October 3, 2011 Monday Saigon – Hoi An

Today is another ‘transit day’.  A last trip through motorbike city before our flight to Da Nang.  I find that travelling domestic is more difficult than flying international.  I check in my baggage and as I walk away from the counter, I get told that my tripod, which I carry attached to my backpack, cannot be taken on the aircraft.  I have travelled this way to Europe and Tahiti, but not in Vietnam.  So I have to plastic wrap it and check it in as a separate item.  As we go through security, they find my small tool set in my backpack, and so that has to get checked in through baggage.  Luckily, our tour guide is kind and he includes it in his carry-on baggage and checks it through.  Different countries, different rules.  The funny part about it all is Ken, with his metal bits in his hips and knees, gets held up at Melbourne Airport and has never had trouble with security since.  Our baggage comes through the baggage carousel at Hoi An, last – and it has been a full 255 passenger, flight.

Hoi An is around 35km south of Da Nang and on the way, we have a 30 minute break to visit a marble factory.  Beautiful carvings; some very small and elaborate, others large and imposing.  The weather is stormy with strong winds as we arrive at our hotel http://www.swiss-belhotel.com/Vietnam/Hoi+An/hoian#hotel+information  After arrival drinks, we are ‘sent to our rooms’ with the rest of the afternoon to fill in.  Most of us have not had lunch, so a small snack is had.  The bed we have is ‘oversize’ to say the least, but quite hard.

It is Joseph’s and Joanna’s wedding anniversary and so a small party is had to celebrate the occasion at dinner time.  A Filipino band is playing and even they enjoyed our Australian way of ‘having a good time’.  Beatle songs and other ‘older’ style music are danced to.  We are off to bed at 9:30pm for an early night.

Senior’s Moment – At dinner, Chris was adding some sugar to his tea.  It is a good idea to open the sugar packet and not the tooth-pick packet, Chris.  Michael thought that mozzarella cheese makes a good set of power lines, but it is best to cut the cheese with a knife instead of trying to separate by stretching – sometimes cheese ends up all over your face.

October 2, 2011 Sunday Can Tho

The best news to come out of Australia in the last week is to hear that Collingwood lost the AFL Grand Final – GO CATS!!!

The photos are a little off colour.  The “sunset” setting used the previous evening was left on and so pictures have come out a little yellowish -sorry!

This morning, we take a 6:30am boat ride through the early morning floating markets near our Victoria Hotel accommodation.  The boats are full of vegetables, fruits and anything else that can be traded.  There are floating “McDonalds” boats, with food cooked to order.  The people are all kind and accepting of us foreigners and smile as if they recognize us.  They love to know our names and where we come from.  We stop by a boat and a lady peels and prepares pineapples for a snack for us.

We return to the Victoria for an 8:30am breakfast before checking out of the hotel.  Boarding our floating transport again, we take up seats that could help us get some sleep or a vantage spot for more photos of  ‘the way the locals live’, as this transfer section is around 80 minutes.

Arriving at what we are told is a ‘tourist park’ we find some interesting exhibits.  We marvel at the tropical surrounds and then become awestruck at the scores of crocodiles kept in this large enclosure.  (Australia Zoo; eat your heart out).  Some of us try to feed the crocs with meat on the end of a fishing pole.

Walking back towards the entrance, we are detoured to an interesting “Caulfield Cup” event.  We are faced with 6 lanes and given the chance to place our bets for the next race.  Each entrant originates from well know locations of Vietnam, we are told.  The female race caller is dressed in traditional costume and the starter has some trouble turning the entrants to face in the direction of the finishing line.  The starter opens the gates and 6 pigs go hell for leather up their designated race lane toward the trough that contains a delicacy that only a pig will enjoy.  Now, Mr Baileau will be interested in that for next years Spring Carnival, we suppose.  The pig-race is followed by a small dog race, with similar results – some dog winning.

A lunch is provided by the owner of this magnificent estate.  Some of us have never drunk so much soft drink in a week before, but at only $1 for a can, that is cheap.  Joseph suggests that the Warburton Football Club should by their drinks from Vietnam and still make a lot of profit at just $2.

