Everest Base Camp Trek 2018 (2) – Preparing in Pokhara.

Phewa Lake, Pokhara

Ashok pays me a visit at my hostel in Kathmandu.  I have met him before, during my first trip to Nepal in 2015 a few months after the big earthquake, when I did a shorter trek in the Annapurna Range near Pokhara.  This time he – or his travel agency more precisely – has sorted out my Everest Base Camp trip and he has come to shed light on the finer details of my itinerary…

‘You will be leaving for Lukla on 22nd October,’ he explains.  The 22nd?  This is the first time this date has been mentioned to me.  I had previously discussed 20th October and led to believe this was THE date.  ‘Ashok,’ I deplore him, ‘why am I the last one to know about the change of date?  My visa, my insurance, flight to Malaysia are all based on leaving for my trek on the 20th…’  As trekking over 4600m is considered ‘extreme adventure’, my normal insurance does not cover EBC and I have had to purchase an additional policy, just in case of an emergency requiring a helicopter rescue… 

I had given myself some leeway at the end – or so I thought – as flights to and from Lukla are notoriously unreliable and trekkers often get stuck for a day or two waiting for the weather and flying conditions to improve so that planes are able to take off and land on one of the shortest and most dangerous runways in the world…  Having spent enough time in the Far East now, the sudden change of itinerary should not have come as a surprise.  Without any malice on their part, travel agents and tour operators assume they know best and have the right to make changes as they see fit, without any prior consultation.  I take a deep breath and decide to go with the flow.  Not that I have any other option really and it gives me two extra days to get my legs and muscles into shape.

After five weeks on the road, I have not seen the inside of a gym since the end of August.  Apart from scaling the Lang Biang peak near Dalat on a very wet and soggy afternoon and some short cycling ventures in Vietnam and Cambodia, exercise has been seriously lacking in my daily routine.  So I arrive in Nepal 10 days (or 12 as it turns out) ahead of my EBC trek and set off for Pokhara, for some pre-trek trekking.  Nothing too serious, mind, merely a few day trips in and around the town to give my boots a feel of the ‘real’ surface they will be tackling, not just the cushioned version of the treadmill. 

Money conscious and adventure hungry, I make the journey to Pokhara by bus.  It may not be as comfortable as a flight, but at least you get to see more of the country.  Ashok has purchased my ticket, and I have been allocated seat 17A.  Early the next morning I make my way to the bus depot on the outskirts of Kathmandu’s Thamel area: a long line of buses from various companies all heading in the direction of Pokhara.  It is festival season, Dusshera and Tahir are imminent and many city dwellers go back to the villages to be with their families.  Buses are packed, no seats left unsold.  I find the right bus, suitcase in the hold, first passenger on the bus and am shown my seat…  Of all the seats in the bus, mine happens to be the middle one on the back row.  ‘This is my seat??’ I query rather pointlessly… ‘The middle one with the broken seat belt??’  There is no sympathy from the bus ‘conductor’ and I reluctantly take my seat.  If the dust and uneven road surfaces of Kathmandu are anything to go by, I am in for an eventful ride.

The roads out of Kathmandu are gridlocked. Cars, buses, lories crawl along and the air is choked with exhaust fumes and dry earth.  It does not take long for the caravan of traffic to spread out a bit and our bus finally picks up speed.  On the upside, we may actually get to Pokhara in one day, on the other hand… the driver does not seem to mind racing through the myriad of giant potholes sprayed across the road surface.   With nothing to hold onto – apart from my fellow travelers on the right and left side of me – it is but for the grace of my still rapid reflexes that I do not end up on the driver’s lap.  I am catapulted forwards, propelled upwards at every bump and pothole as the driver plows on regardless, not even slowing in the least when the road surface may demand it for the safety and convenience of the passengers, or to prolong the roadworthiness of the vehicle we are traveling in…

‘Are you a Christian?’ my left-hand neighbour asks.  The question takes me by surprise, it is not one of the usual ones: ‘Where are you from?’  ‘What’s your ‘good name’?’ and ‘Where is your husband?’  Although, come to think of it, the last one has recently been replaced with a surprised ‘You’re traveling on your own?’ ‘I thought I heard you say ‘Jesus’,’ he continues…  Having just survived a particularly nasty hump in the road which literally lifted me off my seat, I count myself lucky that nothing more offensive escaped my lips… Still, I like honesty, so I admit to being Christian, albeit one who doesn’t very often set foot in church…  He is also Christian, only a ‘New Christian’ recently converted in the wake of the last earthquake in Nepal, one who believes that God is about to send his son again to Earth.  ‘Soon,’ he explains, ‘he needs to come very soon to show people how to live.  Before mad people such as Kim Jong-un from North Korea start the third world war.’  I cannot recall whether he added Trump to this list of potential hazards to peace on the planet… Definitely a different take on Christianity than the one I am familiar with, but to every man his creed…   

Left-hand neighbour  speaks impeccable English.  Clearly  intelligent but not particularly studious, he left school at an early age and  spent a few years in Dubai ‘working in sales’ and perfecting his English – the  lingua franca amongst expats from poorer countries such as India, Nepal and The  Philippines.  The expats who do all the  hard work and have literally built the Middle Eastern skyscrapers and emporiums…But missing his home, he returned to Nepal and now makes a living as a porter.  On this trip he is part of a team of guides  and porters accompanying a group of Indian trekkers who are aiming to reach  Annapurna Base Camp.  Left-hand neighbour  enjoys this work.  ‘It may be tough,’ he  agrees, but this way he can afford to travel and see the fantastic sights in  his own country…  Sometimes it is easy to  forget that visiting these amazing and incredible places on earth is a huge privilege  not granted to everyone, not even the local people… Still, left-hand neighbour  is only 22, with a life of opportunities ahead of him.

