Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Ninh Binh to Hanoi

17 November (pm) Ninh Binh  
Arriving in Ninh Binh before 8:30am, we found our hotel (we thought) easily. Turned out to be the No 2 version of the hotel, but they had our reservation and No 2 is new, so all was well. Checked in, got ourselves sorted and grabbed a cab out to Tam Coc. Billed as the inland Halong Bay, we had fairly high expectations. We were also aware that scams and pressure selling are major problems. Trapped on small boats, which locals  propel along rowing (mostly) with their feet, tourists are fair game for enterprising, pushy purveyers of fruit, trinkets and drinks, who wait in ambush near the end of the pleasant and mostly peaceful trip up the river and through the caves. Fore-warned, we promised our lady rower a good tip if she avoided the flotilla of mini shops that lay in wait. She did a great job and although she did try to sell us some of her own handiwork, she desisted as soon as we declined. The $5 for the tip was well worth the peace and it would have made her day. These poor folk get almost nothing for their efforts in paddling hefty Westerners for an hour and a half.  
All that aside, the area is a true natural wonder. Even on a very average day like today, the scenery and the activities of the fishermen along the route made for an interesting and, as it turned out, relaxing trip.

It may not interest everybody, but as we were taking some photos of our gear for insurance purposes (a little late we know) we thought we would give potential bargain travellers some idea of what we carry with us on trips to S-E Asia. It should be stated here that this is a trip to areas where it is uniformly hot to warm, so winter clothing is not required. We also had to meet cabin luggage requirements to avoid extra charges on this trip and this included a 7kg weight limit. The contents shown are for the smaller of our bags (Paul's). All that is missing is one set of clothes and a pair of sandals, which were being worn at the time! And the camera that took the shots. Basically there is a small bag of electronic bits and bobs including adaptor plugs, chargers, etc, three sets of clothes, toiletries, rain coat, umbrella and a sleeping bag liner. Total weight, just above 6kgs.  

18 November Ninh Binh   Visited Cuc Phuong
National Park today with a guide and car along with another Australian couple and their 8 year old boy. At $33 each for the full day it was a bit steep by Vietnam standards, but there are very few options to see the park from here. As it turned out, it was a great day, good company and a well-informed guide who also happens to work at our hotel (funny that?). Phuong, the guide, was once a Park Ranger in the Cuc Phuong Park, so he was a font of knowledge. Nothing in the park was truly spectacular, but it was nice to get out and about in what passes for wilderness in Vietnam.
The rainforest is much the same as those in northern Queensland, but without the heat! It was a very mild day, so the 7km walk to the 1000 year old tree, so named by 'Uncle Ho Chi Minh' was easy and extremely peaceful.

Next on our agenda was the Cave of Prehistoric Man. A nice climb of 200+ steps up the mountainside took us to the site where remains of human habitation dated at 7500 years ago was discovered. Good fun to roam about in a large cave system with just a few torches, but little of major historical significance remains.  

Our visit to the Primate Rescue Centre in the Park was a little sad. Much of Vietnam's wildlife is gone or  endangered. Poaching and loss of habitat have wiped out many species. The Centre attempts to breed up primates and return them to the wild. The first part is hard enough, but finding safe locations to release the few animals that are able to fend for themselves is almost impossible. As with many things in Vietnam, they are trying, but it is an enormous task and with the limited resources they have, one has to fear for what remains of Vietnam's primates.  
Ninh Binh is a small provincial city of just under 200,000 people. The pace of life here is a little slower than in the big cities. As usual, there is a lot of sitting around in the streets, lots of chatting, eating and drinking coffee and tea at all hours of the day. Getting a feed after 8:00pm can be a bit of a challenge though.

Last night, Saturday night, we found a restaurant that served the local delicacy, goat, 'De' in Vietnamese. We decided to give it a try. Sad to say, we probably picked the worst restaurant in town to eat. The goat was as tough as old boots and the service was terrible. It's not often that we are disappointed with our food options in Vietnam, but this was a shocker. And to make matters worse, it was expensive. An outrageous 290,000 dong, $15 including drinks.  

