Holidays and Other Excursions

Tag: Vietnam

Cu Chi Tunnels and Cao Daisim

Day 20 Sunday 4 January 2015

An early start as we travelling north today to see the preserved parts of the Cu Chi tunnels which formed a part of the Ho Chi Minh trails used to supply the fighters in south Vietnam during the wars against the French and later the Americans.

The tunnels were extensive around Cu Chi and ran at several levels.  First a metre underground allowed the guerillas to move around to confront ground troops, whilst a lower level permitted protection from falling bombs.  Within the tunnels there were other facilities to provide for some hospitals, areas to protect women and children, cooking and dining  facilities as well preparing weapons.

And the album of photographs:

The average Vietnamese at the time of the wars was between 120cm and 150cm tall and this meant that the tunnels could be fairly small and easily excavated in the soil around the Saigon river as there were no rocks or other impediments to the tunnelling.  The tunnels were originally commenced simply as undergound bunkers during the French war of independence to provide safety and protection and over a period of time they were linked together to provide something entirely more functional and useful.  These tunnels were built by local people who were working with the North Vietnamese and essentially were not directly part of any north Vietnamese army.  They wanted communism and were therefore fighting the war, supported by supplies from the north.

In one direction they also allowed access to the river bank and up into the country into deep forest.  They had very small access points which could easily be hidden with dry leaves to allow the guerillas to confront a force of ground troops and also to appear behind them easily.

Foreign news correspondents captured some evidence on film of the tunnels and this is played to us together with an explanation of the size of the tunnels and their usage before we inspect the physical remains.  Some of the pictures demonstrate the tunnels and also some of the traps which were used against the ground forces.  Typically the traps were developed by the villagers for use against animals and vermin and then scaled up to be used against the army.  Some of them look pretty painful and were no doubt effective.

When it comes to entering the tunnel I can get down to the first level but looking down I can see that the only way I could progress would be on my hands and knees and even then it would probably not help my back when I came to climb out the far end.  I therefore retreat before I get stuck.  After all Winnie-the-Pooh had to give up hunny for days before he could be freed from being stuck in Rabbit’s hole.  I might miss the plane home!

The underground fires for cooking had their own tunnels so that the smoke would issue at a distance and even if spotted an attack would not be on the kitchen itself.

Quite often the US troops would abandon armaments and these would be carefully stripped to remove explosives so that they could be re-used in weapons against the Americans.  Shoewear (sandals) were made by deconstructing rubber tyres and re-using them.  This practice was also adopted by the Khmer Rouge in Campuchea.

I believe in total there was over 1000 km of tunnels and whilst the US brought in extra heavy tanks to effectively compress them, this only worked on those immediately under the surface and not those at a lower level.  And of course B52 bombing had some impact – but not enough to stop the supplies coming through.

We head away from the tunnel area and further away from HCM City to Tay Ninh where the master Cao Dai temple is located.  We arrive just before 12:00 in time for the chanting ceremony (which happens in total 4 times per day).  Visitors are allowed to observe from the rear of the temple and some photographs were taken.  In decoration the temple is very similar to the one already seen in Sa Dec but much larger.  It is a physically impressive building with the same use of bright colours.

As we do not understand the chanting a fifteen minute observation is adequate and we repair to a local restaurant in the town nearby (along with, I note, many of the other tourists seen earlier!).  This time we do not quite get all of the meal at once (it is a fixed menu) and the soup arrives first; then just about everything else, apart from the rice which turns up a determined ten minutes later just as most of what had arrived before had been consumed.  Not too spicy and all very fresh – both in terms of the ingredients and obviously the cooking!

It is quite a long journey back to our hotel but we are dropped off outside the Notre Dame cathedral and opposite the Post Office.  These are two of the buildings which have survived and not been redeveloped.  Both attractive in their own ways, although we do not enter either.  We then have a nice wander back to our hotel observing at least one bride being photographed with the cathedral as a backdrop,

Dinner is on the 20th floor of the Grand Hotel where we consume a modest pizza and caesar salad, both well prepared and enjoy the view over the harbour and of the surrounding neighbourhood.  Our sightseeing is over.