After a long eight-hour journey, we reach Pokhara.  Whilst left-hand neighbour sets off to transport the luggage of his charges, I head for my guest house and my first short-distance trek the next day.  I just potter around really. With brand new inner-soles in my hiking boots – a concession to plantar fasciitis – I know that my feet have to get accustomed to the new arch support before I should attempt longer hikes.  But as everything seems well after day one, I feel ready for a serious uphill stretch to Sarangkot, a popular tourist destination with a viewpoint at 1592m. On a clear and cloudless day, the hilltop not only offers incredible views of the Pokhara Valley, but also spectacular vistas of the snowcapped mountains of the Annapurna Massif, Fishtail Mountain, Dhaulagiri range and Manaslu.  As my previous visit to Nepal coincided with the tail end of the monsoon, I never saw the full panoramic stretch and I am counting on having more luck this time at the top of Sarangkot.

Not a great view of the mountains, but the best one I get to see during my stay in Pokhara…  Taken from the rooftop of my first guesthouse on the first morning…

‘The hike up to Sarangkot will take about an hour,’ I am assured at my guesthouse.  ‘The trail starts where the paragliders land,’ the host adds for good measure.  I had already walked as far as the landing spot – or at least one of the spots – the previous day, so I have some idea of where to start … and for everything else, there is Google Maps, I reason.  On my way I stop to ask some further directions from a fellow hiker.  We both consult Google Maps on our smart phones and yes, it seems we have identified the spot.  ‘But,’ he tags on, ‘if I can give you some advice???  Don’t focus on the destination, enjoy the hike…’ 

It turns out to be sound advice!  What had been described as a one-hour uphill hike ends up lasting about three to four hours.  Admittedly, I stop on a few occasions to take interesting photographs; I am distracted by a young girl showing me her house and the fat, juicy goat that will be slaughtered for the upcoming festival; 

I watch some children trying to coach their kites into the air – flying kites is part of the fun of Dusshera;

and I am mesmerized by the paragliders twisting and twirling as they float over the Pokhara Lake and valley…   

But my main error is to rely on Google Maps which shows the 4×4 track up to Sarangkot, not the hikers trail.  ‘Look,’ a German hiker later clarifies, ‘the hiking trails are clearly marked on MapsMe…’ as she points me in the right direction for a shortcut to the top.  I make a mental note to download yet another app on my phone for future solo hiking adventures… By then I am puffing up the hill, and my knees are starting to protest even before I make it to the hundreds of steps up to the viewing point… I persevere all in the name of ‘practice for the real trek’ because the panoramic mountain view I am hoping for is stubbornly cloaked in clouds…  At least the greenery of the valley and the colourful paragliding parachutes make for a worthwhile spectacle.  The downhill route, although much shorter, is even more arduous than getting up to the viewpoint.  My knees are definitely not happy, so I hobble and limp down the steep slopes and the countless steps on the way down.  It doesn’t bode well for my intended EBC trip…Maybe a rest day is what I need!!

What better way to give my legs a break than getting up into the air.  A spot of paragliding seems a good plan, and maybe, just maybe the cloud cover will lift to reveal the mountains…  This time I get a ride up to the paragliding launch spot, along the windy roads to Sarangkot.  Much quicker and easier than a hike!!!  Although the paraglide is indeed awesome, the weather does not play ball and apart from a glimpse of The Fishtail, the rest of the mountains remain hidden behind the clouds… Still, it does not detract from the fun and adventure of using the thermals in the air to get a bird’s eye view of Pokhara.

With the pain in my knee slowly subsiding over the next few days, I continue my (shorter and easier) treks in the area and visit parts of Pokhara I missed last time.  I take a boat across the Phewa lake and climb the many steps up to the World Peace Pagoda, a stunning Buddhist monument to peace, with on a clear day amazing views of the Himalayas…  Not when I am there unfortunately.

I hike to the Davis Falls, named after a Swiss woman who drowned there when she went for a swim, and the Gupteshwor Mahadev Cave opposite.  As it is holiday season, the cave is packed with tourists making the journey down the dimly lit path and the slippery steps a little treacherous.  I actually find it a very claustrophobic as I am swallowed up by the crowd, so I don’t take time to enjoy the stalagmites and stalactites and just take a quick snapshot of the bottom of the waterfall, barely visible through the mist and a narrow gap in the rock face.

This building marks the entrance to the cave complex.

Later, I walk amongst rice paddies, cross wonky bridges and watch locals prepare for the festival of Dusshera. 

With just a couple of days  left to the big day of Dusherra, goats are being slaughtered, houses cleaned and garments washed…  

And in parks and other large open spaces, enormous bamboo-pole swings have been erected and children of all ages are testing their agility.  Nepal is getting ready for its biggest festival of the year.

My bus ride back to Kathmandu is rather uneventful but at least this time I have a safer seat.  Kathmandu, and even the touristy Thamel area,is rather quiet on my return.  Many shops and restaurants have closed for Dusshera and the few that remain open are packed with tourists in need of food and coffee.  Luckily, most of the outlets selling and hiring trekking gear are open for business. It may well be festival season, but October and November are busy trekking months so it’s also the time for businesses to make their money. 

