Vietnam / Cambodia – October 2017

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Most great excursions abroad starts with a trip to the airport and your chosen airline sets the tone for the holiday ahead. This post will cover all the flights we took.

Travel = Plan + Budget + Execute.

Thanks to the “budget” portion, we get to travel Business Class thank you very much, but that also explains why we only get to travel every second year. As you can imagine this is a large portion of the holiday expense. I guess if we are willing to drop some standards and heaven forbid, we fly Economy, we can probably afford an overseas holiday every year, which means we also would need to sleep at 1 or 2 star places and have continental breakfasts … and there you are losing me. What exactly is the point of getting up each morning and drag yourself to work to earn a living and one cannot at least enjoy the fruit of your labour? Why go on a holiday if you have to scrape by? No. Rather then stay home and youtube about the locations you always wanted to visit. By doing this, we have saved a lot of money thus far, and redefined our bucket list a few times over.

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Up to this holiday, our airline of choice was Emirates with many fond hours in their careful hands (we are not paid to promote them and state this independently and out of our own free will). As we traveled Business Class before, we knew exactly what to expect and was looking forward to be spoiled. Regrettably, two crew members were not  going to allow us a pleasurable flight from Cape Town to Dubai and – simply put – did nothing spectacular to uphold the great brand they work for. The disappointment stem from 2 broken items in their hard product and service delivery failure on three aspects of their soft product. We even managed to snap a pic of one of the duo dishing out Economy service … LOL, not really. She was just working in the background, by accident.Beware a travel nerd, his notebook and a long stern complaint upon return! Emirates’ Customer Service is awesome and all is good between us again. (I suspect the pair now work baggage handling and see the sun rarely.)

Officially, we labeled the holiday “Vietnam-Cambodia”, but in fact we visited Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Ho Chi Minh City, Siem Reap, Bangkok and Dubai. I did say “nerd”, so I even had a t-shirt made for the four Emirates flights…

Against all odds the same driver who collected us from home, dropped us off again. Don’t think it was planned, but a nice touch nonetheless.

Apart from the chauffeur service, Emirates’ Business Class also afford you more luggage allowance, an extended drinks selection, the flatbed seat and of course the food;

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Dubai International Airport is busy. For the calendar year 2017, some 88 242 099 passengers passed through its doors. October 2017 alone, saw 6 865 296 passengers (or almost the entire population of Paraguay, the 107th largest country on earth). Plus, Terminal 3 – exclusively reserved for the state owned airline – is the second largest building on the planet, at 1 713 000 square meters of floor space. Can one be blamed for finding solace in the many quiet business class lounges scattered throughout the airport?

The flight from Hanoi down to Ho Chi Minh City in the south was with a local airline and seeing that it is – in comparison – such a short distance, in Economy and thus immediately forgettable. I am sure you can relate. It is stuffy and you can smell your neighbour. Check-in in Hanoi was however entertaining. Old people are the same the world over. So there was this old lady with a polystyrene box on a trolley that literally pushed her way to the front of the queue shamelessly, to reach the counter and then started to scratch for her ticket and proof of identity, only after the check-in staff asked for it. Like this was her first flight ever?

The international flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap was with this prop job, followed by a short stroll to the terminal building.

Siem Reap-Bangkok was also in a small plane. Below is a time lapse from the terminal to my seat … on foot nonetheless.

We are Airbus A380 fanboys. A such, it is worthy of a separate post – also there was an incident on the Bangkok-Dubai flight and some insight that followed from that.

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In Dubai, Business and First Class check-in at a complete different building and their check-in counters have way bigger conveyor belts. The Emirati family who checked-in next to us looked like they are taking a luggage shop with them on holiday. The friendly staff member even had the nerve to ask us if this was the only baggage we are checking in. As if 67kg was not enough. But fair. We had an allowance of 64kg PER PERSON. So OK fine, we are suitably ashamed for being under achievers.

The flight home to Cape Town was, however, a pleasure. And here’s why. The normal Emirates uniform is sand coloured, but if you ever spot a person wearing a dark brown uniform, oh do stop them for a friendly chat. They are the cabin crew’s manager. In the air they have no authority – every crew member reports to the captain via the purser – but down on the ground these managers have about 6 crews each. Their purpose on the flight is to observe and I guess the fun starts when they land. The crew is noticeably nervous whenever there is one of them on the flight, as the manager freely roam through the different classes and struck up random conversations with the passengers. Needless to say,  we had several fun engagements with the manager (mainly because he enjoyed the “nerd t-shirt”) and the service overall was as-per-brochure.

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The drivers lined-up upon arrival to whisk the chosen few home, with the compliments of Emirates.

Start reading about Hanoi?

The World Map

With the arrival of the internet and the digital age, the world might have become a mere global village, but our view of the physical entity might have been slightly tainted all along.

This is what the typical map looked like, way back when at school …

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Nothing wrong with it. We all knew that the world is round and this map … well, isn’t. The “problem” with this map however is the projection. When you convert any 3D object into a 2D one, some form of compromise needs to take place. The Mercator projection is by far the most used type of map projection, ever since it was introduced by Gerardus Mercator in 1569. It soon became popular among navigators, as a straight line on the map equates to a line of constant true bearing, to plot a straight line course. Great, if you are a pirate cruising the seven seas. What our educators failed to bring to our attention is that the true area (or landmass) is greatly distorted towards to top and bottom of the map.

We grew up with the knowledge that to the right we have a colossal Russia, supported by a rather large China and of course the massive United States on the opposite end. Shame, slap-bang in the middle was this forgotten backwater of a place called Africa, we tend to overlook. (Ever wondered why we reference “first world” and “third world”, but no mention ever of the “second world”?!)

On a Mercator projection, the scale is distorted, the further you move away from the equator. For example: Greenland appears to be enormous, where in fact – based on land size – it is slightly bigger than Saudi Arabia. This brings us then to Africa. If you correct the distortion, this continent starts to become rather big. This is what you can fit into it…

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If you want to play around with this yourself, hop over to thetruesize.com.

There is no right or wrong way to draw a map – it really comes down to what you view to be important and what you would like to portray. But don’t rely on other people’s opinion of what the world really looks like. With sufficient planning and preparing, you can grab your passport and go see for yourself!!

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Check out these interesting airline statistics.

Aerophobia

The fear of flying affect 6% of the USA’s population, or around 20 million people!

That is a lot of anxiety for what would otherwise be a very enjoyable and pleasant way of getting around. I identify way more with arachnophobia, than aerophobia. I mean eight legs! Say no more.

I have witnessed the following scene playing out many a time; you’ve reached cruising altitude and is looking forward to some hospitality, yet the seat belt signs remain on. Eventually the captain comes on and apologize in advance for upcoming turbulence. The cabin fills with unnecessary panic and volunteers start administering last rites. A few even consider switching religion, as it is a known fact that Christianity custom procedures are the least stringent. Admittedly, for those seated over wing, it is unsettling to see what turbulence can do for wing movement, but it was designed to do just that. Not sure why people would think the wings will tear off … toilet paper hardly follows the perforated line either. But in all fairness, more engineering went into wing design, I hope. The truth is, at cruising altitude the pilot has the luxury of space and time to correct whatever goes wrong. Thus making this probably the safest part of your journey, even if Mother Nature throws in a free roller-coaster ride.

