Whitlocks Round the World - Travel Diary for May 04

Click here to read the latest newsThe diary of our trip round the world. You can view other diary entries by clicking the highlighted months at the bottom of the page or by clicking on one of the countries visited so far. Click our logo (on the left) to see the most recent news entries. We are adding new entries from Internet Cafés as we travel, so updates may be irregular. Please check back often to see how we are getting along.

Countries visited so far: UK Latvia Lithuania Poland Slovak Republic Hungary Romania Bulgaria Greece Egypt Tanzania Malawi Mozambique South Africa Swaziland South Africa (again) Argentina Bolivia Peru Ecuador Vietnam China Mongolia Russia England

2nd May Ecuador
Mitad del Mundo, North v South on the equator - Click to enlargeAfter a tiring and uncomfortable overnight journey we arrived in Quito, our final destination in South America, on a sunny Monday morning. Having crammed a lot of adventures into the last ten weeks, we had decided to make it our mission to find a nice apartment where we could relax for a couple of weeks before flying on to Asia. With this goal we went hunting.

It took until mid afternoon before we eventually found a place that was anything like what we had in mind. Quito’s tourist information service, and tourist police, didn’t turn out to be much help, and in the end it was by relying on friendly café owners and helpful taxi drivers that we eventually came upon Hostal Girasol. This hostel, which lets private rooms and apartments, is away from the center of town, but still close enough for everything to be easily accessible. That suited us fine, as it’s quiet and peaceful and very safe, and everything we need is close by, including two very nice parks within easy walking distance. Our little flat consists of two bedrooms with good, comfortable beds, and a kitchenette / dining area. Best of all, we have a reliable hot shower!

I am writing this entry after having spent two weeks here in Quito, and it has been great! I can’t really say a lot about the city, as, except on a couple of short trips into town, we have not made much of an effort to explore. In fact, I could say that we’ve made a particular effort not to! Our time here has been spent resting and recuperating energy for our long journey through Asia. We have also reflected a lot on our travels so far. It is hard to believe that these two weeks have been the longest period of time we have stayed anywhere since beginning our trip in August last year. Our trips into town have been mainly to the tourist centre of the city, Juan Leon Mera Street, to find books in English (of which we found a plentiful supply) and, last night, to eat in a very good Mexican restaurant, to mark the end of our South American travels. We had one walk into the Old Town, too, at the beginning of the fortnight, but, I have to confess, that’s it!

Of course, as with every rule, we had to make one exception! It would not have done to have stayed so close to the equator (which is just 25km north of Quito) without visiting it. We made our ‘journey to the centre of the Earth’ by bus on Thursday! The destination shown on the front of the bus was ‘Mitad del Mundo’, which means ‘middle of the world’, and it was just an ordinary bus, taking local people to and from work in Quito. To go and stand on the equator, you have to pay to enter the ‘Mitad del Mundo’ ‘town’. There is a very large monument on the equator line, and, of course, the line itself, marked by red tiles on the pavement. Tom was eager to see which way the water would run down the plugholes on each side of the line, and ran off to locate public toilets in the northern and southern hemispheres in which to carry out his experiment. He was not disappointed! The water to the north of the line flowed in a clockwise direction, while to the south, back in Quito, it had a definite anticlockwise motion! That done, we headed to a café for a sandwich and to write some postcards, and then to the kiddies’ play area, before catching the bus back ‘home’.

Some might think our two weeks here have been very ordinary and mundane by comparison, but it really was ‘just what we needed’. To be able to cook food for ourselves and to have a regular daily routine for a while has been fantastic. I hope I never come to take those things for granted again!

3rd - 5th May Vietnam
Onwards and upwards!
Our journey from Quito, Ecuador to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam consisted of four flights, the longest of which, from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, took about 15 hours. Passing through so many time zones was somewhat confusing:

We left Quito at 2.20pm. Costa Rica is 1 hour behind Ecuador and Los Angeles is 1 hour behind Costa Rica. We left Los Angeles at 1.55am local time. Travelling west we passed through several time zones, putting time back an hour in each, and then, at some time in the night, we crossed the International Date Line, and passed instantaneously from Monday night to Wednesday morning! We landed in Hong Kong at 8.00 Wednesday morning, and were rushed through to the onward flight to Saigon. Vietnam is one hour behind Hong Kong, and on arrival there both my watch (which I had been changing for different time zones along the way), and Esther's watch (which was still on Ecuadorian time) read the same. Back where we started it was still last night!

