Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Our Africa Moves: better to go with the Zambezi's flow

Our one year trip began with a COVID test. It was negative and we were good to go. 

If you remember one thing from this blog entry, it should be this: definitely try sailing the Zambezi in a Sesepe boat but make sure you’re heading downstream! But we get ahead of ourselves, that travel lesson was to come in 3 weeks’ time…

Every five years we go backpacking for one year - a life-style that requires a lot of planning. While Covid19 has tried its best to thwart everyone’s plans, we had to choose between travelling in 2021 or not at all. We chose to travel. 

Day 1, bus 1

Of course Covid19 has added a layer of ethical complexity to a decision like this - we have done our best to protect ourselves, and more importantly, to protect others. Our biggest fear would have been to spread the SA variant beyond our borders - but we were super careful prior to leaving, had a negative Covid test 72 hours prior to departure and were extra careful in the days that followed. The reality we have found as we’ve moved northwards is that besides shopping malls in capital cities, there is little meaningful preventative action being taken to stop the spread of the virus. South Africa looks like a beacon of Covid19-fighting excellence when compared to some of our neighbours. If this virus is going to spread through our continent it will do so because of zero precautions on public transport and not because of travellers. Truck drivers and day traders are moving across even supposedly closed borders quite freely without a Covid test in sight. 

The start of our journey was a relatively comfortable bus ride, albeit 24 hours long, from Cape Town to Windhoek. The lush Cape landscape turned into desert in a couple of hours and stayed that way. Having lived most of our lives on South Africa’s coast, it took some time for the vastness of the desert landscapes to sink in. We wore our N95 masks throughout the entire journey, not even taking a sip of water while on the bus. This strict policy required a scramble during the few short loo breaks to ensure that we could gulp some food and water before the impatient bus continued its journey. Hooray for padkos! Adding to the challenge was the South African curfew which meant that the bus had to race to get to the border in time. With the airconditioning not working, it was a hot ride and took commitment to keep those masks on all the time, especially when no-one else was doing so. 

It took a few hours at the Namibian border to get through immigration, customs and health checks despite there being very few people. After that, it was a long straight road through the rainy night until we reached Windhoek in the early morning. There we were met by an old friend, Lisa, and her partner Paul who have built a magnificent off-grid eco-house in the bush shared with two very hospitable half-wolves. After a few sociable days swimming in their natural plunge pool, enjoying the sunsets and cooking lovely meals together, we packed up their well-equipped 4x4 and headed towards the Caprivi strip. We had been led to believe that Namibia was a desert, but it rained on every one of our 10 days there and was thus surprisingly green.

The Caprivi landscape was interesting: wooded and green and lined with small, neat homesteads with huts made of sticks and anthill mud. The huts are shorter than the ones back at home with thinner thatch that is sewn together at the apex rather than held in place using a tyre/ponch as we do in the Eastern Cape. Most homesteads are attractively fenced using reeds. The Caprivi strip has huge tracts of land reserved for game parks and conservancies, mostly unfenced areas in which wild animals roam freely (including big cats, elephants, buffalo, hippo, hyena and crocodiles) that could, if they chose, come right up into the villages.

Paul, Lisa and their 4x4

Travelling in Lisa and Paul’s 4x4 we got to see beautiful remote campsites in which our little tent felt very vulnerable to prowling predators! Camping in these areas is typically done in 4x4 roof top tents, not little 2 person tents like ours! When we asked a park manager whether our tent on the ground might be vulnerable to baboons or lions, he just giggled and said he had no experience with campers like us, so he didn’t know! Turned out the only attack our little tent had to deal with was the heavy rain. Unfortunately, it didn’t hold up too well. 

