Sunday, March 20, 2016

Cambodia and Vietnam: you beauties!!

When departing from the 1000 islands in Laos to Cambodia, we first had to work out how to avoid the local tourism mafia who had neatly monopolised the transport options to the border. Using local transport was somehow “banned” but we managed to find a motorbike taxi man prepared to take us for a generous fee. Unfortunately, as we approached the border the police stopped us and he was taken off to the office – where he no doubt had to pay a bribe.

We walked to the border where, as expected we encountered the notoriously corrupt immigration officials who require you to pay an “exit fee.” As we had arrived before the tourism mafia buses, we had time on our hands, so we just told the officials that we wouldn’t pay and then lay down on the floor in front on the immigration window using our bags as pillows and read our books. This obviously caused some consternation and more and more officials came to the window to see what we were doing and after an hour they gave us our passports back and we were allowed to proceed to the Cambodian immigration without paying the bribe.

There the scam continued with a $5 “entrance fee” over and above the legitimate visa fee. We just explained friendlily that there was no way we were paying this and explained that we hadn’t paid the exit tax from Laos. This seemed to shock the officials and they let us through with a suprised smile. The tourist buses were soon to arrive and I guess they didn’t want us blocking the easy $5 per head they were going to make.

We weren’t sad to leave Laos. While it is an interesting, beautiful country the people even in the remote areas seem jaded by outsiders. To put it simply: people there were not friendly.
In contrast, as we entered Cambodia, there was a tangible, significant change in the social atmosphere. When making eye-contact people smiled and engaged happily – good vibes.

We headed first for Krati, a steamy city on the banks of the Mekong river. Here we got to boat amongst one of the biggest concentrations of the threatened Mekong river dolphins which frolicked in the deep, clear water.

Mekong river dolphins, Krati, Cambodia

Krati, Cambodia

We took a small ferry boat to the small island village in the middle of the Mekong river and stayed with a family there for a few chilled days: wandering around the island and swimming in the Mekong to cool down.

Swimming in the Mekong river, Krati, Cambodia

Our homestay on the island near Krati, Cambodia

Sunset over the Mekong River, Krati, Cambodia
Cambodia is HOT! In a humid, tropical country where the temperature never seemed to drop below 35 degrees with 100% humidity: you sweat 24/7. And yet, Cambodians were dressed in jerseys, beanies and jackets. The phenomenon of people born in tropical countries wearing warm clothes in hot weather is well known around the world: but in all our travels in Asia, Africa and South America, this was the most extreme example of the surreal situation where you are dying of heat in the bus and the person next to you is dressed like they’re freezing cold. Cognitive dissonance all day, every day. The other unusual clothing habit is that Cambodian women wear pajamas during the middle of the day, in public as they go about their shopping or other business.

In Krati we discovered the local thirst quencher: sugar cane juice freshly crushed with a special mobile crushing machine and mixed with crushed lemon in a large cup filled to the brim with ice. Delicious.

making fresh sugar cane juice

After Krati and the island we headed north for a week or so to Rattanakiri where we chilled and swam at a pretty lake and hired motorbikes to visit unimpressive waterfalls.

Lake near Rattanakiri, Cambodia
We headed South again and arrived in Siem Reap, the location of the legendary, ancient Ankhor Wat temples. We spent a few days here enjoying the vibrant nightlife and markets which were fun despite being a bit touristy. Fried ice-cream! We spent the mandatory day on a tuk tuk visiting the remarkable temples which were the centre of a giant, affluent kingdom about 1000 years ago which subsequently collapsed and was swallowed by the jungle and forgotten. About 160 years ago, the ruins were re-discovered and one of the worlds great cultural treasures was re-introduced to the world. It’s hard to describe the physical scale of Ankhor Wat and do it justice: we spent all day on a tuktuk driving through the forest from one amazing stone temple to another. Each temple was unique: some with giant faces carved in rock looking down on you, others with enormous trees clasping and clambering all over them like god-like octopuses. Even though this is South East Asia’s premier tourist attraction, the scale of it is so vast that one could avoid the crazy crowds and appreciate the ornately carved buildings and luxuriate in the stone cold interiors.