The flights had been long, exciting, boring, mind-boggling, entertaining (with the extensive in-flight entertainments system in the Boeing 747) and dream-fulfilling! Nearly a year since we booked the tickets for the journey, at a time when it all seemed so far-fetched to imagine travelling from South America to Vietnam, here we were, doing it!

On arrival in Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon), we passed through immigration without event. That surprised us a bit, as we were expecting to have to answer some kind of interrogation about our onward travel plans (or rather, lack of concrete plans!) On the contrary, they even allowed us to jump the queue, on account of having children! After very little stress, all things considered, we stepped outside the airport into the sticky, baking heat of Saigon.

8th May Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Taking a cyclo in Saigon - Click to enlargeWe stayed for four nights in downtown Saigon, at Hotel 64 (so-called because it is number 64 Bui Vien Street. The Vietnamese aren't big on imagination when it comes to names!) Our room at 64 was great, mainly because it was spotlessly clean and had air conditioning! The staff were really friendly and good fun, too.

It took us three days to recover from the jet-lag. On the first day we all fell asleep almost as soon as we arrived, and then, at 3am, were wide awake watching Cartoon Network on satellite TV!

We did venture out, though, and Nick managed to buy a camera just like his old one. He was very pleased! Lots more photos to follow!!

Caudai Temple and Cu Chi Tunnels trip
We took a daytrip to Caudai Holy See, the centre of Caudaiism in Vietnam, about two hours from Saigon, and to the Cu Chi tunnels. The bus picked us up from 64 at about 8am.

At the Caudai temple, tour groups are timed to arrive at midday, to observe noon worship. The temple was big, peaceful and very, very colourful. Caudaiism is a combination of many religions, mainly Buddism, Confucianism and Taoism, but with bits of Islam, Catholicism and various others thrown in. It seems that the sect's philosophers sat down together and meditated on the world's religions, pulling out the best bits of each. We had to take our shoes off to enter, and inside the temple was beautiful. There was colour everywhere, with bright pink pillars around which green dragons coiled, and a ceiling that looked like a blue, starry sky. The whole building smelled of incense. At noon, men wearing robes of blue, yellow and red entered from the right, and women dressed in white assembled on the left. There was music from a small group of musicians in a little gallery and the worshippers sang and chanted. Then Tom got bored and Esther needed the toilet, so I made my way outside with them, and left Nick to take photos!

After lunch in a little roadside restaurant, we set off once again for Cu Chi.

During the American war in Vietnem, Saigon and the south was the stronghold of the American-republican side, while the Vietnamese communists, known as Viet Cong, were based in the north, with Hanoi as their capital. They operated by gradually infiltrating villages and civillian areas and then, from within, fighting the Americans on their own ground. To achieve this they dug an extensive network of tunnels (about 250km in total) and spent most of the daylight hours underground. The tunnels included field hospitals, weapons factories and kitchens and dining areas, and were so well hidden that although the Americans destroyed vast areas of jungle looking for Viet Cong guerrilas, many of the tunnels remained intact and undiscovered at the end of the war (which the communists won, of course!) At Cu Chi some of the tunnels remain and can be seen by tour groups.

First we were shown a video, which contained original footage of Viet Cong guerrilas (including young boys and girls) planting grenades and booby traps, before disappearing down little holes to evade American troops. There was also a model showing the network of tunnels on three levels at Cu Chi. Then we went out into the forest. We were shown a series of horrific-looking booby traps which were used by the Viet Cong to hinder the Americans from finding the entrances to the tunnels. Our guide showed us a tiny trapdoor, and demonstrated how a guerrila would have lowered him- or herself through it and into a tunnel below. We were invited to have a go, and I tried, but the tunnel entrance was strictly for Vietnamese hips, and I couldn't fit through. Further on there were wider tunnel entrances, so we were all able to go inside to take a look. You could walk, stooping, or crawl for about 100 metres through the tunnel, going down to a depth of eight metres below the ground. It was baking hot and we were all pouring with sweat when we came out. It was hard to imagine spending days on end living inside the baking earth. It must have been pretty grim for the Viet Cong men and women, but with very limited resources, such as ammunition, compared to the American forces, their hide-and-seek cat-and-mouse tactics were a major factor in their victory.

Within the walking circuit there is a shooting range, so that tourists can add to the atmosphere of the trip by firing a few shells, using wartime weapons. Nick and Tom had a go at firing a Colt 45 handgun. They thoroughly enjoyed the 'buzz' of feeling the power of the machine as it 'kicked back'. Tom kept an empty shell as a souvenir!

