A surprise stopover
There are various ways of looking at a missed flight connection. Though we were naturally disappointed not to have arrived at Ho Chi Minh Airport at the designated time on the designated day, there was something adventurous about the prospect of breaking the journey and spending a few hours in Abu Dhabi. A bossy, uniformed female in a headscarf refused to allow us to attempt to reach the gate of the onward flight but organised for our little group of stranded persons to spend the rest of the day at the Hilton. And so it was that we, 6 Czechs, a worried little middle-aged Vietnamese gent, a strange German woman who looked and acted stoned most of the time and her partner plus ourselves, had the privilege of tucking into a five star breakfast virtually on the corniche.
We slept well for a couple of hours after breakfast, compensating for the crumpled night on the aircraft, and after a welcome shower and a light lunch, set off along the marina for a pleasant walk in a delightfully fresh breeze up to the heritage village. The village had just closed but we discovered new landmarks on our walk that were a witness to the ever-developing city of Abu Dhabi. Other sights, the metallic skyline over the bay, the Emirates Palace Hotel dozing as always in the pale late afternoon light, small family groups wrapping up a picnic on the surprisingly green lawns opposite the new marina brought back memories of a lovely stay here a few years back and set us in a relaxed and content mood for the imminent flight to Ho Chi Minh City, this time planned via Bangkok.
A guided tour of Saigon
Everyone we spoke to on this trip referred to Ho Chi Minh City as Saigon. A quiet refusal to accept the name given to the city by the Party officials from Hanoi, perhaps? Or merely an affectionate reminder of the old days, the days when the South Vietnamese enjoyed their own, personal identity? At any rate, the feeling that North and South Vietnam shared their differences in many respects was one that permanently arose on our journey.
It would have been nice to just relax in our Toyota tourist vehicle on the way from the airport to our hotel in the early afternoon and let the environment tell its own story, but our vivacious little guide, Hanna, was determined to imbue us with as much information as possible. The airport seemed to be on the outskirts of the city, so that at the end of the road we were already in the clean and tidy suburbs that were buzzing with life. There was a pretty, leafy canal lined by trees and a huge park full of active people. But Hanna kept stabbing a persistent finger at her iPad screen, on which she had prepared all sorts of maps and diagrams, and chattered constantly in her thick accent that needed to be listened to very carefully all the way to the Edenstar Hotel in a busy central street.
We were given an hour’s time to unpack a little and freshen up. Having missed almost a day of our programme, there was no time to be lost. Our first stop was at the War Remnants Museum, a moving documentation of the Vietnam War with an almost voyeuristic photographic collection. The documentation has been criticised as very one-sided. Inevitably, I felt. It was certainly an eye-opener to me, since I had been just a little too young to have followed the war politically. Particularly the photographs, that witnessed atrocities of all kinds, were shocking and so painful to contemplate that we found ourselves moving very quickly along the walls towards the end. It was somehow comforting to scrutinise the faces of the other visitors, young people and old from the whole planet, compassionate, even wet-eyed, shaking their heads in disbelief.
The museum was busy, probably in part owing to the rain that had suddenly descended as a cloudburst. Inside, souvenir stalls, a kindergarten and refreshments provided the necessary relief from the intense silence and sadness that pervaded the exhibition halls. An outside area housed a horrible prison where thoroughly sadistic tortures were described and instruments on show. There were also army vehicles and planes to walk around. But in my jet-lagged weariness, the one thing that stood out in the yard was a single white jasmine flower peeping out of dark green freshly rain- washed foliage. A beautiful, pure symbol of the present in an establishment built to preserve the horrors of the past.
In the space of less than an hour, the pavements, previously flooded, had dried completely. We passed the Independence Palace, built in spacious green grounds on the site of the Norodom Palace, which later became the Governor’s Palace and main office and residence of the French colonial power. Along roads hung with bright yellow plastic flowers in preparation for the Chinese New Year we then reached the colonial heart of Saigon. Two edifices stand out as being very French. The first is the Notre Dame cathedral, which Hanna insisted was a copy of the cathedral in Paris, though in fact it bears no resemblance to it whatsoever! This church is a red-brick building and Hanna explained that the French had brought building with bricks into the country, replacing the custom of using wood. A pure white statue of the Virgin Mary watches over the entrance in a garden. Later Willi and I were allowed into the church “ to worship”. A few people were attending a service, murmuring Christian chants with Asian intonation. Red Chinese lanterns hung from the ceiling and several video screens affixed to the wooden benches in the broad main aisle had been installed to relay important services.
The old post office opposite Notre Dame is decidedly more interesting. In pale yellow with ornate white stucco trimmings, like all the colonial buildings we saw on this trip, it boasts a huge railway station clock. Today the building, falsely claimed to be the work of Gustav Eiffel, is a tourist information office, busy and airy. The interior has been beautifully renovated, revealing the splendour of the glass-topped roof, so typical of French nineteenth century architecture. Outside, a young woman was selling coloured candy floss in plastic bags from her scooter, a Vietnamese rice hat strung to the handlebars. In the garden in front of the church, another woman had rested her carrying pole, which she used for transporting bananas, on the pavement and, bare feet released from her flipflops, was chatting into her mobile phone.
Hanna steered us confidently through the traffic – and this, in Saigon, is phenomenal – to the Intercontinental Hotel opposite, one of the oldest hotels in the city, where generally older visitors were sipping tea to the sound of musicians on the terrace. Opposite the hotel stands the Opera House, where free concerts are staged for the local people every Sunday morning at 8 am. Hanna led us through a street that was closed for a “book fair” and from there we reached the former city hall, a beautiful edifice, now called the People’s Committee Building. The city hall square and the main street which leads off it were closed for preparations for the opening of the Chinese New Year festivities or Tet and an over-sized illuminated cockerel shone down from the wall of a hotel to welcome in the Year of the Rooster. The celebrations would begin with processions, including the iconic lion dance, that very evening. (The processions took place without us, since the accumulation of sleepless nights was beginning to numb us.)
Pushing past the throngs of people that had already congregated here for the processions and just catching sight of an austere Ho Chi Minh staring down at us from his pedestal, we walked towards the river on a street full of eateries and a few very upmarket hotels. This road could have been almost anywhere, modern, busy, bustling, noisy, very fumy and flanked by brightly lit shops and cafes. But the stacks of brightly coloured synthetic hammocks on sale for the tourists suggested that this was indeed Indochina. It would have been lovely to spend a couple of minutes by the river, by now all lit up, but it became clear that not even Hanna was willing to defy the non-stop flow of heavy traffic to cross the road. So we bundled ourselves into the back of our vehicle and allowed ourselves to be transported back to the Edenstar Hotel. On the way there, we passed a couple of men dressed in lion dancing costumes, carrying their hollow, red pouffe-like lion heads under their arms.
Exhausted, we were happy to take advantage of happy hour on the rooftop restaurant and sink into a plate of delicious stir-fried noodles with seafood in my case and nasi goreng in Willi’s. It rained again, hard and sharp, stopping just as suddenly as it had started.
The following day we were due to visit the Củ Chi tunnels, a good hour away, very near the Cambodian border. It took us about half an hour to cross the city, but then the roads became narrower and the shops poorer, the pavements stacked with piles of the ever-present coconuts. There was little sign of agricultural activity at first, just a few cows on a dry field and the occasional patch of paddy field, but when we reached the outskirts of Củ Chi, the roads were flanked with rubber plantations, planted by the French, Hanna said. Hanna kept us very busy on the journey, informing us about the language and what the funny little signs above the letters meant and occasionally remarking on the People’s Committee, which her father was an ardent member of. Our driver Hau was a mainly silent man, polite, humble and with a slightly pocked skin.
The Củ Chi experience began with a look at the piles of bombs and land mines that were exhibited in a reception area, then we were invited into the cool of a thatched bunker to watch an introductory film. The film, designed of-course to reflect the undoubtedly heroic war tactics of the Vietcong, made us slightly uncomfortable and very pensive. It is a well-known fact that the Vietnam War had clearly been no picnic for anyone, but the film accentuated the hardships endured by the entire civilian population in this particular area. Though the “enemy” was far better equipped in every sense, the local Vietnamese used their secret jungle tunnel system, a system that had first been built in 1948 to combat the French oppressors, to combat them by doing what they could do best – one-to-one guerrilla combat combined with patience and endurance.
The tunnels had been extended to cover 200km on three levels and learning about the tricks and ruses used within the system to fox the enemy was fascinating. We followed Hanna, prepared for the humid heat with an octagonal fold-up sunhat, to the bunkers, where a group alongside us was being entertained by a Vietnamese veteran, who was literally playing at war with them. I was at the same fascinated and appalled by this. And this mixed feeling grew as we observed the many tourists jumping in and out of tunnels for photographs, making comic poses with camouflage sods of turf on their heads before they dived into the underground or peeping out of holes with selfie sticks. The tunnel entrances themselves were indeed exceptionally well concealed in the thick of this jungle; who would have guessed that hospitals, dining-rooms and machine-making rooms were accommodated right under the jungle floor that we were walking on?
We continued, marvelling at a huge bear trap and horrified by the exhibition of man-traps that must have caused the most dreadful injuries to the enemy. One of these was a door trap that would have made an intruder manless on the spot. At the end of the tour area a shooting range was available to those tourists that cared to shoot with a real AK-47 or another of the deadly machine guns used in the war. We found this downright distasteful and turned, instead, to learn about the fabrication of rice wine that was being sold in a small shop and to photograph the wafer-thin rice paper that was drying on bamboo slats. Further along there was a sewing workshop and shoemaker’s, showing the work that would have been done underground during the war. Curious were the flipflops made from old car tyres, designed with the soles back to front to produce footprints that would lead the enemy in the wrong direction. In the same workshop you could see belt bags, also fashioned from car tyres, for storing cooked rice, the Vietcong soldier’s staple diet.
Visitors are invited to experience the underground feeling by taking a walk through the tunnels. The shortest tunnel walk is 100m and you are accompanied by a guide. Since the Vietnamese are small and slight, these walking tunnels have been expanded somewhat. I did not like the look of the steps that lead you down, so Willi went on his own, bent double for the length of the walk.
Before we left the complex, Hanna ushered us to an open-air cafe space near the former underground dining-room, where we were invited to take pandana tea in tiny cups and cooked tapioca or manioc root that you dipped in a mixture of chopped nuts with sugar and salt. During the war, this would have been cooked with rice very early in the morning in kitchens equipped with chimneys that directed the cooking steam to outlets away from the tunnels. An enemy observer would mistake this for the early morning mists that rise from the jungle.
Exploring Saigon on our own
It took us a while to digest Củ Chi and we were relieved that our programme foresaw no further guided tours for the rest of the day. After a long rest, we left the hotel mid-afternoon to seek out a popular soup kitchen and a place that apparently makes good hotpot, or Vietnamese fondue, both on the way to the immense Ben Thanh market. We found neither, but instead got a bit lost in Saigon’s sprawling, chaotic centre and ended up at a very green park, September 23rd Park, which had been totally taken over by a temporary Tet market.
By now we were accustomed to the sight of people transporting flowering plants, mainly yellow but also flowering apricot, said Hanna, in their arms, on bicycles, in rickshaws, wobbling about on the backs of pickups and all designated as gifts or for the home to celebrate the Chinese New Year. But the amount of flowers and plants and indeed other Tet gifts, alone in this one park, was unbelievable. There were huge carpets of yellow dahlias and other plants in pots, magnificent dragon fruit plants heavy with fruit and all manner of bonsai plants and cacti in varying shapes and sizes. There were plants decorated with little fans of fresh bank notes and plants whose trunks had been sculptured into fantastic grinning pot-bellied Asian characters. There were charming rock gardens in water with small houses and towers and tiny figurines. Long delicate fans of pale yellowy-green coconut flowers were waiting to be placed in vases. Fleshy pomelo and colourful dragon fruit were peeled and cut and packaged alongside sweets and pastries. There were toys, cheap plastic goods but also crafted wooden ones. There were perfumes and fans and bamboo chimes and honey and incense sticks. And there was basketwork for every conceivable use. There were also lovely ladies strolling in uniformly red ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress and two of them kindly posed with us for a photograph, eager to know where we came from and so on.
