Our 2023 Trip to Vietnam and Cambodia

Navigating these pages: In the following itinerary, there are several columns describing the day. Text within [brackets] in the heading line explains the purpose of the link to the corresponding item.

shows the ordinal number of the day of travel, and in parentheses, the day of the cruise. Note that I number the cruise day with 0-origin indexing, whereas the cruise companies use 1-origin indexing. I do this a) because I am a computer scientist, and b) the "first" day usually goes nowhere.
Date [Photos]
Clicking on a link in this column will take you to the corresponding photo album page for the day.
All times are local times, with offset from UTC (if known) in parentheses. Where a range is given, it shows the hours of travel for the day. This can give anomalous timings when travel across time zones is involved. Where a change of time zone is involved, offsets from UTC are given in parentheses. A single UTC offset indicates the local time for the day, and if multiple UTC offsets are given, these indicate the UTC zones travelled. Calendar dates are always local to the starting time zone, trip days are elapsed night times.
Activity [Blog]
What we did that day. This is usually a link to a later part of the page, describing in more detail what we did that day.
Locations [Track]
Where we were that day. Where this is a link, it will take you to the track for the day. These are separate html pages. Not all days were tracked, and these days will have no link to open.
Just to show we didn't sleep on the streets.
Bookings, Maps and various Travel Documents. For privacy reasons, these documents are not loaded to the public server.
as recorded by my FitBit for the day.

Within the diary entries, the date heading is a link to the photo page (as for the itinerary). The day of the week/ordinal number is a link back to the itinerary, and the day's title is a link to the track (as for the itinerary).

These pages are under construction, and may have anomalous entries. Note that the pages will change over time as I edit in travel progress. Note also that when the document refers to 'John', the author is assumed, unless stated otherwise.


