Saigon, the Mekong Delta and beyond.

We had heard horror stories about Saigon, or as it is correctly referred to nowadays, Ho Chi Minh City. Although Ho Chi Minh City has been the city’s official name since 1976, it is still often referred to as Saigon. We had heard that it was dangerous, full of pick pockets, that you would be easily robbed, that it was dirty and that it was a waste of time. We actually really enjoyed it, and had no problems whatsoever. Having said that, after 15 months on the road, Alex and I have a small array of combat moves, both physical and verbal, in order to disarm anyone who challenges us. Our recent blogs have most possibly demonstrated this. If Alex is Bruce Lee, I am Madam Lash (as in tongue)! My tongue is quicker than the speed of light. Again, many of my family and friends will attest to this. I can see my Dad nodding his head in agreement!

We thoroughly enjoyed the food in Saigon, and I want to make a special mention of the street food: the iced coffee (I chose to ignore the ice that went into it!) packed a mean punch, and the vegetarian rice paper rolls (again, I tried not to look underneath the fingernails of the lady who was rolling them) were delicious! Actually, street food can be found all over Vietnam, and often it’s much better than the stuff sold in restaurants, especially the western ones, which usually give you a fraction of the food at triple the price, and the food is usually very average, if even that!

After 5 weeks and almost 2000 kilometres later, making our way from the northern Vietnamese border (with China) all the way to Saigon, we were exhausted, and wanted to take it easy. Having said that there are some things one just has to do, such as the Cuchi tunnels,the War Museum and the Reunification Palace. We’d heard about these sights, but were still not prepared for the visions our eyes were about to behold. We’d heard a few “dodgy brothers” stories about Ho Chi Minh, but I quite liked it, if I may say so myself! It has this kind of electric, in your face energy. Sure, we were back in “dodge the cars and motorbikes, or get annihilated territory”, but that’s all part of the fun………….isn’t it!!??

The Cuchi tunnels are effectively a network of tunnels some 30 to 40 kilometres away from Ho Chi Minh, and they are famed for their role in facilitating the Viet Cong (VC) during the Vietnam War. At their height, the tunnels stretched all the way to the Cambodian border with approximately 250 kilometres of tunnels. It was fascinating to observe, especially the extremely narrow spaces these people had to fit or slip into. Alex gave it a try, but with my mild claustrophobia, I decided to give them a miss! At one point we had to walk through some of the tunnels through a bigger network of tunnels. Although I tried to give it a go, I was soon scrambling for out! My “favourite” part, surely, had to be the firing range at the end of the tour. Yes, for what they obviously deemed a small price( on a humanitarian level, Alex and I felt it to be enormous!), you could fire a few bullets into a target…….to “see how it felt”! What an oxymoron! How many people had aimlessly died in this war? And yet, here we were with the opportunity to see how it felt! Even out of such great misery comes the human desire to reap money! It’s that G word again, greed!

One of the other HCMC must see is the War Remnants Museum. What can I say? Whilst there are interesting remnants of US armoured vehicles, artillery pieces and bombs and infantry weapons on display, it’s the many photographs illustrating the US atrocities(from US sources, may I add), that leaves one gob smacked and with their heart around about ankle high (or low). For me, the photos were so distressing that I could not even talk and share my sentiments with Alex as we walked around. We actually ended up doing it separately, and whilst doing so, the tears streamed down my face (as they are now, as I relive this moment). Again, I found myself crying for humanity, for the heinous crimes committed, but most of all for the so many innocent victims who died in such a horrific and senseless way. Will we ever, ever learn? I was not the only one who needed down time. Many others were also walking around, alone and crying, and many had to stop and rest from sheer distress.

Our Vietnamese adventure was coming to an end, but not before we did a three day Mekong Delta trip, which would take us all the way through to the Cambodian border. I may have mentioned before that Vietnam is big on organised tours, and (often, unfortunately!) it is both cheaper and faster to do so. The Mekong really is Vietnam’s big bowl of rice, and the landscape consists of open green fields and sleepy villages, crisscrossed by a plethora of canals, which are fed by the Mekong. Our trip involved using a combination of small local boats and buses, and provided us with a brilliant insight to these peoples lives on the river. We had a few obligatory touristy stops, such as a crocodile farm, and a candy making factory (you know, see and buy!), but mostly it was fascinating. At one point I even had a python wrapped around my neck, and after a few seconds I wanted out! Poor serpent, it kind of hit the floor as I tried to quickly slither away! Oops, no pun intended!

Whilst on the Mekong tour we also visited a couple of riverside markets as well as a floating market. It’s always fascinating to see how people trade and do commerce, especially when it’s not on land. Ultimately, making a living is making a living! Whilst the accommodation on offer was mainly in the form of hotels, we were also given the opportunity to do a home stay, which we opted for, in a place close to Can Tho. For Alex and I it was undoubtedly the highlight of our Mekong trip. We had to travel down a tiny canal, in the dark, guided only by moonlight, for about 8 kilometres until we reached a small mud house, and that’s where we slept the night! Our hosts offered us traditional food, and also a look into their traditional lifestyle. It was light years away from a life as we know it in the west! They seem to have so little by our standards, yet they also seem content! Is more better?

On the second day of the tour, we visited a Cham Village, and as in many areas of the delta, the house we visited was on stilts, and we had to walk on a wooden boardwalk (which partially collapsed as we walked on it!) to get there. It is believed that these people are of Malay ancestry, and they now live in parts of Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Their peculiarity is that they are Muslim, and adhere to their customs, dress and culture as in any other Muslim country. We also visited a temple, more famous for the view one has if one indulges in the 15 to 20 minute walk uphill, than the temple itself. And yes, for the record, the view was amazing indeed. At the top, we were greeted by a small group of rather intoxicated locals, who urged us to join in with them and drink some beer. Whilst not wanting to offend, I just don’t do beer! I politely declined, whilst Alex joined them with throwing back a couple. Being the only female around there, they still seemed pretty happy to have me around. We were with Filipe, a great Portuguese guy who was on the tour with us. The locals were stoked with the excellent participation of the foreigners beer guzzling antics, and it really was one of those “minties moments”. We had to virtually fly down that hill, in order to get back onto a bus full of waiting people. They appeared mildly agitated that we were fractionally late, but cest la vie. Whilst most people just wanted to do the touristy temple look see, we were getting up and personal with the locals! It is these memories, not those of the temple that will forever remain in our hearts and minds!

Our last night was spent in a town called Chau Doc, a tranquil town near the Cambodian border. It is interesting as it’s rather multicultural for Vietnam, and has sizable Chinese, Cham and Khmer communities. I knew I liked it as soon as we arrived, but with our Vietnamese visas expiring the next day, I also knew that we would have to make do with a short stay. The most fascinating part of visiting this tiny town, ever so briefly, was specifically meeting one of the locals. I do not remember his name, but I do remember the very poignant conversation we had. We met him whilst walking around the main square. He worked as a taxi driver. Alex and I were lucky to be able to do what we were doing he said, and then he continued to tell us that due to the poverty and corruption in his country (he also seemed to think that the former was somewhat exacerbated by the latter) he and many others had no hope of fulfilling such a dream. He then went off on a political tangent, stating that the so-called socialist country in which he lived was a farce, and that even today, as an educated man, he was unable to get a decent job, as most government positions required the applicant to be at least “3 generations communist”. As his father had fought with the US during the war, he reiterated that he had buckley’s hope! Tell me what you think about that, he said a few times! Now, you tell me….what could I possible say to him? So much was running through my head! The fact that it is so easy for us to “bag and judge” when we can do virtually anything we want seems somewhat ironical. There are so many things that outrage me about capitalism, but at least I am allowed and have the opportunity to flap my arms and scream if I so desire! Communism and socialism appear to be marvelous ideas on paper, and this trip has shown me exactly that…….on paper! The reality is that in practice, it simply does not work! I have reached this conclusion from living and breathing it, not by simply reading about it! It seems that humankind is still not ready for that quantum leap which excludes greed and includes equality!

It was with our heads reeling, and our hearts thumping that we left Vietnam, the border to Cambodia only a short trip away. Little did we know that we were in for even more heartbreak in Cambodia. It is with our love of both people and life, and a profound fascination for different cultures, that every day of our trip has filled us with experiences which have included both intoxicating highs and exasperating lows. With each new experience and day, we continued to grow as individuals, our world never ceasing to amaze us!

Ombi

Dedication: To all the victims of war, past, present and future. To all the people who have aimlessly died in wars, and to all of those who will continue to do so. One day, we will wake up and realise the futility, but only time will tell if it will be too late!

“The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder” – Ralph W. Sockman.

(Photos:1.- So, where exactly do the pedestrians cross?, Saigon. 2.- Mobile fruit vendor, Saigon. 3.- I get the feeling the soldiers were a fraction slimmer than Alex, Cuchi Tunnels. 4.- A photo of a photo, War Remnants Museum, Saigon. 5.- Ombi does python! Mekong River Delta trip. 6.- Frogs for lunch? Riverside market, Mekong Delta, southern Vietnam. 7.- Hanging out with the locals, view from the walk above the temple, Mekong River Delta trip. 8.- Fruit vendor on her way to market, Mekong River. 9.- Goodbye Vietnam! Little girl in boat, Mekong River. 10.- Chillin’ out in Chau Doc. One of the educated professionals? 11.- Pictures speak louder than words! A child’s impression of the Vietnam war, War Remnants Museum, Saigon.)

Swimming through Central Vietnam.

We woke up bright and early the next morning..upon the insistence of the bus driver! For some reason, we were being subjected to Vietnamese music, up full boar, at 5.30 in the morning. Go figure! I was not about to psychoanalyse this as well, but I did go and politely ask him to turn it down. On the bright side, it couldn’t possibly get worse than the night before (recall the kung-fu fighting)…..or could it?

I had read that Hue boasts some of Vietnam’s most aggressive touts, but I was not really prepared for what was about to happen upon our arrival. It was mid-morning when we arrived, and we were virtually mauled as we stepped off the bus, with a range of people trying to sell us accommodation at their hotel. Have I previously mentioned how very difficult it is to listen to a multitude of people all at once? One man was tranquilly telling us about his hotel, when another almost bowled him over, wedging himself between us, and then placing himself almost on top of me, as he began to give us his spiel. In no mood at all after last night, I put my hand up to his face, and told him that he would have to step back a little and wait, as I was speaking to someone else. He got all hoity-toity and aggressively asserted that, no, I had to speak to him then and there! I don’t think so! I was in no mood after last night! I virtually barked at him, and screamed that I chose who I spoke to, and when, and where! He did not like that at all! As he came towards me, and his hand approached my shoulder and pushed me back, it was again on for young and old. It was like the sequel to the night before! Again, Alex was bellowing at him to lay off me. There was another karate kick on Alex’s behalf, followed by someone hitting him on the back of the neck (luckily, he was not hurt). When I saw Alex hit, it was my turn to see red, and this time it was my turn to go wild. I was like a dog with rabies, and it was with virtual spittle oozing from my mouth that I howled at him. Livid, I bellowed that he was a disgrace to his people. I went on to cry that bulling and being aggressive is not the way to treat people. The piece de resistance, was when I was several inches away from his face, begging him to show all of his friends what a man he was by punching me! Needless to say, that did not occur and he ran away like a dog with his tail tucked between his legs! By this point I was hyperventilating, and needed to sit down and cool off! I was by no means proud of my public display of anger at all. I had had a rather large audience of both Vietnamese as well as foreigners, but I repeat, this behaviour is NOT all right, and I will not let it happen and do nothing about it! I will not be complacent! I am currently well aware that after some 14 months, patience is no longer my best friend! Not that it ever was!

With kung-fu episode number two out of the way, it was on to look for a place to stay. Luckily, we were very close to the bulk of the budget accommodation, and found a decent place to stay, rather quickly. It even came with a computer in our room, at virtually no extra charge! That was a first! But, you will later learn that it was a blessing in disguise! Once settled, we had a relaxing afternoon walking around Hue, and taking in its atmospheric surroundings. This place is all about art and architecture, and it’s packed with palaces, pagodas, temples and tombs. We were hoping for a cultural injection, and the next day provided us with just that.

Hue is justifiably famous for its Imperial City, or Imperial Enclosure, housing the emperor’s residence and the main buildings of the state. As most of Hue’s sights and population reside within the 2 kilometre thick , 10 kilometre walls that surround the city, the Imperial closure really is a citadel within a citadel. We had a wonderful, and very laid back afternoon wandering around and exploring. In true Vietnamese style, peak hours were packed with package tourists, but as they only go and look at the “main” buildings, the rest is wide open for relaxation and exploration. We felt like we had been thrown back in time, as we walked up, around and over parts of buildings that were hundreds of years old. We walked into the Halls of the Mandarins when we were suddenly shaken from our tranquil dream. This building is the one in which the mandarins prepared for the court ceremonies. I could almost imagine the royal splendour…… we walked in to find a cheesy tourist set up in which one can pose….in Imperial costume…on the throne…and…….for a price! Alex and I sat down, observed, and chuckled quietly. I think it was part of the Asian Disneyland theme!

Later in the day, we visited a museum, which was housed in an exquisite building which was once a school for princes and the sons of high-ranking mandarins. I felt the most fascinating part to be the collection of several old war tanks out the front. As I walked past, read and observed, a tingle shot up and down my spine. I have never understood, do not understand and will never understand war! What a waste of sooooooooo many things, and needless to say, lives!

