My Vietnam Launch – The Demilitarise Zone – DMZ – 2018 Backpacking

My Vietnam Launch – The Demilitarise Zone – DMZ – 2018 Backpacking

From my last post I spent some enjoyable and reflection of days touring the city of Hue (Whey) and all the ancient and new tourism locations within a close proximity to my wonderful hotel, Holiday Hotel Diamond. Ms Anna, manager, had arranged for the wilderness tour of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) set out between the North Vietnamese (Viet-Cong, communist) & South Vietnamese during their civil war, 1st Nov 1955 – 30th April 1975. This war, primarily between North & South also included Cambodia, Laos and sometimes referred to as 2nd Indochina War. This blog contains a lot of photos, so enjoy these at your leisure.

The war basically started after Vietnam as a whole, ousted the French colonialists in 1954 and wanted to unite even further by coming a full communist country. This did not sit easy with conservative, freedom of speech and other freedoms mainly sought by the South Vietnam region, as Saigon was Vietnam’s capital at the time. The USA & other free allies joined in, while the North Communist base sought help from China & Russia therefore, the ugly clash, mass of life lost, chemical warfare, etc continued to a period up to 1973 where allies were forced to withdraw under world growing pressure and a war too difficult to win. North Vietnam, from 1973 to April 1975 made a full intrusion to take control which is present to today. Hanoi was their capital, but with Saigon being the main, more practical capital city it was proclaimed as Ho Chi Minh, named after the former Prime Minister of The Democratic Republic of Vietnam and later their 1st President until his death in 1969. Ho Chi Minh did his early education in Hue before escalating to a well-travelled man & then settling in France from 1917 for a few years & this is where he chose that adopted name when he used France’s defeat in WW11 to raise his mission against France’s insurgence into Vietnam.  I was not aware his original name was Nguyen Sinh Cung and Ho Chi Minh means “He Who Enlightens”.  After the Vietnam War it took till 1995 before Vietnam entered formal diplomatic relations with opposing countries.

Back to my day trek (full day) but I’ll explain later what a full day it turned out to be. The clear instruction was for me to wait in reception until the bus driver walked down the long laneway to take me to the 9-seater Mercedes touring vehicle where I felt everyone was not pleased sitting in a closed bus with the air-con & motor off for those good 10mins or so for me. I think I was right, me being the last to board … & we were packed in tight with our day bags, mine at my feet. LOL!!

We headed off through the city, basically in a Western direction, then a NW direction for some 2hrs plus … such a long & winding journey in parts but again, it’s an occasion to see the real countryside in this central Vietnam region. The terrain becomes more of mountain range status and we’re all hoping the vehicle, and us would make it through to the next stop, wherever that may be. Along the way, we saw varying authentic houses which is an eye-opener considering they appear to be on harder times than what buildings I saw back in Ninh Binh.

Typical House

On our way we are directed to view the mountain to the right where you can just see something sticking out of the ridge at the top. Through the passenger’s ‘Chinese Whispers’ I managed to see what was on the ridge & it was a military site but no more information was revealed. After the tour, I managed to do some research & found the outpost to be called by the US troops as Rockpile Hill, some 230m high & 26klms west of Dong Ha. It was the main & basically the only area available to viewpoint the valleys below for US troops. The only way possible to get there was by a helicopter drop off, no landing and troops were based there a fortnight to a month at a time, and the platform area was quite small, some 25m2 and was manned by about 16 troops on a 24/7 operational basis. Can’t imagine how tough that would have been and a full-on reason to be real mates no matter what! Talk about social distancing .. NOT!!!

Hydro Station

Finally!! We stopped; and my fellow passengers almost fell out over me with the anticipation of escape. It was like an explosion .. LOL! Our guide, a young Vietnamese lady, with great English, finally showed us her voice, she had been mostly silent the entire trip so we were left to do our own commentary at times on the ‘bus’. She was rushing around and talking to now spread out trekkers, so my on-site education became impossible and had to rely on my late-night research again to fill in the gaps.

We had arrived at the Cau Da Krong suspension bridge, the central point of the Da Krong relic- scenic area on National Hwy9, 50klms out from hwy 14A (Google Maps). Originally, there was an iron bridge the army used. On one side of the bridge there are the majestic mtns, the other, the valley of The Cau Da Krong River. In 1973-75 with the help of Cuba the iron bridge was replaced by this 100mlong x 6m wide suspension bridge. It is the first cable-stayed & Vietnam designed, built bridge. The bridge, at war time over this river, was hotly contested throughout the Vietnam War & was held by the opposing forces several times over. This bridge also opens the way to Laos & the mystical Ho Chi Minh trail, hence the added importance. In a future blog I will disclose the Australian & British funded cable bridges that will blow your mind spanning together over the vast Mekong Delta.

Bridges come in all shape and sizes and most travellers never seem to realise the importance, nor the significance of bridges; but the common theme is to bring two sides together in a structural bond. Through this bond, much can be achieved and this bridge certainly signifies all of this even though, there is a stone engraved showing the date erected and with no huge showpiece monument to expose this importance to the masses, apart from the frequent viewing by bus loads of travellers. This isolated bridge certainly encapsulates this medium.

Below this bridge, the river Song Thach Han flows, from the Annamite Ranges to the Sth China Sea, East of Dong Ha, for some 150klms. There are hydro-electricity stations now along this river as it is mostly fast flowing too. Vietnam use every available resource when it’s available. Very little is wasted. The DMZ was based upon the 17th Parallel from a previous Geneva Accord after the French was decisively defeated in war by Vietnam in 1954, starting in 1946. The DMZ functioned from 1954-2nd July 1976 & spanned some 5klms each side of the Ben Hai River as a way of a geographic separation.

We cross this bridge & immediately turn left (West) for another 15klms or so and enter the village of Khe Sanh where this area showed some of the fiercest fighting in the war. Some 100,000 tons of bombs were dropped in this region. For those unaware, “Khe Sanh” is a very famous iconic song in Australia, sung by a top-ranking Aussie band, Cold Chisel. It was their first single in 1978, and remains today one of the best Vietnam War anthems of what can go wrong when Govts think they know best & a returning soldier is left to fend for himself. Don Walker, band member wrote this soldier tribute and what a small world it is when he lived just around the corner from me growing up in my hometown of Grafton. He is a little older than me. One of his many songs was about my hometown and is also an iconic Aussie song of country town living called “Flame Trees”. Both songs and more, can easily be found on Spotify & you will note the usual tones of lead singer, Jimmy Barnes. Enjoy!!!  I played part of the Khe Sahn song in the presence of my trekking troupe but respected their privacy of course by only playing a few minutes. Some were amazed that such a song existed.

Khe Sanh is certainly a small village, but I note several shops, etc had Aussie titles, probably by the influences of the dedicated Cold Chisel song. The Aussie troops weren’t fighting or based here but a hundred or so kilometres to the South, so I think I’m right here. Again, our guide was limited in her speech but the focus was to explore the US War Base Memorial & grounds to our pleasure, excluding the airstrip below in the valley due to many unexploded bombs/ ammunitions, etc. This museum is central to the US Army base where all military objectives were devised and implemented. I managed to see various aircrafts, helicopters, bunkers even though the US violently de-commissioned this base when departing in 1975. Through the grass you can still find memorabilia however, there are always several villagers that totally hound you to buy their wares of medals, ribbons, etc. We were strictly told to not buy anything from them as they risk complete danger still sifting through the relics of the base & airstrip. The dangers are well recorded with many deaths & injuries doing this activity. In the Khe Sanh region conflict there were 26,000 US soldiers & 17,000 Allied Soldiers placed for battle so you can imagine the resources and equipment that was required for such operations. The Base Museum certainly shows you up front what logistics, weaponry and storage facilities were required in a military airbase and command centre. I found it thankful there was such equipment, intact storage and bunkers in place to further educate visitors in this tragic warfare. The varying types of bombs and their sizes were confronting though. Most Vietnam War museums, including this one, were funded by the US however, Vietnam has twisted much of the display to reinforce & elevate their opposition to the enemy at that time. Some of the facts displayed are a little ‘hazy’. I came across this several times however, I guess you have to expect that from the victor.

Certainly Dangerous

We were reluctantly pushed by our guide to return to our van to continue towards Vinh Moc to the East. There was still more to see and experience this base but we understand there is limited daylight available to fit everything in on this tour.

We head back to the Cau Da Krong bridge but keep driving past it & head East to the tunnels of Dia Dao vinh moc (Vinh Moc Tunnels) just out from the city of Vinh Moc (slightly North) for some 2hrs drive towards the ocean in the East. Upon our journey we cross the Ben Hai River and another newly constructed bridge and to our right we are told of the adjacent & much older Hien Luong bridge (1928) separating the North & South Vietnam. It was declared in 1986 a significant national historical site.

This bridge is somewhat divided into 2 sections, painted in a different colour, each at 89 meters long from each end. Blue paint on the North side for 450 wooden planks & Yellow for 444 wooden planks on the Southern side. This temporary divide was supposed to last for 2 years and terminate after the unification general election, but it ended up lasting for 21years. On the North side is a monument depicting a unified Vietnam, along with its flagpole and a huge 9x12m flag. There is also other historical barracks to enforce the separation as well as a restored 500W tower speaker used by the North to ‘voice’ political messages and propaganda to the South. On the southern bank, there is the monument of “Desire for a Unified Country” with the image of young mother and her son looking North and waiting for her husband and other loved ones to arrive home.

This bridge was fiercely defended, mainly by The North Vietnamese where the Vinh Linh community and soldiers dug 18klms of war trenches & 48 anti-air emplacements. A now famous lady, Nguyen Thi Diem spent her night times over these war years mending the flag to keep morale high for the Viet Cong. She is remembered in a nearby monument engraved showing her tapestry work on the flag. The bridge was severely damaged during the war but was restored authentically where needed.

We now find we are travelling through farmland (cultivated & non-cultivated) & nearing our 2hr timeslot of travel in what seems the middle of nowhere. Without much fanfare our guide directs us to discreet landmarks of the Vinh Moc Tunnels, noting there are bomb craters everywhere you look. Obviously, we will not be walking off the dedicated tracks. The Vinh Moc tunnels, a much larger network than the Ho Chi Minh tunnels in the south were built between 1966-67 & used for 6years. The tunnels had 3 levels in parts, 12, 15 & 23m deep and have a continuous span of 2,200klms. It consisted of 13 entrances, & 7 exits to the sea. Everything the citizen & army population needed was provided in these tunnels; Kitchens, hospital, nursery where 17 babies were born, meeting rooms, school, sleeping qtrs, etc.  The US suspected these tunnels existed but could never find the entrances or exits, hence the dropping of more bombs.

Vietnam has now placed restoration policies in preserving some sections of these tunnels. The main obvious preservation is the large angled concrete retainment wall spanning a kilometre or 2 along the beach to offset the erosion from the sea. Exiting the tunnel network at this seaside is indescribable as we fully soak up the sunshine, clean ocean air and the sense of overwhelming freedom. I notice we are all breathing rather heavily now & have beaming smiles. Some of us start ‘looking’ for the trail to take us back, but alas, the only way back is through the darkness again. Here we go!

In the Wet Season some areas of the tunnels flood so during the war other tributary tunnels were formed to continue operations. I believe the restorations will not cover such sections obviously. The tunnels are incredibly small & narrow and some of my trekkers really struggled handling this and fearing they would be stuck. I was smaller than most and I was struggling at times, especially when you had to climb down the stairs and ladders in the limited light or darkness. How did everyone handle this over the years? Claustrophobia & such thoughts really comes to the fore and I believe I’ve never suffered from such experiences before. My troupe commented frequently when the tunnels narrowed and their reactions were quite unnerving at times. I could only take photos in the main hallway tunnels that allowed a bit more room. At night, villagers would work the food farms like normal & return to the tunnels at daybreak, leaving nothing for the US soldiers to see. Incredible resilience by the people & tunnel engineering mastery to handle the bomb attacks as well. When you exit the tunnels, away from the ocean you can see the myriad of craters everywhere so there were no exaggerations as to the number of bombings that took place.

After surviving the unknown time (guessing some 40mins but obviously felt much longer) of slithering through the network of tunnels and celebrating the open spaces and much cleaner air walking to our van, we are all in awe of what we just experienced … how do you do this for years on end? Such resilience!

We are told we are on schedule and we only have the famous war cemetery to do on our way back to Hue, when “BANG”! We have stopped in the centre of the narrow road between fields. There is much confusion … and we are told to alight and stay along the roadside and not to venture into the fields (landmines, ammunition still prevalent). The driver is translated as saying it will take him a few minutes to fix. The fan belt had snapped! Low & behold he grabs a new one out of the rear compartment & does a joyous laugh. I spoke to my nearby companion stating … “I believe the fan belt was already on its way out .. & yet, they used the van for the 5hr travel”. He agreed & said “we’ll be here for ages”.

Driver Replacing Belt

After a while my fellow travellers started asking the guide when can we get back to Hue. One traveller (Pete from England), had to catch a plane that night. He was starting to stress out. All of a sudden, our English-speaking guide suddenly lost her English language & Vietnamese then flowed. So frustrating & very annoying. We pleaded for a recovery vehicle or something to get us moving again but to no avail. Out of frustration a couple of us tried to help the driver who was now showing some arm bruising and heat burns from the motor. We could not get the belt to go onto the last pulley. Later, a scooter turns up from a young guy working on a nearby farm. He can’t help but Pete, to catch his plane shows him some Viet Dong to take him to the nearest town for a bus. My evening communication with Pete said he made the bus by 25mins and just made his plane. I now have burn marks on my arm helping the driver. Our crowd was getting very agitated & after this eternity of time, the guide then rings someone. The only words we get is “mechanic .. soon”.

Another hour added on, with still no success on the belt, a man on a scooter arrives speaking Vietnamese and smiling. He is carrying some hand tools and quickly talks to the driver & much head nodding followed. With just a few minutes we are all thanking him and almost hugging him, for he had the belt on in about 7mins flat! Why couldn’t the guide make that call earlier .. so unnecessary to cause this drama. All up, we were on that roadside for 2hrs 50mins & it was now getting closer to dusk. We all boarded the van & I started searching my backpack for treating my arm burns & grease cover. Yay! Even though it was getting late everyone was agreed to doing a quick visit to the war cemetery with what daylight was available & before the cemetery gates are locked …. our agreed visit was largely out of respect of Vietnam’s fallen heroes and in respect of the hardship of those that lived in those tunnels. We allied ourselves to also toughen up!

Not far away was the Truong Son National Cemetery, in Ben Tat Hill, the largest war cemetery in Vietnam. Some 10,263 Vietnamese graves (soldiers & civilians) and far too many unnamed with just a single white cross and they also represent the 330,000 Vietnamese still listed as missing. Time prevented us from venturing too far from the entrance as the volunteers were getting ready to close the cemetery. The sheer volume of viewing the graves well into the distance was quite confronting. The cemetery is in 5 zones and covers some 40ha.  Such human travesty.

The ride home to Hue took ages (105klm journey) despite most of us having a power sleep as darkness evolved out from our windows. Everyone was hungry & thirsty; most had eaten their stock supplies back on the roadside out of sheer boredom. Again, guess who was the last to reach their hotel? Yes, me again!! I graciously thanked the driver & hurried down the laneway to my hotel so I could decant my daypack and head off to a restaurant or whatever is still open. The hotel clock ‘yelled’ out to me 8.15pm!!!  Reception was overwhelmed with relief that I had arrived. They had been checking with the tour office to no avail on when I would return. When I told them of my roadside adventures and sequences of events they were not impressed and stated they will ring through their displeasure to them tomorrow morning. I thanked them for their concern and politely excused myself to hurry up to my room and head out for food & a beverage or 2 or 3 or 4!!!

With food & liquid into my stomach & a welcomed hot shower I slept well into the next morning. That certainly was a full day tour! Ms Anna greeted me as usual with huge smiles & then the deepest of apologies for such trauma yesterday. She took the tour drama personally, as the hotel had recommended using this tour company. I stated, all was good & every day is an experience in travelling. Some good, some bad .. but it is better when you have freedom. She smiled again & took me to my breakfast table. I always attempt to eat with someone to share conversation with but everyone had already left for their respective day’s outing.

My goal for today was to take in the local sites in the city and to hopefully send a fax to my bank back in Australia and complete the ongoing crap I had with them since I was in Sihanoukville in Cambodia many, many weeks prior. After several tries, my fax still wasn’t received in Australia but was able to leave a message with the relevant bank department. The transmission fault was confirmed to be my bank & not the Post Office. The lady who served me in the post office laughed at me stating “who uses faxes nowadays”. I had to openly agree. I felt so embarrassed, as my bank is the largest in Australia .. & I’m using an antiquated fax that they will only deal with internationally. I also sent the fax doc to my daughter vie email; in the hope she could provide this to the bank for action on my behalf. After much frustration I managed to spend a little time in the city’s Ho Chi Minh Museum nearby. It seems every large city has one of these museums and each one has its own unique exhibition but nothing here to really attract my camera apart from the recognisable Ho Chi Minh and the plaque behind him depicting the symbols of some of Hue’s icons. Venturing back to my hotel I met up with a few cool roosters in a park. That’s something you don’t often see & this relieved me of my frustrations & I began to see the city’s other wonders in my slow walk around.