We emerged at a roundabout which led us directly to the Ben Thanh market, popular with tourists and locals alike and famous for its textiles, and had a look inside, since we were there. But our destination was the main street that had been closed the evening before and where the Tet festivities were well under way. A cynic may have been extremely wary and reluctant to push his way through the crowds, but observing the normal rules for sensible tourist behaviour we honestly felt very safe here. It was turning dark, so the illuminated arches wishing everyone a happy new year in the Chinese year of the rooster shone brilliantly. Best clothes, the traditional ao dai as well as surprisingly short and slinky party dresses were on show, the children decked out in frilly party dresses or cute little jackets and ties. Over-sized Disney-like characters were posing (for a fee) with children and adults alike. Music came from almost everywhere, rivalling melodies and the hooting of children’s horns filled the air. What a happy, careless atmosphere!
At the Royal Hotel, we sat down for a breather, a coconut water and a beer and watched the goings-on, hoping that the dark clouds brewing up overhead would not open. Finding a place to eat was not easy, for curiously, many of the restaurants were closed for Tet. We walked and walked to a superior restaurant quite a distance away in an area where the streets were dimly lit and the noise far away and actually sat down to order. But the price of the menus, which had been omitted on the internet and on the menu outside, made our stomachs churn and we left immediately. In the end, we settled for a simple place called Ciào in the Times Square area where we sat on the third floor and ordered from a grubby, plastified menu card full of pictures. Both anticipating a cold, we chose a phở, the famous Vietnamese chicken noodle soup that came with spring rolls and a fresh rice paper roll filled with raw vegetables. It was delicious and just what we needed. There was also a desert made from mashed beans and a slimy custard which also went down a treat, as did the 333 beer I ordered.
The rest and the hot meal revived us somewhat, but there was a rather long walk ahead of us. Approaching the former City Hall, we could hear classical music, dramatic soundtracks probably, booming with an incredible volume from invisible speakers. There was a sound and light show going on there, beautiful coloured images and film being projected onto the graceful building. We stopped to watch, of-course, but the performance seemed to go on forever and though enchanted, we did not stop until the end.
The rest of the walk home was a challenge every time we had to cross a road. The rule is, just walk and don’t stop. It takes courage to do that, but you really have no other choice. The roads are literally choked with thousands of motor scooter drivers driving three and four abreast, revving up and hooting for the fun of it, and not uninclined to suddenly push up onto the sidewalk in front of you. On the pavement, people were having dinner or drinks seated on low plastic chairs, sometimes at an open-air cookshop and sometimes in front of their shops, happy and relaxed and oblivious to the noise and fumes. Others were enjoying a pedicure or a massage or getting a haircut right there on the street.
When we arrived at our rooftop bar for a much needed gin and tonic, caressed by a light breeze at 27°C, we were exhausted, but so happy to be in this crazy but very friendly land.
Cross country to Mũi Né
The first part of our road trip to the popular seaside town of Mũi Né progressed so quickly that I was convinced we would arrive in a fraction of the time allotted for the trip on our programme. In the town, everyone aboard a motorbike seemed to be clasping a pot of yellow flowers to their stomachs. A modern road through the industrial area, murky and depressing like the industrial areas in most cities, led us to the expressway, an excellent road on which we sailed past a few paddy fields.
Then we crossed a wide river and from there the journey slowed down as we passed through the villages, where we saw smalls group of people dressed as part of a dragon in shiny yellow and orange fabric. The women here were dressed in cotton floral-print pyjamas, many men and women wore the conical rice hats that have their tradition in Vietnam. There were fruit plantations and tall, thin rubber trees here and fields of cows, brown ones bred for meat and humped black ones. The further we travelled, the more the dragon fruit plantations appeared, mainly harvested, but some with the fleshy pink to red fruit dangling from the long, thin, spiky leaves and occasionally still with a huge, heavy creamy flower attached. Cafe vuoms, cafes with many hammocks strung outside for drivers and other customers to rest on, were a common feature on this road, as were churches, which surprised me. About 7 % of the Vietnamese population are said to be Catholics, with 1% Protestants. Christians are apparently persecuted in this country, though we saw no evidence of this on this trip.
Phan Thièt is the name of the province we were aiming for and also the name of the nearest city, which is famous for its fish sauce production. It was like a smaller, less chaotic version of Ho Chi Minh City, with garlands of gnarled electric wiring straddling the streets and a constant flow of motorised traffic and the same prettily sculptured bonsais on the beautifully laid out traffic islands. And people carrying yellow flowering plants. Outside the city, on the way to the Mũi Né peninsula, there were broad rivers harbouring brightly coloured fishing boats and wide Chinese fishing nets.
Mũi Né itself is full of upmarket hotels and restaurants and shops along a long street that runs parallel to a gorgeous white sandy beach. Our resort, Coco beach, was idyllic; the accommodation in thatched bungalows on stilts facing a choppy blue sea. The entire resort was cosy and familiar. There was a good wind when we arrived, so the beachside was full of surfers and windsurfers and kiters. We settled ourselves on the terrace of a simple restaurant direct on the beach and watched them, forking up lunchtime salads.
We spent much of the afternoon on our own balcony in the shade, recovering from colds, attempting a stroll on the shore, which the wind had transformed into a tiring slope, and then settling for a walk through the village instead. Our rather pricey barbecue dinner was a little disappointing, since they rushed us through the meal rather and served huge amounts of food straight onto your plate without explaining what it was. The fish included barracuda and kingfish, tuna and matu matu. There were also tiger prawns and calamares and a delicious duck breast, but the tenderloin was awful.
The next day was a programmed rest, which suited us both since our colds were being a nuisance. It began with an unexpected rise at 6.30 because I hadn’t read my watch correctly. Not long after this we were startled by a far away booming sound that we could not identify, but as the booming came nearer, we realised it was a group of musicians, mainly drummers. They actually came into our compound and trouped around the staff quarters, but by the time I had grabbed some suitable clothes, they were further up the road. I followed them clutching my camera and found them outside a hotel lobby. Dressed in red clothes with yellow fringed trousers, they had a collection of huge drums which they could roll around and were apparently ringing in the New Year. Before I left, they were stripping off to do an acrobatic act.
We had a late breakfast featuring, in my case, a lovely mild green tea with ginger and rice vermicelli with duck, served in a delicious cinnamon sauce.
After a small pan bagnat lunch facing the sea, we spent the much less windy afternoon on the beach, followed by a good long stroll through the village in the evening. We passed umpteen fish restaurants, many of them with enticingly fresh fish and seafood in aquaria up front. Behind the street, in the restaurants, you could sit at clothed tables facing the sea and a not very attractive stony seawall. There were also kite-surfing schools and yoga classes and even a Vietnamese cooking class available on the street. Otherwise the locals were selling fruit and trinkets and souvenirs, but there were also small supermarkets with fake textiles. On our way back, we noticed a woman in a brightly lit warehouse doing karaoke all on her own, microphones turned up full blast.
Our dinner, at the hotel restaurant, consisted of a pomelo and prawn salad which would have been delightful had it not been smothered in fresh coriander, and for me red snapper in garlic and chilli sauce, for Willi caramelised pork cooked in a clay pot.
Army jeep trip around Mũi Né
Before our jeep arrived to show us round the area, our receptionist taught me how to utter the traditional greeting, which sounded something like “Ciào bui syang”. I tried this immediately on our young driver, Joey, who wore fashionable bangs and cool shades and had a fascinating barcode tattoo on the back of his neck.
Joey took us to the fishing village first. This was quite a strange village because the shore was much lower than the street and you had to go down a steep flight of steps to get to the boats. Which would have meant coming back up again and this was a hot, hot morning. So we decided to view the activities from the street. There were literally hundreds of tiny fishing boats bobbing on the flat waters moored near the beach and those that were actually on the sand seemed to have entirely curved bottoms. But there were also many colourful, lightweight coracles, traditional boats that here also served as storage bowls. Right down on the beach there were a few makeshift restaurants and houses under tattered coconut-leaf roofing. It was very peaceful.
While a few tourists were slapping through the low sea to get better views, an elderly local man wearing the traditional conical rice hat, the non la, stopped alongside us on the flat pebbles, went down on his haunches and pressing one nostril closed, proceeded to expel a large amount of mucus from the other. He then extracted a small fruit from his pocket, peeled it with his fingernails and popped it in his mouth. On the other side of us, a woman with a bowl of small crabs and squids, obviously for sale to the local people, was sorting through her stock and flinging the scraps she was not likely to sell across the low stone wall into the strip of wasteland that separated us from the beach. The main road, where Joey was waiting for us, was lined with fish restaurants. Steel bowls stood gleaming against whitewashed outside walls to dry.
We left the village and continued past a cemetery, where graves like little houses had sprung up higgledy-piggledy on the wasteland, driving inland to a peaceful lake behind which were the famous white dunes. Joey pointed to the quads and the jeeps that could offer some mild dune-bashing, but we wanted to walk. And walk we did, following tyre trails that offered firmer sand, up the gentle slopes until we had a good view of the lake below. The sand was not too soft and the going was relatively easy, though the sun, at ten o’clock, was already scorching hot in a sky where fluffy white clouds contrasted with an incredible blue.
Back down at the lakeside, local people were preparing for picnics or having drinks at the cafe vuom. We took the wrong path and ended up taking quite a walk back to Joey’s battered army jeep. Faces stinging with an overdose of sun and salt, we enjoyed the 40 minute ride to the red dunes, which were really not comparable in beauty with the white ones. Here, local traders were selling plastic rugs to slide down on. Food and drinks in cool boxes were being offered under every available tree. A poor lady carrying two heavy-looking pots on a carrying pole over her shoulder was bravely tramping up a slope of red sand. We walked a little way for a selfie and ran back down the dunes with childlike glee.
Our final destination was one of the most phantasmagorical places I have ever visited. The name alone, Fairy Stream, suggests something a bit chimerical. When Joey parked us on a shopping street outside a cheap cafe and pointed down an alleyway, I was rather sceptical. But we followed his directions and came to a sandy stream that ran into the mountainside. A stern voice belonging to a local man urged us to take off our shoes and leave them with him, along with many other discarded pairs. So we did, for the equivalent of 20 cents each.
Wading through a stream with a camera and a mobile phone and a parcel of refreshments provided by your hotel is no mean feat. And quite ridiculous, because there is nowhere to sit and eat your fruit and besides, there are plenty of place to stop on your walk offering much more delicious delights such as wafer-thin pancake rolls filled with mussel meat, shelled and forked onto the rice- paper mixture at the last minute, or freshly peeled prawns or soup at food stalls with tiny stools rammed into the sand. But the walk, around 1 km through a sort of canyon, is simply fabulous!
The trail is not difficult but there were deep holes and sharp rocks where you weren’t expecting them and at times the ground under your feet became clay-like and I thought we might get stuck. It takes you through lush, green foliage and stark shimmering white or lobster-coloured stone, past bizarre grey rock formations and shade-spending coconut palms waving their heads against the brilliant blue sky until at the end you come across a waterfall, not at all spectacular really but gushing and frothy and the source of much mirth among the locals. There was a small cafe on the banks here and a swing bench right in the stream. We perched uncomfortably on some rock pinnacles to eat the deliciously refreshing pineapple and apple and guava and water melon and dragon fruit that the resort had provided us with. On the way we were stopped by a group of young adolescents, a perky lot who wanted to try out their English and were not against being filmed. There were lots of children here, splashing and rolling around in the mud and chasing one another, locals, I suppose, who regarded the stream as their fantastic playground.
When we retrieved our shoes about two hours later, a cheerful stallholder wished us Happy New Year and we were quite proud to be able to return his greeting; Chuck mung nam mai! Almost all the other stallholders were dozing in hammocks, including the lady who had watched over our shoes. Walking back to find our driver, we came across a yard containing countless plastic pots with steel lids on them, often weighted down with bricks or stones. It was evident that something was brewing here and on reflection, it could have been rice wine.
After all the sun we had tanked that day, it was a real pleasure to have a coffee in the shade of our balcony. But later we lazed on the sunbeds on the beach watching the kiters until the wind got chilly. Our evening stroll took us to the Sailing Club, an informal dive bar where the guests were half our age. We lounged around on tatty sofas almost directly on the beach. While we were enjoying our mojitos, a friendly rat scurried from under the table next to ours, saw me, stopped short, turned round and disappeared round the back of my sofa. Seconds later, a baby rat with an enormously long tail followed her. I would have been disgusted at home, but this seemed perfectly normal heret.