Luckily we got in a bit of sightseeing in Hue, because the next day it was all over! The skies opened and it hammered (as in poured) for some thirty five hours! I have categorically never seen anything like it in my life! It was raining elephants and whales! Get the picture? It reached the point where it was impossible to even walk around! Step in computer in our room! All we did over the next two days was sleep, relax, and get brilliant value out of our “in house” computer! Occasionally, we would step, or I should say wade,out for a meal. At one point the water was knee high, and over dinner one night we actually saw a tourist jump out and have a swim in the street. I should mention that it was the rainy season in Vietnam, and only a few weeks earlier there had been a major typhoon. As my Dad will attest to, I have this amazing penchant of rocking up to places just before or after some major catastrophe has occurred! I want to make a special mention of Brown Eyes Cafe, run and owned by the very affable Bich (pronounced Big)….great food, great portions, great coffee, and great person! As it was only a short swim away from our hotel, and due to the horrendous weather, we virtually lived there for a few days! Bich assured us that this kind of weather this time of year was actually quite normal!

After being couped up for a couple of days, we decided that it was time to move on. It had not stopped raining completely, but at least the elephants and whales seemed to have stopped falling from the sky. So, we booked an overnight bus to Hoi An, which is further down the coast.

Hoi An was once a sleepy riverside village, but now firmly set on the tourist trail, well, the tourists are now busting from its seams! And speaking of seams, this is the place to have anything sewn and made -up, from jackets to shoes! This is definitely one of the town’s claims to fame! The old, or historical centre oozes charm, with its old wooden buildings, many sitting right on the edge of the Thu Bon River. Whilst we did spend a couple of days here, it pretty much rained the entire time, but not as heavily as it had in Hue. Having said that, it was heavy enough to not be able to hire a bicycle, and/or explore properly on foot. Yes, I did attempt to get a couple of pairs of shoes made, which ended up being a small disaster, but I managed to escape without the disastrous shoes, and persuaded the lady to sell me a newly made “sample”pair! I am personally not into having things made up. My theory is if you try it and fits you, buy it! Having things made up especially, seems to include too many “unknown” factors and probabilities. Not into that! The street food was also great here. To be honest, it seems to get better as you move down the coast, and get further away from China, where it begins to lose that Chinese influence (as it has up north).

Rain, rain, go away, come again another day! Over, over, over it! Time to move on, so we booked another overnighter to Nha Trang. What can I say, another day (or night!), another adventure! What was supposed to be an overnight trip, ended up finishing at around 1.00pm the next day. Why? Because part of the road was so flooded that it was impassable! The bus had to stop for some 5 hours, as we waited for the water level to drop enough to…well, pass! Needless to say, we were sooooooo over it upon our arrival, and all we wanted was a place to dump our bags and chill out. We settled on a small, and clean room, in a quiet part of town, which was still central. This part of the country also had rain predicted, but we had to stop somewhere. Luckily, we were in luck, so to speak. We only spent a couple of days here, and the weather was great! Great, as in no rain!

Nha Trang is known for its pristine beaches and its scuba diving. The former? Well, I am Australian, and a thus a bit of a beach snob! Yeh, the beach was OK. The latter? After weeks of alluvial downpours, we were told that the visibility was shocking. So, we bypassed both, and opted for a mud bath at the Thap Ba Hot Spring Centre. It was a five kilometre walk out of town, and an interesting walk at that. We had to pass the Cai River, where we saw traditional houses on stilts, lots of fishermen, lots of fish drying out in the open (and on piles of rubbish at that!), and the subsequent smell that came with it! It was obviously an area which was quite poor. It’s amazing to see how the real people live, only kilometres out of the central area, where most foreigners end up staying. We also stopped to see Po Nagar Cham Towers, which were built between the 7th and 12th centuries. The pagodas and temples are very beautiful, and very tranquil, and to this day Cham, ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhists come to pray and make offerings, according to their respective traditions.

A little further on, we arrived at the Thap Ba Hot Spring Centre. What a brilliant way to chill out and do something both different and healthy at the same time! Our experience began with sitting and slopping around in a wooden tub full of hot thermal mud, after which we baked in the sun for a while, waiting for it to dry. A bit like a face mask , but all over your body! We then washed off, and got to soak in another wooden bath tub, this one full of soothing natural mineral water. After this “treatment” there were plenty of other pools of varying temperatures to laze and lie about in. We did them all, and loved it! Needless to say, we felt exhausted after all the pampering and relaxing. Not about to walk back after all that, we caught a ride on a couple of motorbikes, which is very much the done thing, here in Vietnam.

We only had a little over a week left before our Vietnamese visas would run out, so we decided to move on, and check out Dalat in the central highlands. The weather was pleasantly fresh here, and the vibe quite different to the coast. Actually, it was quite different to anywhere we had visited in Vietnam. Once a former French colonial outpost, it looked a little more like the French Alps. Whilst it did not pour, there was certainly on and off drizzle. We managed to eat some great food here, finding a local place with some girls who were able to help translate the menu (as we were the only foreigners in there). This ensured, real, traditional food at local prices. Remember the old saying about when you are onto a good thing………….yep, we stuck to it, and went back several times. We also walked a few kilometres out of town and took a cable car to a temple close by. The views of the surrounding, and very lush countryside were breathtaking, and the temple was an oasis of calm. A beautiful end to our short time in Dalat. Very close to the Xuan Huong Lake (created by a dam in 1919), I went for a run here for the short duration of our stay here. It can be circumnavigated along a 7 kilometre path which runs all the way around it, and past many of Dalat’s main sights, including a flower garden. So, I got to sight see whilst running!

Speaking of running, time to move on. Last but not least we would be off to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), from where we wanted to cruise the Mekong Delta by boat, before finishing up in Cambodia.

Ombi

This time I will leave you not with a quote, but a poem of sorts. It (along with some comments)was sent to me by a friend, Samantha Bulmer, after she read our last blog. She writes:

First they came is a poem attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller(1892 -1984) about the inactivity of German intellectuals following the Nazi rise to power and the purging of their chosen targets, group after group.

When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I wasn’t a Jew.

When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.

This poem is the perfect punctuation for the story of the hotel bully. As soon as I read your blog I remembered this poem. Poignant. Perfect. Enjoy yourselves and keep out of trouble. If that is at all possible.”

Thanks Sam! The poem and your comments simply further aid in highlighting how destructive and damaging complacency and inactivity are. Until we take a stance, we will continue to see history repeating itself!

(Photos:1.- Communist, or is that socialist propaganda? 2.- Hue architecture. 3.- Eaves on a traditional house in Hue. 4.- Inside the Imperial City, Hue. 5.-Inside the Imperial City, Hue. 6.-War memorabilia, Hue. 7.- Trying to keep dry in the alluvial downpours, Hue. 8.- Another day, another alluvial downpour, Hoi An. 9.- Buying some fresh produce at the local market, Hoi An. 10.- Taken from the bus, as we made our way from Hoi An to Nha Trang. 11.- Stilt houses and boats along the canals, Nha Trang. 12.- Soaking up the mud, hot springs, Nha Trang. 13.- Washing “on the line”, Dalat. 14.- Competition for China? What exactly is a long dung? Want our version?)

Everybody was kung fu fighting…….ha!

Vietnam is surprisingly “easy” to travel in. Perhaps too easy! There are so many organised tours and buses, that if not careful, your whole time here could potentially turn into one big, extended tour! Tam Coc, although only a couple of hours south of Hanoi, is no exception, and is definitely a popular day trip from Hanoi. Not to be deterred, the aim was to do it ourselves!

Thu Giang Guesthouse (brilliant to the very end!) organised for a couple of motorbike drivers, to take us to the local bus station, which was a good fifteen minute ride away, from where we took a bus the short two hours to Ninh Binh (not to be confused with Nimbin!). Even on the back of those two bikes, we were stunned at the amount of other motorbikes we saw! Zipping and weaving as they were doing, it’s anyone’s guess as to why more accidents do not occur! Before we knew it, we were in Ninh Binh, which is the jumping off point for Tam Coc, which has been poetically coined, “Halong Bay on the rice paddies”. After finding a place to stay, we took a stroll around town. With not many foreigners around, it was a great place to watch the locals. We found a food market, and had a bit of a wander as well as doing some food shopping. Bargaining is tough in Vietnam, and you really have to bargain viciously for everything…whilst keeping a smile on your face. In that way no-one loses face. This can become really tedious, and after so many months of travelling, at times, downright boring! We’d heard about it, we’d talked about it, we were told it was true, and we finally saw it for ourselves! I did a take two, as I walked past the meat section in the market (which I usually try to avoid)…..was that a dog’s head I saw? Yep! Rover today, dinner tomorrow! Jokes aside, dogs are not bred in Vietnam for food, and pretty much any dog is fare (or is it fair!) game! I couldn‘t believe it when I told Alex, and he said that he hadn’t seen it. Them, actually, as there were a few! So, as discreetly as the only two foreigners in the market could, we walked past to take another look! Yep, definitely Rover!

The next day, we hired some bicycles and cycled the 10 kilometres out to Tam Coc, which was, expectedly, absolutely full of tourists. After purchasing our tickets, we proceeded to the dock, from where either one or two people take you out in a small boat, down a gorgeous river, culminating in some spectacular caves. As we looked around, whilst breathtaking, we could also see the work going on to make it look……well, more like Disneyland! Shouldn’t be long now folks! The essential Tam Coc experience is to sit back, and be rowed through the Ngo Dong River, culminating in three caves, and a hard sell to rival the Mormons! Whilst, yes, it was spectacular, and watching the karst peaks jut out of rice paddies whilst riding along a serpentine river did not fail to impress, it’s the part at the end that I found most “enjoyable”. Lonely Planet refers to the scam as the “Tam Coc Tango”. We knew it was coming, as we had heard about it and were prepared for it! Read on! It begins with boat vendors following you and urging you to “buy drink for madame” (after paying a ridiculous price for the drink, and offering it to the”madame” who is rowing your boat, “madame” then sells it back to the vendor and makes a nice little sum). Despite being asked several times, we stood firm, and said no! (whilst watching the multitude of other tourists buying their rowers both drinks and snacks). As the others bought copiously, and our rowers could see that we were not going to buy, we started to make our way back to the starting point. Time for hard sell number two! A mystery chest seemed to appear out of nowhere, and out they came a-rolling…..t-shirts, embroidered table cloths, hats and a number of other things. We continued to say no politely several more times. Whilst firm in our resolve, it did distract from the surroundings around us! Option two fatigued, they went for the jugular, a manoeuvre they hoped would work, as by this point we were over it…….”tip please”! We had considered it, but they blew it when they asked, and asked, and asked, and asked! I think perhaps the Mormons would have been more lenient!

We virtually ran off the boat, and waved goodbye! After picking up our bikes, exactly where we had parked them, close by, we took a few hours to cycle around the immediate area. With virtually no tourists, this was a spectacular way to see how the people live and work in their environment. The locals were harvesting rice, and the husks were all around us, and indeed on many occasions, we had to cycle over them. It was not a problem for them, and so it was not a problem for us! We got a lot of stares and “sin jows” (hellos), which is always beautiful. We cycled through rice fields, and saw little wooden houses, where people lived in basic living conditioners; we saw people working the fields; we saw little pagodas without another human in sight; we saw children playing; we saw temples. We went to another bigger pagoda, called Bich Dong. It’s a cave pagoda, and quite popular amongst the Vietnamese, but it was the scenic road winding through rice fields, hemmed in by karsts, and ending in a dusty village, which I felt to be the highlight. On the way back to Ninh Binh, we stumbled upon another cave pagoda. To reach it, we had to walk up an outdoor stairway for about fifteen minutes, but what a rewarding view! This time we got a sea of karst peaks from up high!

The next day, we took a couple of bikes again, and decided to cycle around the countryside. It proved to be one of our favourite days in Vietnam. We cycled along rivers that were at times wide, and at others thin. We cycled far enough that we were without a doubt the only foreigners in sight. We cycled on roads, we cycled on dirt tracks, and at times we cycled on tracks so narrow that they were more like railings! Again, mind blowing scenery coupled with the locals living their lives, continued to present us with the lessons one learns from the University of Life. We seem to complain about such trivial things, when these people do it hard! Really hard! The women, despite their small stature haul everything from bags of rice to barrels of water. The kids aren’t doing a bad job either! Child labour? No! Kids helping the family in order to eke out a very, very, very humble living!

On our ride we passed Hoa Lu, which was the capital of Vietnam during the Dinh (968-80) and early Le (980-1009) dynasties, and whilst no Angkor Wat, it was pleasant enough to stroll through. The trip towards Kenh Ga was the truly mesmerising part, possibly because it’s the best place outside of the Mekong Delta to see river life….but the package comes without the hordes of tourists! It truly was one of those magic afternoons, as we saw the karst peaks, in all their glory, as a backdrop to a people who call this their home. We cycled through places that were so narrow that the only form of transportation was bicycles and motorbikes, as nothing larger could fit through. Again, we saw women husking rice, men fishing and children playing, who were as mesmerised by us as we by them. Alex stopped to play with them, and although shy at first, they were soon full of laughter and smiles. This was food for my soul! As I stood back and watched Alex, as he really is a kid magnet, out of the corner of my eye,I saw a young man in a wheelchair, who was with his mother. As our eyes connected, he waved me down, expressing wanting us to have a photo taken together. I obliged! As I put my arm around his shoulders and smiled for Alex’s (forever “snapping”) camera, he too gave me a smile from ear to ear, and so did his mother. But they were two very different smiles. The young man’s was because I had clearly made his day by making the effort to communicate with him, and his mother’s expressed total and absolute thanks! And then there was my smile, which lifted my heart and appeased my soul!

With so much more to do in Vietnam, we would be catching a night bus on to Hue in Central Vietnam. We decided that (on this trip) we would bypass the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), which was basically the dividing line between North and South Vietnam during the first Indochina War. During the second Indochina War (more commonly referred to as the Vietnam War), it was the demarcation line between the communist North Vietnam, and the south.

