This is the diary of a 15-day trip to Laos and Vietnam which started on 28 October 2010 and ended on
15 November 2010. It was organised by Bill and Mary using Experience
Click here for the itinerary and interactive maps. If you just want to see all the photos as a slide show click here. Instructions are here.
We leave home at 7am and drive to Bill and Mary's. While Graham has a coffee Bill drives Jane and Mary to the bus stop and returns to pick up Graham. After a brisk five-minute walk the party are re-united. We hop on a bus which takes us to Heathrow Central. We find our way along subways to Terminal 3 where we purchase some whisky. The Boeing 747 takes off at 12:30pm. Half a dozen young Vietnamese illegal immigrants sit in the back seats. The plane lands in Bangkok ten and a half hours later at 6am in the morning, local time. Nobody has had much sleep. We find our way through security to the departure shopping area and some seats. Some of the party sleep. We take off at noon with a party of 95 representatives from the Korean Volunteer Programme and land in Vientiane an hour later. We queue to buy our $35 dollar visas. Whilst waiting we chat to a young lady called Eva Popiel(more...) who has a Japanese mother,English father and a British passport. She is well known on Korean television. At the exit we are met by Alounthone (Tony for short) and driven to the Mali Namphu guest house. We have a double bedded room on the second floor overlooking the courtyard. Whilst Jane unpacks Graham has a siesta. We go for a walk at 3:30pm. We walk south to the edge of the Mekong River but we cannot see it. There is a lot of construction work going on to beautify the river frontage. We find a table under some umbrellas and have a beer (Beer Lao). Bill uses an ATM machine to get some Kips as the dollar exchange rate for the beer is too poor. We walk towards the river passing a boule match and meet a couple who live in Paris. They have returned to their birthplace. They left Ventiane in 1966 at the start of the war along with 10% of the population. We walk further along the promenade under construction and find a bar with an upstairs terrace. We have another beer and watch a disappointing sunset over the river. We wander the streets looking for a Laos restaurant. They are scarce. It would have been easier to have found a French, Italian, Indian, Chinese or Japanese eatery. The streets are not very busy for a capital city. We find the Lao Kitchen ( more...). We are the only customers. It is clean and tidy and meets with Mary's approval. We have a wonderful assortment of Loatian food washed down with beer. It cost $21. There are four other people in the place when we leave. On the way back we recommend the place to a German couple. We return to our room and have a whisky nightcap.
Mary wakes us up with a knock on the door at 8am. We hurry down to the courtyard for breakfast. Graham has a bowl of noodle soup and Jane has scrambled egg. Tony picks us up at 9am and we are driven to a spot close to the Presidential palace which is closed. We take a tour of the Wat Si Saket, a Buddhist temple and museum. There are 10,346 Buddhas in the cloisters surrounding the sim. Tony explains the different styles and 45 poses of the Buddhas. The Loatian Buddhas have straight hair lines, split eye brows, muscular arms and fingers and toes all of the same length. We take our shoes off to go into the sim which is the chapel in the centre of the complex. Outside we wander across the road to the Haw Pha Kaew where once the emerald Buddha was housed. He now resides in Bangkok. We are driven out to the golden stupa It is very large. Just outside the stupa we are offered a piece of baked honey comb. It has an acquired taste and is not as sweet as expected. After the visit to the stupa we are driven back to the Loatian Arc de Triomphe called the Patuxai which stands in the middle of the Th Lane Xang (Road of a Million Elephants). It is the second tallest building in Laos. The tallest is a fourteen storey hotel on the banks of the Mekong, built specially for the ASEAN conference in 2004. Normally seven storeys is the maximum height. Outside the Arc are water fountains which play in time to music. They were given to Laos by China in 2004. We have lunch at the Kongkhao restaurant, sitting outside. It opened a week ago and is run by an Italian couple. The food is Loatian and good though more expensive than last night. It cost us 242,000 kips. After lunch we are taken round a couple of markets and see all the local produce. You can buy a bucket of goods to donate to a monk. There are lots of decorations made from banana leaves and marigolds for use in temples. We see large frogs and terrapins. Fish are alive in large plastic bowls. We buy some coffee ( $5 for 500gm). We sample palm sugar and tamarinds. We return to our rooms and after a short siesta wander down to the river to watch the sun set. After a beer in a bar, which has a strange fish in a tank, we stroll to the Lao Kitchen where we are greeted like long lost friends. The German couple we had told about the restaurant are there eating. We have a magnificent meal chosen by the waitress called Tent. Is her sister, who is the chef, called Peg, Graham wonders? Photos are taken with Tent who is sad that we may not go back to eat her food and she gives us all a cuddle. We tell her we will recommend her reataurant to the guide books. We get to the National Cultural Hall and find it is open. Another German couple recommend we go in. We enter for free, passing through the security gate and into the theatre where we stand and watch as girls in national costumes parade on the stage. It looks as though a televising of Miss Ventiane is taking place. On 15 November the city starts its two weeks celebrating the 450th anniversary of the birth of the city. Previously the capital was Luang Prabang. We leave and we return to our rooms for a nightcap.