I’ll end this blog here, so stay safe, happy & hopefully enjoy the photos and kick this COVID-19 & the more vile vaccines back into history. Stay tuned for my next blog on my travels to the beautiful ancient city of Hoi An.

Thank you again for reading my blogs and I trust you will stay safe, happy & healthy for 2022 and for it to be a far better year for all. I do not receive any commissions &/or ‘perks’ from the above nominated businesses & locations as I am purely happy to provide the acknowledgement and connection.

I always look forward to seeing the feedback so don’t be afraid to comment. My next blog/s will be more of the amazing Vietnam experiences and quite a few were life changing, & not just for me.

Live life to the most and a quote that I truly love is from Eckhart Tolle ..

“If I am not the hero of my life … who in the hell could be?”

My Vietnam Launch – Hue – An Ancient Capital – 2018 Backpacking

My Vietnam Launch – Hue – An Ancient Capital – 2018 Backpacking

Mini Lift

From my last blog I survived the longest bus trip known to man from Ninh Binh, some 11hrs and arrived at my pre-booked Holiday Hotel Diamond in Hue (Whey) where the manager, Ms Anna, greeted me so warmly and had everything ready for me, including my room obviously but with a complimentary breakfast to start my stay off well. Food was of major priority considering it’s been some 15hrs since dinner so I settled into my room on the 5th floor with lightning speed. This hotel has the tiniest passenger lift on Earth, with a floor area of 600x1200mm & limit of 2 persons .. or 1 person with backpacks which made my race up & back, a little awkward. Lol!!!

The Holiday Hotel Diamond is located down a narrow pedestrian laneway some 75m off Nguyen Cong Tru Street, with a shop-front-type doorway so you have to have faith you will find it, and when you do it makes an ideal location for The Citadel (about 2klms walk) and night time entertainment with bars and restaurants. Ms Anna, knowing my timeline for a few tours insisted I see The Citadel today with the hours left and then the river & Pagoda viewing the next day. At The Citadel, Ms Anna suggest I buy my group temple tour tickets to get the best advantage & pricing.

With food in my stomach and feeling to stretch my legs I walked the Le Loi street (parallel to The Perfume River) towards The Citadel (The Imperial City) some 2.2klms along The Perfume River seeking out the local culture along the way till I reached the Cau Phu Xuan Bridge & proceed to cross over using the safe pedestrian walkway. I decided to walk so I get to see everything in clear vision, unlike the usual blur from a scooter. This bridge provides immediate access to the large front fortress gates and ticket sales booth. Over the centuries Vietnam had a procession of capital cities and Hue was one of these using The Imperial City (Citadel) as the ‘castle’ of Vietnam with about 2klms of very high stoned walls, surrounding motes and bridge crossovers to further maintain their defences including using the banks of The Perfume River. I remembered Anna advised me to buy The Temple Tour tickets at The Citadel’s entrance where the pricing is better plus will save the inconvenience of separate purchases the next day. I was later to find this a very wise decision and provided a better management to my day. Thank you, Miss Anna.

Some 250yrs ago, Gia Long was born & he was the first emperor of 13 of the Nguyen Dynasty which became the last Vietnam dynasty which ruled for 143yrs and made Hue, the capital. In The Citadel’s centre was The Purple Forbidden City housing the emperor & his closest confidants. The saddest part and what struggled for me and no doubt the millions of tourists was trying to visualise what is missing in this enormous fortress. Several structures, walls, landscaping and general city infrastructures where over the years, natural disasters, evolving decades of no maintenance & most damage from the Vietnam War were obliterated. The North Vietcong attacked Hue in 1968 & the Allied Forces responded, mainly with bombs creating further damage. The Citadel had some 160 major buildings inside & now only 10 or so remain. It is pleasing to see restorations currently underway though, albeit not the original of the past. Near the main entrance is The Thai Hoa Palace used for the emperor’s official duties and that provides the best insight of what type of structures are missing.

Citadel Entrance

Sighting the Bronze Cauldron sitting in its own open area was a real highlight in how masterful the ancient Vietnamese were. Being cast in 1662 and in perfect condition and weighing in as a heavy weight of 1466kgs is a true testament of their brilliance and resembles their resilience.

Bronze Cauldron 1466kgs
Citadel Map

Using a full 3 hours on The Citadel (you can see the size of this masterpiece in the photo below) I was keen to walk back near my hotel so I could find the eating zone in a slightly Eastern direction where the night life comes alive in all forms. The variety of foods was amazing and seems like no place is the same as the other. My body was crying for any food possible & I was not short changed!

Again, Holiday Hotel Diamond looked after me with a great sleep, in true comfort and a wonderful breakfast. I was also pleased that by seeing The Citadel yesterday I could take my time and catch a river boat, organised by Anna, straight to Sung An Temple (Minh Mang tomb), West of The Citadel some 10 kilometres further down The Perfume River. My pleasure turned to a slight pain when the river boat was a dirty black smoke chugging diesel motor overcoming the clean river air. The boat was controlled by a young man under the guise of a very aged, ultra-thin lady sitting in the middle of the boat who didn’t speak English but offered loud Vietnamese commands.

I found the only relief from the heavy black fumes was being called up to peruse the wares, the lady was selling, laid out over the floor of the boat on a large tablecloth. I found the fumes wasn’t around her so it seems like a real con to entice buyers to come forward to look at the goods (cotton bracelets, jewellery and jade figurines, etc). Being the sole passenger, I felt the added pressure too of buying 3 cotton bracelets for my grandchildren. I certainly took my time in order to escape the fumes for as long as possible. It was hard with the delay, absolutely no conversation from the old lady, just smiles and a lot of head nodding. I was so overcome with the current situation I forgot in taking photos. Some 30mins of river touring done, I was at the wharf and directed towards my new tourist group of some dozen people forming along the roadway.

Map of Hue

The group, mostly of Vietnamese & Chinese was rather welcoming and of course I’m the only westerner, again. Despite the smiles and more head nodding there was almost no direct communication towards me (no English I think), so I just accepted the peace and the ability to not be diverted away from the varying temples and artifacts as they came along. Our first temple visit is also the resting place for the 2nd Nguyen dynasty emperor, Minh Mang who ruled for 21yrs. His tomb was built in 1840-43. The grounds were built on a lake and there are 40 structures on this vast area and built on a symmetrical axis and is renowned as a masterpiece of Vietnamese Royal monuments.

Minh Mang Site Map
Minh Mang Temple
Minh Mang Tomb
Minh Mang Restorations

Our next stop was Khai Dinh Temple & Tomb which represents this 12th & last Nguyen emperor ruling 1916 until his death in 1925. This temple is unique as it differs from past emperors & also this monument & grounds are one of the smallest of the dynasty. The constructions took 11yrs to complete. Even though it is the smallest, it is also the most elaborate and effort consuming and being in the early 1900s it was the most expensive. Khai Dinh was condemned by his people as he imposed a heavy tax to complete it, plus he was called a puppet of the French.

Khai Dinh Temple
Royal Soldiers

You enter the grounds by a large set of steps into a quite large paved area walking past the scaled 1:1 rare stone soldier sculptures in a parade line. You take another 27steps to reach the temple’s doors. The temple is a slightly miniature grand structure as stated above & I’ve now seen a few temples in my time here in Vietnam and Cambodia so I’m a little accustomed to the sometimes usual. Like most temples, it is until you enter when you see the magnificence of decorations to please their religion and dynasty emperors and the like. WOW! Look at this brilliance!! Ceramic mosaic brilliance with gold everywhere, paint artistry and really too much to take in with one visit. Everywhere you looked you could not believe the detail and the perfection in every square inch of wall & ceiling. Khai Dinh has his tomb under the altar which his throne seated above, was cast in gold plate in France & shipped out. Behind the altar there is large portrait of the emperor, highlighting his youth. The centre of the altar is the prime photography shot so I start trying to squeeze a photo in between all the tourists and time is getting away. I think someone noticed me in my frustration. LOL!!

Out of the blue, I was grabbed by the arm and a woman in my group ushered a friend to take my photo in front of the ‘altar’ and in a blink she was photo bombing me. Out of the entire group she was the most welcoming and always happy whenever I saw her. Out of her kindness I knew her ‘agenda’ in wanting a photo to show friends back home of a ‘story’ of meeting a westerner on her travels but that didn’t bother me at all. It’s happened a lot to me during my travels. One must always be gracious and take reasonable steps to ensure everyone enjoys their travel days, even when it’s raining, windy & gloomy and utmost thanks today is such a beautiful nature day. With her thoughtfulness I didn’t mind being in her ‘story’ and it was unfortunate there was this verbal language barrier however words didn’t need to be spoken in this instance; just huge smiles and a prayer clasp in sequence. I’m very thankful the lady organised this photo shoot as it also allowed me to use her kindness into my story/ blog too. Thank you, ‘Lady in Red’.

Back onto a larger & more comfortable boat we head back towards The Citadel however we have one more temple to visit and 2 more places to visit on the one last stop. The temple is the tomb of Tu Duc, built 181864-67. It is situated in a narrow valley some 6.5klms from the city and was designed by Tu Duc himself where he based on his design for his life use and his death use, concentrating on tranquility. There are about 50 structures here and you do forget this is a place of someone’s resting place & view it as a large botanical garden. There is a garden island where the Emperor would find true peace and his poetry and singing was placed in a theatre not far from it called Minh Khiem Duong. While there is a tomb here, Tu Duc’s true grave is not known. The 200 workers who created his true resting place were all beheaded so as not to disclose the place to grave thieves trade. A gruesome act in today’s term but probably usual back then. While he had some 104 brides, he never managed to record an offspring. The 20 tonne stone with the emperor’s own words were inscribed is truly amazing. This complete park and tomb took his 50,000+ soldiers to complete the main landscaping, canals & the like.

With such a large estate (12ha) it took a while to get to our next stop, Nha vuon Phu Mong (Garden House) where it is now managed by a very old lady carrying on what her, & her husband has created over some 50yrs. They built their home and started planting and creating. Certainly, a great effort and applauded results on all types of vegetation, fruits & herbs. The lady still remains in the house and is very pleased for strangers to enter the grounds with a monetary donation and take in the pleasures of nature. Today, local volunteers help with the labour in keeping to this large estate.

The next stop is Chua Thien Mu Pagoda, a Buddhist temple adjacent to the ‘Garden House’ estate. This pagoda was built on a legend where a ‘heavenly lady’ was sighted (named Thien Mu) & ‘saying’ a King would come. King Nguyen Hoang upon hearing of this began the construction in 1601 & it was later refurbished in 1665. The 7-storey pagoda is regarded as the unofficial symbol of Hue where basically the same number of visitors to The Citadel come to The Pagoda. The pagoda bears a more common title of ‘The Celestial Lady’. This location, mainly in the last century became the icon focal point of hunger strikes, protests and the like and Buddhism was being tested and slightly rebuffed by the region. Over time, this is now a more peaceful and respectful location.

The giant bell weighs in at 1,985kgs, cast in 1710. It is said it is audible some 10klms away therefore whoever rings it must be; or go deaf, surely? The large marble turtle greets all visitors at the entrance doors to the temple and represents the longevity of life, so it was touched by a lot of visitors of course. This is not the only time I had seen Great Turtles on display and each one a true marvel of artistry and detail and none of them ever disappoint in the viewing.

Climbing back onto the boat it was a pleasure to find a comfy seat and take in the last few kilometres of The Perfume River sights until we disembarked at The Citadel where everyone dissipated quickly without the customary good-bye or pleasantries. Not the first time I experienced this also. Again, I decided to walk across the bridge and to a further parallel street back towards my hotel for a well-earned hot shower and head towards the night spot again for more food and drink testing.

On this happier subject of remembering The Marble Turtle of peace and longevity I’ll end my Hue temple blog here and get ready for the next, more testing blog of The Vietnam War Demilitarise Zone, so stay tuned. Stay safe, happy & hopefully enjoy the photos and kick this COVID-19 & the vile vaccines back into history.

Thank you again for reading my blogs and I trust you will stay safe, happy & healthy for 2022 and for it to be a far better year for all. I do not receive any commissions &/or ‘perks’ from the above nominated businesses & locations as I am purely happy to provide the acknowledgement and connection.

I always look forward to seeing the feedback so don’t be afraid to comment. My next blog/s will be more of the amazing Vietnam experiences and quite a few were life changing, & not just for me.

Live life to the most and a quote that I truly love is from Eckhart Tolle ..

“If I am not the hero of my life … who in the hell could be?”

My Vietnam Launch – Ninh Binh & Beyond – 2018 Backpacking

My Vietnam Launch – Ninh Binh & Beyond – 2018 Backpacking

After a sad farewell to great people looking after me at the Hanoi Hotel Gratitude and knowing I may never get to see my favourite school student Julia (pls refer to previous blogs) for some years or possibly never who has been wonderful to start mentoring and monitoring her progress. Farewell Hanoi you have been superb.

My hotel’s valet driver with utmost precision wound around the congested streets to land me at the bus interchange for my bus journey (Hotel booked my trip $10USD) to Ninh Binh where it will be a 1 ½ hr drive (94klms) and with precious few minutes from boarding. Ninh Binh is the next tourism location South from Hanoi and that will be my direction for quite some weeks ending in Ho Chi Minh. Keep scrolling as you will discover there are lots of photos in this blog.

I didn’t get to view my fellow bus passengers with the time available as my large backpack was loaded into the trunk of the bus so I grabbed the first seat behind the driver with only a few travellers left to board. To my pleasure a Malaysian woman sat next to me and her daughter across the aisle. She was most vibrant and welcoming. Her name was Thilaga. Her daughter’s name I was unsure of (hard to understand) but I believe she was one of her twins, either Manjushri or Maanushri. She too, was most pleasant but quite shy.

With Thilaga’s enthusiasm the trip seemed like 5minutes. We talked non-stop and within 10mins Thalinga had connected me on facebook. What a wonderful human. I can’t even remember the halfway stop where we were able to see a disability workshop where the work was truly amazing. Such artistry. Again, on the bus, Thalinga & I chatted, and in a flash, we had stopped suddenly, and the Ninh Binh travellers were asked to depart. The language barrier kicked in and for some reason we were departing some 5klms out of town. Thilaga soon arranged for a taxi to take us into town. My hostel was one street off the main road so I was the first to be dropped off. I couldn’t thank Thilaga enough and we said good-bye both with huge smiles and continued our friendship on facebook ever since.

My hostel was called ‘Go Ninh Binh Hostel’, a revamped ex-railway station with the train line some 50m behind the building. It never dawned on me about the potential for train noise .. LOL!!! DER!! The train noise was enough but somehow for reasons unknown the train drivers always blew the loud horn at the station … probably historical or superstition reasons but that’s what can be expected at a railway station. Arriving at Platform 9 ¾ .. LOL!! I unpacked into their luxury private room they called it (private ensuite) where I am not commonly allowed to stay in communal rooms due to my age above 40. (hostel’s universal rules, I believe). With my age look, I could not say I was 39. Haha!

Due to being well before lunch I took to the hot weather streets of Ninh Binh where I walked some 5-6klms and sadly, found nothing but a plain, lazy unimpressive township and a large dilapidated lake being renovated by excavation equipment. Why the big thing about Ninh Binh? Upon my return and with a bit of heat stress I figured I asked reception what’s the deal on staying at Ninh Binh. The lovely young lady was most helpful by stating most travellers stay approximately 2 days and after seeing Tam Coc, a river rowboat through rice fields under a UNESCO heritage site. To get there I must hire one of their scooters at 100,000Dong, about $5.50 AUD for a full day. The last time I was on a scooter by myself was when I was 17yrs old … I hope it’s just like riding a bike .. pardon the pun?

Easy Rider .. LOL!!

So, with some trepidation, I scoffed down my brekky, studied the road map the young receptionist provided and headed S/West with my first test a busy traffic light intersection over a river crossing. Surviving that, I enjoyed the straight road and some very large roundabouts (7klms) to enter a quiet village and noticing the entrance and parking for the Tam Coc row boats. The entry fee was 270,000 Dong ($16AUD) where I was advised not to buy any goods (food & drink) from the ladies at the end of the ride plus not to provide any tip to the rower, usually a female as it is quickly handed over to the boat owners.