I spend my last three days before leaving for Lukla sorting out my trekking kit: hiring sleeping bag and down jacket; buying warm thermals and a fleece and plenty of energy bars…  I even (optimistically) add some shampoo sachets.  And of course, the packets of painkillers I brought from the UK in February…  A little bit of discomfort is not going to keep me from climbing that hill, but better be prepared for the downhill stretches that will definitely test my knee joints…

Base Camp Everest, here I come…

Everest Base Camp trek 2018 (1) – Answering the irresistible call of the mountains

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And this is where I must abandon the chronology of my blog..  Events kind of overtook my ‘well-laid’ plans plus I had clearly not considered that the amount of time taken up by adventures and fun would leave me woefully short of time to chronicle it all.  Maybe I was trying to cram in too many countries and exploits in too short a time?  Central and Southern Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal and some parts of Malaysia in the space of three months may have been a little ambitious.  Not that I hadn’t allowed for restful periods: in Cambodia a whole week had been set aside for beach and island romps, a little respite before tackling the ruins and temples of Angkor Wat.  However, as one of my sisters passed away quite suddenly in Belgium, I went on a hurried one week jaunt across the globe to attend the funeral, whilst Liz found her wings and ventured solo to the island of Koh Rong before completing the rest of ‘our’ Cambodia itinerary – Siem Reap and Angkor Wat – on her own.  As plans go, it is my intention to catch up on the parts of Cambodia I missed before heading back to Vietnam early next year, so I will make a little detour via Siem Reap and its famous and fabulous ‘city of temples’.  Blog posts about Cambodia to follow then..  In the meantime, on to Nepal..

It is early October and I stay in a hostel in Pokhara.  Being a traveler on my own, finding company once in a while is a must and hostels are usually friendly places full of friendly, like-minded people who are often interested in similar experiences.  In Nepal, chats about completed and impending treks fill the air over breakfast, mid-morning coffees and dinner.  It’s a comfortable place to be, no one queries the sanity of my planned endeavour – reaching Everest Base Camp before my creaky bones and knees give out.  It is not necessary, we understand each other, we dream the same dream.  We know it is going to be tough and arduous and maybe we will not succeed, but the pull to test our limits in one of the world’s highest mountain ranges is irresistible.

‘You can see the Himalayas and Mount Everest on the TV,’ my brother-in-law pointed out just a few weeks ago; he does not get it and I struggle to explain the difference.  One evening in Pokhara, over bowls of ramen in a Japanese restaurant, on the eve of her Annapurna Base Camp trek, a Dutch girl sighs, ‘Why are we doing this?  The cold, the exhaustion, the headaches at high altitude?  It’s going to be sooo tough…’   There are only smiles because we all share her sentiment and, still, none of us waver in our resolve to answer the call of the mountains.  It is a compulsion, as necessary as the air we breathe.

I cannot honestly pinpoint the exact moment I decided to attempt trekking to Everest Base Camp, but the seed was planted in my mind quite some time ago.  Almost 10 years ago, I joined a Charity Challenge, trekking through the Lares Valley of Peru and visiting Machu Picchu.  At the time, the five – or was it six – day trek did not seem challenging enough; there was discomfort, don’t get me wrong, but as a ‘challenge’, it did not match my expectations..  I did not feel challenged!!  Kilimanjaro beckoned… Maybe a summit at just under 6000m would be more taxing.

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Somehow Tanzania and Mount Kilimanjaro remained a fantasy as so often life gets in the way and plans needed to be adapted to reality… Kids at uni, job uncertainty all took priority.  But my life and options changed dramatically when in 2014 I embarked on my ‘5-year gap year’ and ended up working in South East Asia.  Suddenly the master of my own destiny, Everest Base Camp – rather than reaching the peak of Kilimanjaro – moved into the realms of possibility.  It was just a case of finding the right time between contracts to coincide with the most opportune trekking weather: spring time in March or April or the autumn months of October or November…  Neither period fitted particularly well with the normal school year, and with the window of opportunity shrinking each year (I have noticed, I am not getting any younger.. what went wrong??), I knew I needed to plan for an extended travel period around any EBC venture…  My contract in Vietnam coming to an end early September, and a promise to the kids to be in the UK for Christmas, there seemed no better time than now…

Reaching Everest Base Camp is not an easy feat, but with the right preparation and mindset, and of course the right footwear, it is not impossible to achieve.  Many people with fewer and many people with more grey hairs than me have proven this..  Good, well-worn boots are essential though…  Just a year or so ago, I owned a lovely pair of snug, warm walking boots bought in China to keep my feet warm in the minus-20 January temperatures of Harbin. But in the cull of possessions that inevitable accompanies a move to a different country (from China to Vietnam in this instance), they did not make it into my suitcase when I slipped away… Surely, it would not be that difficult to replace them in Vietnam, the country of good quality (?) counterfeit brand names, I had reasoned.   And although I’d had the opportunity to purchase a new pair in February during my last UK visit,  there were too many things to cram into the two-week holiday, so I dispensed with such errands, focusing instead on quality time with the kids.  On my return to Vietnam, I scoured the shops in Quang Ngai, I traipsed recommended stores in Hanoi, I even tried my luck in the many hiking gear shops in Sapa but a pair of decent-looking, reliable boots that would stand a chance of taking me blister-free to EBC and back again appeared elusive.

