Posted by: rob | August 8, 2007

The Bamboo Railway of Battambang

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We’ve caught many different forms of transport of the last few months, and seen many varieties of train, but the bamboo train of Battambang in Cambodia must rate as the most unusual.

Called a Norry or Lorry by locals, the “train” is a small wooden platform that sits atop hand machined axles running over an old damaged railway line. The contraption is powered by a motorcycle engine that spins a rubber wheel against the line. The railway line is the country’s main train route but it is in far too bad condition to be used for regular trains. There is one ‘”real” train each week, but it moves only at walking speed as anything faster is deemed dangerous.

A short video Kim filmed can be seen here and below.


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Finding the railway is easy as it follows a direct line between cities. Joining up with it about 25km from Battambang, we rode on the train for about 10km. It’s not cheap for foreigners who turn up, we paid $4 each which is a lot of money in these parts. Amazingly, it runs at up to 50km/hour. The ride is noisy and bumpy but highly exhilarating and not altogether uncomfortable. Our moto driver came along with us, complete with his motorcycle, and told us that it can carry up to two tonnes of freight.

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As there is only one line, the obvious question is what happens when you meet an oncoming train? The answer is just as obvious – one train must be disassembled to allow the other to pass. We came upon a train travelling in the opposite direction that was full of freshly harvested rice and a staring match lasted two or three minutes before it was determined that they had to pull off the track to allow us to pass.

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The scenery along the way is stunning. Apart from the rice paddies, banana trees, and water buffalo, you pass many locals using it as a footpath between villages. Eventually we arrived at what can only be described as a bamboo train station, complete with refreshments and an open air waiting room.

We had a fantastic time on the bamboo railway. If only London had a few of these!

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Posted by: kim | August 7, 2007

Food for thought

Wherever we’ve gone in Asia we’ve been surrounded by food. Eating is (quite rightly!) a huge part of people’s lives, and street food in particular. In Vietnam most people eat pho (beef noodle soup) or perhaps treat themselves to some virility-boosting snake wine; a deep-fried slice of tofu or a chicken foot is the order of the day in China; fish stew in Cambodia (amok) is a national dish or perhaps yak potato stew in Mongolia might take your fancy. We’ve been sticking to the fruit and vegetables which has been far easier than we imagined, especially in Vietnam where there’s a com chay in even the smallest towns (see my vegetarian travel page).

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That lady above is in Saigon’s Chinatown, peddling her feet (ha, ha).

In the Mekong Delta we’ve seen the piggies get taken to market in their little bamboo cages, or perched on their backs on a $400 Honda motorcycle. We bought an amazing postcard that shows 14 piglets kind of sitting quietly on the back of one of these small vehicles. This pic is just of a few piglets at the back of a rice noodle making factory we visited.
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In Cambodia, we’ve been confronted with so much produce. Trees bursting with fresh bananas, skinny cows, and lots of rice in the Battambang region. There are quite a few ice-cream shops where teenagers will sit and have a sundae or a bubble tea (sweet, tapioca pearls situated at the bottom of a usually milky or fruity drink and consumed with a large straw) while listening to 24/7 Cambodian karaoke channels.

Local food markets are everywhere, and you won’t see a Tesco or a Coles in sight, let alone bananas in shrink wrap. Salad in a bag washed in chlorine would be postively alien to these people and it’s simple to see why. Their food is farm fresh and cheap. Although the smell in Phomn Penh’s Russian Market was pungent and fishy, we walked past there and ended up in the ‘tools and paint’ section which didn’t smell as bad! The worst sight was in Saigon, where we passed sacks of spices sitting in an alley but each one was covered in a swarm of flies — it seemed that the sellers didn’t want to cover up their produce even though you could barely see what was in the sacks for all the flies buzzing around. For the most part it’s been great!
In Vietnam, ladies selling fruit expertly balance a piece of bamboo on their shoulders; two sacks of produce hanging over each end like scales. They’ll tap you on the arm and still manage not to drop what they’re holding.

