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Take A Closer Look…

Now that we’ve safely returned to good ol’ Blighty (quite a culture shock already), we thought we’d share some of the stranger things we managed to snap on our way around South America, Australia and South East Asia. Look closely…

              

      

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The Perils of Paradise – Koh Rong

What makes a “paradise island”? A beautiful, white sandy beach? Warm, perfectly clear sea, complete with shoals of playful tropical fish? Wooden bungalows that look out over long stretches of unspoilt and virtually uninhabited coastline? A bit of jungle in the middle for exploring? If this all sounds like the paradise ideal you’d imagined, then it also almost describes at least one side of the Cambodian island of Koh Rong, which we visited for a few nights on the penultimate leg of our trip. However, it seems that paradise comes at a price…

The island lies in the Gulf of Thailand, around a two hour boat trip from the slightly seedy resort town of Sihanoukville on Cambodia’s south coast, somewhat infamous for its links to sex tourism. We somehow got to Koh Rong after struggling at first with a broken-down boat organised through a decidedly flamboyant French diving instructor, and made it to the island in plenty of time to take on the walk over the jungle hill to the far side of the island. Here, unlike the north-eastern side, the developments of restaurants and bars have so far barely touched the 7km long beach and crystal-clear waters, leaving an almost desert island feel with only a small village at one end and a tiny smattering of beach bungalows for rent. Nevertheless, reaching this apparent paradise was our first taste of the pay-offs associated with getting away from it all. In sweltering heat we dripped and trudged up through jungle paths that we later found out are home to a surprisingly large variety of venomous snake. An untreated bite from a King Cobra (one of the local serpentine residents) for example, leaves you with around five hours to live. In Cambodia, one suspects that even a flamboyant Frenchman (probably especially a flamboyant Frenchman with a shonky boat) would struggle to find anti-venom in under a day. Luckily for our paradise quest, the snakes stayed out of our way and we just had to worry about drowning in our own sweat as we scrambled down ropes that allowed downward progress over large boulders and steep rocky paths.

Once there though, we were able to cool off in beautifully temperate transparent waters and book into beach bungalows that were basic but had an outlook to make Robinson Crusoe nostalgic. That night, limbs rested, we were again treated to both the good and bad aspects of nature in such a place. After a beautiful sunset we went again to the sea. With the moon bright and the stars appearing gloriously unimpeded by light pollution we waded out into the dark water to be met by the truly magical sight of millions of bioluminescent plankton, glowing as we touched them and splashed around. Like magicians, we traced sparkles in the sea in a marine light show that really was a phenomenal experience.

The bad side though? Beach bungalows jutting out of the jungle are a good place for foraging if you’re a rodent. With no fully enclosing wall and stories of large, toothpaste-loving rats abound, a sleepless and roasting night on nylon sheets was in store.  Indeed the next morning it transpired that one of our fellow travellers had awoken to find some of his possessions devoured by rats, whilst another told us a tale of large rodents invading beds. We were lucky to get away with just rat droppings on the floor: maybe a fair trade for bioluminescence and powdery sand, maybe not.

The following morning required a walk along to the other side of the beach. Again, walking along a deserted paradise beach – where apparently they’d recently filmed the French version of the reality TV show Survivor – should be a pleasure, and was at times, but the heat and the sheer amount of washed-up rubbish on the sand (there’s no-one to clean it, after all) made the 7km a hard task. Nevertheless, we arrived, sweating once again, to the far end of the beach where a small village sits and more beach huts were there for the renting. With fewer rodent evidence and less jungle to contend with, we decided to stay for a couple of nights.

Here, the problems seemed fewer, and paradise really seemed an apt description. Still, nature cannot be ignored, and soon enough I was covered in around 90 extremely itchy sandfly bites. It seems that to find a real island utopia, devoid of physical and natural peril, you might have to pay someone to clean a place up. On a virtually deserted island, you just have to take a bit of rough with the oh-so-smooth.