Ankhor Wat, Cambodia

Ankhor Wat, Cambodia

Ankhor Wat, Cambodia

Ankhor Wat, Cambodia

Ankhor Wat, Cambodia

Ankhor Wat, Cambodia

We headed next to Battambang, another city on the Mekong river. There we watched a fun circus performance by young people from the area. We also met up with other travellers and found out where Cambodians go to chill: a lake with floating rafts where you can buy ice-cold beer and freshly cooked fish while swimming in the cool water. We also visited the famous Phnom Sampeu caves where every evening at sunset millions upon millions of bats swarm out in clouds in search of food. Enterprising Cambodians have set up bars with chairs near the exit point, so you can enjoy the spectacle with a beer in hand ignoring the reality that the occasional fine drizzle one feels is in fact bat pee...

Chilling on floating rafts in Battambang, Cambodia
Circus, Battambang, Cambodia

We headed next via Siem Reap (and the famous bar-crawl) to the Cambodian capital Phnom Phen. Despite the incredible heat, we liked this city a lot: crazy, vibrant and friendly. And chaotic! One of the most amazing things about Cambodia is the insane number of motorbikes which operate without any observable traffic rules. An intersection is what we called a “4-way go”. Everyone just drives straight into the melee of chaotic vehicles heading in every direction and somehow wiggle their way through to the other side. Crossing the road as a pedestrian requires you to fearlessly launch yourself into the path of dozens of motorbikes on the assumption that they will somehow avoid you. The key to success is to move absolutely predictably: no stopping and starting and changing your mind but rather just walk at a steady speed and let them dodge you. Watching a mother with baby in arms walk straight into the middle of fast moving traffic without a care while every fibre in your own body screams “you gonna die!” is part of the daily surreality of urban Cambodia.

The beer brands in Cambodia have a clever scheme whereby in the inside of the lid of every beer one can win prizes: normally beers but also motorbikes and cars. The nice thing is that we would on average win a free beer every four beers, and one could just hand in the lid at any small shop and claim your winnings.

Cambodia has the most relaxed attitude to marijuana of any country we’ve visited. It is openly smoked in bars, it is advertised on restaurant menus (“happy pizza”) and most things can be ordered with a bit of extra “happy”. It’s not clear why this is the case as other countries in the region are quite strict – some notoriously so. But in Cambodia it seems to be treated, as it should be, like alcohol.

Dinner time in Phnom Phen involved visits to giant outdoor market areas with tables and chairs and freshly cooked street food washed down with delicious fruit smoothies and beers in mugs filled with ice. Invariably during these pavement dinners, we would meet someone interesting: there was the quirky, elderly Aussie/Kiwi duo with their Cambodian wives and kids and who had settled in Cambodia and started families. When the Aussie would say some sweeping generalisation like “Cambodians are lazy” then the Kiwi would exclaim in frustration to us “you see, that is the difference between Aussies and Kiwis right there!” Another evening we sat down at a shared table and got chatting to mother and her frisky young son who were eating there and despite our protestations she bought us dinner and beers. She was one of the many young people benefiting from Cambodia’s booming economy which has seen huge investment in the clothing and textile industry due to the dramatic increase in wages in China forcing factories to move to lower-cost countries like Cambodia.

Being treated to street food in Phnom Phen, Cambodia

The ice economy is a big part of Cambodian life with trucks and tuktuks delivering giant blocks of dripping ice to the little shops and street vendors. The myriad street vendors in Cambodia don’t have fridges, instead they have cooler boxes supplied once a day by an ice vendor. Ice is such an integral part of Cambodian life these days, it is hard to imagine life before the ice machines came. Cambodia sans ice would be another level of hot!

Cambodia is insanely cheap! Double rooms with aircon and en-suite could be had for as little as $6/night. Street food and drinks cost less than $1. A cold beer with ice cost 50c!