In desperation, I combed through the depths of the internet for the Vietnamese equivalent of Amazon… And, hey presto, I found them!!   The perfect pair of boots, exactly the same as a pair I owned before, so they were sure to be a perfect fit.  And at an excellent price…  a bargain, indeed…  until they were delivered.  Being British, and still part of Europe’s free market, I was totally oblivious of the existence of ‘import duty’…  What had seemed such a good buy at the time, turned out a rather expensive purchase as the import duty more or less equalled the cost of the boots…  Still, I needed them.  Everything else I could buy or hire in Katmandu, but comfortable boots were non-negotiable..  So I grumbled and grumbled even more,  but with no alternative I chalked this one up to experience, an experience to avoid in future…

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The rest of my pre-EBC groundwork mainly happened in the Quang Ngai gym.  Every week, without fail, two hour-long sessions on the treadmill wearing in my new, clean boots on ever steeper inclines with temperatures rocketing to above 35 degrees Celsius…  I wasn’t sure how effective it would be as preparation for high altitude trekking, but it was the best Quang Ngai had to offer and would have to do until I reached Pokhara in Nepal where I could practise on real hills and slopes…

 

Floating market?? What floating market?

20180916_154550Our last destination before crossing into Cambodia is the Mekong Delta.  Leaving the luxury of our backpackers hotel in Saigon, we have decided to get better acquainted with the real Vietnam and booked a homestay with Mr Tan on the island of Thoi Son, just a taxi ride away from the city of My Tho.   Rather than staying in a hotel, we are guests of the house and share accommodation, bathrooms, food..

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Delicious dinner cooked by Mr Tan’s sister.  We do not eat with the family, as they have their evening meal much earlier than we do.

By now accustomed to travelling as the locals do, we take a taxi (maybe not quite what the local do..) to the bus station on the outskirts of Saigon.  Buying the ticket is child’s play…finding the bus is not.  As not many people speak English and my Vietnamese is still at rock bottom after one year, it takes us a while to figure out that our bus simply is not yet at the depot and the numbers scribbled on the slip of paper (our ticket) is the number plate of the bus… In the meantime, we have been told in no uncertain terms that we should be sitting down, rather than inspecting every bus and asking every single driver if his is the bus we are looking for.  We wait patiently, buy much needed sustenance for the journey – we live on bread and water mostly – until  a big commotion from the woman behind the counter signals our bus is finally there and ready for boarding…

In My Tho we are picked up by our taxi and then travel onwards to the island of Thoi Son.  Mr Tan is a very amiable man, ready to please and ensure his guests have a great experience.  Even before we move our luggage into our rooms, Mr Tan has already contacted his friend, also called Mr Tan, who is a local guide and will be showing us around the neighbouring islands and the Mekong Delta.  Without so much as a discussion with us, it seems that Mr Tan, the tour guide, already has a pretty good idea about what we may be interested in, so we set off to get a flavour of the Mekong Delta, tour-guide-style..  Exotic fruit tasting, boat trip in the canals of the Delta, boat trip on the mighty river, wandering around orchards, the orchid garden all packed into three hours of sightseeing.  It’s not quite what we were expecting of a homestay adventure, but we go with the flow that afternoon, with the promise of a visit to the floating market in the morning…

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Still, the advantages of having a guide means being able to ask questions that a bicycle trip on our own would have left unanswered.  Although agriculture in the delta mainly focuses on rice cultivation and fishing, on the smaller islands farmers grow fruits such as pomelos, bananas, coconuts and loganberries.  To make the most of the fertile alluvium of the delta, farmers dig trenches and use the soil to build dams on which they can plant trees.   This ensures plenty of irrigation as well as protection from the saline waters that encroach the delta during the drier months.

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After a sumptuous dinner, courtesy of Mr Tan’s sister, and Liz succumbing to an all-night acute attack of deli belly courtesy of a dubious lunch in My Tho, we are off to the floating market the next day.  We have seen the photographs on the internet and have high expectations.  The floating markets in the Mekong Delta are definitely supposed to be one of the highlights of our visit to the region.

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The floating market – image courtesy of  https://cruisemekongriver.com/mekong-delta-destination-vietnamese-river-culture-floating-markets/

A short ferry crossing and a one-hour drive on the back of a motorbike later, we are transferred to a small boat to take us along the Mekong River.  There is plenty to be seen along the river banks.  Ramshackle dwellings of people barely emerging above the poverty line; wooden boats weighted down with rambutan and rice; a lone woman paddling her boat across a deserted river;  a solitary boat attracting tourists with offerings of exotic fruit.

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‘Where is the floating market?’ we ask… Our guide looks on sheepishly.  ‘This is it,’ he admits. ‘It’s raining and no one comes to the floating market on a rainy day..’  Rain has never been far away during our Vietnam trip and has indeed followed us to the Mekong Delta..   Although Mr Tan, our guide, could have been forgiven for not being in control of the weather, his next remark that the better and bigger market was further away did not go down very well with Liz and me.  Surely it was his job to tell us about the options and to leave the choice up to us…  We would gladly have sat on the back of a motorbike for another 100 km to be paddled through a melee of small boats packed with colourful produce bobbing on the river.  Surely, they could not all shy away from a bit of drizzle..

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Our mood lifted though once we arrived at our next stop where local artisan foods were produced and sold.  Although the set-up was clearly aimed at tourists, it was hard not to be impressed by the ‘popping rice’ spectacle.  The result may not be that different from pop-corn really, but the preparation method definitely is.  Black sand is heated to a very high temperature in a large skillet before the rice is added and then it doesn’t take long for the rice explosion to start.  The result was very yummy..

And although the ‘floating market’ can only be described as a disappointment, our little forays into the delta canals definitely made up for it.  They were great fun…

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A Brief History of The Vietnam War

 

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Being a child of the sixties, Vietnam has always been on my map.  It was catapulted into our living room through the television screen billowing grainy, black and white images of a harrowing war: the Vietnam war.