Day Date Time Place Blog Track Sleep Notes Steps
0 24 Sep (Sun) 1500-0045(+10)
Tullamarine Melbourne to Hanoi no track Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi arrive 21:45(+7) local time 3785
1 25 Sep (Mon) all day Hanoi How now, Ha Noi? Hoan Kiem Lake
Ly Club
Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi Breakfast 11209
2 26 Sep (Tue) am to Sapa by coach Sapa Sa Pa-ing wet Hanoi to SaPa Silk Path Grand Resort and Spa, SaPa Breakfast Lunch Dinner 13403
3 27 Sep (Wed) Sapa Ta Phin-ky weather Sa Pa Walks Silk Path Grand Resort and Spa, Sapa Breakfast Lunch Dinner 14394
4 28 Sep (Thu) am to Hanoi by coach Hanoi Washed down the Mountain Sa Pa to Hanoi Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi Breakfast 9232
5 29 Sep (Fri) Hanoi Sticking to the sticky rice quest Hanoi Tour Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi Breakfast Dinner 8996
6 30 Sep (Sat) Hanoi Cyclo Metric Hanoi Hanoi Explore Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi Breakfast Dinner 11828
7 01 Oct (Sun) coach to Ha Long,
embark Au Co
Ha Long Bay Ha Long to go? Ha Long Bay on board Au Co ship Breakfast Lunch Dinner 5553
8 02 Oct (Mon) all day Ha Long Bay Chuck another prawn in the bay Ha Long Bay on board Au Co ship Breakfast Lunch Dinner 2146
9 03 Oct (Tue) disembark Au Co;
fly to Da Nang; Hoi
Ha Long Bay; Hanoi;
Da Nang; Hoi An
How long to Hoi An? HaLong to Hoi An Hotel Royal Hoi An Breakfast Lunch Dinner 4753
10 04 Oct (Wed) Hoi An Short shrift for John Hoi An Tour
Hoi An Walk
Hotel Royal Hoi An Breakfast Dinner 7154
11 05 Oct (Thu) Hoi An Bums rule in Hoi An Hoi An Lune Hotel Royal Hoi An Breakfast 12094
12 06 Oct (Fri) 0800-1300 coach to Hue Hue Up and Over the Cloud Pass, then into the Cloud Burst Hoi An to Hue Silk Path Grand Hue Hotel and Spa Breakfast Lunch Dinner 8101
13 07 Oct (Sat) 1235 fly to Ho Chi Minh Ho Chi Minh Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh Ho Chi Minh Park Hyatt Saigon Breakfast Dinner 5701
14 08 Oct (Sun) 0745 coach to Cu Chi Ho Chi Minh; Cu Chi Tunnel Visions Ho Chi Minh Park Hyatt Saigon Breakfast Lunch Dinner 11719
15 09 Oct (Mon) embark Mekong Serentity Ho Chi Minh Serenity at last! Ho Chi Minh Mekong Serenity Breakfast Lunch Dinner 5957
16 10 Oct (Tue) Cai Be, Sa Dec Confusionism Cai Be, Sa Dec Mekong Serenity Breakfast Lunch Dinner 8396
17 11 Oct (Wed) Tan Chau Milking the Silk Tan Chau Mekong Serenity Breakfast Lunch Dinner 6264
18 12 Oct (Thu) Udong Blessed are the Tourists, for they shall provide money Silver Threads Mekong Serenity Breakfast Lunch Dinner 5900
19 13 Oct (Fri) Phnom Penh Cyclo Phnom Penh Phnom Penh Mekong Serenity Breakfast Lunch Dinner 5693
20 14 Oct (Sat) Angkor Ban Ankor Village, aka Encore Village Ankor Ban Mekong Serenity Breakfast Lunch Dinner 5836
21 15 Oct (Sun) Kampong Cham, Koh Pen Wringing in the rain Koh Pen Mekong Serenity Breakfast Lunch Dinner 8041
22 16 Oct (Mon) disembark Mekong Serenity Kampong Cham A rare duck treat Kampong Chan to Siem Reap, SiemReap Hotel Sofitel Angkor Breakfast Lunch Dinner 5962
23 17 Oct (Tue) Siem Reap Stairways to Heaven Angkor Wat Hotel Sofitel Angkor Breakfast 12286
24 18 Oct (Wed) Siem Reap Horse before the Cart Siem Reap Hotel Sofitel Angkor Breakfast Dinner 8778
25 19 Oct (Thu) VN VN871 depart Siem Reap Business Class NOT! Extremes of transport in air Breakfast 5982
26 20 Oct (Fri) arrive Melbourne Staggering home Home! 5 Fran Court Breakfast 3268

Trip Blog

24 Sep 2023, Sunday (Day 0), Melbourne to Hanoi

We were well enough prepared and packed that at 11am we had time to turn on the TV and watch the 11am church service. However, just as Jan Clear came up to do the Prayers of the People, my phone rang with a cryptic message that Paul in his Mercedes 730 was approaching, and we could track his vehicle by clicking a link. My immediate thought was that it was spam, but a call from upstairs that our airport lift had arrived demonstrated that it was not, so we hurriedly bundled all our luggage up to the front, said goodbye to the family, and set off.

Paul turned out to be quite a chatty driver, which was just as well, as he took us down the Eastern Freeway and across the top end of town, so it took quite a bit longer. But given that we had left 20 minutes early we were still at the airport by 1220, and plenty of time to get checked in and navigate security, so that we were at the Premium Plaza lounge by 1300.

The PP was not all that exciting as business class lounges go - seats that were designed for short Vietnamese legs, not much selection in the way of food, and somewhat boring and unexciting food at that. But they did have beers!

We were told that they would call our boarding time at 1410, but they didn't, so at 1420 we left and found the gate, where we had missed the hordes of people pushing to get on first, and walked straight on to the plane.

The flight itself was notable only for a fair amount of turbulence on crossing the Bunda Sea, which persisted most of the rest of the way to Hanoi. I watched "Man of Steel" (about Superman's early days), but it was full of gratuitous violence, so I did not enjoy it that much. After a bit of reading on my Kindle (finished Alexander McCall Smith "The Good Husband of Zebra Drive"), I watched another movie "Book Club: The Next Chapter". Verdict: shit plot, fantastic scenery.