A visit to Phom Phen is incomplete without a visit to Tuol Sleng. And to understand both what Tuol Sleng is and the dark cloud that lurks silently, malignantly in the background when describing modern day Cambodia, one has to understand what happened in 1975. One has to understand what was the Khmer Rouge.

Tuol Sleng, Phnom Phen, Cambodia

Victims of the Khmer Rouge, Tuol Sleng, Phnom Phen, Cambodia

We had heard vague mentions of the Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge during our lives but it was a part of history that was simply filed under the heading “bad guys doing bad **** before we were born.” Now that we were in Cambodia, what the Khmer Rouge was and what it did, emerged in all its horror.

In short, Cambodia enjoyed two decades of peace and prosperity after independence from France in 1953. But the USA’s invasion of Vietnam led to Cambodia being used by the Vietnamese as a route to smuggle weapons to their fighters in the South which in turn led to devastating bombing raids by the US air-force in Cambodia. The instability that followed led to a coup which culminated in the coming to power in 1975 of an indigenous Cambodian revolutionary movement called the Khmer Rouge (the Khmer are the dominant ethnic group in Cambodia, and thus the movement was named the “Red Khmers”).

Within days of coming to power, the Khmer Rouge implemented one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society ever attempted by human beings in the modern age. The goal of the revolution was to convert Cambodia into a giant, peasant-dominated, agrarian cooperative untainted by anything modern or foreign. Within days of coming to power, the Khmer Rouge ordered that everyone in the cities, including the giant Phnom Penh, should just leave by foot and walk into the rural areas. The ENTIRE capital city was abandoned and the city dwellers including the sick, the old, the young walked without food or water for days, with many collapsing dead en route. Those who survived were herded into labour camps where they worked as slaves for the Khmer Rouge for 12-15 hours per day and being fed twice daily with a watery rice porridge where the slaves described being able to count just eight grains of rice being in the average meal. The Khmer soldiers began to systematically perform mass executions, often with axes and hammers, of anyone who was educated or could speak a foreign language or even wore eyeglasses. The bodies filled mass graves that became known as the killing fields. The beginning of the revolution was proclaimed as Year Zero and in the four years of Khmer Rouge rule, 1.7 million people were slaughtered. The cities remained empty. Imagine: for four years a modern city in a tropical country totally deserted and taken over by nature and decay. The horror was ended in 1979 when the Vietnamese invaded and overthrew Pol Pot and his followers.

This history was graphically on display in Tuol Sleng Museum which had been a high school before but was converted by the Khmer Rouge into the largest detention and torture centre in the country. Bizarrely, the Khmer Rouge meticulously photographed all their victims before they were tortured and killed and the walls of the building are lined with these close-up photographs of men, women and young children with the haunted looks of someone about to be murdered. Horrific. A sobering day of reflection and a warning to those who carelessly throw around the word “revolution” without a clear idea of what that can bring.

Amazingly, Pol Pot and his generals fled to Thailand and were recognised by most of the world, including the United Nations, as the legitimate government of Cambodia for a further ten years. The Vietnamese were criticised for their intervention!!

One would think that this recent history would permeate modern day Cambodia’s political and cultural life and yet it is as if Cambodians have completely buried the experience. Chatting to Cambodians born after the Khmer Rouge, it was noticeable how few of them had asked their parents about what had happened, which side had they been on, who had been killed in their families and who had done the killing. It felt like people regarded it as old history, yet everyone who is forty or older today lived through it. Millions of people were murdered and yet, besides a few token prosecutions in the past few years, almost no-one was held to account. In fact, if you didn’t go and seek out this history, you could quite easily visit Cambodia and never know that anything dramatic had happened. Incredibly, the Cambodians regularly expressed their hate of the Vietnamese who are seen as the regional bullying power – and gave them no credit whatsoever for liberating them from the Khmer Rouge. This gave us as South Africans with a traumatic history lots to think and talk about.