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We were not an affluent family and the luxury of the television in our household was mainly thanks to my grandmother, who lived with us.  I have vague recollections of the first landing on the moon, but more vividly, my early TV experiences focused on watching blond Swedish children, with interesting names such as Pelle and Tjorven, bring Astrid Lindgren’s stories to life.

Of course, my parents did not encourage us to feed on war images.  To the contrary, during The News, we were carefully shepherded into the kitchen to busy ourselves with more suitable activities, although I cannot now recall what they may have been.  Unfortunately, being rather wilful and wayward by nature and possessing a healthy dose of inquisitiveness, I often managed to sneak some glimpses of the world beyond the four walls of our living room and the small village that comprised my universe.  And the picture that has stayed with me was the execution in cold blood of an unarmed Vietnamese soldier or guerilla fighter on his knees pleading for his life…  He was shot in the head.  It wasn’t the most famous footage of that period and probably only one of many such images, but one that left a big impression on me at the time.   I can only surmise that my desire to teach in Vietnam stemmed from a certain curiosity to find out what had become of this far-away country I first learned about as a child.

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During our brief stay in Saigon, Liz and I visit two places linked to the Vietnam War: the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum.  The Cu Chi Tunnels focus mostly on how the Viet Cong managed to gain the upper hand in the war through employing ingenious guerrilla tactics from the depth of a warren of tunnels, deep underground with an escape route to the Mekong River.  A multitude of exhibits show how their methods and ways of deterring and fighting the enemy were often rather gruesome.  The tunnels were definitely not designed for Western bodies, and only the more slender built Vietnamese soldiers would have been able to move freely.  Out of our group of 15 or so, only Liz and I have the nerve – and the physique – to disappear into the darkness of the tunnel entrance, but I definitely need help getting out due to lack of upper-body strength…

If the Cu Chi Tunnels put the spotlight on the warfare strategies of the Viet Cong, the War Remnants Museum exposes the human cost of war, especially the long-lasting effects of Agent Orange  (a herbicide and defoliant chemical used by the American military forces) on the civilian population and war crimes and atrocities committed by the American troops, such as the My Lai Massacre.  This massacre of 504 mostly elderly men, women and children was a pivotal point in the Vietnam War and helped to shape public opinion in the USA and across the world.

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The Son My Memorial

Living in Quang Ngai, the My Lai story was already very familiar to me as the village of My Lai was but a mere 14 km from my place of work and each time I cycled to My Khe beach, I would pass the Son My Memorial.  This memorial to the victims of the My Lai Massacre is set in a peaceful garden reflecting the aftermath of that fateful day.  Burnt-out shells of homes stand in their original locations, each marked with a plaque listing the names and ages of the family members that once lived there.

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The killings were meticulously recorded by a US military photographer and these graphic images are the showcase of a powerful on-site museum.  The content is extremely harrowing; the rhetoric in the captions underneath hostile and testament to the still deep-felt anger towards the American ‘aggressors’.   A special section in the museum is devoted to a group of GIs who tried to intervene and shielded at least some of the villagers from certain death, as well as to those responsible for eventually bringing this atrocity to light.

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A little further south of Quang Ngai, in the town of Duc Pho, a statue has been erected and a clinic opened in memory of Dang Thuy Tram, a civilian doctor who worked as a battlefield surgeon for North Vietnam in makeshift hospitals and hidden clinics in and around Duc Pho during the escalation of the war.  Whilst on a mission to get supplies and food for her colleagues and patients, she was ambushed and killed by American soldiers.  Her story probably mirrors that of many other doctors and surgeons during the conflict, but her wartime diaries, which chronicle the last two years of her life, were published in 2005 and attracted international attention.

The war may have ended more than 40 years ago, its effects are still felt.  Agent Orange did not just immediately defoliate the vegetation and destroy the Viet Cong fighters’ cover and food supplies, it also killed soldiers directly affected and caused genetic mutations and multiple birth defects in the areas which were most heavily sprayed.  But chemical substances are indiscriminate, so it was not only the Vietnamese troops and civilians who suffered, many US soldiers were also affected.

On our way to the Cu Chi Tunnels, we inevitably stop at a ‘tourist shop’ where some second and third generation victims of Agent Orange (children and grandchildren of those directly in contact with Agent Orange) are gainfully employed making mementoes for tourists.  Here, the men and women use mother of pearl or egg shells to recreate images of Vietnam; in another such shop on the way to Halong Bay, disabled workers use embroidery to depict Vietnamese iconic scenes.

 

 

A few months ago, I met up with Esther and Paul, a retired American couple who have come to Vietnam to support the work at the Duc Pho Rehabilitation Centre for child victims of Agent Orange.  Esther is an occupational therapist and her role focuses on teaching the children strategies to become more independent, as well as mentoring and guiding the local staff.  Whilst the children attend the centre, mothers, who are normally the primary carers, have the opportunity to go out to work and earn money.  As these children are third generations victims, the families no longer receive financial support from the government and the burden falls entirely on the family.

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Interestingly though, the range of physical, mental and cognitive disabilities of the children in the centre pretty much reflects the normal spectrum of disabilities in the wider society, Downs’ Syndrome, autism…  Although there appears to be a higher incidence of children with disabilities in the areas affected by Agent Orange, the link with this herbicide is becoming more tenuous.  But being able to blame Agent Orange absolve the family from the stigma attached to having a disabled child.  Even in this modern era, a disabled child is seen as a punishment for some failure to please the ancestors…

A glimpse of Saigon.