Our guide book says the Vietnamese think that sandy, yellow dogs make the most tender meat so whenever we see one of them we think, ‘must be tasty’.
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In China, everything goes, as we’ve already mentioned…

starfish

Posted by: rob | August 6, 2007

Sleepy Battambang

We spent a hot couple of days in Battambang, Cambodia (pronounced Battam-bom). Although it’s the country’s second largest city, you wouldn’t know it from the size. It’s just a few sleepy streets with sleepy restaurants, sleepy dogs, and sleepy tuk-tuk drivers. Oh, and oodles of linen-clad French tourists, now that August is upon us. After the epic travel of recent days, we decided to splurge on a private car and driver for the four hour drive ($48) and it was worth every cent. We liked the town immediately, for it’s riverside charm, it’s laidback atmosphere, and the fact that it was super cheap. (We stayed in the best hotel in town, newly built with all the mod-cons, for a princely sum of $13/night!).

Battambang is also a town not without quirks. There are many ice cream sundae cafes, as if the local teenage girls are reliving 1950s America. And all over town are incredibly badly painted advertising signs. Many have bad likenesses of English football stars, we presumed the signs entice you into cafes to have a drink while watching the bootleg satellite coverage of European football. (Kim has photos of these, but we are now seeing such a rush of sights and sounds that it’s not always possible to keep up as you can see from the poor pics today). Eventually we came upon the store making all these signs, where we spotted a kid and his dad with some plywood, stencils, and spraycans. Add all this to the three by three grid of streets and at times it looked like the set from an old western. Finally, the house next to our hotel had a shiny sign “MJP – Maddox Jolie Pitt”which seemed a little odd at the time, but we’ve since discovered this is the humanitarian project Ms Tomb Raider set up.

On the second day we hired a motorbike driver to show us the sights around and outside town (5 hours, $8). I wouldn’t have thought it, but the three of us on a small bike travelling over bumpy red dirt roads was excellent fun. Kim has some fun videos that she might get a chance to upload. We drove around the orchards outside Battambang, stopping at family farms to check out weird and wonderful fruits, at a monk’s compound to look at zillions of bats, by the side of random roads to marvel at “baby snakefish”(??), and after 25km at Wat Banan, a 9th century temple atop a huge hill. (stairs pictured below). But the highlight was undoubtedly the Norry, or Bamboo Train, that I’ll write a separate post about.

Like most people in Cambodia, our moto rider Dara had led an interesting life. Now aged 45 years, he had fled the Khmer Rouge in 1982 for Thailand and didn’t return for 11 years. He threw us nuggets of information about his time in “The Hard War”. For example, he showed us how he used to forage on the ground for food after watching what cows did and didn’t eat.

We left Battambang for Siem Reap also by private car. But halfway, at Sisophon, the road wet diabolically bad. Two or more hours of some of the worst road conditions in the world. It didn’t help that before we left the driver stopped and picked up 400 cans of beer. Thankfully he was delivering them to Siem Reap, not drinking them en route. We’re now in Siem Reap for a few days to visit the temples of Angkor.


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Posted by: rob | August 5, 2007

The Killing Fields

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In Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We visited S-21, a Cambodian school that was turned into a Khmer prison, torture, and interrogation facility between 1975 and 1978 that held 17,000 prisoners over that period. There were places like this all over Cambodia. The tiled floors remain bloodstained, the shackles in place, the gallows intact, death is everywhere. It’s a gut wrenching place to visit. Cambodia’s Auschwitz. The Khmer rouge took meticulous records. Everyone was photographed on the way in, and many were photographed on their way out with a toe tag. You can look at all the photos on site, its hard to turn away from them.

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Only 7 people survived. The vast bulk were taken 13km away to be killed and dumped in the so called Killing Fields at Choung Ek. At first, prisoners were shot. Later, ammuniation supplies began to run thin so they were killed with a hunk of wood. Children and babies were battered to death against a tree that still stands. Today, a memorial is at the site, a vast tower of human skulls unearthed after the Khmer Rouge was ousted. A buddhist shrine in the fields is covered in teeth and bone fragments that visitors even today find scattered amongst the grass.

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The true horror is hard to imagine, and its no wonder that the guestbook is full of recent comments and graffiti is everywhere. Someone has scrawled “DEVASTATION” with their finger on a dusty desktop. One piece of graffiti cites Guantanamo. I’m not sure how accurate that is, but its true that we don’t learn lessons. Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Darfur. On one floor of S-21 are the stories of the young men and women who joined the Khmer Rouge and killed their own and in a strange way these tales are just as tragic as those of the innocents.

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It was a deeply depressing afternoon seeing all this but you have to see this in order to begin understanding the Cambodia of today. It is amazing that the last remnants of the Khmer Rouge were swept away just ten years ago. To see the sites in Phnom Penh simply hire a tuk tuk driver for about $6.