Hanoi is our last stop in Vietnam before heading back to KL to catch the plane home. So it's off to the Ga (Station) Ninh Binh for us tomorrow to catch the 8:00am Reunification Express to Hanoi. Just a 2-3 hr trip.  

19 November, Rising Dragon Palace Hotel, Hanoi
Don't let anybody ever tell you Hanoi is a pretty city. Yes, there are a few remnants of the grand old French boulevards and a picturesque lake in the centre of the city but, on the whole, Hanoi's cityscape is more than a bit of a shambles. Much of the city was destroyed during the American War and what has been rebuilt is an enormous jumble of narrow, four to six storey, concrete buildings. The air pollution is so bad that even on a clear day, it is impossible to see any blue in the sky. The streets are jammed with motorbikes, the footpaths often impassable, chickens peck at goods displayed on the streets and the background symphony of tinny bike horns is only disturbed by the ear-piercing blast from a bus or truck   But you've still got to love it!  

This is big city Asia in the early 21st century and, at the rate things are going, it is a sight that will soon disappear, as better living standards and economic growth change cities like Hanoi and many others across Asia. It may not be pretty, but it is vibrant, exciting and interesting, especially to those of us who have grown up in the neat, clean orderly world of the developed West.  

As usual, we have come to the end of our trip with a day up our sleeve. As this is our second visit to Hanoi, we have seen most of the sights, so the next couple of days will be a bit of a holiday after the difficult 'work' of the past few weeks.  

20 November, Rising Dragon Palace Hotel, Hanoi  
After a bit of a late night due to a friendly encounter with a couple of interesting German fellow travellers over a few glasses of Bia Hoi, we had a bit of a slow start today. Bia Hoi is a local draught brew that is served on the street corners at outrageously cheap prices. It is a brew that is fresh for only one day so, theoretically, each new keg is just a day old. No unusual after effects this morning, so we might be back for more tonight.  

We have always been bits of fans of Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Minh). Perhaps it was those blissful/ignorant days at universtiy in the early '70s, chanting "Ho... Ho... Ho Chi Minh" at demonstrations against the Vietnamese war? We made the pilgrimage to his tomb in Hanoi last time we were here to pay our respects, but we thought we might go again to see if his appearance had altered after another 5 years. Sadly, Uncle Ho was unable to welcome us. He only receives visitors between 8:00am and 11:00am, so we will have to return tomorrow.

Along the way we dropped in to the Vietnamese Military Museum. We have been here before as well, but we just love reading the inscriptions on the exhibits, particularly those about the shooting down of hundreds of American planes by pensioners, patriotic women and other assorted party heroes. It is just amazing what a rifle can do against a B52. Seriously. There is a great bit of modernist art in the grounds of this museum. It is a collection of parts of American aircraft that were shot down, welded into a form resembling one crashed aircraft. In the front of the structure is a greater than lifesized photo of a Vietnamese woman dragging the tail piece of a US aircraft along a road like a trophy kill.  

We then headed a little out of town to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. Yet another haggling match with a taxi driver bought the fare down from 250000 dong ($12.50) to 150000 ($7.50) dong, and even that was probably a bit more than it should have been. And then the cheeky little b.... asked for a tip. Even he had to laugh at that attempt. The museum was a big surprise, easily the best of any museum we have seen in South-east Asia, with a fantastic outdoor component with reconstructed buildings from a range of ethnic villages from around the country.  

Our final museum for the day was the Vietnamese Women's Museum, excellently presented over three levels. Probably the most interesting was the Women in History section which detailed women's roles in the political and military history of the country. Make no mistake. These women are TOUGH. They can command guerilla groups, bring down planes with a rifle, mend roads, till the fields, tend the wounded and still be home to care for the children and cook dinner. Seriously though, it was a well-earned recognition of women's roles in the life of a country so ravaged by wars.  
Tomorrow will be the last day of our trip, so we'll probably have another go at visiting Uncle Ho and maybe take in a movie.  