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After Dalat, we head for Saigon.  Officially the city has long since been renamed as Ho Chi Minh City, after Uncle Ho, the founding father of the new Vietnam, but colloquially everyone sticks to using its old name: Saigon..  Having experienced the comfort and ease of Futa bus travel, we book ourselves on a day bus this time as it’s a shorter journey.  This way we can enjoy watching the passing scenery whilst stretching out leisurely in the reclining seats, although we have now added another Vietnamese travel essential – the obligatory face masks – just in case some cigarette smoke wafts our way…  Smoking is not allowed on the buses, but what can one do when it is the ‘conductor’ on the bus who is transgressing the rules..?

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Saigon is buzzing with energy and noise.  Motorbikes, cars, buses, trucks race across the town.  Pavements are often cluttered with stalls, parked motorbikes, open-air restaurants and the only way to get anywhere on foot is just to walk in the road…  It doesn’t strike us as particularly safe, but there is little alternative.  Crossing the road takes some guts as traffic spills from all sides, but the trick is not to waver and walk purposefully across without the slightest hesitation.

Our hotel – budget variety of course – is in the bustling backpacker area of Saigon.  Narrow streets crammed with hostels and cheaper-end-hotels mean that privacy takes on a different level.  From our room window, we peer straight into a room on the opposite side of the street… Not much to be seen though, apart from the builders who noisily start their work at 7 in the morning.  How do we always pick the hotels next to the building sites??

But what the hotel lacks in comfort and grandeur, is made up by the reception staff who go out of their way to accommodate our needs…  When the breakfast tea runs out at 6.00 am in the morning (I know, most of us would have checked our stores the night before…), one of the staff is immediately dispatched to buy some more.  It only takes 45 minutes to materialize. When Liz wants to send an urgent email with signed attachment to her son, someone offers to take her on a hair-raising jaunt across town on his motorbike after he has finished his shift.  And when the heavens yet again open, a pair of rice hats is conjured up from behind the desk to save us getting drenched…. I wonder whether staff in the Western world would always be so willing to go the extra mile with a smile…

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Unfortunately, the damp weather stays with us for a little longer.  An impending typhoon hitting Northern Vietnam and brushing Southern China mid-September causes more rain in the South…  It doesn’t exactly enamour us of Saigon and we hardly see any of the city, apart from the immediate surroundings of our hotel, and of course the must-see destinations of the Cu Chi tunnels and the War Remnants Museum.

However, we make time for the finer things in life and where better to taste exotic flavours than in a cosmopolitan city such as HCMC…  Hibiscus Tea anyone?

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Or eclectic gin cocktails at The Gin House …

as a prelude to exquisite contemporary Vietnamese cuisine in Hoa Tuc, a restaurant set in an old opium refinery, built by the French during the colonial period.

HCMC definitely deserves more than a fleeting visit, but with my visa for Vietnam running out swiftly, we can only spend a couple of days here.  Maybe one day in the not-so-rainy season, it may be worth to explore what else this city has to offer…

Dalat Dousings.

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Travel in Vietnam is proving to be a doddle…  For transport to our next destination, Dalat, we choose an overnight Futa bus.  Not that there are many options really.  Being a little off the beaten track, there is no train service to that part of the country and a taxi is definitely out of the question on our budget.  The staff at the reception of our guesthouse are extremely helpful.  Not only do they book our tickets, they accompany us to the bus when the time arrives.  Just as well, as the pick-up is somewhere in the middle of town, nowhere near what we recognize as an official bus stop…  And the blue scrap of paper with some seat numbers as tickets does not immediately inspire us with confidence…

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But the bus turns up punctually and we are shown are seats…  Great seats, soft and reclining; the only downside: nowhere to stow my backpack.  I happily put my suitcase in the hold underneath the bus, but insist on holding on to my backpack crammed with life’s essentials and flashpacker gadgets: laptop, an assortment of chargers and leads, smart phone and extra battery and my most important paperwork such as diplomas etc…  In the end I settle my legs comfortably in the foothold, lay down on the reclining seat and perch my backpack on my lap where it remains for the full 11 hours of the journey whilst I sleep peacefully, totally oblivious of the up and downs and hairpin bends along the hills, all the way to Dalat…

It is still pitch dark when we arrive.  It is 5.00am and neither of us is prepared for the sudden dip in temperature.  A twenty degree drop according to my phone, from 35 degrees in Kontum to a mere 16 degrees in Dalat.   Thank goodness, my fleece has not yet vanished into the bottom of my suitcase – we were warned about Dalat being colder than the rest of Vietnam… but 16 degrees comes as a shock to the system.   I had definitely not anticipated needing my ‘cold weather gear’ until I arrive back in the UK, end November…  Fashion out of the window, socks and sandals for comfort a must!!

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Nevertheless, Dalat – situated on a plateau 1,500 metres above sea level – thanks its popularity as a summertime retreat to the French colonials who took to the hills to escape the oppressive heat and humidity in other areas of Vietnam. The town, even featuring a mini-replica Eiffel Tower, is sometimes referred to as ‘Le Petit Paris’.  Because of its unique climate, Dalat is famous for its wide variety of flowers, vegetables and fruit from its surrounding farmlands.  The scenery is equally breath taking and attracts many local and foreign tourists.