Ho Chi Minh City and Port

Day 19 Saturday 3 January 2015

This morning commences with a trip to what is now known as the “Re-Unification Palace” but was originally the Preseidential Palace from the time of construction in the early 1960’s until the end of South Vietnam in 1975.

For a period post 1975 some of the contents were sold and so some aspects of the private quarters are reconstructions.  The main presidential offices however are as they were at the time of the later Presidents whilst South Vietnam existed.  The President’s office and the main meeting rooms are as they were then – and how they were used to greet visitors – domestic and international.

In an interesting echo of our visit nearly three weeks ago to the Ho Chi Minh residence and adjacent bunker used during the war periods when bombs were being dropped on Hanoi, there is a similarly well defended area under the Re-unification Palace for the South Vietnamese President.  There is a direct route from the President’s office to the underground bunker – which has two levels and the level one metre underground has been opened to visitors.  There is a command room, a president’s room (and bedroom) and a security and communication rooms.  There was also a deeper level which was believed could not be reached by exploding bombs but this has not been opened up.

The photographs can be found here:

Looking at the building externally the architecture is clearly of that era and given the nature of the concrete I hope that it will be maintained for the future.  Therer are maps both in the security council room above ground and in the command bunker below showing the battle areas and reminding us of the Ho Chi Minh trails which led from north to south.  Peak US soldier deployment was 1969/70, at which point the army losses were so heavy and the US forces decided to adopt a new approach – described by one of the senior officers that they intended to bomb North Vietnam “back to the Stone Age”.

Our next visit is to the musem which is now called “War Remnants” which earlier had the name “War Crimes” and the thrust of the place really reflects the latter approach.  It lays out the story of US involvement – which started far sooner than I realised – in Vietnam from the late Forties through to 1975.

For those as ignorant as myself it turns out that the Americans were largely funding the activities of the French in seeking to restore colonial power after the declaration on independence as the Americans were at the time dependent on supplies of Tin and Tungsten from the area.  Once the French had failed at Dien Bien Phu, the Geneva convention separated the country into two, ostensibly for a short period.  In that period those in charge in the South became heavily influenced by the Americans and so the planned elections and re-unification never happened.

The War Remnants Museum mainly exposes the illegal activities of the US forces, their brutality and of course the application of napalm and agent orange for the defoliation of the forested areas.  There are tributes to the reporters who covered the conflict and many of the telling photographs which made an impression then are visible.  This includes the famous print of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the naked girl running from a napalm attack.

There is an entire room dedicated to the after effects of the use of agent orange (dioxin) and the impact on subsequent generations, causing numerous deformities and other defects in those descended from people who suffered exposure.  Room is also given to the work undertaken post war by Vietnamese to recover and identify their lost compatriots.

When I was taught history I was told that the winners always write the history books and this museum is a perfect representation of that theory.  The guerilla war had already been lost by the French in 1953 and consequently the Americans were (in hindsight) on a hiding to nothing throughout the sixties and seventies (a theory made stronger by what we are told at the Cu Chi tunnels – see tomorrow).

By way of providing some balance the land mines laid by the Vietnamese in Laos to protect the northern part of the trail which are still there and are not identified is not mentioned and yet it is one of the highest concentrations of land mines in the world.

We have time for a brief visit to the Central Market and this is even more packed than some of the others we have visited.  Were I still working as this is one of those places that reckons they can make a suit in 24 hours I would have done so.  Looking at the fabrics the quality seemed good and it was one of those things that I simply wanted to try.  But now I might wear a suit once a month and probably the ones I have will last a lifetime.  After some hunting around the wife buys some hazelnut coffee, neither of us fancy the squirrel or weasel coffee.  And some further hunting produces a “Mont Blanc” bag with a zip along the top for me and a new baseball style “Vietnam” cap as the old one is filthy.  It will be interesting to see how long the real leather bag lasts.  The sales woman proved it was real leather by use of a lighter – so at least she has confidence in her products.  I doubt it is real “Mont Blanc” however.