11th May Vietnam
The waterfall at Prenn Dalat - Click to enlargeWe travelled by bus to Dalat, in the southern highlands of Vietnam. The journey took six hours in an air-conditioned mini-bus, which seems to be fairly standard here. The journey would have been stress-free, but about two hours after we had left Saigon, Nick discovered that we hadn’t got the passports! Of course we were horrified! What would we do in Vietnam without them? A man on the bus let us use his mobile phone to call Hotel 64, and they said they would keep them for us, but that didn’t really solve our problem, being on a bus heading in the wrong direction. We decided to continue to Dalat and see what could be done from there, knowing that to lose them would be pretty disastrous – not least because of the tragedy of losing all the stamps and visas we have collected on our travels!

We stopped for lunch at a road-side place where we ordered noodles, which tend to be served in a bowl of thin soup with a plate of fresh herby salad. It was a nice lunch, and we had a medium-sized audience of conical-hatted fruit-selling women watching us eat it! Of course, they are particularly enthralled by Esther, who was only wearing a pair of shorts, and was doing her best to eat her noodle soup with chopsticks!

On arrival in Dalat the bus driver obligingly took us to the hotel which had been recommended by the staff at Hotel 64. The Dalat hotel was called Dream II, and was also very friendly and had lovely rooms. The breakfasts there may well have been the best we have had anywhere! Mrs Nu, who runs Dream II, was very reassuring about the passport crisis, and said she could arrange for them to be brought to us the next day by one of the bus drivers, whom she knew. Still, we did not relax until they were safely back in our hands, as promised.

We spent two full days in Dalat, enjoying the cooler hill climate there. We wandered around the market, where they sell dried fruit of all kinds, as well as many other mysterious grocery products. We bought some artichoke tea bags! Dalat is famous in Vietnam for its fresh vegetables and fruits, especially strawberries. There were stalls on the market that sold nothing except strawberries, and we have not seen them anywhere else in Vietnam. I suppose the coolish climate in Dalat must be particularly suitable. As well as visiting the market, we hired swan-shaped pedaloes on the town’s lake, Ho Xuan Huong, and went to see the flower gardens.

On our second day there we decided to go a little further out of town and visit Prenn falls, a beautiful waterfall about 13km away. We hired three guys on motorbikes to take us there. (OK, Mum, you can pick yourself up off the floor! Motorbike taxis really are the only way to get around in Vietnam! For us, any hesitation over the safety of this mode of transport for our children was met with complete incomprehension by our drivers. In Vietnam, everyone who’s anyone owns a Honda Dream, or similar small motorbike, and just about nobody has a car. Cities are absolutely full of bikes, and it is usual to see whole families riding about on one; sometimes up to five people on one bike. You can even buy baby seats designed for the purpose!) The children thought the ride was fantastic! The falls were pretty, too, although not as spectacular as others we’ve seen, Iguazu aside! The surrounding area has been developed into something of a tourist trap. There is a sort of mini zoo there, with crocodiles in a large and very suitable looking enclosure, and monkeys in less appealing conditions. We also met a group of monks-turned-tourists there, who were very keen to have their photographs taken with us. That was a new one! In all our time travelling we have got used to having to ask people if it is OK to take their photo, but, until now, no-one has ever asked us! Although there are lots of western tourists here, people are fascinated by us, especially the children, and Tom and Esther are finding it a little hard to get used to all the attention, including touching and poking them, from – well – everyone!

Back with our motorbike chauffeurs we asked them to take us to a pagoda which, in the Lonely Planet book, it says you can reach from Dalat town by cable car. The plan was to catch the cable car down. However, Lonely Planet were wrong (again!), and have apparently got the wrong temple! The Thien Vuong Chinese pagoda was really lovely, though, set on a hilltop outside town. There were several sections to the temple including one room containing three huge Buddha statues made of gilded sandalwood. We took our shoes off and went in. Esther made friends with a shaven-headed lady who was cleaning there. She gave her an apple from the altar and insisted that she share it with all of us. We felt very welcomed. Behind the temple on top of the hill was a giant pure-white statue of Buddha, flanked by amazing dragons.

We zipped back into town on the bikes and paid the guys their very reasonable fee (about 2 pounds each!). It rained in the evening, and we had to unpack our raincoats to go out in search of a meal. We found a really nice restaurant, though. It looked very basic, but served delicious meals containing an abundance of the fresh green vegetables that Dalat is famous for.