Check out this informative video from Business Insider, if you wish to learn which portion of your flight is considered the most dangerous, according to Boeing.

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So next time you are experiencing a bumping ride, find solace in knowing that the plane was designed to become a giant glider, if the pilot runs out of other suitable alternatives.

Instead of worrying what can go wrong, why not focus on what can go right? Check out this post.

Or what about some useful tips on planning and preparing for your next adventure?

Dubai Amusement

The tallest. The biggest. The thickest. The widest. The most shiny. The latest.

For the uninformed, Dubai can easily been mistaken for having a low self-esteem and a constant need for affirmation and acceptance. Not quite sure why as their recent history is nothing but impressive and the Emirati have a lot to be proud of;

  • 1833 – members of the Bani Yas tribe – led by the Maktoum family – settled at the mouth of the creek. As this was a natural harbour, Dubai soon became a center for fishing, sea trade and of course pearling.
  • 1966  – the discovery of oil in Dubai
  • 1971 – formation of the United Arab Emerates (UAE)
  • 1985 – the humble birth of the Emirates airline, with 2 planes on wet-lease from Pakistan International Airlines.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. This is largely thanks to the vision and leadership of the “father of modern Dubai” Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum (born 1912; died October 7, 1990). The current ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (born 1949), expanded on the ambitions. Although construction has slowed down, the original dream is not over yet.

This is the last destination of our 2017 Vietnam/Cambodia holiday and we are here to visit two amusement parks. Neighbour Abu Dhabi has one too (Ferrari World), which we visited in 2011.

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One is spoiled in Dubai for accommodation choices. At this stage we have been abroad for 16 days, tired and any self-catering within close proximity of our points of interest would do just fine. Trappan Hotel and Suites by Fakhruddin served us well, but the real star of this establishment was the intimate restaurant on ground floor with its generous portion sizes and friendly service. Daily breakfast and dinner sorted, thank you.

IMG Worlds of Adventure is themed under licences from Marvel and Cartoon Network. The building is massive and it should come as no surprise that this is at present the world’s biggest indoor theme park. I am 1.92m tall and using the colourful blocks to my right as guide, guessing the roof is at least 26m high. Blissful air-conditioning awaits inside.

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We visited the park on Sunday 22 October 2017. At full capacity it can host 20 000 people and to our surprise (read: delight!) the waiting times were very reasonable – but they take queue jumping very serious.

The Powerpuff Girls – Mojo Jojo’s Robot Rampage!
Townsville is in danger! Join The Powerpuff Girls and help fight Mojo Jojo’s evil robot creation that is threatening the city. You’ll take to the skies alongside Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup as they try to save the world before bedtime.

Sounds innocent right? I mean, it looks all cute and everything and as an adult you feel a a little guilty for wanting to ride a “kiddies attraction”. Well. The description is rather truthful, it is evil indeed. See the time lapse below to get an idea of the torture. (Tip: do this ride before lunch)

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Want to know how it feels inside a washing machine? Thor Thunder Spin can assist with that.

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No visit to a theme park is quite complete without a sugar rush.

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If you ever plan to visit IMG Worlds of Adventure, set a day aside for it. We whisked through it rather fast, but it was a quiet day for the park. In terms of rides, check out these two youtube videos: Spider-Man and Velociraptor.

Dubai Parks and Resorts is some 50km away from IMG Worlds of Adventure and sits close to the Dubai/Abu Dhabi border. It comprises three theme parks (Motiongate, Bollywood, Legoland Dubai), a water park, a shopping district and an onsite resort.

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Not sure why we did not caught on to this earlier. The above illustration of the layout is not exactly hiding it either … but after yesterday’s awesome indoor experience, this came as a surprise: the whole place is a paradise for vitamin D junkies! The place is spacious, so you tend to walk a lot … In. The. Heat.

We skipped the two Legolands, but did not forego the opportunity for some air-conditioning and light retail therapy.

We experienced the same crowd levels at Motiongate, as the day before at IMG World of Adventure.

I praised and worshiped almost every outdoor fan that bestowed a cool mist on me. Luckily, all the Dreamworks related rides are indoors!

Nightfall brought (some) relief from the heat and also more visitors to the Bollywood park.

On the morning of day 20, we spent whatever last energy we had on getting almost three weeks’ worth of living and shopping back into 4 suitcases. The holiday was awesome, but the time has come to return back to reality and home.

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(This has become tradition, as we do not have one where we live) Starbucks will be sadly missed.

Want to experience a bit of India?

How to survive Bangkok

This is day 14 – 16 of our 2017 Vietnam/Cambodia holiday. It is my second visit to this city and Pension Fund’s 5th. The reason for our short stopover is to re-do one day I messed up during our previous visit – but more about this later. So instead of sharing what we were up to for the 3 days we spent here, let me rather share our collective wisdom on how to survive Bangkok.

When to visit

  • We always try to balance weather vs crowds. Thailand is busy around the year. The period between mid-November and early December is just after the monsoon, it is cooling down a bit and it is still too early for the Christmas crowds to arrive. If you are going to spend the most of your time in shopping malls, then visit whenever an airline has a special! 

Accommodation choice

  • The city caters for the complete spectrum. We are too fussy (and potentially too old) to stay in any backpacker or hostel style accommodation and as such do not have an opinion on any of these. If this is your thing, you are on your own. In terms of hotel choices, choose one that will serve the majority of your activities. If you are here to do sightseeing and visit places of interest, then any hotel would be good as most would include transportation. However, if you are here for a shop-athon (it is like a marathon, but includes air conditioning and loads of breaks) then pick a hotel close to your main shopping interest or even within walking distance. Commanding a tuk-tuk or metered taxi can become an annoying chore.If this is your first time in Bangkok, it is highly recommended that you visit the stretch from MBK Center to Central Embassy (vaguely an L-shape and can be done on foot … the bits outside in the heat is quite short). If you are more adventurous or a returning visitor, check out this website for a neat list of shopping opportunities. For the brave there is even the Chatuchak Weekend Market.
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What to pack

  • You can safely leave your heavy jackets and thermal tops at home. It is year round hot and humid in Bangkok. Think summer clothes, but this is not an opportunity to release your inner slut. Thailand is a Buddhist country and a little bit of respect goes a long way. Take your comfortable worn in walking shoes along, you will spend a lot of time on your feet. Regardless whether this is your look or not, consider investing in a pair of cargo shorts – those extra pockets (especially if zipped) comes in handy. Take a backpack along. It can double as your carry-on luggage and you can stock it with water, sweets (to boost your energy) and wet wipes on the other side.See also the planning and preparing post for additional tips and things to remember.
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Fast Track your arrival

  • Suvaranbhumi Airport (or ‘BKK’ for short) gets crowded very fast. They processed 60.8M passengers in 2017. The last thing you really need after a long flight is to queue with the rest of the world at Immigration, before you can start your holiday. Consider using a fast track service to whisk you through the formalities and away from the maddening crowds. You can attach this service to any other service offering as well, like combining it to your hotel’s pick-up service. A friendly face waits for you as you enter the terminal building, guides you through VIP Immigration and Customs (with no queues!), walks you straight to the correct baggage carousel, waits for your luggage and briskly walk you to your waiting vehicle (in our case). My head was still spinning when I buckled up, as we were processed and out of the building in 20 minutes flat.