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We have quite a bit of time to kill in Dalat before we can check into our Airbnb accommodation, but have been told we can leave our luggage in a coffee shop downtown, but even that one does not open until three hours after we make it to Dalat…  We spend the morning meandering around the Dalat streets, visiting a pagoda and waiting to get into our flat to catch up on some sleep…  No matter the comfort of a night bus, it cannot compete with the soporific effect of a soft mattress and white cotton sheets…

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Whereas Kontum put us in touch with local culture, Dalat would satisfy our hunger for adventure, so with no time to waste, the next day we book ourselves on an ‘Easyrider’ motorbike tour to visit the surrounding hills, waterfalls, silk production, coffee plantation and coffee tasting…  You name it, it is on the list.  However, as we have left it a little late to get going, we are on a tight schedule.  Fitted and kitted out with protective gear, tyres checked by Liz who is none too happy to detect ‘a bald one’, we set off full speed in the sunshine…  Pillion riders, rather than being in charge of the motorbikes ourselves…  After a stop at a massive mural portraying the life of ethnic minorities and a cable car on Robin Hill later, we arrive at the Truc Lam Monastery.  An oasis of peace with a colourful garden brimming with exotic flowers, a paradise for flora loving people such as Liz…  We linger, and our drivers come looking for us, worried we may not be able to finish the whole tour if we do not start hurrying up a little…

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Clouds have gathered, ominously…  We make it to the Pongour Waterfall as the sun makes a last half-hearted effort to jolly things up, but it soon peters out and the inevitable happens.

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Drizzle at first as we mount the bikes again onto our next port of call.  Having visited plenty of pagodas before in Vietnam, we opt to visit the silk production plant and coffee plantation…  We leave the nicely tarmacked roads and join the more bumpy, mud tracks as the heavens open..  The downpour of all downpour drenches us in minutes and my waterproof (?) jacket is woefully inadequate.  I am soaked to the bone and worry about keeping my phone dry… I am literally sitting in a puddle on the back of the motorbike. The road turns into a brown, brackish pool obscuring the potholes.  Liz is not happy, and keeps muttering on about ‘bald tyres’… With no houses or shelter either side of the dirt track, we carry on for a while until Liz insists on turning back and heading for home..  We part ways, as I think we may be better off finding shelter and waiting out the storm…

My driver, ‘Cow’ (his English name, as it is one people remember, he explains..) drives on, slowly, until we reach the silk factory and coffee tasting shop…   I shiver through the silk production explanation and warm up with a generous shot of 54% rice wine before tasting the most delectable coffee ever … made from weasel poo…  Not as disgusting as it sounds as the weasels are fed a diet of coffee beans, which are never digested but expelled unaffected via the usual canals.  A thorough cleansing and roasting takes care of the hygiene, without affecting the additional aroma the beans acquire during their travels through the weasels’ digestive system..   As for the more intriguing drinks on offer, I decline…  Somehow wine made from reptiles does not seem as appealing as the weasel coffee…

In the meantime, the rain has abated and we return to Dalat, trembling and shaking from the wet and cold…  By the time I get home, Liz has already vacated the shower and a hot cup of tea is waiting for me.  We spend the next day drying out and getting warm again, ready for another adventure : cycling and hiking to the summit of Lang Biang at an altitude of  2167m.  We know we are travelling during the rainy season, but surely, the weather cannot get any worse…

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The girl in the tourist office gives us a stern warning when we book the ‘hike and bike tour’, ‘There is no support vehicle with this tour.  If you cycle to the mountain, you will have to cycle back.’  We smile…  It is only 6 km there and another 6 km back.  Granted, there will be some hilly parts, but we are not deterred.  And the strenuous trek?  We are both keen walkers, so we should be able to manage rainforests and jungle paths.  Not entirely trusting the weather, we have come prepared this time and brought plastic ponchos as the locals wear, and most importantly, waterproof phone pouches.

Equipped with decent bikes complete with a bewildering assortment of gears we set off and are only defeated by one rather sharp and long incline..  We make it to the bottom of Lang Biang and clouds overhead look vaguely threatening, but we are optimistic and plan to stay ahead of any rain in the rainforest.  The path is muddy and treacherous at places, due to the recent wet weather, but the cool air and the shade from the jungle canopy make for perfect hiking conditions.

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It is indeed a hard slog to get to the top of Lang Biang, the path is steep and slippery and the steps have been fashioned for someone with much longer legs than mine…  About halfway up the hill, a light drizzle starts, nothing to worry about but it might interfere with our lunch plans:  Cow (again our guide) is carrying a picnic in his rucksack… Luckily, the morning rain is light and briefly vanishes as we reach the top of the mountain, just in time for Cow to prepare our food.  Sumptuous…   But whatever view we were expecting is shrouded in a thick cloud that has completely enveloped the hilltop, bar the fleeting appearance of a bright blue bit of sky.

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And it doesn’t take long for the rain to resume, only this time it comes down by the bucket load, collecting in deep puddles along the path and turning the steps on the way down into pools.  We no longer worry about leeches lurking on leaves ready to pounce..  Our only concern is to get back to the bottom of Lang Biang with all skin and bones intact…  Of course, we both slip and slide, it is inevitable, but at least the mud makes for soft landings..

And as for the bike ride back and no support?  Cow manages to convince his manager to organise a ride back home for us..  I don’t think our legs could have coped with any more exercise, they certainly felt as if they had had enough of a good thing already….

What did we expect in the rainy season???

The Rongs of Kontum.

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I heard about Kontum whilst browsing the net and scouring travel blogs to find some different, off-the-beaten track destinations in Vietnam.  This was months ago and we, M. (colleague) and I, even had plans to explore the area during one of the few breaks we were granted in the long teaching year… In the end, we ventured to Hue instead.  Closer and much easier to reach by train from Quang Ngai…  Plus Kontum sounded interesting enough to warrant more time than the two days we could spare, so I added it to the list of must-see stops on my autumn travel itinerary.