15th May Vietnam
Nha Trang
A quick drink at the floating bar - Click to enlargeThe bus journey to Nha Trang, on the coast, was a terrifying descent through 1500m from Dalat. At first the road wound through mountain passes and hairpin bends, showing us excellent mountain views and more evidence of Dalat's vegetable growing industry, in the shape of beautifully constructed terraces, piles of cabbages stacked by the roadside and groups of people sorting and preparing leeks and other vegetables for market. The bus travelled too quickly to look for long, though, swinging violently around the tight bends and overtaking many times in places where the driver had no chance what-so-ever of seeing any vehicle that might have been coming the other way. We were shaken about a lot, and by the time we reached the flat land and began to rocket along the smoother roads there, through rice paddies and past ox-carts (towed by water buffalo and real oxen), the children were feeling sick. Somehow we all managed not to throw up, and not to get killed!

We spent two whole days in Nha Trang, which is a busy and popular seaside resort. On our first night we went out in search of a restaurant where we could eat crabs, which are ten-a-penny here, but can be very expensive in tourist restaurants. We eventually found a no-frills sort of place which had crab, and also some foods which the children would like! The meal was fantastic, and the waiters very friendly.One of then, Huan, demonstrated how to eat the crabs using nutcrackers, while Tom looked on, horrified at the plate of pink monsters that had arrived on our table.

We passed one day relaxing, and buying things, on the beach. Nha Trang beach was very beautiful, set in a big, sweeping bay which contains four islands. The beach is golden sand, slightly shingly but soft enough at the water's edge, and the sea is clean and sparkling. It was hot, but the steady breeze that came along the bay, and the shelter of a beach parasol, meant that it was very comfortable indeed. The people selling things on the beach were very insistent, but also very friendly, and we allowed ourselves to be talked into buying all sorts of things, including a massage, right there on a sun-lounger! We also gave out some things ourselves. I had brought along a bag full of all the things we had been given on the flights with Cathay Pacific; pens, pencils, rubbers, rulers, playing cards (four packs of those), and pouches containing socks and a toothbrush and toothpaste set. We gave these things out liberally to people who looked as if they would like them. It was great fun. Children were delighted to get coulouring books and coloured pencils, older kids loved the cards, and I'll never forget the look on the face of the man we gave the socks and toothbrush set to. He couldn't believe his eyes! His smile was great to see!

We took a boat trip to the islands, and it was one of the wackiest days out we have done anywhere! It was not peaceful and had next to no cultural content, but it was fun! We sailed with about 60 other brits, Americans and New Zealanders, who were all young, on holiday, and out for a good time. Listening to the Village People's YMCA at top volume on the boat's PA system, we set out across the bay to visit four islands. Highlights of the day included snorkelling in coral at the first island, Mun island, where there was a wonderful world of tropical fish of all shapes and colours. It was like swimming in an aquarium. There were bright, shiny turquoise fish, neon green and red stripy fish, zebra fish, angel fish and many, many others. I spotted a big, round, purple fish, and Nick found a green fish with a trumpet-like nose. It was amazing!

Lunch was great. We ate a whole range of dishes, served on the roof of the boat, and the meal was followed by some indescribable entertainment from the crew! Then they set up a "floating bar", and we all bobbed about in the sea, wearing life-rings and sipping wine!

The last island visited was the only one where anything remotely "authentic" went on. We went to a fishing community to look at their boats and houses, where we took the opportunity to go for a short ride in a little round basket boat, rowed by two women in conical hats.

It had been a crazy day - rather like being on an 18-30's holiday for a day, which is not what we're used to, really, but it was fun, and it was a tired and happy little band of travellers who left Nha Trang that night on the train.

15th-23rd May Vietnam
China Beach
Sun,sand and surf on China Beach - Click to enlargeWe travelled by train to Danang, in central Vietnam. We wanted to go there for two reasons; firstly to visit China Beach, one of the longest stretches of unbroken sandy beach in the world, and renouned as the centre of rest and relaxation for American soldiers during the war. Secondly because both Nick and I had both read, before travelling to Vietnam, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, by Le Ly Hayslip, which is the autobiography of a young girl growing up in Danang during the war years. A small guest house called Hoa's Place had been highly recommended by a Canadian guy, Kent, who we had met in Saigon, and we wanted to (in the words of Hoa himself) check it out!

It took us a while to find Hoa's Place. Taxi drivers either didn't know where it was, or were unwilling to take us, preferring more expensive hotels which pay them commission for the customers they bring. We got there eventually though, and it was great!