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Posted by: kim | August 4, 2007

Along the Mekong Delta

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Soon before leaving for Cambodia last week, we took a daybreak tour from Can Tho (ready at 5.30am!) of the Mekong Delta and caught two floating markets in full swing — Cai Rang and Phuong Dien.

Our simple boat was powered by a small propellor. The lady taking us and who appeared to be her pubescent son accompanied us along the river, first stopping for petrol that they sell in reused plastic bottles.

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Hundreds of people live along the muddy river and they use it every day for washing clothes (it appeared to be washing day when we visited), bathing and even brushing their teeth which made us cringe a little, as their other waste gets pumped straight into the river. Unfortunately, locals have little place to dump rubbish either, and we saw much of it being thrown directly into some of the meandering canals we went through.

The vast majority of the people selling the fruit and veg we encountered were hard working women. All types of food from the banal to the exotic were on sale to traders who might be using it for their restaurant or local roadside stall: dragonfruit, rambutan, carrot, longan, pumpkin, pineapple and much more. At Phuong Dien a few boats had slabs of meat lying in them and even people selling blocks of ice, but for the most part it was fruit and vegetables.

What I also liked about the markets was the fact that the traders wore clothes that matched what they were selling. The fiery dragonfruit perfectly complements the green and pink ensemble worn by this lady:

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Phuong Dien seemed even busier as we got caught in a kind of ‘boat jam’!

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Many of the people living along the river are poor, and some of the shacks were made up of precariously-patched corrugated iron that looked like they could blow away at any moment.

As we passed through some of the smaller canals, the surroundings took on a jungle-like effect. The lady taking our boat stopped to cut mystery fruit from trees and to point out plants such as water coconut.

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In this area, our boat’s propellor got caught in floating plastic no less than five times. The lady’s son had to cut it free with a small knife every time (of course, the errant plastic simply got dumped back in the river). There was a lot of non-biodegradable rubbish in this area which was a shame but the locals probably don’t have anywhere else to put it or perhaps they assume it will be magically picked up somewhere down the line.

We also saw a rice noodle factory and stopped at a restaurant along the way for a bite to eat and a swing on the hammocks. We also had people come up to us and give us a surprise massage which cost about $3 – six times cheaper than the Walk In Backrub in London!

We also stopped by to take a walk along one of the nicer-looking villages, where the adolescent boy tried to show off his macho-ness by stabbing his small knife into the coconut trees and trying to rip off leaves as he led us past the beaten track.

I recommend doing a tour like ours – we were on our very own boat, unlike the really fast tourist boats that barely stop for air when they go past the markets. There’s a tour office on the main promenade in Can Tho which should be able to point you in the right direction. We paid $24 for an eight hour tour but I think you could probably do better.

At the end of a relaxing morning we had lunch (again) at the vegetarian restaurant across the road from our hotel, where the little old lady who ran the joint had forced Rob to eat the last few grains of his rice with a spoon otherwise it would go to waste. Who could say no to a little old lady? The meal the day before cost us $1 in total including drinks and soup — the cheapest meal yet. In fact, most of the meals we’ve eaten have cost less than the Malarone anti-malarial tablets we’ve been taking (a month so far, with no side effects) which are about $6 a pop.

Posted by: rob | August 4, 2007

Chau Doc to Phnom Penh

Hopefully others wanting to do the same route will stumble upon my ramblings and commit to memory: 1) The slow boat is nice, 2) Never use Delta Adventure Tours.

We left the Vietnamese town of Chau Doc headed toward Phnom Penh, Cambodia, just 165km away. It took 10 hours by two boats and a bus. There is a 4-hour ‘express boat’ ($18) that was sold out, except our hotel landlady somehow had two tickets left for $40 each. Not wanting to fatten her coffers we found a cyclo driver that knew of a different speedboat. A few minutes later he had dropped us at – you guessed it – Delta Adventure Tours. Argh! An hour later we’d determined there was no speedboat, so we had to sign up with Delta Adventures for a slow boat ($8), the group we’d had all sorts of annoyances with.