Since there was a children’s birthday party taking place at our resort, we decided to order a set dinner at a swish place virtually next door at the Villa Aria. It was nothing short of wonderful, virtually on the beach. We were served deep-fried anchovies with a delicious lemon sauce, baked cockles with cheese, seafood and seaweed soup, steamed rice, stir-fried beef with pakchoi and onions, stir-fried mustard greens with garlic and a fruit platter.
Last day in Mũi Né
Our last day at the seaside was rather overcast at first. Getting adventurous, I tried black beans and sausage, which turned out to be 99% beans, and rice vermicelli with meat. I asked the staff what sort of meat it was and thought they said “duck”, but when I asked again, to be sure, they sniggered a little and said they did not really know what meat it was. I never thought anything more of this at the time and tucked into my guava juice.
Our day was relaxing, mainly on the beach, with some expert kiters performing amazing acrobatics in the cold sea. That evening, we took the opposite direction for our evening stroll and were surprised to discover several fairly large “supermarkets” dealing in textiles and other souvenirs.
Our last meal at the resort was pleasant enough with banana flower salad followed by braised chicken with pumpkin and ginger and spring onions for me, while Willi chose special club salad and tamarind prawns.
Driving to Đà Lạt
The driver who was to take us to Đà Lạt, a popular mountain resort, was expected to arrive late in the morning, so we decided to have a long walk on the beach before breakfast. We were not alone. Towards the end of our stretch, we noticed single men in the water dragging and shuffling a sort of sieve on a stick with a net on the end through the wet sand. When we reached the rocks that prevented you from walking any further, small groups of men and a few women were crouched on the sand with buckets. A closer inspection confirmed that they were sifting tiny, tiny mussels in pastel shades of blue, pink and beige. The men threw them aside on the sand, but one lady was placing them into a makeshift pool made from a plastic sheet. A Russian tourist told me they would then be sold to be farmed, which sounded logical. Another woman was scraping winkles off the green, slimy rocks.
About 4 km later, we were able to do justice to the breakfast buffet, which offered sticky rice with Vietnamese meatballs as well as the usual breakfast variety. By the time Hiep arrived from Đà Lạt with smiling crinkly eyes, we were ready to leave. Hiep drove a relatively old car on the dashboard of which a jade-coloured statue of lady Buddha, the legendary Lady Patacara who is highly venerated in the region. He took us past the red dunes, which looked rather dirty and full of waste paper that morning, and through a village called Long Sou, which was absolutely jam-packed with tourist buses. The beach was covered in tents and rows of benches, clearly in preparation for a special event.
Slowly – very slowly, in fact – Hiep passed fields of young dragon fruit plants in jute corsets and fields of cows, then we were in the highlands, where coffee plantations stretched for miles in all directions. In the villages there were also beans and carrots and spring onions and chickens fluttering around under wire baskets or cooped up in cages. Outside the modest houses, patched-up shacks but also single-storey wooden buildings with corrugated iron roofs, in which one room led into another and the front door was always wide open, coffee beans were drying in thick black blankets on plastic sheets. Occasionally you could see a housewife raking through the beans to turn them over. Lorries laden with light red and grey plastic sacks of coffee beans ground up the mountains in low gear.
In the large town of Duc Thong, there were a number of temples and churches and smart public buildings and shops prising tablets and mobile phones. Many of the houses here were quite posh, painted in garish colours and showing a predeliction for fancy door s and windows. Not far from Đà Lạt, past a hydro-electric dam, Hiep invited us to leave the car for a panoramic view of the coffee area and the lakes below. And shortly after, we reached not a romantic mountain village as I had envisaged, but a bustling city with a severe traffic problem!
The city boasts colonial villas and a pompous cathedral, but what impressed us first were the absolutely beautiful flower arrangements at the traffic islands. Hooting wildly, Hiep crossed the city centre, passed the canal, where a few lowly stalls were set out, and climbed the hill on the far side of the city to our Ana Mandara Villas resort.
There is no question about it, the resort is beautiful. The very large complex consists of old colonial villas that house about six guest rooms each, set in beautifully tended gardens on a several slopes. Our suite, at the top of the villa that lies the furthest away from reception, was so huge that I lost my way to the loo many times. We were greeted with hot, spicy ginger tea in an open-sided, wooden sala on one of the many chaises longues, then accompanied by another, much younger Hiep to our demure in a jerky electric buggy.
Young Hiep offered to light a fire for us in the gigantic fireplace, but we considered this to be unnecessary and sent him away. There was a plate of fruit to tuck into and we did a little bird- and people-watching through the window before taking an evening walk over the lovely premises.
At the small table by the window, we ordered a cocktail, followed by crispy spring rolls and a local delicacy, Đà Lạt-style wild boar, which came very thinly sliced in a delicious sauce on vermicelli, rice and bitter leaf salad. Our attractive waitress explained that dish is eaten traditionally when a parent dies.
A guided tour of Đà Lạt
Untypically, Willi tried Vietnamese soup for breakfast, a broth with meat and noodles, and he enjoyed it so much that this became his first breakfast choice for the rest of the trip.
Hung, a guide and Huang, the driver, accompanied us for the whole day. We were driven to a cable car on a hill and transferred in the rain to a hillside Zen monastery, overlooking vegetable gardens, a huge pine forest and then a swamp. The monastery, Truc Lam, a very popular attraction and meditation centre, was packed full. Apart from the religious significance, the monastery boasts magnificent plants and flowers.
A huge bell tower welcomes you behind the monastery gates, but the first thing to impress me was a young monk in a brown woolly hat intent on pruning an apricot-like flowering plant with nail scissors. The gardens were full of lady’s slippers and jade vines, strelitzias and irises and poinsettias, but above all, bonsais. A lovely green glass Buddha in a pavilion was attracting many photographers among the tourists.
We walked down a flight or two of flat steps to the artificial Paradise lake below the monastery and popped into a few local shops to admire the medicinal teas, Ginseng and artichoke tea and tea made from bracket fungi, mushrooms that grow on trees . There were bottles of carrying size containing scorpions and snakes and tubers pickled in alcohol. Hung admitted that he also took a small glass of snake wine every evening to promote his good health. A couple of middle-aged locals were seated in the shop at a low table playing a board game.
Huang’s car appeared from nowhere and we drove through the busy town to the former summer palace of the last Vietnamese emperor, Bao Dai. The palace, built by the French between 1933 and 1937 to keep the emperor happy while the colonial forces took over the country, is in art deco style and has architecturally speaking not much to offer. However, there were highlights, such as the exhibition of Khmer silk embroideries which are stupendous. The double-sided embroideries in particular, where you could not see which was the back and which the front, were amazing examples of craft and reasonably priced. Before we entered the palace, we were greeted by a liveried person tending a beautiful eagle. Set in immaculate French gardens, the palace has an interesting collection of photographs and of the emperor’s desk utensils and is fitted with state of the art bathroom facilities, which must have astonished the local people in those days.
But compared to our next destination, a place called Crazy House, the palace was slightly boring. Crazy House is a collection of buildings that began in 1990, created by the Vietnamese architect Dang Viet Nga, daughter of the former leader of the Communist Party, who studied in Russia. She was inspired by treues and their roots, spider’s webs and caves. The result is a sort of resort that reminds you of Hundertwasser or Gaudì. The themed rooms (including tiger, bamboo, ant, bear and so on) are at best lop-sided and linked by twisting esplanades and bridges and impossible stairways. A visiting path snakes along rooftops and along bridges and there are flowers and plants and sculptures everywhere. Tiny pieces of mirror and ancestral or traditional artifacts are incorporated into the decorations. The name of the place could not be more fitting; this is a crazy but beautiful place to stay and well worth a visit.
Đà Lạt-‘s market is also a must-see. The city is famous for its strawberries and these were on sale in huge baskets, in almost every shade but the lush red that we are used to eating. For hygienic reasons, we did not try any during our stay, but to be honest, they did not even look particularly appetising. This was not true of most of the other produce here. Every exotic fruit possible was represented here and a few we had not seen before, like the rosy red love apple. I photographed a bucketful of these and was immediately shouted at by their owner, who waved her hands in fury and uttered a mouthful of abuse. A little shocked, we went inside to look at the crystallised fruit and ended up buying a small packet of crystallised lemon, though the plum and hibiscus were also delicious. There were also tons of fresh artichokes here, as well as artichoke for tea by the sackful.
Hung and Huang wanted to have lunch, so we passed by the flower stalls and they dropped us off at the lake. Because of the Tet festivities, the lakeside was brimming with local tourists and huge areas were cordoned off for activities for the very small. Sand pits had been formed with cranes and dredgers and shovels and buckets and wheelbarrows for the toddlers to play with, while others “fished” with magnet sticks in inflated plastic ponds. There were bobby cars and tricycles and even electric cars for the young children and roller skates and boards and even segways for the older ones. I have never seen anything quite like it. Balloons were everywhere. Meanwhile in the lake, young people, all wearing life jackets, I noticed, were enjoying the pedalos. And there were snack stalls selling drinks and ice-creams, pale spherical sausages and steaming hot quails, roasted corn and sweet potatoes and the Asian “pizza”, made of rice paper and topped with what looked like luncheon meat and melted processed cheese. We took advantage of our pause to go into a large underground supermarket to use the lavatories.
To one end of the lake are the flower gardens, an immense park with an impressive show of plants and trees, a popular shooting location for wedding photos. Indeed today a beautiful bride was smoothing her white dress on the ground where she was sitting in front of the fountains. A young man with a selfie-stick threw his arm round Willi’s shoulder for a photo. Hung walked us dutifully round the gardens, proudly showing us the hydrangeas and the orchids in the greenhouses, then ushered us into a horse-drawn carriage for a short trip round the lake. I was grateful for this, my feet having become rather sore by now.
It was by now overcast and drizzling slightly and so it was lovely to return to our hotel room for a coffee and a rest. I was so tired ,I did not even speak for two hours! At dinner time, we tried tofu and vegetable tempura, which was an excellent choice. Willi said his chicken curry was also good. I was disappointed by my Vietnamese pancake.
Rural excursion with Hung
Our programme foresaw a free day in Đà Lạt, but we had made a deal with Hung that he would hire a car for the day and show us around the rural area around the city. So having tried the local artichoke tea and some sweet vegetable jam and a mulberry one for breakfast, we made sure we were punctual. Our drive took us in a north-westerly direction from the city, past the Cam Ly waterfalls that are described so enticingly in the guide books, but are sadly closed for repairs, because they are polluted and stink, we were told. Within minutes we were in an area covered with plastic sheeting – the “greenhouses”, in which roses, lilies and especially gebera are farmed.
The mountain pass was still in thick cloud. In the highlands, you see nothing but coffee for miles around. The sides of the road were stacked with sacks of coffee husks in plastic sacks. We arrived at a thriving town, where Hung parked outside a weasel coffee factory and showed us the difference between the Arabica plants and the robusta coffee before taking us to the airy weasel cages. Being nocturnal, the civets were asleep, rolled into little balls inside or just outside their wooden sleeping boxes. I had heard that the living conditions for these creatures are often deplorable, but these weasels had plenty of space and long branches to exercise on. The coffee beans that had passed through their intestines dropped through wire meshing onto the floor, where they were collected for washing and roasting.
Of-course we had to try this coffee, the most expensive coffee in the world. They call it luwak coffee here and this is roasted in three varieties: there is Arabica coffee, which they describe as sour, and two robusta coffees, cherry, which is sweet and mokka, which is strong. Our cherry coffee, which cost us about £ 4 as I remember, came to our table on the wooden extension facing a water-hole in a typical steel Vietnamese filter, from which it dropped into a small cup containing a drop of milk. The Vietnamese like their coffee sweet and strong and use condensed milk. I had opted for fresh milk. The coffee was indeed very strong but I liked the velvety texture.
There were handicrafts on sale in the shop, mainly textiles, little woven purses and tablecloths and dinner mats and blouses and T-shirts and of-course scarves, silk scarves and synthetic ones. But there was nothing here that stood out from the wares in other shops, so after a polite wander through, we left.
Our next stop was at a family-owned rice wine distillery. Rice wine is a loose term in Vietnam and describes anything from a wine to a schnapps. Hung ushered us past a huge heap of rice straw and coffee husks at the entrance which are used to fire the furnaces. We entered a sort of large garage space where the rice is cooked, cooled and fermented with yeast in large blue plastic containers, the lids weighted down with canisters and anything else that came to hand. A lame rooster had chosen a warm place near the furnace. From a tap that poked out of the outside wall, the distilled alcohol dripped into a canister. There was no smell of fermentation at all.