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Images of Angkor

Modern Cambodia is a story of the sublime and the ridiculously difficult. Corruption, poverty, extreme begging and, in the living memory of many, the horrific recent past under the Khmer Rouge mixes with a gentle and proud culture, harbouring a more distant and glorious history when the Khmer Empire were “the Romans of Asia” an their capital was the unparalleled city of Angkor.

Siam Reap, the town that serves as the tourist stay for the magnificent temples of Angkor, is so equally crammed full of beggars, street kids working at all hours, and potential scams that we were initially put on the back foot, despite six months in many developing countries. Fortunately, we were able to visit a centre called ConCERT which is committed to co-ordinating anti-poverty NGOs in Cambodia and providing some of the best responsible tourism advise we’ve been given on our travels. Please click here to take a look at their site.

And so to the temples themselves! We had by now met up with Helen’s brother Mark and had set aside two days to visit as many of the sites as we could, both by tuk-tuk and by bike. The temples, built between the 9th and 15th centuries are all that remain of the Khmer capital cities situated at Angkor and are the great enduring legacy of the Angkor Kingdoms, which fluctuated between Hinduism and Buddhism several times. The historical and religious elements are complex (for further Wikipedia reading, click here…) so for now, here are some of the images of these daunting structures in the jungle:

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Alone In The Dark – Konglor Caves

Gollum would have been at home here. Harry and Dumbledore, Kirk and Spock, Orpheus and Persephone, they’ve probably all paid a visit. And now that it’s in the book that’s surgically attached to every traveller – I hope not to see another Lonely Planet for a long time after this trip – many others may be making the interesting curveball of a trip to Konglor Caves in central Laos very soon. So, if you happen to be in that area anytime in the near future, get yourself there before the apparently accelerating development turns this great natural experience – 7.5km of pitch black underground river – into just another tourist theme park.

We’d read that it might be hard to get to, but we reached the nearest village to the caves, Kong Lo, by bus from Vientiane after a fairly easy journey. Only blighted by the now familiar bumpy roads and around four hours of non-stop Laos pop videos (which really have to be seen to be believed), our journey ended with us being popped off the bus straight into a brand spanking new simple guesthouse. We’d hoped that we might arrange or find a homestay, but all that Laos pop creates a craving for a quick fix and a lie down, so we were happy with our digs.

The village itself, with the exception of one or two building sites where guesthouses are starting to take shape, was a charming agricultural settlement set in a beautiful plain between hills of jutting karst. The light in both the morning and evening lent an idyllic air to the place, something added to by the constant smiles and playfulness of the ever friendly Lao children. As we have seen, all in Laos is far from an idyll, but here that seemed easy to forget as we planned an early night, ready for our cave trip in the morning.

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From the village it was a short 1km walk through some dapped woods to the lakeside cave site, whereupon we were greeted by the “boat committee”, seemingly a way of sharing out what small tourist trade there currently is (and the more they hope for in the future) fairly between the local boatmen who navigate the river through the underworld. And what an underworld it was. As the light at the mouth of the cave faded into the distance and our shallow bottomed longtail boat, lit only by the head-torches we’d hired and those of our two boatmen, began it’s steady put-put along the water, we felt like we’d been plunged into the mother of all ghost trains. The cavern was high and the sides relatively featureless, but at any moment we expected to see a hooded skeleton punting in the opposite direction, or perhaps we’d pass a group of grumpy Tolkeinesque axe-wielding dwarves. As it was, and making it still more fascinating and enjoyable, we saw no-one.

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Soon we were back on dry land though, as we entered a huge cavern, the only electrically lit part of the cave, which had only been wired up as recently as 2008. We stepped out of our boat for a short wade through dry-season shallow water to a sandy subterranean beach and here we could see why a French NGO had gone to all the trouble of bringing artificial light to this place. A museum of rock presented itself, with huge stalactites and stalagmites rising like waxy pillars into their newly given light. These serpentine twists and trunks of rock had been sealed in darkness for millennia, and now, looking like one of the better Star Trek sets, had been lit up for us to browse.