Landed in Hanoi a bit early at 0005 Monday morning Melbourne time, which was 2105 local time, and collected our check-in bag (which took a loonng time to come) and found our tour guide Duke. A somewhat hair raising 50 minute drive to the Metropole Hotel in the middle of Hanoi - there are thousands of motorcycles around, most riders not wearing helmets, and some bikes with a whole family of 4 on them! Nobody seems to want to follow any sort of lane discipline, and several times I looked the other way as we had a few close encounters of the first kind.

We were welcomed to the Metropole, and signed in as Duke explained some of the local culture to us (don't drink the tap water, beware of pick pockets, and be very choosy about which restaurants you eat at). But the best attraction was bed, and and as soon as we were abl...

25 Sep 2023, Monday (Day 1), How Now, Ha Noi?

What they said:

Today is yours to spend at leisure. You may wish to step out and explore Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, which offers plenty of exciting experiences or simply relax poolside at your hotel. Hanoi is famous for its centuries-old architecture, with an eclectic mix of Southeast Asian, Chinese, and French influences.

Later this evening, get to know your fellow travellors and your local guide during an informal Welcome Briefing at your hotel.

What we did:

Although we had no reason to get up early, we did, because Hanoi is 3 hours behind Melbourne, and our body clocks were 3 hours ahead of Hanoi time. So we had a cup of tea - or rather, a half-mug of tea, because there was only 1 black tea bag, and it had to share between 2 mugs! But that did act as a bit of a heart-starter, and we dressed for breakfast by 0730.

Breakfast was quite interesting. We were shown to the Orangerie Restaurant, which was housed in what was an orangerie in the original Metropole Hotel (built by the French, after all). We felt a little adventurous, and had a few Vietnamese dishes, such as Pho (pronounced "fur"), Green Papaya Salad, Bahn Mi, and Chung Cake. The Pho was the most delicious, the Chung Cake the least. I won't bother describing Pho, as it is quite readily available In Melbourne, but you won't have heard of Chung Cake. It is made for celebratory occasions, such as holidays and birthdays, and has to be cooked overnight. It is a layered mixture of creamed corn and sticky rice, and Barb was not impressed. My first reaction was the same as Barb's, but I found that it did grow on me a bit - to the point where I will try it again when next I have the opportunity.

After breakfast, we had decided to walk around the Hoan Kiem Lake, which was not far from the Metropole. We first checked out the Opera House, just at the end of the road (didn't go in, it was closed to the public), and then wandered through part of the French quarter. Lots of old buildings, which escaped the Hanoi bombings by the Yanks, and lots of modern buildings built to replace those that didn't.

Then to the Hoan Kiem Lakeside, where there is a walking path that goes all the way around the lake (1.75km), and we set off in an anticlockwise direction. We soon discovered that the lake shores are a popular place for fancy photo shoots, such as weddings, advertisements, and just plain wankers. I could not care less about them per se, except that they do have a habit of getting in front of all the interesting landmarks, and I found that patiently waiting for them to finish and move on was a waste of time. So I just photo-bombed a few of them anyway.

We had been advised by a friend, Ann MacMillan, that there was a nice ice cream shop about half-way round the lake "or at least there was, 15 years ago" she said. We found that it was still there, looking a little run down, but still selling a selection of Vietnamese flavoured ice creams. Our adventurous spirit did dessert us (durian ice cream, anyone?), and we settled on an innocuous coconut flavour. "innocuous", John? It was brilliant! We sat and enjoyed them lick by lick, watching the world go by. Certainly much more welcome than I believe the durian one would have been.

But there's a limit to how many rickshaw and sales cart pushers one can watch walking the wrong way up a one way street, and then crossing a busy roundabout without getting run over, and when a smoker came into the shop smoking away, we finished our ice creams and buggered off. (Well, he didn't, someone had to!)