Security

  • Lock you passport away in your hotel room safe. There is no need whatsoever to carry this with you! It is a good habit to have a set of certified copies of all your important travel documents/reservations and photocopies of the front/back of your cards – keep this in the safe as well. (Obviously when you fly, this is part of your carry-on luggage) Keep your wallet and your cellphone in your front pockets. Crowded spaces, like a night market, is a potential pickpocket high risk area.

Currency and daily allowance

  • With modern technology, the need to purchase foreign currency in advance, is no longer needed. We travel exclusively with credit cards (and the odd debit card, as backup). Once landed, we find the closest ATM and draw local currency on the spot. (If you are concerned about exchange rates and bank charges at this point, you should seriously question whether you can afford an overseas holiday. LOL)Once in the city, purchase something. Any thing. A cold drink? It is merely to transact and to start the learning curve of the currency. How it works and what the denominations look and feel like.It is a good idea to have a daily budget – split between food/drink/transport and shopping. Soon you will have a good idea what is reasonable to allow daily for food/transport. Bearing in mind that alcohol will always be a profitable money spinner for the seller.It was for daily allowance reasons we had to come back. Last time I spent my daily budget by 10:00 one morning. The haul was to such an extent we had to return back to the hotel to drop it off first. As I was too rigid to borrow from the next day, I was forced to “window shop” for the remainder of that day and oh boy, did we hit the most wonderful shops with the most interesting things I was never going to be able to purchase. I regretted my rookie mistake ever since and wanted to return to redo the stretch of shopping malls and prove to myself I can learn from my mistakes. Such a weak excuse, but hey, it worked. Also, I like this city so much I can return yearly, if that ever becomes an option.
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Finding your way back

  • Take a business card from your hotel’s reception/concierge desk. Make sure it has the address in Thai. This way, you can show the card to your tuk-tuk/taxi driver to avoid any communication barriers.

Tuk-Tuk vs Metered Taxis

  • OK let’s face it. They are cute and colorful and looks like a lot of fun. Use them once or twice to experience the sights and sounds of the city. They provide good on-the-fly photo opportunities or timelapse videos.Metered taxis have air conditioning and is actually cheaper, as the driver merely switches on the meter and have no means to inflate the price. The city is littered with these brightly coloured vehicles and waving one down is super easy. Keep a mental record of what a typical trip costs you, as taxi drivers at night seem reluctant to switch the meter on. In cases like this, you know more or less what would be a fair negotiated price. For example: if an average trip for you is 45Bht, at night this might jump to 60Bht and still be fair. If the driver insists on 100Bht, be prepared to climb out. This strategy has resulted in many drivers accepting the 60Bht offer as opposed to loosing the trip.Most shopping malls have a taxi rank in close proximity.Some taxis advertise on their windows what services they offer. This driver seems not to mind to much if you have a headache.
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Shopping

  • You need to have sufficient cash on you for transportation and shopping at markets, but manage your risk by leaving some of it in your hotel room safe. Larger shops will be able to do card transactions, but the terminal is usually centrally located. Get in the habit to walk along and keep a line of sight on your card. We have never been skimmed in Bangkok, but it is always better to be safe than sorry.Shop assistants pass the time by fiddling with their hair and make-up, or eat. They are generally friendly and eager to please, but become serious when payment occurs. Department stores are the worst. We have never been able to confirm this, but it seems that the shop assistants are incentivized for each transaction, hence the administration process is long-winded. Stamps and stickers are traded and each one produce a book which needs to be signed off by someone. All this manual flurry takes place over and next to a point-of-sale terminal. I can only surmise that the staff do not trust the computer. Thus, if you shop in a department store, have some patience on standby. Six people were involved, when I wanted to pay for my shopping at Zen Department Store.
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  • Department/convenient stores have fixed prices, but everybody else are master entrepreneurs. Do not purchase the first thing you see at the price advertised. Shop around a bit, then sharpen your math and start haggling. The more items you purchase the bigger your negotiation power. Some people enjoy this aspect of a Bangkok holiday. We dabble with it, but refuse that it spoils our holiday. Just be mindful to the daily rush hour: 07:30-09:00 and 17:00-18:30. Stay off the roads by sleeping in and enjoying the latest breakfast your hotel offer. Most shops only open after 09:00 (or even later) anyhow. The upside, they stay open late.

Food

  • If your accommodation comes with complimentary food – capitalize on it. Most shopping centers have a food court with franchised outlets. Some centers have a food hall where you order on a card from various stalls and pay only upon exiting. Central Embassy had one on their top floor (during our 2017 visit), with excellent food at decent prices. As it was close to our hotel, we had most of our dinners there, without any disappointment.
  • As a rule we do not really indulge in street food, regardless of how good it might look or smell. The risk of an upset stomach on holiday is not worth it. BUT, many tourist do engage and lived to tell the tale. We, as boring as it might sound, prefer tables and chairs with printed menus.
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Tourist scams

  • Do not become a statistic. Do not accept unsolicited advice or suggestions from strangers.If the deal or offer is too good to be true, it probably is. If you are seeking sightseeing advice, rather ask your hotel concierge, or engage with fellow travelers and learn from them. Do not allow your tuk-tuk or taxi driver to offer suggestions to you as to where to go … without fail this will result in a waste of time and an inflated transport fee. Engage with your driver with confidence as to where YOU want to go, not the other way around. It sounds as if you cannot trust anybody, but sadly it is the small minority that spoils it for everyone.
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Foot/leg massage

  • Despite how grand or fancy some of these places can look, they are really not that expensive. After a day or two of walking around, spoil yourself with a foot/leg massage. There is quite a range: some shopping centers have them open and visible and you can see the people receiving the treatment and some are more discreet with a “spa type” look and feel. If you are going to spoil yourself, you might as well get the ambiance as well. 

Free internet

  • Free wi-fi is not very common. If you do stumble upon any (like your hotel), make the most of it.
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Leaving Bangkok

  • If you are not collecting foreign currency, leave your spare odds-and-ends currency in an envelope in your hotel room marked for the cleaning staff. Keep in mind, that you still may need to pay for the airport transfer. Start packing on your second last day. This will give you a good indication which strategy to follow: buy another suitcase/bag, or abandonment. If you are running out of luggage space (or weight allowance), start discarding toiletries and grooming products. As hard as it sound, shoes take up a lot of space as well. Start bulking up your carry-on luggage or expand to a second item – no one died yet trying to sneak more luggage on-board than prescribed.
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  • Leave for the airport early. The terminal is massive and busy (don’t be fooled that a 02:00 flight will be quiet!). After check-in, get processed through to duty-free as soon as possible. Once there, you can take it slow again, to spend your remaining cash. The boarding gates are spaced in such a way that you will get your daily steps in (if not reached already), before departure. At this point, there is little value in missing your flight.  Visit the bathroom and leisurely make your way to the gate.
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As you explore the city and what it has to offer, spend some time to admire their shop designs, interior decor and visual merchandising. I am of the belief that many countries can come and learn from the Thai how to make shopping more interesting and fun.

Continue reading about Dubai’s theme parks?

Gift with Purchase

We are not foreign to the buy-this-get-that concept, but in South Africa we normally associate this with magazines and then usually the freebie is a “sample size” item. Cooking oil + freebie is certainly new to us. If you buy enough, you have a dinner set, or a cupboard full of tumblers. A win-win for both parties.