Unfortunately, a little scuffle broke out as Alex and I were waiting to catch the bus to Hue, which originated in Hanoi. It was supposed to arrive at 9.30pm, but did not arrive until well after 10.30pm. A couple of guys from the hotel we were staying at, walked us to the main road, which is where the bus would pick us up from. It finally arrived, and as we were getting on we recognised a Dutch couple we had met in Hanoi. We were telling them about the nice place we had stayed in in Ninh Binh, and then the owners proceeded to give them some details. In the middle of their conversation, another “seller” (from some downtown hotel) steps between them, and starts his blurb on his hotel! My response to this was to ask him to move away, and give the couple a chance to chat to the other people first. He looked at me and continued his rude and brash behaviour! I was really taken aback, and the other couple obviously overwhelmed, so I stepped up rather closely and told me he was an “anus” (the word has been changed so as not to offend!), after which I proceeded to place my large backpack in the luggage compartment of the bus. Having said my bit, I thought it was all over! Oh no! This guy gets right up close, surpassing all boundaries of personal space, and starts abusing me. I was taken aback! Not sure exactly what ticked him off – me calling him an “anus” or the couple not taking him up on his offer of a place to stay! Why had I opened my mouth in the first place? Because he was being aggressive and a bully….and I don’t like bullies! What ensued was something along these lines : I told him to get the f!*?k out of my face or he would have to choose between a hospital or a police station, to which he became a little bit too touchy feeling……well, for Alex, anyway! What Alex did next stunned even me….he bellowed out, “Get your f!#?$!g hands off my wife”, which he gracefully followed through with a beautifully executed kick, smack bang in the centre of his chest! In the next few seconds it was on for young and old; Alex had fallen on his back as he’d lost his balance, whilst the irate Vietnamese man was trying to rip some bamboo off a fence close by, and clobber one or the both of us! Was I scared? No! Well, OK, a tad! Was I furious? Like, yeh!!!!! Nobody touches or threatens me! And if I cannot deal with it, or need a helping hand, Alex is by my side. The guy kept hurling abuse and telling us that HE would call the police! Yes, I repeat, that HE would call the police. Yep, we’ve got a hero here that’s few cans short of the proverbial six pack! This is another one of those stories that I will happily go into on my return home. But it will cost you….a coffee or two!

Time to jump in the bus! I do not think it’s appropriate here to mention my exact parting words, but I proudly and defiantly gave him the one finger salute! And with my hand high in the air, the doors closed and the bus took off! It was dark, but I could see his red and angry face! My system was pumping with adrenalin, as it had been a long day (as we had cycled some 40 kilometres), and an even longer night. The sleeper bus could not have been any more inviting! Luckily, here in Vietnam, the sleeper buses are a little wider, longer and more comfortable than their Chinese counterparts. We settled in, and we were soon asleep…..physical and mental exhaustion!

Ombi

NOTE: I have decided that there is actually something that I loathe more than arrogance and rudeness (I despise both equally), and it’s called complacency! HOW does the world change if we all sit back and watch without doing anything! I will not shut-up, and I will not be silenced and my voice WILL be heard!

I shared our little kungfu adventure with a very special and dear friend, Annie Whitlocke, a few weeks back, just after the event occurred, and this is what she had to say:

I agree 100%, the worst thing we can do is nothing. By not voicing our opinions we accept injustice not just for ourselves but for others. Many do not have the opportunity to voice their feelings, it is up to people like you to be courageous and yell until they are heard. I also know that if it was a popularity contest, we would be in the back seats by now!

Many times people have told me to shut up and mind my own business, but the reason I speak out is to address a deep gut ache. It goes beyond words.

Complacency is like a disease, once it sets in it affects every aspect of our lives and I believe it also affects our physiological body and organs.

I love your passion….as does Alex no doubt ( :

All my love

Never stop screaming

Annie

Thanks Annie. We love you too! And I promise that I will NEVER stop screaming!

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”Anais Nin (1903 – 1977).

(Photos:1.-Cycling around Tam Coc……oh, that’s not one of our bikes by the way! 2.- I’ll have half a kilo of Rover, thanks! 3.- Stroke, stroke, stroke…with your feet! That’s our oarsman taking us to visit the caves of Tam Coc. 4.- A mini floating-market, Ngo Dong River, Tam Coc. 5.- Husking rice! Work goes on as usual for the locals of Ninh Binh, despite me cycling over their rice! 6.- Karst peak, on the way to Kenh Ga. 7.- Kids having some fun, on the way to Kenh Ga. 8.- Food for the soul! Making somebody happy! 9.- Sunset in the Kenh Ga area. 10.- Contemplation! Little boy in Hoa Lu. 11.- Vietnamese dong (their currency) as an offering in a temple.)

Conical hats and stampeding motorbikes.

After a week or so in the quiet and more tranquil northern part of Vietnam, we found ourselves suddenly being thrust into the buzzing and very loud capital of Hanoi. What a contrast! We arrived at the train station rather early, 5.30am to be exact. We hung around the station for a while trying to get our bearings, as well as deciding what to do. We knew that looking for a place to stay this early would be a waste of time, so we decided to get ourselves to the Old Quarter, and hang around in a cafe over a slow breakfast. At least that way, by the time we started looking for a place to stay, some others might be checking out, thus giving us the opportunity to check in.

It’s in your face and it’s very full on! This is how I would describe Hanoi! It’s loud, it’s buzzing, there are motorbikes and bicycles everywhere, and to a lesser degree cars, and the incessant honking (emanating from anything that moves) is simply part of the backdrop. Get used to it or get out! No sooner had we stepped out of the train station than we were being asked “Where you from? Where you go”, by a multitude of xe om and cyclo drivers; the former is a motorbike that carries one passenger (xe means motorbike, and om means hug) and the latter a bicycle and carriage type number. We hurled a few “no thanks”, and tried to scuttle away, but it was obviously falling on deaf ears as they were sticking around like the proverbial flies on faeces! Glare at them? Smile? Run? At this point, we had not quite mastered what we believed to be the best option, but “no” (said firmly, and said about five times seemed to help loosen their grip).
We tried to navigate our the Hanoi map in our Lonely Planet guide (sorry guys, I don’t know what your cartographers are on sometimes!), which in combination with asking questions that we didn’t understand the answers to, made it a rather difficult task to get into the centre of town. Having heard that Hanoi was Vietnam’s “scam capital” however, ripped-off Rita was not about to become my middle name! A few eyeball rolls, a few more sighs, and we were off! What an experience! Yes, there were more motorbikes and cycles than cars, and they were everywhere! Crossing the road! Ah yes – don’t look doubtful…just walk across. Believe me, somehow they get around you without creaming you! I was a bit skeptical of this at first, but we put it to the test, and it actually worked. Traffic lights. What are they? Oh, they are those three toned things that give the streets a bit of colour, right?

We actually ended up staying in Hanoi for almost two weeks. There were a few reasons. Primarily we had to organise an extension for our visa (which would expire on the 16th of October), secondly we also wanted to visit Halong Bay (a Vietnamese must-do), and finally and most importantly because we ended up at a brilliant hostel, which was run by some of the most delightful people we have met on our entire journey, where we also met some fantastic new friends. We did make it into the centre on the morning we arrived without being scammed, but we realised some after having breakfast in some random cafe (which proved to be excellent!), that the hunt for a place to sleep was not going to come easy!

Lots of people were offering rooms and prices, which didn’t match; ie. that $6.00 room you were told about suddenly became $12.00 when you were shown. I was tired (literally) and my tongue definitely got the better of me as I gave a few people a verbal serve! When I went back to one of the places and told the woman that she needed to be honest with people, she told me that I was crazy! Geez, sticks and stones may break my bones! My humble reply was that I would rather be nuts than a liar! She wanted me out, but to be honest, I was quite happy with my captive audience of several tourists! My point had been made, and so yes, I was ready to exit! I can see that confrontation isn’t their strong point here!

We ended up at Thu Giang Guesthouse, which was an absolute breath of fresh air. Very simple, very basic and very clean it was equipped with the most formidable hosts and workers we had come across in our entire trip, categorically! I must have been walking past, fuming, when the gorgeous Ly, asked us to step inside and gave us a cup of tea, on the house, and no strings attached. She told us that there were no rooms ready at that minute (it was now around 10.30am), and that we could either hang around and wait and take a look, or we could go and look at some other places she could recommend. As we wished, she politely said. What, no push or hard sell? In a nutshell, we ended up sitting down, and chatting to Hien and Ly for hours….and yes, we did stay in the hostel for our entire duration in Hanoi!
Thu Giang Guesthouse is owned by the affable Co (mum), Tao (dad), and their daughter Giang (after which the guesthouse is named). Ly and Hien work there, but they are so much more than workers. These people work as a family! These people care! These people look after you! These people are sincere, and above all these people are honest! Ca would even go and do our shopping for us as she could get cheaper prices, and sometimes she would not even accept payment! It is no secret that Vietnam’s “tourist” prices are decidedly higher than the Vietnamese ones, and that you must bargain for absolutely everything. In no time at all, I was hugging and kissing these people like they were my own! Nothing was too big, too small or too difficult, and Alex and I will remember their love and sincerity for as long as we live. Oh, and they even organised a new visa for us. What more can one ask for?

The visa was obviously the first thing we had to organise, as we needed that in order to do the boat trip to Halong Bay. So our first few days in Hanoi were spent just taking it easy, catching up on e-mails, sleeping in, eating, walking around the famous old quarter (where we were also staying), and doing some touristy things too. Welcome to the place where the exotic chic of old Asia shakes hands with the modern and dynamic new one! A pumping place that is constantly swarming with motorbikes; in big streets, tiny streets, there is no escaping them! A cauldron of commerce that has your eyes gaping at every turn! Like it or lump it? This is Hanoi!

The old quarter is Hanoi’s historic heart, and where much of the action takes place. It’s the central nervous system of this pulsating city! You can get yourself some fine coffee, “bia hoi” (fresh beer, which at 2000 Dong a glass, or approximately 15 cents Australian, would leave a large chunk of men in “beer utopia” or “piss pots paradise”) and walk around the various markets whilst people watching, which is in this area is amazing. Lots of conical hats (for which the Vietnamese are famous), people squatting and smells that form part of the “TMI” (too much information) category. Lots of shops selling everything from the lacquered plates and bowls for which the country is famous for, chopsticks and silk! Yes, it is information and product overload. Again, I say, welcome to Hanoi! For a bit of inner-city respite, there’s the graceful Hoan Kiem Lake, which is only a stone throws away from the madness. A place to sit, relax, walk around or watch the locals doing a bit of exercise or tai chi around its shores. Also a great place to go running, which I did on a few occasions.

Hanoi has several museums and temples, and whilst we saw many of these temples, we picked only one museum, the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, which gave a fascinating insight into the lives of the Vietnamese and its diverse tribal people. There are 54 officially recognised ethnic groups in Vietnam. It included an out door museum with some hill tribe houses constructed to scale. Another day was spent wandering around, but not going into the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. Views on this man vary greatly, but this place is the holiest of holies for many Vietnamese, and also an important place of pilgrimage, combining the secular and the spiritual. It’s a huge area of greenery, containing parks, pagodas memorials and monuments. Unfortunately, we were unable to see His Highness, as he was in Russia having a face lift! On a serious note, the mausoleum is closed for about three months of every year, as Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed corpse goes to Russia for maintenance!

A group of us also had a fun night out watching a water puppet show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. As the name suggests, it’s a puppet show in a pool. The origins of the ancient art of water puppetry (roi nuoc) have been widely debated, but it is thought to have originated in the Red River Delta, and when the rice paddies would flood, the villagers would entertain themselves with puppets. Our entertainment consisted of brightly painted wooden puppets gliding along the water (the puppeteers are hidden behind a screen and murky water). Some of the puppets are quite large and heavy, so there is considerable skill involved. The music and singing is provided by an on site band and singers, using traditional Vietnamese instruments. The snippets presented include pastoral scenes and Vietnamese legends. We met some people who were a little ho-hum about it, but hey, it’s not meant to be a master performance of Aida! It’s a cultural window into Vietnam’s past! Taken from that angle, it could be one of the most fun “asides” you do in Vietnam.

We did a lot of hanging out with Andres from Spain, and Rama and Joyjoy from the USA. Fun and easy-going people they too were staying at Thu Giang Guesthouse. We also met, Corey from Australia here, as well as Wally from Ireland, David from the USA, Thierry from France and Celeste from Brazil! Truly an international contingent! Many a morning was spent lazing about, having one of Thu Giang’s famous coffees, whilst munching on fresh bread rolls and cheese. That got us to at least midday! Then at nighttime, there were our trips off to the beer shacks, serving beer hoi , literally on plastic chairs (that by Aussie standards wouldn’t seat anyone much older than a two year old!) on the curb outside, that would spill out onto the road. This is where Andres and I celebrated our “7oth” birthday! Sharing the same birthday, October 14th, I turned 3o and Andres 40. Oops, sorry, the other way around! Although not a beer drinker, these places are fun to hang out at and people watch. Amongst others we met in Hanoi, I also want to mention Jordan from Canada. Jordan, what a breath of fresh air to hear you voicing your sentiments with such voracity! Keep up that pace and don’t let people cut you down! The world needs people with an opinion, because it’s the voices that are heard that help shape the new world order!

No trip to Hanoi would be complete, without a trip to Halong Bay, a few hours north of Hanoi. The natural wonder that is Halong Bay is actually a bay of some 3000 or more islands rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. With karst and limestone peaks jutting out from every which angle, it looks like the unfinished sculpture of some mythical giant. We had been told that although extremely touristy, it was well worth doing, and furthermore trying to organise a private trip would cost much more than the hundreds that were already on offer. We indeed found this to be the case. There were cheap tours, middle of the range tours, and expensive tours; the options were limitless. The competition is quite fierce actually, and sometimes unscrupulous. You need to look around, read the fine print and make sure you are going to get what they say you are going to get! We decided to go with a middle of the range tour through our guesthouse. They say that you get what you pay for, and I would have to agree. We had a lovely two night three day trip, although the food on the boat was sometimes on the “not enough” side.