From steamy, vibrant Phnom Penh we headed towards the southern coast to a town called Kampot where we chilled in a riverside backpackers with an eclectic mix of travellers in a joyful stoner haze, feasting, playing cards and periodically discussing whether we should go anywhere today. The first week we spent moving about 50m between our grass hut on stilts and the restaurant on the deck on the bank of the giant river. But after that, as our friends gradually dwindled we got slightly more adventurous and missioned around on a motorbike visiting the strange, other-worldly development at the end of a fun winding forest road up the mountain and also discovering a remote restaurant deep in the rural villages where Rejane did cooking lessons. After ten days of doing very little, but having lots of fun in Kampot, it was time to leave Cambodia.

Very lazy days spent on this deck at Kampot
Kampot, Cambodia

Our accommodation, Kampot, Cambodia

Fixing a puncture, Kampot, Cambodia
Seafood market near Kampot

Our abiding memory of Cambodia is the friendliness of its people. Cambodians never failed to return a smile or a greeting – and despite the steady growth in tourism numbers, we never felt as if Cambodians were jaded nor that we were being merely tolerated as a necessary evil. After the relatively boring and unfriendly Thailand and Laos, we had our travel mojo back! Thank you Cambodia!!

Crossing from Cambodia to Vietnam was relatively painless and our first stop was Phu Quoc a touristy, nightmare island which we hurriedly left. It has beautiful beaches, and Goa-style beach restaurants but mostly catered to the fly-in package tourist market. We quickly headed on to the Mekong Delta region... or at least we planned to move quickly until we heard about “Tet”. While Vietnam is generally regarded as a well-organised, well-run country – all the guidebooks warn that you should not visit during the chaotic Vietnamese New Year known as Tet. As luck would have it, we had arrived as Tet was about to start and the entire country’s transport and hospitality industry was about to go into meltdown. Bus tickets were hard to find and were triple the usual cost and desperate travellers could be seen late at night wandering the streets hopelessly in search of a bed to sleep. On the upside, the country was electric with positivity and colourful, good vibes – Vietnam at its most awesome was on show!

We somehow managed to negotiate our way onto a bus to the Mekong Delta region where we stayed in a lovely riverside homestay outside of the town of Can Tho. Here we reflected on the past year’s journey that had us unintentionally following the Mekong River from its source in the snowlands of Tibetan plateau where it is known as the Lancang river, down through China into tropical Laos, Thailand and Cambodia and ending here on the coast of Vietnam. Here, the giant river divides into a mass of smaller rivers and islands like the roots of a giant tree reaching into the ocean. These islands and rivers are densely populated with fishing communities living in houses perched on stilts above the mud and using their junk boats as transport. It is certainly not pristine beauty – but messily vibrant. The breakneck pace of economic development along the length of the Mekong river has put this ancient eco-system under threat but nevertheless this mighty river flows with its fish, dolphins, silt and melted ice from the inhospitably freezing moonscape of Tibet and it still provides a vital means of survival for the millions of people who live by fishing and farming along its 4300 km length.

market area, Can Tho, Vietnam

We walked past these guys cock fighting, Can Tho, Vietnam

Mekong Delta area, Can Tho, Vietnam

In Can Tho we spent days walking in every direction to get a feel for how things worked in Vietnam. Generally when we enter a new country we spend a few days walking the markets, testing the foods, understanding prices, discovering the secret delicacies and working a little of the language until we feel that we’ve got the basics mastered. One of our first delightful discoveries was the Vong bars: bars made up of dozens of hammocks strung up on the side of the road where you can go chill with the Vietnamese and enjoy a cheap beer with ice in your own hammock. Nice!

Vong (hammock) bar, Can Tho, Vietnam

At our homestay in Can Tho we got to taste some delicious Vietnamese cuisine with our favourite being various meat and veg dishes wrapped in a fresh lettuce leaf as if eating a roti or a salomie in South Africa. There are basically two types of street food restaurants in Vietnam: those serving Com (rice-based dishes) and those serving Pho (noodle soups). All the stalls conveniently have Pho or Com conspicuously sign-posted which makes traveller life super easy. Such yummy food. The Vietnamese also make delicious cheap baguettes, and iced coffee is everywhere.