In the evening we have a great time.  We board a boat of fun to go around the Saigon river and there is lots of good food being cooked and a real mix of entertainment.  The band playing are very competent and the singers perform well – upbeat and far more fun than the singers on Xmas Eve,  There are also dancers who not only do a local dance but also belly dancing and lead a conga around the ship!  A magician appears at our table – wearing a short sleeved shirt, so there is clearly nothing hidden up his sleeves – and he is able, under our noses to make pieces of string change length become interlocked, and then revert to single pieces and makes little balls vanish and re-appear.   Whilst all basic staples of the close up magician his misdirection and skill mean that there is not the faintest clue as to how it is all done.  And for some of the tricks it is the second time we have seen them this week.  Amazing skills.  We really feel that this evening was a great entertainment and it certainly put a smile on our faces.

From the river we could also see the other boats and some of the waterfront and sadly the pictures cannot do that justice but the buildings which have been developed in recent years certainly give the City a status and whilst perhaps not quite as clean as Hanoi, it is certainly a very modern city.

On to Ho Chi Minh City

Day 18 Friday 2 January 2015

Leaving at Cai Be at 9 was relatively simple – during check in the previous day we saw one couple unable to settle the bill as the credit card machine was not working and having to go into town and use an ATM to get cash – the wife is prepared with cash!

With guide and driver we head for the former capital of the south – then Saigon and now Ho Chi Minh City – and on the way get to travel on one of the two toll roads in the country.  Apart from the toll road most of our way appears to be built up – at least in a ribbon strip alongside the road with a continually changing variety of little outlets – food, cafe, wood store, cafe, engineers, food, clothes, bridal wear shops – seemingly without break.  A lot of the time one can just see that there is countryside behind the shops with no doubt farming of rice and other items, but the roadside is developed most of the way.

The other notable element throughout this journey, particularly visible on the toll road section is the graves and / or monuments to deceased family members in the centre of the field, or at one side.  These typically are elegant structures which look as if they are made of marble and are well maintained.  Obviously there is huge respect for the older generations.

They have not quite got to motorway service stations but we do stop at a busy service area where we get coffee and a toilet break and the place is busy with foreigners on a variety of journeys.  The crossroads of the Mekong I rather think.

HCM City has grown.  It is now larger than Hanoi and has a population of over 9m.  Our guide later explains that following unification the people of the south were given land dependent on the number of family members and in consequence there was for a long time pressure to have much larger families to ensure the maximum area of land was received.

I cannot admit to a great sense of direction but I feel we looped around the city to provide access to the Chinese market and to gain some idea of the size and infuence of the Chinese population.  This is perhaps even more cramped than the other markets we visited and is an absolute riot of colour (as usual there are photos).  Very bright and very busy.  As we found in Hanoi Chinese involvement in Vietnam was important in the first millenium of the Christian era (approx) and Saigon was always an important port on the route to and from the Far East from western Europe so the strength of the Chinese community is hardly a surprise.

Originally there was a separate town here – Cholon – but as they grew the two towns became linked and eventually merged, with Saigon becoming the dominant name after independence from the French.  Photographs:

Near to the market is the Thien Hau Pagoda which is a buddhist temple.  Much of the buddhist related temples we have seen so far have been derived from the Indian heritage with which much of the area is linked.  The chinese heritage however brings different facets to buddhism.   Within the pagoda they especially venerate the Lady of the Sea (Thien Hau) again reflecting the links to the seafaring Chinese.  The photographs again show the roof detail which mirrors that on the Chinese house is Sa Dec.  Internally there is much burning of incense.

Dinner this evening was at the recommendation of our guide – a BBQ outlet.  Careful (mis)ordering means that one of the dishes (wild boar) requires cooking at the table and after we have consumed much of the other food they turn on the hidden burner in the centre of the table and pour some oil on the steadily getting hotter metal plate.  Luckily my wife is travelling with me and so after nearly three weeks without having cooked my dinner she is poking and prodding and turning to ensure that the boar is good enough to eat.  It mainly tastes like fatty bacon!

However we are out of doors, it is a warm evening and the food was certainly freshly cooked.  The rest of the meal was also pretty good.  It has become clear that few restaurants in this part of the world have any concept of “courses” even if they have sections labelled as “starters” and “mains” as the food inevitably seems to arrive all at the same time.  It was all tasty and it was only walking distance back to The Grand Hotel where we are staying but we pass en route, outlets for Versace (turn right), Louis Vuitton and Christian Louboutin, amongst many other major brands.  This City may be in a communist country but there are obviously people capable of paying the prices these concerns demand.


