Blogs from Vietnam

Toward India

Date: 10/06/2007 | Author: Dave

We have spent time before in Goa and Kerala. We love India, but it is the most frustrating country in the world - a cautionary tale unfolds before we even leave Vietnam.
I have made six calls to the Virgin Airways Contact Centre to change the date of our Bangkok - Delhi flight. Over four hours on the phone and all I got was erroneous information and bad advice from Ashu, Yamini, Anesh, Abhi (twice) and Paul. I am not exaggerating. Yamini told me to go to the Virgin counter at Bangkok airport to get our tickets endorsed. I was to discover that there is no Virgin counter at Bangkok airport. Three times I had to fax a copy of our tickets to them. The whole story is hours long, boring and sad to recount. It was a comedy of incompetence on the part of the Virgin call centres. Abhi had never heard of Vietnam so had trouble even appreciating where I was calling from!
All of these call centre travel professionals are based in Delhi and Mumbai.
I am good at remaining calm when all seems lost and as an introduction to India perhaps Virgin have helped prepare me for what is to come.

p.s. I arranged our new fights (myself) for the Bangkok - Delhi leg at the airport early on the morning of our departure. A lucky encounter with a local manager of Jet Airways turned the tide of my torment. He could have turned me away but instead made me smile and all for no extra charge.
Virgin are a good airline but somehow they created impossible from the incredibly simple.
tip: Avoid paper tickets if you think there is any chance you may want to change a flight.

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Moving on Again........

Date: 10/06/2007 | Author: Gabby

I can't quite muster up much enthusiasm for India. It feels like moving on again. The 4 countries we have visited in South east Asia, although unalike, have somehow merged in to each other. India is going to be different, very different.
It's been really hot pretty much the whole time we have been in Asia - at the moment, Delhi's daytime high is about 46 degrees Celsius. - at least 6 degrees hotter than we are used to. Fortunately, we get there late in the evening and leave early the next morning but even the foothills of the Himalayas are still hot.
I've got a stinking cold, my second in a month - I blame constantly sleeping with the air conditioning on - something I never normally do.
I'm just longing to escape from the humid heat. Hanoi was a great city but just too hot. In a way I sort of wish we were heading back to the UK now - although I'd never say that to the kids (and try not to mention it to Dave too much).
But, I love India and I have never been to the Himalayas before. maybe I'll feel a little more enthused once we get there and when I manage to shake off this cold.
Our first stop in India (after Delhi) is Rishikesh, the vegetarian, teetotal, yoga capital of the world. It's not as hot as Delhi, but it's still going to be India hot. I wonder how we'll all fare? Watch this space................

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Hanoi

Date: 08/06/2007 | Author: Dave

Hanoi is the place where are travels combine with real life the most. Hair cuts, new glasses, camera repair etc. We experienced this fine city in three bursts. Twice at the Hanoi Paradise Hotel in the Old Quarter and then for our last two nights at the lovely Kate's house.
The Old Quarter is by a long shot the maddest piece of a city I have ever been in. Most of the pavements are occupied by the contents of shops, street restaurant seating, cooking, bicycle repair stations and parked motorbikes. Consequently, pedestrians get to share the road with the (5) millions of motorbikes said to be in Hanoi on any given day. My first 24hrs in the Old Quarter involved three near misses. Here (as in Saigon) they are the masters of the near miss. To cross the road without flinching takes a few days of practice. (tip) Move at a slight diagonal toward the traffic and never ever stop. Gaps open up for you.
In the same way as being four up on a small motorcycle with no helmets in this traffic feels irresponsible, dragging one's children out into this oncoming traffic feels the same. You are just trusting that no-one will hit you.
We arrived back from our trip to Sapa at 5am. The life in the city at this time of day is amazing. Our taxi took us via the lake back to the Hanoi Paradise. The hotel opened up and took our bags. Straight away we jumped onto motorbikes and went back down to the lake. We probably would never have dragged ourselves out of bed that early just to see people exercising but once we started walking around Hoan Kiem Lake I was so glad to be amongst the action. We are watching an early morning ritual, as suggested by Ho Chi Minh, that thousands still partake in today, some 40 years after his death. If Tony Blair said that we should exercise in Hyde Park at 5am I doubt that 40 people would turn up. (see video)
From here we head to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum to pay our respects to this country's eminent leader. We thought we were getting a head start on the crowds but joined a queue that we could not see the other end of. After filing in strict silence past his body we carried on to have a look at his humble stilt house in the grounds of the presidential palace. A rather fractious day this turned out to be and we all should have had a siesta.
We adopted the very cosmopolitan streets near St Joseph's Cathedral for shopping and dining. There is a great tapas bar there called 'Salsa'. Ella and I both had haircuts around the corner from 'Salsa'. Mine went well, but Ella was in tears for two days. The rest of us thought it looked great!
There are many artists in Hanoi that copy (oil) paintings and we found a pencil artist that we liked and had him copy a photo of Ella and Florence. It looks fantastic. We got him to sign it so that it is not as easily mistaken for a black and white photograph. We need to post this (and also the impressive pile of dresses that Gabby has purchased) home before we leave for India.
When we first arrived in Hanoi we went out to West Lake to meet Kate and her boys. Kate had emailed us a few recommendations for Vietnam before we arrived in Asia and we were keen to meet her. An affable Australian with three very nice boys. They live, with their French dad, in a big house by the water with a pool in the attic that opens up to a nice view of the lake. After our trip to Halong Bay, we spend our last two nights in Vietnam at Kate's. Her hospitality was outstanding. A very cool lady.

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Happy in Hanoi

Date: 08/06/2007 | Author: Ella

Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam. It seemed much busier than Saigon. We stayed in the Hanoi Paradise Hotel.
My favourite restaurant in Hanoi was a tapas bar called La Salsa. We were up early one morning so we took the opportunity to go down to Hoan Kiem lake. When we got there we saw hundreds and hundreds of locals exercising. They do this because it keeps them fit. Most of the people were doing solo exercising but some were in groups. It was really funny watching everyone doing different jogging and stretches - some people weren't even doing proper exercises.
While we were in Hanoi we went to the water puppet show. The water puppet show was (as you have probably guessed) a puppet show but in water. it was really funny and all about what Vietnamese people do in the countryside.
Near the end of our stay in Hanoi we moved from the Hanoi Paradise Hotel to a lovely lady's house, called Kate. Kate is from Australia and has 3 boys, their names are Martin (11), Benjamin (13) and Thomas (15). Kate's house is huge and has a swimming pool on the roof! One our second day while staying with Kate she kindly let us go to her club with a swimming pool. Mum had a wax and we played there.
I really, really enjoyed staying at Kate's house and also the Hanoi Paradise Hotel. It was a lovely way to finish our time in Vietnam.

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Hanoi

Date: 08/06/2007 | Author: Florence

Our hotel in Hanoi was in the very old part of town and the streets were really dirty. You kept flicking mud on the back of your legs. The pavement was very narrow and all the motorbikes were parked on the pavement and the toy shops went right down to the road. We didn't mind, you just have to be careful walking on the road. We did lots of shopping there, well, Mum did the most.
In Hanoi we went to a water puppet show. The puppets were in the water and they did lots of things that the Vietnamese have done. It was really clever and some parts were very funny too. I liked it a lot.
A few days later we arrived back from Sapa to Hanoi very early in the morning. But not everyone was in bed, most of the Vietnamese were doing exercise by the lake. Ho Chi Minh told the Vietnamese people to do this and they still do. Later that morning we saw Uncle Ho in his tomb. He looked a bit waxy. We had to queue for a long long long long long long time. Loads of people were filing past his body.
Kate lives in Hanoi and she is a friend of a friend of mummy's. When we got back from Halong Bay we went to stay at her house. She has three boys called Martin, Benjamin and Thomas. The youngest is Martin, he is 11. Their house is next to West Lake and they have a swimming pool in the attic. We swam in it a lot and Martin even went in with his clothes on!
I had a great time in Hanoi and the best part was staying with the boys and Kate.