Just off this factory space was the family’s kitchen, where various members of the household were busy. Nobody seemed to mind that Willi just strolled in and did a bit of filming. A huge jar of rice schnapps containing a cobra all rolled up had caught his eye. Outside, at a sales stand, a young lady was selling all sorts of reptiles curled up and pickled in alcohol as well as luwak coffee. I would have been tempted were the import of such goods not forbidden in Germany.
The silk factory which was our next stop, a few kilometres further in the town of Nam Ban, was equally interesting. Fist Hung showed us into a small exhibition hall containing beautiful silk embroideries. But the real purpose of this factory is to produce silk material. The boiling of cocoons and extraction of the silk fibres is mainly the work of women. It is really hard and seemingly complicated. The ladies were equipped with waterproof aprons and wellies to protect them against the boiling water that drips from wide sinks and some wore rubber gloves. They spend their eight hour shifts standing with their hands constantly dipped in very hot water in a hot and steamy atmosphere.
An almost antique, automated loom in the same hall which was fed by a perforated pattern paper roll that reminded me of those used by player pianos, stuttered and jerked out a silvery coloured silk fabric with a rose pattern. In general, the lengths of fabric on sale in the shop were of poor quality, so we did not dally here.
Hung drove us to the Elephant Falls, by all accounts an impressive waterfall, but rather smelly thanks to the fertilizer used on the coffee plantations, Hung said. I ventured only a short way along the rugged, stony path down to the falls and even Willi and Hung stopped before the end of the path. But even from my vantage point, the falls were indeed beautiful and incredibly full. Many local people were picnicking on the lawns at the top of the waterfalls. At a shop selling silver rings and earrings as well as the other tourist goods, a woman offered me a drink, but Hung wanted to show us the Linh An Tu pagoda just a short walk away.
Set in beautiful gardens with the Langbiang mountains as a backdrop, the pagoda appeared to be particularly popular as a source of astrological predictions. Whilst Willi was discovering the temple and its grounds, I was fascinated by the local people who came to a sort of open-air office at the side of the sanctum to receive astrological print-outs. The devotees had filled in their names and dates of birth and so on on yellow forms and were given what looked like horoscopes. The same performance was taking place on the floor at the main entrance.
T he sanctum itself is a modern red-tiled flat building that houses an array of giant deities including two which have a whole host of arms like the Hindu statues. In front of these, people carrying huge incense sticks were praying, wafting the scented smoke three times over their heads, murmering and clasping their hands together. Outside, a gigantic chuckling Buddha shone in the bright sunlight.
Huang was obviously a little uneasy by now, worried about returning his vehicle on time, I imagine. But on the way home he made a detour to show us the traditional wooden houses of the minority Khmu tribe, a dark-skinned people, many of whom are Christians, who live around Ta Nung and are fully integrated into the local community.
Back at our resort, we restored ourselves with candied lemon, old bananas and artichoke tea and coffee before starting off for Đà Lạt town, about three kilometres away, to look for alternative places for dinner. The road took us uphill at first, then downhill, where, bravely crossing a busy road, we darted under the cover of an apartment house to dodge the sudden rain. Avoiding a huge roundabout choked with vehicles where policemen in beige uniforms were doing their best to tame the traffic, we turned into a side street and emerged, amazingly, on a high road from which you could descend a steep flight of steps to the market. We were attracted by buckets of fascinating-looking sea-food in shells that were striped and checked like fancy bedcovers. I was occupied with taking a photograph when an angry stall-holder shouted “No, no, no!”, waving his hands in the air to stress the fact that he did not want me to photograph his shells.
We needed a rest and found ourselves on the terrace of a modern cafe, where a plexiglass roof would protect us from the rain, if it started again. I ordered a hot water with lemon and Willi a beer, but before it arrived, a pleasant waiter solemnly presented us with a complimentary glass of “hot green tea”. Refreshed, we walked past an amazing bakery and cake shop, most extraordinary, on a “help yourself” from dozens of baskets principle, to the cafe that we had been interested in. An Cafe is a very special garden cafe. Green heads of salads grow literally on the tables. The seats are benches and swings and the customers are mainly young people who come here for the smoothies and the müslis and salads. It closes quite early and you cannot reserve seats here, so it was obviously not quite what we were looking for. So we combed the backpackers area, where cheap but perfectly adequate guest houses and affordable restaurants are situated, but many of these were closed for Tet. Footsore and weary, we arrived back at our resort early enough to sample an excellent Singapore Sling before dinner there.
From Đà Lạt back to Saigon
Today’s programme was for a lunchtime flight back to Saigon. We took it slowly and had a leisurely breakfast before being picked up for the 40 minute-drive to Đà Lạt airport. Our driver was Hiep again and he grinned all over his face when he recognised us.
There was a slow drive up the mountainside before we reached a highway that took us to a small, modern town to the small, modern airport. There was plenty of time to do a little scarf shopping. We also met a charming English teacher called Twan, who looked like a twenty-something year-old but told us she was 46. She had met a Vietnamese doctor who intended to take her to live in Frankfurt, so it was easy to make conversation with her. And the flight, in a good plane full of children, was really excellent, although my neighbour had a tick, which unnerved me slightly.
We were met by a tall, self-assured Chinese-looking driver who would accompany us for the next few days. After checking in at the familiar Edenstar Hotel, we walked to the Barbecue Gardens, a restaurant that we had picked out on our walk back from the city centre on our last visit. Famished, we ordered a set barbecue with two portions of fish, squid, and meat on skewers, plus a spare ribs for Willi and a filet steak for me. This arrived with vegetables and steamed rice. Our waiter lit the coals under the grill in the middle of the table and left us to it. The garden lies on a corner on two busy streets, but it was actually quite romantic with dozens of fairy lights and a pleasant breeze. At a neighbouring table, a lady squealed as a rat ran over her foot.
On the way back to the hotel, we wanted to pop into the market again, but it was closed. However all around the hall there were stalls selling textiles and fruit. Occasionally you would feel the light touch of a hand on your elbow as a polite stallholder asked you if you would visit his stall. It was all very civilised. Unlike the traffic! Mopeds veered up directly in front of you on the pavement and others backed out of unofficial parking lots outside shops without warning or indeed even turning round to check if there was anyone behind! You have to be pretty brash to cross the roads at all, but we survived. A gin and tonic on the rooftop terrace was the ideal end to a fairly relaxing day.
The Mekong Delta
Hanna came to pick us up with Suan, the slim, long-limbed, greying driver from the day before, in a black Fortuner. On our way south to the Mekong Delta, we actually passed quite close to Cho Lon, the Chinatown area that we not been able to fit into our shortened visit to Saigon, but Hanna was so intent on showing us maps on her tablet and explaining the tour, that we did not see much of the area.
Beyond the city, we passed fresh, green paddy fields sprinkled here and there with white family tombs as is the Chinese tradition. Hanna showed us pictures of Vietnamese delicacies, including rats, which, she assured, are a succulent and healthy delicacy when they are caught from the rice fields. She also explained about what is traditionally eaten when, emphasizing that for breakfast, sticky rice is usually preferred as an alternative to the noodle soup that Willi had come to appreciate. In no time at all we had arrived at our first stop, the Mekong Delta Rest Stop, which is in itself a relaxing destination.
The rest stop consisted of rooms off airy verandas and a marvellous up-market tourist shopping centre with a restaurant that spilled over the entire accommodation area in small, open-sided wooden dining areas. This was all set in an exotic leafy park with tiny bridges and logs that begged to be stepped across over a natural-looking waterway. There were sculptures and basketwork scarecrows and lotus ponds. This must be the most beautiful rest stop I have ever seen!
The countryside changed beyond here with coconut and fruit plantations gradually replacing the paddy fields. To get to Ben Tre, we crossed three of the nine delta arms. Then Suan dropped us off at a promenade where we boarded a long tail boat all to ourselves. Along the river, amongst the mangroves, fisherman were setting fish traps, which they open twice a day. Passing similar boats to ours, all of which had large eyes painted on their fronts, we soon arrived at a brickworks. This was closed, but Hanna took us round anyway, along with the other small tourist groups, pointing out the huge kilns that are fuelled by rice husks and showing us the two different types of brick that are used for floors and walls respectively. We entered one of the kilns, huge beehive-like constructions that heat the bricks to 1,000 degrees Celsius. A family was sitting around on plastic chairs selling bottled drinks that nobody bought.
Back on board, our driver ordered Hanna to give each of us a small coconut. They were very fresh, the water was deliciously cool and the flesh nice and soft. Hanna explained the difference between land and water coconut trees, telling us that the water coconuts have hardly any juice but good flesh that the people here turn into dessicated coconut and coconut candy. And this is what we saw at our next stop along the backwaters. While Hanna approached a beehive and bravely took out the cell to show us the bees, a man was smashing old coconuts to retrieve the endocarp. The husks were separated from the fruit and this was grated, then pressed to extract the milk. Finally it was boiled with 10% sugar until a chewy mass resulted. This was flavoured with peanuts, pandana leaf, chocolate or coffee and cooled. We saw the older ladies of the family rolling the mass out and pressing it into small square forms. It was packaged and packed slowly and carefully by hand. Children were giving a hand here and there or squatted to watch the proceedings. There was a stall selling all sorts of coconut products, including the coconut toffee which we were urged to try. It was really very good and I bought some. The most curious product on sale was the tea cosy fashioned out of a lacquered hollow husk.
Hanna then showed us into a sort of cafe cum living-room where we and another table of guests were given sweet lemon tea. Two gents arrived with a guitar and a banjo-like instrument with only two strings and began to play. Then the dramatically made-up lady who had just served us tea stood up and sang for us. Finally the daughter of the family also performed and politely asked if we would give a small tip. We obliged of-course.
The boat trip to our next stop was pleasant and most calming. We emerged to take a short rural walk past a couple of small shops. Hanna pointed out the banana flowers and the coconut flowers and the various fruit trees, pomelos, jackfruit, oranges and guavas and the morning glory and ground mimosa. Then we turned into a yard to discover a woman and her son, still a child, who were making sleeping mats from reeds. These sell for about 80k Vietnamese dongs, just over £3, and the family can make an average of 3 per day. Here, too, there was tea, lovely pandana tea, waiting for us with a selection of peeled fruit – jackfruit, orange, banana, rambutan and loganberry. I bought a packet of pandana tea from the sleeping-mat maker, who was dressed in the traditional pyjama-like clothes with a floral jacket over the top.
I asked to use the toilet and was directed through the large, airy and very clean wooden house, where the man of the house was watching TV from a hammock slung across the room, into a backyard with a brick building containing a proper flushable toilet. The flushing system did, however, not work and neither did the tap in the washbasin outside. I am thankful for sanitiser at times like this!
To our surprise, there was an amazing vehicle waiting outside the sleeping-mat makers’ yard – a motorbike driven cart called a xe loi. We were helped into the back and driven along a beautiful palm-fringed but very bumpy, narrow, winding concrete road, passing idyllic houses that stood in jungle gardens. The road ended at a rather smelly place where something was fermenting in plastic barrels at a shallow waterway covered in algae.
A gentleman helped us into a flat rowing-boat, passed the traditional, conical nón lá hats forward to us to be put on and rowed us standing up from behind. I was rather scared at first, but managed to relax as we glided silently through the backwaters to meet our long tail boat. A flash of cobalt blue disappeared into the palms trees, a kingfisher, perhaps? There was another moment of mild anxiety as we had to climb across another moored boat to get into ours. And then we were off down the delta arm once more and soon on our way due north in our Fortuner.
The journey in the car to Cần Thơ took two and a half hours, during which we passed an endless number of canals and as many nurseries. At a place called Pha Dink Khao, where we had a ten-minute ferry crossing, the sky was so threateningly dark that it was no surprise when, on the other side, there was a sudden but thorough downpour. In no time at all, the small towns were completely flooded, but nobody seemed abashed and indeed, once the rain did stop, the water disappeared almost immediately leaving the towns clean and dry.