Your first task is to find a functioning and clean life jacket (mandatory wearing) and gamble on getting a good rower with some personality … well, I achieved a cleanish lifejacket, but it’s clear her name is ‘I’m Fine’. A see a sign which implies I must report rowers who use their feet while rowing to ensure maximum safety. Can’t see me dobbing people in .. it’s so un-Australian we call it .. unless it is extremely dangerous. We are under way & with no communication I was left in silence with no commentary to just look at the adjacent rice fields (the river, much like a stream is mainly 20m wide) and smile/ wave to passer-by canoes. Most people smiled & waved back. I noticed my rower is using her feet to row, plus I see others doing it so it is prevalent I’d say. TAM COC Photos below.

The only time my rower spoke to me (in Vietnamese) when it was obvious, we were entering a cave where I had best almost lie down to avoid hitting the roof of the cave & protruding stalagmites. It’s been a while since I was inside a cave and it was so serene, yet truly amazing with the light patterns and years of nature’s magic showing. If you suffer claustrophobia, you may well be challenged. There is not much room at all (height wise). We encountered 3 of these marvellous caves and with exiting the last one our canoe was besieged with several canoes of women trying to sell you food, drinks, etc. I thought I would never escape even while showing my daypack & drink bottle. Wished I had an oar/ paddle to either defend myself or start rowing. Finally, we headed back along the same route we came in, so it can be a long 2hr row course. The outer scenery past the rice crop was so amazing with high peaks of limestone, much like the Halong Bay islands. Mother Nature’s true glory.

I still had more hours left in my day and reading my map from the hostel I noticed there is a place called Mua Caves (4 on the map) not far away at 3klms. Winding through a small village, narrow road and almost getting rammed by a stupid, arrogant van driver I made it to the entrance. The trick here is to avoid the first person trying to enforce you to follow a sign and park there, when you can keep going right up to the entrance gate and park there at a much lower cost. The entrance fee if you followed my advice is 100,000 Dong ($5AUD). There’s a small cafe at the foot of the hill to climb and there I met a young newly married Netherland’s couple and we ‘enjoyed’ the 576 uneven steps up to the top, in between the huffing & puffing and it is best to take your time. It’s a challenge to get to the peak but truly worth it. Along the way is the Thai V1 Temple (Tiger Cave) and that is worth entering and make sure you enter all the way in otherwise you won’t think much of it. Look out for the miniature bats on the ceiling.

Getting to the top is called The Lazy Dragon (Lying down) where there is a dragon cement plaster model bolted to the jagged rock surface, approx. 25+m long and 3-4m high. Amazing to see. You can check out the photo showing you the stair route and the dragon just in view on the horizon. From this height you can see the panoramic view for miles 360° and it takes a while to see everything in view and take it all in. Looking down you can see Tam Coc row boat ‘river’ winding through and into the caves. What a view!!!

You have to be careful up here but always you see the idiots or the foolish in their antics. The rock surface is extremely harsh and sharp due to the rain erosion carving indents throughout the rock surface to razor sharp edges. You can easily cut yourself deep. The young couple stayed longer at the top so I allowed them their space and said safe travels and thanked them for their company.

Apologies for my shabby look with Ninh Binh in the far background. I’m now a backpacker with no-one to impress. I used to shave everyday back in Australia so I’m enjoying my new found freedom. Nearing the bottom of the stairs I met an English woman (58) & her daughter and I advised them of what the mountain climb offers, including the steps and what to look out for. They were very thankful and it wasn’t hard to find more communication. We discussed her recent Machu Picchu Peru trek and praised me for booking it. I’ll be doing this in 2019 with my eldest son, Scott where I can’t wait for March, the next year. At this time, a young athlete raced past us to our horror. He appeared to be Swedish and the humidity and heat was quite high. He returned much the same way, knowing he didn’t go to the peak but it was quite impressive to see that athleticism; obviously super fit.

By the time I reached the bottom, the young couple met up with me again and we sat and chattered further about our travels. They discussed locations for me heading South and I, for Hanoi, their next stop. Riding back to my hostel the traffic was more intense and crazier so more care required (peak traffic). I was so thankful I went to Mua Caves and survived the travels. I almost did a Pope thing & kissed the pavement when dismounting from my scooter.

There’s no food available at the hostel so you enter the street where there are a couple of family restaurants out the front of their homes. I chose the less promotional one advised by Tripadvisor as I felt for the family next door being ignored. I was extremely happy I chose Duc-Nhat, for more people joined me and the family took great care of me over my 3 days here. The menu was very good and so were the servings. So, loving and always gave me too much food to further impress on my ongoing custom.

After dinner I had a conversation with another receptionist & she said I should go to Trang An where she found it better than the more well-known Tam Coc. Again, I rented the scooter the next day and headed almost due West to Trang An for 6klms. What an amazing place and a far better setup than Tam Coc!! You have a choice of 3 different canal tours but each one provides walking access over Kong Island where the movie Kong- Skull Island was made (part of airplane and huts). I noticed the tourist buses mostly choosing route #1, so I chose #2 as the best option. Each boat tour was 200,00Dong, cheaper than Tam Coc. My problem was being a sole traveller where the cost was higher, so I waited for some 30 minutes before I could engage a young couple to share my boat. We had a great time together without imposing on each other, apart from getting the odd head, umbrella, etc in my other photos which happened all too often in a small row boat. Trang An photos below.

The 3 caves were more impressive and much lower at times than Tam Coc and it was beneficial of being able to walk onto Kong Island & the temple island for breaks in the 3hr journey. You can’t help but notice the clarity & stillness of the water. Utter peace surrounds you and you know you are walking and rowing on nature’s sacred place. It was like I was travelling in another world of tranquility. At the completion of a wonderful 3hrs, I was able to sit in the auditorium and watch a couple of promotional videos of Trang An & the region. The views were spectacular where drone views were used predominately to show the best of this region. In time, Trang Ang will take over Tam Coc as the prime venue, I’m sure.

Surviving yet another return bike ride I exhausted my stay at Ninh Binh & it was time to move on. My hostel doesn’t offer travel bookings so I had to venture across the street to buy my next bus ticket to Hue (Qway), the next major location to the South, some 11hrs away. I was strongly advised to book a sleeper bus for this type of journey. A train trip was far more expensive.  From here I was truly tested as you will follow.

A small car, like a Barina or little Fiat arrived around 6pm with 3 travellers already jammed in all with backpacks. I was pushed in amidst my backpacks and from there I could not see where we were going for some 15mins. We all exploded out of the tiny car to a street with a couple of cafes and lots of bus travellers waiting for their rides. From this, utter confusion!!! Bus valets had limited English and no-one knew which bus to board when they parked in the street. My car companions were going to Hue as well and they told me we have unknowingly been swapped on 2 buses since arriving, despite showing our tickets. 90 mins later, we were pushed onto a bus with others again left stranded on the footpath. The bus had 3 long rows of bunk beds (2 tiered high) and appeared fully booked. A local was ushered out to make way for me where I felt guilty but it was explained they ride free and must make way for paying travellers. The locals use a blanket to sleep on the floor in the aisles. So much for a sleeper bus, with managing only about 2 hours sleep to Hue.

At some point in the early hours of darkness and windows fogged up, the bus almost emptied with a mass exodus to a shady looking village. I was quite surprised and couldn’t find out why until I reached Hue. The exodus was to explore the Son Doong cave, the largest cave in the world & found by accident in 1990. It is located in the heart of the Phong Hna Ke Bang National Park out from supposedly Hoan Lao in the Quang Binh Province, some 500klms South of Hanoi. It then takes a 6klm trek through the rainforest after a bus to the park’s entrance. Quite a journey, to which I was not geared up for anyway. The cave is 9klms long and some parts open up to a 200m ceiling. Apparently, this is the major secret tourism journey I missed by not doing enough research. The cave is beyond words & must be on everyone’s bucket list.

After the longest bus trip known to man, I was dropped off at a street stop in the middle of ‘nowhere’, again with no commentary. You take everything as it comes during these travels .. to Google Maps it locates me just 3mins from my Holiday Hotel Diamond so a tut-tut scooter was the call & within minutes I was directed down a pedestrian lane-way some 75m, to a sign and shop front-type doorway of Hotel Diamond. I was greeted by a wonderful manager, Ms Anna who looked after me so well in handling everything I needed in Hue including an impromptu breakfast upon arrival due to the long bus trip of no food or drink. My room was superb and on the 5th floor but what took me to a greater surprise and much laughter was using the tiniest passenger lift I believe in the world. The floor size was a mere 600×1200 (2 persons or 1 person with backpacks). LOL!!!! Breathe in! I felt I was travelling in a food dumb waiter. 😊 A photo of the lift in my next blog.

Over the centuries Vietnam had a procession of capital cities and Hue was one of these so I’ll leave this blog here and compile the next one on Hue, The Imperial City (Citadel) and The Vietnam War Demilitarise Zone, so stay tuned. Stay safe, happy & hopefully enjoy the photos.

Thank you again for reading my blogs and I trust you will stay safe, happy & healthy, especially through this COVID-19 pandemic and for 2022 to be a far better year. I do not receive any commissions &/or ‘perks’ from the above nominated businesses & locations as I am purely happy to provide the acknowledgement and connection.

I always look forward to seeing the feedback so don’t be afraid to comment. My next blog/s will be more of the amazing Vietnam experiences and quite a few were life changing, & not just for me.

Live life to the most and a quote that I truly love is from Eckhart Tolle ..

“If I am not the hero of my life … who in the hell could be?”

My Vietnam Launch – Hanoi Revisited & Beyond – 2018 Backpacking

My Vietnam Launch – Hanoi Revisited & Beyond – 2018 Backpacking

This blog reminds me of a Pericles quote but I have put a slight twist to make it more personal/ relevant and hope it also resonates with you (reader). “What you leave behind is not what is engraved on your headstone, but what you engraved into the minds and lives of others”. I was blessed and rewarded with great parents, extended families (Aunts/ Uncles/ Cousins), life friends and mentors and hope that I may have been able to do the same to others along my life journey.

Settling back into my beloved Hanoi Hotel Gratitude after my Halong Bay Cruise and the overburden of food eating that should have lasted me for days I succumbed to a very light brekky of toasts with an egg and coffee. 10 course meal sittings are really pushing limits especially when mostly lounging around on a boat. In total it was 34courses of food over the 24hrs … I felt another 10kilos heavier and my clothes a lot tighter. LOL!!!!

This Hanoi day was classed as an easy chill out day with the most excitement in catching up with my young student Julia (17) who was ‘praying’ we would have a chance to meet up again and discuss more of her schooling lessons. She was thrilled with my ongoing mentoring and she was much like a sponge in holding onto every word I spoke and sent several texts to see if I was still in Hanoi.

I walked around the well-known French Quarter (Historical Centre) alongside the famous Hanoi city lake, Ho Hoan Kiem Lake, in perfect sunshine with plenty of time till Julia could join me. I did another pass-by of the impressive and historical Nha Tho Lon Ha Noi (Grand Catholic Church – 1886) and then headed to our favourite café, The Note Coffee. This café is West of the Den Ngoc Son temple which is located on its own island within the lake mentioned above. It is a very popular park area and this café is so unique with post-it-notes covered all over the walls from tourists around the world. I took a photo of my favourite one when Julia had her first smoothie and cake .. ever!! Such an experience and her first ‘brain freeze’ through the straw. A priceless memory.

Waiting out the front of The Note Café in pleasing sunshine was a young Vietnamese teenager greeting customers at the front steps. She was so welcoming you just had to enter the café and not walk past. We had a great chat in between her duties. She was so bubbly and repeated to me I must visit her home town next; Ninh Binh. She was so proud of it and said it was the next best stop heading South with major tourist attractions.

Julia has now arrived and limping badly towards me. Thankfully, I discovered she was not injured but now wearing her sister’s smaller shoes, as her neighbour’s dog mauled one of her only shoes on their verandah, the day prior. She was so relieved we went straight into the café so she could take them off. Julia was overwhelmed when she was granted another smoothie and cake while we discussed her studies and progress. Julia was well aware now of the ‘brain’ freeze effect and now confidently stating her progress on studies, breathing rhythms and feeling of a better understanding of her education. She is more impressive every time we meet up and I’m more than confident she will excel further into the future.

It was getting late and dark of night so I walked Julia to her bus stop a few blocks away. She was keen to start on the lessons I gave her while still on the bus. So amazed at her enthusiasm. Later that night she textd me with her answers and explanations of her lessons and she was thrilled she had completed them successfully and could understand the theory & practical aspects. I applied slight pressure to see if she is coming into the city tomorrow. She could only say “hopeful”.

After brekky, I walked the city streets being on a mission. First, I walked to the Historic Centre and proceeded along the lake, past The Note Café and again the vibrant usherette was out the front and recognised me from across the street, slightly yelling “Nihn Binh”!! I was so thrilled to see her again and couldn’t wait to walk through the traffic to confirm my hotel, Hanoi Hotel Gratitude, hadbooked my bus for tomorrow morning to stay at Nihn Binh and lodge at Go Nihn Binh, a hostel converted from an old railway station. She was so thrilled and wished me safe travels. She would call out to me every time I walked close to the café “Don’t forget Ninh Binh”!!! I will miss her and every time we talked, we were filled with joy and laughter, such that I never sought her name … I have no other reason for being so dismissive, so I’m left with the memory of her face and laughter. Mind you she didn’t seek my name either which probably confirms the previous sentence. I will also miss the other friendly effervescent people of Hanoi.

Google Maps was being a real pain today and kept walking me in circles. The inner-city streets of the Historic Centre have several streets dedicated to the one or two sets of merchandise. This includes the ‘Electrical Street’, ‘Linen Street’, ‘Appliance Street’, ‘Building Street’, etc and each street goes for blocks. If you can find the right street then you can save a lot of walking. For me, I had walked approx. 4-5klms extra so I’m so getting over it! .. just trying to find ‘Shoe Street’ & I was eventually successful without Google Maps assistance. I perused a few shops and took notice which shops I preferred.

It was near time to meet up with Julia so I took great notice of this street location so I can find it without the added trauma/ drama & headed off to near The Note Café/ roundabout where the road was now cordoned off for pedestrians only. There was a large crowd gathering on the roadway where a group of dance students showed their moves according to different songs on the stereo system. This was a joyous sight, seeing everyone enjoying this interaction spectacular. After a while I headed off towards Julia’s bus stop and soon found her limping again with her sister’s shoes cramping her feet. I explained to her I found something I wanted her to see and I pushed hard knowing she had about a kilometre of limping ahead of her. She eventually agreed so I took measures in dialogue to take the limping pain far from her mind. It mostly worked thankfully. When we turned the corner, she noticed the shoe shops starting and I said I have a couple of shops to show her. Julia was confused and then realised I was buying her a pair of shoes for her. She repeatedly hesitated and didn’t wish for me to spend more money on her (cakes & smoothies) but she ultimately knew I was always going to win. Best $13USD I had ever spent after she tried on several pairs. Julia was so over the moon and showed a few tears of sheer joy. She was happy to show them off for a photo and confirmed her feet were happy too.

Bouncing on her new shoes Julia was so excited to go back to The Note Café for cake, smoothie and to talk about life & education. She was so happy to put her sister’s shoes into the shoe bag. I think she might even sleep with her new shoes still on and said the dog won’t be getting these. We talked for ages and knowing not a second to spare. Julia was so happy but became solemn when she knew I was leaving Hanoi tomorrow. I was not one for leaving either but I have the rest of Vietnam to explore and manage the time required to do so. Julia will always be in contact with me so that is pleasing. Being so late I did not hesitate to walk Julia to her bus stop. A very sad goodbye followed and she joined her bus. A gentle wave and a wry smile followed. Julia remains in contact with me to this very day. How I wish to go back and catchup with her and see Hanoi & Vietnam again. She has changed so much when you see her photo below. Julia later excelled in her studies so much; she graduated at a higher level, a better school and to a level where she was granted a graduation in traditional dress. 2nd from left, white flowers suits her too.

I was almost back to my hotel when I remembered my laundry had not been picked up. Yikes!!! I hope the lady is still there? A huge U turn followed and I was totally aghast the lady was still there this late at night. She even remembered me too and went straight to a bag high on the shelf amongst, say a hundred bags and sure enough, the clothes were mine. She knew I was so grateful and her smiles were amazing, even before the extra cash I gave her. Such amazing people wherever I gaze.

Getting back to my hotel Maureen was all smiles too … confirming my departure to Nihn Binh with valet driver as well to the bus station. I’ll have to have a fast brekky to meet the timeframe but all is good. Maureen was pleased to upgrade my room as a new customer required my room later tonight. A valet even demanded he help me relocate. Certainly a great room .. but the TV wouldn’t operate. No big deal but thought I would let Maureen know for future maintenance. She was frantic on my message and kept apologising. I did not really need a TV but she would not hear of it .. within minutes I was relocated again to a wonderful room. The valet checked everything and rang Maureen to say all is perfect. The service was unparalleled and far beyond any expectations. Settling into the King size bed for a fast away sleep Julia texd me to say she arrived home safe, completed her education tasks and was off to sleep as well. I thanked her so much for her friendship, care, attitude and commitment and I think we both would have slept soundly after.