My Tho and Cai Be

Day 17 Thursday 1 January 2015

An early morning as we al have to disembark by 8:15am.  As last night we are still tied up to the pier at My Tho – but opening the curtains brings a huge shock and final proof and a realisation that we are on a tidal river.  Last night we could have stepped from our balcony onto the dockside; this morning we are staring at a wall which reaches up to eye level.  During the night the tide went out and the boat is now lower and egress from the ship to the quay is at second floor level.  At least no-one can see us getting dressed.

Bags outside our doors at 7 and we head upstairs for breakfast and coffee.  During the latter I note that the bags are being steadily offloaded and as we are not travelling with the main group to Saigon I go into mad “bag monitor” mode annd head outside collecting our two and two other fellow traveller bags into a separate and forlorn looking group.

We slowly watch our fellow passengers leave in various coaches for the next part of their adventure and we wave them all off; eventually there are just the four of us.

Suddenly a mini-bus arrives and we are back with Asian trails.  Our hotel booking for tonight is an eco-friendly hotel which is back at Cai Be.  Our friendly guide welcomes us (and with all bags loaded) we head off and she outlines are programme for the morning – which is to revisit the places we had seen in Cai Be the previous day (not overly surprising).  As we had “been there and done that” we advise her that we would be more than happy simply to go to the hotel and make use of the pool for the day – after all we need to go home a little browner than when we set out – it is supposed to be a holiday.  She seems surprised but accepts our decision and we are not surprised when the hotel says the rooms will not be ready until later.

We check in, passports copied and luggage labelled for room 106 and we head to the pool.  Sunlounger and towels acquired we stretch out and seek to get a little colour.  Around 1 it is getting hot and I suggest repairing to reception and seeing if by any chance our room was available.  Sadly not and so we sit on the hard wooden furniture (which could have come from that shop up the road) and I am glad we have not bought any.  I get an internet connection on the phone and can catch up with the world but none of the Apple appliances will connect.

Soon after 1:30 we are told our room is ready and we go there to find the maids just finishing.  I cannot get an internet connection now but the wife finds she has had an email from the National Lottery – she has won.  But we cannot get a connection to the NL website to find out how much.  Given my success earlier I return to reception and spend nearly an hour – but fail to find out anything useful.  When I return to our room the wife has found out the magic numbers from the Hull Post and she has won £25.  And I was hoping for the big money!

Then the afternoon descends into complete farce.  We get a phone call wanting to know if we have checked in.  [Needless to say we have].  Then when wife has rolled over to try an afternoon snooze the phone goes again – can they see the passports.  Not trusting anyone I remind her that I saw them take copies that morning and they already have them.  Having had her snooze destroyed the wife is not happy.  It gets worse five minutes late when a front of house manager arrives at the door and asks to see the passports.  I can only assume the change of shift from morning to afternoon has led to this complete catalogue of errors.

Our fellow travellers were allocated room 105 but on arrival there they had only been briefly in residence when management arrived and moved them to room 101.  105 was equipped with a double bed and two extra beds (for a family of four) and so was inappropriate.

Throughout this time our wifi was intermittent at best and so we went for a wander around the complex (beautiful gardens, nice pool, games area, beach area, bikes and boats for local outings, sign saying “keep out of deep water” on the same lake as canoes for use by residents, toothbrush in a plastic wrapper encased in a nice looking paper outer to maintain the eco-facade) and decide to settle in the restaurant area and have a drink.  Now all of a sudden we had rock solid wifi for as many bits of kit as we carry (at least four).  We can get our photos on line for the first time in days.  Getting a table was more complex.  We arrived at the same time as another couple and they wanted us all to sit at the same table.  We just sat at another one.

And had a drink, and then had another.  Service was not notable and nor was the quality of the cooking.  It was also entertaining watching as they tried to seat (or not) other people coming into the restaurant – which we were told variously was open all day and opened at seven in the evening – although we were served dinner (probably because we were there) at about 6.  At least we just had to consider it funny.