We stayed with Hoa and his wife Giao for eight days, which was far longer than we had intended. The welcome we got there was among the very warmest we have had anywhere in the world, and Hoa and Giao looked after us as if we were long lost friends for the duration of our stay. By the time we left them, at the end of our stay, good friends is exactly what we all were. Hoa speaks English like no other Vietnamese person. He has run his guesthouse, which appeals, in different seasons, to surfers and backpackers, for ten years, and he talks like a dude! "Take it easy", says Hoa, and "we'll work it out". We took his advice!

The guest house is a stone's throw from China Beach, where we spent a fair amount of our time. Facilities on China Beach are minimal, and the bars on the beach cater almost exclusively to Vietnamese users, but if any formula was written for the perfect beach, I am sure it would describe this one to a tee! The sea is clear and blue-green and is a wonderful temperature for swimming. The beach shelves very gently, so that it is shallow for ages, and the waves roll in, just big enough to provide fun and excitement, but not too overpowering. The sand is soft and golden and stretches on for miles, and the gentle sea breezes break up some of the heat and humidity. We sat in deckchairs in the shade while the children played, or swam or floated about in hired inner-tube rubber-rings. It was idyllic!

In the late afternoon the beach often got crowded with local people, who like to cool off in the sea after work. The attention we, and especially the children, got from them was rather a novelty. The Vietnamese found us fascinating! If the children built a sandcastle they did it with a large audience, which took some getting used to as, unlike the Africans, who stared but kept their distance, these people sit just inches away from you smiling, giggling and nudging each other, staring constantly at whatever you are doing. Mostly it's OK, but it can be rather off-putting if what you're doing is reading a book or writing a journal! The cultural differences between us and the Vietnamese people are obvious. Sometimes they seem to be trying to tell us something of vital importance in urgent sign-language or mime, and we are completely incapable of understanding them. People often want to pick Esther up, which she hates, but some are equally anxious that I should handle their children! I wonder if hugging and kissing someone's child is a way of showing honour or respect. It is quite strange to us and, even after travelling so far, this is the most culturally 'different' we have felt anywhere.

Also very close to Hoa's is Marble Mountain, so, naturally, we dragged the kids up it on a hot day! As we approached we passed many shops and workshops, making and selling marble ornaments, from tiny Buddhas to go on a mantlepiece to enormous lions which would look good flanking the gates of a royal palace. The marble workers are incredibly highly skilled, having had their trade passed down through generations. There was a kind of walking circuit to do on the rock, (which isn't really high enough to be called a mountain), taking in various pagodas as well as caves. We paid the entrance fee and climbed the steep marble steps to the first pagoda, stopping to sip coconut milk on the way up. The pagodas were mostly very similar to the untrained eye, smelling as they did of incense, and full of colour and Buddhas. There was one temple, though, which was deep inside a natural cavern in the mountain. The temple in the cave was beautiful, peaceful, and blissfully cool. There were shrines and statues in all the caves on the mountain, but the first one was the biggest. In one cave we were able to climb and come out further up the mountain. We walked to the top - to a place called Heaven, where there was a panoramic view and a welcome cool breeze. On the way back down we went to the most beautiful and impressive pagoda. Tall, thin and ornate, the green pagoda looks majestic high on the mountainside. We removed our shoes and entered the first level. On each of the seven floors there is a marble shrine, each with human or god-like statues, some white marble, some sandstone and one, a statue of a god with many arms, in gold. We liked the clever design of the building; the marble staircases to each new level hidden behind the altar of the last.

Back at Hoa's we decided to sample some of Giao's famous spring rolls. They were lovely - the kind you make up yourself by wrapping chopped vegetables in a sheet of rice paper along with other fillings. Giao promised to show me how to prepare them next time! We spent that evening, as we spent many others, playing cards with Hoa, and then (at his request), playing the guitar and singing until late.

18th May Vietnam
Hoi An
A fitting for new clothes - Click to enlargeWe went to Hoi An, which is highly famed for its tailors, for the experience of having clothes made for us. We found this highly addictive!

Hoa had recommended a place called Sarah's Boutique, which sounded good, and Hoa arranged a driver to take us directly there. It was great! We were given clothing catalogues and magazines to look at, including the Next Directory and Versace! We chose styles that we liked and then Hom, our assistant, helped us to choose suitable fabrics. We needed a lot of help, as this was something none of us had done before, but, once we got started, it was hard to stop! We ordered a suit for Nick in black silk cashmere material, as well as three shirts and a pair of casual linen trousers. Tom ordered two embroidered shirts and a pair of shorts as if he did this all the time! Esther was measured up for a Vietnamese silk ao dai, and mine was a smart trouser suit and skirt and some blouses. Made-to-measure, it all came to about $150 (about 87 pounds!)

