had shower-back in the land of showers and toilets in the same space. I then went for breakfast with my travelling buddy - Ron Mcdonald.

Next challenge is to get my train tickets to Thailland as I have reservations (kudos to the man in seat 61-he has trains figured out in every country in the world) it turned out to be easy starting with a cab ride to Woodlands checkpoint with an informative cab driver. He rents the cab (as do most drivers) at $100 per day ..to keep up his payments he works 14 hrs most days.. The entire world works longer hours than most North Americans.

Ticket booth for trains doesn't take credit cards- cash only and only SGD so had to go across street to money change kiosk. Once that was done I got tickets and waited for the train with an Indonesian IT guy on vacation. Train lineup started about 30 mins before departure and we had kiosks to exit Singapore and enter Malaysia - quite easy... I was in first class and they were doing research on how cold they could make it before passengers got frostbite...I fell asleep and dreamt about my visit to Nunavut.

There is no restaurant car but a small snack thingy selling sandwiches and other chemically derived food products.I not only ended up with some tuna surprise sandwiches but also got a lesson in paying attention to exchange rates. Perhaps should pay closer attention to what is in my currency inventory...

In any case the trip on the first train was excellent and we got to Kuala Lumpar on time. There was then a short layover before I shipped out on the overnight sleeper to Butterworth. I was in a compartment and had lower berth but train not full so no one else in the car. There was a non working shower so starting to be detectable from a distance.

The next morning we arrived in Butterworth which is the station for Penang and is very basic. All the food places are closed due to big holiday (Hindu?) I was able to leave my bags and then walked to the ferry terminal where I caught the boat to Penang (1.20 MYD-hello bc ferries) I spent a bit of time on Penang waterfront then caught ferry (free return) back to BW.

Back at the station the food court was still deserted but was able to get peanuts and a can of lemon ice tea. ( They dont appear to be supportive of beer consumption in Malaysia )The major entertainment was watching 5 or 6 common crows try to scrounge from the food court floor. I also noticed that the train to Bangkok is very popular- no tickets left on any trains from Nov 9th to the 15th. The implications of this became clear later...for my next leg I was in a second class upper berth. We got out on time and things were looking good - no one else in seat opposite etc. We then arrived at the next station and I was soon one of four in the berthed seats. A Muslim lady and her two teenage daughters-all very shy. However by the end of the day we were all friends and sharing food- nice people. I was kind of wondering about the night program but apparently they sell day tickets for this car so you get 2 per seat for a while. My seat mates got off about dinner time.

Myself and one of the Australians entertained ourselves by bird watching from the train window- lots of egrets,storks etc.

After we crossed the Thai border the train dynamics changed dramatically as the concession was taken over by an efficient group of Thai people. I and my Australian neighbours were all over the beer sale program plus we ordered dinner.

Then it was off to bed - upper berth for me which turned out to be fine.in the morning our highly efficient concession lady brought us breakfast. We then discovered we were 2 hours late.Finally in to Bangkok about noon.Not a lot of time to explore so checked emails, ate, and waited for the night train to Laos. Lots of gap year kids in the station- I guess I am a gap year senior...The station was very easy to figure out and I found car and compartment easily (thank you again-man in seat 61)

I had booked a first class sleeper and ended up with the compartment all to myself again. Finally we arrived at the last station in Thailand in the morning and exited into a nice open station. I then had to do the Thailand exit thing and load on to the shuttle train. It took me to Laos where I went through immigration with my expensive pre-purchased visa (Rip-off alert, visas are available at the border at a cheaper price) then took taxi to the Riverside Inn. As it turned out there are several Riverside Hotels and we ended up at the wrong one-luckily cab driver did a slow exit and we were able to get back in for a trip to the correct hotel. The Riverside Inn is on the Mekong River and we can see lots of fishing action with traditional boats etc. The hotel is excellent but a bit out of the way in relation to down town. However it is very close to the airport. It had a gym with an Aiwa plate vibration machine-might be worth considering?