Returning to the room I use the toilet and think I see something running down the wall.  My fears are confirmed when my wife uses the shower and decides there are a couple of geckos in the bathroom – something which she has not encountered since our honeymoon in St Lucia where the score was only one.  Later I up the count to three on the glass wall of the shower which faces out to the river but do not tell her.  All seem to have gone by morning.

I am sure if they addressed a few of these issues (a lot of staff  training would be good, along with some consistent processes) plus upping the catering aspect then this would actually be a very nice place to stay.  However we decided to name it “Fawlty Eco-Towers” in recognition of our experiences.  PS to the above, most of those staying appeared to speak English so it would be good if some more of the staff had a better comprehension of English as well, although I understand that it does have to be local recruitment to hold costs.

Tomorrow – Ho Chi Minh City.

Sa Dec and Cai Be

Day 16 Wednesday 31 December 2014

We have been away from home over two weeks – this is probably the longest holiday ever, but as I no longer go to work it is perhaps more appropriate to say that this is the way we live now!

Sa Dec has a large retail market which we walk through.  The photos cannot really do it justice as  it would be boring if I posted a picture or each vegetable stall or each fish stall which replicate along the length of the market.  However merely one example of each hardly gives a fair representation either.  Also dashing around but not recorded are people delivering meals (usually some soup) plus the inevitable scooters weaving in and around the market. for the photographs.

At the far end of the retail market is a wholesale market and of course supplies come here in bulk before being broken down.  I suppose that Covent Garden was once like this.  I believe now that there is little direct trading at Nine Elms or at the other large markets in London, all of which have declined as the supermarkets have gained dominance.

Marguerite Duras lived part of her early life in Sa Dec and her most famous book concerned a relationship with a wealthy chinese man she met on the way to Saigon.  We had been shown the film the previous evening, but frankly I saw no merit in the story and gave up about halfway through!  The wife persisted to the end but no good came of it.  A few years ago it was realised that the house of the chinese man’s father remained in Sa Dec and it has been restored and can now be visited by passing travellers such as ourselves.  An interesting foot note but little substantial meaning.

We rejoin the local junk used for the journey from our cruiser to the town to travel a little further to see a church of a local important religion – Cao Daisim (or Dao Daisim).  Whilst relatively recent, being less than a hundred years old the religion beings together the teachings associated with Ying and Yang from China, the later developments of Confucius, Buddhism and Christianity, noting the significant overlaps and common teachings across these separate religions.  The religion has its home north of Saigon (see Sunday 4 January) and has a large number of adherents across the southern areas of Vietnam.  It was originally supported by the government and was not permitted after 1975 but has in more recent years become far more substantial.

In the afternoon we visit Cai Be.  The catherdral of St Joseph marks the continuing strength of the Catholic religion in the region and the area outside has various additional statues and has bought neighbouring land to permit expansion.  This has been achieved by money sent from church members now living abroad who are able to send money back to the church to provide the additional memorials.

It is noticeable this afternoon that a number of the group is smaller than usual with others choosing (as we did earlier on ) to stay aboard the mother ship.  Before we left home one of my wife’s main concerns was the transfers to and from our cruise vessel to land as this nearly always requires the use of a smaller motor vessel, capable of seating about 30 and for which we are required to wear life jackets (so we won’t drown – merely die of the pollution in the river) but each transit is between two vessels both bobbing around.  Pleasingly all of the transitions are made without a problem – except to my head.  Once again it is proven that I am significantly oversized as I clobber my head (despite the regular warnings given by all of the crew providing assistance) on the roof beam of the junk.  This time quite hard.  I cannot say I wasn’t warned.  They are of course built for people who generally are probably six or more inches shorter than I am.  This size problem will arise again.

Wandering in the group along Cai Be street enabled at last the picture of a small outlet selling wooden furniture.  Compared with some of the other larger scale enterprises we have seen this is modest and I am only glad that we do not have time to stop and buy (also I am not so sure how comfortable the chairs would be).  A separate album for Cai Be:

At the end of our walk is a factory producing variously popcorn, rice wine and fine rice paper.  The production processes are explained to us.  The rice wine here is not so near fire water compared with the Laos sample but on the whole I think I prefer a small cup of sake.  We wander around the processes and Jackie observes that the girls pressing the  toffee are doing so with bare hands whilst the sweet popcorn is being  packed by girls sitting on the tables.  I am sure they all wash regularly.