Can Tho town was dressing itself up for the Tet festival and, like the rest of Vietnam, it had covered itself with beautiful flower-lined walkways where families would photograph themselves in front of various colourful displays depicting Vietnamese life and made from bright flowers.

With luck, we got bus tickets and set off for Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). We booked ourselves into hostel in the viby part of this attractive city. Ho Chi Minh City is unusual in that it is giant, modern city and yet everywhere you look there are gigantic, monster trees typically only seen deep in the jungle towering above you. A giant highrise building will face an equally giant tree with a canopy 40 or 50 stories high and these trees create cool shade throughout the city making it comfortable to walk everywhere. We spent our days in HCMC admiring the Tet flower displays and enjoying various events. We wandered through various parks, one of which was remarkable for having two live white rhinos with giant horns living in a display with minimal security. It was bizarre to think that rhinos in South Africa need 24 hour armed protection due to the Vietnamese demand for rhino horn and yet in Vietnam these same rhinos live peacefully. The parks were set up nicely for families: various entrepreneurs had brought games and fun activities for children to enjoy for a small fee.

Some South African vibes in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam

Giant trees in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City

Scooter traffic jam in HCMC, Vietnam
We visited the museum where we learnt about the legendary Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh, an impressive, idealistic man about whom we knew little. He inspired this poor, small country to defeat the global superpower in war. The Vietnamese have always been a fiercely independent people and may well have the most impressive military history having been one of the only nations in the world to defeat the far bigger and wealthier armies of the Mongols, the Chinese, the French and finally the USA in war. As one Vietnamese friend explained: “when we are attacked, we stand together like no other nation.”

Rhino chilling in Vietnam (the epicentre of the rhino horn trade)

Memories of our India motorbike trip (Tet display) HCMC, Vietnam
Rejane x 4, Tet display, HCMC, Vietnam

Flower display at Tet Festival, HCMC, Vietnam

Organised kids activities in the public park, HCMC, Vietnam
From HCMC we squeezed on to a bus to the hilltop town of Dalat where we found Tet in full swing. We could only find dorm beds there and the town itself was heaving with Vietnamese tourists crowding the markets and tourist sights. We did a day tour that took us to see the flower farms and the coffee plantations and got to try the famous Chon coffee made from beans that have been swallowed and then defecated by weasels... tastes very strong and quite bitter... and it’s expensive. We also visited an insect farm which produces insects for restaurants and ate fried crickets which tasted pretty good: a bit like a chewy biltong. Dalat seems to specialise in way-out architecture. We visited the Hang Nga Crazy House which is the creation of a Vietnamese woman who wished to push the boundaries of surreal architecture. The giant house is an incredible maze of caves and passageways which curl around hypnotically and emerge in remarkable, decorative cave-like rooms that now provide upmarket hotel accommodation apparently favoured by Russian clientèle.

Flower farm, Dalat, Vietnam

Hang Nga Crazy house, Dalat, Vietnam

Hang Nga Crazy house, Dalat, Vietnam
Hang Nga Crazy house, Dalat, Vietnam

Cricket farm, Dalat, Vietnam

Eating fried crickets, Dalat, Vietnam
The weasel who makes the coffee, Dalat, Vietnam

In Dalat there is also a similarly crazily-designed restaurant/bar which takes you on a similar maze of passages and cave-rooms each with different, bizarre décor and furniture. But without doubt the highlight of Dalat is Linh Phuoc Pagoda temple which is said to be the most beautiful temple in South East Asia (and we agree). Made from recycled pottery and ceramics, it is garishly colourful with incredible sights at every turn. The giant Buddha statue standing perhaps 15m tall and decorated from head to toe in bright yellow flowers was perhaps the most impressive thing we saw there. As one exits the temple, we had mixed feelings about the incredible wooden furniture made from monster trees. Some giant tables perhaps 20m long, 2m wide and 1m thick being just a single slab of wood from a single tree. Deforestation is a major problem in SE Asia – and one hopes that these incredible slabs of wood will in future be left alive as trees.