Five years ago, on our first visit to Vietnam and Cambodia, we had been a little apprehensive.  
Was it going to be difficult to get about?
Was it dangerous?
Would we be ripped off at every turn?
Would we get sick?  

Since then, we have spent close to four months travelling independently about S-E Asia and feel far more at ease. However, even with the great positive experiences we have had throughout Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia, it must be said that a possible answer to all four of the above questions could well be yes!  

Yes. It can be difficult to get about, but that's half the fun and meeting these challenges is surely what independent travel is all about.  

Yes. It can be dangerous, particularly on the roads and in city traffic. All S-E Asian countries have horrific road casualty statistics. You just have to take care out on  the streets and travel with reputable companies.  

Yes. You can and probably will be 'ripped off' at some time travelling in S-E Asia. Just keep it all in perspective and learn from your mistakes. After all, the difference between a 100,000 dong cab fare and a 500,000 cab fare is $20. Paying 20,000 dong for a beer rather than 10,000 dong is 50 cents. And in both cases, if you accessed the same service at home it would cost you way more than even the price that you were 'ripped off'.  

Yes. You may well get sick, We have been on a couple of occasions and we are fairly careful with food and personal hygiene and have 'cast iron stomachs'. A touch of the 'Ho Chi Minh Heaves' is not the end of the world. Just be sure to have all the recommended vaccinations, to avoid any serious illnesses, before you leave home and work out the local word for Gastro!

We don't have any plans for an immediate return to S-E Asia, but Myanmar is looming as an interesting prospect.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Overnight on the Reunification Express

16 November, Reunification Express, Danang to Ninh Binh

Our trip from Hoi An back to Danang was far less eventful than our previous journey. The taxi was a fairly flash Camry and the driver was happy just to take us where we wished rather than attempting to divert us to tourist sights or his uncle's trinket shop.

Enormous luxury resorts line much of the road between Danang and Hoi An. A couple are adjacent to mega golf courses and casinos. The sight of the Red Star of the Communist Vietnamese government looks somewhat incongruous flying over a five star resort and even more so fluttering in front of an enormous casino, but that is the new Vietnam for you.

Knowing we had a fairly long afternoon, we asked the driver to drop us off at the local Big C, a supermarket and shopping centre chain. To our glee, the centre had a Multiplex Cinema. Well of course it did! So we put in a pleasantly cool afternoon watching the latest 007 movie, Skyfall. A quick shop for provisions for our overnight train trip and off to the station, just in time for the 4:50pm bound for Hanoi, well just to Nimh Binh for us. We are a little apprehensive about our trip in the 'soft sleepers'. Most of the reviews on places like Trip Advisor are fairly negative, so we have armed ourselves with 'pure Vietnamese silk' sleeping bag liners, at the princely sum of $6.50 each. We have a bag of snacks and plenty of water. All we need now is for the beer cart to come around.

So far we don't have a problem with our accommodation. We have a four berth sleeper to ourselves, though that might change as more people get on the train. The bedding is fairly clean and the air conditioner works. There is boiling water at the end of the carriage for our dried noodle meals and the toilets 'just' pass inspection, but it is early days in that department. We even have 220V power outlets to run and charge our devices, so we may even have a movie or two later in the trip. We don't want to speak too soon , but it seems fine so far. 