Jackie is particularly taken by the production of rice paper, wanting some authentic paper for a dinner party when we return but oddly it does not seem to be on sale here!  There is a shop but nothing catches our fancy.

After dinner it is time for “Mekong Prestige has got Talent” where normally the crew entertain the passengers.  But we have a surprise.  Among the Japanese contingent there is a trained dancer who has offered to perform and we have already see her twice during the day practicing.  She performs well and it is extremely brave of her to do so.

The crew have various party pieces – “YMCA” from one section, a great singing voice from the ship’s purser and the chief engineer is also a master magician with pieces of rope joining and splitting magically.  We are promised a disco and entertainment until the new year but all this fresh air and travelling means we go to bed.

In our cabin we note we are tied up alongside a form of pier and that on the quayside there are numerous containers.  If this is a passenger terminal then it is being seriously under-invested and gives a little weight to the comment made by the tour guide (Matthias who did a grand job over the entire week with three distinct groups speaking English, German and Japanese) that the facilities along the river are being stretched by the 16 cruise vessels now being operated along the Mekong.  When we went to the Nile some 20 years ago the numbers operating were much higher and there were facilities everywhere to tie up rather than using transfers.

Tan Chau

Day 15 Tuesday 30 December 2014

We are now firmly back in Vietnam but this is still part of the Mekong and the Mekong delta and is in many ways different to Hanoi.

Historically this area did not become part of Vietnam until the French colonial period when the borders were redrawn (again).  Hanoi and the surrounding area has long been Vietnam.  The marriages between Vietnamese kings and Cambodian princesses led to gifts of land in the centre of the country being dowries and therefore becoing part of a larger Vietnam.  Cambodia was a strong and huge country at the time of the Angkor constructions but subsequently weaker.  The name Siem Reap actually reflects the town being conquered by Siam (Thailand).

Our visit this morning is to Tan Chau to see a floating fishing farm.  These have become incredibly important in feeding the Vietnamese in recent years and we are shown the way in which the families live on a floating “raft” with the fish farm suspended below, with cage with wire netting on three sides but the fourth side closed with wood to prevent the full force of the river flowing through the farm.  The farm we saw was responsible for some thousands of tilapia fish which were about half grown and will eventually reach close to 1kg each in weight over a nine month period.

Photographs can be found at:

Special boats have been developed to move the young into these individual farms and for the grown fish to be taken away, still alive, so that the quality of the fish is maintained until the last possible moment.

Leaving the fish farm we return to solid land for a while and we walk between houses and gardens inspecting the growing peppers and a variety of other plants and fruits plus a lot of ducklings before embarking on a rickshaw ride.  As elsewhere the presence of satellite dishes means that battery powered tvs means these people do know what is going on in the world.  I suspect the bicycle powered rickshaws are retained solely for the tourists and we progress to two further visits.  A basket weaving factory where the noise must drive everyone deaf very quickly.

The individual parts often have to be dyed red (the colour of the day) or green and are then fed into the weaving machines by hand,  Hugely labour intensive and the potential for error high so the operators have to keep a close eye on the feeds and we see the machines being stopped and errant colours being removed to ensure the patterns are right.

These rickshaws are not designed for big fat western bums like mine.  To mount them we stand on a beer crate (upside down) and then insert our bums on the back seat.  We then lift our feet up to rest on the seat facing the other way (we are so big it is a single seater).  Now I cannot tuck my legs up like that because of my size so it is a question of finding a comfortable position with one leg tucked under the other.  And there is nothing to hang on to apart from the seat.  After a few minutes my nerves subside and I do manage to capture a couple of pictures of people passing us by and of another rickshaw rider.  I need a smaller bum and more flexible legs!

The second visit is a silk weaving factory where our new most excellent guide explains at length that this factory is particularly good at weaving black silk.  However production today is at a standstill due to a power failure – which is probably just as well as the noise would probably be impossible.