You cross an impressive bridge built by the Japanese to enter the bustling town of Cần Thơ. Our hotel was a modern house with karaoke and other bars about 3 km from the tourist centre on the Mekong. We settled in and walked through the town to the riverfront, where food mongers were selling sausages and other appetising grilled dishes. Along the promenade, there was mechanical fitness equipment that was actually being used and joggers and walkers were taking advantage of the cool of the evening . Barges and rowing boats were waiting to take tourists for a river trip.
We reached a very modern footbridge decorated with modern sculptures and coloured lights that takes you to the famous Victoria Hotel on the other side of the river mouth. An enchanting restaurant consisting of little open-sided, thatched wooden séparés on stilts, all leafy and lit up, spread itself along the pavement, teeming with customers obviously celebrating birthdays and eating hotpots. The evening cruise dining ships started to light up before setting off with a burst of much too loud music. We returned to the Sao Hom restaurant in the so-called market and sat down next to an Australian couple, the husband of which was an ex-Minister of Agriculture, who turned out to be both talkative and entertaining. We dined on spring rolls and sautéed pumpkin flowers, duck with fries for Will and fish braised in a clay pot for me.
The walk home was really fascinating. In the narrower streets the cafes were full and the temples busy, many people were eating directly on the streets and at one corner, a man was repairing a bicycle by the light of a flashlight. We soon reached the main thoroughfare which was dominated by incredible Tet illuminations and alive with fumy motorbikes and mopeds. On the other side of the road, there was a park with a huge screen; this was full of strollers and skaters. All along the road local people were eating and drinking and generally celebrating the last days of the Chinese New Year.
We took the lift to the rooftop bar, a modern terrace with laser spots that jumped all over the floor and walls and high chairs with no back rests and trendy music suitable for at least one generation younger than us. They served us raspberry flavoured water even before we had ordered our beer. Here we had a good view over the illuminated main road and the Mekong beyond and wound down after our eventful day.
We had agreed to be ready at 7. 30 the following morning for our morning boat trip to the floating wholesale market, Cai Rang. In fact, many other tourists were up at the crack of dawn to be at the market when business begins at the break of day. We were a little disappointed that most of the transactions seemed to be over by the time we arrived. The promenade was already busy with street traders when we arrived at the port to board our longtail boat, which, again, we had to ourselves. The thirty minute ride took us past the ramshackle buildings, homes to fishermen mainly, that lean down into the river. These, Hanna told us, would soon be ripped down to accommodate a smart new concrete wall that would prevent erosion. Meanwhile, I got sopping wet when our boat rocked as another boat passed. Our engine also failed several times, which was not encouraging.
This being a wholesalers’ market, the vegetables and fruit on sale were mainly packed in sacks and plastic bags, so the splashes of colour we had seen in the floating markets elsewhere in Asia were missing here. At the top of many barges a flag flattered in the wind advertising the wares on sale. The smaller wooden boats that belong to the local traders weaved in and out of the larger vessels to trade with them. Intriguing were the restaurant boats and the tiny kitchen boats. A woman in a colourful tunic started her engine to approach our boat and our driver handed over a pile of plates that he must have collected from her on a previous trip. Apart from the vegetable and fruit traders, there were also huge ugly boats transporting sand.
After about half an hour at the market, our boatsman steered into the backwaters where he slowed down and let us drift with the current past the fruit plantations. The scenery was idyllic and very calming. We got out at a fruit farm where we were shown cocoa beans and every imaginable kind of fruit, including dragon fruit bushes equipped with electric light bulbs to help them ripen more quickly and guavas individually wrapped in plastic to prevent the insects from attacking them. There were frequent notices reminding visitors that eating or picking any kind of fruit would result in a fine of 100k VD, around £4.50. I had noticed that Hanna had helped herself to a container of feed at the entrance. She strewed this into a couple of channels that had been dug into the field to accommodate cat fish and surely enough, the fish surfaced briefly turning their black shiny, whiskered faces briefly to the sun. There were a few baby ducklings here that had accidentally fallen into the water when they panicked on hearing our voices. Hanna wanted to rescue them from the fish and was not satisfied until someone arrived with a net to fish them out.
Again, we were invited to taste mango, papaya, dragon fruit, milk apple and guava, which was eaten in slices and dipped into salt and chilli. They offered us pandana tea. While we sat, a local lady arrived and did her best to interest us in coconut shell and snail handcrafted jewelry and fridge magnets which she said she had made herself.
The longtail boat brought us back to a back street in Cần Thơ from where we walked to a simple market. The street was so narrow that you could see right into the houses of the people that lived there without really looking. The doors opened into a living-room or just entrance space for the altars dedicated to deceased members of the family. Many of these were in white, shiny wall and floor tiles. In some, motorbikes and scooters were kept. Others were cosier and contained a hammock or two and a flat -screened television. At the local market, all the produce was exhibited and weighed on the ground. Here our vehicle was waiting to take us on the two and a half hour drive to Châu Đốc.
Paddy fields, fish in various colours and sizes drying outside on bamboo racks and canals that criss-crossed the landscape or stretched alongside the road accompanied us during our drive from Cần Thơ to An Giang province. There were ducks, too, more than we had seen anywhere in the country so far. Before we arrived in Châu Đốc., our driver turned right to an ecological zone called Tra Su.
Tra Su is a bird sanctuary and mangrove forest covering 850 hectares, a place where the Vietnamese like to come for a day out with a picnic. We were let out at a parking area next to fields where tapioca was drying and followed Hanna some 800 metres down a country road, passing a couple of fine, tethered water buffalos. A group of noisy, boisterous but harmless youths followed us and made fun of us.
Although the site is supposed to be eco-friendly, there was a surprising amount of rubbish floating in the waters at the entrance and the loos smelt abominably of ammoniac. We were helped into a slim, blue longtail boat with a terribly loud engine and began our ride through the waterway, which was completely covered in a carpet of fresh green duckweed. Despite the engine noise, it was soothing and unreal to glide past the forest of tall, slim cajeput trees listening to the birds, catching glimpses of pretty lotus flowers growing at the side of the waters.
Then we stopped and clambered down a rugged embankment to board a rowing boat. The trip only lasted about 10 minutes but enabled us to get closer to the breeding grounds and habitat of the herons and storks. Only the sound of water lapping softly against the oars and the occasional cry of a water bird broke the silence of the place. We were enraptured! At the end of this boat ride, we were taken by longtail to an observation tower, which Willi climbed in the heat! There was a restaurant here, and stalls selling ices, drinks and fruit, including the thontot or sugar palm fruit from Cambodia. Many people had hired the picnic verandas, which are conveniently equipped with stoves and enjoy immense popularity here.
A longtail boat brought us back to the reception area and we arrived at our lodge about half an hour later. This was situated on the Sam hill near one of many lovely temples here. The hotel was a collection of stone villas with colonial flair overlooking the rice fields. We were greeted with a fantastic ice-cold ginger drink and cold towels, then enjoyed the last few minutes of sunshine on our terrace with a cup of coffee. A wedding couple and their photographer were also taking advantage of the evening light to take photos on the photogenic hotel balcony. A barbet could be heard from somewhere up the hill, singing its bizarre metallic tune. Then the mosquitos arrived and we disappeared.
Dinner, our last meal in Vietnam, was another exotic affair in a lovely, airy restaurant with excellent staff. We had banana flower salad with chicken and pomelo with shrimps, mixed fried rice and stir-fried beef with giang leaf, ginger and coconut milk.
With the speedboat to Cambodia
To catch our speedboat, we rose before the crack of dawn and were ready to leave the lodge at 6.40 am. We took our leave of Hanna and Suan and a young lady called Trang took care of us until we boarded the crowded boat, where Mohammed took over and promptly charged us 34 instead of the official 30 USD visa fees. The boat sat very low in the water and to begin with I felt slightly uncomfortable in our aeroplane-type seats. But then Mohammed dumped a paper bag containing water and snacks in our laps, and I started to feel better.
It took us about one hour to reach the Vietnamese customs building. We were ushered into a waiting-room, where many of the other tourists bought coffee and snacks and everyone sat around, making polite conversation until we were invited to carry on our journey. 15 minutes later we had to go through the same procedure in Cambodia, only their waiting-room was outside in a temple complex. Dogs were sleeping in the hot sun, birds chirped away in cages and hens strutted around under their upturned coops. We waited under the shade of a huge mango tree, relaxed in such peaceful surroundings. Rather superfluously, I thought, each of us had to present his new visa in the passport to get back on the boat.
The Mekong is an amazingly wide river, with a breadth of up to 2 km on this stretch, so there was not a great deal to see until we approached the capital, Phnom Penh.
Willi and several others had taken seats at the back of the boat in the open and most of the travellers were sitting on the right. Our vessel was leaning so badly that the captain had to tell Mohammed to sort them out. Even after his warnings, people continued to favour the right side of the boat, endangering us all. It took us a further 3 hours to reach Phnom Penh.
The capital city of Cambodia presented itself from the boat much as any other modern city, in the form of a grey shimmering skyline of tall office buildings and hotels. It was very hot and humid. We had to lug our cases up a gangway that made rolling impossible. At the top we were met by a slim, smartly dressed lady in her early forties, I imagine, who introduced herself as Deni and the driver as Chan. Deni had darkish, badly pockmarked skin; she was very vivacious and very open and laughed a lot.
Our first impression of Phnom Penh was that of a smaller, less chaotic and slightly more scruffy Saigon, where the pace of life is somewhat slower. Our very small Teav Boutique Hotel was a disappointment. It was tucked away in a side street and though very clean, also very dark. The bathroom was in tones of black and grey with rather dim lighting and our room was inhabited by several mosquitos who found umbrage in the equally dark corners. However we did not intend to spend much of our one-night stay here and the cranberry juice they gave us was very welcome.
We had only one afternoon to discover Phnom Penh, so Deni rushed us around rather, starting with a tour of the Royal Palace. This is an example of neo-Khmer and Thai architecture, though the modern palace the present king resides in was built by the French in the last century. Deni tried to give us an overview of the recent history of her country, but the successions to the throne were a little complicated and it doesn’t help that the throne room, which we could not see anyway, has two thrones, one for the old king and one for the new one. We filed past pavilions including a dancing pavilion and visited an exhibition hall, in which there were models of ladies’ court dress, with a different colour for each day of the week.
The highlight was definitely the Silver Pagoda, so-called because it is floored by over 5,000 solid silver tiles. You are not allowed to take photos here, which is a pity because the pagoda houses some beautiful works including a life-sized golden statue of the “Buddha of the future”, who will appear in 2,600 years apparently, encrusted with umpteen diamonds. There was also a replica of the Jade Buddha, a small crystal statue which was removed to Thailand. Deni was overjoyed by the recent news that the original Buddha would soon be returned to Cambodia. During our walk around the pagoda to admire the rich collection of silver and gold statues, Deni spoke about her personal experience of the Khmer Rouge attacks. She was only a young child at the time and has blocked out most of what happened but her sister, only two years older, was removed from home and forced to live in a kid’s camp away from home. Even today, she often cries for no reason.
We left the pagoda to contemplate a small artificial hill, Phnom Mondop, commissioned by the old king for his daily meditations, complete with a waterfall that provides holy water for the ritual washing. This hill is surrounded by bell towers and stupas, one of which was particularly decorative, as dainty as an iced wedding cake. A most informative exhibition of photographs helped us to understand the recent history of the very weak monarchy.
Chan drove us hurriedly though the old colonial centre of Phnom Penh, where the old bank and the post office flashed past our vehicle in the familiar pale yellow and white tones, and on to Wat Phnom. This Buddhist temple was built by a wealthy widow, Lady Penh, in the fourteenth century and is the oldest and tallest religious building in the city. Built on a hill, it is reached via a steep step of stairs. Inside, along the walls, are murals depicting scenes from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana. There was a wonderful, spiritual atmosphere here. Brand new bank notes were tucked into statues everywhere, apparently with no danger of being stolen.
Below the temple there are gardens with a huge clock, a memorial to the French, who tried to persuade Siam to give back some of the territory they had annexed from old Cambodia. Only three of twenty-four provinces were restituted. This was a plaintive theme that we would hear often and from various sources; the Cambodians hang on to the image of the vast Khmer dominion that was Cambodia in the fifteenth century and bear more than a grudge against the Chinese and the Thais and the Vietnamese, who have, bit by bit, reduced their territory.