17 November, Reunification Express - Ninh Binh

Not the best night's sleep we have ever had, but reasonable given the comings and goings in our compartment. For a few hours we had the 4-berths to ourselves, but a couple of locals arrived and took up the top bunks. For some reason they didn't appreciate our company and asked the guard for a shift. Could it have been the beer smells emanating from the rubbish bin or what we had eaten for dinner? A couple more punters came and went during the night, but our non-human visitors were restricted to a couple of (now deceased) cockroaches and a very small, inquisitive mouse. All in all, the Reunification Express is definitely not for the faint-hearted or precious, but a worthwhile experience nonetheless. Would we do it again? Maybe. A sleeper bus would be way more comfortable and probably about the same price, but then there's the kamikaze tendencies of Vietnamese drivers to weigh up! One last tip for anybody considering the experience, book the lower bunks. You get a small table between the two bunks which makes eating, sitting, reading  or writing easy. Those on the top bunks have little alternative to lying down the whole time.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Reunification Express to Hoi An

15 November, Hoi An

Vietnam's Reunification Express runs between Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. The railway often gets a mention in popular lists of 'world's great rail journeys' and, if the 9 hour daytime leg that we did from Nha Trang to Danang is any indication, the journey is worthy of greatness. While the train itself falls a little short of greatness, on balance, Vietnamese Rail must be given ten points for trying. The ticketing system is state of the art and, combined with typical Vietnamese 'can-do', tickets can be booked almost anywhere and delivered to your hotel for a small fee.

We chose 'soft sitters' for the day-time journey. Well, they were seats, but soft? Again, efforts are being made to improve the trains and it WILL happen. There are frequent food service trolleys offering much the same as you can get on the street anywhere in the country and at very reasonable prices. There are toilets, but be sure to get in early, they tend to deteriorate as the day goes on. An attendant comes through the carriage every hour or so and sweeps the floor, and your feet, if you aren't quick enough. Overall, for $20 each for a full day's journey through some spectacular rural and coastal scenery, we were well pleased with the Reunification Express experience. Our next leg will be on towards Hanoi stopping off at Ninh Binh. The first leg of this trip will be in a sleeping compartment as it is overnight.

This is our second visit to Hoi An, so we were ready for the aggressive taxi drivers at Danang. It can be a bit of a hassle getting from Danang to Hoi An. It is a 30km journey, so most people take the taxis whose drivers pounce on tourists as they leave the station or airport. We had considered the local bus, but after a long day on the train, we opted for the luxury of a taxi. After a quick negotiation with a young driver, we settled on 350000 dong and off we went. This guy tried every trick in the book. 'You stop Marble Mountain?'... 'no, we've already seen it'... 'You stop at beach?'.. 'No we've seen heaps of beaches.' To make matters worse, it became apparent that he had no idea where our hotel was. Sadly for him, we had more than a clue, we had our trusty tablet and its built-in GPS. All attempts on our part to direct him were spurned, which only steeled our resolve to stick to the agreed price, even though we noticed that he had set the meter running and it was approaching 450000 dong. After stopping for assistance from a fellow driver and then going by a VERY roundabout route (we could track our journey on the tablet) he eventually found the hotel's street, but not the hotel. We had to find that for ourselves. Suffice to say that no amount of pleading on his part altered the agreed price by 1 single dong - and the only tip was... not all Westerners are stupid!

A long day and a few hassles can only lead us to one place! A bar, or, in this case, a front row seat riverside in one of the converted 19th century houses that are now great 'perching places' to have a beer or two, a great meal and watch the world go by. Sadly, our first afternoon was to be the only time it didn't rain on us in Hoi An. It is the monsoon season after all, so today, down she came all day. Undaunted, we grabbed umbrellas provided by the hotel, purchased a plastic rain coat from a street hawker and did the sights.

Hoi An is a real time capsule. The old part of the city is much as it was during the 18th and 19th centuries when this was a major trading centre for Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese merchants. Add to that the French colonial influence and the result is truly unique. So far, the character of the city has been fairly well retained, but the pressure of development is already showing as large resort complexes spring up on the beach front to the south of the city.

Many buildings here are an interesting mix of Chinese, Japanese and European styles. Chinese row houses stand beside solid French colonial structures. Perhaps the most famous landmark is the Japanese bridge, which is probably one of the most oft photographed buildings in Vietnam. The most attractive about the old town of Hoi An, however, is that the streets are closed to traffic for most of the day, so it is possible to stroll the ancient streets free of the constant buzz and beep of motor bike traffic.