North Face tent enhanced with black plastic

(Spare a thought for the travellers heading towards the Congo rainforest who decide to invest in a new and expensive North Face tent only to find that it leaks like a mosquito net and North Face’s helpful response being that the life time guarantee will be honoured if we send the tent back to them at a courier cost of R2500!! The leaking was solved with a 3m x 3m piece of thick building plastic from the local Chinese shop inserted between the inner tent and the fly sheet which is 100% waterproof but added a kilogram to a backpack that must be carried for the next year.
Beautiful forest bathroom at Ngepi Camp, Namibia

The Caprivi area has many beautiful camp sites in stunning locations along the rivers with excellent camping facilities. One of our favourites was Ngepi Camp which overlooks the crocodile-and-hippo-filled Cubango river. They have beautiful natural showers and toilets nestled in the forest and even a swimming cage in the river that allows you to swim without fear of attack by the numerous wild crocodiles. 
Crocodile cage swimming pool Ngepi Camp

We headed on to a natural conservancy area where private companies have leased land from the local community and set up camps there. Many experts in the field of community tourism and conservation regard these conservancies as the best way to ensure that beautiful, wild spaces materially benefit the neighbouring communities who own the land. Namibia is a world leader in this style of conservation tourism. As we drove into the conservancy along a muddy road, we met a vehicle coming the other way driven by the high-spirited “Mr Moringa” who waggled his eyebrows excitedly and told us in a strong German accent that he had “found mushrooms” and that we should come camp at his place and eat them with him. We were not clear whether these were the local version of the delectable “ikowa” (termitomyces) mushroom or the “magic” variety, but decided that either way it sounded like fun. 
Mushroom party with Mr Moringa and friends

As it turned out, Mr Moringa had put a bounty on ikowa-type mushrooms in the neighboring village and got phone calls when these unpredictable mushrooms emerged. As with their Eastern Cape “ikowa” cousins, these meaty mushrooms are without doubt the most delicious in the world - but sadly have never been successfully farmed as they only exist in symbiosis with termites. Whoever gets that mushroom farming right one day will be rich. We had a fun-filled evening with Mr Moringa and friends eating mushrooms and listening to wild stories of how the Moringa plant cures every problem known to man. We also heard the first of many dissident theories on Covid19 in Africa that emerge from a tourism industry destroyed by the absence of international tourists. While the South African tourism industry has suffered terribly from the travel restrictions necessary to contain the spread of the virus, at least South Africa has a significant domestic tourism market that generates some income. In countries north of the Limpopo, tourism is almost entirely dependent on non-existant international tourists and have received no support at all from their under-resourced governments. They listened jealously to our talk of monthly UIF-TERS payments and other forms of support. South African tourism has suffered lightly in comparison. Couple this hardship with daily deaths from Covid often in single figures and it is perhaps understandable that there is a lot of scepticism around Covid19 science. Having lost family and friends to the virus, we try our best to put a good word in for the scientific consensus, but it gets little acceptance from a tourism industry in despair.  

Our days enjoying the quiet beauty of sunsets, expansive landscapes and wild animals going about their daily business took an exciting turn when our 4x4 plunged into a rather large hole, far from any other human beings and in the middle of lion country. Dave got down and began to dig out the wheel and Paul sized up the scrubby bushes in the vicinity hoping we’d be able to attach the winch with some measure of success. While Lisa walked the area looking for a path through the bush free of more large holes, Rejane was occupied with important lion-lookout duty. With luck on our side, the winch did the job and we could pull the truck out. Flocks of crimson bee-eaters accompanied our vehicle as we headed back to camp where we had another impromptu party with Mr Moringa and friends.  

The week of fun 4x4 travel drew to a close and we bade a fond farewell to Lisa and Paul. We swung our packs onto our backs and crossed the border to Zambia - somewhat surprisingly our 10-day-old South African Covid tests met the Zambian Covid health check requirements. The truck drivers ahead of us in the queue who looked confused when asked for a Covid test were waved through with a shrug and a temperature check.

Zambians welcomed us with their friendly and generous spirits. As soon as we crossed the border we began looking for transport to Livingstone and we were offered one for free by someone transporting a second hand car that had been bought in the UK and was being shipped via Walvis Bay to Zimbabwe. The words of the 18th century African explorer Mungo Parks, rang true: “... I was everywhere well-received [by the people I met] ...and the fatigues of the day were generally alleviated by a hearty welcome at night...I found at length that custom surmounted trifling inconveniences, and made everything palatable” ...a statement we have found as true today as it was when travelling through Africa in 1799.