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Hanoi and Goodbye Vietnam

Date: 08/06/2007 | Author: Gabby

I loved Hanoi - we spent over a week there in total, with our side trips to Sapa and Halong Bay in between.
For the first part of our stay we booked in to the Hanoi Paradise Hotel, great value - boasted that it was the only 2 star hotel in Hanoi with a swimming pool. Surrounded by windowless concrete, it was the worst indoor pool we have ever seen. Despite the humid Hanoi heat, not even the girls were tempted to have a dip!
The hotel was in the middle of the Old Quarter of Hanoi where the back streets are fascinating and a hive of activity - definitely a great place to be staying to soak up the atmosphere of the city. Most of the activity takes place on the pavements which meant we often found ourselves walking on the road. Keeping a firm grip on the girls' hands and doing our best to make sure they didn't get knocked by the thousands of motorbikes that whizz through the streets was no mean feat.
It was easy to while away several hours wandering through the narrow streets. You can buy almost anything here - Dave managed to get a couple of new pairs of designer framed reading glasses, ready in an hour, for about $19. I bought, well, lots - dresses, bags, silk - it's all dirt cheap (well that's my excuse) and as we were sending another box home, why not?? We even commissioned a local artist to do an amazing pencil drawing of one of our favourite photos of the girls to send to Mum for her 70th birthday (this is a photo of it!). The girls LOVED Hanoi, there was loads to see and do, the restaurants were great and once again they loved the thrill of getting around town on motorbikes.
A lot of Hanoi's activity takes place early in the morning. We haven't really been morning people on this trip, so we discovered this by default. We arrived back in Hanoi at 4.30am after our few days in Sapa. As we couldn't check in to our hotel until 9 we decided to head to Hoan Kiem Lake to watch the early morning Vietnamese exercise rituals (check out the video!). We couldn't believe it, thousands of people - walking or jogging around the lake, groups of people doing T'ai Chi or aerobic type exercises as well as plenty of solitary exercisers. Apparently, Ho Chi Minh told everyone they should get up early and exercise - 40 years after his death, many people are still taking his advice. By 8am we were queuing with 1000s of other people to see the man himself - Uncle Ho, as the Vietnamese often refer to their ex-President. He wanted to be cremated, but in typical communist style, he has been preserved for all to see and pay their respects to. He looked rather waxy - but the cold air conditioned mausoleum was a great place to escape from the morning heat!
For me, the real highlight of Hanoi was our last 2 nights when we stayed with the lovely de Ruty family in their gorgeous house overlooking the West Lake. I'd had an email introduction to Kate, the only female member of the de Ruty household, from a friend in London. This French/Australian family have lived in Vietnam for about 13 years. Kate invited us to her house one evening and then to stay for our last few nights in Hanoi. She is an amazing woman and her husband and 3 boys were lovely and very welcoming. Ella and Florence loved the boys, Martin (11) and Benjamin (13) were particular hits. I was especially proud of Ella's flirting abilities with Thomas (15). Kate was so generous to us while we were there and it was so great to get an insider's view of the city. It was a very special way to end our time in a magical country.

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Halong Bay

Date: 05/06/2007 | Author: Dave

Ahh... Halong Bay. With 3000 limestone islands rising steeply from the bay, this is a must see. We had heard that Halong Bay was dirty and crowded but visiting with this in mind we were pleasantly surprised. Twice we swam off the back of our boat. The water is a milky turquoise (probably from the limestone) and so has limited visibility but it is not polluted. As we chug slowly around in our boat we do see the occasional shoe or plastic bag floating by but this is Asia and unfortunately that is normal.
Our boat is the Lagoon Explorer, a junk that sleeps seven and boasts that it is the only junk in Halong capable of actually sailing. Always a romantic notion but I wasn't really expecting them to attempt it. The sails were hoisted for atmosphere only.
A one night trip only scratches the near edge of the bay but still manages to show us enough to satisfy. We were taken on our tender through a low cave into a peaceful lagoon completely surrounded by virgin jungle and rock escarpments. We ruined the peace of several kayakers as we chugged in, but switched our motor off and joined their tranquility for a while. Next stop was Dao Titop for a quick walk up the 402 steps to the viewing pagoda. Well worth an elevated look over the bay from here. (see photo page)
We were sharing our boat with three Australian ladies. An ex-schoolteacher, Sue, provided Ella with hours of chat. It was a match made in heaven. Someone that seemed to know something about most things and Ella, who is never short of a question.
All of the junks moor up overnight in the same location (so the police can keep an eye on them) which makes the bay seem crowded as we settle down to our dinner. Dinner, mon Dieu, I have never been so overfed. Six courses and a lot of it. Good, fresh seafood.
First stop in the morning was Hang Sot Cave, which has three chambers and a total area of one square kilometre. All the usual cave highlights here. "Ladies and gentlemen, if you use your imagination you can see..." a woman praying, a lion, a peacock and some broccoli, all very nicely lit. Myself, I was impressed by the enormity of the main chamber (the biggest I have seen) and the caves premier stalagmites, the giant pink penis and the big green turtle. No imagination required for these two.
A short trip to Halong but perhaps that is all we needed. Happily heading back to Hanoi.

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Halong Bay

Date: 05/06/2007 | Author: Ella

Halong Bay is a big area of quite shallow water. There are loads of rocky limestone islands which make Halong Bay really pretty.
We cruised around Halong Bay on the Lagoon Explorer. It was one of the nicest boats in Halong Bay. The Lagoon Explorer slept 7 people, us and 3 other ladies from Australia, Susan, Leonie and Kate. Florence and I had our own cabin with our own bathroom.
While we were there we went to two caves, the first one was a cave with water in. A man took us in a small motor boat through a cave which was quite small (the top was about half a metre above our heads) in to a completely enclosed lagoon. It was really pretty so we stayed for a while to listen to birds and other things. The other cave we went in was much bigger and out of the water, you had to go up steps to get there. In the big cave we saw a rock the shape of a finger pointing, another the shape of a lady Buddha praying, cauliflower shaped rocks and loads of stalactites and stalagmites. The only disappointing thing was we saw a Vietnamese girl writing her name on a rock!
Another thing we did was to go to Titop island, we walked up 420 steps to the view point at the top.
Halong Bay was soooo beautiful and, although there were lots of tourists boats, I found it very peaceful. Not even a rubbish karaoke singer on the boat next door spoilt my fun!

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A Trip Around Halong Bay

Date: 05/06/2007 | Author: Florence

We travelled by bus to Halong Bay. Our boat was called the Lagoon Explorer. We had a very nice cabin, Ella and i had our own toilet. The boat slept 7 people, there were islands surrounding our boat. We went through a little cave into a completely enclosed lagoon. Then we went on a walk to a viewpoint on an island - it took 420 steps to get there. At the bottom of the island was a beach but the water was a bit dirty. We went to some clean water and swam off the boat - the water was very cold. After that we went in to a cave. Our guide showed us parts of the cave that looked like broccoli - Ella and I said we wanted to eat some but of course we didn't! We saw a shape of a Buddha on a stalagmite. The only thing that was disappointing about the cave was that we saw a teenager drawing on the rocks. Finally we headed back to Hanoi. We didn't do much in Halong Bay but what we did was a lot of fun!

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Halong Bay

Date: 05/06/2007 | Author: Gabby

I had been warned to be disappointed by Halong Bay. Everyone agrees that it is incredibly beautiful, but it's beauty means that it is incredibly busy, which frequently means it's incredibly dirty. We had been told the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin are often littered with tons of rubbish, plastic bags etc. How sad is it that the most beautiful parts of South East Asia often end up like this?
With a huge range of boats to choose from to explore the bay, we opted for the Lagoon Explorer. It is one of the few real sailing junks in operation and only accommodates 7 or 8 people, which could be a good or a bad thing, depending on the people you are cruising with!
We left the Old Quarter of Hanoi at about 8.30am for the 4 hour drive to the port. The guide on our bus was hysterical, microphone in hand, commenting on many aspects of Vietnamese life from the use of condoms to Hanoi street names. He then handed the mike the 12 or so people on the bus and asked us all to say a word about ourselves. Fortunately, Ella volunteered to be spokeswoman for the Bracey family - it's certainly a way of breaking the ice!
Our fellow junk passengers were 3 Australian women, 2 ex-school teachers in their 60s and one of their daughter-in-laws. They were lovely, but it was Ella who enjoyed their company the most. One of them in particular, Susie, liked to chat as much as Ella did! Needless to say, the girls home schooling was very well catered for on our trip.
Halong Bay was incredibly beautiful as not nearly as dirty as I expected. The water wasn't that clean - hardly surprising the number of boats that cruise the area - but there wasn't a lot of rubbish. The girls enjoyed a couple of swims off the boat - they just didn't spend too much time under the water! The surroundings are gorgeous and the bay certainly deserves to be a World Heritage Site.
Our boat was lovely, the food amazing and the cabins really comfortable - the girls lucked out by getting the only one with an ensuite bathroom.
It was a gorgeous trip, a bit short, as we had less than 24 hours on the water. Probably just as well as we spent most of the time eating (and drinking!) so if we had had longer we would have probably wobbled off the junk!