We board the bus for what turns out to be a long trip back to the Majestic Hotel in Saigon http://www.majesticsaigon.com.vn/ Our evening is at leisure, some of us eating the “Sunday Night Fish and Chips, Burger and Chips, or Pizza”. Some folk tried the 5th floor restaurant out and were able to enjoy a wedding breakfast from a distance.

Todays Senior’s Moment goes to Anne – four in one day.  A hat was left behind during the early morning floating market tour.  On our final boat transfer today, we slowed down and met with another transfer boat and Anne got her hat back.  How to get a cheap plug adaptor; ask Anne.  You take the phone charger out of the socket and make sure the plug adaptor is attached. (What a great souvenir, Anne.)  During the day, Anne was also feeling blocked in her sinuses.  Lyn gave her two antihistamine (hay fever) tablets in the hope that the sinuses would clear.  She should have taken just the one, so she felt more sleepy than normal.  While coaching back to Saigon, our tour guide received a phone call from the previous night’s accommodation.  Anne had missed paying for her drinks from the night before.  Thanks Anne!

October 1, 2011 Saturday Mekong Delta

October 1, 2011 Saturday Mekong Delta


October 1, 2011 Saturday Mekong Delta

Why is it that breakfast is starting so much earlier than on Day 1?  Because the fruit and food is so delicious and inviting, we are eating more of it, and need more time.

This morning has been a transit day from Saigon to the Mekong Delta.  We have travelled the only freeway in the country, about 120km from Saigon to Chai Be.  No motorbikes are allowed on the freeway, but it takes away the excitement so much so, that many of our group sleep, some even stretching out on the back seat.  We stop for a break at what is called a “Water Closet” – spelt in full – not a toilet or WC.

The Mekong Delta is very flat and expansive with lots of waterways.  We take a trip on a ‘village’ boat along the shores of one of the waterways to view houses and boats used for accommodation or as semi-trailer”.  The boats are full of produce usually with a sample hanging from a stick up the front of the boat.  So if the boat carries watermelons, there is a watermelon attached to a mast; if it is carrying rambutans, a rambutan is attached to the mast.

At one point, we disembark and walk along the banks on a concrete path.  Each of the houses along the water bank, has a store or an industry attached.  We see rice paper being made.  We see puffed rice being cooked.  We see puffed wheat being made into sweets with sugar and ginger being used to bind the wheat together.  Of course, there are the usual sellers of books, clothing, shoes and artifacts.

For lunch, we eat in a ‘rich persons’ house.  Some of us aren’t feeling the best and refrain from eating the fish cooked in its scales, supported upright for the ‘demolition’.  The waitress ‘shaves’ off some fish and wraps it with cucumber, pineapple, starfruit and mint, in a rice pancake.

After a tour through the owner’s garden, we board a smaller boat with just 3 or 4 of us on each boat with a lady push rowing us along the narrow canals.  They do this for 45 minutes without a rest-break.  The canals are lined with levy banks with bamboo sticks supporting the mud and silt washed towards the canal from the rains over time.  The larger trees are cork trees used to make corks for wine bottles.

After another hour in our ‘home’ boat, we drive further 35 minutes to our ‘comfortable’ accommodation.  It is another Victoria Hotel from the same Hotel Group we stayed in at Siem Reap http://www.victoriahotels-asia.com/eng/hotels-in-vietnam/can-tho-resort

The Best Moments of the Trip so far.

Michael – “The traffic – unbelievable”

Judy – “Returning to the BIG boat which meant we were close to getting home to rest.  The sea breeze was great!”

Ian – “the lacquer factory – a classy place to visit.”

Val – “The loaded motorbikes; balloons, window frames, water tanks, people,”

Lyn – “The Bonsai Junk on the Saigon River.”

Today’s Senior’s Moment.  It took all day but it is a beauty.  It is Val’s Birthday tomorrow and Michael arranged that her dessert be brought out with candles on it and we all sing happy birthday.  When he was arranging the surprise with the waitress, she asked him his name.  He told her and out came the dessert with “Happy Birthday Michael” written in chocolate around the plate.  We worked out that the waitress asked Michael for Val’s name and he gave her his own name.  Hearing is not always clear for those of us over 55.