A must-do for us in any country abroad, is an outing to a department store and/or supermarket. The ‘gift with purchase’ was not reserved for oil only …

Vietnamese is of such petite frame, it is thus only fitting that their shopping trolleys mimic this. After-all, whatever they buy travels home on a scooter.

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Ever had that craving for just a bite of sushi? Well, look no further.

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It is always exciting to spot a South African brand on the shelves.

Oh my word! So what was in my coffee before?

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These people mean business. A whole isle dedicated to cooking oil and another to two minute noodles. If you are not brand loyal, you will end up flipping a coin to make decisions here … probably from there the gift with purchase. Who doesn’t have an eye for a bargain?

The staff in this shop probably do not give any – with a name like this.

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Speaking of clothes shopping. If you are of “western” build, do not hold your breath for anything in your size – for that you will need a tourist trap (like the one en-route to Ha Long Bay). Still not sure why the bigger sizes need to be so utterly ugly. As for the locals, it seems socks are still not a big seller.

I am all for trying new things, but this sweetcorn classic (??) was just outside my adventure range.

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I suspect the owner/manager of this restaurant might be a (committed) smoker …

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Property in Vietnam is expensive, hence the narrow yet tall buildings, where some form of trade takes place on ground floor (and sometimes the 1st floor as well), with the family living on the remaining floors above.

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Oh look, a hostel with good mattresses – a traveler’s dream.

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The more we travel, the more we see evidence of the same electricity aesthetics.

I mentioned in an earlier blog post that Vietnamese traffic (at least those observed in Hanoi) do not really care much for traffic lights. We saw a t-shirt shop joking about this.

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One has to wonder what is the problem with coffee shops in my own country. Vietnam is not exactly a rich country, but in most coffee shops for as long as you buy something from them, they give you free wi-fi.

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A chance sighting through a taxi window in Ho Chi Minh City. Vuvuzela is a South African word, but this establishment seems interesting in its own right.

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“Pho” [pronounced ‘faah’] is a type of Vietnamese soup, but also slang for “street food”. For Western tourists who would like to get a taste of this, but do not feel safe or comfortable to buy food off the street from vendors, there is always Pho24. It is like street food, but in a restaurant 😉 There is also a rival chain, called Pho 2000.

I get it. You hang it to limit bruising, but I fear that ship might have sailed.

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Cambodian business owners appear to be very religious, or hedging their bets. Outside many establishments/shops we saw these type of shrines. Offerings are made to their deities, in exchange for good fortune and protection. For two cups of tea, I am tempted to give a try myself.

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Righty then, shall we move onto How to survive Bangkok?

Scooters

Motor vehicles are expensive in Vietnam, but scooters/motorbikes are more affordable, thus it should not come as any surprise that there are really a lot on the roads. Now don’t get me wrong, we have them in South Africa too, but not in such abundance!

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Instead of a parking garage (as we are used to see in the West), most shopping centres have these, to cater for the masses – and to ensure a dry seat on return.

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But on sunny days, you don’t want a burning hot seat either. Hello piece of cardboard.

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When the rain is really heavy, out comes a poncho. Not just any old flavour. A special one. The front flap has a see-thru panel which you throw over your handles and your light can still shine through.

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Some poncho’s even comes with a second hoodie, for your passenger. No extra hoodie, no problem – the view is not currently great anyhow.

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For the amount of traffic, it is remarkably peaceful, but not quiet. There is a whole lot of hooting taking place. The organism that is traffic is rather accommodating. If a foreign object is introduced, it deals with this as every individual component of the greater whole merely swerve slightly left or right. This way, everyone is merrily on their way again, with the minimal of fuss.

Traffic lights seems like a serving suggestion only.

Practical tip for the anxious traveler: forget about your “western training” of looking left, then right, then left again, before attempting to cross the street. You will never be afforded a gap to cross. Instead, decide upon the route you want to follow to cross the street (the shorter the better), commit to it and start walking. Keep a steady walking pace. Don’t go faster or slower! The traffic will devour you and spit you out on the pavement all intact. For us, the trick was not to look left/right while walking. Focus on your destination and voila, street crossed “safely”.

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This mode of transport is so entrenched in their daily lives, that delivering eggs or potplants is not a problem at all.

Need a quick nap? Just find a quiet spot.

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We witnessed a few practical ladies. Why with all the puddles and dirt around, one does have the need to arrive with clean clothes, hence an apron of sorts, to keep things dry and tidy.

Yes, you can wear your favourite cha cha heels and still drive yourself to work.

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You know you have arrived, when you cruise the streets with your colour-coded helmet.

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The same sensibility cannot be extended to parenting choices. Somehow clean air for your children seems more important than a head injury.

Been driving all morning, your back is killing you and it would be nice to have your legs up for a bit? Be on the lookout for a coffee shop with hammocks. One can linger here for a while, as long as you buy something from the shop.

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In Siem Reap, you and your scooter (with a small alteration) can turn entrepreneur and transport tourists around.

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Speaking of transport: if your wheels are in the repair shop, or you do not own one yet? Why not book a ride via your phone …

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We didn’t even try crossing this street! We know our limits.

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Keep reading about our observations on Vietnam/Cambodia’s shops and retail, especially gift with purchase tactics, in an attempt to convince the discerning shopper.

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is the fifth largest city of Cambodia, with the capital being Phnom Penh (21 points in Scrabble, right there!).

As the country shares a border with Vietnam it was involved in Uncle Ho’s struggle next door, but at Day 9 of our holiday, we are a bit over him. A civil war started and between 1975 and 1979 an estimated 20% of the population died from starvation, disease, exhaustion (due to being overworked) or execution. Cinema, through the 1984 release of The Killing Fields, brought the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge to the world stage. We are not here for this, but because of the movie Tomb Raider – more about this later.

It is interesting how certain movies leaves a lasting tourism effect on a location: there are many across the globe, but two examples we’ve visited, comes to mind:

  • the Taj Lake Palace (Udaipur, India), hosted the villain’s hideout in James Bond’s Octopussy.
  • this idyllic beach off the coast of Phuket (Thailand) was the “salt water lake” in Leonard DiCaprio’s The Beach. The gap was filled in digitally, during post production.

Just south of Siem Reap lies the vast Tonlé Sap Lake. It is southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake and with the abundance of fish comes an unique community. They have built houses on stilts in the lake, but in the dry season (as the water recedes), they move to ground level and live underneath their homes. Personally, this seems like a lot of work. Why not just live on dry land year round and go to the lake for food instead? But it is their way of life that makes them unique and thus by itself makes for a stunning tourist attraction.

(Speaking of post production, here is a drive by of the village: recorded in iPhone’s time-lapse mode with the speed reduced in Premier Pro)

The same type of boat that ferried us around the Mekong Delta, was also used here – complete with high tech navigation and that signature steering wheel.

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This is Apsara Dance country. References to them can be seen everywhere, including carved into the walls of the various ancient temples. Myth has it that mortals and divinities could not resist these heavenly dancers’ charm. Follow the link above for the history lesson. I am just saying that if you get arthritis, your dance career is over. Naturally there is a dinner-and-show in town, and almost compulsory for tourists to attend – our food was great. (Fish is cheap here, thus we pulled the “seafood allergy” trick again to get decent food, instead of a random sad-ass piece of steamed fish)

I get it. Technically it is difficult to perfect this type of dance, as it is all about angles and degrees, but the music? Did not get what the story was about, probably a love job or triangle with a disapproving parent of sorts somewhere in the mix, as the cacophony from stage right has proven to be rather distracting. I prefer the second video below: time lapse, but quiet.