When we went to pick up the goods two days later we were amazed! There were all the things we ordered, made to fit us perfectly (well, almost!) Tom dressed himself proudly in his new cream shirt and tailor-made shorts, and Esther floated around merrily in her blue silk ao dai. Our suits were smart and my blouses fitted perfectly. A few things needed finishing touches or adjustments. And, of course, we were tempted into buying more! They made the extra items (some cotton/linen trousers for me and two extra shirts for Nick) and delivered them to us at Hoa's the following morning. What fun!!

21st May Vietnam
My Son
Ruins of the religious sanctuary - Click to enlargeDuring the early part of the Chinese occupation in Northern Vietnam (111BC - 939AD), the Champa or Cham civilisation was in existence in central and southern Vietnam. The Cham people built their greatest religious sanctuary at My Son, in hilly green jungle. We decided to visit this site, which is about one hour's drive from Non Nuoc (Hoa's village).

Mr Phuoc, our driver, picked us up in the morning and drove us there. Getting to the site was a mini-adventure in itself. From the car park we walked to the ticket office, and from there across a long and ricketty bamboo bridge over the river. At the other side we caught a jeep taxi (included in the ticket price) to the entrance to the relics.

The site had a kind of Lost Empire feel about it. Although My Son was heavily bombed during the American war, as it was used by the Viet Cong army as a base, many of the original structures remain, and nature is gradually reclaiming the land. Plants of many tropical varieties are springing from the ruins. There were many buildings, of which the brickwork would have been impressive in its day, and many Hindu carvings, for the Cham people borrowed Hinduism from trade links with India, could still be seen; the god Shiva, elephants and birds.

Hot from wandering around the ruins, we went for a paddle in a cool stream before returning to Phuoc's car for the journey home.

23rd May Vietnam
Hoa's Place
When we returned from our trip to My Son we met Ti, Hoa and Giao's 11 year old son, who had come to visit. Ti lives in Danang with his older sisters, to be able to go to school. Although Ti does not speak much English, he was a nice boy and it was good for Tom to have someone of his own age around to play with for a while.

We took Ti with us to the beach that afternoon, and he and Tom swam together and then dug a system of canals in the sand. Then they disappeared back to Hoa's to play Gameboy!

Giao gave me the promised lesson in the kitchen and I can now say that I know how to make her world famous spring rolls. All the guests who precede us in the 15 guest books that Hoa has kept proudly for the last 10 years rave about the spring rolls! I'm sure I'll need some practice, but I feel very priviledged to have been let into the secret!!

When the day came to leave Hoa and Giao and continue on our travels, we were really sad to be going. We spent the evening before we left playing one last riotous card game, joined by an Australian couple, Kara and Tony, who had just arrived, and Iva, a Norweigian man staying at Hoa's while heworks with the marble carvers teaching sculpting techniques. After the game Tom went to bed and Nick and I did a few songs, including one which we had written especially for Hoa and Giao, adapted from the Eagles' Take it Easy. It was a fantastic buzz, and Hoa was so pleased!

We left after breakfast and photos in the morning. Mr Phuoc had been called to come and take us to Danang and, as we left, Hoa stood in the road and waved until we were out of sight. We were really sad to be leaving, but in some ways it was nice to feel that we were leaving a place where we will be remembered. Hoa never forgets a name or a face, and I feel sure if any of us were to return in years to come, Hoa would know who we were, and welcome us as friends.

Cheers, Hoa and Giao! Take it Easy!!

To get to Hoa's Place, head for Non Nuoc, a village between Danang and Hoi An. Take the turning off the main road for Marble Mountain. Then go past the entrance to the Marble Mountain car park and continue down the road. Hoa's Place is the last house before the beach. Say hello from us!

24th - 31st May Vietnam
Hanoi Water Park - Click to enlargeThe train journey to Hanoi was long, but fairly comfortable, and we all slept OK. The food supplied was most unappetising! You get a plastic container of rice, wnd various other less recognisable things to eat with it; bamboo shoots, vegetables which seem to have been stewed in vinegar, and rubbery stuff that is probably meat. The rice kept us going though! On arrival at Hanoi there was a lot of hassle and under-hand business from people who wanted to get us to stay in their hotels. We eventually managed to shake them off, though, and found a place where there wasn't too much pressure.