Next day up and ready for the 7.30 AM cyclos that the Delta lady said she would send for us in order to make the 8.00 departure. 7.40 and no Cyclo so we hired a motodop driver to take us to the Delta office and sort out the problem, as we didn’t know exactly where the slow boat would depart from. A short ride later we were on the boat. It has room for 35 people, and there were 35 pieces of luggage, but there were no people and no staff spoke English. Shortly before 9.00 it putt-putted off with only us aboard, past the shanties that surround Chau Doc, then moored again. Finally at 9.30 AM the Delta tour group shuffled on board (we were the only independent travellers) and the boat departed, 90 minutes late. The journey is along the chocolate coloured Mekong river, Bassac river, and their tributaries. It’s almost all very beautiful. The guide hops off halfway with the collection of passports to speed the process and three hours later you arrive and hop ashore for a few minutes at the border.

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Another comedy ensued here. We couldn’t see the guide anywhere and the other 30 Delta passengers stood in a clump as they tend to do. Kim and I went searching other areas for her and soon enough the other 30 followed us. In the middle of nothingness stands an X-ray machine in a glass booth, operated by an old Vietnamese guy. One passenger felt the urge to put his stuff through and 15 minutes later all 30 lemmings had followed suit, casting suspicious eyes at Kim and I who had not. “Who told you to come here! Who told you to do this!” said the guide as she came running over. The Delta passengers were basically trying to re-enter Vietnam.

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On to a second, smaller boat, but one that lets you sit on the roof. All the Delta people had their luggage through into a giant haystack at the back of the boat, which we managed to avoid after some Dont Mess With Me wrestling with the boatman. This three hour trip is the best of the journey. Cambodia looks immediately different. Far less infrastructure, more rural, no lights, no vehicles, more barnyard animals. But for three hours children line the shore 100m away yelling “Hello!”, smiling their beaming white smiles, and waving frantically. It’s not an exaggeration to say there are kids every few hundred metres. Soon everyone on the boat was also waving, smiling, and shouting hello back. Great fun!

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The second boat pulls up at Neak Leung, some 60km from Phnom Penh, for passengers to catch an onward bus. The Delta ticket lady has sworn there was no bus involved but we expected this to happen. ‘Bus’ is an exaggeration as it is a small minibus and large minibus outside someones crumbling home. We jumped in the comfier looking small bus along with a German family of six, the father of whom looked like Chevy Chase and his son like Rusty from National Lampoons. This minivan took us for 90 minutes along the worst road I’ve ever experienced in my life and hopefully ever will. Continuous 10″ deep potholes and corrugations. The handholds in the van had all been ripped out long ago, and the seats were now bolted to 4×2 pieces of wood as they’d come loose over the potholes. Even the window wouldn’t close due to the constant shuddering it had endured. At least there were only 10 of us in the van.

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As it usual with such outfits when you arrive at your destination Delta drops you in the middle of nowhere at a dodgy hotel (strangely named Kings Hotel) with people grabbing at you and your bags so that they score your money for a nights rest. Don’t do it. Hotels are crazy cheap in Phnom Penh so head into town on the first non-affiliated tuk-tuk.

Despite all this we had an excellent day adventuring. From Chau Doc you have little choice but to take one of these boats as there are no cars or flights as alternative. Just make sure you never use Delta Adventure Tours!

Posted by: rob | August 2, 2007

The perils of being a middle child

Throughout our travels in Asia we’ve been on the look out for the four-leafed clover of motorbike seating – five people on one small bike. This was the second spotted of three so far, and the only one I’ve been able to catch on camera. They were laughing as I tried to take the photograph. With a bit of effort, I think they could have made it six. This from a bouncing bus as we left Saigon en route to the Mekong Delta.

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– Rob

Posted by: rob | August 2, 2007

Streets of Saigon

As you may have noticed, sometimes our entries are out of order, I hope it is not too confusing. We are now in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, waiting for the afternoon monsoon rains to subside. Here are some photographs taken a few days ago in the Chinatown (Cho Lon) area of Saigon showing people going about their business. We didn’t see any tourists or westerners during our walk around. The Chinatown area is vast, a sizeable portion of Saigon itself, but there are few hotels or westernised restaurants around here. Instead it is never ending streets of markets and foodstalls.