We leave at 8:30am and head south to the Mekong River. We point out to Tony where we have been. We drive west then north on to Route 13. The outskirts of Ventiane stretch for miles. After about an hour we turn off Route 13 and drive along a gravel path to its end. Laos village children are swimming in a muddy river. It is a very tranquil spot. We are shown figures of Buddha carved out of the rock. Tony disappears to shoot the rabbit and Jane does likewise but to pick flowers (local euphemisms for a call of nature, according to one's sex). We continue to drive north and stop near an old bridge at Vientkeo which was replaced by a new one at the beginning of the year. Near the bridge Graham is offered a large cooked river snail which he accepts. It is very chewy. Jane and Bill have some as well. We drive to the village of Thaheua on the outskirts of Vang Vieng and visit the fish market. We climb up to the temple to see a turtle that has mysteriously arrived at the temple two days ago and is now inside a large bowl. Tony is overawed by it. He is a Buddhist and says a few prayers. A monkey has been donated to the temple monks and looks pretty miserable in its hut. We descend the hill and have lunch in a restaurant overlooking a large lake. We have four different fish dishes which we share. The minibus takes us into Vang Vieng, passing a disused runway from the Vietnam war. We arrive at the Villa Nam Song guest house which is on the river Nam Song. Our room overlooks the well-tended gardens . At 5:30pm a sunset happens but it is not too spectacular. We pay 4,000 kips to walk over a ricketty bridge. We wander around and then have a beer in a bar next to the bridge. We return to our rooms and decide to eat in the place's restaurant. At 7:15pm we go to the restaurant and decide that 90,000 kips for a set meal is too much. We wander the streets of the town of 8000 people to find it is full of westernised restaurants. We meet our German friends from the Lao Kitchen. Eventually we decide to eat in the Luang Prabang Bakery. It is quiet and there is nobody else in it. We choose our meals. The waiter has difficulty understanding us. This is very surprising as there are so many Western restaurants in the town. We would like Lao dishes with ginger but there is no ginger. The corporeal madame says there can be ginger. She goes and buys some. We choose our dishes - Thai prawn, chicken and ginger, fish and ginger, chicken and garlic, fried rice with vegetables. The fried rice arrives first. Ten minutes later the fish and ginger arrive. A few minutes later the chicken and ginger arrives followed shortly after by the Thai prawns. All the dishes are very tasty. We eventually ask about the missing dish having eaten most of the rest. It eventually arrives. We finish the meal, pay the 201,000 kips in dollars. Only one other couple is in the restaurant when we leave. We wander back to our rooms and retire.
We get up early and meet Tony at 8:30am. Jane and Bill have been up since 6am photographing the dawn. The low clouds over the limestone kaarst hills reminds us of Yangshou in southern China. We walk over the bridge we walked over last night into the village in which we had not been. Tony points out all the fruit trees in the gardens. We wander around the dirt streets of the village. We are accompanied for part of the way by two ladies from Prague who are on their way to a nearby cave. We walk back to the river's edge and Tony hails two boats from next to our hotel. The boats are long and narrow and powered by a strimmer with a propeller instead of a length of nylon. We motor up the river for about half an hour. We turn round at a place where there are water slides and jumps. Apparently the deserted place will be swarming in the afternoon. We pass where we were picked up and are taken further south. Tony greets us. We see some of the Korean volunteers and go to greet them. Eva and recently acquired husband are there as is the Korean who spoke with us at the airport. It is quite a coincidence meeting up with them again. We see some Buddha statues in openings in the hillside and then climb 147 steep steps to the entrance of a cave. Tony points out all the rocks that bear some similarity to other animals or parts of the human body (often the reproductive organs). We leave the caves and climb down the steps to walk over the bridge. Tony tells us his uncle designed a lot of Laotian banknotes, coins and stamps and shows us bank notes showing his designs. Some ladies are selling fruit, nuts and honey. We are given samples to try. Tony tells us how to test for real honey instead of honey diluted with watered palm sugar. You place a tissue in your hand and then pour some honey into the tissue. If any honey seeps through it is not all honey. We cross over the orange bridge and past the eyesore of a nightclub and get into the minibus which drops us off at the Organic Farm Café. The ladies have mulberry shakes and pancakes. The men have something more substantial. The ubiquitous German couple arrive and settle down in the restaurant opposite. We walk back to the hotel and Jane has a long siesta. Bill and Mary each have an hour long massage for 40,000 kips. At five we watch the sunset and have a beer in the hotel. At seven we walk to the Elephant Crossing hotel and have a jolly good meal including deep fried river weed. We walk up to the street and purchase two banana and chocolate pancakes for 10,000 kips each. We retire after a nightcap.
