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February 6th 2007
Published: February 11th 2007
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Desert WorldDesert WorldDesert World

Exploring desert-like dunes was not something we had expected to be doing in SE Asia. © L. Birch 2007
The sun came up shortly after 6am and most mornings we were up with it, wandering along the beach as the fishing boats came in to offload the night's catch. It was one of the simple joys of staying in Mui Ne, a place many travellers overlooked, prefering instead the glitzy, high rise attractions of Nha Trang - 300kms further up the coast.

Round coracles and the bigger squid boats would be out most of the night, the squid boats equipped with long booms festooned with lights to bring the squid to the surface. The squid boats usually moored offshore from the fishing village but the smaller coracle boats landed on the beach, just a stones throw from where we were staying. Each morning, we would wander among the boats as the fishermen untangled their nets; a growing pile of fish and brightly coloured crabs, wriggling on the sand next to the boats.

Morning was often the best time to be out and about. As the sun rose higher, it soon became impossibly hot - the heat, driving you to take refuge in the shade and the pages of a good book. Away from the beach, Mui Ne's famous
Coracles on the BeachCoracles on the BeachCoracles on the Beach

Rounded coracles line the beach at Mui Ne. © L. Birch 2007
red and yellow dunes held sway, marching along the coast for more than 250kms. Sand dunes were not something we had expected to see in South East Asia. Jungles and rainforest yes, but sand dunes? They belonged in the deserts of the Middle East or North Africa, surely? Yet here they were, complete with wind rippled surfaces and spiney scrub. All that was missing were the camels. As if to complete the picture, Mui Ne village had all the appearance of a squat, North African town fighting to keep the Saharan sand from over-running its streets. Hiring a motorbike, we took a run up the coast, stopping now and again to labour up dunes the size of a two storey house or to explore a dry watercourse - like that at the dramatic "Red Canyon", carved out by flashfloods and seasonal rains. Apart from the occasional town, the coast road itself was deserted, flanked on one side by pounding Pacific surf and on the other, by sand dunes that spilled across the road in great yellow drifts. After several months of hard travel, I had begun to feel tired and jaded but Mui Ne helped revive my flagging taste for
Up the Pacific CoastUp the Pacific CoastUp the Pacific Coast

Exploring the Pacific Coastline on a hired motorcycle, north of Mui Ne. © L. Birch 2007
travel and adventure.

Even so, moving on was difficult and it was a wrench - six days later - to have to pack up and leave our little room at the edge of the ocean. Heading inland, the road left the dry coastal plains behind and wound its way up into the central highlands to Dalat, the self styled capital of kitsch and the country's biggest producer of flowers and vegetables. Hiring a pedalo shaped like a swan to paddle around the lake or enjoying the many beautiful plants in the Dalat Flower Gardens were just some of the attractions of this cool mountain getaway beloved of Vietnamese honeymooners. I was intrigued to see many temperate plants that - in our own climate - bloomed in different seasons but seemed to be flowering in Dalat at the same time. There were, for instance; azaleas, cherries and camellias that usually bloom in a northern European spring - flowering alongside begonias, salvias and pelargoniums - all plants that you would expect to see in bloom during summer. Throw in a few orchids, a bed or two of roses and some red stemmed kentia palms and all together you had a rather
Red CanyonRed CanyonRed Canyon

This dramatic canyon or 'wadi' was carved out by flashfloods and seasonal rains near Mui Ne. © L. Birch 2007
odd and somewhat ecletic mix of plants. But despite the flower displays and the chill in the air, you couldn't for one minute imagine you were at home. The red flag of communism was never far away, brown backed herons skulked among the manicured flower beds and the gardeners all wore those conical 'coolie' hats that were such an evocative part of life in Vietnam.

Northern Exposure

From Dalat, with its mountain views and bracing air, we returned to the coast and resumed our northward journey. There was a brief stop in Nha Trang with its 13km beach front where you were hassled constantly to buy tacky goods and services you didn't need. Its saving grace, for me at least, were its 7th century Cham towers - a remnant of the great Champa kingdom that once ruled over the region - and its fishing village, cluttered with colourful boats and pungent with the smells of rotting fish and effluent.

Hoi An, half way between Saigon and Hanoi marked the transition zone between the hot, tropical south and the cool temperate north. It was also one of the places we had been most looking forward to visiting.
Planting Floral DisplaysPlanting Floral DisplaysPlanting Floral Displays

The local Parks Department put the finishing touches to a bedding display in the Dalat Flower Gardens. © L. Birch 2007
Taking a walk through the narrow streets of Hoi An is to be transported back in time to the 17th century when Chinese and Portugese ships thronged the tiny harbour. Wooden fronted shops and Chinese temples line the streets and, because it was relatively untouched by the American/Vietnam war, it survives as a living museum piece - perfectly encapsulating a moment in Vietnam's history. Every where you go in Hoi An you will hear the "ting-a-ling" of a cyclo's bell (a cyclo is what the Vietnamese call a bicycle rickshaw) and be importuned to take a ride more times than it is humanly possible to retain your good humour. A smile and a "No Thanks" is generally enough - especially if you can say it in Vietnamese - as it is far more pleasurable to walk and make your own discoveries, whether it is stopping to look inside a Chinese clan house or to admire sights like the magnificent Japanese covered bridge constructed in the 1590s. True, you are never the first person to 'discover' these things but one of the great joys of travel is in discovering things for yourself and having the opportunity of seeing them in a
Surf's Up!Surf's Up!Surf's Up!