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September 30, 2011 Friday Shopping Tour Saigon

September 30, 2011 Friday Shopping Tour Saigon


We didn’t have as much travelling on the busy roads of Saigon today, but we managed to ‘hit the shops’ a little.  After another encounter with the breakfast bar (those breakfasts are taking much of our time now), we coached out to the Chinese Market, about 40 minutes away.  The Chinese Market is the wholesalers market, where the trade stores from all over the region come to buy for their shops.  There are around 1 million Chinese in Saigon and they seem to have a tight grip on commerce here too.  No-one purchased any goods at the wholesalers market but we quickly gained an education in what is produced in mass in this very busy nation.  Shoes, hats, bags, linen flowers, kitchen utensils, material, food, grains, nuts, etc.

Following our market tour, we made our way through the tens of thousands of motorbikes to a Chinese temple where some of our group offered prayers. Then we travelled on to a lacquer factory.  In a general sense, lacquer is a somewhat imprecise term for a clear or colored varnish that dries by solvent evaporation and often a curing process as well that produces a hard, durable finish, in any sheen level from ultra matte to high gloss and that can be further polished as required. It is also used for “lacquer paint”, which typically denotes a paint that dries to a more than usually hard and smooth surface.  (Thanks Mr. Wikipedia for that explanation.)  Photos were not allowed to be taken here.  So we went from a very low quality market to a very ‘hip’ shop where Koreans were doing large business deals on quality furniture.

It was planned to then visit Saigon Shopping Plaza, but we changed our minds and went to the general market in Saigon.  Merchandise is displayed in an organized fashion but you have to walk one behind the other, as the aisles were so narrow.  This is where you are told, “Buy from me.  I have a best price for you.”  Never leave a deal without a fight on price – Haha!  Lyn bought a smart Vietnamese dress reduced from $85 to $60.  I was looking at a vest.  It started at $85.  I offered $8.  The vendor came down to $35 and wanted me to give her my best price.  I moved away and then heard her say “$10”.  What a bargain I never took up!

We had a free half an afternoon.  Some of our group took the view of Saigon in from the highest building in the city.  Others just ventured to shops.  Some took in the ‘view’ of the swimming pool.  And I heard that some even had some sleep.

During the evening, our guide took us to a Vietnamese restaurant on the 14th floor of a swish building.  The meals are so cheap and the food tasty in this country.

Seniors Moment – (Why is it most of these stories are about men?  This one is on me – again!)  We were nearing our hotel on our return from the shopping tour and I reminded myself that I should pick up my pack on my way out of the coach – it is still there.  And we are packing tomorrow morning for our coach ride to the Mekong Delta.  Oh, well….

September 29, 2011 Thursday Cu Chi Tunnels

September 29, 2011 Thursday Cu Chi Tunnels

If there are 6 million motorbikes in Saigon, we saw all of them today.  Motorbikes galore!  But with so many, it is amazing there is so little noise.  While eating breakfast in the restaurant on the 5th floor, we could see the ferries crossing the Saigon River, loaded with motorbikes – all well organized and no road rage; just a patient ‘air’ about the whole procedure.

This morning, we each boarded a Cyclops.  This is a three-wheeled pushbike – in the true sense of the word.  They are ‘fixed wheel’ and when the going gets tough, the ‘pusher’ gets off and pushes.  You sit in a chair in the front with the rider, usually an old man, riding you through the busy traffic from behind.  We visited the War Remnants Museum, the Re-unification Building, the General Post Office, and had lunch in an upstairs restaurant where President Clinton visited in 2000.  The Remnants Museum was extremely revealing, especially the section showing the effects of agent-orange. Over 17 billion liters was sprayed around the country by the US Government forces affecting both the environment and population, in an endeavor to eradicate the Viet Cong.

Our visit to Cu Chi Tunnels was also very interesting.  We took a guided tour through these famous tunnels used by the communist guerrillas during the ‘American’ war or occupation.  The tunnel network stretches over 250km and extends to three levels underground providing a remarkable insight into the hardships, courage, determination and terror of a guerrilla war.  The ‘booby’ traps were so simple but terribly effective against the enemy.  Chris, who had done national service during the time of the Vietnam War, tried the shooting range; the first time he had fired a shot since 1972.  Even here, at the completion of a tour, you are guided into the souvenir shop.