It's chilly today, that is, it is 17C at 7am when we have breakfast. Tony picks us up at 8am and we drive north along Route 13. We stop at Phatant bridge and find the German couple are there standing in the middle of the bridge. They take our photo. We walk across the bridge and climb up to a temple and then wander around a simple village. The houses are built on concrete . stilts When the owners can afford it they build a solid ground floor. We pass by a " petrol station". It's a shop but it has two large drums, one of petrol, the other of diesel. A hand pump is used to draw off the fuel. It is very strange that they keep the granaries separate from the house in case there is a fire but they don't isolate motor fuel. We start to climb up the mountains and stop at the Khmu minority village of Phikuant where we visit the school which is run by two teachers, one for each class. Graham sings "Happy Birthday" to one class and Jane sings a guiding song to the other. The singing is much appreciated. We drive further north to Phoukoun where we stop and walk along the market stalls. We buy five deep fried bananas for 2000 kips. They are small and yellow and much sweeter than the ones at home. Among the goodies for sale are 'bunches' of live bats tied together. We drive for another hour and stop at the village of Keowkatcham where we have lunch , noodle soup for three of us and rubbery pork skin for Bill. Guess who leaves theirs? After lunch we drive to the Ming river and stop for a walk through the village of Nam Ming which is inhabited by the Khmupasak minority people. The villages cling to the sides of the road. Behind them are tall green hills or deep green valleys. The scenery is very beautiful if a little hazy. At nearly 4pm we arrive at the La Bel Air resort in Luang Prabang, having travelled 230km along a narrow road up and down mountains. We check in, have a welcome drink, fill in a questionnaire and bid farewell to Tony and the driver. We are shown our wooden bungalows which are the most luxurious accommodation we have had so far. We unpack and Bill and Graham have a welcome drink. We take the 7pm shuttle into town and are dropped off at the Post Office. We dine at the Spirit of Indo China as recommended by the guide books. We have river weed again, very tasty Lao sausage and the Indo China special fried noodles. We walk through the market stalls but buy nothing. We stroll back over a very high pedestrian and motor bike only wooden bridge and retire. Loud music is playing somewhere and we are under the flight path to the airport.
We have an alfresco buffet breakfast and Louis (pronounced Lewis) picks us up at 8:30am. We are driven to the Royal Palace Museum. There are three buildings. One is the Royal Ballet, the Royal Palace and the unfinished Prabang Chapel is the third. We take our shoes off and enter the Royal Palace, last used in 1975 when the Royal family was exiled by the communists. It was built in 1994 by the then king. The first rooms have lots of flat couches for people wanting to see the king and queen. There are separate bedrooms for the king and the queen. The main reception area is spectacular - lots of gold leaf and Japanese built glass mosaic walls. We leave the palace building and visit the unfinished Prabang Chapel which is to contain the Prabang Buddha currently housed in a room of the Royal Palace. We leave the palace and go to the Mekong where we board a long narrow covered motor boat which takes us on a 90 minute journey upstream to the Buddha Caves. We climb the steps to the lower cave and climb even more steps to the upper cave. There are Buddha statues of all sizes everywhere. We cross the river and have a Lao food lunch in a riverside restaurant. There are a couple of uninhabited bees nests hanging from the rafters. We return to the boat and stop at the Lao Whisky village where Louis explains how rice whisky is made and we sample some. We wander round the many stalls and return to the boat. The journey back downstream is. uneventful We tie up at the bottom of some steps which we ascend and cross the road to enter the Wat Xieng Thong temple. Louis was a novice monk from when his father died to the age of twenty. He has since married and is the father of two children. He has six brothers and one sister. As is the Lao culture, the youngest brother looks after his mother who is 73. We visit a further two temples and then climb up the 100m high Phu Si hill to watch the sunset. We are returned to our hotel at 6pm. It has been a long but enjoyable day. We take the shuttle into town and eat in a restaurant by the Mekong river as we could not find the one in the guide book. We return via the wooden bridge and retire.