For those interested in technology, we are now preparing our blogs on an even more miniaturised scale than with our previous little Eee PC netbook. We now are the proud owners of a 7" Samsung Tab II and a tiny Microsoft bluetooth keyboard. Just fantastic! We even load it up with movies to watch on flights where there is no entertainment system, which now we are true budget travellers, seems to be almost all our flights.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Dalat to Nha Trang

10 November, Dai Loi (Fortune) Hotel, Dalat, Central Highlands.

The last two days we have been on buses, firstly back into Vietnam from Cambodia, then today, from Ho Chi Minh up into the Central Highlands to Dalat. A few years back, the thought of two 8 hour days on a South-East Asian bus would have freaked us totally. Now, a little more adventurous and way more street-wise when it comes to S-E Asia, we didn't mind it a bit. Mind you, the buses here are a far cry from the non-air-conditioned ones we experienced in Laos. Aside from the extremely slow pace, both our trips would have been considered reasonable, standard coach rides in Australia, the US or Europe. The great difference lies in the time it takes to get places. Both trips have been about 240 kms. Both have taken about 7-8 hours. The up side is that a never-ending tapestry of everyday life in Asia, rolls past the windows of the bus at a speed that allows it all to sink in.

Villages and towns are strung out along the tops of the ridges around the highlands. The road also hugs the ridges, so the narrow villages and towns seem never-ending. When the bus gains a little height, it is possible to see the open fields behind the semingly continuous line of houses and shops.

The countryside is in full bloom at the moment. Well, it probably is always in 'full bloom' here with year-round growing seasons for most crops. Take away the Asian buildings and you could easily be on the Atherton Tablelands in North Queensland. Tropical fruit plantations, sugar cane, small crops, maize and lots of coffee. Almost every house along the road has a front yard full of drying coffee beans. Kids wearing gumboots shuffle through the drying beans to turn them. To most it seems a bit of a game. Everyting is very labour-intensive. Even though the area has irrigation, many farmers are out watering their small plots of veges etc with large hoses, while women chip away at rows of greens and men fill sacks of beans ready to ship out. It is all go!

Like the Atherton Tablelands, it is cool here all year round - well, cool by tropical standards. The double plagues that Australia has launched on the world, Eucalyptus and Wattle, are everywhere. Nice for us, but they are becoming a real problem in almost every country where they have been introduced. We will revel in the cooler weather tomorrow and do some walking around the town and local environs.

13 November, Nha Trang Lodge Hotel

Walking about Dalat in a cool 24C was just heaven! The city is a world away from the crazy streets of Ho Chi Minh. It was Sunday, so things were extra slow yesterday, not that we minded at all. With a visit to the Dalat "Crazy House' in mind, we trekked off into the hill suburbs with less than our usual knowledge of where we were heading so, naturally, we got lost. The first locals we approached were winners! At a little local street shop we latched onto the obvious choice, a young teenager loading the shelves. No go. He just pointed back into the slightly shambolic shop towards his mother (grandmother?). She had it all under control! Her English was good, but obviously out of practice. She gave us directions and wrote the street name down on a piece of paper for us. We needed toothpaste so we asked for some which she found after a dig through the jumble at the back of the shop. In return for her help we felt a tip was in order so we tried to refuse the small change from our purchase. No way! She insisted on giving us the full amount and pointed us off on our way. We speculated that she may well have been an educated Vietnamese who was just on the wrong side at the end of the war and so had to settle for a much less influential role in the new Vietnam.

With the help of the street name in Vietnamese and a couple of helpful locals, we finally found the Crazy House, which lived up to its name. Gaudi-inspired, it is a classic!

Coffee is BIG around Dalat. Not just the growing, but the drinking. Swank cafes are everywhere and it is mostly local Vietnamese tourists who frequent them. This is a very nice little city. The air is clear and crisp and most central areas are extremely clean (well by Asian standards at least).