It would be an early-ish start. We would be picked up from the guesthouse at 8.00am. The idea was to leave the big backpack in the guesthouse, and bring only a smaller one with us with the essentials. It’s a good three hours or so to Halong City on the coast and north of Hanoi, which is where you actually pick up the tour from. When I saw the port, I almost passed out! It was full of boats of all different colours, styles and sizes and an international army of people. I wondered where we were all going to go? In no time at all, however, our group had made it onto a boat, and we were sailing out between the rock formations. There were a lot of boats out there, and we were so not alone! What can I say, the boat crew lacked personality and our tour guide was less than engaging, but it would take a lot to distract from the visual spectacular we were feasting our eyes on. Sitting on the top of the deck, I watched the formations roll by, and again, I felt so thankful to be alive and to be able to experience this. If “too many boats” was my biggest problem, what was actually my problem?

That afternoon we stopped to have a look inside a cave called Sung Sot Cave. It was also known as The Amazing Cave, our guide kept telling us repeatedly. Why was it called amazing? We would soon find out! It was quite a “domesticated” cave (as Andres described it) , with walkways and all, and both the stalactites as well as stalagmites were impressive. It was a huge cave actually, and quite well illuminated, although we could possibly have done without the Las Vegas style lighting, in hues of greens, reds and pinks. As we walked around and admired, we were finally steered towards the “amazing” part of the cave, a phalic looking rock lit up in shades of red and pink. Now, THAT is amazing!

We continued to enjoy the scenery as the boat made its way through all of the spectacular formations, and that night a calm spread over us as we slept on the boat. There is something about being out on the open water that is so beautiful. The second day of our three day trip was our favourite, as we had the opportunity to go kayaking amongst the rock formations. It was eerie, but in an astonishing kind of way. You have to love the fact that nobody had life jackets (nor were they offered) and that our guide could not swim. Seriously! They do not seem to have a problem with occupational health and safety here….it’s simply non-existent! They have not made it a priority at all! Although I am a strong swimmer and a life guard, I just hoped that I would not have to use my skills.

Later that afternoon, we went to Cat Ba Island, the largest island in Halong Bay, where we would be spending the night in a hotel. Once we had left our stuff at the appropriate hotel, and had some lunch, those of us who wanted to were taken on a two hour trek with a local guide. Although not a long walk, the incline was rather steep and the views of the island and the surrounding sea were spectacular. The views, including the craggy and asperous peaks jutting out from the jungle-clad island were intoxicating! The next day mainly constituted getting back to Hanoi. I know that we had been part of it, but I could not help but be flabbergasted by the constant stream of people waiting to get onto their boat, and thus their tour.

The idea was to leave Hanoi the day after we arrived back from Halong Bay, but needless to say, that didn’t happen. Andres was staying “another” night and Joyjoy and Rama were going to hang around. So, we took it easy, ate some more good food (thanks to Ly we found a place that made great “com chay”, or vegetarian food), and psyched ourselves up to leave. Surely, we could not spend our entire time in Hanoi, although it was starting to look like we would. Finally, after almost two weeks (including Halong Bay) we decided to move on. Our last night was spent with the Thu Giang gang, including those who worked there, as well as those who were staying there. And could there possibly be a better finale than a night of karaoke? We all had a blast, and most of us had a go in both or either language. My Vietnamese, needless to say, leaves a lot to be desired! At one point Ly, Mai (another Thu Giang worker) and myself put on a bit of a floor show, moving and gyrating to some seriously corny songs. But that’s half the fun! Always the show pony, I am ! Cannot help myself! Life is for living!

It was eventually time to move on, and I truly felt sad. These people had become my family, and this guesthouse my home. I had tears in my eyes as I hugged Tao and Ca, who even kissed me goodbye. Again tears welled up in my eyes as well as Giang’s when we hugged goodbye. And finally it was time to hug Ly goodbye; Ly my Vietnamese little sister. We hugged tightly as we said goodbye, and by this point we both had tears rolling down our cheeks. I promised her that we would meet again! This is real travel! Not temples, not ruins, not mountains, but people! When I close my eyes and think about all the brilliant places I have visited in my life, it is invariably not a temple that I recall, but a person like Ly!

Ombi

Dedication: I would like to dedicate this to everyone at Thu Giang Guesthouse. To Ha for being a brilliant “mum”. Thanks for your hugs, for being sincere and honest, for being so helpful, and for buying me tofu! To Tao (dad), for your smiles, friendliness and help. You showed us Tao that communication goes far beyond the spoken word. To Giang, for our wonderful, open conversations and of course your help. To Hien – you crazy, funny girl! Thanks for making me laugh and for always helping out. To Ly, my little Vietnamese sister. No task was too hard! You were patient and kind, and respectful, and for that you will always occupy a special place in my heart. And finally to one of the “unsung heroes”, Lien. Lien, you spoke little English, but you always had a warm smile and touch. I know that we could not converse much, but I am sure that our hearts communicated. I want you to know how much I appreciated everything you did, from the coffees you made to cleaning our room. Thank you again to each and every on of you for showing us a magical part of Vietnam and its people! You are the jewels in Vietnam’s crown!

“The guy who takes a chance, who walks the line between the known and unknown, who is unafraid of failure, will succeed.” – Gordon Parks.

(Photos: 1.- The stampeding motorbikes of Hanoi. 2.- The conical hats which are a Vietnamese institution. 3.- Hanoi’s old quarter. 4.- The….umm, Vietnamese flag! 5.- Incense and dragons, inside one of Hanoi’s many temples. 6.- Ombi & (Co) Ha. 7.- Hoan Kiem Lake by night. 8.- Vietnamese dong, the country’s currency. 9.- Water Puppet Show, Hanoi. 10.- Munching on some local food in one of Hanoi’s many, tiny alley ways. L to R: Celeste, Andres, Joyjoy, Rama, Thierry and moi! 11.- Halong Bay. 12.- Halong Bay and its many visitors. 13.- Kayaking in Halong Bay. 14.- View of Halong Bay from Cat Ba Island. 15.- Sisters are doing it for themselves! L to R: Mai, Ombi & Ly. 16.- Saying goodbye to my little sister, Ly. 17.- The gang at Thu Giang, with (Co) Ha and (Thu) Tao in the centre.)

Bac Ha or by bus…..doing it Vietnamese style!

As I mentioned, walking to the border and crossing on the Chinese side was easy, and it looked like the Vietnamese side was going to be too! Wrong! Armed with our passport and Vietnamese visa, which we had obtained in Hong Kong, it was supposed to be a “stamp and walk through”. In theory! In practice, the visa had been issued for a month from the 16th September to the 16th October. We had been told that we would be granted a month from the date of entry. Wrong again! We would only be granted the days that were left from the date stamped on it. Now, I am no genius at maths, but we arrived on the 8th of October, which meant that we would have to leave Vietnam by the 16th of October. That was so not going to happen! Alex was the one to pick up this “discrepancy”, once the visa on our passport had been stamped. We could not believe it! We tried to negotiate, and tell them that there had been a mistake. Several minutes later we were discussing our plight with several others, some of whom spoke English. The bottom line is that they stuffed up in Hong Kong, and that you do not get a month from the date of entry, but rather, a month from the date that is placed on your visa. No use arguing! An error had been made, and we had to rectify it! Despite their friendliness, we were being told that they could organise an “overnight” visa for us for USD$50.00, which we knew was exorbitant. The solution? Make our way down to Hanoi and organise it ourselves!

We both took several deep, deep breaths of air, and reminded ourselves that worse things in life could happen. All we needed was a piece of paper and a bit more money to organise it! We were healthy, well and unharmed, a luxury which is not afforded to so many other citizens of the world!

We had decided on our first stop being Bac Ha, only a couple of hours away from Lao Cai, which is the first town on the Vietnamese side of the border. It’s quite amazing how a border crossing really can make so much of a difference. Within minutes, Alex and I were on the back of two motorbikes, backpacks and all, being zipped off to the local bus station. Indeed, motorbikes were zipping around everywhere. It looked and felt so very Vietnam!

The bus station looked deserted. Lunch break perhaps? We tried to “ask”, via sign language, when the next bus to Bac Ha would be, and from what we could understand, it would be in approximately an hour. After all the time we’d wasted at the border, it really did not seem to matter. The few people that were around seemed fascinated by these two foreigners, with big smiles and no Vietnamese! We managed to “chat” to a few fruit and food vendors, whilst various onlookers leered at us like we were circus acts! Having said that, now that I think of it, with our facial expressions and miming in bid to be understood, they probably weren’t too far off the mark! We felt happy, and were getting the impression that the Vietnamese are a fairly happy lot.

I am not sure where they all appeared from, but come time for the bus to leave, people started appearing from everywhere and packing on! What did I miss? It was just after 1.00pm and we were off! Not very far north east of Lao Cai, the winding roads presented some spectacular scenery. When we had done our research, it grabbed our attention, as it did not seem to be as touristy as like what most of the rest of Vietnam has (and continues to) become. We were the only foreigners on the bus, and both Alex and I saw that as a good sign. In a little under three hours we were in the centre of the very small township of Bac Ha. From the point of view of its being small, it was not long before we found ourselves a place to stay. Bac Ha is famous for its Sunday market, but being a Monday, I couldn’t see us hanging around for a week to see it. It’s also famous for a Tuesday market, which is held at a place some 35 kilometres away called Coc Ly. That sounded more doable!

Our first afternoon was spent wandering around, and doing things such as munching on potatoes and corn cooked on tiny little outdoor grills, whilst chatting to the locals. We learnt very early on, that in Vietnam you have to bargain for absolutely everything, as tourists nearly always get inflated prices. If done in a jovial manner, however, you can usually reduce the cost (almost never to the Vietnamese price), and everyone remains happy, and no-one offended! This area also has a large concentration of hill tribe people, and it was lovely to watch them come and go, in traditional dress. I much prefer this to doing what I call a “hill tribe freak show”. We found an excellent restaurant called Mimosa, run by a young Vietnamese couple, where the food was fantastic. After a month of the culinary equivalent of “Nightmare on Elm St”, Alex and I were both of the opinion that if you’re onto a good thing, stick to it! Mimosa became our faithful friend and companion for our few days in Bac Ha!

On the Tuesday we hired a couple of guys and their motorbikes to take us the 35 kilometres out to the Coc Ly market. Although not far from Bac Ha, it took us over two hours to navigate the windy, mostly muddy tracks. The feeling was exhilarating! It was us, the bikes, the drivers and nature at large! With the wind blowing through our hair, and scenery which I can only describe as spectacular beyond belief, we watched the world fly by! This was the real deal! We saw traditional wooden houses, women washing in streams, men fishing and working the land, construction under way with implements that seemed to date back to the 50’s, and children watching in amazement as we flew by. I felt overwhelmed! Overwhelmed at being alive, and able to appreciate this show, which is called life! Tears welled in my eyes, and I shed silent tears, perhaps the product of a natural high. I never, ever lose sight of the fact that I am so very, very lucky to be able to see and appreciate this wonderful world we live in.

We arrived at the tail end of the market. It was already 12.30pm, and the market supposedly finished at 1.00pm. There were very few foreigners, and it was mostly the locals wheeling and dealing. The stunning scenery was a marvellous backdrop to the many vendors, dressed in resplendent traditional clothing. This area is home to a number of hill tribes, and the traditional dress varies from tribe to tribe. On market day, one can see them in all their glory, and if you look closely you can also see how their dress varies. There are sometimes obvious, but at other times only subtle nuances that differ one tribe’s dress from the next’s. What I loved most about this market was that it was small and it was mostly by and for the locals! Always ready to seize the day, or the opportunity least, many of the vendors have cottoned on to giving out inflated prices. On the other hand, many people pay! Their philosophy no doubt is that why go the lower price if you can go the higher! With my bargaining shoes laced up tightly, I got myself a couple of traditional style silver hill tribe earrings.

Walking through the market gave us a fascinating insight, but one which also provided a tad too much information! I just don’t do chunks of unrefrigerated meat on wooden slabs close to the floor! To be more specific, in this case, a very muddy floor! And people were buying it without qualms. Over the last few weeks, Alex has slowly been turning to the vegetable and fruit family, as the meat one just doesn’t seem to cut it for him either! I just love markets! They are the heart of a nation, and show and tell you a lot about its culture. Although the market was wrapping up, but still got a pretty decent feel for it.

It was 1.30pm, and we were off again. So many things were whirring in my head, and the time seemed to pass very quickly. Before we knew it, we were back “home”, in Bac Ha. Our drivers also took us to Ban Pho, only a few kilometres away from Bac Ha. It’s a terrific little place to see how the Montagnard (mountain people) live. This area is home to the hospitable Flower H’Mong people. We jumped off the bikes and took a stroll around the small village. Being the only foreigners, we were able to appreciate the locals simply living as they live. There were a lot of “sin jows” (hellos) on our behalf, to which many happily responded.

We decided that we would visit Sapa, south-west of Lao Cai, despite the fact that it was supposed to be ultra touristy. I have never been to Vietnam before but have been told that many places have indeed become super touristy of late. I suppose that’s what they call progress! We thought we’d give it a go anyway! The trip took several hours, as first we had to make our way back to Lao Cai, and then we had to get another bus onto Sapa. Whilst the trip between Lao Cai and Sapa was pleasant enough we could not really see much, due to the really thick mist and fog. Sapa is in the Vietnamese highlands, and is supposed to be the coldest place in the country. It has been said that it is fantastic…….if you can see it! As you will read on and find out….we saw it…..just!