Linh Phuoc Pagoda temple, Dalat, Vietnam

Buddha made from flowers, Linh Phuoc Pagoda temple, Dalat, Vietnam

Close-up of flower buddha, Dalat, Vietnam

Giant wooden furniture made from monster trees...
 As we exited the temple, we saw a little sign pointing the way to hell down below. We entered and found ourselves yet again feeling utterly surreal as we wandered through underground caves depicting all sorts of scariness and evil illuminated with macabre red and purple lighting and writings on the walls no doubt explaining how one should avoid ending up in this place in the long-run.

Hell beneath the temple, Dalat, Vietnam

In Dalat, as everywhere in Vietnam, the motorbikes swarm chaotically in every direction. Our favourite Vietnamese tourist T-shirt said:

“Vietnam traffic light rules:

Green: you can go
Orange: you can go
Red: you still can go!”

And so it was. Crossing the road in the big cities was even more intense than in Cambodia and the Vietnamese pedestrians added a new road crossing trick that we quickly adopted. Just step into the road of sure-death-traffic-mayhem and stick your hand out as if ordering people to stop and just walk fearlessly. The key to this technique is not to wait for the vehicles to stop – instead just launch into the fast moving traffic and thus indicate that if they don’t stop you’re willing to die. Watching young children do this was at once thrilling and terrifying to watch.

We moved on from Dalat to the lovely coastal city of Hoian which has become one of Vietnam’s most popular destinations. The town has beautiful architecture and a lovely pedestrian atmosphere with thousands of little shops selling weird and wonderful things. Vietnam may have the best variety of things we would have liked to buy of anywhere we’ve been in the world. And cheap too! We wandered about this lovely town for a few days enjoying the street-side cafes and coffee shops and scouting out the local hangouts where prices were better. Those of you who feel like you want to go live somewhere beautiful and cheap for a few months: Hoian is the place. You can teach English there too.

Hoian, Vietnam

Hoian, Vietnam

Hoian, Vietnam

School building, Hoian, Vietnam

Hoian, Vietnam
From Hoian we mistakenly booked ourselves on the fractionally cheaper but massively crappier slow, ****** sleeper train without mattresses to Hanoi. We seemed to be the only people who made this mistake as the train was empty...

And then we arrived in Hanoi, wonderful Hanoi, and all was forgotten. What a city! After missioning through the bustling streets we eventually found our friendly hotel in the Old Quarter of the city. As planned we met up with Laura, a friend from SA who came to travel with us for two weeks. We walked all over the city, appreciating the incredible energy and creativity of the entrepreneurs that filled every corner of this vibrant, crowded city. Communist Vietnam is booming economically – following in the footsteps of China, its mighty Northern neighbour.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

mannequin market, Hanoi, Vietnam
We visited Hanoi’s Temple of Literature built and dedicated to Confuscious in 1070 and used as a university for government mandarins. Besides the usual gardens, ponds and ornate Chinese-style temples there are giant carved stone stellae each set on a stone tortoise honouring the men who received their doctorates in the triennial exams dating back to 1442. Here the complicated relationship between Vietnam and China is obvious. The Vietnamese are vehemently anti-Chinese and see themselves as a totally separate nation. They even adopted the latin-type script to differentiate themselves from their giant Northern neighbour. Yet in their own revered Temple of Literature, the stone stellae are carved in Chinese script which they cannot read, and we smiled as the Chinese tourists had to translate what was written on the stellae to local Vietnamese visitors. It was obvious to us that Vietnam has deep and ancient ties to China and yet today, Vietnam has formed a strong economic and military alliance with its former arch enemy, the USA, as defensive strategy against the next super-power. When a Chinese oil drilling platform moved into Vietnamese waters recently, the Vietnamese were so enraged that citizens murdered random Chinese citizens in Vietnam in retaliation. This turned out to be a brutally effective strategy - the Chinese hurriedly moved the platform back to international waters.