The road down to Nha Trang was once a bit of a haul, 5-6 hours. The 'new' road is more direct, but it is extremely steep and features many hairpin curves. We stayed cool by concentrating on the mountain scenery, refusing to look out the front window. We survived what was eventually only a four hour trip and a far less luxurous journey, crammed into a 20 seat mini-bus, than our last couple of bus trips.

Nha Trang is a popular beach city with high-rise hotels, night clubs and all the usual resort town accoutrements. It reminds us of Cairns and Townsville, but with the usual Asian 'heat haze' rather than the clear tropical skies of North Queensland. This is the first place we have been on this trip where the bulk of non-Asians we see are not Australians. This is a Russian resort town. Menus, street signs are in Vietnamese, Russian and English. It isn't hard to pick the Russians. They are BIG people and for some reason, the bigger they are, the smaller their togs! One explanation for the lack of Aussies on the streets during the day may be found in the reception we got at our hotel. "Humm, kangaroos? Kangaroos sleep all day and party all night."

Aside from a fairly nice beach and an apparently great nightlife, we found little to do in Nha Trang. One standout though was the Oceanographic Institute. We walked the 6 kms  along the beach to find it and it was well worth the walk and the 75 cent admission price! Not as flash as many other aquariums around the world, but well-presented just the same. Mind you, some of the translations for the English signage were interesting! Apparently, the Stonefish can kill an adult or make them 'unconspicious'!

An early start tomorrow on the 5:30am train to Danang, then a taxi or local bus to Hoi An.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh

2 November, 2012, Air AsiaX Flight.
One of the interesting changes brought about by the 'budget flight' revolution, is the  sort of people who now jet all about the world at basement-level prices. Airports, particularly Australian airports, look more like beach resorts than waiting rooms for the international jetset. Casual is not quite the right word. Try scruffy. And, at the risk of being snobby, Mr Riff and Mrs Raff have been unleashed on other, unsuspecting travellers. There are more tats and piercings than at a bikie rally and the lack of social skills is openly displayed as 'Bruce and Cheryl' converse at the top of their voices across the terminal, and once on board, across the aisles.

Oh well, guess everybody is entitled to enjoy the benefits of the high Aussie dollar and cheap flights.

3 November, Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur.

The Sentral Hotel was once again our choice. It is located in a slightly grungy street about 5 minutes walk from KL's Central Station and the terminus of the Monorail is just across the road. Rooms are comfortable and clean, there is good free WiFi and a fantastic breakfast, all for about $70 a night. There are way cheaper hotels available in KL and many of them are probably a bit classier than the Sentral, but you just can't beat the location for a short stop-over.

Illness struck Janita about midnight the night before we flew out, so to aid her recovery, she decided to skip the planned activities and stay in for the day. The day was mine! Alone in KL!

We had planned a trip to the Batu Caves on the northern outskirts of the city, so alone (and unsupervised) I headed off.

KL has a population of about 4 million, but the surrounding area brings that up, to close to 7 million. The transport system is fairly good, but just off the back of a trip to Japan, we are probably a little spoilt when it comes to public transport. I was shocked to note that the LRT bound for Batu Caves was 45 seconds late on arrival and it departed one whole minute late! The whole transit system is relatively new and, despite the rather unfair comparisons with Japan, it is a rather efficient system.

The caves were crowded, hot and somewhat dirty, but interesting none-the-less. The real attraction is the enormous golden statue of Lord Murugan that stands at the entrance to the caves and the colourful statue of Hanuman, the monkey god. Well over 200 stairs need to be mastered just to reach the entrance to the caves and then there is the little surprise of another 50 or so to reach the main Hindu temple deep in the caves.

To fill in the remainder of the day, I took myself off to the enormous mall in the centre of the City for lunch and a quick flash around the shops.