Louis is away escorting two other clients. We have a day on our own. We get up at 9am and pick up 4 bikes from the hotel with locks but without gears. They are free but we have to agree to pay $40 for a lost bike and $8 for a lost lock. We cycle over the wooden bridge and along the bank of the Nam Khan. Some Buddhist monks are building a bamboo bridge which will last till the end of the dry season (October to April). Mary buys a painting on home made paper and we cycle up to the main tourist street and park the bikes and lock them together. The men stop for a beer and the ladies go shopping. The ladies return and we cycle more around the city which is flat but enclosed by mountains. We find a place to eat tonight and cycle back over the bridge to the hotel. Jane and Graham have soup and go to their rooms. Bill and Mary have fresh air and sun themselves whilst Jane has a jolly good siesta. There's a power cut for about twenty minutes. It's a first for us. At 6pm we return to the city and find our way back to the Tum Tum Cheng restaurant. Although it is about 50% more expensive than other restaurants the quality is good and there is a group playing Laotian music. We buy two recipe books and the author signs them. In the last nine years he has taught 25,000 students in his cookery classes. We pay with plastic and leave to walk down through the night market where a few purchases are made. We walk back towards the hotel but the hotel shuttle spots us and takes us back. Kop chai lai lai – Thank you very much. After a whisky we retire to bed.
We have breakfast at 9am and discover that Mary has been up since 5:20am. She walked over the bridge and watched the Buddhist monks receive their food for the day donated by the citizens. They eat breakfast and lunch but not after noon. We potter around the hotel and pack our bags. There is another power cut. We walk to the local street and find they sell seeds in little tins. Nothing is bought. We are picked up by Louis and taken to the village of Ban Phanom where we visit a weaving 'factory'. Most of the female workers are selling garments at the front of the building whilst at the back there are several looms but only two are being worked. They also may make here and sell the products. Jane purchases some items. We are driven to the airport and Louis checks us in. We pass through passport control where we are asked where we stayed last night, probably so that the exit form can be completed. We wait for an hour and a half in the international departure lounge. The Fokker 70 arrives. Some transit passengers join us off the plane. We take off at 2:45pm and land, one soft drink later at 3:35pm. We collect our bags and are met by Dong and Mr Xong the driver. The trip into Hanoi takes about 40 minutes as it is just about rush hour. The road is a dual carriageway. Lots of billboards are at its sides. About 7 million people live in Hanoi together with 4 million scooters and motorbikes. We have never seen so many. Since 1986 Vietnam started to let private businesses play a part in the economy and the private sector does better than the public(government run) sector. The families are limited to two children. Severe fines are imposed if more are born. We arrive at out hotel, the Elegance Hotel on Hang Bong in the old French quarter. After a welcome drink we are shown to our rooms. They are more luxurious than those in Luang Prabang. We unpack and walk down the street avoiding the bikes and scooters. Dong had advised us to cross any road at a steady pace. Pay attention to the traffic and not what colour the traffic lights are. We did and we get to the Hanoi Garden restaurant and sit outside in the courtyard. We have an assortment of spring rolls followed by a seafood hot pot (for six persons). It is excellent. The ladies end their meal with chocolate ice cream whilst the men have banana flambés. We make our way home. The bikes and scooters have multiplied. Apparently on Friday night the lads take their girls for a tour of the city on their two wheels. After a whisky we retire to bed.