Often there is a contrast between one’s chosen hotel online vs reality, where the latter does not quite live up to the hype. Our resort turned out to be the other way around. I doubt if any of our photos does the place any justice either. Our vehicle left the tarred road and ventured down a dodgy looking gravel road that deteriorates the more we move away from society. On holiday I panic fast and was fearing that we will end up in a barn or sharing a shed with animals. The place looks terrible. Can I not rather stay in the car, with my lovely air conditioning? What a pleasant surprise. Past reception, a paradise unfolds and the dirt road long forgotten. A golden coconut outside your sliding door signals “do not disturb” to housekeeping and one positively needs GPS co-ordinates to find the bathroom, somewhere towards the back of the room.

OK, enough with the side show. We are here in this unforgiving humidity to beat the crowds and witness Angkor Wat (the building that features on Cambodia’s flag) and the “Tomb Raider temple” (also know as Ta Prohm Temple). Or so we thought. Turns out there are loads of temples in this place and our tour includes Angkor Thom (South Gate), Bayon Temple, Elephant Terrace, Bakheng Temple, Banteay Srei and Ta Keo Temple. This is day 11 and 12. With a combination of exhaustion and constant heat, we turned to our guide with a request: take us to the spots we need to take pictures (for whatever reason), keep the history lesson concise and get us back to aircon in the fastest route. Suppose one could have spent more time in each location, immersing in the sheer beauty of the surrounds and craftsmanship of the carvings and architectural construction, but we also have internet back home.  Our guide did not disappoint. Some tourists’ dress code is considered disrespectful towards the local religion/culture when it comes to their temples and for this reason outside almost each temple is some retail opportunity to purchase more modest garments to cover some of the excessive skin. Luckily our hotel provided us with (pink!) scarves, which we also employed for absorption purposes.

Our driver was a real life saver. With each return trip to our vehicle, he had an icy bottle of water ready and a cold facecloth, with a hint of eucalyptus oil on it. Soothing and welcome!

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Our tour guide showed us a camera trick … how to appear twice 😉

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Siem Reap even has a bit of a night life. There are markets, when the heat subsides with a degree or three, where one can buy souvenirs and trinkets. Neatly tucked away in a alley sits Miss Wong Cocktail Bar. You can imagine our surprise – with how many miles away from home – to find a cocktail bar named after a South African’s famous painting. Feeling slightly patriotic, we fanned some greenback in exchange for cocktails. A lot. It was only the next morning that we realised that this was a wong choice.

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With so many tuk-tuks fighting for business, branding is everything. And yes, he actually plays the song …

In closing, some interesting bits:

  • during the monsoon, cobras venture closer to villages, in search for dry land. As a result +/- 25 people die annually from their venom, as consolation, there are no poisonous spiders in Cambodia.
  • the economy is built around tourism and rice
  • there are no electricity generation within the country, but they rather purchase it from their neighbours. Vast parts of the countryside is without and households typically runs of 3-4 car batteries, which are recharged weekly.

Our driver literally hangs around, waiting for us to return.

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For our flight to Bangkok, we had excess luggage of 12.8kg. 80 USD later, problem solved. A New York couple in front of us flicked out an Amex first, only to learn 15 minutes later that it was declined (a common problem with this type of card abroad). Then only did the husband proceed to open his wallet, revealing an obscene amount of dollar bills. Why not just pay cash in the first place?

Next stop: Bangkok

Mekong Delta

“After breakfast at hotel, today we take a special one day Mekong Delta with homemade meal” : the modest one liner in our itinerary, for Day 8.

I suppose if you don’t say too much, you can disappoint?

The Mekong River Delta is some 200km south west of Ho Chi Minh City and around the halfway mark is a tourist trap (same type of concept we experienced en-route to Ha Long Bay – only smaller. Guess the Mekong Delta is not yet as popular with tourists).

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With no specific expectations, we boarded a wooden boat with a Toyota steering wheel and started crossing a rather large body of utterly dirty looking brown water – the type that you know conceal enough exotic diseases that it will warrant an expensive medical evacuation, should this thing sink on us today. Luckily our super energetic tour guide got us focused on the greenery on the other side.

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This is agricultural land and as we walk, one noticed the complete absence of borders or fences to distinguish the divide between farms. Yet another sign that one can live in peace and harmony with one’s neighbours. The humidity is taking its toll and thus time for a refreshing drink. The recipe is super easy: squeeze sugar cane through a shiny mechanical device along with some lime, serve with ice, sit next to road and drink it, get stuck in their silly small chairs.

Visually Vietnamese people fall into only four age categories:

  • obviously children,
  • very young – possibly looks under aged (yet working),
  • middle aged
  • historic, how come you are still alive?

We visited a fruit farmer, in the historic category. Fun tip: if you add a touch of salt to fruit, it tastes better. Turns also out fresh coconut water is overrated.

The whole area we visited is littered with canals everywhere. No desire really to travel on any of them, yet here we are, with no elegant way to board the little boat which is just waiting to capsize. With no nearby space for a helicopter to land, a medical evacuation is out of the question – better do this slowly then.

Hallelujah. Land! And time for lunch. We ate a lot of Vietnamese Springrolls, it is like regular springrolls, only fresh and not deep fried. The lunch spot lady gave us an impromptu demonstration.

We are having lunch in the jungle, in the middle of nowhere. I mean, this is the view …

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… so as a joke, we asked our guide “what is the wifi password?”. She had such a wonderful sense of humour, we were expecting a cute joke or something. Nope. This place actually had internet and fast! A bit unexpected, but hey we will seize the opportunity to press a few random likes on Facebook. We found out later, that this whole area has fibre internet. Go figure.

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On each of our international holidays we try to work in an excursion away from the normal tourist spots and try to peep around the curtain as to how the people of the country really live. In the Mekong Delta the people do not speak English at all (have a guide with you!) and think that all tourists are rich. Thus, if you do not tip them, they think you are cheap. We tend to agree. 10% minimum. Do not travel (or dine out for that matter) if you cannot afford the complete expense, inclusive of the tip.

On the way back to Ho Chi Minh City, we had a very interesting conversation with our guide. Vietnam is struggling to understand why most tourist visit them only once, yet Thailand gets repeat visits.

Despite my constant yearning to be medically airlifted, this day trip was remarkably peaceful (and safe) and a good way to say goodbye to Vietnam.

Next stop: Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Ho Chi Minh City

This was the third stop in our Vietnam/Cambodia holiday of 2017. Originally called Saigon, the city’s name was changed in July 1976, at the end of the last civil war in honour of the northern communist leader Ho Chi Minh. Ho Chi Minh City (“HCMC”) is the largest city (with 3.46 million people in 2018, according to World Population Review) and also the economic hub of the country. As such, it does not have the same charm as Hanoi. The name change is still a discussion point among locals, as the North and South seems to tolerate each other, but the love for each other is amiss. The media will use Saigon when referring to crime, drugs or anything negative, but switch to HCMC to celebrate any achievements or successes. Subtle meddling by the government perhaps? Residents prefer the romantically sounding Saigon when they reminisce about the glorious good old days. Both guides we had (as supplied by our tour company: Odynovo) up North and down here, made a point to talk (unprompted) about North-vs-South. Hang up much?  A more pressing matter to rather discuss is “What’s up with this relentless humidity?” Give a tourist a break … we are trying to explore, but get constantly distracted by the alluring hum of air conditioning! Even this lady – outside the Notre Dame Cathedral – is looking to the sky for some relief.