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But we couldn’t let our eyes adjust for too long, as we were soon teetering back into the (newly bailed out) boat. For literally miles we travelled underground, stopping occasionally to get out and help to push the boat up the parts of the river that were too shallow to drive. At one point, we almost became stranded in the underworld, when one of our boatmen (it later became apparent he had a club foot) couldn’t push strongly enough, and the boat threatened to wash away. Luckily, a few extra hands meant that we weren’t condemned to the underground life on that day.

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Eventually, the proverbial ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ appeared and we were back, blinking into daylight. We’d emerged to a stunning river scene and the juxtaposition of the greenery, hills and light with the dark mystery of the cave was stark but enchanting.

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We stopped for a drinks break (we were an hour in by now) and were soon eager to get back into the tunnel, looking forward to more of the ghost-boat. When we got past the bat-infested entrance again, and back out to the tranquility of the first pool and the village, it was strange to think that we’d been on such an other-worldly journey. Our only problem now was going to be finding a way, both in terms of logistics and willpower, to leave Kong Lo. Perhaps when the coach-loads start their inevitable arrivals and the caves become a precession, the leaving will get easier.

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Don't stray off the roads! UXO - Unexploded Ordinance
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An Explosive Legacy – Coping With UXO In Laos

Shortly after setting off from the Elephant Village our minivan driver stopped in the middle of the dirt track that was the road, wound down his window and, without pause for thought, proceeded to throw a large amount of plastic shrink wrap out of the window and out into the forest. We and other westerners in the van squirmed with awkward paralysis, but in the end stayed shamefully silent. Yes, it’s true to say that in Asia in general – and Laos in particular – there is a lack of understanding and a major problem with littering. Plastic has replaced the more traditional banana leaves as a way of carrying and serving street food. A plastic bag is a status symbol for a business, a marker of development and a thing to be thrown on the floor without thought. But as much as this is noticeably a current and future environmental issue in the developing world, Laos has a much greater problem with things that have literally been left lying around, and it’s one that most of the world seems sadly unaware of.

Between 1964 and 1973, as part of the “Secret War” in Laos, the USA carpet-bombed large parts of the country. This ‘conflict’ was fought between an unseen enemy – US B52 bombers – and an unknown and unseen adversary – the rural people of Laos, most of whom were in no way a fighting force. This was one of the largest sustained ariel bombardments in history, with two million tons of bombs being dropped, vastly more than were dropped on Germany during World War Two. Of these, it is estimated that over 30% did not explode, many of which were cluster bombs containing ‘bombies’, small grenade-type ordinance that lifter huge areas of rural Laos today. More bombs were dropped on (supposedly neutral) Laos than there were members of the population. For the kind and peaceful people of this beautiful country today, the majority of whom rely on agriculture for survival, this can mean a life risk with every bit of land worked. Over 12,000 have died as a result since 1973, many more have lost limbs, livelihoods and chances from a bombing campaign waged before many of them were born. It is predicted that at the current rate of cleanup, hampered by terrain, weather and a lack of training and equipment, it could take over 100 years to rid Laos of this litter problem.

We were aware of this story of unexploded ordinance (UXO) in the country, but the scale to which this has affected people’s lives was only revealed by a visit to the COPE visitors centre in Vientiane. Here, where they rather cheerfully address the problems faced by amputees and those blinded by UXO we met and read about those who’d had some pride and ability restored by the work of COPE and other NGOs. We were also shown an Australian film, Bomb Harvest which followed a team of trainee cleanup operatives in their hard and tireless work. It is a beautifully shot film that shows both the difficulties and the joys (as well as the quirks) of doing such a job in a country we’ve thoroughly enjoyed being in. It also highlights the sub-plot to this sad episode in human history, with many modern-day Laos actively hoping to find UXO to sell for scrap for a pittance. Please watch it below if you have time, you will not be disappointed, and please take a look at the COPE website for more information on UXO and their successful caring work in tackling its consequences.