We are met at 8am and drive out of Hanoi eastwards on Route 5 to Ha Long. The roads are busy. Motor bikes swarm like ants. A motor bike can be ridden from 17 years old. Younger people ride bicycles. Dong has a motor bike and is saving for a car. Undertaking is allowed. We see coffins for sale on the pavements outside some shops. People like to know what they will be buried in. After being buried for two years a tombstone can be placed over the grave. These are often built in the form of a house. The average monthly salary for the 86 million Vietnamese is 85USD. At halfway we stop for karaoke (a Vietnamese euphemism for a call of nature) and to buy souvenirs at a centre for disabled people. Some purchases are made. At 12:30 we board a junk in Ha Long Bay port. The junk can carry 48 passengers but there are just the five of us plus a crew of three and a girl of six. We motor out to one of the two thousand limestone kaarst islands (Guilin in the sea). We get off and climb up to walk through a magnificent cave which is well lit with coloured lights . We get back on board and have lunch. After we start drinking from a bottle of wine we are told that the food has been paid for but the drinks are extra. The wine is a 1996 Bordeaux AOC. We start to worry having seen the price of wines at last night's restaurant. We have fried prawns, clams, chips, squid, crab, and fish. We finish with a banana. The bill for drinks is 600,000 dongs. Meanwhile we are motoring in between the islands and a floating village. The scenery is very beautiful. It was the settingsetting for one of the James Bond films. We dock at the port at 3:45pm. We stop to buy small sweet pineapples. We have a pit stop at half way at the disabled centre. Horns are used a lot. Lines in the middle of the road are merely for decoration. We are dropped at our hotels at 7pm. After a change of clothes we venture out on to the busy Hanoi streets. It is difficult walking on the pavements as they are used for parking motorbikes or as makeshift eating areas. We walk with trepidation in the streets. We find our way to the Cha Ca La Vong restaurant and have a very disappointing meal of fried fish in vegetables on an electric stove served with sauce and noodles. There is not much food for 805,000 dongs. We feel conned and make our way back to our rooms where we eat some of the free fruit provided. Jane is made a millionaire when millionaire Mary lends her 1000000 dong. The ladies are happy. The men drink a tot of locally purchased Label 5 whisky.
We are met at 9am and taken to the , Bach Ma temple the oldest in south east Asia. It was built in 1070 (four years after Westminster Abbey) although it has been maintained a lot since and so not much of the original still exists. It appears to be a popular sight for wedding party photos and model shoots. In former times it was a seat of learning. The names of doctors who graduated are inscribed in Chinese characters on steles. We are smitten by tall hacs . These are statues of a phoenix with a pearl in its mouth standing on the back of a turtle. We drive to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum and pass through a security screen even though we are not going to enter the mausoleum, built by the Russians. Usually it is closed in October and November while Uncle Ho has a holiday in Russia where his embalming fluids are revitalised and his beard trimmed. Today it is open and long queues line up to view the body. Rumour has it that the current General Secretary of the Communist Party is his son, the result of some dalliance as Uncle Ho never married. We leave the area of the mausoleum and go to the West Lake, the largest lake in Hanoi. John McCain, a US presidential candidate was shot down in his Skyhawk into the lake by a SAM3 missile provided by Cuba. He was incarcerated in the "Hanoi Hilton" (a prison). Three years later the war ended and McCain was released. A man is letting birds go free to get good luck for his family. We walk alongside the lake and then are taken via the Opera House to the Metropole Hotel for karaoke. Charlie Chaplin, Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham all stayed there. Many people like to have their wedding photos taken here. We are taken to the Hoan Kiem lake and say goodbye to Mr Xong the driver. Dong explains that in the green lake is a 300 year old turtle which rarely appears. Its mate, which died some years ago, is housed in a glass case on the island in the lake. We wander around the side of the lake and a crowd has gathered. On closer inspection we find the turtle is close to the surface. It pokes its head momentarily above the water and then disappears. We have witnessed a good luck omen. We wander the streets and come across the large Catholic Cathedral of St Joseph which is closed even though it is Sunday. We persuade Dong to have lunch with us. He selects an eatery and we are ushered upstairs. It's not good for policemen to see foreigners eating on the street. We have beer, noodles, some fish spring rolls and some battered fish pieces. It is excellent and costs us 240000 dong, much less than last night. Dong walks us back to the hotel and we watch him zoom off on his motorbike. We have a short rest and then walk back to the lake and visit the temple with the preserved turtle. We adjourn for drinks in the Lake View Café at the top of a building . We stroll to a nearby restaurant and book a table for tomorrow's lunch. We return to the hotel and after an hour's rest walk to the Dac Kim eatery, it's a bun cha restaurant. It is similar to where we ate at lunch time with no Caucasians around. We sit at one of the three tables on the first floor. We eat barbecued meats and noodles. The place would not pass UK hygiene regulations. It is excellent and costs just 210000 dongs. We walk up the street. Bill and Graham have a small cup of Weasel coffee ( more...) , a Vietnamese speciality. We look for an ice cream and find a bar close to our hotel which sells New Zealand Ice cream. Three of us have macadamia ice cream and Bill has coconut ice cream. The music is too loud for Mary who steps outside and waits for us to finish. We return to our hotel and its peace, quiet and cleanliness.