Having travelled through Zambia in the 90’s and early 2000’s the improvement in the economy and infrastructure is impressive. Zambians are bubbling with energy and resourcefulness. Everyone seems to be farming or doing some kind of trade: well crafted furniture is ingeniously made from the local hard woods and welding and maak-a-plan Macgyvering of all sorts goes on in the markets. People are incredibly resilient, patient and focused in pushing through adversity.  It feels as if the future might be one with much upside, if the politics can right itself and focus on sensible policies that harness the entrepreneurial energy of its creative people.
Road-side furniture makers (Mongu, Zambia)

Home made lathe

Finished product: R3500 for 2 chairs and a couch (hardwood)

The road from the border to Livingstone turned out to be a rather bumpy ride on a very potholed road. Metres-wide potholes that occured every few metres were so treacherous that most vehicles drove on the grass next to what was left of the tar road. It took us 5 hours to travel the first 100km and then the road became perfect and we completed the next 100km in one hour. 
Other travellers!! The only ones we met in a month.

In Livingstone we stayed at the beautiful and comfortable Jolly Boys backpackers which had a few dedicated kayakers on their annual pilgrimage to the mighty Zambezi and where we met the only other travellers we would see the whole month (three friendly Frenchies). They had all travelled down from the north of the continent, two of them had hitch-hiked the whole way. It was great to swap stories and to feel that at least we weren’t the only people travelling across Africa in 2021.  It was a treat, as always, to see Mosi-oa-Tunya/Victoria Falls which, after the heavy rains, was cascading at a mind blowing 1 million litres a second. On leaving the falls, it was heart-wrenching to see the desperate lines of curio sellers and tourist guides sitting hopelessly waiting for non-existent tourists. At one of the most visited tourist attractions in Africa, perhaps 10 tourists visited the whole day.  

Our favourite Zambian bus: Power Tools

After a restful week in Livingstone, we were headed west, with a brief stopover in Lusaka. What was a pot-holed road plied by “chicken buses” (think old-style Putco buses) 20 years ago is now a smooth highway with air-conditioned buses  with names like “Power Tools”. Lusaka has been similarly transformed with multiple malls and ever-improving infrastructure. Long gone are the days when the backpacker could only afford to stay at the Sikh Temple, now Lusaka is overflowing with affordable accommodation options. Zambia has a home-grown version of “Uber Eats” called Afri-Delivery which provides an excellent service. South Africa’s influence is obvious with numerous gleaming malls having been built and many well-known South African stores visible.
Airtel (red) and MTN (yellow) mobile money booths

On every street corner in Zambia there are countless Afritel and MTN booths where one can send and receive money through your phone (in a similar way to Mpesa in Kenya). Charging just 1% cash withdrawal fees, this has made sending money around the country incredibly easy and one is also able to pay for groceries at bigger shops using your Airtel/MTN money balance. The large number of these booths does make one wonder how anyone makes enough money; often one can find 10 booths lined up next to each other offering the same service and 100m down the road another 10 booths. 

While on the subject of mobile phone companies, a pleasant surprise has been the cost of data in Zambia: R7/US$0.50 per GB for prepaid data. Namibia has similar prices. South African telco companies - nudge nudge… 
Mid-size bus to iTezhi-Tezhi

From Lusaka we headed out on a crowded, non-Power Tools bus towards the nature reserves of Kafue on the excellent Great West highway. The road became a muddy mess when we turned off the highway towards the small town of iTezhi-tezhi passing trucks stuck in big mud holes after the heavy rains. Our mid-sized bus was packed to the hilt with passengers and goods, with the 10% of passengers who were wearing masks mostly choosing the popular chin-sling style of non-protection. We are certainly going to test the effectiveness of our N95 masks! 
Bad road to iTezhi-Tezhi