Meanwhile, the litter problem will persist in Asia, but as bad as that can be in Laos, perhaps some people can be forgone for having bigger worries, and for not wanting to pick things up off the ground.

Further information:

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Luang Prabang

It’s still the mid-nineteenth century in the Old Town in Luang Prabang. At least that’s what they like you to think. One of the more upmarket bars even advertises itself as taking you “back to the elegant good old days, the great colonial days..” No wonder the French love it here.

Nevertheless, the reputed charm is not without merit. The beautiful temples seem to spring up on you on every corner and the young orange-robed monks that work and worship in them lend further gravitas to the streets lined with elegant colonial architecture, fancy cafes and bistros. The traffic is minimal (a blessing in Asia), the buffet-style street food is interesting if hygienically dubious,  the night market contains some of the best merchandise we’ve seen on our travels and climbing the hill in the centre of the old town at the right time can provide a stunning sunset view. Yes, the town certainly has charms.

Eco-tourism appears to be a growth sector in Laos in general, and in Lang Pruabang in particular. Aside from ‘fair treks’, where some or all of the profits from the tour are given to the villages visited, and the usual mountain-biking and kayaking options, Elephant treks seem to be one of the most popular tourist destinations. These ‘camps’ are really fairly luxury riverside parks, complete with cabins, restaurants and – of course – elephants. Here, visitors get to meet, greet,feed and ride these (apparently) rescued logging elephants as part of their ‘mahout training’ – a mahout being an elephant rider/handler.

We were lucky to be able to afford a two day stay (thanks to our friends for the wedding present – you know who you are!) and so it was that we found ourselves riding elephants in various ways, with varying degrees of elegance. We visited ‘Elephant Village‘, chosen mostly through its reputation for looking after its elephants and its commitment to rescuing and caring for former logging elephants who, as they become unemployed, face a bleak future, if not death. They have also had something of a bleak past, and we were constantly assured, through the literature and the guides, that the seemingly mundane existence of hauling fat Germans, French and Brits around is far preferable to the animals than their former work.

Our first task was to practice mounting and riding on the animal’s neck. These Asian elephants, although smaller than their African relatives, are still immense beasts. So, despite their apparently placid nature, we both maintained a huge degree of respect and after getting a leg-up from the elephant and resting our hands on it’s huge head, we both felt in awe of it’s power and personality. It was remarkable to be astride such an iconic animal though, and even the short trudge around the camp (novice riders, you really don’t want a fast elephant) was an unforgettable experience.

More sedate, although blisteringly hot in the sun, was the elephant ride, where a park bench seemed to be strapped to the animal’s leathery back and, in good-old colonial style, we mounted from a platform and set off down and through the river. At ten years old, our elephant was one of the youngest there and showed it with a great deal of immature stubbornness. Elephants may never forget, but in standing in the hot sun in the river for ten minutes without moving, we wondered if this one would remember the way back.

After another short bareback walk to take the elephants to their jungle home (they knock off at 2.30pm, perhaps something they wouldn’t have done before), a meal and a few beers around the campfire, it was back to the ‘Elephant Lodge’ to bed, ready for an early start on Day Two.

At seven in the morning, the intense heat of the previous day had left the air and the river steamed as the sun came up. Before we knew it we were having a morning stroll on the back of an elephant again. Without the crowds of the previous day, and in the early morning sun, taking the elephants down to the river was nothing short of magical. Here we were dunked, splashed and thrilled in an exercise that seemed to genuinely please the elephants and the mahouts too. Washing elephants on a Wednesday morning was a bizarre and quality experience that it’s unlikely we’ll repeat and is perhaps a colonial hangover we’re pleased remains.

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Taking It Slow – Northern Laos

There are some people and places that you just cannot rush. Sometimes this is because the terrain, weather or lack of infrastructure is preventative; sometimes it’s because the people just like to take things slowly; more often than not it’s a combination of the two. Laos is a prime example of a slow-moving people in a sometimes tricky environment, trying hard to get to grips with the ever-speedier demands of modernity as it begins to affect their daily lives. But the people of this beautiful country are not the surly, lethargic type. More so they are simply happy to do things at the pace they’ve always been done, and their happiness and relaxed tempo is infectious.