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Respite from the heat

Date: 01/06/2007 | Author: Dave

Sapa sits at 1650m on the side of a beautiful valley north-west of Hanoi and close to the Chinese border. We caught the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai and then early on a very misty morning wound our way by bus the last 38km to Sapa. As we drove, we climbed 1000m with the lush scenery teasing us through the fog. Sapa is touristy but we were expecting that. Our original plan was to head due north from Hanoi into reputedly stunning mountain country around Dong Van and Meo Vac. Untouched territory barely mentioned in guide books. But for several reasons (including malaria, rain/mud, and some long car journeys) we adjusted our compass from intrepid back onto the tourist trail.
We checked into the 'Royal View' and indeed, as the clouds cleared, it certainly was. I can see why the French came here to escape from the heat. Across the valley is Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam and stretching out below us a variegated carpet of rice paddy terraces. We spend our three days in Sapa mainly walking through the nearby minority villages. Although a bit touristy they are far more interesting than the villages we saw in Thailand. The H'mong and Red Zoa peoples have farmed this valley for generations and would be here regardless of tourists. These villages are a model of tranquility. Water buffalo preparing the flooded ground and the hand planting of the rice seedlings. The green is vivid and the views reflecting in the flooded terraces are serene.
However, as in Sapa, all western tourists here pick up a small entourage of women and children carrying their brightly dyed wares. The older women all have blue hands from a lifetime of using their home-made indigo dye and the call of "buy for me, buy for me" is a strain on ones good humour after a while. In this temperature I could sit and stare for hours but you are not permitted to become that relaxed.
After three days I am excited about returning to Hanoi.

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Sapa

Date: 01/06/2007 | Author: Ella

Sapa is a town up in the mountains in the north of Vietnam. It is a bit touristy but not that busy. We stayed in the Royal View Hotel. It was very nice and we had a rather large room with a big balcony.
You can do lots of walks around Sapa. We went on three walks. Cat Cat is a village and has a waterfall in it. While we were walking we met a little girl called Chu. She was selling things and followed us right around Cat Cat. After the walk we were picked up by a jeep. Chu said she was going to walk to Sapa later on but because we were so fond of her we took her to Sapa in the jeep.
The next day we went on another walk to Lao Chai and Ta Van. Ta Van is where Chu lives. This time we had a guide and her name was Milance. She was our first girl guide ever. After the walk we took the jeep back to Sapa and played with Chu. While we were playing Chu introduced us to her friend Ha who is fifteen. There was an English bar across the road from the hotel and we went there a lot. Chu, Ha and some other kids were always waiting to play outside. We mostly played hide and seek, what's the time Mr Wolf, grandmas footsteps and chase.
There are four different tribes that live in the Hoang Lien Mountains. They are the Red Dzao, Black Dzao, H'mong and Tay. On our third day we went on another walk. This time we went to a Red Dzao village called Ta Phin. We had Milance as our guide again. Ta Phin had a cave in it so we went inside. But not too far because we didn't have a torch.
Mummy took lots of photos of Chu, Florence and I. We printed some of the photos and gave them to Chu.
We took the night train back down to Hanoi, the capital city. I had an amazing time in Sapa.

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Children in Sapa

Date: 01/06/2007 | Author: Florence

We left Hanoi and got the overnight train to Sapa, high up in the mountains. The train stopped at Lao Cai and we took a long bus journey up the mountain to Sapa. When we got to Sapa we went to our hotel and had a nap because we didn't sleep well on the train. We felt wide awake after that so we went to an English Pub across the road. It became our favourite bar. We went for a walk to Cat Cat village and met there a little girl called Chu. She was very nice. Chu is an H'mong girl. H'mong people live outside Sapa in small villages. Chu lives in Ta Van. Well, her parents live there, she sleeps in Sapa and spends the day selling things. She sleeps with Ha. Ha is fifteen but she is smaller than Ella. Every day we saw Chu or Ha standing outside our hotel waiting to play with us when we come outside.
Chu doesn't go to school so she learns all of her English from the tourists. Chu speaks very good English. We gave each other a big hug when we left.
We didn't do much so I really want to go back there again!

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Sapa

Date: 01/06/2007 | Author: Gabby

I had really mixed feelings leaving Sapa - a hill town close to the Chinese border that is the premier tourist destination in North West Vietnam.
It's surroundings are incredibly beautiful - the terraced rice fields carved in the steep mountain side look like a work of art and the views are stunning. We had a lovely time there and did some great walks through the local villages with their friendly and diminutive H'Mong and colourful Dzao people. It was wonderful to escape from the oppressive heat in Hanoi.
The girls made great friends with 2 H'Mong girls, Chu (who said she was 6 and, although she was small, seemed older) and Ha (who at 15 said Chu didn't really know how old she was). Both of them spoke great English (learnt from tourists - Vietnamese is the language they learn at school - if they go). Ella and Florence had a lot of fun playing games with these girls and their other friends in the courtyard in front of our hotel.
The kids all appeared to be happy and were incredibly shrewd. Their ruthless selling prowess was well beyond their years. Still, I couldn't help but judge their lives by my own western standards and found it upsetting that someone as little as Chu (and she certainly wasn't any more than 8 or 9) spent days at a time not at home with her Mum and Dad. Her village was less than 10km from Sapa, but in the whole time we were there, she never went home. Instead she spent the nights sleeping in a room in town with Ha, waking early each morning to try and sell her cloth bracelets and other ethnic trinkets to the tourists. I just wanted to take her to our room and give her a good bath!
The H'Mong, Dzao and other minority tribes in this part of Vietnam definitely supply the colour in Sapa but their constant bawl of 'You buy from me, you buy from me' while amusing at first became a little bit grating after a while. And if we didn't buy from them (and we didn't because they had nothing we wanted to buy) they'd often be furious!
So, as we left the hill town and waved goodbye to Ella's and Florence's new found friends, I couldn't help feel mixed emotions at the effect tourism is having on the locals. I know it's progression and I'm sure the tourist dollar is improving the lives of many of the villagers, I just hope that the kids lives don't suffer in the process.

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Hue - tourist dollar rant

Date: 27/05/2007 | Author: Dave

We took the day train from Danang to Hue. Not the Orient Express but it can boast some lovely elevated coastal views as it strains at walking pace up and around several headlands and bays. In Hue we have booked into the Saigon Morin. It is the oldest and one of the nicest hotels in Hue. It's great to treat ourselves occasionally. Gabby books all of the hotels and , in theory, I control the purse strings. The system is a simple one - She says "Darling can we stay somewhere really nice in Hue" and I say "Of course we can" - and everyone is happy.
It is normal for motorcycle, cyclo and taxi drivers to try to overcharge but as we get further north in Vietnam it is getting worse. I am becoming a lot less soft about parting with my tourist dollar. It is culturally bad manners to loose your temper with these people so even in the face of daylight robbery (they work well in pairs) I am managing to calmly admonish them for their indiscretions. We spent an hour visiting the remains of the Purple Forbidden Palace and then took a pair of Cyclos around the old citadel. As the girls wander back into the hotel I am left trying to pay our drivers the agreed price. I am beginning to realise why they always drop off just out of sight of the hotel entrance. They come up with many reasons why I should pay them more. Keeping your Dong in your hand in these situations is tricky. I don't seem to have the correct change and they grab an inflated fee from my hand. It seems easy enough to take it back from them and I sort it out in the end. Their final ploy is always to look very sadly at you. I know that western tourists = cash in their eyes but overpaying doesn't help. There are 16,000 Dong to one $US.
Even on a more official level there are different prices for Vietnamese and foreigners. Separate queues for foreigners tickets and even menus written in English will have bigger numbers on them than their Vietnamese equivalents.
Food in Vietnam is definitely more expensive than Laos and Cambodia. We don't eat street food with the kids and Gabby and I like occasionally to find a nice wine list. I know that it is not a giant leap from noodles to pasta but spaghetti bolognese can be twice the price of say, noodles with crab. No prizes for guessing which is our girls favourite.

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Hue

Date: 27/05/2007 | Author: Ella

We took the day train to Hue. Our hotel in Hue had the biggest room we've stayed in since Bangkok. It was called the Saigon Morin and is one of the poshest hotels in Hue.
Florence and I loved taking daily cyclo trips around town. A cyclo only fits two people so we need two cyclos for the four of us. It causes a bit of argument because the cyclo drivers want more money.
While we were in Hue we went to the Citadel. The Citadel is the old city but it got bombed to pieces by the Americans. Naughty Americans. They are rebuilding the Citadel again and it looks very pretty.
I enjoyed staying in Hue but I am excited about what happens next.