On arrival in iTezhi-tezhi, we were greeted by a spectacular sunset and a pretty campsite on the edge of the large dam that made the trip feel completely worthwhile. We had a swimming pool, hot showers, a bar and a restaurant all to ourselves. We decided we’d stay for a bit, chill and enjoy. Mornings began slowly doing our few bits of laundry and making coffee on our little spirit burning stove. The afternoons were spent reading our Kindles with dips in the swimming pool. Entertainment was provided by naughty monkeys pulling the thatch off the chalet roof tops, aggressive alpha baboons terrorising their troops and fat dassies that wouldn’t sit still long enough for a decent close-up pic to be taken. In the evenings we practiced cooking on our little stove and turned out surprisingly delicious meals. At night we would sleep in our (expensive, plastic-improved North-Face-crap) tent to the sounds of nature which was dominated by blood curdling screams of monkeys which we were told was either due to them “just being scared” or because of them being preyed on by leopards. Our nights were a little less restful when we found elephant droppings two metres from our tent and the regular bellowing of hippos just below us. The fact that the lodge chef was brutally killed by elephants four years ago not far from where we were camping added to the tension. Living within unfenced conservancies certainly comes with its own risks.
New Kalala camp

On the last night, when we decided to treat ourselves to a restaurant dinner, we were joined by the owner of the camp who told fascinating stories of when he was contracted by Nordic nations to supply meat to the ANC and SWAPO in exile in Lusaka. He spoke highly of the gentlemanly Oliver Tambo, the strict vegetarianism of his friend Kenneth Kaunda who loves nuts and is now too old to eat his veggies raw, as he preferred, and the swash-buckling arrogance of some of the other freedom fighters. 

It has been revealing to hear how unimpressed Zambians are of South African construction and engineering companies who were seen to be expensive (paying their staff first world salaries) and delivering sub-standard products. Our host, and many other Zambians, spoke highly of the Chinese and Indian contractors who Zambians describe as “serious” - not surprising when one sees giant highway overpasses in Lusaka being built by a large Indian company in less than three months, a gleaming local hydro-electric power plant built by Tata Energy and a number of big Chinese firms rapidly building good roads across the country. The days when South Africa was admired as a construction power-house are long gone. The dismissal by many South Africans of Chinese and Indian contractors as sub-standard sounds like snobbish ignorance. South Africa needs to up its game if it wants to be seen as anything more than a source of efficient retail outlets.  
Mastering our Trangia alcohol stove

To keep going north we would have to go back out on that demon of a muddy road in a squashed bus so when the lodge owner offered us a ride on the back of his bakkie, we took it. It would probably be more comfortable than the rickety old bus but it was likely to rain. We took the offer anyway and at 6am we were off, covered in our poncho rain suits and settled in between the groundnuts, maize, fruit and veggies sourced from the local farmers for his shops in Lusaka. Bouncy, windy and wet at the back of his truck, we were still more comfortable than we had been on the bus.
Better to be on the back of a truck than in a crowded bus

We reached the junction after about two hours and then caught a Power Tools bus for another six hours to reach the town of Mongu. The capital of the region, Mongu has a Shoprite and a PEP Store. For the rest of your shopping, you had small local shops and markets along a dusty main road. The small restaurants had little variety, but the meals were delicious: rice, nshima (pap) or chips with chicken, beef or fish with some green vegetable - pretty much the same restaurant fare is found across Zambia, only the quality differs. 
Typical restaurant meal: nshima with fish/chicken

Mongu is a vibrant town with atmospheric music emanating in the evenings from many tiny barber shop shacks at which it seems more beer is drunk than hair-dos are styled. Each barber shop has to invest in an large sound system with a computer and DJ equipment in order to entice customers for a festive haircut which for guys cost about R7/$0.50. At night the local nightclub was pumping and we walked past jealously wishing we could join everyone having fun and dancing like it was 2019.
Fresh produce for sale In Mongu