This is our third trip to KL so we have all but done it to death. No doubt we will be back, given that AirAsia has its mayor hub here.

4 November, Tan Hai Long hotel, Siagon.

Our eyes sting, our ears ring and our noses tilt to the faint whiff of fish sauce. Yep, this is Vietnam, and we love it!

BUT. What a change. Start with the airport. On our last trip, it was a mould-encrusted, Communist era nightmare. Now, Wow! Clean, efficient, slick even. We see a lot of airports and, though this isn't anywhere near the biggest (about the size of Brisbane International) it is one of the best managed. Immigration - no landing documentation to fill in. Scores of gates for foreigners. Customs - throw your bag on a scanner, pick it up and off. No waits, no delays. Taxi rank - managed by the company that has the airport contract. Once we hit the road to the city centre, we are a little reassured. Yep, there is still some of the old Asia left. As we get closer to the city centre, the motor bikes begin to dominate the newly renovated highway. But no tuk-tuks to jam up the road.

Our hotel is right on the main roundabout in the city centre, bound to become Siagon's version of Times Square. Nothing here is ever easy though. Settled into our room, we began to do our washing, only to be greeted with a flow of water UP the sink! No problem though. A new room and an upgrade.

More adventurous this time around in Vietnam, we headed off to dinner in a back street beside Ben Thanh Markets. Little street stalls offer an amazing array of food. Our selection, including four beers (it was a long day) cost the grand sum of $10. And that included some free entertainment. Well for the staff at least. With some ceremony, Paul was presented with a dish cloth in a plastic bag. He played along, much to the joy of the waiters, but we may never understand what it was all about.

5 November, Saigon.

Five years have elapsed since our last visit to Vietnam. What a difference! Guess five years is a long time in a rapidly developing country? Gone are the cyclos, at least from the main traffic areas, the streets have been paved and the open gutters covered. The motorbike is still king and their thin, tinny horns are a constant background to the general traffic rumble.

Lunch time still sees the footpaths crowded with little temporary kitchens dispensing all forms of heated fare. These mini cafes are often carried about suspended at either end of a stout pole balanced on a shoulder of a slightly stooped woman. The streets and park areas are constantly cleaned by a small army of uniformed cleaners. The skyline is dotted with modern highrises and all the big brand names are here, at prices much the same as Tokyo or New York. There are  obviously enough wealthy Vietnamese to cough up the outrageous amounts of money needed to sport the latest from the Pierre Cs, the Calvin Ks and all the rest.

By 2014, the city will have a two-line subway system and freeways are beginning to snake out from the city. If you haven't been to Vietnam, get here soon, before at least the cities become yet more Singapores or Kuala Lumpurs. Don't get us wrong, there is a fair way to go yet, but given the enormous changes we have seen in the past 5 years, it will all happen fairly fast.

Ducking in and out of air-conditioned shopping malls kept us moving in the still oppressive tropical heat of Saigon. Just to remind us of what the Vietnamese have been through, we revisited the War Remnants Museum this morning. Like everything else, the museum has been flashed up, and air-conditioned, at elast in part. Given all that has beset Vietnam throughout much of the 20th century, it is amazing that they have been prepared to leave all that in their past and move on.

Tomorrow we are off to Cambodia on the bus, six to seven hours in what is advertised as a luxury coach. At $12 each, we will reserve judgement.

Just for the financial record. Dinner last night, four beers, a smallish main course each, $7.

6 November, Manor House Hotel, Phnom Penh.

Six and a half hours on a bus between Siagon and Phnom Penh might sound like a bit of a trial, but it really wasn't all that bad. The road between the two cities has been significantly upgraded recently and it is A-OK at the moment. The traffic is another thing alltogether!

We were amazed to see that even the outer suburbs of Saigon are now almost as well-developed as the city centre. As the suburbs fade away, what passes for countryside along the highway begins to emerge. Farms aren't all that big, but people here seem to be doing fairly well.