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From Hoi An to Hue

Date: 27/05/2007 | Author: Florence

We left Hoi An and got a taxi to Da Nang, then got the day train to Hue. At our hotel in Hue (The Saigon Morin) they had really comfy beds. It was a nice posh hotel. We had our biggest room since Bangkok and a big pool too. First we went to the Citadel on cyclos to see where the Emperor once lived. There wasn't much there because the Americans bombed it, but what was there was very pretty. We saw the Emperor's throne in one of the temples.
We took cyclos back to our hotel. They are bicycles with a little carriage on the front with a sun shade. It only fits two so we have to get two of them and it was a very hot day so the drivers put the sun shade up.
There wasn't much for us to do in Hue so later on we left to go to Hanoi.

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Luxury in Hue

Date: 27/05/2007 | Author: Gabby

I was gutted to leave Hoi An, I could easily have spent a few more days there - especially chilling out on Cua Dai Beach or Cham Island.
However, using my feminine wiles, I'd persuaded Dave that we should treat ourselves and stay in the lovely Saigon Morin Hotel in our next stop, Hue, so I was looking forward to a bit of luxury.
We took one of Vietnam's top train journeys from Danang to Hue - for a change during the day. Stunning coastal views for the first half - unfortunately, I fell asleep for the second half, but Dave and Ella assured me I had seen the best.
The Saigon Morin was lovely. The biggest room we'd had for ages, but, more importantly, a fantastically comfortable king size bed with Egyptian cotton sheets - it was almost as good as being at home! There was a great pool and the buffet breakfasts were superb so the kids couldn't have been happier.
What to say about Hue? It was bloody hot. At one point, while the girls were travelling in their favourite mode of transport, the cyclo, Dave and I were jogging alongside. Big mistake, before I knew it, I was covered in sweat. My new, bespoke cotton summer dress not looking at all like it did when I had my final fitting at Yaly. It was unattractively clinging to my increasingly flabby midriff - even the cyclo drivers looked at me in horror!
Hue itself was bombed heavily during the war. Not much remains of the Citadel, but it is worth a visit as renovations are taking place with gusto. With a little imagination it is easy to picture how the city looked centuries ago.
My lasting recollection of the city will be the lovely beds at the Saigon Morin. Feeling very relaxed I was ready to assault Vietnam's capital city, Hanoi.......

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Hoi An - Cham Island

Date: 24/05/2007 | Author: Dave

Hoi An is the City of Tailors and this is my favourite city on our travels so far. The ancient town centre here was thankfully untouched by the war. Half of the shops here in Hoi An are 'cloth shops' and I think there must be at least 500 of them. I doubt that there is one tourist or backpacker here that is not having something made.
Yaly is the obvious choice if you want to spend a little more money and avoid the stress of choosing from the rest. I had two suits made by Yaly and they do look stush. These two plus about twenty other dresses, shirts and shorts all for less than I would have paid for just one tailor made suit in London. Oh yes, and postage here is cheap and easy as well. The post office comes to your hotel with a box and some scales.
We had been recommended the Thanh Xuan (Long Life) Hotel by two separate south bound travellers that we had met on our way up the country. The Thanh Xuan recently added a pool and breakfast area out the back adjacent to the paddy fields that we view from our room. Only 500m walk to the ancient town and if there are friendlier hotel staff anywhere in Vietnam I will eat my hat. Not the hat the Kea stole in NZ but my new one.
5 Kms away from the Ancient Town is the beach. It is magnificent. A wide clean beach stretching 30km north to Da Nang and barely a hotel in sight. From this beach on our first day we saw Cham Island. Two years ago foreigners needed a permit to go there but now, day tours are free of such paperwork. We discover that it is possible to also stay overnight in tents on a beach there. We have enough time in Hoi An to do this so we break our daily ritual of Yaly visits and head on over. As well as us on the boat, there are only two other locals on a day trip. We stop first at a village for a stroll and then our boat takes us on to our beach. It looks idyllic but there are signs that they are preparing to build. They have already formed a bed for the creek to stop it cutting a random path to the ocean when the rains come. (Oct - Mar) Still, this beach is pretty postcard perfect and we are almost alone. There are two small restaurants here and a few divers are drinking at one of them.
Late that afternoon our bliss is slightly dented by the arrival of (ironically) a group of Vietnamese travel agents. They have arranged to play loud music on the beach after dinner. Their idea of paradise differs slightly from ours. Our guide, Hwa, pitches our tent and then we drag it 50m down the beach to a more intimate location. I had a chat with Hwa yesterday as we walked through the village. He said that eventually you will be able to get jet skis here and those parachutes that you tow up behind a boat. I knew he was not joking and explained to him that the availability of jet ski hire is reason enough for us to avoid a beach. I don't think my comment even registered in his top 100 tourism anecdotes.
That night, high tide comes closer to our tent than I would have expected. We all awake, dry, at 6am. It was not the best nights sleep I have ever had (should have levelled out the sand first) but I dare say as a camping location it would be very hard to beat.

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Tailor Town

Date: 24/05/2007 | Author: Ella

Hoi An is an amazing city.
We were staying in Long Life Hotel (also known as Thanh Xuan). It was a lovely place with a swimming pool and great staff.
Hoi An is the city of tailors. It as up to 1000 of them that copy and sell you clothes. The tailor shop we went to was called YALY. It was very big and quite posh. There were three girls in YALY that we really liked. Their names were Mimosa, Gloria and Mary. Mimosa helped Mummy, Florence and I. Mary helped Dad and Gloria gave Florence lots of cuddles. I had my favourite trousers copied, my favourite dress copied and some clothes made for a special occasion.
Hoi An's local beach was called Cua Dai. It was lovely with the perfect sized waves. We were eating lunch in a cafe called 'Man' and on one trip to the toilet Florence spotted some tiny puppies. We took a look and a man said we could hold them. They were only five days old and didn't have their eyes open yet. While we were on the beach we spotted an island called Cham Island. It looked really nice so we asked Hoa and Fhi (some nice ladies that worked at Thanh Xuan) if there was anywhere to stay on the island. They said there was no accommodation, only tents. So we made a plan to stay there and arrived on Cham Island the next day.....
.....it was an hour boat ride to Cham Island. We camped on Chong Beach. It had lovely cooling sea and was a nice long beach. The tent was a perfect size for four people but was quite uncomfortable because there were hard grass mats underneath the sheets. I was the first to wake up so I went for a 6 o'clock swim when dad woke up.
It was paradise.

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City of Tailors

Date: 24/05/2007 | Author: Florence

We arrived early in Hoi An. Hoi An is the city of tailors, there are about 1000 of them in the town.
Our hotel in Hoi An was called Thanh Xuan (Long Life). Two very nice ladies worked there called Phi and Hoa (Fi and Flower). They were sisters and looked very similar but weren't twins. They were very pretty, I liked them a lot. Our hotel wasn't posh but it was really nice.
Our favourite tailor shop was called Yaly, there were very nice ladies there too. They were called Gloria, Mary and Mimosa. Yaly was really good at copying your clothes, I had 2 dresses made there.
One day we visited Cua Dai beach, it was really nice. There were some puppies at a restaurant on the beach. They were tiny, they didn't even have their eyes open. The sand was really hot, it had been boiled in the sun all day and you had to run to the sea as fast as you could. You could hear your feet sizzling as they touched the water. The sea was really cold, it was very very clear and there were great waves.
We also went to Cham Island. We stayed for the night and camped on the beach. We slept on really hard mats (like Vietnamese people sleep on), it wasn't that comfy and I didn't sleep very well. We woke up very early the next morning and had a nice swim in the sea. 30,000 people live on Cham island and after our swim we walked to one of the villages and visited a school there.
We did lots of things in Hoi An. My favourite thing was definitely experiencing camping on a beach. I can't believe how Vietnamese people sleep!!