Lots of photos and photo-bombing on the way back the other side of the lake, and we retraced our steps back to the hotel. Well, we would not have, if Barbara had been navigating, as when I pointed in the right direction, she said "No, it's the other way!" I had to whip the map out, and aided by the green track that it used to show where we had been, manage to convince her that the starting point (the hotel) was indeed in the opposite direction to that which she swore was correct. "Jet lag" was the 3 hour lame excuse.

Back in the hotel, we had a bit of a snooze, and then went to find lunch in the Bamboo Bar, partly because John had seen it from the Orangerie at breakfast, and was very intrigued by the overhead fan cooling system. Most of the fans were hung in the conventional horizontal orientation, rotating about a vertical axis. There were 6 of these rotating at speeds of 15rpm up to about 120rpm. What made these so fascinating (if you are a nerd, it must be said) was the fact that there were 4 fans rotating about a horizontal axis, 2 on one axis blowing one way, the other 2 on a different axis blowing the other way. Kept John entertained for some time.

We had lunch, Barb with a club sandwich, John with a salmon pita wrap, and a beer each. It was a BIT expensive, and it came to 1.5 million dong. Yes, that's right, 1.5 million! You have to bear in mind that the exchange rate is something like 0.000066 dongs to the AUS dollar, but even so, it was of the order of $100, a rather expensive lunch!

A quiet afternoon, during which we took advantage of the large old-fashioned club-foot bath in our room, and reflected on the fact that it was probably 8 years ago since our last bath! (There have been showers in the meantime, I hasten to add.) It was most relaxing, and soaked away some aching feet and sore hips.

At 1700, we had booked to do a tour of the hotel, and that turned out to be most interesting, as our guide took us through the history of the hotel, from its inception as a French colonial construction, through the slowly dilapidating WWII years, culminating in the departure of the French in 1954, and the start of the Vietnam War, and most significantly, the bombing of Hanoi from 1965 until the war's end in 1975. There were lots of photos to illustrate the history, and I made a mental note to return on our return to Hanoi to look them up and read them more closely.

Then down to the bomb shelter, built during the 60s to protect the staff and the (few) guests staying at the Metropole then. It was a rabbit warren of corridors and bunkers, accommodating up to 50 people at a time. It was particularly poignant when our guide Huyn, who was a woman who had lived through the war (she said she was 10 at the time), turned on a recording, firstly of the sound of bombers and bombs dropping and exploding, followed by the cries of children, in turn followed by Joan Baez's song of "Where are you now, my son?" written in Hanoi on the occasion of her visit to Hanoi in 1969. Pretty strong stuff. Bastard Yanks. As I said to the group at the time "And just what did the war achieve?" I guess a few Australian veterans would be wondering much the same, that is, if they have not committed suicide in the meantime.

Then Barb and I, along with a few others whom we discovered were booked on our APT tour, assembled in the hotel lobby to meet Duke, our guide, for a briefing on our next stage - a trip to Sa Pa. The bad news was that we have a 0730 start, with bags to be outside our rooms by 0700. Breakfast would be available from 0600.

Since dinner for today was not part of the itinerary, we followed Duke recommendation, and set off for the Ly Club, a restaurant only 100m from the hotel. The doorman asked us when we got there whether we had a reservation, which we admitted we did not. "Come in anyway, and we'll see if we can find a table for you" he said. Upon ushering us into the dining room, we saw two other occupied tables, and the rest of the restaurant vacant!

No matter, the waiter was very helpful and polite, but we had trouble deciding on suitable light meals. Plenty of choice amongst the heavy and expensive meals, but nothing appealed. Barb eventually settled on beef and eggplant, and I chose sweet and sour prawn and mushroom soup. "Like Tom Yum soup" the waiter explained, which was just what I felt like.

Both meals were excellent, and not too expensive either. When the waiter brought the bill, it showed the amounts in US dollars, as well as Vietnamese dong. $US28 it came to. For two meals, a gin and tonic and a beer, that was far more reasonable than lunch!