Three of us decide to go to the B52 bomber museum whilst Jane wants to potter in her room. A taxi is booked and Thu (pronounced '2') rings the museum to find that it is closed so she suggests we walk to the Hoa Lo prison (the Hanoi Hilton) instead. We wander south of the hotel and after much searching find the entrance to the Maison Centrale or what is left of it as most of it was demolished and in its place was built Hanoi Towers. The prison was built by the French in 1896 to house dissidents and later communists. We follow the trail round the prison. There are lots of models of prisoners shackled to concrete beds. A portable guillotine close to the death cells is macabre. There are photos of US pilots shot down during the Vietnam War including John McCain. We walk back to the hotel and pick Jane up. We wander to the Green Tangerine Restaurant for lunch. Wandering is not a good word to use as you have to walk around motorbikes and people eating on squat chairs. You have to avoid the hawkers and the people who persist in repairing your shoes. You dodge the traffic as you cross the streets. We reach the restaurant and have an excellent 'French' meal. The manager from Brittany has a chat with us. The meal is on the expensive side – costing us 1560000 kips, that's more than a million kips. We return to the hotel and sit in the small dining room of the hotel. The hotel staff are excellent and provide us with free water. We are picked up at 5:45pm and the minibus crawls to the railway station through the rush hour traffic. There are lots of tourists making the trip to Hue. We say goodbye to Dong after he's helped us to our four bunk cabin . At 7pm we leave Hanoi. The cabin is not the height of luxury but is adequate. We play Scrabble for the first time. Mary may not play again. After an hour three us venture out to find the canteen. Mary guards our cabin. We walk through our class of accommodation into a lower class, through the seating area to the front of the . train That's twelve coaches from where we are. We select the noodle soup which slops on to the table with the swaying of the train. Graham's shorts get wet. We return to our cabin and attempt to go to sleep.
We have a disaster during the night. The train makes an abrupt movement and the whisky bottle slides off the small table and onto the flooring, smashing itself and relieving itself of its contents. The lights go on and we attempt to clear up the larger pieces of broken glass. At 8am we hope we are approaching Hue at the scheduled time but learn that we will arriving in Hue at 10am so much for travelling on the Livitrain Tourist Express. We get to Hue at 10:10am and are met by Anh, a mother of two girls. We are whisked off to a noodle café for pho ga (chicken with noodles soup). It is very good and much better than last night's. For one thing the table does not sway. Next stop is the citadel, the kings' residence. An American girl is running, follwed by TV cameras, and stops Bill and Jane to ask if it is the citadel. The citadel huge palace occupying 500 hectares inside a walled enclosure. It was built in 1804 by Emperor Gia Long who moved the capital from Hanoi to Hue. Some of it was bombed in 1945 by the French. It was only used by 13 emperors and it seems the French insisted who should be emperor and for how long. There are camera crews filming inside. After the royal palace we visit the Heavenly Lady Pagoda which houses a set of Buddhist monks. A coach load of Spanish tourists is visiting the pagoda. After the pagoda we are taken to the Hue Villa, our hotel for the night. The hotel is quite new and is staffed by trainees. We have a welcome drink of lemon and ginger tea and are shown to our rooms on the third floor. A technician comes to our room because the Wifi is not working. He climbs out onto the balcony and fixes the problem. After a rest we meet in the bar and have another cup of tea. It has started drizzling outside. Today is the first time on our holiday when we have seen rain. We use the hotel brollies and search for a restaurant for tonight and buy some whisky. We are stopped by a girl who asks us where we come from. She pulls out a plastic bag of coins and asks us how much will we give her for £3.70. We settle on 100,000 kips. We find the restaurant, book it and wander down to the banks of the Perfume River. There are a lot of bikes but not as many as in Hanoi. We walk amongst statues in the park by the river and the bridge that looks like a hairclip. We walk into the Saigon Morin Hotel where Charlie Chaplin stayed on his honeymoon. The ladies do karaoke and we walk out and have a drink in the DMZ bar where it is happy hour – two local beers for the price of one. It has stopped drizzling. We walk up the street to the Carambole Restaurant. We have an excellent meal starting with various parcels of fish and rice wrapped in leaves. We talk to a couple sitting by us who have 5 and 3 year-old girls with them. They come from Belgium and are spending 4 months travelling. They have so far been to Australia, China, Tibet and Nepal. They were in the next cabin to us on the train from Hanoi. The children are delightful and wave to us when we leave to return to our hotel. We sample the newly acquired whisky.