We stayed two nights, and then went on a 3-day tour to Halong Bay; see below, before returning to the city. While in Hanoi we stayed in the old quarter, where there is an interesting mix of tourist cafes and souvenir shops, together with street markets and many, many Vietnamese people going about their daily lives.Tourists and locals alike ride around in cyclo rickshaws, which vie for space in the narrow streets with handcarts, motorbikes, and people on foot wearing conical hats and carrying enormous loads of fruit, vegetables, rice ad just about everything else essential to life in baskets suspended from shoulder poles. It was a colourful, lively place. People were friendly, although sometimes rather pushy, and we enjoyed the atmosphere.

On our first full day there we managed to post home all of our new clothes from Hoi An. We opted for surface mail, as the price was less than half the cost of air mail. Fingers crossed they'll get back before us, as we expect to be needing the suits for job interviews!

We spent that afternoon visiting Hanoi's Air Force museum. There were lots of old photographs there, including many of Ho Chi Minh himself, awarding medals, flower baskets and other honours to Vietnamese soldiers who had done a particularly good job of thwarting Americans during the war. The children enjoyed having the chance to climb into the cockpit of a MiG fighter plane and play with the controls. Outside there was a display of many types of aircraft, including warplanes and huge helicopters.

We found a great restaurant, Linh Phung, which was basic and fairly cheap, but which served fantastic meals in large portions. we made this our favourite evening haunt when we were staying in the city. One night while we were there there was a tremendous downpour, which stranded us. We couldn't believe how quickly the street outside turned into a river. Local people were well prepared. The floors of their houses and shops are tiled from wall to wall, and they do not generally keep things on the floor. When the water started to overflow the door-sills, they blocked its entrance with planks of wood, slotted into the groove for the metal outer doors, and stood on stools with brooms, ready to sweep the water out as it came in. Although water was freely flowing into the restaurant (much to Tom and Esther's excitement!) we kept our feet up, and the waitress continued to serve us as if it were just 'all in a days' work'! When the rain stopped the water receded almost as quickly as it had risen, and we were able to walk, rather than wade, back to our hotel.

When we returned to Hanoi, after the Halong Bay trip, we decided to treat ourselves to a day at Hanoi Water Park; a great treat for the kids, and the chance to be cool for a whole afternoon! We took two motorbikes to get there, and it was a fun 20 minute ride. The water park was great. there were several really big slides as well as imaginative kiddies' areas. Esther and I, and later Esther and Nick, went on a fast bumpy slide together, as well as one on which you floated down on a double rubber ring. Tom liked the fast bumpy slide too, and spent quite a lot of time playing with other children.

One of the most enjoyable things which we did in Hanoi was to go and see the city's Water Puppet show. It was so good that the children insisted on going twice, and I think perhaps they even enjoyed it more the second time around! Before the puppets came on there was a recital of folk music. Vietnamese musical instruments are very strange, and stringed instruments tend only to have one string. One type of monocord instrument is plucked, and makes a mournful wobbling sound. this instrument, we later learned, is called a dan bau. Nick bought one to send home and hang on the wall! Another instrument is bowed, and can make an amazing range of notes, considering that it only has one string. The musicians and singers were very accomplished and we enjoyed the music a lot. Then came the puppets. the show consisted of a sequence of scenes telling traditional tales, and the puppets themselves were operated in a pool of water, which served as a stage. Particularly memorable were the golden dragon puppets which danced in the water while sparkling fireworks shot from their mouths. There was a scene where a tiger chased a duck, and then caught it and escaped the farmer and his wife by running up a tree, and a love-dance between two phoenixes, who laid an egg which hatched into a baby phoenix. There were fishermen in boats, colourful fish for them to catch, a royal procession, a group of peasant farmers growing rice and a troop of dancers which danced in time with the music. It was a great show with easily enough colour and activity to keep the kids enthralled twice over.

This type of puppetry was developed in the 11th century in the rice fields of northern Vietnam. It seems fitting that a race of people who spend so much of their time wading in thigh-deep water in paddy fields should have developed a form of entertainment which relies on water - and it's great entertainment, to this day!

26th - 28th May Vietnam
Halong Bay
The four of us above Halong Bay - Click to enlargeThe trip began with a three hour bus ride Halong City. From there we took a big wooden boat out into the bay. Halong Bay is really beautiful. The water is a deep, clear emerald green and, within the bay, there are over 3000 small, rocky islands. These are incredibly picturesque, many with near vertical sides rising from the sea, with bright green scrub-like vegetation.

After lunch, served on the boat, we sailed to an island where there is a huge cave. Hang Dau cave, also called the cave of marvels, consists of three large chambers with many stalactites and stalagmites, all lit up be coloured lights. It was really good. For a start it was lovely and cool inside. The coloured lights were a bit tacky, but the formations inside the cave were incredible - like the surface of another planet, or a fantasy world.