Then back to the hotel, and bed, as we have an early start tomorrow.

26 Sep 2023, Tuesday (Day 2), Sa Pa-ing wet

What they said:

After breakfast, take a scenic journey by private vehicle to the mountain town of Sapa, located near the Chinese border. Witness spectacular mountain views and valleys dotted with terraced paddy fields along the way (approx. 5 hours). This former French hill station is home to local hill tribe people who make their way in from nearby villages to sell their produce in bustling markets.

Lunch will be at a local restaurant, before spending time at your accomodation. Later step out on a guided walk around town. You will have the opportunity to see and learn about several of the ethnic minority groups including Nung, Phu La, Hmong and Dao. Often Hmong women can be seen twisting hemp around their hands to make it into thread for clothing.

Sit down and savour dinner at a local restaurant before returning to your mountain resort perched atop one of Sapa's highest hills.

What we did:

We did indeed rise early, and breakfasted just after 0615. Not quite as adventurous as yesterday, and I confined myself to eating the raw fish: tuna, smoked salmon, and sea bass. It was even better than yesterday - in particular, the sea bass was not stringy, and the flavour was more pronounced. I think it was just fresher.

Piled onto the bus at 0730 - but unfortunately Lynn tripped as she climbed into the bus, and gashed her leg rather badly. So some urgent first aid was required, and delayed our departure to 0745. I think Lynn's emotions were more embarassment at holding up the departure than anything else.

Getting out of Hanoi was very slow, as it was rush hour. You have not seen anything like it! There were millions of motorcyclists everywhere, weaving in and out of traffic, streaming in files 6 abreast along the roads, and just non-stop, as far as the eye could see. Relatively few cars as such, but quite a few busses. It was amazing!

We crossed the Red River, just upstream from the railway bridge built by Gustave Eiffel, but unfortunately, half of it was destroyed by American bombing during the Vietnam War. A great pity, as it was a beautiful symmetric bridge.

The trip took us out past the airport, and across vast plains of housing and rice paddies. It was all fairly flat country, until about a third of the way there, when the countryside became more undulating, and we joined the Red River valley (aka Song Hong) and followed that all the way to Lao Cai, where we turned off for the final 45km to Sapa. But not before we went through a tropical downpour that reduced visibility down to not quite being able to see the other side of the river. We heard later that this low pressure trough was a result of a typhoon!

The rain stopped before we reached the turn-off to Sa Pa, whereupon our speed dropped significantly, as the road became very windy and hilly. We got to Sa Pa, but had to shut our eyes on some corners, because people were doing crazy overtaking manoeuvres on double yellow lines, and there were motorbikes driving down the wrong side of the road! Fortunately we saw no bingles, or even evidence of bingles, so the Vietnamese must be praying to the right gods.

On arrival at Sa Pa, we went straight to the Red Dzao restaurant, where we had a most interesting meal: pumpkin, carrot and potato soup; sweet potato balls; green papaya salad; chicken and mushrooms; pork; rice with sweet and sour fish (not too strong); eggplant; and fresh fruit. We also had a beer each, 45,000 dong, about $A3 each.

After lunch, back in the bus, and a little way further to the Silk Path Hotel, clearly 5 star. Our room had a view to the mountains, but we could not see much of them, as they were shrouded in cloud. At 1700 we caught an electric shuttle buggy back into town, and as soon as the buggy set off, I discover I had left my SD card out of the camera, still in the computer downloading photos! Duh. Fortunately, one of the other fellow travellers, Brian, offered me one of his spare cards, so I was able to take some photos of the town, with a promise to return the card the next day.

But our walk through the town turned a little wet, as we first saw lightning, closely followed by thunder, and then rain! We took shelter in a coffee house, and thought that we might sit the rain out easily - but! The coffee house had no coffee! Nevermind, we said, we'll have a beer. But I got suspicious when the waitress brought out the glasses, and they had ice in them. The ice was to cool the beer, because the beer was warm!! Arrrggh!!! In a hot climate (even when it was pouring with rain), you do NOT want to be drinking warm beer. So we had nothing.