I was also very thankful in being able to thank Maureen face to face and wish her well, for she was on deck again on Reception the morning of my departure. She is an exceptional Manager & I told her so. Within minutes of that praise, the valet was picking up my backpacks and placing them in the car. It was now a rush to depart. Bon Voyage Hanoi Hotel Gratitude and Hanoi in general.

In stating the obvious, my next Vietnam blog will be on Nihn Bihn and surrounding area, and you will be most surprised on what I uncovered there.

Thank you again for reading my blogs and I trust you will stay safe, happy & healthy, especially through this COVID-19 pandemic and for 2021 to be a far better year. I do not receive any commissions &/or ‘perks’ from the above nominated businesses & locations as I am purely happy to provide the acknowledgement and connection.

I always look forward to seeing the feedback so don’t be afraid to comment. My next blog/s will be more of the amazing Vietnam experiences and quite a few were life changing, & not just for me.

Live life to the most and a quote that I truly love is from Eckhart Tolle ..

“If I am not the hero of my life … who in the hell could be?”

My Vietnam Launch – Hanoi Revisited – Bai Tua Long Bay Cruise – 2018

My Vietnam Launch – Hanoi Revisited & Bai Tua Long Bay Cruise – 2018

When I was in Cambodia, ending my 2 months of backpacking, I trusted my Hanoi Hotel Gratitude to book the best things to do in the Hanoi region and they didn’t disappoint, apart from the tour companies charging me the sole traveller fee which can be excessive .. more like extortion really. Sapa & Fansipan were amazing (refer to previous blogs) and now I have 2 days to revisit Hanoi after my Halong Bay cruise. Everyone does a Halong Bay cruise visiting this region but more are doing the Bai Tua Long Bay cruise due to less boats and people venturing there. Bai Tua Long Bay offers the same sights generally and the smaller number of boats is a real advantage, trust me. There is also less lining up & waiting to do the excursion jaunts but before I talk more of the cruise trip, I wish to start from my Hanoi departure, so please bear with me.

I had to awake early the next day so it was an early night for me to recover from my Sapa days and to catch the 8am bus to Halong Bay. The hotel certainly looked after me in this area. Another valet pickup to the bus but it was a blessing this time as I only needed my daypack so I was lucky the hotel stored my larger backpack for me until my return. Feeling a bit like royalty, really with this valet provision. Unlike my previous bus trip with 47 passengers, this trip only required a 12 seater Coaster bus, but the leg room was very tight and we were very cosy. Real cosy .. arrgh! To Halong Bay we travelled in a SE direction from Hanoi and a full 2.5hrs, with a stopover (170klms) at a half way point at a captive tourist gallery that was priced accordingly (to find an exit was difficult, hence the word captive) … Priced to rich Chinese tourists that is. Ouch!!! They had disability artists and sewers and other trades doing embroidery pictures, sculptures, paintings, etc and that was my standout point to see their amazing skills, but I knew of course these artists would be paid an absolute pittance to the goods sold.

With the stopover it turned out to be a 4hr trip and upon arrival at the Hong Gai Tourist Wharf, we literally exploded out of the van (packed tight) to a swarm of people (tourists), mainly Asians/ Chinese, all with no sense of any orderly fashion in keeping to groups. Organisers are yelling out in relation to the cruise ship names for boarding. The wharf follows the bay’s edge and is quite long, so the number of loading craft can be high in volume. These loading craft take you to the respective cruise ships anchored a few hundred metres off shore and then tied to the rear of the cruise ship for the bay journey after unloading the passengers.

Our ship was the Oriental Sails, and we were lucky quite a few other landing boats had already left the wharf so the drama was less erratic, but barely. In walking down, the numerous steps to our craft I heard a loud “Brian” coming from a few boats down. It was Robert & his wife from my Sapa 6klms trek the other day. They came running up to say “hello” and were thrilled to see me again, as I was to see them. We were just getting into a good conversation when we were both called to urgently go to our loading craft. Bummer!!! We never got to exchange our contact details. Bummer, again! To be recognised through this loading mayhem was amazing … or do I really stand out of the crowd for some unknown reason? LOL!

Our Oriental Sails cruise ship was moored close to shore so it was a very fast trip. Not worth putting on the safety water vest. Upon boarding we were ushered to the roof platform for our safety induction and welcoming and receiving our berthing keys to our respective rooms. The Captain was ‘quirky’ in his address to us describing the status levels of each room upon handing the keys out. My introduction was last of the groups and my room was the “President’s Room”, the high-end room. After this embarrassment I felt guilty having the palatial room, he called it and being a sole traveller too. Guilt elapsed quickly once I realised the money I paid for the berth and to be charged the Sole Traveller Levy imposed as mentioned at the start of this blog. This fee doesn’t miss its ouch level.

The Captain was forceful in demanding we settle into our rooms promptly and meet in the food hall so the lunch can get underway and he can set the course to the much further North Bai Tua Long Bay and to get through the mire of other cruise ships mooring in the closer Halong Bay.

My room, through the Captain’s introduction, was the only one fitted with an ensuite and it was most presentable too. Luxury abounds. Gathering into the food hall upstairs from my room, we were immediately seated, no chance of conversation. The table was in full dress and splendour. The Chef explained the meals coming and the time schedule for the other meal times and then he asked each of us (groups) to separately introduce ourselves and provide some commentary on our origins and backgrounds. I was relieved when my story was applauded loudly. I was the only Westerner too and my story being so different from my Asian travellers was obvious, really. The next shock was the 10-course serving for lunch! Yikes!! So much food! You cannot believe the high-level detail in the presentation of the food. You’d think you were in a palace or something!!

The ship started moving, we are under way. I found myself sitting almost central to the large dining table however the only connection I received was with a Malaysian family, parents with 2 teenagers sitting to my left. They explained each of the meals coming out and which were to try first. In all my Earth years I have never seen so much food brought out in a procession and each impeccable in presentation. How are they managing this on such a medium size 20berth cruise ship? The pressure was on to eat full and fast .. how can I stop this food rollout? .. I’m going to burst at the seams! I’m not a big food eater at the best of times and I’m already pushing my limit at course 6. Four more to go! There’s no escape … I’ll have to disguise my effort. So far, the plan worked, my new teenage friends were helping me out as well in between their moments of shyish laughter.

Finally course 10 had been extinguished … please just let me sit here .. I don’t feel the need to move. I feel like I have to be carried out. The Chef has come out to receive the obvious applause and was looking for total acceptance of course. That was the pressure placed upon him and his kitchen hands, no doubt. All is good, but he now insists we clear the chairs and re-sit ourselves up onto the roof deck and recover there, whilst his crew clear the room ready for dinner later on. OMG!!! Another 10course sitting. You’re kidding!! I can’t see myself surviving that!

The rooftop deck was in full sunshine, with most of the people taking the only shade shelter in the centre. I didn’t mind, I’m a sun person anyway, and the deck chair was just what I needed at the moment. My stomach, now overstretched .. just in need of a power hibernation. We had cleared the armada of other boats and were in open ‘sea’ amongst all the well-known carved out limestone islands jutting out of the bay waters like nature’s monuments of peace. The water is so clear and of a strong emerald to blue colour. The clarity was amazing!!!

After about 2hrs of cruise ship motor humming we slowed down and took anchor. Our guide calls us all together on the roof deck to explain our next adventure in seeing the newly proclaimed Marine Environment Park and its nature centre using the existing floating village of Cap De where some 260 villagers lived harmoniously with the natural environment. This village relocation took place in 2014 where they housed the villagers back onto the mainland to improve their living conditions. I truly wonder if that was the real case and had they really improved their living conditions and lifestyle. Surely, they would soon see they were robbed from the amazing nature’s beauty and fresh fishing, etc and the calmness of their paradise, now paid with the hustle & bustle of motorised calamity. Sometimes, the natives protect their environment better than Governments. The Government, now using the village restored 24 of the floating houses for tourism out of about 60 that were in existence.

Our guide explains our options of taking our own kayaks in pairs or take the tourist row boats under the control of the local mainland people, predominately rowed by ladies. With his reference to the sea breezes and swirling light water currents it may be a struggle for kayaking (4klm loop) so we all chose the mainland row boats after fitting our life jackets. Once on the water, the sea breezes stopped and noticed other cruise people of the other boats using kayaks … argghh!!!! It seemed like a ploy to engage the rowboats for more revenue. The kayaks were free I learnt later.

We circled the small island with the floating village in all its bright new paint colours, assuming the lifestyle accompanying village life. I had already witnessed a very large floating village in the inland lake, Tonie’ Sap … Cambodia, out from Siem Reap (previous early blog). Both villages were mostly self-contained with their own school, church, market & the like. Each house was small in nature, nothing too glamorous but obviously, served the required purpose. Their docks lined with all types of fishing gear, traps & nets.

Leaving the floating village, the rowers took us out to more of the open sea to another close uninhabited island with a sea arch carved and eroded over thousands of years or more. The arch was so low you felt the need to lower your head. Touching the stalagmites was forbidden as human body oils, even on fingertips can prevent the lime water from adhering to the tip, thereby preventing its growth downwards. Hitting one’s head on them can cause a very nasty gash and this must be avoided at all costs.

Our sea adventure was over in an hour which was perfect timing for returning to the boat and undertaking your preferred relaxation, unpacking and in readiness for the dinner onslaught fast arriving. I chose to unpack and securing another deck chair and revisiting my recent photos taken on my Samsung S7 phone. My backpacks could not afford the space for a SLR camera which was such a shame but one must be practical when your packing is on the heavy weight side. After boarding, the Captain started the loud diesel engines and steered the boat between two large peaks apparently to seek a secluded night spot quite some nautical miles away. When we just started to recline into our deck chairs our guide informs us, we are to explore a special island within the hour. While putting on our life jackets and forming a line we are instructed on the safety aspects forthcoming and that we will go inside a large cave and see a rare sandy beach.

With a short run in the tag boat, we could already see the Govt wharf and other berthing boats secured in place there. We were advised of the tight timeframe so we had best not linger. You had to be careful on the narrow steps and rock paths to a higher mid-level cave of the island peak amongst the other travellers. I noticed one of the groups had a very beautiful guide who spoke perfect English and very informative. She was gorgeous and very toned like a gymnast/ athlete. Apologies for the typical male comment but she was so much better than our guide in every way and our guide was almost silent so I trained my ear to her voice of knowledge.

The steps were quite steep and winding and the cave entrance was very unassuming but opened its glorious belly to a myriad of stalagmites of all different sizes and colours. What a hidden gem! It was the feeling of being within a snowball that sits on a child’s dressing table. The artificial lighting was done superbly without being over-done. Truly nature is wonderful when you see these magical sights. It was surprisingly difficult to take photographs too, so apologies, again. Walking back down the steps we are directed to another path that led you onto the sandy beach. Being Australian, where we are abundantly blessed with the world’s best beaches, it was a bit of a let down but I respected everyone’s comment of enjoying a rare sandy beach in Vietnam.

This 1hour excursion was soon over, alas, but the beautiful guide remained in our circle for most of it and made our excursion far better. I felt the need to thank her but respected her privacy, etc. Walking back to the wharf I had a dreaming moment of Robinson Crusoe on such a beach. LOL!!! Back onto the boat the Captain spent no time in getting underway, obviously the timeframe was critical in setting up for the night. We were given enough time for a shower and a change of clothes in readiness for those wishing to partake in the culinary of making authentic Vietnamese Spring Rolls. The table was full of volunteers so it was left to me to be one of the tasters to which I enjoyed immensely, although I was not inclined to eat more food really. The rolls were amazing! We were given an hour’s grace before we would be hit with Dinner; although I had no inclination of any hunger present of course. As if we really needed feeding! The food presented at dinner was tremendous and heavier in nature, compared to the so-called light lunch prior. Can’t seem to fathom why 10 courses is so necessary. Thankfully, I had my Malaysian teenagers to rescue me again. Funny, how all passengers retained their same seats, again with some refusing to communicate. Found this so bewildering. As you can imagine, the dinner was much the same as lunch with the overburden of food within my stomach. How am I going to sleep tonight?

After dinner, we were again ushered out for the clean-up and for those interested, the cruise personnel had a number of fishing poles ready for squid fishing. It was a good activity to overlook upon and hear the laughter and shrieks of squid sightings. No-one was lucky enough to catch one so that may have been a blessing too. My deck chair was a relaxing welcome when most had returned to their berth cabins. A neighbouring boat restarted and anchored further away. Its generator was abusing the peace & quiet in this sea wilderness. I suspect our Captain had told them to relocate. One could imagine the populated chaos of the more tourist boats in Halong Bay. Our resting anchor for the night was the centre of Bai Tua Long Bay and due East of Hanoi on the same Latitude so we had come a fair way North from the township of Halong Bay.

Being some 6m off the water surface on the roof deck, I had a clear view of the squid fishing and enjoying the warmer air but the minute it became not so, I returned to my cabin and surprisingly was fast asleep in no time. Was it the salt air or the complete knowledge of peace in this serene wilderness?

Luckily, I had set my alarm clock for the early morning rise to partake in the Tai Chi group activity, set for 7am start. The elderly gentleman, nearing 70yrs old I believe was excellent and I was amazed how controlled you had to be to achieve the fluidness of the moves and your breathing. No wonder the instructor looked 60, not 70yrs! At exactly 1 hour’s end, I was lathered in sweat (early sun had emerged in good form too) and noticing I seemed to be out of shape in fitness. All my recent trekking, I should be in very good fitness. I may be wrong by the looks of this event .. Go Figure!

As soon as the Tai Chi activity was finished the Captain raised the anchor & we started on our journey back to Halong Bay wharf area. Retiring to my cabin for a well-earned shower (my cabin was the only one with an ensuite, so I’m enjoying this part of luxury). I had to repack too in readiness for a mid-day departure. Breakfast was a full on 4 course meal … Oh .. my stomach!!! Someone will have to help me depart & board the tag boat and into the van bus, I’m sure!

With my packing and shower duties completed I ‘hastened’ up the stairs to the roof deck to say ‘good-bye’ to the giants of lime peaks we pass. You can’t help but be connected to these wonders. The silence was broken when we were scurried into the Dining Room .. thinking of a quick de-briefing and then departure, now that we are anchored into Halong Bay amongst the myriad of boats of all sizes. OMG!!! Lunch is now in session … another 10course meal!!! I won’t fit into our van bus to Hanoi now!  A wrap or small hamburger would have done just fine … I’ve never eaten so much … & in a short period of time. Each food setting, I was in such awe I had forgotten to take photos to prove this over-indulgence. Surviving the lunch onslaught, I said good-bye to my fabulous Malaysian family and for their total embracement of this lone Aussie traveller and I re-issued this good-bye again upon our landing departure on the mainland. Unfortunately, I was unable to spot Robert & his wife from the other boats so I had to board the van, eagerly awaiting departure for the 4hr return trip to Hanoi & thankfully I gained a good comfortable seat.

For some reason, the return trip only took 3hrs, with a 20minute stopover which allowed me to receive a very warm re-welcoming from Hanoi Gratitude Hotel & to drop off my laundry to a very pleasing lady in a side street in Hanoi. They are so grateful for EVERY business walking in the door. I also managed to find a shop that repaired my glasses and under a lot of protests by him, he refused any cash from me. So in love with the people, I am meeting here.

I’ll leave this blog here to start my Hanoi revisited & to find my next location afterwards in my upcoming blog.

Like my previous blog on Sapa/ Fansipan I wish to dedicate this blog to my youngest brother, Rod taken by a severe Cardiac Arrest 4yrs ago at just 54yrs. It’s his birthday today 22nd May. Scotch tonight to celebrate his life with us.

Thank you again for reading my blogs and I trust you will stay safe, happy & healthy, especially through this COVID-19 pandemic and for 2021 to be a far better year. I do not receive any commissions &/or ‘perks’ from the above nominated businesses & locations as I am purely happy to provide the acknowledgement and connection.

I always look forward to seeing the feedback so don’t be afraid to comment. My next blog/s will be more of the amazing Vietnam experiences and quite a few were life changing, & not just for me.

Live life to the most and a quote that I truly love is from Eckhart Tolle ..

“If I am not the hero of my life … who in the hell could be?”

My Local Aussie Escape – Shoal Bay & Newcastle Region NSW 2021

My Local Aussie Escape – Shoal Bay & Newcastle Region NSW 2021

Just in case you were wondering where I’ve been hiding these past months, in not uploading more travel blogs I have finally managed to sell our house (my brother & I) in Northern Gold Coast, just north of the Theme Parks in Queensland and relocated some 300klms South, close to my hometown of Grafton in a seaside village called Yamba. This was no easy feat if you knew the background to this and to ‘downsize’ from an enormous house to a smaller rental property to search for our new abode, whatever that will be. The move required several trips, mostly in the teeming rain & lots of it and it was all done by myself & my brother. We were bone soaked so many times. Relocation brings a few challenges but I’ll endeavour to catchup and find my new routine and/ or purpose in a much smaller community. Yamba brings me closer to my family of cousins and holiday friends plus the amazing six beaches and the Clarence River (The Big River).