Temple of Literature, Hanoi, Vietnam
Temple of Literature, Hanoi, Vietnam
We chilled in roadside beer cafes with super cheap “bia hoi” and soaked in the hustle and bustle. Down one street one would find the mannequin area with naked mannequins of every shape and size eerily staring out at you, down another street would be the cardboard box area while another street would have farming equipment and recycled electronics. Interspersed would be Com and Pho restaurants, fresh veg and flower markets, furniture stores, funky old propaganda poster stores, coffee shops, phone shops, hand made clothing... And as night fell colourful strings of lights lit up the trees in the parks and walkways that surrounded the Hoan Kiem Lake that is the heart of the city. At night the Old Quarter became festively chaotic with chairs and tables strewn in every open space and filled to the brim with young people – local and foreign – eating, drinking and chattering loudly.
We left Hanoi and headed for the mountain village of Bac Ha near the border with China. This region is famous for its “hill tribes” a diverse collection of short, stocky people who live all along China’s border with South East Asia. We stayed in a wooden stilted homestay with a super-friendly host who fed us delicious food and gave us useful info about the area. The region’s market days are famous and we were lucky to attend two beautiful markets in the surrounding villages.

Enjoying bia hoi with Laura, Hanoi, Vietnam

On the first day we headed to the Can Cau market which was bustling with Flower Hmong and Blue Hmong people in stunningly colourful costumes as they animatedly traded food, clothes, livestock, songbirds and various other things with their neighbouring villagers. Of course in this situation one resists the touristic desire to snap photos shamelessly of these beautiful people only to later regret the lack of photos... The next day was market day in Bac Ha town itself which was even busier and more colourful than Can Cau. The sheer number and range of items on sale as well as the strikingly bright costumes was a feast for the eyes.

Bac Ha, Vietnam

Market day, Bac Ha, Vietnam

Market day, Bac Ha, Vietnam

Market day, Bac Ha, Vietnam

Market day, Bac Ha, Vietnam

Market day, Bac Ha, Vietnam

Market day, Bac Ha, Vietnam

This is also where Dave managed, after a one year search, to buy his Mai Xat Gao, his rice mill! Dave is as far as we know, the first rice grower in South Africa, which is great until you discover that growing the rice is the relatively easy part. Once it is harvested, the rice husk is incredible difficult to separate from the rice itself – by hand it could take an hour to prepare enough rice for one plate of food! For the past year, we’ve been visiting villages in China and other parts of Asia trying to find out how to solve this problem. We found the old, pre-industrial technology to still be in operation in remote parts of Laos and this involved pounding the rice in with a mortar and pestle. Unfortunately this often breaks the rice grain into smaller pieces. The modern solution is a rice de-husker known as a Da Mi Ji in China or a Mai Xat Gao in Vietnam. The problem is that these machines typically weigh hundreds if not thousands of kilograms and are designed to process tons of rice per hour. What Dave needed was a small Mai Xat Gao that could be taken back with him on his flight to South Africa.

And here in Bac Ha, finally, we found one. Weighing 50kg and costing less than $200 it was perfect. A complicated negotiation in sign language with the bemused Hmong farmer selling the machine followed: he naturally found this transaction very strange. We loaded it on to his motorbike and took it the post office who promptly explained that the maximum weight of any single parcel was 30kg. This forced Dave to take the machine apart two create to parcels weighing 25kg each and repackaging them. But miraculously this worked out and all was sorted just in time to catch the last bus out of Bac Ha.

Market day, Bac Ha, Vietnam

Market day, Bac Ha, Vietnam

After a rather convoluted journey we found ourselves in our next mountain top destination called Sapa. Here we stayed in a newly built homestay which was part of some complex sort of social enterprise which involved multiple businesses and connections and which the hippy-esque Vietnamese volunteers who hosted us seemed to support passionately but the workings of which we never really understood. Sapa in autumn was misty and cool and we stayed only two chilly nights, enjoying an informative hike around the surrounding hill tribe villages with a friendly local guide. Interestingly, in the rural villages around Sapa, villages on opposite sides of the same stream have different hill tribes and totally different languages even though they’re just a few minutes walk from each other. Incredible cultural diversity in a small area. The tour ended with lunch at a village house and shots of strong local spirits.