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Kontum is a mountainous area in the Western Highlands of Vietnam, close to the border with Laos and famed for its coffee growing and hill tribes.   Relatively sheltered from the impact of tourism, ethnic minorities still adhere to many of their traditions and customs and the slower pace of life.  Of course, they did not escape the attention from the various colonial powers that ruled Vietnam.  After being overpowered and subdued by the French, Catholicism was imposed on the hill tribes and it became the dominant religion alongside animism, or the belief in good and evil spirits and the power of nature.  The Kontum landscape is dotted with churches rather than Buddhist Pagodas.  During the Vietnam War, many battles were fought in and around Kontum and often American Vietnam War Veterans revisit the area in an effort to find closure.

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There are about 54 different ethnic minority groups in Vietnam, but unless they wear their traditional attire, to the untrained un-Vietnamese eye it is hard to see any differences between the different tribes..  This does not stop them from being discriminated against though.  Having slightly darker skin than the majority Viet (or Kien people) certainly puts them at a disadvantage and they have been largely excluded from the progress that can be seen elsewhere in Vietnam.

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Our visit to Kontum involved a 12 km hike, an independent bicycle tour and a car trip through local villages just outside the town, a region populated by the Bahnar, Sodra and Jolong people.  Each village has its own communal building, the ‘rong’, in the centre.  Although each ethnic minority’s rong may have a slightly different style, all are impressive tall structures built using bamboo and a tough grass for the roof, although recently corrugated iron has become more common.  In the past only men were allowed to enter the building to attend meetings and discussions and take decisions for their community. Young men between the ages of 17 and getting married would spend their nights in the communal house, so that in case of an attack on their village, they could be mobilized without delay to defend the village lands and territory.   These days, officials from the Vietnamese Government descend on the villages once a week to ‘help them run their affairs’; women are no longer excluded from meetings and young men can be seen resting and loitering in the cool shade of the rong during siesta time rather than at night.  As the hill tribes now live peacefully, the men are unlikely to be called upon to fight against intruding neighbours and instead of fighting each other with weapons, men and youths from different villages test each other’s skills and prowess on the volleyball court in front of the rong, or… pitch their voices against each other in a karaoke contest on rice-wine hazy Sunday afternoons…

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The rong is the focal point of the village, the place were people gather to celebrate festivals on auspicious days.  Buffalo and other animals are ritually slaughtered in front of the rong as an offering to the gods and to provide food for the feast.  Needless to say that at such events copious amounts of rice wine will be consumed…   Inside the rong, buffalo horns and other dried food bears testament to the animal sacrifices.

As our first night was spent in a homestay in one of the Bahnar villages we were privileged to be invited to take part in a celebration that was held for some Korean business men visiting Kontum.  We rubbed shoulders and shook hands with the Vice President of Kontum Province and as ‘honoured guests’ shared his rice wine… It is the one and only time we saw men, women, boys and girls dressed in their traditional clothes as they danced around a fire to mesmerizing music…

Life in the Kontum hills is still very simple, as we experienced in our homestay and saw during the trips in and around the town.

We slept on thin mattresses on the bamboo floor of the living quarters, which were built on stilts to keep out undesirable animals.  Across the landing was the dining room: a large wooden table and some wooden benches.  Two girls cooked us an amazing dinner on a wood fire, as the locals would, only we were given ‘Vietnamese’ food as the food eaten by the hill tribes would probably not be appealing to us…

Most families in and around Kontum live of the land and subsistence farming is the norm.  They cultivate rice on a small plot of land to provide enough food for the year, although some also grow other crops, such as casava, keeping the leafy tops for eating and selling the roots to local factories to be turned into noodles.

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For a long time the hill tribes lived a nomadic lifestyle and would move location every ten years or so, but lately they have settled and remained longer in the same area.  Nevertheless, they have been reluctant to move into to more modern housing provided by the Vietnamese Government and prefer to build their houses in the traditional style they are accustomed to, leaving the brick-built dwellings empty.

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To outsiders, the villagers’ lifestyle is spartan and austere and houses consist mainly of one room only with little or no furniture.  Rattan mats provide seating and sleeping areas; food is cooked on a wood fire in a kitchen area of the house.   On our second day, we were invited to take tea with the village chief of the Johong tribe, enjoying his hospitality and learning more about the tribe’s way of life, translated by our guide, Mr Manh.

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Modernisation and progress is slow in the villages and there is no running water, so water has to be collected from springs and rivers, which are also used for bathing and handwashing.  Our homestay was near a river and in the late afternoon, we heard the gleeful noises of children splashing and swimming in the river.  Not only was this their time for fun, they also bathed and washed their clothes at the same time.

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One thing that caught our attention was the large number of children in the villages, small children.  With Catholicism the main religion and the locals strictly adhering to the practice of no contraception, coupled with the lack of alternative entertainment, many families have lots of children…  But poverty often means they do not have the resources to feed and educate their children so ‘orphanages’ take in and look after the many abandoned children.  And when the Vietnamese government tried to improve the situation by handing out condoms, parents gave them to their children instead to blow up as balloons…  Maybe the younger generation will take more heed as their aspirations grow to be part of mainstream Vietnam.

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Lunch anyone?  This little boy had just caught a lizard… not a pet, but lunch indeed…  Not sure whether I really would have wanted to join him for lunch…