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We stayed in the centrally located Alagon D’antique Hotel & Spa. The Alagon Group has an unnatural large selection of hotels in this part of the city to choose from. On the roof one can have drinks at the pool, or walk around the corner and have drinks at the sister hotel’s jacuzzi … on your room’s account. Neat. On the ground floor, three sisters shared a communal breakfast area. Clever usage of space. At least our room was slightly bigger than the postage stamp we had in Hanoi.

The Vietnam war – or the ‘American War’, as some locals prefer to call it – not only shaped public opinion, but also the landscape. Unlike the South Vietnamese forces who had backing from the well equipped American army, the Viet Cong had not much luck in the form of a sugar daddy. The only way to outsmart the South was to go guerilla, and go under ground. Literally. Underneath the Cu Chi district northwest of Saigon, they dug an extensive network of tunnels – known today as the Cu Chi Tunnels – which played an important role in the fall of Saigon, that ended the war. The area is preserved and presented as a living museum. It is lush and gives one a glimpse into what it must have felt like operating in the area, a mere few decades ago … minus the well demarcated footpaths of course. Below, a refreshing pond, with the compliments of a B52 bomb.

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Although safe (nowadays!), this place is also somewhat scary. There are nasty booby traps all over and then those tiny trap doors that connect the tunnels below with the surface. They built it just big enough for their tiny frames, which renders it too small for the average western invader. We had a very happy and cheerful lad demonstrating it to us. Not. The disappearing act, however, was not bad.

It is a known fact that the Asian frame is more efficient and compact than the Western version, but these access points are ridiculously small, compared to my shoe. Elsewhere on the internet one can find various photos of tourist doing this disappearing trick themselves. We were happy with the demo on its own – no need to get stuck.

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“War is always the choice of the chosen, who will not have to fight”
– lyrics from Pavarotti and Bono’s 2003 Ave Maria. (1:27 mark)

As the tour of the tunnel complex continues, one starts to feel sorry for the people who had to live and work here and what the American troops did to them with their fancy (for the time) bombs, agent orange and tactics. But wait. Over here is a display of all the booby traps the Viet Cong built. Simple yet effective structures designed to inflict pain and torture. Shame, now you feel sorry for the Americans. Somewhat conflicted we pressed forth. It is highly recommended to have a guide with you when you visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. Most displays are done in duplicate and your guide will route you to a less crowded exhibition, on your request.

Some of the tunnels were widened to fit Western tourists and the brave are spoiled for choice on length of tunnel to be experienced: 50m, 20m … I was holding out for the 2 meter tunnel, but pension fund accepted the 10m offer. Sucker!

Glad I stayed above ground. Turns out to be a bit of a huddled crawl situation down there.

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Random other learning from this outing:

  • At one point the Americans used sniffer dogs to find entry/exit points into the tunnels. The people then started to steal American clothing and kept it close to the entrance, to tricks the dogs
  • Cooking happened once a day only so that the smoke can disperse in the morning mist and not disclose the location of kitchens
  • The leaves around the kitchen ventilation outlets were replaced daily, as the wilted leaves are a give away of heated activity in the area
  • Most of the booby traps were built from scrap metal liberated from the Americans or the South Vietnamese Army. Talk about recycling!
  • They manufactured their own shoes, with the soles turned around so that when they walk the print points to the direction they came from and not the direction they are walking in. Thus when the enemy encounter the foot prints they go in the opposite direction than that of which the person is actually walking

If you have more money than common sense, you can at the shooting range fire some of the ammunition used during the war.  This is a good money spinner for the museum, but a nuisance noise pollutant. Each to their own what they want to spend money on while on vacation: personally I favour aircon and cocktails.

The War Remnants Museum has some confiscated US Army property on display in their front yard and inside the curators are blunt and frank – as one should be about the cruelty of any war. A visit here is not recommended if you are sensitive and fragile.

The Reunification Palace is really a beautiful building. Pity it is not really used for anything specific, other than a building of historic significance.

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Inside there are stunning preserved period rooms. It is a bit eerie though. It is almost as if the people that are supposed to be there quickly (all!) went to the toilet. In the basement is a fully functional military bunker and although the equipment was probably state-of-the-art at the time, it kinda aged quickly. The row of rainbow telephones are a nice touch … clearly there was someone with a sense of humour.

The old Saigon Post Office is another tourist spot, which seems to feature on everyone’s must-see list, visiting HCMC. I am not sure why. OK, the building is kinda cute, but to get a spot to pose in front of it, reminded me of our visit to the Taj Mahal – you have to wait your turn and eventually just photo bomb your way in.

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(By now you probably wonder why all the photos with me and pension fund are in black-and-white? The photos on this blog is about the location, experience or uniqueness of a country or culture, not a celebration of what we look like.)

In essence it is a working post office, with Uncle Ho keeping a watchful eye. There are lots of souvenir buy opportunities here: naturally at ‘tourist pricing’. Fight your urge to buy a conical hat. In the heat of the moment (mind the pun), one can easily fall prey to the simplicity of the structure, but ultimately it becomes a travel item nightmare: you either are stuck with hand luggage, or a flattened tangled mess if you slipped it into your check-in luggage.

We do not travel with umbrellas, but when the weather demands, we support local shop owners. In a land of “compact people”, trying to find a proper one to do the job was fruitless.

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As spotted from our hotel’s roof: this guy might have a hot water fetish.

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Next stop: Mekong Delta

Ha Long Bay

It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Who knows, your country could be on the list as well.) It is a popular tourist destination in the Vietnam province of Quang Ninh. The Bay is known for its calm emerald waters and of course the characteristic limestone islets. Some of the bigger islands might have a beach, but most resemble mesmerising rock formations sticking straight out of the water. Nearly all the visuals one can find online has clear skies, thus you can imagine our excitement that it rained during our visit, which makes our experience different – something we like. Sadly the weather did not reduce the crowd levels, an attribute we prefer, if given a choice.

Our story however, started earlier. Let me rewind a bit.

The distance from our hotel in Hanoi to Ha Long Bay is only 179km, but it took us more than 3.5 hours to travel there by private tour (courtesy of our service provider for this holiday: Odynovo Tours). The driving style is the same as in India: everything is happening at a slow pace (due to traffic and general road conditions). There is absolutely no gearing down (to gain power) to over take. Nope. This occurs at the same as cruising speed. 4th and 5th gear is exclusive for a racing driver then? Roughly on the 2 hour mark, we stopped for a comfort break … at a slick tourist trap of note!

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It is roughly a rectangular building. Your driver drops you off at one end and pick you up on the other side. What they don’t tell you, is that they receive a free meal from the establishment – hence the endless stream of tourists being dropped at the front door. Whether they have a burning desire to buy frivolous nonsense or not. Outside is an equally massive sculpture garden with ugly for sale, some copies of classical pieces, but mostly tasteless. Overly endowed David, however, was worth a giggle.