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– Rob

Posted by: kim | July 30, 2007

Of mice and middlemen

In theory, if you calculate the distance from Saigon to the Mekong Delta it should only take a couple of hours by road. The real story? It’ll probably take up most of your day and age you ten years. Forget the swerving Honda scooters and the meandering waterways that force your bus to take indirect routes. Your biggest problem will be dealing with tour companies that stretch the truth about what services they can offer you, all in the name of making a quick buck.
Take Delta Adventure Tours. We wanted to buy a simple, one-way air-conditioned bus ticket to the town of Can Tho.
“It take four hours,” the agent at the office said. “You leave 7.30am.”
“Is the bus air conditioned? Can we put our bags under the bus, rather than stack them on the roof ? Will we have to share with fifty-six reeking gap year students with posh voices and fungal toenails? Will we get there by lunchtime?”
Yes, yes, no and yes, apparently. We paid our seven dollars apiece, assuming we’d have a busload full of people bound for Can Tho, possibly picked up from some of the many agencies operating in the area.
We got there early, missing the hotel breakfast. Gradually, the group of people in front of the tour office swelled to zoo-like proportions. Seemed like every tour on the planet departed from here. There were people on three-day Mekong Delta tours, armed with backpacks that resembled inefficient Swiss Army knives; their cups, inflatable mattresses and shoes tied desperately onto them. Other French people on a day trip, tentatively clutching Routard guides. Australian girls on overnight trips with festering mosquito bites on their arms and ankles.
“ONE DAY TOUR HERE,” a woman shrieked, as we all crossed the small road and waited for a slick of snail-paced buses to creep their way up the road. “THREE DAY THAT BUS!” Tourists scurried this way and that, huffing and puffing. Where the hell was our bus, then?
Turned out we had to share ours with the one-day Delta Adventure tour group. The thirty-year-old tour guide immediately let everyone know she was single and giggled coquettishly when she discovered that there was one single guy on the bus, then launched into some vaguely interesting facts about Vietnam life. Soon after, she told people what they were going to expect on their tour today. But what about us? We just bought a one way ticket to Can Tho and were along for the ride. We didn’t want a three hour boat trip or a stop at the local village to try fruit. We wanted to go direct to Can Tho. We paid seven dollars apiece for an air conditioned, safe bus without hanging around for any tour group.
“When does this arrive at Can Tho?” we asked the tour guide.
“Maybe you wait for tour group to finish boat trip at Cai Be. You walk around village. Maybe 1pm we leave and take you Can Tho.”
Excuse me? The tour group was due to arrive at Cai Be at 10am. We’d have to walk around the village for three hours?
“But your office said we’d go straight to Can Tho by 1pm. No waiting. Cai Be is still a couple of hours from Can Tho.”
“If you no wait, then maybe you take local bus from Vinh Long. It easy to get ticket.”
Local bus? We didn’t pay an agency for any dilapidated local bus. We could have done that ourselves. We decided to play it by ear. After a short time, the bus pulled over at a rest stop where people could go to the toilet (the tour guide said it was where you could “go sing a song to the river”), use hammocks and buy drinks.
“You all change bus now,” the guide told the group. We all had to switch buses and go to a slightly smaller one. “I sorry. My boss say we all change bus now.”
She giggled at the confused passengers, including a couple like us who were only going halfway, to Vinh Long. They were also screwed around. “We didn’t want to join some tour group,” the male half of the couple grumbled. “It’s so hard to travel independently here.”

Snakes and dragons

The guide then resumed her commentary. “You know, I used to have boyfriend. But I born in 1977. I’m a snake according to Chinese horoscope. Very strong. Also, seven lucky number so I double lucky. If you born in 1976, you a dragon, very good.”
I mentioned that I was also born in the ‘lucky’ year 1977. But I wasn’t bothered to explain that I was also a dragon rather than a snake, because I was born before the start of the Chinese New Year.
The guide continued. “I was compatible with boyfriend, but his mother was a Tiger. Snake no get along with Tiger. When I want to marry boyfriend, I have to live with mother too because he only son. So I no marry boyfriend. He upset, he follow me. But by then I with another boyfriend.” She giggled again.
We then had to sit through more of this sob story and a few more questionable facts such as how superstitious and pure the Buddhists were compared to Catholics, of which she was one.
Eventually, the bus pulled up at Cai Be and the tour group tumbled out of the bus. The guide told us and the other couple to wait; Vinh Long was half an hour away.
Rob went out of the bus and followed the Snake to the tour group. The driver of our bus was about to pull away but we explained we still had to wait for Rob to clarify matters. I could see Rob and the Snake arguing as he tried to explain that we bought a ticket to get us to Can Tho, not to go on some local bus we could have organised ourselves.
We all looked out of the window as Rob argued fervently with the woman who appeared to be standing her ground. (“I want a refund,” Rob told the woman. “What, we take you all the way here for nothing?” the Snake protested. “Yes. What a waste of time it was.”) After about five minutes Rob came in and proclaimed victory, and that the driver would take us to the ferry crossing near Can Tho. But we didn’t see him answer the phone or speak to anyone so how would he know what to do?
Eventually, we got to Vinh Long. The other couple wished us luck and the driver motioned for us to get out. Hang on, we wanted to go to Can Tho. It was just 40 minutes away. He couldn’t speak English so I minded the bags while Rob and the driver went across the road to an unaffiliated tour desk. Luckily Rob had the business card of Delta Adventure tours and managed to call the head office. After speaking to three people, a manager finally relented and the driver was given instructions to take the two of us to Can Tho.