I went down town and wandered around-things are not expensive. In the evening, I went to a french restaurant (Le Silipa) which turned out to be owned by a guy from Quebec City- menu had Nova Scotia scallops, BC Salmon etc. Very nice mushroom soup-seems answer to making good soup is to puree half and put back in the pot etc. This was a great meal but meat might have been from an animal that was well exercised.....

I was thinking about a tour that would include the "best of Asia" (from my perspective) Here goes:

-Fly to Japan and tour rural Japan by train,

- Then take ferry to Korea and spend 2 days in rural Korea,

- 3 days in Taiwan near Tarako National Park,

- Hong Kong 1-2 days (maybe hike the ridge)

- Fly to Singapore and train to Ventiane via Malaysia, Thailand etc.

- Fly to Siem Reep and cycle for a week

Alert readers will notice I didnt include Mongolia or China.....

After a relaxing 1.5 days in Laos, I went to the airport to catch my flight to Ho Chi Min City - little did I know that I had actually reserved and paid for a ticket to Hanoi. After arriving and trying to get a incredulous taxidriver to take me to The Happy Inn in HCMC, I slunk back into the airport and booked a flight to the right city on Vietnam Airlines.

After finally arriving in Ho Chi Min City(formerly Saigon) I caught a taxi to the Happy Inn 2 which turned out to be a great spot managed by the efficient and helpful Ms Han. The rooms are clean and the hotel is on a street that never sleeps. By the time I got there, a number of the team were on hand. We had a free day and so people did a variety of things - I went on a rickshaw tour which wasnt that wonderful...hot tip-avoid these guys.At night we went to great restaurant-more about it later. Beer is about $1.00 (at the most)

The next day (Nov 18th) a few of us went on a half day tour to the Cu Chi tunnel National Park. It has 245 km of underground tunnels where lots of Vietnamese lived during the War- It certainly gives a good idea of why and how the USA couldnt win over here. Tunnels are really small and even the larger tourist mockup ones are not very big-a number of us sat out the underground part. We also saw a selection of booby traps involving sharpened stakes etc and a few people shot a few rounds off at the range.

We finished out our day at the war remnants museum. Lots of disturbing photos about B52s and napalm- not a PR place for the USA to say the least-one has to wonder what the US government thought it was doing over here...

The next day (a very short night) we were up at 4.00 Am to catch bus to airport so we could catch 6.00 Am flight to Rach Gia. One very frenzied hour to get 14 people through the group checkin, and then security (cat herders take note)

We arrived at Rach Gia (nice small airport with some type of security out alongside runways-people on motorcycles??? ) We met our excellent HFH coordinator (Ngan) who had everything in order-off to Henry Hotel for breakfast (omelettes, baquettes etc) and checkin, then Habitat orientation and lunch.

We had relaxing afternoon then dinner at first of many good restaurants. Every day we were saying that was the best meal so far...

For the next four days we fell into a familiar routine-up early for breakfast then taxi to river and on to a riverboat for a one hour ride through the city to a bay on the ocean, then down another river to our building site. A great way to start the day- endless panorama of interesting sights on the river-lots of boat people who live on their boats.

At the job site we split up into 3 teams with 2 teams working on new foundations for exsiting houses and 1 team building a foundation for a new house. Hot and humid days but not too bad once you get used to it.(+33C) We are doing the usual HFH work (digging, hauling, laying bricks, mixing mortar etc) A great team of people and everyone is working hard. We typically work until 4.30 then boat back to RG and the taxi ride to the Henry. A key priority after our return is the restoration of fluids... Dinner is at 7.00 and then people are free to either do more fluid restoration or turn in for the day.

After 3 days of hard work we finished moving one of the houses on to its new foundation-lots of community involvement as it took about 30 people to lift up the house on poles and move it. Total chaos-lots of yelling and false starts but it all worked out. We then had a ritual duck slaughter and some (lots) of rice wine toasts. Great day for all.