We were dropped off at our hotel with recommendations of places to eat and the assurance that the centre of the city was perfectly safe to walk around. It would take about ten minutes to get there, said Deni. In fact it took us forty! The area around our hotel was filled with cheap restaurants and garages, with frequently missing paving stones and a very high pavement to get up and down every time you crossed a road. We made our way to the huge roundabout dominated by the independence statue only to find that crossing the road here was murderous. But we managed and continued along the broad boulevard, a sort of ramblas, where hundreds of people were doing serious power-walking and even jogging. Towards the end of this amazing boulevard, on our left, was a square of incredible dimensions, where people were doing aerobics to a powerful audio system. There were skinny girls in hot pants and older ladies in pyjama-style dress. And on the pavement, under a chicken coop, were two tiny puppies.
For a while, we continued along a very badly lit street, where stall holders were selling lotus stems, until the illuminated Royal palace shed more light. There were even more food kitchens here and the pavement was covered with carpets for people to picnic on; it was all very jovial. The restaurant we were heading for, right on the promenade overlooking the Mekong, was the FCC – the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. It is here that for generations now, journalists and aid-workers have gathered to exchange stories and enjoy a reputably good meal. The colonial-style restaurant serves its guests on three levels and we had to go right to the top to find a surprisingly simple table.
After a well-deserved Singapore Sling, we shared some very good crab cakes. Willi had grilled beef while I sampled the local, traditional fish amok, a mildly curried, mousse-like concoction of fish steamed in banana leaf. It was delicious and the best of the four amok dishes I had in Cambodia.
We took a motor-rickshaw home. The driver did not know our hotel, but I told him the name of the street and that sufficed. He earned 3 dollars.
Off to Siam Reap
If there’s one good thing that the Cambodians have inherited from the French, it’s their baguettes and their croissants. Nowhere else in the world have I tasted croissants that taste as good as the original French ones. And with a light and fluffy omelette this made a wonderful breakfast to start the day with. The Cambodians bake their baguettes in mini-format and sell them on the street and they are usually also really good.
Deni arrived a little later than arranged. She has a rather difficult life as a single mother apparently, living in her parents’ house and working in a government office as well as guiding and teaching English to poor children on a voluntary basis. That morning her son, who has a form of autism, had not wanted to go to kindergarten and she had had a hard time getting him dressed! The house in which she lives is the same one that her parents walked into after the liberation from the Khmer Rouge, when the people had the right to just walk into any empty property in the city and declare it their home.
Phnom Penh slowly dissolved into a row of villages on our road to Siam Reap. On the first rice fields and lotus fields there were wooden houses on stilts, square in shape and painted in fresh colours, with prettily fashioned handrails up the front steps and curtains flapping gently from the doors or windows in the slight breeze. We came across two dark-skinned ladies at the roadside who were reloading huge sacks of lotus stems onto a moped. Deni stopped them and bought four fruit for 50 cents. First she pulled one stem apart to extract the fibre, which is used for textiles but is extremely expensive, much more so than the best silk. Then she instructed us how to pop out the dark seeds and peel them to eat the pea-like kernel, which contains a bitter little shoot.
The journey passed quickly as we discussed politics and other salient subjects passing fields of tapioca and cashew plantations. The so-called People’s Democratic Party is anything BUT democratic and Deni complained bitterly about corruption on a grand scale and lack of reforms. State schools, she said, were officially free but there were many hidden costs (like uniforms, books, compulsory donations) and they were deplorable. It says a great deal that the leader of the opposition lives abroad and has done ever since the liberation.
At the Skun Market, we got out to stretch our legs and gawk at the strangest eatables we had seen so far. In huge bowls there were rather appetisingly cooked spiced cockroaches, frogs, silk worms, crickets and spiders. That’s right, spiders, the large, black, hairy kind. There were also grilled cattle egrets, quails and ducks. I was quite shocked by a woman who sat chopping palm fruit with a machete into her bare hands amidst a pile of husks. There were also nuts and seafood and sticky rice in bamboo cane and crystallised sweet potatoes and dried fruit that looked like dates. Then Deni bought a spider and for one dreadful moment, I thought she was going to offer it to us.
However the spider was for her little boy and Deni offered us some cup cakes she had brought with her instead! She talked and talked, mainly about her private life, but also pointing out the cricket traps set up on the fields and telling us about the immense problem that the poor farmers were having with drying rice, which they grow not only to eat but also for seed. The Chinese Republic was giving loans for drying machines, but the farmers could not afford to pay the loans back. Many farmers had abandoned rice for mango plantations, but the price for mangos had dropped, leaving the farmers poorer than ever. Meanwhile heavy trucks were transporting sugar cane to be processed in China and Malaysia. In Cambodia there are attempts to produce new kinds of sugar from coconut and banana, she told us, but nothing serious ever results from the experiments. We passed duck and frog farms in flooded fields. Deni spoke about the uneducated peasants that populate a large part of the country and of the one in seven children who die of malnutrition, describing a case known to her of a three year-old, unable to walk though she could crawl a little, who died clutching a bowl of thin soup that she was too weak to eat.
Meanwhile, we overtook a large lorry packed with furniture and cooking instruments with labourers balanced on top – a wedding purveyor, proving that not everyone in rural Cambodia dies of starvation, thank goodness. This was the wedding season, here as in Vietnam, and we were to witness many settings up and breakings down of colourful, draped wedding tents. Not long after, we also passed the clay pot man in his cart. The travelling clay pot vendor passes about once a month and covers two provinces, we were told. But he did not make Deni shudder, as the tin pot man did. This salesman in his jingling cart exchanges two tin pots for one dog, apparently. The dogs are exported as food to Vietnam, where it is a delicacy. Memories of my meat at the breakfast buffet in Mũi Né came into my mind, where I had at first understood the meat to be duck and the staff then told me they did not know what it was. I now had a good idea of what I might have eaten that morning!
We arrived at Kompong Kdei to marvel at a bridge, 1,000 years old and very photogenic. The ancient bridge is closed to traffic but attracts many tourists and it was not surprising to find snack stalls and souvenir shops here. The one I looked at had orange peel hanging from the roof. Deni was attracted by some small, round cakes made from palm fruit and rice flour and salt, covered in a coconut milk sauce, which she handed round later in the car. We had to avoid the ancient royal town of Kampong Thom for some reason, and turned into a drier, timber-growing region where eucalyptus plantations lined the road. During this time, Deni claimed that Vietnam really controlled Cambodia and had illegally acquisitioned much border territory and even islands. What’s more, she claimed that more or less secret trade agreements with China had resulted in much Cambodian land being occupied by the Chinese Republic.
A huge pig lying on its back was strapped to the seat of the motorcycle in front of us. Chan drove us into Siam Reap via the old colonial part of the town, where an imposing town hall and a group of luxurious hotels sprawled in front of manicured lawns. A bridge separates this quarter from the labyrinth of busy, noisy streets that is the true face of Siam Reap.
Although Siam Reap is a typically busy and noisy Asian town, there is a cosiness to it that is unique. Certainly our boutique hotel, hidden in a backstreet, was a haven of peace and tranquillity. Built around two ample swimming pools, the low buildings were surrounded by thick greenery and the grounds were alive with the chirping of birds.
We had the afternoon to ourselves and took the opportunity to have a lengthy walk, leaving the main road to wander by the Siam Reap river, which was very low, and ending up at the Old Market, where we spent quite some time looking at pashminas and silks and Kampot pepper. Outside the market hall we sat outside in a pleasant cafe for a much appreciated beer and watched the tourist world pass by. The rickshaws that came to stop right outside this spot were all decked out with draped cloth and looked very comfortable, but we sensibly walked back to the hotel, to burn a few calories before dinner.
This was a set dinner for 10 USD and since the alcohol tax is much less than in Vietnam, we ordered a celebratory Chardonnay too. The meal included pomelo and shrimp salad, broheor soup (a fish broth made from salted, fermented mudfish paste), fish amok again and chicken curry and coconut roll deserts.
A sprightly and eager young man called Daru met us in reception and introduced us to the plump young driver, Piep, who spoke a smattering of German. Daru’s English was not so good, but he did help me all day by offering a limp, damp hand not much bigger than mine whenever we had to climb up steps or cross uneven paths. Our first destination was to the Angkor Wat reception area, where you have to be photographed for your pass. There were about thirty queues with tourists and their official Cambodian guides, who all wore beige shirts with a guide badge on the upper arm. Our pass, valid for three days cost 62 USD each.
The first temple we visited was the stunning Khmer “baroque” Bayon Temple, bang in the centre of the Angkor Thom complex and the four gates that led to it from the ancient city. We entered via the imposing south gate, built, like the others, in sandstone. A balustrade on each side of the bridge over the moat shows carvings of gods on the left and demons on the right. A naga figure on each side begins the rows of faces. The huge gateway bears half-smiling Buddha-like faces, one facing the entrance and the other the exit. The carvings are said to be of outstanding quality.
Built in the 12th and 13th centuries by the Buddhist monarch Jayavarman VII, this state temple is extremely richly decorated and we spent quite some time admiring the fine detail on the southern gallery, depicting naval and land battles featuring the Khmer and Cham warriors, but also scenes from everyday life. The inner gallery depicts scenes from Hindu mythology that appeared later. What is special about Bayon, apart from its romantic setting, are the 200 smiling faces of Lokeshvara, a deification of the bodhisattva worshipped in Mahayana Buddhism, but referred to by our guide as Buddha. The tourists were at their most numerous here and it was difficult to see much at all, let alone hope for an inkling of devotedness.
In the same grassy complex, where a few elephants with seats were providing tourists with the ultimate kick, we continued on to the three tiered, towering Baphoun Mountain Temple, a colossal 11th century Hindu Shiva temple. Steep staircases lead to the stone edifice, so Daru advised me to admire it from its base, which I did. The temple has lost many of its features including a 15 metre tower and a reclining Buddha of equally impressive proportions. But it remains to be an impressive example of Khmer architecture. Around the temple, a scanty forest offers shade for those who have time to spend and to walk in this lovely setting.
Before we left, Daru took us to the Terrace of the Lepra King and the Terrace of the Elephants, often used as parade grounds, but with the heat of the morning reaching a new zenith, both his enthusiasm and our concentration were waning.
We usually skip lunch on these trips, but this morning we were not sorry that Daru more or less pushed us into a cool, clean restaurant outside Angkor Wat, where it was expected that we should have a light lunch. I drank a cooling coconut water out of the biggest coconut I have ever seen, while Willi ordered a beer. We nibbled on spring rolls and shrimp tempura and chatted to Randy the American on the table next to us, who intended to leave the USA following the elections and was looking for a place to take up new roots. On the other side of us, Catherine and her talkative, eccentric, retired doctor husband Edward told us they were visiting Asia for the first time, but they seemed pretty savvy to me.
Angkor Wat was, if truth be known, my main reason for visiting Cambodia and should have been one of the highlights. But never had I reckoned on such a swarm of tourists here, as in the whole of Angkor. And worst of all, most of these were Asian tourists who seemed to be concerned only about getting the maximum use of their selfie-sticks and filming their own silly pranks round the monuments. The Chinese were definitely the loudest. I recognise that they all had the same right to be there as we did, but it was impossible to enjoy the visit. And you can forget about any sign of spirituality.
Daru did his best to explain the monument and knew all the best places to have a photograph taken and I believe if we had not visited similar complexes in Thailand or even India, we might have appreciated Angkor Wat more. Our tour took us from the west gate to the east gate. We visited all three levels, which involved a steep walk up a wooden staircase that, blissfully, replaced the steep, worn, uneven stone steps of yore. The most beautiful part of our visit were the magnificent carvings of apsaras, beautiful dancing ladies who were omnipresent, often with shiny, darkened breasts where the tourist had rubbed them with sweaty hands.
Daru rushed us a little, so at three o’clock we reached Pre Rub temple for the view of the sunset. It was ridiculous to have to wait nearly four hours here in the sun, but we did not want to forego the experience. The temple is outstanding in that is one of the earliest here, dating back to the 10th century. Its dimensions cannot compare with the other temples we had seen. Nevertheless, Pre Rub, on a steep hill with adventurous steps if you take the original ones, is beautifully carved and has a charm of its own. The local people believe that funerals were conducted here and a stone cistern could have been used for cremations. The name Pre Rub means “turn the body”, which could refer to the custom of ritually turning the ashes of the cremated in different directions during the ceremony.