Eventually, once it became clear that the skies were not, Duke summoned up the bus, and we all made a run for the bus through the pouring rain (which, if anything, seemed to be getting heavier), and then returned to the hotel. Dinner was another interesting meal - H'mong dishes - and all I can remember was the taste of corn wine. Not as good as grape wine, I have to say. Nevertheless, it was a good opportunity to get to know our fellow travellers better, and I spent some time chatting with my neighbour at the table, Lynn.

After dinner, back to the hotel and we retired for the night. (And I forgot to finish off this diary entry, so apologies if I have forgotten other details :-)

27 Sep 2023, Wednesday (Day 3), Ta Phin-ky weather

What they said:

This morning after breakfast, set off on a gentle hike to Ta Phin village for further exploration of this hillside region. Ta Phin is situated approximately 12kms west of Sapa and is home to the Red Dao ethnic group. Much of the region's handmade brocades are made by its inhabitants. Traditionally the women wear indigo dyed hemp tunics over 3/4 length embroidered trousers and a red head scarf. Married women shave their eyebrows off and their hairline back. Take a walk into the village and have a chance to see inside a typical Red Dao home whilst being escorted by a crowd of women peddling souvenirs. If you would like to buy something, remember to bargain hard!

Stop for a well-earned lunch and later head to sau Chua village, home to the Black Hmong people. This village retains many traditions and charms of simple village life. Take a stroll through the village and on winding trails across the hillside and be rewarded with breathtaking views of the mountains, rice fields and surrounding valleys.

Return to your hotel and relax with an Asian dinner in house. Dine on Vietnamese cuisine with a twist, combining traditional north-western recipes with what grows in the mountains.

What we did:

We breakfasted with Brian and Mary-Jean, and enjoyed some stick soup, followed by pho - I liked them both, Barb not so keen on the stick soup. The coffee was awful, and we were glad when the Maitre'd came around, and offered to make some espresso coffees for us. These we enjoyed with a selection of french pastries, before returning to our room to prepare for today's walks.

The first walk, starting at 0900, was the second of the planned excursions for today, and was to Lao Chai and Ta Van (not Sau Chau as stated), starting with a most impressive lookout on the way there, with lots of terraced rice paddies like you see in the guide books. On the way down the hill, not only did the rain ease off, but we were accompanied for a long way by a crowd of H'mong women, all wanting to sell us some handicrafts. "You want go shopping?" they would say. Barb did try to shoosh them, as we could not hear over them what Duke was saying about the features of interest, to no avail, and it was not until she (Barb) spoke to Duke about the problem, and he told the women off in the local dialect - whereupon one woman launched into a tirade against Barb, telling her to "never come here again", and other messages, which made it quite clear that she had a perfectly good grasp of basic English!

In the village of Lao Chai, we visited a couple of the local houses - very rudimentary, with earthen floors and very little lighting. But the people were most welcoming, and seemed quite content with their lot. Lots of photos, as the scenery was very interesting - lots of terraced rice fields, and plenty of (wild)life: chooks, dogs, ducks, and water buffalo. As I say, the rain held off, but it was so humid that we still got drenched under our ponchos from all the sweat that could not escape!

Then we hiked across country through various rice fields, back yards and people's house to the next village, Ta Van, with various distractions of animals, flooding rivers, home stays, and do-it-yourself street wiring, to meet up with the bus that would take us back to Sa Pa and lunch, at the "Pi's" (careful with the apostrophe!) which was very pleasant, and with cold beers, but a little broken by the fact that Duke had to return to the Silk Path Hotel to fetch those of the party who did not do the walk. I was also a little anxious, as I had left my phone on the bus, but no worries, when it came to collect us after lunch, there the phone was, still sitting on my seat!