Craft sellers on walking tour, Sapa, Vietnam

craft seller on walking tour, Sapa, Vietnam

Shots of the local fire water, Sapa, Vietnam

We left Sapa and after an uncomfortable night bus ride we found ourselves in the early hours of the morning at Haiphong port where we were to catch a boat to our next destination. We chilled on the pavement and befriended an old, blind man who had a streetside coffee stall that operated through the night. Oh to live in a country where a blind man can run a business without fear at night in a dodgy part of town where he has to trust his customers to pay him correctly.

When the sun rose we caught the first boat to Cat Ba island, our final destination of our year-long trip. And it didn’t disappoint. The island is located in the giant Halong Bay which is one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. The striking karst mountains of China’s Guilin here appear as an extraordinary myriad of vertical cliff islands surrounded with white sand in a turquoise sea. Not even photos do this incredible place justice. We stayed our first night in a bizarrely designed lodge which was part of the homestay social enterprise we found in Sapa. But despite its incredible location, the dingy rooms with a rat problem forced us to stay elsewhere and we found a fantastic sea front apartment with incredible views of the sea. We spent a beautiful day kayaking, swimming and boating through the breathtaking islands and visited a few of the floating villages.Here and there one would come across collections of rafts, sometimes a handful, sometimes as many as a hundred of them which all had houses built on top. Some had small gardens comprising potted shrubs and even pet dogs and all were permanently inhabited by fisher people. We visited one of these floating homes which was most remarkable for the monster holy fish that they kept in a giant net under the raft. By removing floor boards, and gently pulling the net, this monster fish could be pulled to the surface and it was truly gigantic. Perhaps the size of a cow and possibly a species of Grouper.

Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay, Vietnam

Sunset over Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay, Vietnam

Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay, Vietnam

Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay, Vietnam

Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay, Vietnam

Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay, Vietnam

Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay, Vietnam

Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay, Vietnam

Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay, Vietnam

Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay, Vietnam
We bid farewell to our friend Laura and spent our last day of holiday lazing on a beautiful Cat Ba beach reading our Kindles.

View from our $10/night hotel, Cat Ba island, Vietnam

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam
 And then we sailed on another boat back to the mainland and returned to Hanoi for two more energising nights in this great city. There we found our Rice Mill safely delivered to our hotel and Dave spent a day getting it packaged for our flight home. By wonderful co-incidence, visitors to Vietnam get double the normal baggage allowance (46kg) when returning home so it seemed we could get the mill home at no cost.

However at the airport there was drama when the check-in woman explained that no single item could way more than 23Kg which forced us to unpack the rice mill and take it apart further and then stuff random parts of steel into our backpacks. This seemed to solve the problem only to have us summoned to customs as we passed through security to explain the suspicious steel objects that were appearing in our bags in the X-Ray machine. With a little friendly persuasion in pidgin Vietnamese we got it through and we were on our way home.

Vietnam was a fun, crazy, diverse, magnificent end to another wonderful year trip.

As always, there was nostalgia on our way home over our months in wonderful, friendly China and our more tiring and epic travels through the Stans of Central Asia. And while South East Asia had been disappointing initially we had ended with two great months in Cambodia and Vietnam. And then we were home, first in beautiful Cape Town and then home home in even more beautiful Bulungula. And our lives then entered a different kind of wonderful whirlwind in our incredible community and thus this blog update appears almost one year late. But for posterity we write it, more for ourselves than for anyone else. Lest we forget.Next year trip: 2021. Continent: Africa.

Cambodia and Vietnam: you beauties!!

When departing from the 1000 islands in Laos to Cambodia, we first had to work out how to avoid the local tourism mafia who had neatly mono...