At an altitude of about 1600 metres, overlooking a beautiful valley, and surrounded by lofty mountains towering on all sides, Sapa in theory offers views to die for. Unfortunately, we did not manage to see these awe inspiring views, as we caught Sapa in the mist! Having said that, it was still an interesting place to be in and observe. After our arrival, and finding a place to stay, we had a bit of a walk around. Lots and lots of hill tribe people, mainly from the Hmong and Dao tribes. As my friend from Canberra, Bec (Moorby), forewarned us: “The town itself has some hard core hassling minority people pushing handicrafts and drugs to tourists”. That, sadly, just about sums it up! Whilst it was intriguing seeing the various hill tribe people in traditional dress, I was blown away not only by their brilliant command of the English language, but also at how superb they were at hassling you to the point of wearing you down. Also very sadly, there seemed to be only one solution, to ignore them! I hate doing this and it goes against the very grain of my being, but we soon found out that even a friendly smile or hi, would ensure being harassed for at least 10 minutes. Ah yes, and then there’s the drug issue…. again! YES, I’m a foreigner and NO, I don’t do drugs! I cannot stress enough how debilitating buying drugs from these people is not only to the individual, but to the community! If you are a traveller, I urge you to be responsible and not to indulge! Your choice has a profound effect on those who you buy from! Think about your lifestyle, and then think about theirs.

Later that night we found some street vendors, chose one, and sat by the roadside, whilst munching on some goodies that were being cooked over an open fire: sticky rice cooked inside bamboo, corn and sweet potato. We stayed there chatting for several hours to the lady who was cooking and her family. There were a couple of guys next to us, who were also eating and drinking a pure alcohol concoction, which they kept offering to Alex. Although it came in small glasses, it smelt lethal, and they were not taking no for an answer! After about the fourth one, Alex insisted in a friendly manner that he just could not drink anymore. I am not sure if it was a “blokesy” thing, but I was not offered any, which I had absolutely no problem with! This is what Alex and I both love so much about travelling – mixing with the locals.

The next day was not nice at all, neither to walk nor cycle, and it drizzled all day. We still could not see the supposed spectacular scenery. So, we just chilled, caught up on the internet, and sat in a cafe, whilst pushing back a few coffees. We ended up at Western run establishment, which had expensive coffee and average food with tiny portions. To be honest, we were not at all surprised, as this is the usual outcome in such places! Besides, we usually like to support local places and people.

Finally, the next day provided us with weather that was a little better, but still not marvellous, so we booked a sleeper on the train from Lao Cai to Hanoi, which was leaving at 9.00pm that night. We walked around town, and visited both the fruit market downstairs, and the clothes market upstairs. I spotted a beautiful jacket that I wanted to buy, but the prices being quoted were ridiculous, and they were not coming down! Had it been a Monday, I may have had some luck, but being a Friday, and the day before the famous Saturday market, I was in “no way Jose land”! Why sell to me for USD$10.00 when the people in mass tour groups were going to pay several times that amount tomorrow? Cest la vie, hey!

Later that afternoon we visited Cat Cat, a village some three kilometres away. The hike down was steep but impressive. We saw waterfalls, rice fields, and lots of locals in minority dress. Whilst it was pretty, it seemed a little construed. Not quite Disneyland (yet!) but a little set up for the tourists. We drew the line at an entrance fee! Although small, we got around it, by entering a back way. Please do not get me wrong, but it seems ludicrous paying to walk into a village. Imagine paying to get into Melbourne’s China Town! This, I repeat, is not about “come visit the freaks”, it is about experiencing the culture! We can help give to their community in other ways, such as buying goods, food and drinks. What infuriates me is that the “entrance fee” does not go to the locals, but to the government, who sadly sees these people as a commodity and a way to make money. Whilst on this walk we met Mitta from Indonesia and her young son Kenzie. What an amazing woman! We chatted at large, and she expressed how important she felt it was for her son to have a cross-cultural education. I really admire people like this! Congratulations Mitta, and I promise that I will take you up on your offer, and come and visit you in Indonesia one day.

Later that day we caught a bus back to Lao Cai, which left us very close to the train station. Before we knew it, we were on the train, and off to Hanoi. The cabin had six beds with three bunks on each side, and we were in the middle. I know that I promised that I wouldn’t act like a princess again, but I started to scowl, and turn up my nose when I saw that the sheet on the bed was not clean! I carry a pillow case cover with me, so that went onto the pillow in a flash. The blanket hadn’t exactly been washed yesterday either! I lay down, put my head on a “clean” pillow, covered myself with the blanket (but not too close to my face, yuk!), and went to sleep. On awakening, a new adventure would no doubt be awaiting us.

Ombi

The more freedom we enjoy, the greater the responsibility we bear, toward others as well as ourselves” – Oscar Arias Sanchez (1941 – ).

(Photos: 1.-Crossing the border into Vietnam. 2.- On the bus, on the way to Bac Ha. 3.- Locals on a water buffalo, near Bac Ha. 4.- Hill tribe girls, Coc Ly Market. 5.- On the motorbikes, Alex behind & Ombi infront. 6.- Hill tribe elder, Coc Ly market. 7.- Wheeling & dealing, Coc Ly market. 8.- Little boy & traditional clothes drying, Ban Pho, near Bac Ha. 9.- The misty hills around Sapa. 10.- Black Hmong elder, Sapa. 11.- The scantily clad locals, on the walk between Sapa & Cat Cat village. 12.- Man at work, Cat Cat village, near Sapa. 13.- Woman at work, ustairs clothes market, Sapa.)

Almost touching Tibet.

So close, yet so far! In Shangri-la (or Zhongdian, as it is more commonly known to the Chinese), I felt that I could smell, hear and almost touch Tibet! Another four hours north from Lijiang, Shangri-la had a totally different feel to it than the rest of China. The faces were different, the architecture different, and even the signs now included being written in Tibetan, as well as Chinese (in addition to the occasional English). I closed my eyes and conjured up every image of Tibet that I could. Coupled with what I was seeing, feeling and breathing, it really was the very closest I would get to the magical land, which now so very close, was yet so very far! Unfortunately, despite the fact that Tibet is a “part of China” one still needs to get a “special permit” to go there. Politics is a dirty word, and in respect to Tibet it has been unscrupulously filthy! It would be worth your while to do a little background reading here on Tibet.

Does the word Shangri-la sound familiar or ring a bell? It is the name of a fictional place described in the 1933 novel, “Lost Horizon”, by the British author, James Hilton. It was a place used to describe an earthly paradise, a Himalayan utopia. This may just be the place! The town is indeed both known and recognised by both names. It only takes a few days of lazing and walking about in this tranquil place in order for one to realise that there really is something very special and uplifting about it. It is a feeling, a vibe, an essence, and it is indescribably magical!

We were fortunate to end up in a cosy place called Harmony Guesthouse. The common area, which included a restaurant, came complete with an open fireplace (it really was quite cold at night in this neck of the woods), where we spent many a night indulging in a magnificent buffet dinner and copious cups of tea. The owner, Joey, did not speak much English, but he sure made up for it with his hospitality and warm personality. I must add that this place afforded us some of China’s best food, which I have already mentioned has generally totally failed to excite us! We met a great girl from Spain there, called Mariona, who often joined us for our nighttime extravaganzas.

Effectively, Shangri-la is a Tibetan town. Its Tibetan name is Gyeltang, or Gyalthang, and people mainly come here to visit its famous monastery, as well as to get a taste of Tibet if they cannot make it to the real thing. In this case, we were no exception! Ganden Sumtseling Gompa is a 300 year old Tibetan monastery complex with around 300 monks. It is huge and the area surrounding it physically spectacular. Perched up on a hill, several kilometres from the city centre, the view from the top is gorgeous. Add tinkling bells and fluttering prayer flags; it really felt like I would expect Tibet to feel like. Despite the busloads of tourists, there was something so very peaceful about this place. We took several hours, walking in, out and around the several temples and monks’ quarters. We later took a scenic route back to the centre, passing several open fields, people working, children playing, and animals in the fields.

Closer to town, we did several other walks, which took us through other monasteries and pagodas, again with advantageous viewpoints. We also walked around the countryside, and saw several people at work in the fields. As most tourists do not venture out of the immediate centre, we were quite a novelty amongst the workers. It’s always wonderful to see people as they really live their lives, outside of the tourist hustle and bustle.

We checked out the weather forecast, and as far as doing the trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge went , it was (finally!) looking good. Located roughly halfway between Lijiang and Shangri-la, it would be our next destination. We had not hiked in a while, so we were really looking forward to it. The starting point for the walk was from Qiaotou. Although only a couple of hours away, it was almost 2.00pm by the time we got ourselves organised, onto a bus, and there. It’s quite a small town, and its only claim to fame , really, is that it’s the place from where the hike starts.

For something like a little more than one Aussie dollar each, we left the bulk of our luggage at the Gorged Tiger Cafe, run by a super helpful and friendly Australian lass called Margo. Not only did she tell us how and when to do the walk, she even told us how we could “avoid the authorities” and slip away without paying the fairly high entrance fee…..which we did! I have already mentioned that the Chinese love charging high prices to “get into places”, which often includes roads that pass through or enter villages and natural places of beauty. Armed with our small backpacks, Alex and I were away in a flash, and needless to say we did “avoid the authorities”.

Tiger Leaping Gorge covers roughly 15 kilometres of terrain, and can be done from anywhere between 1 and 4 days. We opted for 2, and wanted to make it halfway by nightfall of day 1. We were told that we’d left it a little late, and that due to the heat of mid-afternoon, perhaps we should only go a quarter of the way, whereby we should reach a guesthouse called Naxi. Hmmmmm, let’s see! I was secretly determined to make it halfway, and without a doubt, Alex knew this! I am now totally able to admit that my partner knows me better than I know myself! One hour and 10 minutes later, we arrived at Naxi Guesthouse. There was not a sliver of doubt that we would continue on!

So, continue we did, meeting both locals and other travellers along the way. The first day was mostly uphill, and whilst you do not need to be an elite athlete, a certain degree of fitness is required. Whilst travelling, I certainly have not gone running as often as I did in Australia, but the walking we do on a daily basis, has kept us both very, very, fit. I am proud to say, that we both did it effortlessly…but I would be lying if I said that we did not stop a few times to regain our breath. The gorge, Hutiao Xia in Chinese, is one of the deepest in the world and measures between 15 and 16 kilometres long. It is a dizzying 3900 metres from the torrid waters of Jinsha River (Jinsha Jiang) to the snow-capped mountaintops of Haba Shan (Haba Mountain) to the west. Needless to say, we were provided with one breathtaking spot after another; a veritable photographer’s dream come true. Alex was in his element!

So, what exactly is the explanation behind the 100-metre-wide gorge’s name? The locals, would suggest something to the tune of, “A tiger was being chased, and it leaped across the river to escape”. An explanation totally befitting the name of Tiger Leaping Gorge……. don’t you think? We finally reached halfway at around 6.00pm, and stayed in a guest house called Tea Horse. It was chock-a-block full of fellow travellers, and we all had a great night eating, drinking and chatting. Supposedly, the best was yet to come and people generally rave about the views on Day 2. We were grateful for a comfortable bed, which we felt we had totally earned!

I’m not going to say that we were up at the crack of dawn, but we got up early enough to have breakfast and be off by around 9.00am. I would have to agree with all the hype, and say that the scenery on Day 2 was indeed spectacular. Sadly, a dam is currently in the process of being built, and it has been said that in the next few years the gorge will not even exist. Damn! How sad! I feel that we are slowly chipping away and destroying our world, and the focus seems to be on today and not tomorrow! Will our children’s children ever see places such as Tiger Leaping Gorge or the Amazon? Or will they have to rely on books and photos, putting them all in the “Dinosaur league”? Only time will tell, or perhaps I should say that time IS telling! There are also “softer” options of seeing the gorge, as the Chinese are not really into hiking. Sadly, many of them do not have a very romantic view of nature. Rather they see what we would call the Great Outdoors as being frighteningly empty, unless livened up by cable cars, stone staircases, strategically placed pavilions, souvenir hawkers and noodle stands! I’ll take the option that’s not soft, thanks!

It was a beautiful, refreshing and breathtaking walk, but we knew that we would have to move on, as the expiry date on our Chinese visa was coming to a close. We made it back to Margo at The Gorged Tiger in Qiaotou, via mini-bus, which took around 45 minutes on a narrow, mountain-hugging road that I imagine would be horrendous in rainy weather. A couple of showers later (that’s us, not the gorge!), and we were waving goodbye to and thanking Margo, as we hopped on to another mini-bus, this time back to Lijiang from where we would organise a bus to Kunming later that night, and then make our way towards the Vietnamese border.

A couple of hours later we were in Lijiang, where we decided on an overnight sleeper bus to Kunming. Overnight means arriving at a reasonable hour like 6.00am, right? Wrong! I had never been on a sleeper bus before, whereby you lie down in a totally horizontal position. I assumed (oh, woe to those of us who assume!) that it would be reasonably comfortable. Well, for a smaller Chinese person, or a waif-like foreigner, perhaps. But, for two normal size foreigners, it was about getting into the foetal position. I tried to hit memory recall……Geez, it was only almost 40 years ago that I’d done it for 9 months! Personal space? What is that? I tried to ignore all of the “smells”, and that was not an easy task. Then there was the guy playing games on his mobile phone at midnight….with the volume right up! Alex and I seemed to be the only two who, apart from being foreigners, were also pissed off! Coincidence? Let me remind you about personal space in China……there is none!

Back to rocking up to Kunming at a “reasonable” hour. The bus pulled up just before 4.30am, which it did outside the bus station, as it was still too early to actually be open! I was suddenly trying to shake myself out of my half-asleep stupor, whilst stumbling off the bus and into darkness. OK, so where to now? At first, we did not even know that we were in front of the bus station. With our lack of Chinese, and the Chinese’s non-existent English, it took us almost 15 minutes to work out that we were standing in front of it! We somehow managed to squeeze into a side door, and sit on a table outside. The station would not be opening until 6.00am.