Crossing the border was relatively simple, because the bus company people look after much of the paperwork. We were almost left behind though because we followed the crowd who walked off through no-man's-land towards the Cambodian frontier. We soon realised that we were the only people from our group and bolted back to the Vietnamese side just in time to pick up the bus, drive 200 metres, get off, go through Cambodian immigration, back on the bus.

Once into Cambodia, the scenery changed fairly dramatically. The ribbon development that had followed the highway from Saigon to the border soon disappeared and rice paddies, complete with water buffalo, took over. The standard of housing immediately deteriorated, with poor rural villages and small farm houses lining the road. On the up side, the traffic thinned out and the driver upped the revs. We learnt a long time ago not to look out the front window when riding on an Asian bus, so we were spared the usual horrors of passing on corners and directly in front of heavy trucks.

The bus station was a bit further away from our hotel than we had anticipated, so by the time we had shuffled there in the mid afternoon heat, we had started to regret knocking back the offers of the Tuk Tuk drivers.

Our hotel. the Manor House, is a small hotel fairly close to the city centre.

8 November, Phnom Penh.

The disparity of wealith in many Asian countries never ceases to amaze us. Here in Cambodia it is not unusual to see expensive European, Japanese and American cars driving through streets choked with motor scooters, push carts and the odd horse or buffalo-drawn vehicle. Here in the city, as in much of the countryside, there are many desperately poor people who eke out some sort of a living selling small trinkets, collecting and recycling rubbish or simply begging. As in Vietnam, there is a growing middle class who have managed, often through access to education, hard work and family support, to establish a very reasonable life for themselves.

Nothing here can have come easy, even to those who are now riding the wave of development that will eventually change Cambodia as it has Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and of course China. Only a few decades back, Cambodia was emerging from a four year period of barbarity that had driven the nation back to the middle ages, even, some might argue, the stone age. Pol Pot led the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge which depopulated the cities, destroyed much of the infrastructure and killed almost 3 million Cambodians, many of them, the most-educated and well-qualified of the country's citizens.

Thanks in a large part to international aid programs and the dedication and hard work of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge Genocide, Cambodia has turned the corner. Modern office towers are under construction, roads are being reconstructed and trade is flourishing.

Over the past couple of days we have stepped back a little into Cambodia's past and had a close-up view of her future.

The 'Killing Fields' at Choeung Ek, about 8 kms southwest of the city, have been maintained as a memorial to the millions who died in the genocide from 1975 -1979. It is  sad, gruesome place that we won't attempt to describe here. Suffice to say, it is not unlike the holocaust sites we have visited in Poland and Germany, but on a proportional  scale what happened here far eclipses the work of the Nazis.

To balance this history, we spent much of the past couple of days with the family of a Cambodian friend from Brisbane. Naroth and her extended family (which includes a common school friend of ours) took us into their home and shared many of their stories about their past, present and promising future. The family is building a large apartment building on the edge of the city and when we say building, we mean physically building. Their enterprise, hard work, commitment to the future of their family and their country was an outstanding example for us of just what can be done, and how much those who are prepared to work can achieve, even in the most difficult circumstances. Their hospitality, friendliness and openness will always remain our most cherished memory of Cambodia.

Tomorrow, we return to Vietnam, back over the same road that bought us here a few days ago. This time it will be a different trip. We have seats on the opposite side of the bus!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Dirty Work but it has to be done!

Off again in a day or two to KL, Vietnam and Cambodia. Just another of those 'just had to be done jobs'! It wasn't an unusual start. An email from AirAsiaX offering unbelievable fares from KL to Ho Chi Minh, 7 Malaysian Ringgit, that's just over $2. With all the taxes etc it worked out at $14 each. So once again, what could we do? It just has to be done. When duty calls and all that stuff!

On our last visit to this part of the world, we we also visited Siem Reip in northern Cambodia, so this time we'll add in a bus trip from HCM to Phnom Penh and back and probably a train trip on the Revolution Express up the coast of Vietnam?