We’d arrived in Laos after a sardine-tin of a bus journey, and were happy to find a half decent room in our overnight stop of Muang Khua. Although we’d got off the main tourist trail here in this remote northern village on the Nam (River) Ou, the size of the place and the large handful of western tourists (many French) gave a distinctly traveller-town feel to the small number of restaurants and bars. Here, when our food eventually arrived, we enjoyed our first Beer Lao and our first taste of Lâap, a beautiful and spicy salad with minced chicken, full of garlic, mint, coriander and chillies. Then, like a scene from a 60s American TV show, a local dog followed us down to the river and guided us through the gardens and back streets of the village, where we were met with smiles and greetings at every corner. As we got back to the restaurant, the animal almost seemed to give us a nod as it left us to pad back happily to its residence. Typically for Laos, there was no tip required. An impressive footbridge and picturesque scenery sent us to our bed with our pulses already slowing to Lao pace.

The next morning we had been told to turn up at 8.30 for the ferry-boat downriver to our next stop of Nong Khiaw. The long narrow boat had a much narrower plank of wood low down on each side of its bows, and it was on this we sat for quite a while before the driver decided it was time to leave. Sadly devoid of the seemingly prerequisite chickens for this voyage, we were relived to be able to pick a couple up further downstream. According to the man who sold the tickets, the ride was due to take three hours. After just 15 minutes of a somewhat cramped low plank journey, that was beginning to seem like quite a long time. In reality also, the total ride was nearer five hours. Still, you can’t rush in Laos.

In between shifting buttocks to allow blood to continue flowing to the parts it must, the journey showed an old-fashioned kind of life on the river, backed by some incredible mountainous scenery. Workers panned for gold on the shores, masked divers fished, water buffalos wallowed and children played with such joy one would think it was their first trip to the water. Behind them, the land of Northern-eastern Laos, still littered with thousands of unexploded American bombs from half a century ago, loomed with giant limestone karst shrouded by cloying fog. Still time ticked more slowly as the boat progressed towards its destination, its noisy petrol motor the only nod towards anything vaguely modern.

Surprisingly, our joints and limbs functioned enough on our arrival at Nong Khiaw for us to establish that, in this larger but equally charming town, there was no means for us to get any cash. This was a problem as we’d already spent most of the kip we had changed at the border. After inordinate inspections of our remaining $20 note, various potential money changers decided its slight rip would be too much trouble to explain to the bank. In the end we had to rely on the kindness of other travellers (thankyou Kim and Francoise), as well as a deal cut with the very nice owner of an Indian restaurant who needed someone to pay for his phone calls to Madras and would swap cash for a PayPal transaction, and a natural 24 hour wait for a cash advance from the only hotel in town with a visa machine. You can’t rush these things.

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Eventually solvent once again, and happily free of traffic for almost the first time in Asia, it was once more onto bicycles. As we rode around the neighbouring villages with few cars and motorbikes on the road, it was a pleasure to take our time (like Laos time but slightly faster) and greet plenty of friendly locals along the way. After all, our limbs wouldn’t get much of a workout the next day as, armed with a pillow each, we were to catch another small narrow riverboat to Luang Prabang. The estimated journey time: a mere seven hours. No rush.

The motorbike had come on the roof from Vietnam
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Buses Across Borders – First Steps Into Laos

Unless you’re still at a nightclub, very loud European trance music (with accompanying DVD pictures) is not the sort of thing that makes 5am a more pleasurable hour. Still less comfortable, is to have this inflicted on you at this time in the wee small hours whilst effectively being stuffed into a tin can. Nevertheless, it seems that this might be what it takes to get into northern Laos from Vietnam on a small bus.