Months prior to selling the house and with our Ireland trip cancelled last year (2020) we, (an ex-gf & I) arranged, due to no international travel due to COVID we sought out a more local Aussie trip through my association with Wyndham Resorts and with great luck we scored a 2 week escape to Shoal Bay/ Wyndham/Ramada Hotel for April 2021. These resorts are booked well in advance so to get a rushed holiday apartment is like winning Lotto when successful. I was able to book 2 solid weeks too in the one apartment without having to swap rooms.

The main purpose for this escape is for my ex-gf to get away for a break and a complete chill out seeing her holidays were always a long way off and restrictive. With being in Yamba, NSW In March 2021 I was able to catch the local 380 bus to Grafton ($6AUSD) to be picked up the next day after I spent a sleepover at one of my favourite cousin’s place where it is always a great catchup & company and we throw in a superb pub dinner meal too. Bus travel is required now that I don’t possess a car .. yet.

From Grafton to Shoal Bay is about 5hrs road trip travelling 100klms/hr due South on the new divided and upgraded Pacific Hwy. Such easy travelling now on this uninterrupted roadway (most towns are by-passed). We broke the trip at Port Macquarie and in this case, wasted time & effort. Worst coffee EVER!! Yuk! Travelling further South we took the first off shoot (Medowie Rd) towards Nelson Bay skirting Salamander Bay/ Soldier’s Point first & then Nelson Bay to the neighbouring Shoal Bay, a very quiet bayside village. You have to travel slightly further South East to Fingal Bay to get a full ocean look.

Checking in to Shoal Bay Wyndham Ramada was a breeze and receiving the 1st floor bay views with balcony. The Ramada also incorporates The Shoal Bay Country Club (SBCC) which is the prime dinner/ coffee & nightlife spot for this area. It has a great setup and always quite busy, especially at night time and public holidays. We are central to this little commercial area.

Watching over the quiet bay with sailing vessels moored haphazardly you instantly get a sense of calmness. Notice the straight lines of the night lighting off the headland in one of the photos. Lots of elderly people live here and a significant quantity of young families come here to visit, as it offers the best walking areas and sandy areas and gentle swimming for toddlers and the like. It is the perfect spot for walking or fitness activities. Property here is quite valuable adjacent to the coast and most of the beach shacks have disappeared by replacement, although a few blocks back from the bay they still exist and a few are under major renovation.

Shoal Bay is only 2.5klms wide from the Nelson Bay Lighthouse (Nelson Head) in the West and the Eastern headland supporting the old World War 2 naval defence rock forts at the ocean entrance, just passed the Tomaree Lodge on Tomaree Head. Tomaree Lodge is a vacated nursing home now used to accommodate a few Parks workers, etc managing the Tomaree Parklands (National Park). This 2.5klms stretch allows a full pathway for walkers and cycle riders along the water’s edge with outdoor bench seating & tables to use. If you look closely at times, you can see pods of Bottlenose dolphins and porpoises, coming close to shore. Nothing seems to disrupt them, even with the splashes from swimmers and toddlers enjoying the 100mm bay waves. Surfs up!! Lol.

Unfortunately, the best attraction here is the Tomaree Summit Walk at the headland which is a Gradient 3 trek (Medium) to walk up and look back to a 360° view, mainly to Fingal Bay & Nelson Bay/ Salamander Bay. This walk is barricaded now due to the enormous volumes of rain this region experienced from January to March this year. Over a metre plus of rain water fell here in short bursts causing major erosion, land slippage and tree ‘avalanches’. One photo here shows the volume of water that came from behind and entered the Lodge sheds, smashing the doors out below the Tomaree Summit Walk. Not sure when this walk will re-open as it will take major restoration. I was looking forward to wearing my trek gear again and walking the trek frequently and to take the off shoot down to the War Bunkers on the other side (ocean). To keep our exercise going we walk around 5-6klms each day but it’s not that motivating walking virtually the same coastal path and suburban streets. It also serves the purpose of filling in the day.

Weekends and public holidays are exceptionally busy here and parking is a premium along Shoal Bay Road but keeps the ‘entertainment’ in car & people watching. Are you getting the drift of how quiet it can get? We are balcony viewing for any action. Lol!! Major shopping is done in Salamander Bay (Mall Shopping) and a slightly lesser street shopping in Nelson’s Bay. My Uncle Don lived his best retiring years here at Soldier’s Point Caravan Park and he loved the people and area fondly. He would walk across the road to play his beloved lawn bowls and win the odd meat raffle. Sadly, I never got to visit him here and cook up his meat winnings.

Over the days we are both struggling in what to do to keep active. You can only sit around and read, sunbake and write travel blogs for so long. We are using every opportunity to have good dinners and sometimes that is eating out which is a bit limited here. My sit-in friend cooked up an amazing Salmon meal on a Sweet Potato base one night, purchasing the goods from Salamander Mall. Yummo!! Our apartment only has a kitchenette so it’s a bit of a struggle and you have to be very careful not to set off the fire alarms here or your holiday becomes extra expensive. The Fire Brigade call out is around $1,250.

These apartments retail around $160 on a good deal to the normal $300 a night, depending upon bedroom numbers, season peaks & off-peaks, etc. Belonging to The Wyndham Group my room averages out at around $127/ night all up taking in the formula but I don’t shell out this cost every time, as I’m an “Owner” whereby I have paid over time to get 33,000 points annually. This holiday takes 29,750 of my points. My left-over points accrue for a max 2 yrs. Come this September I get another 33,000 points to book further time away. I do have a monthly levy to pay for apartment maintenance costs, etc though, but it ensures I have holidays & good ones too.

One day we decided to travel to Newcastle CBD river & ocean foreshore for a walk around. The trip via the coast road is only 63klms/ 1 hour away so not too hard. Just before entering the true Newcastle, we crossover 2 bridges and transverse along the wharf setup showing enormous loading plants for grain & coal. Ocean tankers and the equipment were huge!! The Newcastle Coal wharf is the largest coal export terminal in the world so it is impressive.

Getting into the CBD was so easy compared to other major cities. We found free parking at the headland and walked most of the headland walk along the mouth of the Hunter River where the giant coal and grain tankers enter & depart. We were walking into a strong headwind and the temptation was to great, so we took the easy option at the half-way mark and returned for a well-earned coffee break and a late breakfast. We walked about 2klms all up just to find a decent sunny outlook café and that was found high on the road opposite Newcastle Beach at the Estabar Café on Shortland Esplanade.

We walked around after for about an hour, saw nothing special, apart from the Light Rail Infrastructure and surprisingly we headed back to Shoal Bay seemingly slightly unimpressed on the lack of attractions. We were back by 1pm. Go Figure! Newcastle is basically a very large town .. not a city in the full statement.

After a few more days of lounging, I thought I would give my friend a few days grace for her own space and chill out time. It can be quite confining in an apartment. I was hoping I could meet up with another cousin living in Newcastle but that was not meant to be. On Thursday (our 6th day), I booked an inner-city hotel (not cheap either of course) and caught a 2pm connecting bus right out the front of the Wyndham Ramada and it dropped me off at the Newcastle Interchange for a miserly $6, 90mins later. I walked 100m and travelled the Light Rail for 2 stops as my Clarendon Hotel was located adjacent to the Civic Station which is the city council sector and the Civic Theatre. The bus & rail have a credit card system, tap on/ tap off which is fantastic and easy but the locals use an Opal Card for regular use. My Light rail cost was $1.. Wow!

Thursday night, after check-in I went walking for food and a quiet beer. I walked West as nothing was showing up on Google Maps so it was virtually flip a coin decision. My 2nd Eldest son, Matt, rang whilst walking and still found nothing in the 25mins I spent on the phone. It was a great chat, thanks Matt. I finally found a place after walking through some unlit streets (mugging paradise I think) somehow finding my way back to a place when Matt first phoned. I did a large loop coming to rest at The Newy Burger on Hunter St, a hundred plus metres from my Clarendon Hotel. I took the hint and entered and ordered a very spicy Southern Fried Chicken Burger with a beer. The beer schooner was just enough to quell the fire and spice of the chicken.

The next morning, I figured heading East to get the morning sun and surely there will be a brekky café nearing the beach area. It’s a normal business day and surprisingly, there is hardly a soul about .. is there another COVID lockdown I don’t know about? Nearing the beachside I only found one café well occupied but the cold wind tunnel affect and lack of direct sun warmth was not for me. I kept walking further up the steep hill to the South … & came across the same café my friend I spent at a few days prior (Estabar) but wanted to see what the next-door café was like; plus, they had better seating on the footpath dining.

I certainly wasn’t disappointed. What a great café, Liquid Gold Beach Café was. Exceptional staff and service and the most heavenly coffee I have had for ages .. & I mean ages!!! They were so helpful too in explaining the local area setup and facilities. The Acai Bowl was also excellent. Well worth the visit. They are located on the street above Newcastle Beach called Shortland Esplanade.

Walking further South along the coast pathway I saw much more of the aggressive coastal waters and rockcliffs from a high view of about 100m, several parks and nature areas protected by the local council. Below the roadway the council is reclaiming more of the ocean rockshelf for more community activity and access and construction is well underway. Keeping to the coast road I came across the Memorial Walk (Anzac Memorial Bridge), a sky elevated bridge pathway linking up the next headland. It was dedicated to our World War 1 Veterans. The walkway was opened the eve of Anzac Day 24th April 2015 and coinciding with the opening of the Newcastle BHP Steelworks in 1915. A lot of people gather daily to view the ocean on this walkway and you get a great view of the city scape and over to the tanker wharves to the North and the surfing beach below. I showed some viewers the pod of some 30+ dolphins below where it was a case of people looking .. but not really seeing all the beauty below.

I was after a good shopping centre for some purchases I desperately needed (not much available in Yamba), so I kept walking South & turning right into Parkway Av towards Junction Fair, being the closest according to my phone map. This is an upmarket area with very large houses and as you can see in a photo, I came across a replica style Mexican House, complete with mounted cannons, window barriers, a very large typical Mexican door and a lot of security to boot. I sneaked a photo out of camera range in case I was found out. This house was a stand-out, like a red flag and so different to any other street houses.

Junction Fair turned out to be another satellite shopping centre with nothing much to offer. My next attack would be to venture further out into the suburbs so I screened the nearest bus station and picked the route to Charlestown via Kotara. My luck returned when the bus pulled up outside the Kotara Westfield Shopping Centre. Now this is more like it!!! I spent hours here, having a well-earned lunch, buying some essential goods and writing more of my blogs relaxing and people watching. Sitting down, a very old man was struggling with his walking cane and trying to put his foot long Subway into his shopping bag. It seemed obvious he was going to store this at home & for future meals. He was short of a good meal and you could tell he was doing it tough. I offered my table and he was most gratified for the assistance. I tried several ways to buy him a coffee or similar but he was most proud, so I respected that and didn’t want to over force my gesture and he left with a very gracious smile.

Again, I caught the bus back to Newcastle CBD and seeing the former Newcastle City Council building structure (round white building) I decided to get off earlier than expected. Walking about 2 blocks to my hotel I walked past a unique place called the Foghorn Brewing Co. Yay! .. I have found tonight’s eating place, not far from my hotel. I checked back into my room and unloaded my daypack and sat back for a quick recovery and then ventured back to the Foghorn Brewery (Newcastle’s only on-site brewery eatery).

I arrived at peak time and it was completely full. Buzzing! Within a few minutes, a vibrant young lady, Halle appeared and instantly I was most welcomed. She arranged for me to share a high table with other diners and showed me how this place operates and menu choices. She was superb and kept checking on me through the night. In her break she spent time with me, talking about anything plus my travel experiences. We just clicked!! It was fantastic to see such a young person (18) being super-efficient, thoughtful, vibrant and doing such a wonderful job, especially when the place was packed. She even thanked me for my time and said good-bye when her shift was over. We could have talked for hours. Halle loved my Wobbly Chook Brewing Co T shirt I was wearing too. I’m sure the other staff and managers saw my cousin’s brewery T shirt too. It will open in July this year. I even provided my super feedback of Halle and the brewery to the Foghorn website the next morning I was so impressed. I was basically the last to leave the premises too.

The next morning, I checked out of the Clarendon Hotel and had brekky at The Blue Door Café in the adjacent arcade whilst families were enjoying the pop-up putt-putt venue with Disney characters. Such a great family outing. Caught the Light Rail again to the bus interchange and waited for my Shoal Bay/ Fingal Bay 130 bus to get me back there around noon. My friend did miss me but enjoyed the serenity of clear space for those 2 days and I could tell she was much more relaxed. It usually takes a week plus for anyone to start unwinding from their working life.

The rest of our stay was easier and I spent more time at the SBCC to hang out, people watch and travel blog. We came to the decision to return to Grafton earlier to enable my friend more time to get things sorted at her home. It didn’t bother me as I had no urgency to be anywhere. We broke our road trip at Bulahdelah and the breakfast and coffee at Café on Main, Stroud St, was absolutely divine with most of the good’s home grown or baked. A scrumptious brekky and coffee and of course I ventured back into the shop to pass on our applause to which the staff humbly accepted. Country people are just so pleasant.

It was an easy trip back in sunshine which was the complete opposite of our journey down in teeming rain. We got to see so much more from the highway. Before long we were back in Grafton and was dropped off at Market Square in the main Street, Prince Street for the Yamba 380 bus. I had to wait an hour so I perused the local market stall in Market Square. I noticed my Yamba neighbour doing her honey stall there as well. Her stock seemed to have sold well.  My bus awaits and this time it cost me $2.50. Bargain!

I’ll leave this blog here, now that I arrived safe at my new rental Yamba home. I’ll start to upload my next blog of my two Sapa Vietnam treks next.

Thank you again for reading my blogs and I trust you will stay safe, happy & healthy, especially through this COVID-19 pandemic and for 2021 to be a far better year. I do not receive any commissions &/or ‘perks’ from the above nominated businesses & locations as I am purely happy to provide the acknowledgement and connection.

I always look forward to seeing the feedback so don’t be afraid to comment. My next blog/s will be more of the amazing Vietnam experiences and quite a few were life changing, & not just for me.

Live life to the most and a quote that I truly love is from Eckhart Tolle ..

“If I am not the hero of my life … who in the hell could be?”

My Vietnam Launch – Hanoi, Sapa & Fansipan – 2018

My Vietnam Launch – Hanoi, Sapa & Fansipan – 2018

There are a lot of photos in this blog and in looking back will be one of my favourites so hopefully you will enjoy the blog & the photos? Engraved deep in my heart. Look out for my heaven photo too. There’s more story after the photos.

A whole new adventure awaited me after my very early buffet brekky at The Hanoi Gratitude Hotel www.hanoigratitude.com in Hanoi; and at my very last bite my limo driver was fast arranging my backpacks for the journey (much like a thief in the night he was so quick) to the bus station for my 4-5hrs trip (315klms) to Sapa in NW Vietnam, very near the Chinese border. Everything is so punctual & efficient at this hotel.

My driver dropped me off at an empty corner block somewhere in Hanoi .. no bus station … but there’s quite a few travellers here so this surely must be the place for boarding. Two young ladies caught my eye & they both said ‘Hello’ & started talking. They were both from Sydney .. Go figure! Just a few metres away a very gorgeous blonde kept looking at me .. I thought OK? What’s out of place (my self-consciousness). She kept looking away & showing some shyness, I guess. I couldn’t approach her as the conversation was full-on with the Sydney girls. Finally, our bus arrived (Sapa Dragon Express .. sometimes called “The Green Bus” .. painted full green obviously) and we all boarded; but it took a while as we had to take our shoes off & put on supplied thongs (flip flops) as part of the custom the driver said .. I think it was more to keep his bus cleaner, really. The Sydney girls took the very back seat while I took the very front single seat as I like to look where I’m ‘driving’. The gorgeous blonde sat immediately behind me (winner!). I said ‘hello’ & she smiled back. Later, I offered her some of my snacks but she declined. Hmmm!! Plus, she had her music buds in her ears so I’ll let her off .. for now.

We realised the bus was running late when the driver started using the accelerator hard and with very little braking, and overtaking everything in the dual lanes. He also was on the phone a lot and I thought on the odd occasions I could literally see horns coming out of his skull like the devil himself. Much like Steve Martin driving between two semi-trailers in the Planes, Trains & Automobiles movie. LOL!! I most definitely will be kissing the ground once we arrive. The highway was very impressive (dual roadways and well-constructed). It took us a little over 4hrs and the worst part was the scary, awful winding, rutted and very steep road when we turned off from Lao Cai (City right on the Chinese border) to Sapa. It had rained heavily the night before making the journey even more precarious. Almost got bogged too. We had left Hanoi at 16m elevation to Sapa at 1,500m (4,921ft) above sea level so it was certainly a climb & mostly after Lao Cai with their elevation of just 90m above sea level.