This region is home to the Lozi people who famously live on the Barotse floodplain. These plains are a huge, flat lowland that floods every rainy season much like the Okavango and through which the giant Zambezi river flows. The culture here is for the people to move on to the plains during the dry season for farming, grazing and fishing and then to gradually move away from the plains as the flood waters rise - abandoning their houses to be inundated - and moving to higher areas, like Mongu, that remain dry throughout the year. We had arrived as the waters were rapidly rising and the exodus from the plains had begun. 
Exploring the mango forest near Mongu

From Mongu town we moved on to a homestay in a nearby farming village where we enjoyed walking around under the massive mango trees, seeing farming life and learning a little Silozi language which is similar enough to isiXhosa, for us to follow the general gist of a conversation. The main crops in this region are maize and rice grown on the edge of the flood plains and vegetables grown on the drier, raised areas. The soil is almost pure sand and runs to a depth of 70 metres before becoming rocky. The trees here grow incredibly fast: we saw 10 month-old papaya trees standing 3 metres high laden with fruit and 8 year-old Avocado trees standing 10 metres tall. No doubt the roots can easily travel long distances in the sandy soil to find water and nutrients. Tomatoes are grown in huge numbers, but one could also easily find aubergines, onions, chinese cabbage, rape, green beans, ground nuts, garlic, ginger, wild mushrooms (R7/$0.50 per 5L bucket), cabbage, sweet potato and lots of other veggies. Fruit was much more scarce with even bananas being hard to find some times. The farmers are well supplied even in small villages by little agro-shops that supply all the fetiliser, pesticides, livestock medication and equipment that a small-scale farmer could need. If only we had these little shops in the Transkei! 
10 month-old papaya tree in our host's lush garden

With the roads on the floodplain being flooded, an option for travelling on to Lukulu, our next destination along the Zambezi river, was by boat. There are fibre glass Banana Boats and long wooden boats with small engines called Sesepes. Banana boats were not recommended for long journeys as they are unstable in the wind so we took a wooden Sesepe. 
The "port" near Mongu on the Zambezi river

After a little confusion and waiting around we caught a skoro-skoro pickup along a beautiful Chinese-built, raised highway into the plains. The highway ran next to a miserable, failed road built by the Saudis that was melting back into the water. At the bridge over the Zambezi we caught a Sesepe boat heading off to the village of Liwonda, where we would spend a night and then travel on to Lukulu the following day. Liwonda was a village literally off the map and on the way all one could see on the banks of the mighty Zambezi river were little fishing settlements with small huts made entirely of grass supported on a timber A-frame. It was re-assuring to see that these huts used a sheet of black plastic sandwiched between the layers of grass as water-proofing much like our piece-of-crap-North-Face tent. The villagers eke out a living catching, smoking and salting fish and doing their best to avoid the many crocodiles and hippos. As we chugged peacefully upstream we admired the quiet, spectacular beauty of the vast Zambezi river and the communities moving and living slowly along it and felt increasingly like we were heading into the middle of nowhere. 
Seasonal fishermen's camp on the Barotse floodplain

Sailing North towards Liwonda

After a couple hours of sailing along in the pitch dark, we arrived in tiny Liwonda where we were shown to a very basic guest house that cost R35/$2.50 per night for the room. With the Zambian kwacha having weakened considerably, a plate of food with pap, chicken and a little veg costs R15/$1 and can go down to as low as half that price, for a small piece of beef with pap. You can buy 6 guavas or 3 bananas for 1 kwacha (about R0.70/$5c) - avocados cost 2 kwacha.

The boat moving on to Lukulu was ready to leave at 6am the next morning. We had wanted to stay another night and explore Liwonda but it seemed that if we didn’t take this boat, who knew when the next one might come around. We decided not to chance it. Turns out that was probably a good idea. We were soon to understand just how scarce transport was on this part of the river: it could easily have taken a week before the next boat.
Poling through the reeds to the main Zambezi channel