Luckily, we had bought a couple of cans of coffee the night before, which we guzzled down, whilst leafing through our guide book as part of a “Where to next” quest. It is here that we met Wu, a guy in his early 40s from Taiwan, who was travelling around Asia for a few months. This is really uncommon for both the Chinese as well as the Taiwanese, but as neither of us spoke each other’s language, it was hard to get the full story. Having said that, it is equally as amazing as to how much you CAN find out, with a smile, hand and body gestures, pointing to things in your guide book and some determination. In no time at all we had forged a friendship with this man, called Wu, who helped us book tickets to Yuanyang, some 4 to 5 hours south of Kunming, famous for its rice paddies. As the bus was not leaving until 10.40am, we decided to go and get some breakfast. I was able to make Wu understand that I was vegetarian…..and the search begun! We found several places, all of which included food “with only a little bit of meat”. Although I inwardly sighed, after almost a month, I have become accustomed to this. Yet again, I settled for something bland and tasteless, whilst still trying to smile, as I knew what a huge effort Wu was making to help me. Sometimes, it is important to remain humble, and eat that pie which goes by the same name.

So, off to Yuanyang we went, arriving late afternoon. The bus was bearable, whilst the road was rather nasty, making the ride a tad uncomfortable. When we arrived, and saw a town which was quite dirty with litter and whose vegetables and fruit were sold from and on the floor on the main road running through the centre of town (read, straight from the dust and bitumen to you!), we felt disheartened and lacking the desire necessary to see the rice fields. Most of the budget options did not exactly hit China’s 100 most cleanest (are you kind of getting the idea as to what accommodation was like in this town?) either, so in this case we opted for a cleaner and more expensive hotel. The Hilton, we do not need, but if it isn’t clean, we simply will not stay in it. We may choose to cut corners in other areas, but never in cleanliness. We argued that we had already seen some spectacular rice terraces in China, and that we did not have to do it again (read…….cannot be bothered, time to move on!).

Next morning we were off again. Unfortunately, we had to travel some of the journey via the exact same road we were on the day before. By this point, we were both tired and over it. It took us another 5 or 6 hours to arrive at Hekou, the Chinese town on the border crossing with Vietnam. The border crossing closed at 5.00pm, and as the bus ride continued, it was becoming more than obvious that we would not be able to cross on time. Luckily, there was a lady on the bus that directed us to a great little hotel, which she happened to work in. It was cheap and clean, and so we decided that it is where we would rest our weary heads for the night. I was quite impressed with the town, I must say. It was rather clean and organised and had a bit of a commercial town vibe about it. And the border was only a walk away!

Our last night in China was spent eating some great food, which tasted more like Vietnamese than Chinese. I was finally being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel! Believe me, the tunnel had been long! The next morning, we got ourselves organised and walked to the border. The sounds and visuals of people hurtling spit continued to haunt me, and I prayed that this would change as soon as we crossed the border! Was I expecting too much?

We crossed into Vietnam on the 8th of October, the day our visa was due to “expire”. Great timing, or so we thought! We got through the Chinese side without a fuss, but, it was on the Vietnamese side that the fun and games commenced!

Ombi

NOTE 1: I know that people in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones, but now that I am out of China, and can access most web sites, I would like you to take a look at China’s Human rights record. Not exactly a very rosy picture!

NOTE 2: I would like to mention Julia, a 7 year old Alex and I met whilst hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge. She is Polish, and her family is currently living in China. Not only was I stunned by her stamina, but by her personality and attitude. This little girl’s dream was to travel the world, and not to own an X-box or a Barbie doll. She was bright, intelligent and engaging, and attracted people like a magnet! What a breath of fresh air!

DEDICATION: Julia, this dedication is for you. I hope that your brother, Vitek, or Dad, Robert, shows you this. Alex and I just want to let you know that you were an inspiration to us both (this means that we thought that you were amazing), and we hope that many more children can learn from your determination and strong will. You will help change the world!
“There are two kinds of light – the glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures” – James Thurber (1894 – 1961).

(Photos: 1.- View of Shangri-la and surrounds, taken from Ganden Sumtseling Gompa Monastery. 2.- One of the temples in the centre of Shangri-la. 3.- Harmony Guesthouse, Shangri-la. L to R: Mariona, Alex, various guests and Joey. 4.- One of the temples, Ganden Sumtseling Gompa monastery. 5.- What’s your beef? (or a plethora of other animals), Shangri-la. 6.- Alex asking the locals the way to Tiger Leaping Gorge, at the beginning of the walk. 7.- Walkin’ the gorge! 8.- Spectacular flowers, impressive mountains, and a tiny butterfly, Tiger Leaping Gorge. 9.- Tibetan prayer flags in China – Shangri-la. One senses that the Chinese are very keen to “keep” any and all things Tibetan! 10.- Indigenous woman in Yuanyang. 11.- Indigenous child in Yuanyang. 12.- “Inside job”; catching a bus from Yuanyang to Hekou with the locals. 13.- One of the locals, in the bus from Yuanyang to Hekou. 14.- Show me where you’re from Julia, and I’ll show you where I’m from, Tiger leaping Gorge trail.)

Undulating rice terraces and heading out west.

Now, I hope you did your homework, and checked out a map of China. Although we “only” did the south-west section, we still saw quite a large portion. Read on!

Guilin is supposedly like Yangshuo, but it has a larger commercial centre, so we decided to skip it. Can’t do everything, says the woman who’s going to die trying! Only an hour away from Yangshuo, however, we had to pass through it to get to our final destination of PingAn, another couple of hours away. The road was windy, but spectacular, as we we made our way over and across breathtaking landscapes, rice paddies and minority groups, mainly women. In the area, is a small village, Zhonglu, notable for its long haired women from the Yao tribe, who supposedly hold the Guinness Book of World Records…..for the longest hair in the world. Whilst we passed this place on our way to the terraces, we had no desire to stop or do a tour here at a later point. These people are humans and not animals, and should be treated as such. I know this makes me sound “old” (which in light of the fact that I turn 40 on October 14th, may not be too far from the truth!), but “in the olden days”, when I first started travelling nearly 20 years ago, visiting hill tribes was much more of a cultural experience. Nowadays, it is more like an outing to visit “the freaks”, complete with the recipients having a digital camera thrust 2 millimetres from their faces (yes, 2 millimetres, not centimetres. This IS the era not only of digital cameras, but a macro zoom as well!). No thanks!

Some two hours after leaving Guilin, we arrived in the 600 year old Zhuang village of PingAn. But certainly not before someone jumped on the bus and sold us our tickets! As I mentioned before, everything costs in China, with nature being no exemption! Set perched up high above the rice terraces, there are no cars, narrow walkways, and the way to reach it is……foot power! The Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces is an engineering spectacle, that reaches all the way up a string of 800 metre peaks. You can have one of the villagers carry your bags up, or alternatively, you too can physically be carried up in a type of rickshaw with no wheels. As you would expect, we walked it! Twenty minutes of constant uphill climbing, complete with backpacks had us both oohing and aahing over the views, whilst sweating like beasts. It REALLY is good to be alive! Our bodies are our temples, and I never underestimate how incredible it is to be and feel so fit and healthy, especially in times like this. The vista was truly amazing, bags and all!

We spent a beyond peaceful two days in PingAn, sleeping in, making new friends, exploring the countryside, marvelling at the rice terraces, and taking in the majesty and the beauty of our surrounds. All of the houses and hotels up here, are traditionally built from wood, and look as if they have been superimposed, precariously perched on the steep and rolling hills. The advantage of “steep” however, definitely includes less tourists. Definitely not a hike for the feeble or faint hearted. The two main terraces are “Seven Stars Accompanying Moon” and ” Nine Dragons and Five Tigers”. They look as spectacular and exotic as they sound. Sitting down at the top of these peaks and viewing these marvels simply left me speechless. Yes, these moments are rare!

Our next destination would be Dali, heading way out west. In order to get there, we had to take an overnight train ride to Kunming followed by another five hours or so up north by bus. Kunming was only a “drive through”, as we are both over the big city thing at the moment, but we were still stunned and overwhelmed by all the people at the Kunming train station. I have to keep reminding myself what a lot of people 1.3 million actually are! The overnight train was….bearable…..just! With six bunk beds to a cabin it was not too bad, and we were on the bottom, so nothing really to complain about, well….I have seen cleaner sheets in my life, and the cacophony and symphony of sounds were exasperating! Yeh, those guys and gals were hocking up those greenies like no tomorrow! I knew I had not brought my ear plugs with me in vain! Then, of course it was “no smoking” in the cabins! So, just take yourself one little guess where that smoke gets redistributed when people are chuffing at either end of the carriages? Nothing like recycled air via the air -conditioners! I am not going to hold back here. It’s a vile and repulsive habit, and I will ONLY tolerate if and when it does not effect and involve me!

Located about 120 kilometres southeast of Kunming, we passed through Shilin, which is home to a massive collection of limestone pillars. The area consists of rocks and boulders which have been created via the erosion of wind and rain, some reaching up to a height of 30 metres. In true Chinese style, they have levied a fee to enter, which of course is disproportionate and illogical. So, if you are a tourist or a wealthy Chinese person, please enter, if not, talk to the hand! Don’t you just love communism! Such a fair and just system! We got a fairly good, albeit brief, look from the train! Soon enough we were at the Kunming train station, where we met an Aussie called Katrina, and the three of us walked to the bus station where we negotiated a bus to Dali! China’s bus stations seem to vary a lot. In some the destinations have a set price and in others you need to bargain. Here it was all about bargaining, and bargain we did! If the air-con was our god in Japan, it is definitely the calculator in China! I no speaka the Chinese, you no speaka the English, but we both understanda the numbers. And on the 7th day, he (or she!) created the calculator!

It was not such a long ride, well almost 6 hours, but after all night on a train, we were keen to get to our destination. We arrived in Dali at around 6.00pm, and although not entirely exhausted we were not up to hours of searching for a place to stay (which, incidentally, is wearing very thin after almost 14 months!). We managed to find a quiet and cheap place run by a Chinese family, The Bai Family Inn. Again, it was sign language and calculators, but our hosts went out of their way to make us feel welcome and at home. The hotel seemed to be set within the walls of an old temple, the rooms were spacious and the beds , rather comfortable. A word on Chinese beds; Whilst usually exceptionally clean, they are as hard as a rock! It’s the way they like them, I suppose. But usually this can be “fixed”, by placing any extra doonas, blankets or whatever you can find underneath! It’s called being resourceful!

We had a relaxing couple of days in Dali, and found a great place to eat at. A tiny hole in the wall, it offered 10 vegetarian wontons for about 50 cents AUD. Now if that was not cause for excitement, the sign that went along with it was, “No MSG“! What a bonus! The Chinese love their MSG (wei chin) and use it like the Italians use olive oil. The difference (and a big one at that!) is that the latter is good for you! We visited some surrounding temples, walked around the old city walls, and hung out at a few places drinking some fabulous Yunnan coffee (the state in which Dali lies). I want to make a special mention here. The “Lost Angel Cafe” is run by a young Beijing couple called Jessie and Dio. Helpful, friendly, and honest , they are wonderful people. If you go to Dali, be sure to drop by and say hello. The coffee is great coffee, and the internet is free.

Dali lies on the western edge of Lake Erhai, and at an altitude of 1900 metres. Its backdrop is the imposing 4000 metre high Jade Green Mountains. There are supposedly some great hikes around both the lake and the mountains, but we just took it easy, and the most strenuous thing we did in the area was a day trip to Xizhou which is renowned for its well-preserved Bai architecture (the Bai are one of 56 ethnic groups officially recognised by The People’s Republic of China), where we just strolled around, chatted to the locals and observed the architecture . We were the only tourists around, and so we got lots of stares, but it was fun. Throw in a few Chinese words, and the people love it. It’s always an ice-breaker and shows that you actually care and are interested in other people’s lives and cultures. I should mention that being so high up, the climate around here was by far cooler than what we had experienced thus far, and we found ourselves wearing long pants, polar fleeces and even rain jackets for the first time in ages.

Heading even further north, we also decided to visit Lijiang. We would be arriving just before the Chinese Golden Week (which is from the 1st to the 6th of October), and had been warned that not only do prices rise astronomically, but that the likes of Lijiang become a veritable Disneyland. Hard call! But, we decided to go, as it would be the closest that we would get to Tibet…on this trip, anyway! Or, so we thought! We ended up at a place called the Old Town Carnation Hotel, set in an old Naxi home, and run by a gorgeous Chinese lay called Li Shu Ju. She was so gentle and helpful, and nothing was too much or a bother. We have been so fortunate on this trip, predominantly finding terrific places to stay, with marvellous people who run them. It was quite cold here too, and it rained a lot. So much actually, that we wondered if we were going to be able to do one of China’s 10 “must do’s “, a trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge. We would have to wait and see!

Lijiang is truly very picturesque. With its maze of cobble stoned streets, old wooden buildings and canals at every turn, it one of Yunnan province’s most visited sites. It has often been referred to as the “Venice of the east”! (Having said that, there are several other places on Earth that have made similar canals, oops, I meant claims!) Its popularity has grown and continues to rise, and I was blown away by the number of “flag brigades” overtaking even the smallest of cobblestoned streets! Not only do the Chinese LOVE to travel in groups, and big ones at that, their guides come complete with “traditional minority costumes”……give me a bucket! Like many other countries, the Chinese minority groups are shunned and down trodden, unless and until they can be used to make money! Not even going to go there! If you want to hear more about our experiences on this, it’ll be over a coffee or two back in Oz!

Having said all of this, venture out, in and around Lijiang, either very early or very late in the day, and you will be duly rewarded with some breathtaking sights. Without the masses and Disneyland style enterprises it’s a gem of a place! Sadly, some of the “natural” things to see around Lijiang are so expensive that I found it akin to extortion, and bluntly refused to either pay or visit. Again, I wondered how the poorer, local people do it. Quite bluntly, they do not! It has been rather interesting to watch China grapple with it’s identity. Communist? Socialist? Capitalist? I am not sure that they know really? And to be truthful, neither do I? China’s like a little kid who has its cake and wants to eat it too!