Our evening was very low-key with free leisure time.  Some ate in an up-market restaurant at the hotel, while others ate in a snack back near the entrance.

The group is getting on very well – lots of one-liners and general hilarity.  All are saying that they are enjoying every minute of the tour with many of them still mentioning that the evening cruise-meal and entertainment on Wednesday night, has been a highlight.

If this daily diary interests you enough to travel on our next group tour, click here for a full itinerary. http://gntc.com.au/group-tours/italy-and-mediterranean/

Senior’s Moment of the Day.  I asked one of the group if they had tried the bidet in the room.  He said, “Yes, but not on it.  However the bathroom floor got flooded.”

September 28, Wednesday Siem Reap to Saigon

September 28, Wednesday Siem Reap to Saigon

Today has been a day of ‘hanging around an airport’ for a 46 minute flight to Saigon or, Ho Chi Minh City.

We met at the foyer of the Victoria at 10:15am after another enormous breakfast.  We have Anne to blame for the extravagant breakfast ideas.  Yesterday, it was champaign.  Today it was Waffles with Chocolate Fudge Topping.  After breakfast, I went to a main intersection just to watch how the traffic behaved. Amazing! Tuc tucs everywhere.  A smile came to my face as a pushbike went by.   The mother was riding with her baby slung in a hammock between the two handlebars; delightful.  One motorbike had Dad driving, then mother with small baby in arms and daughter on the back holding an intravenous drip, which was attached to the baby.  Perhaps they were the ‘family ambulance on the way to hospital from a clinic.

We arrived at the airport 3 hours before departure for Saigon.  A couple of ladies enjoyed a foot and leg massage while waiting.  Vietnam Airlines was very comfortable and full of Koreans on their way back home to Seol.

It is amazing how each customs or immigration officer, has a sad face – you can tell them a mile away.  Saigon is no different.  However, it was great to pick out our guide who is to travel with us for the whole time we are in Vietnam.  I recognized him in the crowd from pictures Lyn had taken on last year’s group tour.

The weather here in Saigon is around 28 degrees C with cloudy conditions but at least it is dry.  Saigon is made up of 9 million inhabitants and 6 million motorbikes.  Wow!  The traffic here is different to Siem Reap.  The adventurous motorbike riders are so game.  I stood on the corner outside our hotel http://www.majesticsaigon.com.vn/ for 15 minutes just watching the traffic go by.  I counted 53,643 motorbikes.  Very few of the riders checked out the stream of motorbikes they were joining.  It was just a matter of, “get out of my way.  I am joining the traffic.”

Tonight we had a delightful meal on a Bonsai junk on the Sai Gon River.  The traditional music had an entertainment value to it that enabled us to enjoy the evening.  This guy had a xylophone made of rocks and banged them with a mallet to make his music.  Good value!  The magician had some tricks that made the eyes wonder if they were seeing what was happening.  The singers sang 60’s music as if we were back in the Hard Rock Cafe.  Everyone enjoyed the evening and are ready for a long sleep.

Today’s “Senior’s Moment”.  One of our guests got excited about the security in his room and has wrecked the safe. (He read the distructions instead of the instructions)  Poor guy!

September 27 Tuesday Siem Reap

September 27 Tuesday Siem Reap

Today has been a raincoats and umbrella day.  Yes, lots of rain with flooded streets and roads.  Tut-tuts galore plowing through muddy waters that just never seem to subside.

After yet another brilliant breakfast (some have tried the champaign breakfast and want it tomorrow too), we took a 37km trip out of town to see more temples.  Banteay Srey, loosely translated “Citadel of the Women”, has beautiful intricate and delicate yellow sandstone carvings everywhere, especially over the doorposts.  This is the first time that flooding has occurred in this temple so we walked through ankle deep waters to see the place.