It's Graham's birthday. We have a phone call from Stephen on a train from London having given a talk at some internet techies meeting. We have breakfast at 8am and have some very good chicken noodle soup. Anh meets is at 9am and gives Graham a chrisanthemum. The Mother Hen of the hotel gives Graham a pink rose. The hotel staff wave us goodbye. It has been an excellent hotel with super smiling and helpful staff. We drive south to Hoi An via Danang in the 'soft' rain. Anh points out all the highlights but the soft rain prevents us from seeing too much into the distance. Anh gives us a number of Vietnamese sayings – it is easier to stop a storm than to learn Vietnamese, two ducks and two women make a market, a man without drink is like a flag without wind, time flies like a young horse through a window, no love without bitterness and pain - no ocean without thunder and storm, tourism is a non-smoking industry. Have you got a 37 degree blanket? That's all. Conscription is compulsory for men between the ages of 18 and 20. We stop to view the elephant rock and we stop on the border between Hue and Danang and climb to the old border gate. We drive along the new coast road in Danang and past the Montgomerie Links. We reach Hoi An and are taken on a city tour. We walk through the market to the old town. Anh gives a bottle of red wine to Graham as a birthday present. We sit inside the Japanese bridge. Anh makes us egg sandwiches with rolls and eggs which her chickens have laid -a very tasty lunch. We walk to an old house supported by UNESCO and then to a Kamcha museum. We visit a Chinese temple and a silk shop, passing a stautue of a Polish gentleman. It is still raining. We are taken in the red Ford Transit minibus to our hotel – the Hoi An Riverside Resort and Spa. We have a welcome drink. At six we go next door to Bill and Mary to drink the gift from Anh and some roasted peanuts Mary bought in the market. We eat in the hotel. After the meal we light the candles on a birthday cake provided by the hotel and retire to our rooms and sample some very over-rated Johnny Walker Blue Label whisky..
We have breakfast at 9am and return to our rooms. A kingfisher is spotted on the other side of the river. The maid comes in to tidy our room and have some English lessons from Graham. We take the 11am shuttle into town. We walk down the street to the old part of town. Needless to say some purchases are made. We search for the shop we went into yesterday and buy a round table cloth. We meet up with Bill and Mary and enter the Thuan Y restaurant where we are greeted by Plum the Queen of Hanoi. She shows us where the water reached last year when the river overflowed. It covered up to two metres. We have chicken noodle soup and beer followed by a local speciality called 'duck feet' – a sort of sweet gelatinous substance containing something from the sea. We walk back to the car park and the shuttle takes us back to the hotel. We ring up Stephen to wish him a Happy Birthday. We are lucky. He is awake and we have made a mistake as it is only 7:35am in England. We take the 4pm shuttle back to town to go in a shopping spree. Jane is fitted up for three pairs of trousers and a blouse at Be Be. Bill declines to buy a suit. We visit Dinh's. Graham and Bill get measured for shoes. Jane arrives and does likewise. Graham is escorted by one of the shop girls to an ATM for a deposit. He becomes a millionaire. We catch up with Bill and Mary where Bill is being measured for a suit and Mary gets measured for a couple of blouses. Jane buys some half length trousers. We find a restaurant by the river called Red Sail and have a meal. We now have an hour to kill. We wander through the market, buying some slices of crystallised ginger and some roasted peanuts from the girl we purchased them from yesterday. We almost get lost but find our way to where the shuttle bus leaves. There are a party of mainly Australians who are on a cookery tour of Indo-China. We retire to our rooms.