Unfortunately, it rained a little too much for our liking, and whilst we got out just before the real Golden Week mayhem was about to begin, we were not altogether convinced that the trek we wanted to do would be dry or safe enough. Would we have to miss out? We were running out of time as we had to leave China by the 9th October (or so we thought….. more on that later). What should we do? It seemed like such a pity to miss out on something which was meant to be so unique and spectacular. So, we decided to buy ourselves a little time, and head even further up north, to a place called Shangri-la (or Zhongdian). This town is home to remote temples, rugged mountain scenery and the start of the Tibetan world. So……. it appeared that we were going to get much closer to Tibet than we ever thought we would! The last frontier!

Ombi.

NOTE::”Ganja? Marijuana? Hash? Hashish?”. The question we heard so often was coming from the mouths of the locals, predominantly women from one of the several Chinese minority groups. Where did we hear this? Anywhere there were tourists really! How very, very, very sad! So, this is their impression of us…….that we are pot smoking, drug takers! By the amount of times we were asked, it was pretty obvious that both they were selling, and that tourists were buying! Whilst I am not about to pass any judgement on drug taking, I will say this: Be a responsible tourist! If you do drugs, then do them at home, and if you do it overseas BYO! Buying from locals goes far beyond giving us a bad reputation, it makes these people rely on making a living from trading illegally. Think about the impact that your “cheap drug fix” will have on all those involved in the transaction!

“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in all the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.” – John Steinbeck, “East of Eden”.

(Photos: 1.-The long haired women of the Zhuang tribe, walking through the rice fields of Longsheng. 2.- The rice fields of Longsheng. 3.- Drying corn and chillies, PingAn. 4.- Locals going to work, Kunming train station. 5.- One of the many faces of the people of Dali. 6.- Pagoda and a typical street in the centre of Dali. 7.- Another one of the many faces of Dali. 8.- In the streets of Xizhou. 9.- A typical Lijiang house, with Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the background. 10.- Lijiang and one of its many canals. 11.- Tibetan prayer flags fluttering above the town of Shangri-la, taken on a short hike. 12.- That’s me signing off for this blog….until next time.)

Yangshuo’s fairtytale peaks and lunar landscape.

Think China! Think Yangshuo! With its famous fairytale karst peaks, one after the other after the other, the landscape is exactly what the mind conjures up when thinking of China. I was just waiting for a man with long braided hair and a long wispy moustache to jump out in front of us and the image would have been complete! The town’s otherworldly landscapes are mesmerising! We spent a good week here, staying in various hotels, and seeing Yangshuo as it is seen best, by bike! Despite the fact that several tours abound, a bit of pedal power gets you off the beaten track, and cheaply allows you to stumble across old bridges, fascinating landscapes, and minority groups in tiny villages that look centuries old. Our Chinese is shocking, but a broad smile and a hearty Ni Hao (hello) brought a smile to many of these people’s faces, as well as more than curious stares (who are these weirdos on bikes, and why do they seem so interested in us and our dot of a village anyway?).

The centre of Yangshuo itself, has become a bit of a foreigners magnet, with all of its bars and western restaurants, but one only needs to duck off into the side streets to find the real Yangshuo, including the more traditional things, and obviously cheaper food. Besides, the countryside is only minutes away by bike. We mostly stayed in town, but we also spent a couple of nights out at the Snow Lion Resort, run by the charismatic Linda and William. It was an oasis of calm and tranquility, and also the place from which we did some exploring even further afield. Heading south west, we cycled towards Liu Gong village. It was a superb ride, albeit extremely rocky, and the views were phenomenal…peaks, villages, ponds, trees, rolling hills, children running and playing, workers in the fields. I had mistakenly understood that it would take an hour to get there. After an hour and a half however, we had to call it quits. It was 6.15pm, and the sun was setting (that was another impressionable sight to behold!). I HATE not reaching my final destination, but cycling back in the pitch black of a countryside we knew little of did not seem to be a viable option. So, we opted for Plan B, which was to hammer home! We made it back in 45 minutes, much to Linda’s surprise. I had a searing pain in my butt to prove it! That night I felt like a baboon! It could well be argued that I looked like one too!

On another day, we took a short bus ride out to Xing Ping Town, from where we did a boat ride along the Li River. Whilst the views were also gorgeous, I would also add that they were perhaps not that different to what we saw by bike, and the latter option seems “less” touristy and “more” real. It was a town also worth visiting, as the crowds mostly do the boat ride and not much else. This means a lot to explore without all the people of Yangshuo. I loved walking in and amongst the tiny alley ways, with traditional wooden houses and simply watching the locals entertain themselves in their day to day activities. Alex and I also partook in a half hour hike up a hill, Mt. Raozhai, very close to the waterfront, and despite us being totally saturated in sweat upon reaching the summit, the panorama, yet again, was awe inspiring.

Closer to the centre of Yangshuo are some touristy must do’s. No trip would be complete without a visit to Moon Hill, a limestone pinnacle with, surprise surprise, a moon shaped hole. It’s only a 7 or 8 kilometre cycle out of town, and we chose a day where the sky was a bright, bright blue! The locals told us it was the best day they had had that year! I should add that due to the hot and humid climate of the area, the skies can vary from a hazy grey, where it’s hard to see even the closest peaks, to the jackpot we scored that day! On the way we passed the Yulong River, complete with bamboo rafts and the locals who managed them, ready to transport people and bikes at will. Moon Hill was definitely worth the half hour hike up, and I have now run out of adjectives to describe the stupendous views! The Banyan Tree reserve close by, however was a real let down. The Chinese not only have a penchant for charging for anything and everything (including things that occur naturally), but they also love turning nature into an Asian style theme park. So, yes, the 1400 year old tree was interesting, mainly due to its age, but the Holy Grail like shrine around it, needless to say, was not! The “theme park” came complete with dressed up monkeys in chains, and feathered friends with extra headpieces! Would we like to have a photo taken with these “caged” animals! No thanks!! Speaking of animals, we did see dog on a few menus here! True!

Another day, we rode along another section of the Yulong River, all the way to Dragon Bridge. At times, when we weaved in and out of the amazing karst topography, we felt like we were on another planet. The moon perhaps! Then all of a sudden, a tiny village would appear, and we would be reminded that we were indeed on Earth.

Amongst the places we stayed at in town were Bamboo House Inn and Cafe (there are two of them, and they are run the gorgeous Rosie and her family), and 7th Heaven Cafe & Hostel, also run by Linda and William. Both were fantastic places with fantastic food. The former had excellent coffee (made with an Italian espresso coffee pot to boot!) and a huge and tasty breakfast, whilst the latter (despite its claim to having great Western food), also had great Chinese food! For the first time in ages, I felt like I was able to eat something without having to dodge something from the carnivore club! Alex and I highly recommend both of them! Although we did not actually stay the night, another place noteworthy of a mention is The Giggling Tree in Aishanmen Village, 5 kilometres from Yangshuo. Run by a hospitable Dutch couple, it is set in the countryside and has a mot relaxing feel about it. It’s close to the “action”, yet far enough away from the maddening crowds to make you feel like you are one of the last people on Earth.

Did we really spend 8 days in Yangshuo and its surrounds? Absolutely! With only a one month visa, it was definitely time to hit the road again!

Oh, and definitely my favourite sign yet (along with Wan Kee under the Nike sign) is the Wankelong Shopping Centre, in Yangshuo. Please explain? I think even Pauline Hanson would get that one!

Ombi

NOTE 1: Check this out for some good old Chinese censorship.

NOTE 2: Oops! I’m sorry you just received this same blog without the photos. I hit publish by accident. I hope this version was the more enjoyable!

NEXT: The spectacular Longji Rice Terraces of Guilin, and then heading out west. Was it wild? Read on and find out!

“Formerly, when religion was strong and science weak, men mistook magic for medicine; now, when science is strong and religion weak, men mistake medicine for magic”Thomas Szasz.

(Photos: 1.- The man with the moustache did jump out infront of us! 2.- Reflections along the Yulong River. 3.- More reflections – spectacular for us, and work as usual for others! 4.- Moon Hill. 5.- Red dragonfly, Yulong River (I took that one!) 6.- Flower in bloom, along the Yulong River. 7.- Alex on top of the world…..well on top of Moon Hill anyway! 8.- The Wankelong Shopping Square! This one’s especially dedicated to all you Aussies out there. C’mon ya gotta luv this one!)

Arriving at “the source”…Welcome to China!

Nothing can really prepare you for it!!!!!! I mean this is the land where 25 million trees are felled annually to make disposable chopsticks ( for the Chinese!!!!!); where it really does rain “acid rain”, seriously the water stings your eyes; where personal space isn’t really personal; where pollution is so bad that the sky is a continual haze; where pedestrian crossings, are merely a “formal tool” for people to scamper across the road ….whenever!!!!!; where signs read…….Wan Kee (OK, that was under a sign under a Nike sign in Hong Kong); where “negotiating” means handing over what is asked, or actually punched into the calculator! ; where all these characters basically mean jack!; where there is “internet police!! Yes, I am serious!! Open up a “no no” website, and the hand of the law comes a knocking at your screen; where people are still tortured for practising their religion of choice. Hop onto a search engine and check out what they have done and continue to do to the Falun Gong! ; and where communism is a joke! I have never seen capitalism so ingrained. It’s like this, heads or tails? Communist when we want…capitalist when we want!

Welcome to China!

Well, here we are in a country with a population of 1.3 billion, or thereabouts. Most of us know that, but nothing could have prepared us for the Macau-Zhuhai border crossing. The short bus ride to the border was easy, just a local ride away, but what (or who!) we saw as we went through passport control was flabbergasting. We were both blown away as we tried to assimilate the amount of people going from one side to the other. I have never seen so many people at a border crossing in my life. The workers in passport control have truly got their work cut out for them here, as if they do not work expediently, they would be working 24/ 7 and it would take us hours to get through. Despite the fact that we were some 30 metres back in one of perhaps 40 lines, we seemed to get through in a little over half an hour. There weren’t many other foreigners around, and I couldn’t help but wonder what the locals were thinking. Covered in backpacks, and looking like stunned mullets must have been an amusing look to them!

Whilst in Macau we had flicked through our Lonely Planet China book, which we had bought in Hong Kong, and wondered where to go. It is an enormous country covering a massive 9.5 million square kilometres. To do only a small part would take weeks and the entire country, months upon months. With no definite itinerary, we decided loosely on some of the south-western areas, as we would eventually make our way to Vietnam from here. For our first night, we decided to book something on-line (again, what did we ever do before the internet?) and got a rather good deal at the Zhuhai Bihai (three star supposedly) Hotel, just eight or so kilometres from the border. Did we catch a taxi? No! We took the challenge, and “public transported” it. Again, we were overwhelmed by all the people…….I mean, after what we’d seen at the border crossing, we shouldn’t have been so surprised…they had to be and go somewhere! We realised after asking a few people the way to the hotel, that this was going to be much harder than Hong Kong or Macau, and that people here seemed to speak so much less English. But, we are always willing to give it a go, and we always try and learn a few words of the local lingo. Having been spoilt with all the English speakers in Macau and Hong Kong, however, we felt a little like lambs to the slaughter. Needless to say, we did eventually make it to the hotel. It’s amazing how far some confidence, a smile and lots of hand signals can get you. Italians are renowned for the use of their hands when they talk, and I was so happy that I had had some decent training in this. I cannot tell you how useful it has been in China!

There is not all that much to do in Zhuhai, or perhaps, more to the point, there is not much that we did in Zhuhai. We spent a couple of nights there and just took it easy. We slept, we ate, and we strolled around a little. Our hotel was right on the sea, and actually away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, so it was both peaceful and tranquil. It is said that it is one cleanest and greenest metropolises in China. We did see some lovely temples, local fishermen, and people just living their lives…..as you do. It was great to be in a place with absolutely no other tourists and no real tourist attractions. It was nice to see the Chinese living as the Chinese live!

Where to go to next? The next logical stop was Guangzhou, or Canton, as it is known by most foreigners. We did some reading and research, and despite its claim to have some of China’s best food, it’s also supposed to be China’s “thief capital”. It’s also a big city, and we had spent a lot of time in these recently. The minuses outweighed the plusses, so we ditched that idea. We decided, instead, on another city, heading out west, called Zhaoqing. Again, very few tourists here, if any at all, but that was part of the beauty. Once again, we ended up in a rather big hotel, as there did not seem to be any other options here. Whilst the centre of town did not provide anything anything astronomical, the surrounding countryside was rather spectacular.

We took a local bus out to Dinghu Shan (Mt Dinghu). Despite being only 18 kilometres away, it seemed so far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city so close by. Here we truly relaxed as we walked among the lush vegetation, temples, pagodas (a pagoda is the general term in the English language for a tiered tower with multiple eaves common in China, Japan, Korea, Nepal, Vietnam, and other Asian countries), springs, waterfalls and pools. There seemed so few foreigners, despite it being packed with Chinese tourists. Alex and I were also stunned at how so few people walk. Soooooo many tour groups and so many mini buses transporting people. Sadly, we have both noticed that people all over the world are getting larger, especially in countries where this has been uncommon in the past. This, from what we can observe, has been due to the increase of international fast food chains, as well as an increasingly more sedentary lifestyle. The path of least resistance is making people unhealthier!

One of the highlights of the Mt Dinghu Reserve was without a doubt the Qingyun Temple, a huge Buddhist complex of over 100 buildings. It seemed to go both on and up forever! The 500 gilded Buddhist arhats (saints) were spectacular, as was the rice pot capable of feeding 1000 people. We spent a considerable amount of time here, most possibly because the energy was so serene. The Baoding Garden was also a highlight, with its Nine Dragon Vessel, the world’s largest ding, a Chinese ceremonial pot with two handles and three or four legs. Besides all of this, various lakes, little islands and breathtaking views were presented at every turn.