Close to the City of Ha Long, we took a right turn, over a long bridge to the island from where we will launch for the overnight experience in the bay, on-board Emeraude Cruises‘ “steamboat”. We drove past some beautiful boats, what with private balconies and all and I was getting ready to climb out of our vehicle. Fear not. The more we drove along the road, the worst (at least in my mind) the boats got. Until we get to this one and I thought tonight is the night we die. It looks like a fishing trawler – doesn’t exactly scream glamorous and it seems I will have to make do without a balcony.

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The seemingly old rust bucket still floats, so maybe it would not be that bad. We still have time to tap out, as the harbour master is worried about the weather and as such has not given the all clear for any boat to leave the harbour. We had a quick word with our guide not to leave until we are definitely cleared to sail. He (the guide) and the driver will overnight nearby, as it does not make logical sense to drive back to Hanoi, only to collect us again tomorrow morning after breakfast. Oh well, crisis seemingly under control, time to have more delicious Vietnamese coffee with the silly tin percolating contraption.

The dark clouds could not hold back any longer and it started to rain. We suspect the harbour master got blackmailed and issued the ‘all clear’ under duress. We boarded somewhat wet. Still have a lingering thought that we are going to die. Oh well too late, there goes our guide and driver. Please can someone speak English on this floating disaster. I found a crew member and rapid fire a string of questions, especially where I can smoke. If we are going to our demise, best it be with a cigarette. “No need to be alarmed, we make alousemense soon”, said the guy. Sorry? “Alousement, wait for alousement.” Turns out, one should not judge Emeraude Cruise on appearance, they are exceptionally well organised and an announcement was made in due course. This specific crew member however just scored himself a nickname – Alousement.

With a full programme ahead, this is today:
12:20 – 12:25 Captain raises anchor
12:25 – 14:30 Cruising Ha Long Bay
12:45 – 14:00 Lunch
14:00 – 15:00 Free & Easy (code for do the hell what you like)
15:00 – 16:00 Guided shore excursion to Sung Sot Grotto and Floating Village
16:00 – 16:30 Crêpe station on Sundeck and cruising to Pearl Farm
16:30 – 17:30 Kayaking or swimming at Pearl Farm
18:00 – 18:30 Vietnamese fresh springroll cooking class (Sundeck)
18:30 – 19:30 Complimentary canapés (Sundeck)
19:30 – 21:00 Dinner
20:00 – 22:00 Squid fishing
20:30 – 23:00 Screening of movie “Indochine”

Tomorrow:
06:00 – 07:00 Coffee on the Sundeck
06:30 – 07:00 Learn the ancient art of Tai Chi (Sundeck)
07:00 – 08:00 Leave luggage outside cabin
07:30 – 09:30 Cruising Ha Long Bay
07:00 – 08:30 Breakfast
08:30 – 09:00 Check-out
09:30 – 10:00 Disembarkation

There is a rather large group from Myanmar with us and they are boisterous. Anne (from the Philippines, here for better job opportunities) has a warm personality and is a seasoned hostess. She placed them in a separate room, because “Western tourists don’t like the noisy Asian habits” she told us with a wink of the eye. Fair enough, I did compliment her on separating us, hence she told me the reason. Not that the noise is a bother any more, because look, food is here. Pension Fund saw the gap to advise her about his “seafood allergy” and in a nick of time he ended up with a custom menu. Spoiled much? It is his preference, not a medical necessity. From this point onward during our time abroad I sometimes all of a sudden developed an allergy too. I don’t mind seafood, but is not a great fan. We are on holiday, please can we eat stuff we like. The food – on and off the menu – was really great and tasty. Below is everything in one serving.

By now we are too far from land and thus – by default – committed to this overnight excursion. Thanks to the harbour master  we are running late on the crazy schedule and there was just enough time to pop into our cabin.

Whoha, this is even smaller than our hotel room in Hanoi! But then again, it is only for one night and with foresight, we brought only a small suitcase (the rest we left with our guide). The big boats drag a smaller boat along – called a tender – for shore excursions. Our boat had two tenders. In the middle of seemingly nowhere, we saw this tuck-shop woman zipping past. I suppose with such a bounty of tourists around, she is guaranteed a few sales. She even stocks wine. No time however, to support the local economic efforts, as we need to contort ourselves into teeny tiny life vests. This bikini top will not save me from drowning, but it is the thought that counts, right?

We are actually en-route to the Sung Sot Grotto. With a good measure of luck we are alone on the tender, except for a crew member and of course the dude driving the thing. The crew guy is trying to tell us the history of the cave and its significance. Who cares, with such beautiful surroundings he is just adding unsolicited noise.

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What a mess. The Vietnam government allows 250 boats to overnight in the Bay. Judged by the amount of people, one would swear there is a close down sale here. Luckily dealing with the steep staircase is a breeze, as one can barely move one foot at a time. Speaking of a breeze; nowhere to be found. The humidity is hectic and thus the slow pace of ascending, welcomed. How can I describe the grotto … it is a cave, complete with stalactites and stalagmites as one would expect. Except it is crowded with not much ventilation and it sounds like a united nations picnic, with visitors from all over.

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When you exit the cave, you are also on the highest point and the view kinda cool! It started to rain. Wet descending steps. Wet walkway. Avoid puddles. Hairdo long gone. Sorry no photos. A few Hollywood worthy stunts and eventually safe (?) back on tender.

And I introduce to you the SUNDECK! It is on the roof of the boat with a hardcover canopy. Comfy chairs, smoke friendly, staff behind the bar who are eager to please and there is a slight breeze to accompany the gentle rocking of the boat. I have arrived. To the left of me I witnessed the preparation and cleanup of crêpes, springrolls and canapés. Was supposed to visit a Pearl Farm and kayak and swimming in the famous emerald water, but why would you? The bar had a buy-one-get-one cocktail special.

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The next morning (with a slightly heavy head) I stumbled upstairs in search for coffee and walked into Alousement’s Tai Chi class.

Pension Fund – who was more sensible with the cocktail special – got up earlier for a shore excursion, with our neighbours. There is something to be said about Europeans and their lack of modesty. No sooner have they reached the landing in front of their cabin and dropped their wet clothing to dry themselves in the cool morning air. Naked.

On our return to land, the clouds gave us whatever they have left in them.

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Cheers to Emeraude and Ha Long Bay! OK, let me come clean. My fears about this experience and a premature water death turned out to be completely fictional, if not pure fantasy. This truly felt like a holiday within a holiday!

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Four hours later, we were back in Hanoi. Next stop: Ho Chi Minh City.

Hanoi

 When we visited the capital city of Vietnam in October 2017, we stayed in the Old Quarter. It is near Hoan Kiem Lake and the area is characteristic for its Chinese and French influences (due to historic occupation and rule). The streets used to be roughly laid out by trade, but nowadays it is a cacophonic symphony of scooters (see our take on it here), bicycles, motors and pedestrians, with trading opportunities on the sidewalks and shops.

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Reunification Day is a national holiday and celebrated annually on 30 April, yet the unification of Vietnam took actually place on 2 July (1976). It is this latter date which also saw the most populous city change names from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City … named after the revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh.