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Tailor Shops and Beaches

Date: 24/05/2007 | Author: Gabby

Everyone we spoke to who had spent time in Vietnam had said that Hoi An was a place we should try to linger in for 4 or 5 days. It is a Unesco World heritage town and is one of the few places in Vietnam that wasn't bombed to smithereens during the American war.
Taking another overnight train from Nha Trang, we arrived in to Danang, the nearest railway station 30km to the north, at 5am in the morning. This is definitely the way to travel when you have kids who hate road journeys. Mind you, it wasn't pleasant being woken by a Vietnamese woman shouting 'Da-nang, Da-Nang, get up, get up' at 4.30 in the morning!
We had fortuitously booked a car through our hotel to come and pick us up. Watching a load of bleary eyed travellers being pounced on by the the legions of cab drivers who descend on the station didn't look much fun. We arrived at our fabulous hotel, Thanh Xuan (Long Life), shortly after 6am. As our room wasn't ready and we are rarely up at that time in the morning, we decided to have a stroll around the ancient town and go in search of breakfast.
Hoi An really is a beautiful town - it is the first place in Vietnam we have visited where we could get a sense of the country's history. On the banks of the Thu Bon river, it was at the heart of the Champa Kingdom before the Vietnamese took over and then became an important trading port for centuries.
Since the late 19th Century, Danang eclipsed Hoi An as a port and now the town thrives on tourism and has developed in to a 'City of Tailors'. There are well over 500 tailor shops in the town - they are everywhere! They will copy anything - your own favourite clothes, designs from the current Next catalogue (most shops carry one) or the latest celebrity trends. Of course, with all of our clothes looking well worn and shabby we knew we were going to get some things made. I quite wanted to get Madonna's outfit from her Blonde Ambition Tour, you know the one with the pointy bra. Sadly, Dave didn't think it suited me and didn't think I would wear it on our travels through India - ever the pragmatist! So, while Dave had a couple of stush suits made, the girls and I settled for some cool cotton, summer dresses. The things we did have made were created with much attention to detail at Yaly, a tailor shop that is a little more expensive than many of the shops in town, but the quality is guaranteed. Everything was perfect and we spent far less than we would have for just one suit in London!
Hoi An is not just about the Ancient town and the tailors shops. One of the most amazing beaches I have visited in Asia is about 4km east of the town. Cua Dai is part of a 30km stretch of golden sand that extends to Danang in the north. It was really hot while we were in Hoi An, but the sea was really cool - lovely and refreshing.
There are also some religious ruins, My Son, dating back to the Champa Empire. These are smaller but considered to be on a par with the temples of Angkor and other Indian influenced ancient civilisations in SE Asia. Unfortunately, these ruins, described by the Lonely Planet Guide as 'stunning' had been pillaged by the Chinese, Khmers and Vietnamese over time and what was left was extensively bombed by the Americans during the war, so for us they were a disappointment.
Our final trip from Hoi An was an overnight stay on Cham Island - 21km from Hoi An in the South China Sea. We had heard the island was very beautiful and had great snorkelling. Although close to 30,000 people live on the island, as yet, there are no guest houses or bungalows to stay in, so our only option was camping on the sand on Chong Beach. Unfortunately, our island tranquility was somewhat marred by the presence of 20 Vietnamese travel agents on their company away day - full sound system and karaoke on the beach. Luckily, they all retired by 10pm and once the generators were turned off we really felt on our own. Cham Island was lovely, the resorts are already in the planning stages so we felt lucky to have been there when there was nothing.
People are right, Hoi An does deserve more than a couple of days. Go there, but make sure you leave the confines of the town and tailors shops and explore the other sights the region has to offer!

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Whale Island

Date: 17/05/2007 | Author: Dave

It was bucketing down as we left Saigon. Almost couldn't get a taxi for the five minute drive from Christine's house to the train station. The train was a nice way to get up the coast to Nha Trang. The soft sleeper cabins are four berth so we score privacy with our overnight comfort. We hear stories of the bus journeys here and they are scary.
Whale Island Resort mixed up our arrival day so we had to call them at 7am from the station. But, from that point on their attention to detail (and their resort) was excellent. Not on Whale Island itself but on the small island of Hon Ong positioned between the peninsular that juts outs 60km north of Nha Trang and Whale Island.
The resort calls itself a hotel run marine reserve. They have the potential for about 70 guests (all in bungalows) but we land there during the month when they are sometimes empty. It is truly lovely here and after a few days we are so relaxed that moving on from this place just seems foolish. They feed us well and I find it refreshing not to have to look at a menu for five days.
We spend a lot of time snorkelling. A boat leaves at nine every morning to a couple of sites with good corals but not a lot of fish. The local fishermen still use dynamite occasionally and of course they are anti the marine reserve. As I saw in my youth in Tasmania, it will take ten years before the fishermen realise that their fish stocks are increasing because of the marine reserve.
On our first trip out we detoured via a small fishing village. A great place to pick up some soft shell crab for dinner that night and partake in a spot of karaoke while we were there. Gabby was straight on the mic. Ella and Florence were shy for a minute and then completely took over.
We noticed on the dive board that PADI do something for 8-9 year olds called 'bubble maker'. Ella was keen to try as long as I could go too. It was a shoredive spending about one hour at around two metres deep in the marine reserve in front of the resort. The dive master, Fabrice, held Ella's tank from behind for most of the dive to help with her buoyancy control. I was there primarily as official photographer. She had a guided tour of the reserve and its inhabitants and did seem to be having a great time. Very relaxed and finning so well that Fabrice was occasionally using her like an aqua-scooter. Afterwards she was not as enthusiastic as she had appeared while we were down there. Youth of today, I don't know.
We spent two afternoons sailing on one of their Hobiecats. All three girls took it in turns to go out with me. I even managed to capsize once with Ella on board. It was impossible for me to right the 16 foot catamaran alone but we had flipped it in sight of the resort and two lads came out and gave me a hand. It took the combined weight of the three of us to get it upright. Ella loved the capsize. That day the wind was perfect and we could sail around the island in 35 minutes. I had a ball and Ella in particular wants to keep on sailing. She wants her own boat and knows that moving to Auckland or Sydney will assuage her desire.
Great resort, great family bungalow, great staff and a great five days. We have to leave here.... surely not!

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Whale Island Resort

Date: 17/05/2007 | Author: Ella

We arrived early in Nha Trang. We had slept overnight on a sleeper train. It was the first time I had ever slept overnight on a train. We were taken in a car to a little jetty and from there we were taken to Hon Ong Island. Hon Ong Island is just off the coast near Whale Island. We were in a little closed off bay on a very nice beach. Our resort was called Whale Island Resort. We had the biggest bungalow I have ever stayed in. On our first day we went on a snorkelling trip and saw lots of clown fish and sea urchins. I loved watching fish just cruising past and hiding in coral. I would love to be a fish. On the way back from our snorkelling trip we stopped at a beach to pick up some crab for dinner. We had a drink and soon heard a man singing. He was doing karaoke. They showed us their list of songs and there were a lot in English. We had a lot of fun fighting over the microphone and singing some of our favourite songs.
Daddy and I rented out a catamaran to go sailing. We sailed right around Hon Ong Island and had a great time. The next day we took the catamaran out again and we accidentally capsized. In case you don't know capsizing is when the boat tips over onto it's side. I slipped into the water and soon some men came out and helped daddy to get the boat back up the right way.
The next day we went snorkelling again but this time in the bay. We saw more clown fish and sea urchins but also saw jellyfish. Our bay has some artificial reefs which are made from pots for the fish to hide in. Soon the pots turn into reefs because underwater plant life likes to be with fish.
I went scuba diving with the divemaster and dad. We saw lots of different sea creatures. We saw the Tomato Clownfish, Sea Cucumbers, Indian Cushion Star Fish, Blue Star Fish, Butterfly Fish, Tubeworms and different types of anemone. It wasn't that different from snorkelling except that you can get really close to fish and other creatures.
Hon Ong Island was one of my favourite places so far in Vietnam.

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Snorkelling

Date: 17/05/2007 | Author: Florence

We got the overnight train from Saigon. The movement rocks you to sleep, it was very comfy. We arrived in Nha Trang very early. We had booked a trip to Whale Island. Well, it actually isn't called Whale Island but is called Hon Ong Island. It was very nice. Sadly we arrived in the rain, but we had a lovely family bungalow. We went snorkelling in the bay. We saw lots of clown fish and jellyfish. I love snorkelling. It looks fun being a fish swimming amongst the coral. The resort had planted ceramic pots at the bottom of the sea. They attract lots of fish and some coral grows around them. The fish like it because they make good hiding places.
The next day was a nice sunny day. We loved snorkelling in the bay so much that we went out on a boat the next morning to do some more. We had to stop off and pick up the crab we were having for dinner. It was quite a surprise to see a man doing karaoke on the beach. Ella and I had a go and kept on snatching the microphone from each other. That evening at dinner Ella felt sad for the crab and wouldn't eat it, but actually it tasted quite nice.
After that we went sailing on a Hobie Cat which is a type of boat with no sides. Daddy and I went fast and one side was high in the air and one side was getting soaked. When it was Ella's turn to go with Daddy, the boat capsized (ha-ha). Soon two men went over to help get the boat upright again.
I liked Whale Island Resort a lot, especially snorkelling.