Places with little tourism and tourists have their positives, but along with that some negatives too. Chinese people speak far less English than I thought they would, and let me tell you, reading Chinese characters to the untrained eye is like looking at scribble! So, communication takes both a lot of guts as well as sign language; no time to feel foolish or embarrassed, or you will truly get nowhere! Wandering around, observing and people watching in this town was as entertaining for us as it was for the locals. Once again, however, we were very disappointed in the food. It just seems so bland and tasteless, not to mention the copious amount of oil used.

Bland food I can cope with, but there are some other things that I just cannot deal with. Ah yes, the national pastime of spitting….anytime, anywhere, anyhow and by anyone! Age, gender, age and class is not a limitation! And, it’s not the casual quietly spitting to the side number, it’s the…..gather all the phlegm from the deepest, darkest, hidden corners of your lungs, and whilst making a noise louder than an erupting volcano, hurl it out! And to match, it is also as visually graphic as it sounds! Where the missile hits is unimportant; near your feet, close to food, inside shops. Gross, gross, gross!!!!!!!!! OK, I promise, this is the only time I will sound like a princess! I also want to burn (pun intended?) all those No-Smoking signs, as from what I can gather, they act as mere decoration. Once again, despite being placed in several places, such as shopping centres, restaurants, bus terminals and the buses themselves, they seem to have little or no effect. Whilst one can usually make a choice as to where he or she goes and/or enters, it’s a fraction harder when you are on the likes of a mini-bus. We have tried exaggerated coughs, using our fans, and sign language feigning that we feel like we are having a stroke, and while they occasionally, butt out, we mostly get odd stares and laughs. If only they knew how low our amusement actually rated! (May I just add, ironically, that someone just walked past me, and hurled a greenie out the door! Gross, gross, and more gross!)

Back to the disposable chopsticks issue here in China. I repeat, 25 million trees are felled annually to create them, and everyone uses them! When you go out to eat, “wash and wear” chopsticks are rarely offered. Luckily, Alex and I have our own, a gift from Yuko and Yuji in Japan. I feel that using the chopsticks that we have is part of being a responsible traveller, and not further adding to China’s constantly growing number of environmental issues. So, please, if you are a traveller or tourist, be aware of this and try and do your part! Our good friend Annie Whitlocke in Melbourne who has business relations with China gave us a spot of advice, which was to bring our own anyway, as hygiene may not be up to Aussie scratch. Unfortunately, you are right on that one Annie!

Due to its sheer size and that our next destination would be Vietnam (it’s all about place and timing), Alex and I decided fairly early on that Beijing and Shanghai were not meant to be on this trip, and that we would do some (and I do repeat some) of the south west of the country. And even then, it would be hard to do in a month, as besides distances there is so much to actually see. Our next destination was Yangshuo. Close to our last destination? Take a close look at the map….rarely is anything close in China! It was possibly a 6 or 8 hour bus ride from Zhaoquing, and as we approached this small town, we knew that we would be enchanted by it.

Ombi

NOTE: Many of you would be familiar with our use of Wikipedia to help explain and add meanings and/ or links to many of the things we see and do. Unfortunately, it is one of the many websites that is not able to be accesssed in China, due to censorship. Thus our reason for not being able to use it. I am sorry if the links we have used and/ or added are not up to our usual standard. In addition, I would like to add that despite the fact that we can open up Blogger from the back end and create a new entry here in China, it CANNOT actually be opened up and read in China. Again, the Chinese government has deemed it a “no, no” site. Nothing like having an opinion ! I repeat, capitalism has many faults, but communism is NOT the answer! Controlling what people can and cannot do is not the solution! Each individual should have the choice to see and feel, and accept or reject! This is our will…..our free will!

“There’s so much pollution in the air now that if it weren’t for our lungs there’d be no place to put it all” – Robert Orbin.

(Photos: 1.- What can I say? Please explain! 2.- Crossing the border. 3.- Fishermen at work, Zhuhai. 4.- Fishing boats, Zhuhai. 5.- On the streets of Zhaoqing, it’s life as usual for most. 6.-Pagoda and bridge, Ding Lake, Mt Dinghu Reserve. 7.- Scenic view, taken from Qingyun Temple, Mt Dinghu Reserve. 8.- Supposedly Mt Dinghu Reserve is a great area for breathing anions! 9.- No spitting please! 10.- On the local bus, Zhaoqing. 11.- The unusual topography of Yangshuo.)

Macau……..where’s that!

Now Macau, where is that? Well, if you thought that Hong Kong was small, welcome to Macau (also spelt Macao). Lying 65 kilometres west of Hong Kong, it has a population of 480,000 and is just 28 square kilometres in area. It is a tiny country steeped in history, and due to its having been colonised by the Portuguese in 1557 and subsequently being governed by them until very recently, it has an interesting and colourful past as well as cultural mix. In 1999 however, it finally passed from Portuguese hands back to Chinese ones, and like Hong Kong, was made an SAR (Special Administrative Region). Although its two official languages are Cantonese (technically a Chinese dialect) and Portuguese, not many people speak the latter. Whilst 95% of the residents are Chinese, the remaining 5% are made up of Portuguese and Macanese (people with mixed Portuguese, Chinese and/or African blood). With a fusion like this, which manages to seep into many facets of the Macanese lifestyle, the total sum of this little spot really does amount to more than its infamous casinos and gambling!

This is the Macau where we spent four very worthwhile days. We caught a ferry across from Hong Kong to Macau, and it took a little over an hour. Although no visa is required (nor for Hong Kong) for Australians, we still had to go through the formalities of passport control, and before we knew it, we were making our way towards our accommodation. We had pre-arranged this one, a gorgeous place called Pousada de Mong Ha, which is actually the educational hotel of the Institute for Tourism Studies in Macao. Situated on Mong Ha Hill, and on the site of what were once military barracks, this beautiful hotel is a refuge of peace and tranquility. It is far enough from the casinos that you do not feel like you are in Las Vegas, but close enough that it really is only a short bus ride or half an hour walk to either the UNESCO historical centre or the very places where you can either make or lose millions! As soon as we set foot inside, we knew that we would love it. Included was a fabulous buffet breakfast, excellent coffee, a tiny gym (which I used a couple of times) and a business centre with internet. The attention to detail was superb, from the slippers to the toothbrush and toothpaste. The staff were friendly and helpful and the service was impeccable. Why am I going on about this? Because it is one of Macau’s hidden gems, and a bargain considering what it offers. It is basically a place where students do their hospitality training, yet if I was not told, I would never have guessed! You have to give credit where credit is due, and this place deserves every bit of credit that I am giving it.

Dragging ourselves away from the gorgeous room we stayed in and the sumptuous buffet breakfast was difficult, but manageable. Like Hong Kong, Macau is not the cheapest of places, but out of the main tourist areas, it is not impossible to find reasonably priced food and goods. Like any place on earth, you have to know where to shop! This task is always a little more difficult when it’s not your abode! So, off we went, exploring this two faced little so and so! Ex- Portuguese colony (with all the trimmings that come with it) versus the self-styled Las Vegas of the East!

To some, the above comparison may sound excessive, but after checking out “the strip” and the only days old (end of August 2007) “The Venetian” (an exact replica of it’s big brother in Las Vegas), we realised how very true this is. Rather than skyscrapers and offices, the construction here is all about Las Vegas-type casinos…….we saw several “familiar faces”, such as the Sands. Remember that unlike China and Hong Kong, gambling and casinos are legal here. It’s a monstrous market. Guess who just plugged the hole? Alex and I popped in to see a couple of places briefly, but alack and alas, the interest was minus 100! I am afraid that this just doesn’t float our proverbial boat. That aside, the cigarette smoke was more than we could bear. Like their Chinese and Hong Kong counterparts, the people of Macau like to smoke, and like to smoke a lot! Gag, gag! Despite both Hong Kong’s and Macau’s very obvious campaigns to curb smoking in public places (both countries had signs everywhere), the whole concept seemed to vaporise every time you walked into a casino. Would I be suggesting a link between money and smoking? Never! Maybe the people who smoke in these places are immune to the plethora of diseases that could be potentially be inflicted upon themselves and others. Ah yes, the money god is looking over them here!

I must say, we were flabbergasted by our trip to The Venetian, on the Cotai strip, which joins Macau to the small island of Taipa. Before I go on, I just read the following: “HONG KONG (AFP) — The world’s largest casino resort, the Venetian Macao, welcomed its one millionth visitor Friday just 17 days after opening, its operators said.” How is that, almost Australia’s entire population. This resort type casino is virtually a mini-Venice, with canals, gondolas, bridges and the whole shebang. The opulence was definitely OTT+ (that’s over the top plus). All Alex and I could do was walk around as if in a daze. I had never seen anything like it in my life. Well, that’s a lie, we had been to Venice recently! Click on the Cotai strip link above…..there are more to come!

On to the other face of Macau, the one that I thought was gorgeous! Welcome to a land of fortresses, outstanding museums, , churches, temples and food with a Portuguese flair! Now, we’re talking.

Hard to believe, but only a ten minute walk away from The Venetian was Taipa Village. It is a small and traditional village, and a window to the island’s past (which is perhaps why it was a fraction more than disconcerting to see The Venetian looming not very far in front of us). Easy enough to walk in a short time, we visited everything from traditional sweet stores to churches and temples. Only a stone’s throw away, along the waterfront, we visited the gracious Taipa House Museum, which was a collection of five villas, clearly showing how the Macanese middle class lived in the early 20th century.

Most of our time was actually spent on the Macau Peninsula, and after a few days of lots of walking and taking a look at the map, we were amazed at how much we had actually walked. Macau is packed with important cultural and historical sights, many of which have been named World Heritage sights by UNESCO. The Historic Centre of Macau is outstanding and brimming with such sites. There seemed to be something interesting around every corner. The list is endless, so I have tried to pick some of the highlights. Senado Square, with its pastel coloured buildings, is Macau’s urban centre and has been for centuries. It is still the place of choice for celebrations today, and is always full of people. As you can imagine, great for people watching. The Ruins of St Paul these days…is actually only a facade, literally! This church, originally built between 1602 and 1640, was destroyed by fire in 1835. It was fascinating to stroll through an area, which is totally open, and imagine what must have once been. Their are view points from which you can see the surrounding city. The Na Tcha Temple close by, was tiny but traditional. Interesting is its proximity to the church, presenting a dialectic of Western and Chinese ideals. It is one of Macau’s best examples of multicultural identity and religious freedom. Again, I had to wonder where we had gone wrong.

We also visited several notable museums, having obtained a number of free passes from the Posada Mong Ha, where we were staying. Noteworthy was the Macao Museum of Art which included a temporary exhibition called “Edictus Ridiculum” by a Russian called. Konstantin Bessmertny. In this exhibition he chooses to confront the absurdity of the world (glad to know that I am not the only one who thinks like him!) by translating its disharmony, awkwardness and ambiguity into oil paintings and even 3-D creations, calling it “Casino Republic”. It certainly left me thinking, about a lot of things. The Macao Museum was a great museum in as far as giving you a historical account of what went on and where. A grand introduction to a tiny country. It’s located in the Mount Fortress, which was built by the Jesuits in the early 17th century, and for a long time was the capital’s principal military defence structure. Another UNESCO sight and yet another panoramic vista. A visit to a small but interesting exhibition on Tea in the Qing Dynasty proved to be fascinating. For hundreds of years, tea drinking has remained popular and fashionable in China, with history, cups, teapots and information on tea-drinking ceremonies to prove it. The Handover Gifts Museum was also engaging. In 1999, when Macao was formally handed back to China, it was congratulated by being given a multitude of gifts, mainly from the various provinces of China. The gifts were all designed with the nation’s various artistic regional styles and represent the best wishes of the ethnic groups towards Macao’s prosperous future. With one piece more imposing and striking than the next, including vast amounts of precious and semi-precious materials and metals, I could not help but perceive the symbolic meaning behind them all – the thriving prosperity of the motherland.
Another enchanting museum, surprisingly, and farther away from the city centre , was the Macau Maritime Museum, situated on the tip of Macau’s peninsula, and which is virtually located where the first Portuguese landed. What I was expecting and what I found are two totally different stories. It was a fabulous exhibition, outlining everything from the Portuguese boats which came in all those hundreds of years ago, to the fishing boats and styles of the people who fish today. It’s always nice to be pleasantly surprised! The museum also illustrates the importance of the sea to people throughout Southern China, all the way to Southeast Asia, Japan and Australia. That’s what I like about the sea….it has never been merely a tool for trade and adventure, but the source of legend upon legend!

As in Hong Kong, Macau also has a multitude of different temples. My favourite one was the A-Ma temple, at the tip of the peninsula. It was possible standing when the Portuguese arrived. With quite a lot of open space, it consists of prayer halls, pavilions and courtyards built into the boulder-strewn hillside and connected by winding paths through moon-like entrances and tiny gardens. I felt like Alice in Wonderland! Again, a very peaceful energy prevailed. It is said that Macau’s name is derived from this temple. This temple was dedicated to the seafarers’ goddess, A-Ma, and so this area was called A-Ma-Gau (or Place of A-Ma). Supposedly over time, the name morphed into Macau. There’s a bit of trivia for you!

There were also several parks in Macau to keep one out of mischief. We walked through several. It’s always lovely to see the locals doing their thing; chatting, playing chess or mahjong, sleeping under the trees.

They say that good things come in small packages! They also say that all good things must come to an end! Our time in Macau was short, but sweet. So, with Hong Kong and Macau under our belts, it was time to move on. On the day we left Macau, we did not actually know exactly where we were going until an hour or so before we left. With the border only kilometres away, we were not terribly worried however. China here we come!

Ombi

Television has proved that people will look at anything rather than each other.” – Ann Landers (1918 – 2002).

(Photos: 1.- Casino Lisboa. 2.- Historical centre of Macau. 3.- Venice in Macau! And as you can see, there are more to come! 4.- Temple offerings. 5.- Temple on Taipa Island. 6.- The Ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral. 7.- Inside the Macao Museum, 3D image. 8.- Inside one of Macau’s many temples. 9.- A-Ma temple. 10.- Mid-afternoon nap.)