We stayed at the La Siesta Trendy Hotel, in a Trendy Deluxe (I swear it is code for ‘super small’) room. Not that it bothered us much. This was our first hotel room for the holiday and as such the excitement of being abroad overrides a lot, like the fact that one constantly bumps into your suitcases. But let’s be fair as well, we are giants compared to the locals. Every time we saw the bellboys, we couldn’t contain a smile for their “resort wear” uniforms – consisting of chino shorts, loose fitting blue shirt and matching sneakers with white socks – as if we are on some exotic island.

In a land where space comes at a premium, the luxury of driveways and gardens seems reserved for national monuments and public spaces. From the hotel’s front door to the street was exactly the length of a scooter! This also explains the extreme narrow, but tall buildings. Usually some retail occur on street level, with living quarters above – I guess the bigger the family, the higher you need to build?

These peculiarly narrow but tall buildings were not just limited to the city. We saw these in the countryside (en route to Halong Bay) as well.

This is the view across our hotel. A seafood shop. No need for a sign really, as the lingering whiff is quite sufficient as to what is on offer. Daily, after their morning deliveries, the family / friends / customers / staff (who knows?) sit outside on the sidewalk to process the stock for the day.

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Breakfast is just another name for a meal, right? It remains interesting to see that Asian nations view this literally. Olives and sushi – although I eat both – is a bit advanced so early in the morning. On holiday we tend to be eggs-and-bacon type of guys.

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We experience the people of Vietnam to be generally friendly and helpful. Our hotel gave us a map of the surroundings and we decided to take a stroll. As the Old Quarter does not follow a typical horizontal/vertical block layout, we lost our place on the map after a while. As we were trying to find a cross reference of street names (to find our spot on the map again), an elderly lady on a scooter stopped to ask if she can help us. It took her no time to look around and point on the map, as to where we are. This random act of kindness is rather humbling, as I have hardly assisted a lost tourist back home in my life before. As such, I now owe the universe to return the favour.

We used China Odyssey Tours (nowadays called Odynovo) for this holiday. We had such a pleasant experience with them in 2015, that we employed their services again in 2017. However when it comes to Hanoi, I secretly suspect everyone is using the same recipe: we bumped into a couple from our hotel three times on the same day and they used a local one-day-only guide!

Despite Uncle Ho‘s wish to be cremated, his country stuffed his embalmed body in a square concrete building, opposite a typical communist square: unnecessarily vast to let one feel small and insignificant.

LOL. Stupid tourists taking photos of old cars that allegedly once had an important passenger. Why these cars qualify for air conditioning remains a mystery though.

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After all things Ho Chi Minh and a short stroll through a tourist trap gauntlet with typical knick-knacks and then behold … the One Pillar Pagoda. No disrespect to Buddhism, as this is actually regarded as one of Vietnam’s most iconic temples, but seriously, fix that wall!

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I looked forward to the Museum of Ethnology. It is hot and humid outside. Indoors should be bliss, right? No. It is hot and stuffy inside too. Absolutely no aircon. There are endless posters with words and exhibitions that would have been way more interesting to stand and study and ponder, if the air was welcoming and COOL. What was supposed to be a 90 minute itinerary item, we power walked in 20 minutes. Around the last corner a group of children slowed us down. Turned out their English teacher brings them here to practise casual conversation with tourists. Remember I felt guilty about the random act of kindness on day one, so we stopped and spoke to them for a while. It was mainly a “hello how are you?”, “I am doing fine, how are you?”, followed by giggles type-of-conversation, we ran out of time to talk about the blatant exploitation of cheap labour in the local clothing manufacturing sector or the long term downside of communism and freedom of expression. We had time for a quick group photo though. There is a clown in every group – check out the jester with the red backpack in the front row.

Random sighting on street level: fan repair shop, museum or art installation?

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On our travels, we usually seek out something cultural and what makes a nation or culture different from our own. The Water Puppet Show ticked the boxes nicely. It dates back a few centuries to a time when the country was at peace with its neighbours and citizens had time to entertain one another. During the show, puppets seem to float on water and are masterfully manipulated by 10 people hidden behind screens. It is skillfully accompanied by traditional Vietnamese folk music produced on drums, horns, cymbals, wooden bells, bamboo flutes among other, plus vocals. In our show the lead singer looked healthy, but sounded in pain. I suppose it would have helped if we noticed the free pamphlets outside the theater, to explain the various acts to us … but no. We have managed to ignore the guttural agony from stage left as we were trying to figure out how on earth the puppeteers pull off the visuals in front of us. Sadly during our show no photography was allowed, but if you want to get a quick feel for what water puppets are about, click here, or if you are interested to see what is happening backstage, click here. The puppet show is rather popular and the performers barely get a smoke break between shows. This was the crowd greeting us outside the Thang Long Puppet Theatre, eagerly awaiting their turn to aircon.

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Pho (pronounced “faaaa”) is traditional Vietnamese street food and looks and smells just plain yummy. The only fat people we saw were tourists, so one can safely assume pho is healthy too. As you might have surmised from the photos, my body is clearly a temple and I might be a fussy eater. LOL. Thing is, the opportunity cost on holiday is so high and the schedule so tight that it is just not worth the risk of an upset stomach, to want to sample all and sundry. Having said that, the wicked lady below had her way with us – still not sure exactly what type of panda, donkey or domestic cat species it was, but it went down very well and stayed down.

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Street food is also about socialising and any relative level piece of sidewalk can be turned into a restaurant. (Note the petite chairs!)

And speaking of sidewalks: come on, admit it, who doesn’t like an al fresco haircut?

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I do not really wish to labour this point, but the humidity of Vietnam in October is taxing. Thus between an ice cream or a fan, the latter was more practical and once closed, doubled as an useful “pointing device”. Notice the nerd on holiday with his notebook.

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Another great way to experience Hanoi’s Old Quarter and submerge yourself in the sights and sounds, is by means of a bicycle rickshaw. The locals are scrawny and one temporarily feels guilty that they are about to propel your much larger frame around, but then you remember: oh wait, job creation and a promise of a tip at the end of the journey. Right then, back at attempting to capture the moment.

Free range, or a single mother trying to make it in the city?

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If you ever find yourself in Hanoi, do not pass on the opportunity to try Egg Coffee. It stems from a time in history when milk was scarce and eggs were used instead. Click here, for a quick hipster recipe, but in essence it is whisked egg yolk with sugar-and-cream, or condensed milk. At less swanky places we noticed that they simply add custard on top of the coffee. Different but tasty!

As Pension Fund is a non-smoker, we usually start the holiday in non-smoking hotel rooms and end with a smoking room. Thus, in Hanoi, I would venture down to street level with coffee, for my morning cough and nicotine fix. One morning there was simply no space in front of our hotel (taken up by scooters!) and I walked across the street to sit behind a tree on a raised cement slab …

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 As I was minding my own business, from behind that pristine pearl white security gate stormed a sinewy old lady with anger issues, screaming at me “no smoking, no smoking”. Gheez lady, calm your tits. My intention was not to devalue your building any further. It is just a cigarette, not graffiti on your newly painted walls. When last have you stood across the street to take in the beauty of your castle? But I said none of these – at least not out loud. In silence I crossed the street again and smoked another one. Who am I to judge? As you are clearly a proud home owner, may I suggest you perhaps sweep once in a while the sidewalk in front of your luxe villa?

Uncle Ho feature on all the denominations. (500 000 Dong = 22 US Dollars)

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In the mood for an overnight excursion to Ha Long Bay?