The machines are Jacquard and the design is driven from a continuous loop of what looks like punched cards which ensures that the design and pattern repeat regularly throughout the cloth without the careful attention of an individual machine minder – we are told one minder can look after two machines!  There are 70 machines on site.  A long step from the silk weaving capabilities seen in Laos earlier in the holiday.

Another afternoon cruising down the river.

Navigation Day

Day 14 Monday 29 December 2014

We spend the day steadily heading along the river towards Vietnam.  During the day we cross the border and our passports (which were collected at the start of our journey in Siem Reap) have to be put through passport control.

One of our number (the aforementioned Brazilian) has apparently suffered a leak in her Manhattan apartment which has been discovered and requires urgent attention so she disembarks in Pnhom Penh before we sail and heads for the airport and a local flight to Saigon and then back to NY.  Some of us suspect there may be more to this than meets the eye as she gives my wife a “Ciao” as she departs hardly having spoken to her since we boarded.

My day is however improved by a trip around the lower deck containing key matters to making it a successful journey and also to the bridge – so there are photos over at Flickr.

This is the newest cruiser in the fleet having been delivered on 31 December 2013 and entering service on 6 January 2014 so it has improvements over the earlier vessels.  In particular the crew now have small shared cabins under the kitchen (so on level 1 – the same as our cabin) and do not sleep in the level 0 under our cabin.  They have external access to fresh air which must be far more preferable to the original arrangements.

Food stocks are largely refreshed at the southern end of the journey as the boat is Vietnamese owned (and laoding at the north end difficult as it does not reach Siem Reap at the momen) but fresh vegetables are bought at most stops and some fish I think.

Being a floating hotel the water supplies are important.  Cooking itself uses bottled water.  Water supply for the cabins is taken from the river and double cleaned by various methods before use.  A partial supply is then treated a third time before being used for cleaning of kitchen surfaces and so on.  The waste water is collected and the solid waste is pumped out at the southern end of the journey, whilst the liquid waste is treated and is returned to the river cleaner than the water brought on board.  Hot water for the cabins is achieved by using power from solar panels.

There are two large diesels running when we are under way and there are also two power generators but only one is used at a time but both are used regularly.  Fuel consumption rates are not small either.

Moving to the bridge the controls are fairly simple.  There are only two screw propellors – no side propellors – and sideways movement or turning the boat is achieved by using them in different directions.  Our speed is faster downstream at about 17 km/h – this reduces to about 12 when against the current, so time spent navigating is therefore greater when travelling in the other direction.

There is a wheel but most of the activity is controlled by a small joystick being pushed either left or right as this gives a finer degree of control.  The crewmember responsible largely navigates by sight in the daytime but there are radar scanners and other equipment to hand – although it all seems remarkable bare in the bridge.

There are three staff on duty normally – an engineer in the bay next to the engines (he ought to wear ear protectors as he will end up deaf!) and two on the bridge.  Actual shift lengths vary slightly as it depends on the length of each period of navigation but are typically not more than 3 hours at a time.

Crew wages are considered good for Vietnam – but the vessel only operates for part of the year.  However there is turn around at both ends and so the ship is effectively in non-stop operation during the summer.  It seems however that a lot of the team (particularly in the kitchen) are return members from last year as they are given the first choice for the next season.

The front of the boat also seems to have a small herb garden – just like a Vietnamese house.

We carry on sailing.

Vietnam (north)

Day 2 Wednesday 17 December 2014

We are awoken (well we were not asleep) in what are theoretically the early hours but it is only 21:00 back in the UK.  Vietnam has a 7 hour time difference and following a not bad breakfast we are on descent into Hanoi.

First annoying experience, despite the cases being given priority stickers at Gatwick we endure a longish wait before they emerge.  Meanwhile we are entertained by four boxes apparently containing Johnnie Walker whisky going around and around on the carousel!

Exit with nothing to declare we are met by a young guide and meeting the two other ladies on this tour (whose bags had been first to emerge so had also had a long wait), we head to the hotel and get our first taste of the Hanoi rush hour.  Public transport seems a little lacking – as far as I can see they have built a new airport terminal to cope with growing traffic but there is no rail connection to the airport!  There is heavy use of mopeds / motorbikes with this being a very heavily used mode of transport.