We arrived at Sapa’s city roundabout in the middle of the historic centre, adjacent to the Catholic Church with its unique stone belltower. The Sydney girls yelled “WOW!! it’s just like Peru!!!” which opened my eyes further into the surrounding building landscape and seeing the local Tibetan style children in costume ready for us tourists and dollars for photographs and simultaneously thinking of my Peru trip planned for next year with my eldest son. At the same time the beautiful blonde was quickly ushered away by a local (homestay pickup I think) so that ruined any further connection. I was left to Google Map my hotel, somewhere NW of the church but the Sydney girls had already arranged for a taxi & said my hotel is on their way. It was a tight fit for all the bodies & luggage, but we managed; like sardines in a tin. We certainly didn’t expect the steep highly rutted and very tight streets (mostly one-way streets, so there are no short cuts) where it would be far better if the taxis were 4wheel drive or Hummer-type vehicles. Worn out by the constant rough travel I arrived at my hotel, The Viet Flower https://www.booking.com/share-wOE15M

Hoan (Hon), provided the most enthusiastic welcome!! Due to the bus lateness, Hoan rescheduled one of my treks for tomorrow and said, once I unpack into my room it would be best if I undertook the Fansipan and start that experience straight away by 3pm, but I must hurry. My room was excellent too & found it instantly comfortable. Post blog: I found out when leaving Sapa, Hoan (Hon) also likes to be called John .. LOL!! Now that would have been handy to know prior. John normally works 10-12hr days running the hotel 7 days a week. An amazing Superhuman and so very good at what he does. He will have a holiday but not sure when or where. Some bookings in Vietnam do impose a sole occupancy levy by travelling alone so make sure of your charges as they can be significant. I have found this out on 2 occasions so far.

With a 30seconds overview from Hoan, I was ushered into a taxi and a 9klm trip up to another steep elevation slightly West of Sapa to Fansipan; the highest mountain in Vietnam & also in the Indochinese Peninsula (Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia) with its nickname “The Roof of Indochina”. I noticed the road was very new and well-constructed so that was quite surprising. From a large carpark the driver pointed down the slope (closed off ‘street’) between new building structures with a huge smile. There is only one way to walk so his direction was clearly understood. Haha! Hoan told me to buy my gondola tickets straight away and view this building section later. With virtually no people around it took me a while before I could figure out the ticket booth location. Surprisingly, I found a few English signs which was helpful & timely. They even had tickets for the Funicular train if needed which I thought was not needed and with so little info on it anyway.

Walking through the enormous automatic glass sliding doors I was taken aback by the amazing setup of the Sun World gondola cars and the size of them (35person capacity), the wire cable (Triple cable design) & wheelhouse https://fansipanlegend.sunworld.vn/  A very large sign above stated “Highest car height 1,410m above ground & the longest gondola ride of 6,292.5m by Guinness World Records”. These figures came to a frightening reality the instant my car left the platform!!! “SHIT”!!!! It instantly became a free-fall view of some hundreds of metres (instant vertical view drop). My body tightened in all areas, trust me!! I was the only one in the car so any anxiety was unnoticed and then it struck me! If the car became stuck, where or how would the rescue be undertaken; and if I’m alone I’ll be left to eat my own arm when hungry. Thoughts in your mind .. hey?

Gradually getting custom to the sheer height of some 1,410m (never to jump out of a plane like all of my 3 sons) my camera finger started and the scenery was beyond words!!! I couldn’t take my eyes away from these glorious scenes. I could only use my Samsung S7 camera phone due to weight & storage limits (no SLR Camera & lens) when backpacking so I’m praying my photos will turn out.  Fansipan has about 4-5 vegetation elevation levels with Acacia trees of a thousand years old being the main hiking attraction.  Rice, etc are grown on the lowest levels. I noticed it was getting somewhat colder too, remembering Hoan’s overview where the weather can change in the blink of an eye. Some 20mins in the cable car I believe, I landed at Fansipan Mtn “Base Camp” where the first signs I read was “Welcome” and then numerous high altitude warning signs and safety measures to deal with this altitude. I had already noticed the thin air & air-intake difference. This is my first experience with High-Altitude so I made sure I took all the advice in and sat at the nearest bench seat for a good 5mins or so to be accustomed and give my lungs and heart some climatization time.

Next second, I realise I’m deep within the clouds and the magic of such, began a mind-blowing adventure in what is called “Heaven’s Gate” … of course. In and out of the drifting clouds I noticed some enormous new structures of temples and pagodas, set in the old style. How in the hell (excuse the polar components, for I’m in the heavens remember) did anyone build such enormous structures & monuments on such a demanding mountain? The scale of such is incomprehensible! Once the clouds drift away you are in complete full-on sunshine and sky blueness. From the wheelhouse you take in all the religious ambiance noticing the temples, extra-large bronzed toning bell and other worshiping structures with the instant calmness (high-altitude demands calmness too). With the clouds drifting in and out more amazing things are exposed, but you become aware of the limited time available. The mountain ‘closes’ around 5.30pm so I had best get moving … safely.

Past the sacred bell another sign warns you of your health management & rest stops needed; for it states 636 steps to the mountain top. What!! 636 steps!!! I instantly remember the countless thousands of steps I took undertaking the Cambodian temples (earlier blogs). I can do this!!! From this sign the Funicular train (2 carriages) starts its climb to the top … but I’m more determined to use my leg power & hope my heart & lungs enables me to transverse to the top under my own steam. I’ll figure catching the train downwards if need be. The next level provides me with the inspiring 20m high Buddha throwing out its amazing aura!! The photos go from a misty ghost appearance from below to a full sun shot standing in front looking up and then more mist seeing it from above. The photos do not do it justice!! This Buddha is the largest in Vietnam and I can’t believe how it could be constructed up here & that also complies to the gondola structure too with about 6 towers soaring above the various mountain ridges. Being a limited number of towers, that equates to about 1klm apart for each. Mind blowing cables over that length plus the weight. Hence, the triple cable design.

OK .. one step after another … the air is so thin … Yay!!! There are landing points with bench seating. They are most welcomed during this incline. On one landing I took a photo of the Buddha below misting out of the clouds in all its aura. Such a vision. Powering on for I don’t know how long I finally made it to the top where there are a few enormous timber decks, various flag poles and a stainless-steel cap with a giant Vietnamese flag placed on Fansipan’s highest point with its name and height heavily engraved. This cap & flag is barricaded off to the public but are compensated by having a few replica monuments for close photographs scattered on the decks. Of course, you can’t stop the disrespectful idiots. One idiot was within my presence & climbing over the barricade. I was about to take stern action but a local Ranger beat me to it although the idiot ultimately got my full eye & disgust face look. Such disrespect. My selfie with the cap became one of my profile photos. How could it not be so? On the timber decks there are, what my laymen term would be, Rhododendron Bonsai trees (Vietnam Heritage Trees) in very large pots. Obviously, some centuries or decades older than me. Not much grows at this height so these trees have lots of patience … in keeping with the Buddha below, I’m thinking.

It was time to descend & I walked down about 20 steps to board the Funicular train but alas, I was informed I had to buy my ticket below. Arrgh!!! OK, another 616 or so steps; just another challenge. Surprisingly, I found this ‘trek’ far easier. Go Figure! Walking down, out of the blue a moth flew around my face and then landed near my foot (wings spread on landing). It was the only sign of life I saw amongst us humans & vegetation on the high stairway beyond heaven. The moth remained still, so I sat down and placed my hand partially around it (Photo). I have never seen this happen before. I found that so incredible, and like I had a silent conversation with it. I eventually, & somewhat reluctantly said good-bye to my new found moth friend and walked down to several levels where I indeed saw heaven. My photo surprised me … I felt so connected and without hesitation I said “Hello Rod” to my youngest brother, who we lost suddenly the year before in 2017, aged just 54. I felt so happy, yet so sad instantaneously. I felt cradled .. and it was so difficult to continue down the several hundred steps whilst also knowing I was losing daylight and time for the gondola return. This photo became my laptop screensaver shot. In 2019 a photo expert assessed my photo and his comment was it is the closest photo of heaven he had seen to date. What do you think? Thank the heavens for not riding the Funicular train for I would have missed such love & life memories. Maybe everything happens for a reason?

With 636 steps done so easily downwards (stamina wise) I clambered into my private gondola car (hardly any public people here now, just workers finishing their day) and descended the 20minute ride ‘alone’ … I think Rod was still with me. I was so blessed in this opportunity and experience I had to share with someone, so I face-called my daughter, Kate back in Australia. She was so thrilled to see the live pictures of the landscape below plus my description of Fansipan too. I told her about my moth friend and she said Google The Moth/ Butterfly & see their spiritual meaning. It replicated my experience of Rod, etc. Freaky, Hey? https://www.sunsigns.org/moth-animal-totem-symbolism-meanings/  Shame my other children didn’t answer my face calls to share this precious life event. Kate told me the Moth also comes towards light and that may have been me. Sounds good & comforting.

Walking back up the vast empty concrete ‘street’ to hail a taxi I was amazed at the new infrastructure around me. I had longer to look, as there were no taxis at all and everything appeared deserted. After about 40mins, feeling stranded I rang Hoan & he arranged for his cousin’s taxi to pick me up but he said it would cost me 100,000 Viet Dong ($4.20AUD). So cheap, but I paid him more. I later read some people complained about the clouds on Fansipan being a nuisance & a feeling of being ripped off .. but really, that is the magic and special ambience to embrace everything Fansipan displays. Without doubt the most amazing 2.5 hours of EVERYTHING!!!!

I was so much on a high when I saw Hoan and couldn’t thank him enough for this life experience and also couldn’t wait for dinner & to talk to whoever sat at my table. I slept extremely well too and that was a good thing as I was booked to start my 12klm Linh Ho – Lao Chai – Ta Van Trek from the hotel the next day & my 6klm trek the day after which will leave me to write another blog soon on the 2 treks. I will leave this blog in the hope you have enjoyed some of the feelings I had reliving my Fansipan experience and hope you will get some family/ spiritual connection from it.

Thank you again for reading my blogs and I trust you will stay safe, happy & healthy, especially through this COVID-19 pandemic and for 2021 to be a far better year. I do not receive any commissions &/or ‘perks’ from the above nominated businesses & locations as I am purely happy to provide the acknowledgement and connection.

I always look forward to seeing the feedback so don’t be afraid to comment. My next blog/s will be more of the amazing Vietnam experiences and quite a few were life changing, & not just for me.

Live life to the most and a quote that I truly love is from Ekhart Tolle ..

“If I am not the hero of my life … who in the hell could be?”

My Vietnam Launch – Hanoi – 2018

My Vietnam Launch – Hanoi – 2018

It has come to the last day at Kaz’s Health Retreat at the Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel www.babyelephant.asia and it is a day of so many mixed emotions saying goodbye to the owners Ilana & Adam and their staff, mainly Oun Kim and to the Health Retreat participants and of course the star attraction Kaz (Karyn) herself. It was a strange goodbye as we shared a tut-tut to the Siem Reap International Airport (some 15mins) knowing our respective planes are only a couple of hours apart. Again, another goodbye, another welcomed hug. I am on my own again … left to listen to my mind, heart & soul trying to eliminate my anxiety and talking to myself again in amidst of new adventures and challenges. I’ll certainly miss the banter and stimulating conversation of the past week of such great humans. I won’t miss the crocodiles behind the hotel of course. Before leaving the hotel, I reconfirmed with my Hanoi hotel (Hanoi Gratitude Hotel) www.hanoigratitude.com for they are arranging a dedicated driver for the long journey from Hanoi Airport  (Noi Bai International Airport) to the Historical Centre area where the hotel is located. My landing will be around 11pm their time so having a dedicated driver is reassuring.

My last 2months backpacking ‘escape’ was primarily set for Cambodia with the focal point of staying as long as possible in Sihanoukville (more than my 2months) from my ex-girlfriend’s travel discussions with her (Dale) showing me how to travel. If you want to know more about why, how, etc on getting to this ‘escape’ situation you had best scroll down to one or two of my earliest blogs. She taught me enough that I dared to use my wings in this case and to this moment of the last fortnight or so I am again stepping well out of my comfort zone and heading for Vietnam, which was totally unplanned or expected. Yikes!!!!

A quote that I recently found and aligned myself to & truly love is from Ekhart Tolle ..

“If I am not the hero of my life … who in the hell could be?”

Leaving Siem Reap after clearing Customs & Immigration and sitting in the small lounge a bad storm is brewing, much larger than the one that caused a lightning bolt to the Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel’s roof earlier in the week (refer to previous blog). Despite this we were cleared to board the plane and we started to taxi out to the runway. Lightning all around, loud thunder is instant for it seems almost overhead. A sketchy announcement was made over the intercom but it took the hostess to confirm we are now stopping to await an opening in the storm. Our plane is sitting still … I said hello to the very young people sitting next to me again & offered some of my snacks I had plenty of, for they were shy & declined the offering with a smile. Yet, I received a “hello” in very good English and then the couple started talking to the group behind as well. I now found myself in a young group of 5 holidaying from Iceland. My first & only Icelanders I have come across. Conversations evolved magically & there was no more shyness.

Surprisingly, the plane had been sitting still for some 35mins & I was wondering if we had to go back and refuel. It’s a very long time to be sitting in a plane. Passengers kept asking the hostesses if they could use the bathroom; but they must hurry as there will be little warning for take-off. Suddenly at 35mins & without warning the plane starts full throttle and woosh!!! For we are in the air. Hope no-one was in the toilet. LOL!!! With my airport experience I have never heard of any plane sitting motionless on a runway!!! A taxiway yes (normal) .. but NEVER on a runway!!!

We arrived late at Hanoi however, the pilot stated we had made good time so not as late as it was expected. After clearing Immigration & Customs and the steely eye of the Vietnamese officer I was cleared for baggage retrieval and the search for my Limo driver. I noticed the Hanoi Airport was ultra-modern and very impressive; possibly the best I have seen to date. The Hotel Limo driver found me promptly (sent my ID photo prior) which helped & he graciously said I was late .. hint .. subtle hint.

Driving in to the city was a surprise with a well-constructed highway elevated to 2 very impressive cable bridges allowing passengers to view the city lights above the river. Very impressive at night time!! The impression of this super infrastructure forced me into thinking this part of Vietnam is decades more advanced than anywhere in Cambodia. After the bridges I was totally lost, for we are now in darker streets and very busy ones too. After a bit of winding through streets the Limo stops abruptly and the driver seems to be ejected from his seat and has my door open & the boot at the same time. I enter the hotel which looks more like a shopfront straight into Reception where I am met by Maureen, dressed in authentic Vietnam evening wear. So impressive and most polite and a bit past midnight too. My room was excellent and the sleep was amazing. I found myself just making the brekky deadline in the little dining room beyond the Reception counter after the gracious “good morning” from Maureen. It was a small buffet setup so I helped myself accordingly with the Western type menu. Maureen guided me via the city plan to the Historical Centre and the famous city lake, Hoan Kiem Lake & Park within the centre, a few city blocks away (10min walk).

As I came closer to the lake area the footpaths and the traffic (cars & scooters) became heavier & more erratic. Hanoi is a city of 5 Million scooters in a population of 7 Million. Cars only number 500,000 according to 2017 stats. The pedestrian crossings work better than Cambodia but you still have to have your wits about you. Concentrate & keep walking; don’t stop; traffic will avoid you. One of the first things I notice is the extreme lack of English signage. I soon remember I am now in a stronger Communist country and much later I found out the Vietnamese (Government) encouraged the dislike of America since the Vietnam war, hence the US Dollar is very rarely used or mentioned. Vietnam use their own currency; The Dong. I was blessed in Cambodia where they predominately use the USD but now, I have to use my ANZ currency converter to rationalise the 22,000 approx Dong to the $1USD.

I headed towards the French Quarter as Maureen suggested to see the French architecture and where the French decimated the ancient pagodas, old market areas and original village structures so they could take over the ‘surrendered’ Vietnamese people. My first stop was the Hoa Lo Prison, built in 1896. The original prison covered 12,908sq metres, making it the largest prison in Indochina. Today, the prison is drastically reduced in size by only the original frontage building and courtyard and dedicated into a museum now where you will still find it very confronting. There are real-life mannequins shackled as they would in normal life there and where they sat through the day is also where they laid at night. Totally barbaric. The French were very evil then. There is also a guillotine in place where it was used quite frequently.