At 9am we are picked up by a driver and a minibus for the four us. We hired it yesterday at the An Phu Tours shop for the sum of 240,000 Dong. The driver is very friendly but speaks little English so it will be an interesting time. At last it has stopped raining. We travel through villages and country side to My Son (pronounced 'me son' reminding us of conversations in Fareham high street). We pass a very large boat moored in a paddy field. It is a restaurant. At the entrance to My Son we buy tickets at 60,000 Dong each. We are driven over the entrance bridge and up a paved lane to a car park. Using a piece of paper we agree to be picked up at noon. We stand with other tourists in front of a large map of the site. Eventually a guide explains the parts of the World Heritage site of an ancient Indian temple built 1000 years ago set in a jungle and discovered by the French 120 years ago. It was used by the Viet Cong as a post and consequently bombed by the US. There are still land mines around so we are warned to keep to the paths. We take a ten minute walk to area C which has the more interesting remains. We walk inside some of the vestigial temples. The place is a smaller version of Angkor Wat. The whole place looks as though it is a 3D jigsaw waiting to be put back together. Some of the pieces have been removed to a museum in Danang. Some of the buildings are being restored . We walk to other parts of the site and then back along a tree-lined path to the car park. It is very humid. We wait for the driver to finish his cigarette as we are early. On the way back we stop at a Christian shrine just to take photos. We have asked the driver through an interpreter to stop in the centre of Hoi An which he does. Jane has a fitting session in Be Be, after which we make our way to Plum's for lunch. We have the local dish of Cao Lau. It is noodles, bean sprouts and pork topped with thin pork crackling. Washed down with beer it is a good lunch. We make our way back to the bus park to pick up the 2:20pm shuttle. We buy candied ginger for the third time from the same lady. We return to our hotel. At 4pm we go back into town for more fitting sessions. Jane picks up her three pairs of trousers and what was to be a blouse but has been remade as a shirt. Graham and Jane go to Dinh's for shoes. Jane picks up two pairs and Graham leaves one to be stretched. Meanwhile Bill has been picking up a suit and Mary a skirt and two tops. Bill picks up a very colourful pair of shoes at Dinh's and Mary picks up one pair and leaves another for adjustment. Jane and Graham each order another pair of shoes. At 600,000 Dongs a pair these are good bargains but will they last? We find a bar to quench our thirsts – “three beers please and whatever she wants” - usually a mango shake. We make our way via the food market to a restaurant where the staff are being trained . We sit on the balcony overlooking the street and have pork on skewers and “Moneybags” for starters. They are delicious. It starts to rain so we move inside. We await our tiger prawn dishes. Two arrive and two come with standard prawns . We start to eat them but we talk to the manager who is apologetic and agrees that we can have a 10% discount. We catch the 8:20pm shuttle back to the hotel and after a snifter retire.
It is another damp day. We breakfast at 9am and take the 12:30pm shuttle to the beach except we are on a minibus going to My Son so we get off and wait for the right one. It only takes five minutes to drive to the beach. We walk through a hotel's grounds, under raffia parasols to the beach. Hardly anyone else is there. The skies are grey and there are white horses. It is a bit windy. We walk along the beach avoiding the hawkers and return paddling in the warm South China Sea. We select one of the many restaurants and have a good lunch of barbecued clams (Mary), fish (Graham) and squid (Jane and Bill). It is another hour till the shuttle will arrive so we walk back through the rain. The plan is to go into Hoi An on the 4pm shuttle and pick up the shoes and dine. The torrential rain thwarts the plan so at 7pm we walk to the neighbouring Son restaurant and have a meal with larger tiger prawns than we had last night. Jane has her best mango shake. We return to our rooms and after the usual nightcap retire.
It's been raining cats and dogs during the night. We begin to wish we had gone into Hoi An and got the shoes yesterday evening. Mary has been for a swim in the hotel's pool by the time we meet at 9am for breakfast. We pack up and take the 11am shuttle into town. It's still raining. We go to Dinh's to pick up shoes for Graham and Jane. Meanwhile Mary a has ordered a pendant at a jewellers and returns to pick up her shoes. We stroll briskly through the warm rain and puddles to Plum's establishment where we receive a warm welcome and order the usual three beers and whatever she wants. We start with nems and then have a Cao Lau again though Graham does not finish his. Plum treats us to a dragon fruit which she nimbly prepares at the table. We settle the bill and Plum takes take photos of us all and Plum's cousin (Peach?). We wave good bye and make our way to the jeweller who will need another ten minutes to finish the pendant. We march back to the shuttle and return to the hotel. We juggle around with our luggage and a minibus arrives at 3:30pm to take us to Danang. On the way to Hoi An we pick up a man who we think may be our guide. We get to the airport and the guide shows us to the check in desk and when we are checked in he says good bye. We will never know what his name is because he didn't tell us and neither did he talk to us during the journey – very strange. We fly to Saigon and have a drink of water in the ninety minute flight with Vietnam Airlines. We fly to Bangkok and have a salad and wine during the one hour flight with Thai Airlines. We wait around two hours at Bangkok as they are not allowed to land at Heathrow till 6am. The flight is delayed so that we will land after 6am. We take off at 1am, have a full meal at 2am and try to go to sleep. We awake about 8:30am Hoi An time which is 1:30am UK time. We doze and read and at 5am UK time we have breakfast. We land at 6:30am having seen the Wembley stadium and the Olympic Stadium through a layer of fog. We travel by bus using our passes and arrive at the Swanson mansion at 9am. After transferring photo's from Bill's camera and fewer from Mary's we have tea and toast and say goodbye. We call on Emma and arrive home at noon. It's been a wonderful holiday.
Click here for more holidays.