The next day we had a fairly busy morning including school visit where we got to sing and dance with the kids (tribute to Uncle Ho) We also donated money to install a toilet in the school. We then raced back to the build site and moved one more house then 2 dedication ceremonies plus meal and rice wine. This was all done by 10.30 so we could be back to catch the ferry to Phu Quoc. Ngan is a saint...

We caught the ferry (Super Dong 3) Dong is the unit of currency in Vietnam so please hold the comments...(On a side note I now appear to have 16 for my upcoming HFH New Zealand trip) We caught the 1.00 ferry and arrived at PQ at 3.30. We were then taken by bus to the beach side of the island where we checked into the Saigon Phuquoc which is an excellent 4-5 star resort c/w pool,ace beach, bar, water toys etc. Everyone hit the beach and then we went to the Pepper Restuarant for seafood, beer ,wine etc and lots of it. (all for a mere 2 million dong for 14 people - about $100 USD)

The next day we were supposed to do a jungle hike but it wasnt very challenging-I think the description didnt translate very well. We also had beach time , a visit to a pepper farm plus more seafood. Another highlight was the sighting of 2 Oriental Pied Hornbills.

Another gourmet meal at a riverside restaurant- we then walked back to the hotel via the night market. The next day we had a free morning at the resort-some kayaked and some cycled. It was then on to the bus to catch SD3 back to Rach Gia.

On Monday we were back to work at a different site-fairly long bus ride to a suburb of RG - three more houses to work on with lots of digging and brick work. A lot of interested neighbours-everyone wants to know your age...

We worked hard for three days then we went on a long bus ride to go to a dragon boat festival-huge crowds of people and not many (any) other Caucasions. We had tickets and were on the VIP viewing stand- quite an experience. In the afternoon it was back to work.

Our lunches at both sites were cooked at a nearby house. Every day we had something different- excellent vietnamese dishes with rice and big bowls of soup... We always had fruit for desert as well as for breaks in morning and afternoon. No one sick on this trip! Some of us are now having Chicken Pho for breakfast which is a noodle soup with chicken and vegetables-quite good and a change from eggs and baquettes..

After returning from the boat festival we worked until 3.30 then had a quite moving dedication ceremonies with the families. Our team gave each homeowner an electric fan plus a team picture.

On the bus ride home we ran into our first huge traffic jam at a bridge-apparently a beer truck had overturned (lots of police and emergency vehicles rushing to help)- we tried walking over the bridge to catch a taxi on the other side but no luck on cabs. Bus then got through and we ended up back at hotel. That evening we had our farewell dinner and the team did the Gangnam Dance in the restaurant...

The next day it was off to HCMC on Air Vietnam and then back to the Happy Inn to the care of our excellent hotel manager Han-very nice person. The build is over and people are starting to get ready to leave for home or the next stage of their trip. A few of us are going cycling and some are off to other parts of Vietnam and/or Cambodia.

On saturday we had a free day so I went shoe hunting - Crocs for $5.00. I also had a haircut,shave,foot massage, manicure and pedicure all for $15.00. Many of us also had laundry done down the street -comes back gift wrapped for $2.50-ace!

On Sunday three of us were off on another great cycling trip with Cambodia Cycling. We were picked up at the hotel and headed out to the Mekong area to the starting point. First day we did about 50 km - Our typical road speed is about 20 km/hr but we have a few ferry crossings which are always quite interesting. We also stop for breaks every 20 km. The route is flat and we are on a mixture of roads and jungle trails. Lots of interesting sites and friendly people. We passed two weddings - at one of them the rice wine booth had been well used... We also saw pig loading at a couple of locations-pigs are hauled by motorcycle to a truck stop and then transferred to a small truck-huge animals.

We ended our day at Tranh City at 3.30 at the excellent Cuulong Hotel.

We spent the next three days cycling through the Mekong countryside-did about 266 kms in total. Lots of interesting sites, sounds and smells. This is a great cycling experience - we got used to the heat (+33C) and no problems as long as you drink lots of water(and beer)

On December 7th it was all over and time to return to Canada. This was one of my best Habitat trips-Thanks to our team who were all fabulous.

Friday we


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