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Relaxing Times

Date: 17/05/2007 | Author: Gabby

We spent the most idyllic 5 days at Whale Island Resort - it's not on Whale island at all, rather on a much smaller island called Hon Ong, which lies in a calm bay between the mainland and Whale island itself, about 60km north of Nha Trang.
It's a French run resort and has been open for 10 years. During peak season it can cater for up to 70 guests in about 30 bungalows. During our stay there must have had between 10 and 20 guests. Apart from the resort and the owner's house in another bay, there is nothing else on the island.
There is very little to do here that doesn't involve getting in or on the sea. The resort has windsurfs, canoes and Hobie Cats you can rent, as well as laying on snorkelling and diving trips, but if you don't like swimming in the sea, this isn't the place for you.
We all loved it there. Twice Dave rented out a Hobie Cat to take the girls sailing around the island, something they both really enjoyed and Ella has a definite bug for.
The snorkelling was great. The resort has developed a marine reserve in the bay it occupies. They have created a few artificial reefs by sinking ceramic pots in the shallower depths which encourages the growth of coral as well as attracting an abundance of tropical fish. Ella and Florence can name most of them, sadly not because of our excellent home schooling, but because they have seen 'Finding Nemo' about a dozen times.
The girls have become great little snorkellers. We did a few boat trips to deeper waters and they managed to dive down to take a closer look at the fish and coral. There were, of course, the usual sea hazards - jellyfish, sea urchins and sea lice. Fortunately, not too many sea lice and Ella and Florence are now well aware of the dangers of sea urchins. The jellyfish were a different matter, some mornings the bay was full of them - some enormous! They weren't there all the time though, and with their increasing agility in the sea the girls managed to swim around any lurking behind!
A final plus for Ella was that she managed to do a kids Scuba dive while we were there - Florence was miffed because, once again, she was too young. Ella loved being able to stay deep (well 2 and a half metres) with the fish and coral, the only down side was her ears hurt because she couldn't equalise. I don't think she has any burning desire to become a female Jacques Cousteau!
Whale Island Resort was great, a lovely place to relax and escape from the hustle and bustle of Vietnamese life. After 5 days of laid back living and fabulous French/Vietnamese food, I left a little heavier and a lot more relaxed!

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Saigon / Cu Chi Tunnels

Date: 12/05/2007 | Author: Dave

Saigon is now officially only the name of District 1 in Ho Chi Minh City but the locals all seem to call the city Saigon. On Phu Quoc our girls met Saralinh, a 7 year old multilingual resident of Saigon and her mother, Christine, invited us to stay at her house. Always a treat to be in someone's home rather than a hotel. Christine has lived here for 17 years, works long hours and her home is kept in shape by two maids. Her long serving maid, Madame Ha, is an excellent cook.
The night before we left Phu Quoc Florence became very ill so our first task is to get her to the family medical centre recommended in the Luxe Guide. That afternoon Gabby and I have pre-booked dental appointments. I need to get a crown on my NZ root canal work and while there I agree to a few other minor repairs. I know that here their standards will be excellent and about one fifth of the cost of the same at home. I have become an accidental dental tourist. Four and a half hours in two sittings with my birthday sandwiched in-between. I may be missing the best of Saigon but the Dentist and her nurse are both lovely.
We spent our last day visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels. A tourist trap yes, but also fascinating. This is not the only place in the country where the North Vietnamese guerrillas (VC) used tunnels from which to attack their enemy, but it is well set up for tourists to get a good look at what went on there. The tunnels are a labyrinth of small crawl spaces connecting many rooms at 3m, 6m and 10m deep. The Vietnamese started digging tunnels in the red clay here in the late 40's. In Cu Chi province alone during the American War there were 250km of tunnel. Americans unknowingly built a huge base near Cu Chi right over the top of these tunnel networks. Their strategy of dividing the population into small hamlets failed because the VC could control these hamlets from within, via the tunnels.
The entrances were tiny and everything was perfectly camouflaged. We saw how smoke from an underground kitchen passed through three chambers before being leaked out onto the forest floor some distance away. Cool smoke of course does not rise and disappears very quickly. We saw how they converted unexploded bombs into delay mines that could disable a tank and how they made a variety of nasty traps to kill or at least make sure you could never have children again.
Effective ingenuity in the face of superior fire power. Viet Cong strength at Cu Chi, so close to Saigon, was one of the reasons America entered the war but despite heavy human losses and eventual destruction of many tunnels they remained effective to the very end.
I left Cu Chi with a heightened respect for these people and a better understanding of where their feisty edge comes from. Well worth the trip and a crawl through.

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Motorbike Mayhem

Date: 12/05/2007 | Author: Ella

The first thing we noticed while driving to Saralinh's house in Saigon was the major traffic everywhere. There were more motorbikes on one road than I had ever seen. I think I know why motorbikes are so popular here. It's because they are a cheap way of getting around and if you have got one, who needs a car? A funny thing about Saigon and other places we have been to in Asia is that families seem to be able to squeeze all four or five members onto their motorbike at once!
We arrived at Saralinh's house. It is a large 'L' shaped house around a huge courtyard. Saralinh was at school and her mum was at work so we sat down nearby for a drink until their maid arrived from school with Saralinh on the back of her motorbike. Saralinh has two maids to clean and cook for her. When they arrived we all went in and started to play with all her toys. Her house was full of toys and if you search around long enough you can find everything you need for a perfect game. Because she had guests Saralinh was allowed to take two days off school. On one of those days we took her to Dam Sen Water Park. The are loads of water-parks around Saigon and Dam Sen is one of the biggest. I really enjoyed going to Dam Sen Water Park because it has great slides, cool pools and things to do that don't involve water.
We also went to a place called Cu Chi Tunnels which was all about the history of Vietnam during the war when they tricked the American soldiers. The tunnels were so small that I could only just fit through if I crouched down. The tunnel entrances were so small and well hidden that the Americans had no idea where the Vietnamese soldiers (guerrillas) were going or coming from.
We had a fab time in Saigon and it was nice to stay in a house and not a hotel.

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Busy Saigon

Date: 12/05/2007 | Author: Florence

Saigon is the old name for Ho Chi Minh City before 1975. Ho Chi Minh was a very important man, that is why the name was changed to Ho Chi Minh City. A lot of Vietnamese people call him Uncle Ho. In Saigon there are lots of motorbikes! There are lots of motorbikes because it is a cheap way of getting around. The maximum number of people you can fit on one motorbike is ummmmm........ six! Mummy and Daddy won't let us go five up on a motorbike including the driver so we have to get 2 motorbikes and go three up on a motorbike and that's the boring way :0(
Saralinh, the girl we met on Phu Quoc island, invited us over to stay at her house in Saigon. She has 2 Vietnamese ladies who look after her when her mum is working. The cook is called Madame Ha. All of her toys were overtaking her house, in her playroom, bedroom and living room. It was lots of fun playing with all her toys and it was really nice staying in a Vietnamese house.
While we were in Saigon we went to the water park at Dam Sen. There were rides by the entrance that didn't involve water. The real water park was on the opposite side of the entrance. It was great fun - there were lots of water slides. Saralinh knew where the best things were because she had been there before.
On another day we went to the Cu Chi tunnels (the Vietnamese built them during the war). They were tiny so the Americans couldn't fit through them. At the end of the tunnels were little underground houses. The Vietnamese made lots of booby traps for the Americans to step on like spiky bamboo underneath leaves.
I was sad to leave Sarlinh's house but I was glad we didn't get knocked over by a motorbike while we were in Saigon!