Banteay Somrei was yet another different type of temple.  Within the outer walls, is a moat, then a wall and a second moat before coming within the area of the temple itself.  This temple had been covered over by previous dynasties, and only recently, the early 1900’s, archeologists dug out what is now, a very interesting temple.  To position such large pieces of stone with intricate carvings, up so high in the structure of the buildings, must have been a grand engineering feat in its day.

For lunch, we were taken to a village place for eating.  Within a short period of time, we had quite acceptable dishes of eastern type food.

The ‘free’ afternoon, started at 4pm.  I had a ‘four hands’ massage on the floor.  Young therapists certainly know how to ‘get in deep’ in this country.  I think I will be bruised for a few days, especially in the calves.

With an afternoon off, three members decided to go shopping. The streets of Siem Reap were awash from the rain and the water level varied from nothing to knee height. One of the three had managed to keep her footware dry all day. She had managed to dodge every little puddle and mini lake all morning. However things were to change! The three decided to return to the Hotel by what seemed to be an almost new Tuc Tuc. On their way they waved to fellow guests and took photos. They rounded a corner for the final approach to base camp, to be confronted by a very flooded street. The Tuc Tuc zigged  and zagged a bit and then plunged into a very deep pot hole. After the initial shock of the sudden drop, rising water level and one handbag floating down the street. The driver of the sinking Tuc Tuc gave the command of “abandon ship” I mean Tuc Tuc. Two managed to make it to ankle depth, while the third tried to upright the damaged machine. The final 100 metres home was done wading through below knee deep water. The shoes that had been kept dry all day are traveling Saigon in a plastic bag, hopefully they will be dry by the time we reach Melbourne.

Others took a $10 for one hour ride around town in a tut-tut.

The evening was taken up at a large entertainment complex where we ate from an eastern smorgasbord and were entertained by some traditional dancing – beautiful costumes and bead gear.  I’m told the local beer wasn’t too bad either.

After a coffee in the bar at our colonial hotel http://www.victoriahotels-asia.com/eng/hotel-in-cambodia/angkor-resort-spa we are ready for a good rest before our flight to Saigon tomorrow.

Today’s “Senior’s” moment.  Lyn put in a strong request for me to include myself (I said, “Why not?  Then it’s out of the way.”)  I left the room with back-pack on shoulders smiling as if I had all my bases covered as far as being organised goes.  We met together before boarding the bus.  As we were boarding, I remembered that I didn’t have tripod and video camera with me – oh rats!  Back to the room and collect what is usually attached to me with an umbilical chord.

September 26 – Monday. Siem Reap

Siem Reap September 26 2011 Monday

What a great day!  If you thought that temples would be boring, try Angkor Thom; Magnificent – part of the ‘Pyramids of Asia’.

To all the group, one of the highlights of today was enjoying a superb breakfast – Cambodian style.  So much to choose from that the mind boggles.  We called everyone to meet for breakfast at 8:00am so we could leave on our Temple tour at 9:00am but they have said that tomorrow will be an earlier breakfast so they can enjoy more than just “weet-bix and milk, toast and vegemite”

Our guide, Lin, is very well versed in the history and the legends of the many temples around Siem Reap.  He enjoys what he does, and enjoys laughing at his own jokes.

The Angkor Thom was enormous. It is a temple place that is never inhabited or slept in.  It has been a place for prayers, chanting, and all things to do with the local religions. It takes up an area of 9 square kilometres, previously the last Capital of the Angorian Empire.  It was built after Jayavarman VII recaptured the Angkorian Capital from the Cham invaders in 1181.  The King began a massive building campaign across the empire constructing Angkor Thom as his new Capital City with existing structure.  So we spent a lot of time wandering through what has become a tourist mecca.  Thousands visit the area each day.

In the afternoon, after a wonderful luncheon in a ‘side of the road café’, we visited Ta Prohm, or Jungle Temple, where massive fig and Silk-cotton trees grow from the Towers and Corridors offering a Jungle atmosphere.  We also took in Bayon or, Four Smiling Faces, where each of the columns had carved smiling faces pointing in the four directions; a total of over 220 faces.

There have been lots of photos taken.  None of the group have lost their camera but some have lost their wallets – temporarily.  Frustrating in a foreign country! Not sure if they are ‘senior’s moments’ or just the norm.