This prison housed the future president, Ho Chi Minh for many years until he, & several of his followers escaped through the sewer manhole and sewer pipes in the most-smallest of places. A superhuman effort. Later on, some of his followers became his Generals, etc when Vietnam regained its independence. This prison also had writings discussing Hanoi Jane, alias Jane Fonda where she is said to have betrayed the US POWs housed here during the Vietnam War. Controversy on this continues today.  Heading away from the prison and to the Southern end of the lake I see a very impressive roundabout and French building; The Opera House or Grand Classical Music Hall, built 1911 stands before me in all its glory. A truly beautiful heritage French building.  Adjacent to the Opera House is the upmarket shopping centre, Trang Tien Plaza. I thought I would enjoy a coffee within the 5 floors of shopping but alas, I walked the entire plaza only to find on the top floor a ‘Dunkin Donuts’ as their only coffee shop. LOL!!! No Thanks. Heading back along my steps I came across another masterpiece, the Grand Catholic St Joseph’s Cathedral built 1886; the city’s oldest church with the resemblance of Notre Dame. A lot of French buildings have now become major hotels and the like.

Walking the lake perimeter, I was able to transverse across the traditional bridge to the lake island temple Den Ngoc Son (1st photo above), located at the North end of the lake, where dozens of locals were praying and seeking solace in the landscaped garden grounds & bonsai trees set in extra-large pots. This temple uses the focus of the mineral Jade for all its healing and worshiping properties and have a large turtle in a glass tomb, but I could not find out why it is there. I suspect they are the water animal of grace and peace & there is plenty of that in this special place. The lake water is so calming too.

After the temple I found a close location and an easy place to hover around; The Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square which is really a very large traffic roundabout.  At around 5pm everyday; this roundabout & the associated streets are closed to traffic and the pedestrians immediately come out in swarms. A bustling night time area with lots of activities, singing, dancing, school musicians and people mingling. Looking around I see a curved tower building suiting the roundabout shape with about 6 levels of bars and restaurants. I took the privilege of taking the open area balcony on the 4th floor with a couple of beers & eventually a late dinner to gaze upon the activities below and start the people watching in the carnival environment. My first & second Vietnam days had certainly started well and I felt comfortable walking back to my hotel mid-evening. Surprisingly, I didn’t get lost. Point to note, the traffic doesn’t seem to ever ease and there’s always people about.

The next day was even more amazing. After the buffet brekky I reconfirmed what the hotel had organised for me when I originally booked in Cambodia. I will be heading to Sapa/ Fansipan (NW of Vietnam, very close to the Chinese border) first for 2 nights by bus & then back to the hotel overnight then off to Halong Bay by bus again for the Bai Tua Long Bay (North of Halong Bay with almost same Latitude as Hanoi) cruise then back to Hanoi Gratitude Hotel. Once all that was finalised with Reception, I went back to the lake area to continue my French Quarter touring of the streets; this time taking a street or so earlier that brought me further away from where I was the day before. I noticed a completely different day with so many young people and couples walking the lake perimeter pathway, amongst the leafy trees and well-manicured gardens. Out of the silence, a loud whistle blared!! It was an officer of some sought, Police maybe or a local authority sternly pointing at a young couple where the young male was sitting on a park bench & a young lady lying on his lap talking to each other. They immediately sat upright and rigid. Apparently, such western ‘love’ behaviour is unacceptable in public. I was quite taken aback by this regimental approach.

That event had me walking and thinking at the same time in reflection and I accidentally went left instead of right where I found myself in the roundabout area again but being a Saturday (non-school day), it was filled with very young children, mainly in groups with chaperones, teachers or parents in sync. Suddenly, I was confronted & surrounded by a group of children (students) wishing to talk to me in English. I was asked a variety of questions like where am I from, how old am I, what do I like about Vietnam, & a hundred more questions. Each young person was very polite although mostly shy but they hung on every word I was saying. This is their main approach to learning more English than they do in school. After say, about 8 or so groups in a row I was able to become better at handling their questions, accepting the video recordings, parents and teacher’s involvements, etc; but at the now end of the day I was completely worn out. It’s tiring talking about yourself ALL day and concentrating on their needs!!! LOL!!! For all those hours I don’t think I moved more than an area of 80m2.

Being around 5pm I sat alone on a timber low wall around a large tree to unwind and contemplate what I might like to do next. Sitting down was such a relief for it had been hours & hours involved with full-on eager children. Within about 10mins a very quietly spoken young lady asked politely if she could sit with me. Her name was Julia. She was 17 but looked 14. A slender young lady that wanted to ask me the same questions I had for most of the day. I graciously complied and I was allowed to ask questions in return. Her English & manner was excellent and the best quality conversation all day. I was in need of liquid and food and soon found out Julia had not had neither all day too. She said she will eat back at her sister’s place over an hour away on a bus. Looking across the street adjacent to the roundabout I saw a quaint little nook type shop. I asked her to trust me & sit with me while we replenished ourselves. After a while she said yes, but was extremely shy however I think she knew I needed to eat, being old, I guess. Haha!!

The quaint little shop was called The Note Coffee Shop www.thenotecoffee.com for it was literally covered in thousands of post-it notes to every spare space on the walls, counters, tables, etc from travellers all over the world over the years. I knew what to order and the lady behind the counter spent time with Julia in choosing a cake (Julia liked their appearance I think) and smoothie drink.  We sat at the ground floor window counter and started talking again where Julia explained to me this was her first smoothie & cake .. ever!!! I nearly cried on the spot! I recovered, and said she must take little draws on the straw with the smoothie otherwise you will get a ‘brain freeze’.  Her first ‘sip’ gave her a brain freeze which totally surprised her … We both laughed long & loud. What an experience for both of us. Before long she had to catch her bus but she was able to convey her school learning problems to me and I gave her some things to concentrate on, like how to breathe to avoid test stress and how to study more effectively and approach tasks & assignments, etc.  All this was totally proper so I’m sure you maybe suggesting I was one of those pathetic, vile predators on a tourist visa chatting up young girls. Rest assured I am most certainly NOT!!! While I was sitting there with Julia, we both read as many post-it notes messages which kept her English still flowing. There were so many but I had one staring me right in the face in front of me (pls see photo). It was a message I could use for my ex-gf, Dale back home “If you break someone’s heart and they still talk to you … with the same excitement and respect .. believe me, they really love you”. For clarity, she broke my heart, yet I am the one communicating with respect.

Julia’s bus trip is well over an hour & she does this trip several times a week to learn English from tourists. Later that night Julia managed to track me down in Messenger, then Facebook which showed her resilience and commitment to learn more, much to my surprise. She immediately started on my suggestions while on the bus & when she got home & wanted to let me know how much I had done for her in just that little amount of time. She was sad that we couldn’t meet up again as I had my bus excursions happening but hoped we could meet again after them.

The next day I walked West towards the larger city lake, Ho Truc Bach which is quite a walk but not too much to see from my encounters. I noticed the single railway line crossing the street & then vanishing in between small buildings that gave the absolute minimum clearance for the train, yet pedestrians were walking down the tracks which appeared to be market stalls further on. Can’t believe the structures being so close to the line. Further on, I saw some impressive old buildings, mainly of French Colonial architecture and these became Govt buildings and military quarters but you can’t see what they actually are on Google Maps or by their respective signage being a Communist regime and very protective of their infrastructure.

On my way back to the hotel area I was heading towards the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum at the Historic Square, where his body lies in state (tomb) but this was closed, as only mornings it is open. Before reaching this Mausoleum, I saw a large open street, much like an empty highway so I thought it best to walk up the medium strip to view both sides clearly. Next minute a voice was calling out to me from the other side and a local man waving furiously. I soon learnt I had to go back to the start & cross to the other side, for it was the military parade ground which aligned the Presidential Palace and other military buildings, some with soldiers marking the gates. The man was so relieved I had obeyed instantly. I wanted to obtain reassurance I could venture further up the sidewalk before walking back to the city centre so I asked a soldier on the gate. He was very steely eyed and with a forceful gesture, much like a slap across the face ‘encouraged’ me to be silent and keep walking. I got the hint real fast! OK .. sometimes I’m a slow learner.

I had walked about 8klms by the time I reached the City Centre again and was looking for a place to eat and lounge around when all of a sudden, I heard my name called out!! It was the young Iceland group I flew into Hanoi with. What are the chances in a city filled to the brim with people such as this? After a quick catchup (they had to be somewhere soon) we parted ways again only to cross paths a few hours later in a different part of the Quarter (suburb/ neighbourhood). Again, what are the chances? Back at my comfort roundabout I again settled for the 4th floor bar spot for dinner and enjoyed the ambiance of carnival sounds below.

With my bus trip to Sapa early in the morning I decided to head back for a well-earned sleep but was interrupted by a street shoe repairer who noticed my joggers had sole issues. He was determined to fix them but kept avoiding the repair fee. He was full of talk but very efficient on restitching my soles. When finished (15mins) he asked for 2Million Dong as I now have ‘new’ shoes. That’s $85USD folks!!! My joggers were about 3years old but good ones. Obviously, we argued for quite some time and in the end, he was paid $10USD worth, for those 15minutes of work so in money terms he did extremely well in the exchange but he remained aggressive. I left at the first opportunity to avoid a physical confrontation that would be hard to avoid police action. I referred this to my hotel staff and they wanted me to take them to him immediately, as they were most bitter that his vile actions had a negative reflection upon their city and Vietnam. I received warnings later that the street shoe repairers are to be avoided every time. I was happy at spending the $10USD to avoid the altercation and eventually was able to gain a good sleep but the event resurfaced many times after. I detest bad humans and would have liked to take stronger action against him.

The next day I had brekky & headed to Sapa by bus. Thankfully, a driver was arranged to take me to the bus pickup which was a blessing. Sapa/ Fansipan was highly recommended by the hotel so hopefully it will all work out well. I will return to Hanoi for overnight stays in between my booked tours so there’s still lots to write about. Stay tuned. There’s more to come on Julia too. I couldn’t provide more websites to the locations above as they are all in Vietnamese with no English conversion. Sorry Guys.

Thank you again for reading my blogs and I trust you will stay safe, happy & healthy, especially through this COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. I do not receive any commissions &/or ‘perks’ from the above nominated businesses & locations as I am purely happy to provide the acknowledgement and connection.

I always look forward to seeing the feedback so don’t be afraid to comment. My next blog/s will be the continuous amazing Vietnam experiences and quite a few were life changing, & not just for me.

Cambodia – Phnom Pehn – Siem Reap & Beyond – 2018 Part 2

Cambodia – Phnom Pehn to Siem Reap & Beyond – 2018 Part 2

Well, I have landed here in Siem Reap Cambodia and staying at The Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel www.babyelephant.asia for my cousin’s wife Kaz (Karyn) Australian Health Retreat for a week (pls refer to previous blogs) before heading off to Hanoi Vietnam for more backpacking. I enjoyed instant resort living and friendly acceptance from everyone like a family or community bond which I had primarily ‘lost’ for the last 2months of backpacking alone throughout Cambodia so the following is how most of this ‘healthier’ week panned out. As a quick overview, Kaz is one of those extra special people who accepts you wholeheartedly, makes you inclusive to the group, takes the time to explain what is happening/ planned and does everything in a positive manner. She is a lady of confidence but knows when to be the leader and the humour/ banter is overflowing. She is never short of a conversation and actually listens to you in the feedback. You cannot help but reciprocate in following her life principles and that is what makes the added bonus of this Health Retreat. Kaz also knows how to party!! She is sadly missed by the countless many that knew her.

Being the sole male & honorary invitee, I was allowed to sleep in a bit more each day than the ladies group but I couldn’t miss their group breakfast which was a real daily highlight. The staff, with Oun Kim at Reception provided the most welcoming of each morning, followed by the health retreat participants with the ringleader Kaz in fine voice and high motivation. Nothing but positives existed. The food and chatter were superb each morning. The ladies had already completed their early morning yoga class before breakfast and were extra keen for the journey to the local beauty parlour for their respective treatments of massages, facials, foot rubs, etc. I found it rather weird to have a yoga & meditation class on the rear upper balcony overlooking the rear neighbour’s property of a large crocodile farm. I kid you not!! Some 30+ reptiles by my count at the rear of a house but they kept moving so my count is approximate. Lol!!! I hope this neighbourhood doesn’t experience mass flooding as I have grave concerns for the boundary fencing.

On my first day, while the ladies were out at the parlour, I started on my early blog writings out on the front porch overlooking the pool. My blog was a short one “Flying into Siem Reap”    https://bhlifestyles.travel.blog/2019/01/28/flying-into-siem-reap-international-airport-cambodia-2018/ where I wrote on my experiences and what to be aware of and how best to take the advantages when entering the terminal from the tarmac. It is an International Airport so there is a bit of wrangling to get around the ‘system’. Within a few hours of writing this a lady on holidays at the Baby Elephant was saying her fiancé is hesitant of flying in to see her and worried about the airport. Reception printed my blog and she loved it and reported back saying she sent it to her fiancé and he is on his way on the next flight. What an instant reward of putting things in writing. You never know who you can inadvertently help by knowing what is happening in your surrounds. Staying in The Present, remember?

During this time of computer writing Ilana (co-owner & manager) was also on her computer in the adjacent outdoor seating hut managing the hotel daily operations and we both could see the storm brewing to another level. The ladies surely would not be coming back though this darkness; mind you, this is around mid-day. Without warning the lightning started with immediate thunder. Bang!!!!!!!! A bolt of lightning hit the roof of the hotel immediately above my head with roof tile pieces crashing near my feet. Ilana & I both jumped to our feet & ‘froze’ momentarily. Ilana stayed with her laptop with my assurance as I ran upstairs and checked things out. Luckily, the lightning hit the section of roof within the Plant Room area so the rainwater entering is not causing problems to habitable rooms, adjacent and below. The smell of smoke and of metal ‘burning’ was clearly evident however no flames present, as there were no timber in this location, but a very large hole in the roof with rain entering. This is now the 4th time I have been within 20m of a lightning strike; certainly not looking for a 5th! I struggle to explain to people on what it is like to be so close to that form of energy. I was able to report back to Ilana that there was no catastrophe enfolding structurally. However, it was soon realised about 6 TVs, WiFi, etc were severely compromised (ruined). Technical repairs were carried out the next day and TVs ordered, along with the roof repairs. Another blow to their budget as insurance doesn’t really apply in Cambodia. When the ladies returned from their pleasure outing, they spoke of the storm but were more shocked to see the roof parts still on the entry path and glad they dodged that bullet.

Over the next few days, the yoga sessions, pool aerobics (Jay Sapphire, an Aussie Ex-pat fitness and health guru was our instructor), cooking classes & the like unfolded, along with “Happy Hour”, a walk to Pub Street to try the cocktails at Kaz’s favourite spot, The Red Piano https://redpianocambodia.com   I had a few “Tomb Raiders” not knowing the high alcohol content with Michelle (we still talk about these). Kaz stuck to her one rum drink & I think Michelle finished that off too! When the ladies, now including Louise & her daughter Charise (Ex-pats living in Singapore) took to the streets to obtain their cooking ingredients for their cooking class I snuck away with a Tut-tut to the Angkor Panorama Museum, built in 2007. What an amazing place!! A definite must see, although the entry fee is around $32USD including a guide it will surpass your expectations. The obvious highlight is “The Painting”. First, you are directed to the 80seat theatre for the 10minute Khmer orientation, then you can stroll by yourself to overlook the numerous scaled models of some 12 temples in the Siem Reap region including the massive Angkor Wat. These models are insane and you can take photos once you recover from the excellent detail of these models. It certainly was an impressive display.

After your scaled model stroll, you are provided an assigned guide to take you to the central platform of “The Painting”, a panoramic masterpiece. The guide provides the English commentary and ensures NO photos are taken. You enter a hallway doorway and do a large spiral enclosed rampway to a central platform much like a movie theatre. Luckily, I went later in the day therefore, there were only a couple of people to share with in the viewing platform. The museum is usually jammed packed. Once you reach the central platform your eyes follow the finger pointing of the guide instructing you to the starting point; then you are left speechless with what your eyes are trying to absorb. “The Painting” is a complete circular flowing mural of immense size of some 30m high with a room diameter of some 40m. A massive 360° 3D mural! The starting point is The Cambodia/ Vietnam War around 900AD flowing then into temple constructions with elephants, river barges and the population bringing the large stones from a quarry some 40klms away from the construction zones and then into typical Khmer village life then into a life with everyone living in harmony and well-being (a celebration of life).

From the platform edge you look slightly down to see large rocks, real vegetation and the like providing the real imagery for the painting behind. A dreamlike masterpiece where it took some 43 professional paint artists 16months to complete. The painting had so much detail there are some 45,000 different human faces/ bodies within it, let alone the numerous wildlife. The war section at the start of the painting is very graphic of the fierce battle. To take photos is highly offensive and penalties apply if you dare to disobey or show little respect. A very clear warning. There was so much detail you could look for ages and a feeling of sadness to depart this ‘living’ historical masterpiece. Apologies … NO PHOTOS!!! Arrghh!!!