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Saigon

Date: 12/05/2007 | Author: Gabby

I was really relieved to be going to Saigon. Florence had fallen ill during the night on our last night in Phu Quoc - a raging temperature as well as sickness & diarrhoea, bless her, she didn't know whether to sit on the toilet or lean over it, it was all happening at the same time. Thanks to our Luxe Guide to Ho Chi Minh, I had the name and address of a reputable, English speaking, medical practice, so that was our first port of call when we arrived. Thankfully, there was nothing sinister going on and after a consultation and a course of antibiotics we were on our way.
The girls friendship with Saralinh, the French girl they met in Phu Quoc, meant we ended up being invited by Christine, Sarahlinh's mum, to stay with them in Saigon. They have a lovely house not too far from the centre of town and it was great for Ella and Florence to have a friend (and all her toys!!) to play with. It's a different experience spending time in a city living with a family rather than staying in an anonymous hotel. Christine is a single mum and has a really high powered job as MD of a Saigon based cartoon production company. As a result she doesn't spend a great deal of time at home, so Saralinh spends a large part of her time out of school with 2 Vietnamese maids. The plus side of this is that she speaks fluent Vietnamese (as well as French and English), the down side is that she gets her own way more often than her mum would like her to! One of the maids, Madame Ha, has been working for the family for over 13 years and is an amazing cook - we didn't eat out once during our 3 night stay in Saigon, instead experiencing the delights of home-cooked Vietnamese cuisine, delicious!
We didn't really do much touristy in Saigon, we were enjoying being in a house too much! We did manage to get to the Cu Chi tunnels about 30km from the city. This amazing labyrinth of tunnels was used by the North Vietnamese Guerillas (VC) during the American war and remained undetected by the Americans for a large part of the war. The Vietnamese used a number of wiley means to go undetected, as well as constructing some great booby traps to capture the enemy. A really interesting day out, the only disappointment for Dave being that he wanted to have a go at the shooting range, where you can fire a number of guns, including an AK47. Unfortunately the ear protection was far from satisfactory and as his ears are the most important part of his job, we had to give it a miss.
Saigon is a great city for shopping, beauty treatments and other popular female pastimes. As we are having to keep our loads light, shopping is unfortunately not on the agenda at the moment. Of course, beauty treatments are - one has to maintain certain standards, even if we are backpacking! As our next stop was going to be the beaches north of Nha Trang, I felt in need of a bikini wax. Well, my therapist carried out the task with the same precision that I imagine the Vietnamese built the Cu Chi tunnels. I thought I was going to emerge sporting a Vietnamese Star! Of course you are going to have to take my word for it as I am not about to upload of photo of my new found neatness, but I will be wearing my briefest bikini when we hit the beach!

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Phu Quoc

Date: 08/05/2007 | Author: Dave

Cambodians have a different name for this island. The border between these two countries does a jaunty swerve to include Phu Quoc in Vietnam. The fast ferry lived up to its name and we got from Rach Gia to the port at the southern tip of Phu Quoc in the time it takes to watch a Chinese warrior movie badly dubbed into Vietnamese (i.e. only one voice) and badly subtitled in English. Coming into port was one of the funnier nautical experiences I have ever had. Our large Australian made Seacat Ferry approached the bay slowly and simply pushed the fishing boats out of the way. The ferry captain did not stop and the wide eyed fishermen had to work fast to get their boats off the bow of this behemoth. This ferry runs every day so I was left wondering.
We had not made a booking here but there was a van waiting to pick us up. It was from TNK Voyages, true to the end, delivering us to our destination. We drive down the track to Mai House on Coco Beach with our fingers crossed. It looks good here, the beach is lovely and they have space for us. Gabby likes to have a nose into the other places along the beach and we soon realise that for our tastes we have chosen very well. French run, stush bungalows and Gerrard has an excellent sense of humour.
Sometimes when travelling the people you meet make the place. Here they were a bonus. Eric and Taylor from NYC, straight talking and fun. Morris and Veronica from Australia, retired, ex-army. Morris visited Phu Quoc regularly during the war to check that the Viet-Cong prisoners were still here. They were not locked up. I think it would take a dedicated fighter to want to escape from this paradise. Morris and Veronica have travelled a lot but on this trip have been on Phu Quoc for 5 months so far. We are paying (with children) $55/night and they are next door to Mai House for $10/night. Here for the year they are now preparing for the imminent onset of the south-western monsoon.
We lost one day to a storm so Gerrard directed me to the Vietnam Airlines desk in the huge, state owned resort up by Duong Dong. I was able to change our flight so we stayed one extra night and were happy we did. We ventured on our last day over to Bai Sao beach on the east coast. It looked like the Maldives but with hills, gorgeous.
There is so much scope for development here. Long beach has almost nothing on it but a few ominous placards advertising future resorts. Please don't build an international airport on Phu Quoc and perhaps all that will happen here is those plans will fall flat.

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Phu Quoc Island

Date: 08/05/2007 | Author: Ella

We got to Phu Quoc Island on a big ferry. We stayed at Mai House on Long Beach on the west coast of Phu Quoc. Mai House was a really nice place to stay. While we were there we met a seven year old girl called Saralinh who had French parents but was born in Vietnam. She could speak Vietnamese, French and English. She was a nice girl to play with. Saralinh's home town was Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City and because it was our next place to go and we were friends we were invited to stay in Saralinh's house!
On one of the days on Phu Quoc Island it started to rain so we decided to go to the other side of the island to see if it wasn't raining there. Just as we left the sun came out so it brightened up our trip to the other beach. The other beach was called Bai Sao and was much prettier than Long Beach. It had really white sand, absolutely no waves and wasn't at all busy. I had a great time on Phu Quoc Island and wish I could have stayed longer.

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A Friend on an Island

Date: 08/05/2007 | Author: Florence

We took the ferry going to Phu Quoc Island. Ella was feeling a little bit sick so we made a bed for her to lie down on. We watched a Charlie Chaplin movie on the ferry - it was very funny.
When we got to Phu Quoc island we arrived at Mai House and unpacked our bags. Then we walked to the beach - we just had to walk through the gardens by our bungalow to get there. Then we met a little girl called Saralinh, she was 7 years old. I loved swimming in the sea with Saralinh and Ella - we were duck diving under the waves and swimming in on the waves. I liked Mai House a lot - they made really good Spaghetti Bolognese and we ate it nearly every night.
One day, for a day trip we went to Bai Sao Beach. It had lovely white sand and there were no waves at all, it was perfect for floating. The sea was a fabulous colour - it was really clear, you could see for miles!
The down side about being on the island was just after Ella's sickness I got sick the night before we left. Mummy was glad we were going to Saigon so she could take me to the Doctor's.
I liked the beaches on Phu Quoc a lot, but most particularly, Bai Sao.

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Lovely Phu Quoc

Date: 08/05/2007 | Author: Gabby

Phu Quoc is a huge island, probably about the same size as Thailand's Phuket. We read it had some of the most beautiful beaches in Vietnam and despite the fact we were approaching the island's rainy season we felt it was worth a 3 day trip. The island's potential for tourism is still largely unrealised, another reason to visit it now - the Vietnamese have huge plans for development over the next few years.
We arrived on the island with no pre-booked accommodation so we headed straight to Mai House - a French run guest house on Coco Beach at the northern end of Long Beach. Long Beach is one long stretch of golden sand, it's lovely but is not the most beautiful beach on Phu Quoc. However, as it is west facing, we were hoping to enjoy evening cocktails in front of the sinking sun.
Fortunately Mai House wasn't full, the bungalows and gardens were gorgeous and when we arrived the sun was shining. The sea on Long Beach at this time of year is quite rough (during the peak season of January and February it's turquoise and calm) but also very cool so we didn't need to worry about sea lice or jelly fish. A huge added bonus for the girls was another guest, a 7 year old French girl, who lives in Saigon, for them to play with. After a great swim, Dave and I enjoyed a sunset cocktail with Morris and Veronica, a retired Australian couple who have been on the island for 5 months and plan on staying for at least another 5. It was a blissful end to the day and a great start to our short time on the island.
The rains did come but fortunately mostly at night. The food at Mai House was great so we didn't feel the need to move very far although we did spend a couple of happy hours at the swanky La Veranda Resort close by, so the girls could use their lovely swimming pool while we sipped on delicious cocktails. We, as has become the norm on this trip, extended our stay by one day.
Our last day on the island was spent at the beautiful white sanded Bai Sao beach. There is only one bungalow operation and a few restaurants here, but the potential for many more. We spent the day floating in the turquoise waters, we had an amazing fresh seafood lunch - it was absolutely idyllic.
I know Phu Quoc will change - the development so far has been relatively slow so I hope we manage to go back there before it changes too much and becomes like so many other beaches in South east Asia. It is a place definitely worth going back, but how many times have I said that?