Heading north on the Sesepe boat towards Lukulu

The trip to Lukulu started out magical. We were two of just five passengers plus three crew and some salted fish. The skies were clear and we sailed along at a steady, albeit slow pace of about 10km/h. You could walk around the boat, chat to your fellow passengers and cook lunch on the charcoal stove. For us it was a luxurious way to travel. We took in the quiet vastness and thoroughly enjoyed the experience of life on the Zambezi. As we went, we collected passengers who would stop the boat by waving and yelling from the river bank. The river itself was lined with giant beds of grassy reeds that grew taller and taller as the plain filled up with water. The “cockswain”, as the boat driver was locally known, would often leave the main river, pole through a few hundred metres of grass reeds only to emerge in a new river channel that seemed to be preferable as the water was flowing against us more slowly. 
This fishermen's home was about to be abandoned to the rising floodwater

Dried and smoked fish to be loaded onto the boat

Tiger fish for lunch

For lunch we shared some delicious freshly fried tiger fish and boiled ground nuts. We also got to explore some of the temporary fishing settlements that were being abandoned while the inhabitants loaded their dried fish and joined us on our boat. As the afternoon progressed we loaded more and more passengers and tons of dried fish and one very sick, old man who was struggling to breathe. The time began slipping away with each stop taking up to an hour of loading time and by 6pm, it looked like our journey that was meant to take 12 hours, would probably only arrive long after dark. The wooden benches of the boat began to bite into our behinds and the overloaded boat began to struggle along at half of its already slow pace. We were moving up stream at walking speed when the rain storm blew in. And it rained...for hours...we got stuck in trees, thick reeds, stranded on sand banks and then at 4am, with the rain not having let up at all, the boat ran out of fuel. We estimated at least a three hour wait until daylight when the captain could call someone to bring fuel (we were only five kilometres from Lukulu now). Having not slept at all, we settled onto our bench. There were too many passengers and goods to allow ones legs to stretch out and since the river was too high to get to dry ground, the only relief from sitting in the boat was to stand in the river, in between the reeds in the rain. Not one boat had passed us on this entire trip so there was nothing to do but wait. By 8am, we expected that the fuel would soon be arriving but then we realised that the inept captain was unsuccessfully trying to get a friend to bring us some fuel as a favour. We gave up on the captain and along with some other passengers managed to get another boat to bring fuel and transport us to town. We reached the Lukulu guest house shivering and wet, after 28 hours, having travelled a total distance of 80km. All the passengers agreed that this was the worst boat trip ever and swore never to use that captain again. We had experienced a way of life that one can only be seen by boat and we highly recommend it, but we’d suggest starting in the north and sailing downstream. That way your boat will keep going at a decent pace, even when it runs out of fuel!
Rain and no fuel (about 20 people under the plastic!)

Lukulu, known locally as “the land of plenty” is a bustling one road town split rather strangely into the Old Market and the New Market sections separated by a kilometre of undeveloped Catholic church-owned land. The main form of transport between the two halves of town were motorbike taxis which are a cheap and fun way to travel. 

Our days in Lukulu were spent exploring the markets for ingredients for dinner and trying to find the best sweet snack options. Zambia has surprisingly few snacks for those with a sweet tooth which probably explains the slim, fit figures of most Zambians. We settled on the ubiquitous and tasty Milk-It flavoured milks (R5/$.30), Tennis biscuits and the rarer yoghurt drinks. 
Waiting for the truck in the background to fill up with passengers

Attractive, leafy homesteads around Lukulu

From Lukulu we had to catch the only public transport option namely an ancient Land Cruiser pickup loaded with goods and passengers on a terrible road that had apparently last been maintained 30 years ago. We admired the attractive, leafy villages shaded by giant mango trees and surrounded by maize and kasava fields as we slowly left the plains, covering 70km in five hours. We crossed the mighty Kabompo river on a ferry and then reached the tar road where we were able to hitch a lift on a passing Power Tools bus and within an hour we were in the attractive small town of Zambezi staying in a lovely - though empty - lodge with a magnificent view of the Zambezi river and the wooded plains that stretch out to the Angolan border in the distance. From here we will head inland and gradually make our way towards the DRC as we continue our journey northwards.
Ferry across the Kabompo river

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Our Africa Moves - travelling slowly together.

This year, we'll be travelling around our home continent of Africa by public transport, slowly.

Saturday, March 19, 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.

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