We’d spent the day before on an equally small bus travelling ten hours from Hanoi to the north-western town of Dien Bien Phu where we were to stay the night. Mercifully, this was less cramped affair; although there were moments of concern, such as when we assumed that the man necking shot after shot of vodka during a rest stop was the replacement driver (he wasn’t), or when the bus began to leave within a minute of our badly-timed noodle soup order arriving, or when we were unsure as to whether our destination was the same town we’d originally headed for, or when were to sitting next to a box that moved and chirped. But all that was simply the jitters brought on by language issues and uncertainty. Things were different as we boarded the bus to get us across the border.

Firstly, we were an international contingent of passengers, with French, Australian, Israeli, Canadian and Dutch travellers joining us in the bus. We were all there early of course, hence the DVD entertainment. Then the locals turned up. Then more. Then more. Then some with enormous boxes. Then a few more. With babies. By the time we’d reached the Laos border control, with its painstaking handwritten-in-triplicate bureaucracy, the bus designed for twenty was carrying around twice that number. It made Friday afternoon on the tube seem like a yoga retreat.

Nonetheless, we were in Laos and with some truly awful Vietnamese comedy keeping the locals on the cramped vehicle happy, we bumped down the unmade roads, picking up and dropping off people and goods in between fording streams and taking motorbikes off the roof.

Eventually we reached our destination. That is to say, we were politely shunted off onto a tiny ferry boat which took us across to the village of Muang Khua, where we would stay the night. Here buses and lorries crossed the Nam Ou on a platform secured against the current by a zip-line type mechanism and shunted across by a tug. In finding dry land on the far bank we finished a journey that we will remember for a long time to come.

In both Vietnam and Laos we passed villages and scenery to remember. Stilt houses tucked up against rivers, rice paddies and mountains. Water buffalo aided the many workers in the fields. Women’s dress changed from the high-heels of Hanoi to the head-dress of the rural north-west. Everywhere children waved. It may have been cramped and occasionally confusing and unnerving, but this was another occasion in our travels where the journey itself was the experience.

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Gliding Through Jewels and Jade – Halong Bay

We’d been warned, but the weather was a bit of a suprise, to be honest. From the warm stickiness of Saigon and the Mekong Delta, arriving in Hanoi in Northern Vietnam was a little like arriving to a late Autumn in the UK. Cold and incredibly damp (98% humidity), fleeces, hats and the occasional shiver were the order of the day. Shivering our timbers was more on our agenda though, as we set out on an overnight cruise trip to Halong Bay.

As seems to often be the case for us (suggestions of possible causes below please) we were sharing a junk intended for sixteen with just one other couple, Marco and Simona from Switzerland. We didn’t rattle around too much however, as the ‘sun deck’ didn’t get much use, although it proved a good vantage point from which to watch the mysterious islands and limestone karsts of Halong Bay creep closer as the junk made its way across the bay’s calm water.

According local legend, the rock formations were formed when dragons, sent by the gods to protect the newly formed Vietnam from invaders, spat out jewels and jade. These dotted the bay and became the numerous islands and islets to which tourists have only really flocked in the last fifteen or so years. Luckily, due to Tet and the less than spectacular weather, our boat was able to make its way to a number of locations where there seemed to be few, if any other visitors. From one such serene place, we braved the cold, pulled on our swimsuits and a life-jacket, and wobbled into a lovely pink kayak. Whilst we are by no means expert paddlers, we were lucky that Chuyen, our guide, was also less than proficient, meaning that by the end of the session we were able to say that we occasionally ‘skimmed’ across the water, whilst he continued to labour.

The kayaking revealed why Halong Bay was and is seen as a place of mystical magic. Silent sea water flows through small cave tunnels into jade lagoons. The rocks rise up around like a miniature mountain range, interesting as much for their lush vegetation as for their very existence. To be able to explore a few of these uninhabited small coastlines was a treat.

Refueled by good food – we can recommend ODC Travel‘s tour – we then experienced a real Asian treat with a bout of karaoke before bed…perhaps there is something about being closer to China that makes karaoke more prevalent. Breakfast (“No singing no breakfast…”) was our old friend and that favourite of all Vietnamese, Pho. In the colder climate in the north however, noodle soup is not the worst way to start your day, and supping down crab and chicken broth whilst watching the islands pass by the window was certainly a pleasant start.