The time actually passed rather quickly, but it was when I decided to do some reading up here that I realised I had mislaid my guide book. We tried several times to recover it by revisiting the places we had stopped, but in vain of-course. We were surprised how early the other tourists started to show up. Among these was a group of Taiwanese youths from the YMCA, a fun crowd, who were doing voluntary work in the region. They began talking to us and were very eager to practise their English. Not only did they answer all our questions, but they had plenty of their own and listened carefully when Willi gave them advice.
The sunset appeared even later than we had anticipated and the mass of expectant tourists was overwhelming. The sun was beautiful as it set, but we didn’t hang around like the others; I was anxious to get down those steep steps before I was pushed by a hurried crowd!
We had seen and read reviews about a restaurant, The Sugar Palm, virtually round the corner from our hotel and it was here that we dined that evening in an airy, stylish atmosphere. The Battambang Tea cocktail, containing vodka, gin, rum and Cointreau in orange and pineapple juice became a firm favourite while we were here. We shared a plate of Khmer chicken satay, then tried chicken and ginger and beef and ginger with a thick pinacolada served in a coconut shell for dessert.
Next morning we made an early start for the temple of Banreay Samre, an attractive 12th century Hindu temple that is named after a local tribe. The area around here is very dry and Daru told us that the rice fields only yield one harvest per year instead of the usual two or even three. There were sugar palms, but the area looked very poor. The temple is actually more or less a ruin and is undergoing serious restoration. Nevertheless it is very photogenic and has some beautiful doorways with intricate lintels.
The most exciting part of our visit was the sighting of a grass snake that ran loose in front of the main entrance and was carefully removed to the forest by a gardener. And at the souvenir stalls, I stopped to purchase a linen blouse, which I tried on over my T-shirt in a lowly tent-like “shop” with hens and chickens fluttering in and out and on the roof.
A primary school opposite the car park attracted my attention. I asked Daru if there was any chance we could take a look and although he was surprised and a little uncertain, he walked up to the sandy playground with us and we poked our faces though the open window of the first classroom. All the doors were open, so it was essential for the children to be quiet, but when they saw us, they naturally let out shouts of glee. The children, neat and tidy in white blouses and shirts with navy trousers and skirts, were unattended when we arrived, but a teacher in a beautiful sarong looked in from the next classroom. She seemed to be helped by a heavily pregnant lady floating between the two classrooms. Both ladies were very friendly and got the older children from the second classroom to sing for us. They were loud and enthusiastic but totally out of beat and tune! We bowed to thank them. The little ones were not going to be left out, so they also sang for us.
I was surprised at the quality of the classroom. All the children were seated at wooden desks, there were good educational posters on the walls, a whiteboard was affixed to the front wall and a pile of exercise books in plastic covers on the table spoke for itself. In a shaded corner of a veranda on the other side of the classrooms there were rows of tables and bowls and bags of food; Daru said this would be prepared by the staff and sold to the schoolchildren.
It is interludes like this that make travelling really interesting. However, the next temple we visited, a must see, merits a special visit even without the magic of the unexpected. Called Banteay Srei, it is also known as the Citadelle of the Women. A tenth century Shiva temple, this complex is full of buildings that are miniature compared to the others we had seen. But its delicate red sandstone, so hard that it can be carved like wood, and its fine, intricate ornamental art make it exquisite.
The place was absolutely jam-packed. On the short walk to the site, local people were selling sugar palm juice in bamboo sticks. A sickeningly burnt lady with virtually no face, hardly any nose and soft white shiny flesh where her lips should have been, was begging. We hurried past and stopped to try and get an overall view, but so were hundreds of other tourists and it was very difficult to do photographic justice to these fine works of architectural art. The lintels, depicting little toothy demons called kalas, and the pediments have been particularly praised over time. Most of the dainty buildings, lit up in the morning sun in shades of feminine pink rather than red, were decorated with finely detailed women, apsaras, though monkeys were also commonly featured. I was – and still am – particularly fascinated by the beauty that this complex exuded.
On our way out of the temple complex, a small Gamalan orchestra, partly handicapped themselves, were playing in return for donations for landmine victims. In the countryside, women were planting green shoots of rice for the second harvest. There were melons and watermelons growing in the fields and being sold at the roadside. Under the houses on stilts chickens were strutting around in the shade and empty hammocks swaying lightly in the breeze. It would be idyllic here if the country and its people were not so very poor.
It seemed unbelievable that India, another of the world’s poorest countries, is currently restoring the temple at Ta Prohm. They hope to be finished in 2025. The project is enormous, for Ta Prohm has for centuries been taken over by the jungle. Temple buildings have literally been taken apart by roots and overgrowing nature and the result is an astounding mass of unruly vegetation set in sandstone edifices. Disorderly heaps of randomly fallen stones and rubble block the original pathways. To get around, tourists have now been confined to wooden walkways and steps and this makes sense, for the strangler figs and the silk-cotton trees that veer menacingly to one side, their skeletal roots exposed, have made visiting the temple dangerous.
Although cranes and plastic sheeting often stick up from a roof or a gopura, there is much to admire. Originally, this was a royal monastery and housed some 12,500 people including 18 high priests and 615 dancers. Today, short-cropped nuns with bony faces wearing white robes can be found in the corners of these crumbling buildings lighting incense sticks or selling thread bracelets. There are countless buildings with well-preserved statues to discover in this eerie place. But the most amazing of all is a tiny apsara face that peeps out from the split trunk of an ancient tree. We also wondered at the appearance of a Japanese lady dressed in very strange clothes, like some princess from a science fiction film.
On leaving Ta Prohm, we were accosted by hawkers, among them, many children. I drily remarked to one persistent little girl that she should be in school, to which she very angrily retorted “have no money!” And that is the problem: school is “free” only on the surface. I felt rather ashamed of myself.
Many of the roads in Cambodia have been built by the Japanese, China and other donor nations. The road we returned to Siam Reap on is the Korean Ring Road.
Daru had booked us in at Koulen 2 for a buffet dinner and dance show that evening. The huge restaurant takes 600 people and unless you book very early, you do not sit near enough to the stage to get a good view of the beautiful slow-motion Cambodian dances. However, it was enough to get an impression of the body control that is necessary to master the deliberate turning movements on one foot whilst positioning the hands into a certain pose and at the same time twisting eyes and mouth into a stylised mimic. There were six traditional dances, each performed in exquisite costumes. The food was also interesting, with desserts made mainly from sweetened vegetables, sweet potatoes or pumpkin, for example, and pulses like tapioca and sago with coconut cream.
I woke to the sound of birdsong and reflected how wicked it was to destroy the jungle by bombing it to bits or setting it on fire, destroying the habitat of birds and other creatures. And on the dire situation of a folk that is persecuted and forced to live in hiding, to become themselves the destroyers of nature in order to survive. Although we had purposely not visited the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh, the bitterness of the wars in this country and the hardship of many of its inhabitants were patently obvious every day.
Today we would experience another aspect of present day life in Cambodia as we visited the Tonle Sap, a gigantic freshwater lake on the Cambodian floodplains with its own complex hydrological system. It is connected to the Tone Sap River which in turn flows into the Mekong. Because of the monsoons, which dramatically change the level of the Mekong, the Tonle Sap River flows for about 6 months of the year into the lake, but when the level of the Mekong sinks below the level of the lake, the waters flow back towards the sea for the other 6 months. The lake is one of the richest fishing reviers on Earth and plays a crucial factor in the provision of food for the entire country.
We drove along the rather polluted riverside that is choked with plastic bags and other debris, passing a production of the lotus cloth that brings in 150 – 200 USD per metre. In rural Cambodia, the wedding season was under way, so silky tents with rows of plastic chairs would suddenly appear or we would be surprised by voices booing out of microphones and sudden bursts of modern Asian music. Then there were cultivated lotus fields, many of which featured thatched picnic huts for hire and hammock bars. The houses became increasingly simple until they were reduced to simple corrugated iron huts or wooden ones with glassless windows that opened from the bottom upwards.
At the small fishing village of Kampong Kleang where tourist groups were brimming over in a souvenir shop cum cafe before boarding their longtails, we also got into a flat, blue boat and began our cruise along a jagged arm to a floating village at a wider part of the lake. It was a little choppy every time a boat passed or overtook us and I was concerned about my camera, but I managed to get some acceptable pictures of the activities of the fishermen and women. It was amazing to find temples and a church and restaurants on stilts and strange to imagine parents dropping their children off at schools in boats. Daru explained that 70% of the families living here are Vietnamese and that a mere 1,000 Cambodians benefit from the fish industry in these waters.
We got out for a brief stop at a souvenir shop in the middle of the lake selling excellent articles – all from Vietnam, Indonesia or Thailand! This was part of the Chong Khneas Commune which boasts five schools, seven fish wholesalers, three gas stations, one health post and four karaoke bars. They were also breeding crocodiles here and two naughty local boys were taunting the poor creatures by dangling plastic bottles filled with muddy water above their mouths to make them snap. There were catfish, too, in another basin. We were very interested in a map which showed vast areas of the country that “belong to” China. There is much talk about “trade agreements” that nobody can explain.
On the way back we drove nearer to a small Cambodian settlement where people were fishing by casting large nets from the shore or from nets hung from the sides of smaller boats than our longtail. Daru explained that the water level was rather low at the moment and that at its highest, the water completely covers all the vegetation we could now see. He said that there was so much fish here that most of it was imported, the revenues naturally disappearing into Vietnamese pockets. It saddened us to assume that this country’s government is literally selling the land and that many local people realise this, but nobody can retaliate. As we neared the piers, we saw two men loading a heavy crate full of fish onto a lorry. The women were scrubbing dishes or clothes on their simple houseboats.
There was apparently a photograph of us both on a saucer that we could have purchased, but I didn’t even notice the lady who was selling them. We drove a few kilometres to a small village where we got out to photograph the traditional houses. There were dogs, many of them, especially young ones and it made me shudder to think where they might end up! Small girls were hanging round the few tourists, begging for chocolate probably. There was a single shop here selling foodstuffs and drinks. As we passed one of the houses, where a family was having lunch outside, a rather drunk man asked us in English if we’d like to try some Cambodian wine. Like his, most of the houses seemed to consist of a single room divided by curtains. There was no evidence of any bathrooms or toilets in this settlement, but the people looked clean and there is no shortage of water in the region.
Back in Siam Reap
Our tour ended in the early afternoon. We realised that our Angkor ticket was still valid, so we asked a rickshaw driver to pick us up later in the day and spent a comfortable couple of hours cooling down at the poolside. Mr. Prim with the number 4 on his vehicle was waiting as promised and agreed to take us to Angkor Wat again and back for 10 USD. By half past three a light breeze had got up and we had an extremely pleasant ride along the leafy avenue to the temple complex to have our tickets checked. The ladies who do this have to wear a turtle-neck jumper under their lilac blouses, for the sake of “decency”, perhaps? In the midday heat, a torture!
What a different experience this turned out to be from our early afternoon visit! There were still hundreds of Chinese tourists milling round the temple buildings, which, now, were almost glowing in the late afternoon sun. But the crowds quickly thinned out and the light was exceptional, very intense, giving the reliefs a new depth and sharpness.
We took our time and watched the monkeys devouring stolen fruit and clambering in and out of litter bins for a while. In front of the main building, still reflected in the pool in front, two tots, a boy and a girl dressed in the seasonal red and yellow, were being photographed by a professional photographer. We stopped at a bench under shady trees and drank our bottled water and watched and occasionally spoke to the passers-by. These included a Cambodian lady with her little girl, who refused to clasp her hands and bow to us as instructed by her mother, so we settled on a blown kiss.
Gradually we made our way to the east gate, very relaxed, just taking in the atmosphere. Two liberal monks in orange robes were blessing tourists and fastening bracelets round their wrists, instructing them to observe the correct protocol. A few of the tourists were dressed rather immodestly considering the regulations, but in general they seemed genuinely interested in the monuments and behaved accordingly. It was peaceful and tranquil as the sun slipped behind Angkor Wat, but it had not quite gone down when the guards asked us to leave . We walked alone along the dusty path across the dry moat towards the exit and found Mr. Prim waiting patiently.
At the Sugar Palm restaurant we tried a delicious green mango and smoked fish salad. Willi’s crispy fried noodles with pork was a mistake but my fish amok, for which the restaurant is noted, was good. We ended the evening reclining on a traditional-style bed with a cocktail at our hotel, while the waiters in the background sang local pop melodies to themselves in very high voices.