Once there, we had to take a ferry (free) the ten minutes or so across the river to Can Tho itself, as the bus was unable to cross it. We were accosted by various ‘guides’ and many motorcycle drivers who wanted to take us to Can Tho, but we were going to go on the ferry on foot. The frenzy of motorcycles that were crammed into the ferry was entertaining to behold.
Can Tho itself was a small town by Western standards. Once we got to the hotel, a man who’d been talking to the receptionist explained how he could organise an eight hour tour of the Mekong Delta. We talked him down from $30 to $24 for two people. It would involve seeing two floating markets, a rice noodle factory and lunch at an “orchard” (extra cost for food). It sounded OK, so we paid and got a receipt. Later we decided it might be a good idea to get a mini bus to Chau Doc, the main Vietnamese border town that receives travellers going to and from Cambodia. We said we wanted to leave at 3.30pm and he made a phone call and told us to be in front of the hotel then. We paid $5 apiece and got a receipt.
The Mekong tour was great; we had to be ready by 5.30am but we were able to see the authentic market sellers with their rambutan, soursop, carrot, bananas, pineapples, taro… even slabs of ice. Travelling along the river you see the tin shacks and people washing clothes (and themselves) in the muddy water — even brushing their teeth. The river was their lifeline. The mother and teenage son on our small motorised rowboat stopped in the canals to cut fruit from trees including water coconut and some mystery fruit. But we will talk more about that in a later post. We got back by lunchtime and after that, we waited for our mini bus. A small taxi seating about 6 other people pulled up. We tried to clarify if this was going to Chau Doc. Turns out that the taxi was only going to Can Tho bus depot. The hotel staff couldn’t really understand us when we explained that we paid for a mini bus to Chau Doc. Our ‘agent’ proved elusive. Eventually the hotel said that the taxi would take us to the depot and the agent would meet us there, and from then we could go to Chau Doc. It was then that we realised he was only ever going to book us a seat on local mini bus – again, we could have done that ourselves. Oh well.
When we got there, the agent was nowhere to be seen. We had about ten people offer to take us to Chau Doc but then they wanted us to pay. We tried to explain that we had paid and it was all very frustrating. Eventually we told a girl about what had happened and I think she just let us on the mini bus because she felt sorry for us. If we’d gone to the depot ourselves we would have paid $2.50 each, not $5, we discovered. The cowardly agent was nowhere to be found but luckily we didn’t have to pay any extra.

The moral of all this palaver is that if you want to travel independently, don’t do it through a middleman or make sure you aren’t going with some tour group.
And now? Well, we’re trying to get to Cambodia and unfortunately we had little choice but to go with the Delta crowd again. We were told we aren’t going to be with a tour group that does some three hour detour but I’ll believe it when I see it!

Posted by: kim | July 30, 2007

Mister Binh and the Cu Chi tunnels

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Vietnam has been so heavily scarred by war (it was essentially at war from 1860-1980) that you can not go a day without reminders, and no more so than on the tourist trail.

We spent a sapping afternoon at the War Remnants Museum. It is the most popular tourist site in Vietnam. The photographs of agent orange victims, of tortured villagers, of destroyed schools in and after the Vietnam war make you feel sick to your core. The most disturbing are those of the kids born with agent orange deformities .These kids fathers were farm workers in the period that the US dropped agent orange defoliant to clear the jungle. There are grotesque grisly photographs of trophy corpses, shredded bodies, and even jars of pickled fetuses. (No pictures, sorry!). There were hundreds of tourists in the museum but it was the quietest museum I’ve ever been in. Outside, enormous unexploded bombs stand as horrible sculptures. All visitors appeared to be very moved by the experience.