Pacific surf pounds the coast near Nha Trang. © L. Birch 2007
new way.

Following in the footsteps of Emperors, our next stop was the old imperial city of Hue. Historically, it has always been the cultural centre of Vietnam and was once ruled by a succession of Emperors whose lavish tombs are scattered along the banks of the Perfumed River to the west of town. Theirs was a fuedal society, their reign lasting almost 200 years until the dictates of a changing world brought their dynasty to a halting end. The Nguyen Emperors may have gone but many of their old temples, palaces and pagodas still survive despite French rule, modern wars and a communist government that saw them as 'politically incorrect' and once considered razing them to the ground. Tourism may well have been their saviour. Crossing the Perfumed River - which despite its exotic name, had an aroma more akin to blocked drains than Chanel No.5 - we entered the old city through the impressive Ngo Mon Gate and became immersed in a royal past. Red tiled temples with soaring uplifted eaves, chinese caligraphy and dragon statuary, cherry trees, incense and expansive stone flagged courtyards: it was as near to China as we could get without actually going
Fishing Boats and TemplesFishing Boats and TemplesFishing Boats and Temples

Were just some of the attractions on offer at Nha Trang on Vietnam's central coast. © L. Birch 2007

Hanoi marked the end of our 1780 km journey north from Saigon. It also marked the end of our long journey through Indochina. Vietnam's capital is an easy going place with a distinctly French flavour. Hardly surprising since it once served as the capital of French Indochinese rule between 1902 and 1953. Founded by the Emperor Tu Duc in 1831, the city is a cluttered mix of Chinese and French colonial architecture. Ho Chi Minh - the father of the modern socialist movement in Vietnam - is buried in Hanoi, his mausoleum built in the extravagant style of other great leaders of communism.

We had arrived in spring - to overcast skies and cold nights when a jacket was desirable attire for any evening excursion. Of course, for us, this was not an option and instead we plundered our 'extensive wardrobes' and wore everything we possessed; long trousers, socks, shoes, two t-shirts and that long sleeved shirt - unfashionably creased from weeks at the bottom of a backpack. Best thing about Hanoi? It would be difficult to cite one example from such a short acquaintance as the city certainly has many charms but for us - shallow
Hoi AnHoi AnHoi An

A walk through historic Hoi An was like stepping back in time. © L. Birch 2007
people that we are - it was 'Beer Corner'. Four shops clustered around a busy intersection in the old French quarter where a pint of cold, draught beer cost 2000 Vietnamese Dong - about 8p in UK Sterling - and which was, quite possibly, the cheapest pint we had quaffed anywhere, ever. If only we had found it sooner!

From Hanoi, it was back to Bangkok. After our 4000 km (approx 2500 miles) journey through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, it would almost feel like 'going home'. But our stay would be short lived. It was to be a quick pit-stop to remind ourselves how wonderful Thai cuisine was and to organise visas and transport for the onward journey to Myanmar (formerly Burma). Few countries hold more allure to a traveller than those to which they are forbidden to go. Myanmar's repressive, military government has long held the western world at bay but in the last 6-8 years, it has gradually opened its doors a few inches. After wrestling long with our consciences, we had planned how we might limit the amount of our money that went to support its abusive regime. Selfishly perhaps, we also wanted to see
Golden GateGolden GateGolden Gate

One of several magnificent gates that lead to the Forbidden Purple City and the Imperial Enclosure at Hue. © L. Birch 2007
inside a country that had not yet been tainted by Mc Donald's, KFC and Coca Cola. We were looking forward to slipping through the 'crack in the door' and seeing what Myanmar was really like.

Subscriber's Note

.....As of Feb 11th 2007

Although not substantiated, it is rumoured that the Myanmar government monitors and censors internet activity. Apparently, all .com sites are blocked including hotmail, which may mean that our contact with the outside world while we are in Myanmar will be limited. It may also be difficult to post entries on this site until after our return to Thailand in mid-March. Please bear with us and continue to send your comments via the usual channels.

28th March 2007 - Update.

It can now be confirmed that hotmail is one of the sites being blocked to internet users in Myanmar. Any attempt to try and access an account causes a red warning message to appear on the screen informing you - in no uncertain terms - that the site has been 'restricted'. However, it is possible to access hotmail via a mobile account. We managed to do this ourselves but it should be borne in mind that this is highly illegal as far as the Burmese government are concerned. For your own sake and that of the local people, please exercise caution.


13th February 2007

Almost cruel
Hi Guys It's a wet, windy and miserable February day here in Blighty. As I sit at my desk in the dreaded Pasty factory I thought I'd look at the "blog" and read about your travels. The second photo of the 'Coracles on the beach' is almost cruel from my window I can see grey sky, windswept bare trees and rain. But now I have a new screen background on my work PC ! ! Much love Shelley xx
13th February 2007

Lucky Buggers!!!
Here we are at work, closely following your adventures. It's like reading a brilliant travel book, and we can't wait to turn the page.... We feel like we're there (we wish), from your vivid descriptions and photos. Look forward to the next chapters... Take care, love from everyone here, Debbie and Anitaxxx
14th March 2007

got postcards
Thanks foryour p.c. from Cambodia and the latest one received yesterday (13/3) from Myanmar - a treasure indeed! I thinka card fromMyanmar deserves a whole page to itself inmy post-card album!. I don't know who must be more excited - you or the girls at the prospect of their holiday withyou. This blog-site thing is bloomin' marvellous isn't it, being able to share your adventures in a way we never have beforE.LUVYERLOTZ BETTE X X X X

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