Our first stop is a coffee and the Museum of History which enables our guide to give a run down of Vietnamese history over the last 2000 years.  Controlled by China until approx 1000AD, Hanoi was formed and became the capital of an independent country in 1004 AD.  Much of the next 400 years or so was to be subject to continued invasions from China until the Vietnamese under resourceful leaders seduced the Chinese navy into the mouth of the river where stakes had been buried which, as the tide dropped, trapped the invaders and enabled the Vietnamese troops to inflict a heavy defeat.  The tactic was so good that it was used a second time, the Chinese having apparently forgotten the history in the meantime.

This period ended when the French came and Hanoi became the headquarters for French Indo-China in the nineteenth century.  That initially ended with the Japanese invasion and so in 1945 with the Japanese withdrawal Vietnam became independent and certainly our guide considered this an important date.  Led by Ho Chi Minh the French returned with the intention of recovering Indo-China and the Vietnamese guerillas were born.

The French built a huge garrison at Dien Bien Phu in the north of the country in a deeply wooded valley.  As we acknowledged the mists hang around in the morning in winter and under this cover from aircraft the Vietnamese were able to construct narrow paths through the woods to the top of the surrounding hillsides and were able cut the land supply lines to the garrison and also to rain down firepower from the hillsides inflicting a heavy defeat.  The French surrendered the North and the country became divided into two – North and South Vietnam.
This album records our two days in Hanoi and are now in the order they were taken I think, so should match this blog a little more closely.

Hanoi has recently celebrated 1000 years of existence and has created a giant mural covering some 4 km along the major city road, parts of which we saw and appear in the photos.  We then drove around part of the city seeing the Lake of Restored sword and the temple at Quan Thanh temple which was at the north gate of the original city.

Following on from sleep in the afternoon we wandered around the corner from the Movenpick hotel with the intention of sampling some Vietnamese food.  Quan Ngon restaurant is an obviously popular place; after a false start a waitress with some English (and English is a much taught language in Vietnam we found) helped us through the menu and we ordered far too much.  Hanoi soup to start is an absolute must.  Either beef or chicken noodle – but good and refreshing.  The highlight was a shrimp speciality in a pancake.  But then we were also given rice paper and a variety of herbs and so with the shrimp pancake, herbs and lettuce and then roll up within the rice paper so that it is a little like we would eat crispy duck and pancake in the UK but also resembling a rice paper pring roll.  Crowned the best course however was a beef dish on various greens which was very tasty.  Plus some rice and other bits and pieces.

Time for bed.


Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia

Day 1 Tuesday 16 December 2014

She is Jackie and I am Richard. The names may well be changed to protect the innocent. This is the first of our holidays planned post retirement, if you exclude the trip to North Wales back in the summer when a long weekend became a week and a bit visiting the railways there.

This trip commenced not with with usual car journey to an airport but instead, courtesy of some very well priced tickets from FGW (not anyone’s favourite operator) to Gatwick airport. We progressed from rail to the shuttle and North Terminal and booked in. Now for the best part of three weeks we are in the hands of Voyages Jules Verne (hereinafter VJV) visiting Vietnam (north), Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam (south).

The day then passes in the usual blur of security, the interminable trek over the bridge to the satellite terminal, joining the Vietnam Air Boeing 777-200 ER plane and heading off across Europe, whilst trying to get some sleep.  This time as it is long haul (10 hours 45 minutes) we have taken premium economy and unusually Jackie manages more sleep than I do – which given she says she cannot sleep on a plane is almost amazing.

To me the area we are visiting is defined in two ways with recent history in the area having largely passed me by.  There are the horrific news images from the Vietnam war in the late sixties and early seventies and the later filmic recreations – “The Deer Hunter”, “Apocalypse Now” and of course “Good Morning Vietnam” and alongside this the genocide recorded in “The Killing Fields”.  Shortly before our departure Sue Perkins was in full travelogue mode covering the Mekong river over a four episode period which gave a much modern view of the area (and is no doubt available even now on DVD from your favourite supplier).  What will we find as we tour?