Our last ‘excursion’ on what had otherwise – kayaking aside – been a fairly sedentary trip, was a short walk off the boat to the imaginatively named ‘Amazing Cave’. These caverns, which consist of three vast chambers, have better sounding names in Vietnamese, and showcase some enormous stalactites (remember: tights come down…), interesting and rather risque rock features, and a lucky turtle whose head had been rubbed to a shiny nub. Here we joined the tourist trail proper and were happy to get back on the boat.

We ended our voyage with more great food for lunch and a glide past the bay’s largest floating village. It’s hard to imaging why anyone would choose to live in such limited surroundings, but with a school, a bank and plenty of shops, perhaps the main issue for the residents of Halong Bay at this time of year is the weather…

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Welcoming Waterways – Cycling in the Mekong Delta

It’s not often that you get treated like a good luck charm, welcomed with open arms everywhere. It’s even less common for this to happen when you’re a red-faced sweaty mess, but happen it did in the waterside villages of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, as we (accompanied once again by Den and Babs) cycled through during the Lunar New Year’s Tet holiday. For mile after mile (and we did a few) we were assailed with shouts of “Hello!” and the occasional “What your name?” from the children and families who lived or were visiting along our route. Some even ran after us, pleased by their interaction with Westerners who, at this most omen-heavy time of year here, symbolise wealth and prosperity, making our passing lucky and full of promise for the locals.

But our celebrity did not come about without at least a bit of effort on our part. Firstly, we couldn’t pronounce our guide’s name. Phuc, which apparently means “happy” in Vietnamese, was himself from this land of the nine dragons, and he lived up to his name (Happy, not Phuc). Cheerfully, he encouraged us with our clumsy handling of the bikes on the narrow bumpy paths, and happy to wait as Babs pushed over every bridge or one of us fell into a bush. He even joined in with a game of cards, although he drew the line at charades.

The rice fields flank the rivers of the delta and the water is a
way of life for the people. Monkey bridges are both practical walkways and playground; boats are houses, shops and status symbols; the waterways are back alleys, washrooms, highways and restaurants. And yet there were still hundreds of people on motorbikes, as even in this watery rural idyll, life struggles to go on without two wheels and a 100cc engine.

Sore bottoms were the only real complaint by the end of the day though, as we dispensed with the bikes and took to the water to head towards our homestay accommodation for the night. Here we were warmly welcomed again and, after a refreshing cold shower, and when we’d got over the fact that a large bath of snakes was just a thin wall away from our bed, we headed for dinner. It was a fully interactive dinner too, with our host showing us the way to make tasty spring rolls and rice pancakes. With fish soup, pork and plenty of the region’s ubiquitous rice, we would only be sorry that some of the cockerels at the house hadn’t gone into the pot that night, as their timekeeping seemed to be noisily askew for much of the early hours.

When our own clocks defied the rowdy birds and we got up, we boarded another boat for a pleasant couple of hours around the snaking tributaries of the Delta. The rivers were quiet due to the holiday season, as was the floating market, but we got a sense of how important they are to the life of the area. Large evil-eyed cargo boats looked expectantly towards future business opportunities. A small boat drew alongside and, like a perculating pirate, pressed us into buying tasty sweet green tea and suspicious Vietnamese coffee. Yellow Tet flowers bloomed from boats, festively festooned and purposefully closed up, their owners enjoying family time on dry land or below deck. Elsewhere, a few traders plied tropical fruits across the water, advertising their wares on the end of a long bamboo cane. It may have been less than bustling, but it was captivating nonetheless.

We cycled a little more to finish our tour, again with shouts of “hello” coming loudly from almost every house. It may have been that our presence as a happy omen was the reason for the warm greetings as we wobbled our way around the narrow roads of the Mekong villages, but it seems that the genuine warmth of the people there was the more likely reason. They probably take great pleasure in making anyone feel welcome.