We arrived back at the magnificent hotel at 6:00pm, a quick dip in the pool before another dinner of delicious food.  Bed is to be a great spot to end the day.

Being in the rainy season, Siem Reap is flooded in many areas with vehicles having to venture through the murky waters.  As you get off the bus to visit a temple, lots of children are there to sell you a book for $5 or $8 or some wrist bands or whatever, for a $1.  The books are history books of the Pol Pot era or stories of the Killing Fields – a reminder of the terrible atrocities of that era.  The tourist currency is the US dollar.  I haven’t seen any local currency yet.  I asked some of the children where they came from and in clear English, “from my mother and father” was the response.  Schools are free, and teach in English but many of the children can speak 3 and 4 languages before they are into high school.  Handy for the 3 million tourists that now come to Cambodia each year.

Today’s “Senior” moment – revealed today but happened at Changi Airport yesterday.  There is a receptacle in the toilet containing sanitizer.  Some paper is provided to apply the sanitizer to wipe the seat.  This unnamed group member applied it to ‘her’ seat instead of the toilet seat.  A new type of hygiene!

25 September 2011 Sunday Siem Reap

Today is the commencement of our group tour to Cambodia and Vietnam.  We thought we could stop off in Siem Reap on the way to Ho Chi Minh city (formerly Saigon) just to compare the way of life of both countries.  The main tourist ‘meca’ in Siem Reap is the Angkor Watt, which we will do tomorrow.

After taking cars to Tullamarine and meeting up with Judy & Ian who flew in from Sydney to join us, we departed on time at 5 past mid-night on Sunday morning.  It is the longest Sunday I can remember.  A meal was served just after departure and then we were woken up for breakfast 5 hours later.

As school holidays had just begun, the flights leaving at that time were all full and so immigration was very busy indeed.  However, it turned out to be the funniest time we have ever had in a security area.  Firstly, Lyn got told gruffly, to turn off her mobile (tut tut), but the funniest ‘blonde’ moment happened when Ken told us his episode with the security guys.  Ken has a leg that doesn’t work too well, and so to maneuver around is an effort.  He had placed his belt, wallet and watch in the box to go through the x-ray machine.  When he put everything back in place, he realized that his watch was missing.  He said to security guy ‘I’ve lost my watch.”  The guy wasn’t too helpful but checked anyway to see if it had fallen out of the tray in the machine.  Well, it could not be found – and this was his Dad’s old watch.  So we continued on through all the shops before arriving at the departure lounge and sat down.  Ken felt an uncomfortable feeling in his shoe and took it off – and there was his watch.  His gummy foot has no feeling in it and he hadn’t felt the extra ‘cargo’ in his shoe.  So the first blonde moment is recorded as being in the male kingdom.

The Singapore government, it seems, has intentionally made the airport the most interesting of airports to spend 5 or 6 hours.  There are so many upmarket shops and flower gardens, and entertainment areas, and, and, and……. All enjoyed the 5 hour layover, that’s for sure.  The orchids were just brilliant.  Our flight to Siem Reap was quite bumpy during our 2 hour flight at 38,000 feet altitude.

Arriving and going through customs and immigration at Siem Reap is quite an interesting experience too, with about 15 officials (in smart uniforms) in a ‘chain gang’ each viewing the passport and doing something with it.  After photos and finger printing, customs was a breeze with just a ‘drop the form in a box’ procedure.

Siem Reap is at a very low altitude and flooding at this time of year in their rainy season is all through the area and town.  On the way from the airport, our bus was going through flooded streets.  It was interesting to see motor bikes parked in 6 inch deep water with their riders having a chat with someone on the side of the road – well, not just one here and there, but many.

After checking into the Victoria Angkor Hotel, we sat by the pool for the afternoon, gathering some much needed sleep.  The hotel is just magnificent – old architecture with lots of dark timber used throughout.  Chris, a builder from Wesburn, has been taking many photos of the structure.  And he had a blonde moment too – while taking all his photos, he couldn’t remember his room number, so was systematically knocking on each door.  Eventually, one of the doors that opened, was to his room.  After having a sumptuous meal together, we ‘retired’ early, for Siem Reap time, to our luxurious rooms.