I had best call it a day seeing my trusted tut-tut driver happily waited for me outside and I was truly feeling guilty of the time used. I made sure he was rewarded and gave him an early mark by dropping me off at Pub Street to stroll the marketplace before walking back to the Baby Elephant. On the way I remembered to pick up my laundry (timely) from the old sweetie working long hours at her laundromat located at the hotel laneway intersection. I always gave her more money than she asked for. She was amazing and so thankful.

Meeting up with the group at the hotel we all agreed to have dinner quickly & hit the Happy Hour hard knowing we will be required to survive another Jay aerobic pool workout (1hr full on) in the morning and after the Ladies’ yoga class. We each had a chat on what each of us did for the day and my museum talk was well received and took a couple of scotches too!

The next day, after the Jay aquarobics workout, the ladies rushed to the beauty parlour once again for the pampering session and then returned to undertake the cooking class at the hotel where there was an introduction and then an excursion via tut-tuts to local markets and merchants to source and procure the required goods for the menu class after lunch. In the meantime, I opted out and took the opportunity of meeting up with Jay again on the other side of town for a coffee & his timely info for my upcoming tour through Vietnam. He was full of Vietnam travel recommendations and I was so thankful for his knowledge and guidance. With hours on hand I took the ‘long’ road back to the hotel, stopping at places to see like Wat Preah Prom Rath near the river with Buddhist Temple, pagodas & very impressive gardens and hard landscaping. A place of calmness and soothing meditation feels.

Again, we chat within the group of today’s activities by the pool in combination with the ladies results of today’s cooking masterpieces facilitated by the Baby Elephant’s Head Chef and trainee chefs. I must say the results were superb and obviously very healthy. A night swim was also on order. I’m surely enjoying this paradise.

The next day Kaz had arranged a full-on day of adventure. We started at the other side of Siem Reap to a nearby village school managed by a young Australian lady (Principal) with volunteer teachers and some very small backing from the Cambodian Govt. The ABC & Rice school https://www.abcrice.org   is rather medium in size but very impressive and effective for the village size. There were 4 young French Uni students working as part of their scholarship to help set the curriculum and school reviews and strategies. The Principal confirmed these ladies have done about 12mths work in less than a month & still have a month to go in their residency. Their scholarship is extremely valuable for these schools. Some classes and school buildings are also privately funded by previous travellers and teachers, etc. We noticed 2 classrooms donated by a Norwegian & Swedish lady. The school has a rice bribery system going that if the student (Child) attends all month then the parents get rewarded in rice …. and they are extremely grateful for the rice, such is their hardship. Normally the child/ children are sent off to work or beg at a very early age to keep the family viable. The older students eventually get accepted into the Cambodian Public School system by achieving graduation standards and then their higher education escalates. Without these grass roots schools there would be almost nothing for villages like these for education and change. A very impressive achievement for this struggling village. So proud to be an Australian and seeing what our country people are achieving overseas. Our unsung heroes.

On our way back we called into some disability workshops and their merchandising stores and these were very impressive with pottery, sewing, etc.  We also drove past some unusual but recognisable icons out the front of a commercial market which is an added bonus when viewing the street landscapes. Back to the Hotel for a swim, shower & dinner & then a mystery outing Kaz had arranged to see the local circus school, Phare – The Cambodia Circus https://pharecircus.org to show off their skills and acts. It was about a 15min tut-tut drive and the attendance was a full house. They even had their own merchandise store. Even though it is a circus school their mastery was amazing and students have gained places in circus events around the world. Some 150+ graduates to date. I was truly amazed with the whole show and their humility/ endurance & skills. This event was certainly not expected to my understanding of what Siem Reap offers. A very welcomed treat.

Our last major day excursion provided by Kaz was to visit the Kbal Spean waterfalls (NNE of Siem Reap in the Phnom Kulen National Park https://www.siemreap.net/visit/attractions/sightseeing/phnom-kulen ) where it provides the earliest recorded first Budda/ Khmer temple in 11th Century. The creek ‘river’ has stone carvings in rock riverbed called Linga where it forms into holy water lapping over the shallow rockbed. This creek then winds quickly around to a few lagoons then into a 30m waterfall. Unfortunately, our visit coincided with a rare religious holiday & we had to share this special place with more than a thousand citizens, so no waterfall swim for us but a well-earned picnic. I don’t know if the lagoons still held holy water .. if you know what I mean? Adjacent to the waterfall area was the first population ‘village’ set amongst enormous rocks, caves & the like. A very sacred ground and on top of one of these rocks was a temple with a laying down Buddha of some 8m in length. Apparently, many thousands lived in & around this landscape with a range of huts, caves, etc during its prime era. It was an amazing experience to wander the same steps of a lost civilisation in the same respect of Angkor Wat & the other temples.

This Kbal Spean location is a bit of a drive however, there is a bit of countryside to view and we also had a few stops to see the crazy varieties of bananas (pronounced Bananan … no ‘r’ sound). We also had a glancing view of where the rocks were quarried from to create Angkor Wat & other temples constructed some 40klms away. Certainly, an amazing task without the machinery of today.

Nearing Siem Reap, but still away to go we called into the confronting Landmine Museum https://www.cambodialandminemuseum.org created by an ex-soldier Aki Ra, who dedicated his post war life to searching, recording & dismantling the abhorrent landmines installed by the vile Khmer Rouge forces. Years later, upon clearing thousands of mines a Japanese journalist called him Aki Ra (a brave Japanese historical name) and it was far better than the numerous adopted names he was given, so he politely took it. He was enforced into the war when the Khmer Rouge gave him his first gun at 10yrs of age and was also made to install landmines (children were expendable). He was told his parents died when he was 5 but no proof was ever provided of that. There are still millions of landmines uncovered throughout Cambodia. He has founded this museum and is world recognised for his work on landmines. He worked for (United Nations – UNTAC) clearing mines & that’s when it all started. The locals have a saying “watch out for the flying buffalo” as they tread on landmines more often than people. The devastation, death & maimed injury is beyond comprehension and landmines are really the most wicked and cowardly method of human conflict and it was really brought to life via Princess Diana as one of her life missions. Aki Ra is certainly a hero in many forms.

It had been a long day but Happy Hour provided a new form of energy and we all extended our hours into the night with great banter and relaxation of harmony; for tomorrow is the checking out day where Kaz & the group return to Australia and Singapore & I fly out alone to Hanoi Vietnam. It is with great sadness this departing moment was the 3rd last time we would see each other but each time was ultra-rewarding and not a moment lost. A full file of memories; so many heartfelt thanks Karyn (Kaz).

Thank you again for reading my blogs and I trust you will stay safe, happy & healthy, specially through this COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. I do not receive any commissions &/or ‘perks’ from the above nominated businesses & locations as I am purely happy to provide the acknowledgement and connection.

I always look forward to seeing the feedback so don’t be afraid to comment. My next blog/s will be the amazing Vietnam experiences and quite a few were life changing, & not just for me.

Live life to the most as Kaz did often for a quote that I truly love is from Ekhart Tolle ..

“If I am not the hero of my life … who in the hell could be?”

Cambodia – Phnom Pehn to Siem Reap and Beyond–2018 Part 1

Cambodia – Phnom Pehn to Siem Reap & Beyond – 2018 Part 1

Following on from my last two blogs where I dedicated the Cambodian Islands blog to my cousin and his wife; the updated news on my cousin’s wife Kaz (Karyn) has been most tragic with her passing sadly 17th Oct 2020 before she could return to her hometown of Grafton NSW Australia. In dedication to her memory; my blog below is timely in that I get to spend a week with her at Siem Reap for her planned Health Retreat in 2018. With COVID-19 restrictions her family & limited friends celebrated her memorial 14th November 2020. Karyn was only 57yrs old. Her husband Michael, my cousin is fighting the good fight but is terminal as well.

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From my last blog I spent 6hrs travelling by bus from Sihanoukville to Phnom Pehn, the capital of Cambodia thinking mostly of my youngest brother, Rod who past the year prior on this day a year earlier. My Phnom Pehn visit is to see a few tourist things I could not see during my last visit plus to sort out a few personal goals that involve hopefully changing people’s lives so that part is private. Part of my life mantra is to ‘make a difference’; so hopefully I can fulfil that in this visit. For more information on my previous visit to Phnom Pehn please refer to a previous blog; Summary of My International Travel 2018 – Part 4 – Phnom Penh – Cambodia.

I arrived at Phnom Pehn City Centre at 2.30pm amongst massive traffic and a thunderstorm (of course, almost daily now) and straight into a tut-tut to my Billabong Hostel where Janny (Manager) & staff remembered me immediately. Is that a good sign … or a bad sign? Turned out to be a good sign … whew!! They had my room ready and it was an instant chill out time. I highly recommend the Billabong Hostel (backpacker style hostel & appropriate pricing) with a good range of dorms and private rooms with ensuite and a pool, etc.

Can’t explain this but I slept in till 9.20am!! Somehow my body & ‘brain’ must of needed this … certainly not a beauty sleep  .. OK? In hindsight it might have been the hot shower I had before bed as it was my first hot one for some 24 nights. I certainly dislike cold showers but one must toughen up and shower often, otherwise you can easily offend people from a distance if you know what I mean. Thank God the in-house café still had brekky till 11am. I had to catchup on some computer stuff so I soaked up the energy of the backpackers enjoying the pool and various alcohol drinks on the large pool deck. It was a morning of great spirits.

Being some 10mins from the old city area by tut-tut I decided to walk it and take in the normal city/ suburb living, seeing the merchants and stores along the way. The walk was so diverse in what type of stores and services with scooter/ mechanical workshops, cafes and just about everything you could imagine or need. Some of the local people smiled and waved while others were stern-faced city affected dwellers who seemed to not give anyone the time of day. I had a few missions to sort out so I needed Google Maps to get me around however, the app was playing up like my last visit. My frustrations were escalating as the app was taking me all over the place and somewhat in meandering circles. The hours I ‘wasted’ before I could complete my tasks leaving me less time to soak in the environment and culture.

Calling it almost a day, the sun was setting I ended at the Vattanac Capital Building; must be the highest tower structure in Phnom Pehn @ 187.3m/ 39 storey with a jutting out Sky Deck. It won an architectural award in 2012. I thought a reward would be to see the city sprawl and enjoy a $7USD beer in a luxury lounge with a view before heading back to my hostel.

Taking the lift, I shared it with a family. The father was of Indian descent and the mother was a younger English woman. They had a young son about 9yrs old and they were taking the father’s mother (wheelchair bound) to a celebratory dinner at an aloof restaurant on the highest above skyline level. The reason for raising this commentary is that I found it confronting especially on what I will now describe. The family were immaculately dressed, obviously very wealthy. I smiled and parted their company as they entered the restaurant while I took to the large glass panels to view the skyline and getting my geographical boundaries/ compass aligned. I saw a section of the city I had wished I knew beforehand. It was the newer part and seemed like a great place to inspect viewing in the distance near the river. It is also where the Australian & other embassies are located.

Walking back on my steps I noticed the young mother with her son sitting at a high bar table. She caught my eye so I walked over & said “hello again”.  We talked openly and was asked to sit at the other chair opposite to her & her son. They were sitting at the table because the restaurant excluded their son as they do not cater for children and therefore no entry for under 18yrs of age. The Father/ husband continued with his Mother for dinner and ushered his wife out to stay with their son until they were finished. I was gob smacked to say the least. How abhorrent!!! Again, we talked for some 40minutes plus without any apprehension however the son remained somewhat sheepish as expected for a well-controlled & mannered child. I managed to make her laugh & smile and talked about both our travel experiences, life, etc to take away the time and loneliness frustrations. She was most thankful I stayed with her; and I left before the father ventured out. He will take them elsewhere to have dinner (probably a take away). I had to leave so as not to confront the selfish uncaring father/ husband. I didn’t even wish to partake in my $7USD beer either, such was my disgust however, I felt good that I helped someone through a terrible and awkward time. I hope the lady & her son are doing OK.

It was now dark and not a tut-tut in sight so I continued to walk back towards my Billabong Hostel. Thankfully, my memory served me well to remember the streets back without referring to the faulty Google Maps. Arriving at the hostel I was still able to order dinner and check my phone to confirm I had walked almost 17klms!! Wow!!! The beers were a real reward and so was the extra hot shower. No muscle cramps either. Yay … knowing I was a bit low on Magnesium intake as well.

The next day it rained all day however I managed to get my personal goal sorted and improved a person/s life so all is good with the universe. I wish I could tell you more but it’s private and very confronting for print but rest assured everything was perfectly legal; just private. I hung around the pool area most of the afternoon and an early night to ensure I awake at 6am to take a pre-ordered tut-tut (reception booked it for me) to the airport. Phnom Pehn was quite easy to say good-bye to so I’d say that’s natural for a capital city feel and a flying visit (excuse the pun). I don’t mind airports as such, always like to be early for flights, get through Immigration/ Customs, etc and to see the buzz in people. I like to people watch … & especially over a hot coffee. I also have a background working at The Sydney Airport constructing taxiways, runways and redevelopment of the International Terminal Building.

My flight to Siem Reap was on time and $57USD by the airline Bassaka Air and only took 32minutes. We reached the flight height and straight away descended, much like a rainbow flight path. So much better than a 6hour drive or 8hrs bus trip. The tut-tut ride-in was different to my initial arrival in early April (2 months ago) where I used a dedicated tour driver and escort. I have no idea where I am going, so I’m placing a lot of trust into my tut-tut operator. After about 20mins or so we take a hard-left turn into a very narrow dirt lane that is in need of decent repair, mainly for drainage. This laneway ‘road’ was uninspiring and a bit of anxiety was setting in wondering where in the heck am, I going. With a sudden stop and to my relief I am shown the wall signage and walk-in garden entrance to The Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel. “Whew”!! The resort Kaz (Karyn) had arranged for me.

My arrival and welcoming were amazing and it felt like royalty. The Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel was awarded the TripAdvisor’s Number 9 Bargain Hotel in the World 2018 with 25 air conditioned rooms, restaurant, bar and located just 1.1klms from Pub Street & the City Centre and 15minutes from the famous World Heritage Site, Angkor Wat temple. Our Kim (a young local lady, also featured in photos on their website) was the receptionist and she showed amazing professionalism and warmth checking me in and to see my room in brilliant presentation was quite a surprise! In Cambodia they say their Surname first. I had a bit of time to settle in, as most of the Health Retreat participants (women) had already arrived and headed off to the local foot & body massage parlor down towards the main road to start off their ‘therapy’. I was told that parlor will be used quite often.

The Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel was co-founded, owned & operated by Aussie ex-pats (Ilana Tulloch & Adam Scott … married) starting originally with Ilana’s mother, Carmel www.babyelephant.asia  Over time they managed to buy the neighbour’s place and converted it to another hotel wing and removed the fence in between which opened up to a better courtyard and serenity area. Honestly, you would not believe what these two wonderful people have achieved for Siem Reap. They have provided in-house & external traineeships with other employments for the locals, helped other entrepreneurs, local schools and commerce organisations, cooking seminars and the list goes on. Post Blog: The Baby Elephant just celebrated their 5th year anniversary along with Ilana being recognised as one of the Top 20 Social Entrepreneurs in ASEAN2020.

I was happy to stay beside the pool and talk to the staff and getting to know the new star attraction, Lenny, a Pomeranian puppy belonging to Ilana waiting for the rumble of the surge of Health retreaters. I didn’t have to wait long for the hotel uses two dedicated Tut-Tut operators and they know how to ramp in & park within the courtyard. The voices were nearing and coming in loud, energetic and alive!! A hearty “hello” and long hugs from Kaz (Karyn) and meeting another Australian, Michelle. Is it wrong to say all that great noise was from just 2 women? They were excitement plus. Later on, we thoroughly enjoyed ‘Happy Hour’ .. the ladies with their varying cocktails & I with my scotch. What a great day & night overlooking the pool and taking in the luminous lighting of the pool and adjacent walls. The other participants, Louise and her daughter Charise arrive tomorrow from Singapore (Ex-pats).

Kaz was the Director/ Owner at Real Food Real Weightloss (RFRW) & worked also at Cassia Wellness Clinic in Australia and from all these client bases she arranges for these international health retreats to hone in and reward the participants with what another world offers. Certainly, a caring and wonderful health professional entrepreneur that puts a lot of energy into these international retreats. I’m feeling blessed to be invited, welcomed, and with little notice.

I’ll end this blog here so I can start afresh for Part 2 on the week with Kaz & Co on a great Siem Reap Health Retreat and some of my escape free time. Lol!!!!

Thank you again for reading my blogs and I trust you will stay safe, happy & healthy, specially through this COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. I always look forward to seeing the feedback so don’t be afraid to comment. My next blog/s will be the amazing Vietnam experiences and quite a few were life changing.

Live life to the ‘mostest’ as Kaz did often & encouraged everyone else to be so.