There was plenty of time to take a walk into town again before we were due to leave for Battambang later the following day, so after breakfast we headed for the Old Market via Pub Street, a very popular tourist rendez-vous whose name reveals the nature of the area. It was quiet with a few places open for breakfast, but it was easy to imagine the night-life here. At the market we passed an amazing sausage shop that sold dried snake among other strange delicacies and bought white peppercorns from Kampot to complete our souvenirs. Then we looked for Mrs. Piseh’s stall number 14 which is recommended online for reputable silks. We found this behind the smelly fish stalls and the meat stalls, which, although completely without refrigeration, were free of flies and odour. Mrs. Piseh has an incredible stock of silk fabrics stacked in colourful rows at the back of her shop, but we were satisfied to select and bargain for the pashmina shawls. We also had a whiff of the essential oils at another stall, but the jasmine smelt like orange and the lavender like Harpic, so we left them.
On our previous wander round Siam Reap we had passed an elaborate-looking temple and were happy to find this open on our way back to the hotel. It was the Preah Promrath pagoda, originally founded in 1371. It contains a reclining Buddha made from part of a wooden boat that miraculously survived a terrible accident involving a shark, saving the Buddhist monk inside. A golden boat outside the temple reminds you of the legend. The pagoda is a working monastery. In classrooms, a monk was teaching young children. Dogs were barking and gongs sounded. A small boy walked into the premises wheeling a cartload of tiny mussels. I bowed politely to a monk, as you do, and he greeted me in French. The streets around here were very quiet and clean and there was something very wholesome about it all. This was a wonderful lasting memory of Siam Reap.
We left the town with Daru and Piep at midday, driving past the usual lotus ponds and paddy fields and small banana plantations. Then there were brickworks between small villages where plastic bags of noodles were hanging at the roadside stalls. Petrol was on sale for the moped drivers in tax-free half-litre plastic bottles. Chopped cassava was drying on plastic sheeting. Tractors pulling huge carts were transporting heavy wooden furniture. Black storks were wheeling round dry fields and small boys were fishing in small ponds with nets. There were workshops where Buddha statues and roosters were being made. And at the place we stopped for the toilet, lovely wavy pumice stones and marble slabs were on sale.
Beyond here, many fields had been burnt ready for the new planting season. The roads deteriorated the further we drove from Siam Reap and the towns became dingier, provincial towns with administrative offices and rice mills. We passed funeral celebrations, which were confusingly similar to weddings, with official people booming into microphones. Then suddenly posters advertising the Clean City Award 2015 announced that we had arrived at Battambang, which Daru pronounced Badombong..
Our resort was several kilometres outside the city, a small resort with 14 luxurious rooms, many of which surround a lotus pond. We were greeted with ice-cold lemongrass tea and wet towels. From a temple outside the resort you could hear faraway Gamalan music and voices chanting non-stop into a microphone. This was a holy day, Meak Bochea, the full moon of the third month in the Khmer calendar and full of temple activity. After exploring the grounds, the ponds with 20 kinds of fish and the fruit trees and vegetable gardens full of birds and butterflies, we sat down near the pool to share a large beer.
Our dinner that evening, taken right by the pool on candle-lit tables, was a set Khmer meal comprising a green mango salad (smothered with saw-mint, which, unfortunately, tastes rather like coriander), fresh spring rolls, morning glory beef soup, chicken amok, stir-fried beef and banana delight, which was a warm, sweet tapioca pudding with coconut milk and green banana.
Breakfast was a buffet served on a boat. We had a wonderful omelette and an excellent cup cake with cinnamon and pineapple baked on top. The temple celebrations were well under way by that time, so we were entertained by tinkling xylophone music. Daru and Piep took us to Wat Saket.
We were so fortunate to have visited this temple on this particular day, because there was a huge merit-making celebration going on at which the young Buddhist monks were to receive food from the community. As we entered the complex, women were sorting gifts of food into individual plastic bags spaced out on large tables. Local people began drifting into the temple complex bearing all sorts of gifts, mainly food but also drinks and personal products. They presented these at a table at which a lay representative was officially receiving them and shouting blessings for the donors. People were turning up in their Sunday best, usually white shirts or blouses with dark trousers and skirts. They discarded their shoes and sat or kneeled down in front of one of the many altars to pray.
Ladies in normal working attire – long shirts over trousers – were carrying sparrows in cages for the devotees to free for a small donation, thereby increasing their kharma. The atmosphere was calm but festive. Without warning, a group of young boys began to sound a “gong”, actually an iron pipe, which sounded gruesome. That was the sign for the elders to begin to chant with hands clasped in prayer, a monotonous chant consisting of three notes. At the main temple, the freshly shorn young monks were all lined up, the very small ones first, all carrying their stainless steel “begging bowls”.
They proceeded to walk solemnly in single file through the crowd of spectators to rows of plastic chairs placed back to back to one side of the complex. They must have felt very uncomfortable in the heat with raw scalps! The devotees knelt on mats in rows in front of the boys and young men bearing their gifts. Conscious of the fact that we had spent far more time here than would be usually planned, we took heed of Daru’s hints and left, glowing inwardly with the privilege of having been able to experience this special moment.
On the way to our next destination, we overtook two men on motorbikes conveying cages made of reeds for transporting wild boars that people hunted in the forests. We drove to Wat Ek Phnom, an eleventh-century Vishnu temple ruin which was sadly destroyed by the Khmer Rouge for the purpose of building roads and was never rebuilt.. Outside the ruin, several handicapped people, one in a wheelchair, were begging. There was a school for poor children, which was closed. The temple was desolate with a few beautifully carved lintels still in place but otherwise a shambles, overlooking fields of taro and sugar cane. A benign-looking Buddha statue watches over the ruins. A newish temple, very ornate, stands next to it, but was strangely empty.
It was not necessary to spend much time here so we continued our tour to visit the market where fish is fermented to make fish sauce. There was not much activity going on that morning, this being a holiday, but the marketplace left a deep impression on us because of the putrid smell, which stuck to our clothes. Basically there were dusty drums and canisters with lids of plastic sheeting weighted down with bricks. A fire was lit under a large blackened cauldron and I almost skidded on a patch of fish oil whilst trying to get a look at the black, bubbling contents. In huts, there were open containers of salted fish in various stages of fermentation. Further along, we saw bright red pieces of fish drying on wooden slats. At another place, men were shovelling greens and salted fish into a giant mixer and mincer for fish feed. In a shed, a pile of grey small fry was heaped up on the floor, where chickens strutted past. This was not appetising in the least, but fish sauce is used everywhere in Asia as a normal seasoning and there is no doubt that we would have unwittingly eaten a product at least similar to this during our tour.
Piep drove us through the colonial part of town, where cream and white villas and spacious green lawns and flowering gardens reminded of the French protectorate and representative buildings still house the electricity board or the post office. We had noticed that the Cambodian guides never stopped in the colonial areas; they do not like referring to their colonial past. Instead, we were taken to one of two places in the countryside where tourists can still take a ride on the bamboo train. Again, we were extremely fortunate. The bamboo train, a unique curiosity, is about to be closed down.
Once used by the local people to ferry goods and livestock to the markets, the bamboo train or norri is a very rudimentary lightweight bamboo platform that rests on two axles that look like dumbbells, one of which is connected to a tractor engine. This operates on a narrow, single gauge track and can travel up to about 50 kph. When it does pick up speed, the ride can be extremely bumpy and certainly rather dangerous, because the tracks are badly warped, causing the train to jump once in a while. A good reason for its imminent closure. The system works incredibly well. If a train appears in the opposite direction, the train with the lightest load has to stop, be dismantled and placed by the side of the track while the other train moves on, then reassembled and replaced on the track. On our ride to the end station, this happened 5 or 6 times.
As tourists, you just sit on a cushion or two on a rug on the platform at the front and hope for the best while the driver works the engine from behind. It was jolly hot by now, though the humidity was surprisingly low. Battambang is known for its excellent quality of rice, but on our rural ride, there were only terribly dry fields with a few skinny white cows and dried-up streams on either side of the track. Occasionally people would cross the track wheeling a bicycle from a cluster of wooden houses, where the washing waved in the breeze and huge water pots stood in whatever shade was available. The end station, 7 km from the start, was a drinks stand and a stand selling textiles, where children came out to beg us to buy cheap jewelry from them.
From the bamboo train stop, we drove through the town, passing the handsome black statue of Da Tambong, ”grandfather with stick”, on a prominent roundabout. The statue, of King Kron Nhong apparently, is worshipped on holidays, we were told. Although we were not really hungry, we were glad to have a drink at the restaurant Piep now drove us to. It was a simple lunch stop at a place called Hotel Victoria. A young lady came out of the kitchen and dolloped one ladleful of steamed rice on each of our plates out of a large pot lined with banana leaves. .Willi had ordered beef curry, which was rather dry and consisted mainly of carrots. I had to wait ages for my chicken stir-fry with lemongrass, but it was delicious, even though my rice was, in the meantime, rather cold.
I really wanted to ask how they had cooked the chicken, but nobody came back into the restaurant, so I ventured into the kitchen. The cooks had all disappeared, but when I called the waitress arrived and several people peeped in from a back door and began to giggle. It was difficult to explain what I wanted, then there was a short period of embarrassment and finally a young mother stumbled in from the back yard carrying a heavy suckling child of about one and a half at her breast. Despite her predicament, she laughed, showing a good set of teeth, and was obviously pleased about my compliments. She said something about lemongrass, and nodded when I mentioned kaffir lime. Later, Daru kindly asked again for me and told me that the cook had used just a little chilli and soy sauce in addition to the lemongrass and kaffir lime.
Refreshed and replenished, we arrived at the “ancient house”, a traditional wooden house on stilts built in 1907 by the admiral of the day. The nephew of the present owner, an elderly lady, guided us round in very fast French. His aunt, he told us, is badly traumatised, being the only member of her family to have survived the Khmer Rouge. The house, which contains two guest rooms for tourists, was built using three different kinds of wood that shone as if polished. It had been used by the Khmer Rouge as a cantine, feeding 200 people under watch and threatened by canons. Salt and rice had been stored in the original kitchen, leaving the beautiful wood damaged irreparably. The furniture, especially in the living quarters off the veranda, was beautiful and exquisitely carved. Our guide explained about the careful arrangements of mirrors and secret doorways so that one could always keep a watch out for the enemy – and there have been plenty of Cambodian enemies since 1907! He also pointed out the stone staircase, built purely for prestige reasons, and showed us round the space under the house, where he has a sort of office and a few hammocks and which still contains a working rice mill.
The nephew whispered most of the time, as if he was afraid that his rather disparaging comments on the present government might be overheard. These included the opinion that the present government is corrupt beyond belief and bitter complaints that the forests around this area have been chopped down and the valuable exotic wood sold and shipped to China and the Arab countries. Meanwhile on the veranda, he was selling overpriced coconut jewelry and purses made from tyres and other souvenirs, made by local handicapped and orphaned children, he claimed. I am not sure how unscrupulous this man was himself.
We reached our resort still early in the afternoon and enjoyed a coffee on our little terrace before settling down to swim (Willi) and relax (me) at the pool before the sun went down. Our last Khmer meal consisted of mixed snacks, followed by sweet and sour pork for Willi and shrimps with Kampot pepper for me. We had a very long chat with the waiter, who had returned recently from the US, where he was born, to begin a new life here.
The views from our vehicle on the trip to the airport in Siam Reap the following morning was like a résumé of the entire trip. Innumerable well-kept temples shone out like jewels amongst the dry, stubbly fields with plastic sheeting traps for the crickets and bony white cows, their thin skin sticking to fragile-looking ribcages. But in other places, there were lush, green paddy fields and ponds and manioc or fish drying in the scorching sun, a bountiful countryside with natural beauty around every corner! We enjoyed our trip immensely and were treated as welcome visitors in this country. But I believe it will take more than one generation for Cambodia to shake off the ingrown self-pity that results from defeat and ends in lethargy.
How different Vietnam is! Similarly beautiful, Vietnam is a land of victors whose people are ambitious and self-confident, fortified by success. Here we were occasionally faced with people who were not prepared to pander to tourists. On this trip, we saw only a small part of the country. We believe there is a great more to discover in the north and definitely plan to come again. God will!