Monthly Archives: October 2018

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..



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…


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.


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.


The floating market – image courtesy of

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.


‘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..


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…



A Brief History of The Vietnam War



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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..?


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…


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?


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.


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…


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!!


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.



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…


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…



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.


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…



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.


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.


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???