Later, we sailed to a really quiet, still part of the bay, where we swam in the crystal clear water, jumping from the sides of the boat. It was really beautiful. The bay was so sheltered that there was no movement atall in the water and, When I first jumped in, I was almost surprised to find that it was salt water, and had to remind myself that this was the sea! Everyone was jumping off the boat and having a great time, Esther floating in her rubber ring. Tom stayed by the boat, enjoying climbing out and jumping into the deep, cool, clear water again and again, while Nick and I and Esther went to investigate a nearby island with a few other people from the boat. It was so picturesque; our wooden boat sitting there on the clear, green water, surrounded by rocky islands of all shapes. Back at the boat Nick suggested that we jump off the roof together. He had done it once earlier, and I did want to, so we climbed up. The edge of the roof was made of sheet metal and I stood there for ages, unsure about whether to jump. Everyone seemed to be watching me and urging me on, but it didn't feel right, somehow, and something in me was saying no. Finally, I gritted my teeth and pushed off... and my fear was confirmed! My foot slipped backwards and I fell forwards. Arms and legs flailing, trying to ease my ungraceful entry into the water, I bellyflopped from a height of about 6 or 7 metres. It hurt! I managed to swim to the ladder and climb out. Nick, who had jumped in to save me (!), climbed out too. I felt as if I had just suffered an almighty slap, and bruising was already visible on my thighs. It took me the rest of the afternoon to recover from the shock of my impact with the water.

That night we stayed on the boat. It was anchored in a quiet bay, and we had a comfortable cabin with a fan and a private shower. Once the children had gone to bed we sat on the roof (although not too close to the edge) and chatted with Kevin and Mike, an American father and son travelling together, before going to bed. The moonlight and ages-old rocks which surrounded us created a serene and powerful setting.

We were to spend our second night on cat Ba island, the biggest island in the bay, so, after an early rise, we left the boat and checked into the Cat Ba Plaza hotel. We only had ten minutes to settle in though, before we left to go... somewhere! One thing this tour wasn't big on was keeping us informed! The guide told us to meet him in the lobby at 8am, but, as he had not mentioned the 10km hike or the canoeing and swimming, we were not well prepared for the day. After an extra journey upstairs and much confusion, we set off. A motorboat took us to another part of the island and, to Tom's delight, the driver let him steer the boat for most of the way there. We walked to a small village, cut off from the world except by boat. It was extremely hot, but the walk was made enjoyable by the many beautiful butterflies along the way. There were hundreds of them, and some were large and brightly coloured. When we reached the village we stopped for a much-needed drink before setting off for the main part of the trek. This involved an hour of climbing steeply uphill. the path was shaded, which helped, but still sweat poured from all of our bodies and, when we tried to stop for rest, we were attacked by mosquitoes. It was a hard climb, especially for Esther, but we all made it, and everyone admired her stamina at the top! From the top, you could look down over the forests of the island and out across the beautiful emerald bay with its myriad of rocky islands. We also saw a little country rat, which emerged from the undergrowth to munch on our watermelon skins. Then it was back down the mountainside to the village for lunch.

The motorboat, with Tom at the wheel, took us to a floating house where the canoes were kept.

Floating houses, by the way, are a regular feature of Halong Bay. Wooden houses built on rafts seem to be fixed together side by side in rows, and anchored out in the bay. families live on either side of the little watery 'streets' created, fishing or fish-farming in net covered pens attached to their homes, and visit their neighbours in rowing boats. The children go to school on Cat Ba island. Many homes even have dogs; healthy looking animals almost certainly fed on fish waste, and exercised by swimming in the sea.

Anyway, it was clear that there were not going to be enough canoes for all of us to go at once, so Nick and I and the children decided to go swimming first and canoeing later. The boat took us to a beach and we had a welcome dip in he sea until a couple of pairs returned in their canoes, making them available to us. We canoed around a couple of islands and investigated a deserted beach, before returning to the boat.

The following morning breakfast was served at the hotel, after which we returned to the big boat to be taken back to the mainland. The journey took about five hours, with a half-hour break for swimming, during which I stayed well away from the roof! This was our last chance to marvel at the huge and majestic rocky islands and their natural archways, caves, coves and beaches as they drifted past the windows of the boat.

All too soon, we had arrived back in Halong City, and were being loaded onto the bus for the return trip to Hanoi. Despite my bruised legs, it had been a most enjoyable three days.

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