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Mekong Delta

Date: 05/05/2007 | Author: Dave

This was a far cry from our last journey down the Mekong (in Laos). We had booked at the last minute on the internet with Hanoi based Green Trail Tours for a three day/two night trip down through the delta and over to our (yet to be booked) hotel on Phu Quoc Island. They wanted payment by bank transfer. Slow for them and costly for me so I offered them cash and they sent their local guy around to our hotel in Phnom Penh to pick it up. The following day this same guy picked us up in a van, continued to fill it with backpackers and dropped us all two hours later into a small slow boat. We cruised uncomfortably down the river quickly realising that we were not going to see either of the nice boats mentioned on our emailed itinerary. To add insult to injury we had paid a lot for some extra comfort and our companions down this river were on the cheapest trip they could find.
Across the border we went into Vietnam and onto an even worse boat. We arrived in Chou Doc (having travelled for four and a half hours longer than scheduled) and were delivered to our guide for the next two days holding his sign. 'Green Trails Tours Welcomes The Bracey Family'
He could perhaps see that steam coming from our ears was not our normal look and quickly mentioned that he knew of our 'problem' and from this point on he would endeavour to make the rest of our time most enjoyable. We were figuring that some cash back would help our states of mind as well.
Over the next two days we were treated to a truly fascinating look at the Mekong Delta, the most densely populated area in Vietnam. Everything here seems to happen on a small local scale. I lost count of the industrious activities we visited. Some of the things that I expected the least from amazed me the most. The rice noodle and incense making factories were fascinating. I also had no idea what to expect from the floating market at Can Tho. At dawn all the traders pull up with boats so overloaded with sweet potato, pumpkins, pineapples and whatever is in season they look like they are going to sink. There must be 100 boats with an example of their produce flying above the boat. Their customers weaving between them against the current.
We had chosen a homestay for our second night and arrive there mid afternoon. Exhausted, we had vetoed any more sights for that day and it was great just to walk through the local village along the canal. Our feisty guide wanted us to be up ready to start at 5:30 the following morning. We felt he was trying too hard to compensate for our 'problem' and 7:30 would be more suitable.
News Flash: We will get $8 each as recompense for our travels on the first day. I did not think this completely fair and voiced my opinion in my usual mild mannered way. Anyway, by mid morning his office, TNK Voyages, was, out of the blue, giving us also, flights from Phu Quoc to Saigon and four tickets for a soft-sleeper on the train from Saigon to Nha Trang all included in the price of our tour. What happened?
We are dropped at the fast ferry to Phu Quoc at 1pm all agreeing that the last two days on the Mekong Delta have been magnificent. You need guidance through his area and our man from TNK did his job really well and we thank his company for our last minute extras. A happy family board the ferry to our first Vietnamese Island.

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Mekong Delta

Date: 05/05/2007 | Author: Ella

We arrived in Vietnam in a boat down through the Mekong Delta. For those of you who do not know a delta is an area where a river spreads out into the sea in a delta/triangle shape. There were lots of things to do and see on the Mekong Delta and we did most of them. First of all we went to a fish farm. It breeds lots of cat fish. A funny thing about the fish farm was when you threw a handful of fish food to the fish they would all leap out of the water fighting over the food. Secondly we went to a crocodile farm. It was cool watching big and small crocodiles eating, sleeping and swimming. We also went to an incense stick making place. We saw how they made them. They used the sap of a tree for the nice smelling bit that you burn wrapped around a thin bamboo stick. It may sound easy but is wasn't. All of us had a go and we were all useless at it. After that we saw a rice factory. It was nice to see how they did it. The sacks of rice came in trucks from the paddy fields and there was a machine to take the husk/shell off it and lots of other machinery to polish it and put it in bags. Then, we went to see where they make rice noodles. I was ill so Daddy and Florence went instead. They took lots of photos so that Mummy and I didn't miss out.
Next we went to a monkey bridge. A monkey bridge is a log going across a river. It had a handrail so that it is easier to get across. A funny thing happened when we got to the other side. We saw a man cycle up to the monkey bridge, put his bicycle on his shoulder and walk across without hanging on to anything. After that we arrived at the floating market. Because I was ill I was asleep in our boat and I was only half awake as I saw our boat pull alongside another to buy some juice! Visiting the floating market was the last thing we did on the Mekong Delta but we didn't leave straight away. We stayed for our last night in Hung Homestay, right on one of the delta canals. If you do not know, a homestay is where you stay in someone's house and they feed you. Hung homestay have built some extra bungalows on the canal to sleep in. It was nice staying there because when we walked down the road loads of local kids followed us. We also went to a school in their village and all the kids thought we were from another planet when they saw us. They were all doing long division and some of the kids were younger than me.
We had a great three days on the Mekong Delta

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A New Country: Vietnam

Date: 05/05/2007 | Author: Florence

We left Phnom Penh and crossed the border to Vietnam on the Mekong River. We arrived in Chau Doc and were picked up by our new guide, who was called Hui. First we went on a short boat ride to the floating fish farm. Well, it wasn't really floating - it was just a fish farm on stilts on the Mekong River. We could feed the fish their food, if you threw a handful in, the fish fought over it. One fish made a wet mark on the side of the platform because it bounced off the other fish and hit the side of the tank. After a while we left the fish farm and went to see some crocodiles! They were all squashed up in cages, some of them were only babies. At one stage we were walking in between 2 cages. One crocodile jumped up at us, we weren't scared, it just made us jump! Some of the crocodiles were huge but this one was only a baby - phew!! Then we went to a place where they made incense sticks, you use rice flour and the sap from a tree to make them. One lady gave us a twirly incense stick. She used her fingers and span the incense stick around to make it curly. We also visited a rice factory which was just across the road, there were sacks and sacks of rice there.
We did lots and lots of things on the Mekong Delta and there were lots of things to see. We also went to a floating market in Can Tho. Instead of market stalls on the Mekong Delta there were actually boats. Each boat had a big stick with the fruit or vegetables they were selling hanging from the stick so everyone could see what they were selling. We bought a pineapple juice from a man. It was fun buying things from other boats when you are already on one!
That night we stayed in Hung Homestay. We went to a school, they were doing long division! Some of the children were my age and I don't do long division yet. Then we went back to the Homestay, there was a tiny puppy there but by the end of the day it was covered in chewing gum and his own poo so we didn't get to cuddle him before we left for the ferry!
Next stop, Phu Quoc Island!

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Journey to Vietnam

Date: 05/05/2007 | Author: Gabby

Our journey on the Mekong Delta to Vietnam didn't get off to a very good start. It's not a great distance from Phnom Penh to Saigon, we could have taken a bus for about $10 but we decided we wanted to travel by boat and to complicate things we wanted to spend a few days on the island of Phu Quoc before heading to Saigon. To do this independently would have been a pain in the arse so we booked, what we thought was a good mid range option, through a tour company. 3 days and 2 nights on comfortable boats and in good accommodation and the personal services of a guide....well that was what our itinerary said!
We realised quite quickly that things were not going to be as they should. We were picked up from our hotel at 7.30am After about 4 additional hotel pick ups we found ourselves squeezed on to a minibus with about 10 other people and a load of bags, We arrived at our boat departure point on the Mekong to be greeted by a small, uncomfortable 'slow boat' when we were expecting a large, comfortable, fast boat! There were hard plastic chairs to sit on & where our itinerary had said a 3 hour trip, we were told we would reach our destination, Chau Doc about 7 hours later! Armed with only water & no snacks I was dreading it! My fury was fuelled following a conversation with a Swedish girl who was taking a 2 day trip direct to Saigon and had only paid $40 compared to our $200! The arduous boat trip involved a lengthy exit from Cambodia as well as a lengthy entry in to Vietnam where we had to lug all our bags on and off the boat both times. Once again the immigration officers insisted that photos of Ella and Florence were part of the process.
Fortunately, things got better and over the course of the next couple of days we were more than adequately compensated for the dreadful boat journey and suddenly found we also had flights to Saigon and train tickets on to Nha Trang included in the overall price of our tour.
The Mekong Delta was an amazing part of Vietnam to travel through, so diverse and so rich. The land is incredibly fertile - often called the 'rice basket' of Vietnam, this region alone produces enough rice to feed the entire nation with a generous surplus. We managed to cram an awful lot in to the 3 days we had exploring the region, visiting a stork sanctuary, fish farms, an incense making shop, floating markets - the list goes on. We loved it, the kids found parts of it interesting - especially the opportunity to make some incense sticks. The girls and I loved the Vietnamese womens attire of traditional conical hats and flowery, nylon (it dries so much faster in this humidity) pyjamas - nearly all the women wear them and in this sweaty heat manage to look cool and glamorous. I think we may have to follow suit - I most definitely don't look glamorous in this heat!
The days were slightly marred by the fact that Ella developed gastroenteritis - not much fun when you have to travel a long distance. She managed to sleep for a large part of the journey but we were all relieved when we finally boarded the ferry at Rach Gia for the 2 and a half hour 'express boat' ride to Phu Quoc.

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