Next day to the Cu Chi tunnels. We’ve already written about the Vinh Moc tunnels near the DMZ where villagers hid from the war. The Cu Chi tunnels are completely different. These tunnels lie just 60km from Saigon and were a vital part of the Viet Cong war effort. At 260km long, they were a cunning method to sabotage nearby US bases, to facilitate guerilla warfare, to meet and plan, and to provide supplies. Incredibly the tunnels are only 1.3m high and 60cm wide.

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It’s not particularly easy to travel independently in Vietnam. As the place is overrun with tourists it is far easier to tag along with a cheap tour group than do it on your own. $7 will get you a 7 hour tour. The price is being forced to listen to a tour guide’s spiel. This time the guide was mildly interesting, at least at first. Vietnamese born, he left Saigon in 1968 aged 19 to join the US army in the US. Shipped back to commence his tour of duty in 1970, his mission was to rescue MIA soldiers on the Mekong river. After the war he stayed put in Saigon, was sent to “reunification camp” and these days is a tour guide. Some of his tale seemed a bit fanciful, especially as he has had 17 years to hone the story, but it kept out interest for most of the time. The crowd seemed to like that his name was Mister Binh (Mister Bean). I find it difficult to believe that after recounting his tale every day for 17 years he uncontrollably sheds a tear at 9.27am as he recounts his personal chronology, and yet more difficult to believe he was the one who took down the last US flag in Saigon. Nevertheless, he’s lived an action packed life.

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As with all these tours you make a stop to buy souvenirs so that the guide can collect a commision. This time at the “Handicapped Handicrafts Shop”. Next time you get dressed or wash your clothes you should look at the label as chances are the clothes were made in Vietnam by workers earning a pittance. Workers at the HHS looked happy enough, maybe because the money goes more directly to them. It’s hard to establish the truth but Vietnam is said to look after its war wounded and agent orange children. All over the cities you see amputees in specially made mobile road-ready wheelchairs that look like railroad pushcars from a cartoon. But there are also hundreds of billboards over Vietnam that have apparently propaganda messages about how good the government is, with soldiers hugging children and the like (I have pictures of these, I hope to be able to post when I’m in a more modern place).

 With one thousand visitors a day, the tunnels themselves are a major attraction. You are shuffled around in minibus sized groups of 20 so the place does not actually feel crowded as or even busy. First you watch a really poor video that shows the heroic vietnamese girls fighting in trenches, the video is so bad that I’d recommend sitting outside and resting for 10 minutes. Then you walk through a series of spots in the forest that show aspects of the tunnel. There is a trap to catch sniffer dogs. There is a display of the various booby traps laid inside the tunnels to inflict pain on fat american invaders, but best of all there is a reconstructed tunnel entrance to show how well hidden they were. You can try out the entrance for yourself but even skinny me would have trouble getting inside.

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Next on to the shooting range where you can try out AK-47s, M16s, and so on for $1.30 a bullet. As Mr Binh noted before we arrived, it is “particularly popular with British tourists”. The 19 year old gap year kids each blew away 30-40 dollars on bullets. Everyone else waited just 10 metres away while they got their testosterone fix. Even this was educational as we got to smell and hear what the scene must have been like as 19 year old soldiers killed each other decades ago.

Finally to the tunnels themselves. It’s left to last as some may find them disappointing. If you are above average size there is no way you could fit and several of our group opted out. Kim and I managed to go only the first 40 metres of 100 before escaping. I was too tall to walk bent over and had to shuffle forward on my haunches in 40C heat. Many of those who shot guns felt they had to go the full distance and emerged at the recreated hospital covered in dirt. Humourously a posh English kid who had no troubles shooting an M16 was too scared to go into the tunnels (“I don’t like confined spaces”). A fun day with interesting sites that only just beat the nuisance value of a bus tour and Mister Binh.

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We’re currently at the border of Vietnam and Cambodia after a few days of unbelievably beautiful experiences and unbelievably awful bureaucracy. Like all border towns, Chau Doc has an otherwordly frontier feel about it. If all goes to plan we’ll be in Phnom Penh in 24 hours. Tonight is another night in a $10 hotel on the Mekong River hiding from 30 bazillion mosquitoes huddled under a mosquito net.

– rob

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