Back to the hotel for a short break, and then 7 of us set off at 1430 for the second of today's walks, a visit to Ta Phin village. Duke had promised a short 1km walk that was "flat", but it turned out to be much more than that! Ta Phin was in the opposite direction to Sau Chau, north west of Sa Pa, and somewhat smaller than it. At least the rain held off again, until the last 15 minutes of the walk.

Again, we had a cohort of local women following us, some lasting until we got to the end. We visited a couple of houses, again very rudimentary, and the second of which included a householder who was over 100 years of age. Looked fairly spritely, too, no doubt occasioned by walking up and down all those hills.

One of the tagging along women struck up a bit more of a conversation with me, and I replied, at first hesitantly, but as she opened up a bit more, I started to probe things about her life. One question did occur to me: "Where are all the men? Why are you just women?", to which I got the reply that the men were all working in the fields and working to bring the food in. "Do you not work in the fields too?" I asked. "We used to, but once we have children we have to look after them" was the reply, which made sense, as half the women were carrying young children on their backs - and walking up and down the hills following us. The women I was talking to wasn't, but she explained that she wanted to become a tour guide: "Tourists are very important for our country" she explained, which also made sense, as Duke had explained how the explosion of tourism from 2010 or so onwards had made a big difference to the Vietnamese economy. We discussed languages, and she said she knew 4: Vietnamese, Dao (her native language), French, and English. So we did have a bit of a conversation in French!

Eventually we found the bus, and piled on, wet but pleased to have made it. But before I joined the piling on queue, I did haggle with the woman with whom I had been chatting over a nice little handcrafted purse. She wanted 120000 dong for it (about $A8), but I haggled her down to 100000. Then one of her mates (who had been talking to Barb) suggested that Barb should buy one too, but I was not going to pay her another 100000, so I chucked in the rest of the money I had, which was another 20000, and said "Here, share this between you, that's all the money I have" (always a good line), and then jumped on the bus which was waiting for me. So, $4 each for two nice little purses for the girls. I hope they like them!

The bus took us back to the Silk Path, where we had an hour or so to relax before dinner, which was an all Sa Pa tour party dinner, including a drink (beer/wine/soft). Barb and I elected for a Bia Hanoi, whereupon the waitress congratulated us for choosing a Vietnamese beer! I suspect she must have had to deal with recalcitrant yanks demanding all sorts of unavailable beers.

Dinner was at 1900, and the meal was a set menu, with a pomelo and prawn salad, fried rice, Australian beef, choko leaves (no thanks!), fried sturgeon chunks, and mixed fresh fruit for dessert. We were with a great bunch of people, and had a good time chatting away, discussing the day's activities, and the future events. Not to mention the incessant rain!

We finished about 2045, and all retired to bed, ready for the long trip back to Hanoi tomorrow morning.

28 Sep 2023, Thursday (Day 4), Washed down the Mountain

What they said:

Breathe in the fresh Sapa mountain air for the last time, before beginning your coach journey back to Hanoi.

On arrival enjoy the remainder of the day at leisure. Perhaps head to the Old Quarter, wander through the narrow alleyways, soak in the French colonial influences, or settle in to appreciate the host of luxurious facilities at your hotel.

What we did:

Breakfast at 0720 this morning, and were joined by Mary-Jean and Brian. We kept some of the adventuring spirit, as I had sweet corn and ham soup (for breakfast!), watermelon juice (didn't go well with the soup!), chicken pho, crepes, and of course, the usual french patisseries. Perhaps not so adventuresome, but certainly an unusual combination.

The bus left the Silk Path a few minutes past 9, and we headed off downhill in pouring rain. The pouring rain proved to be a hazard, as we passed 4 landslides that blocked at least one lane of the road. The first one stopped us for perhaps 10 minutes, as none of the uphill drivers knew about the etiquette that says "give way to downhill traffic". Mind you, I have seen little evidence that Vietnamese drivers know any road etiquette, other than the maxim "the quick and the dead". They are always overtaking in stupid places (a double yellow line seems to mean OK to overtake here), cutting in, and of course, tooting their horns at every opportunity as if to say "it's me coming, I have right of way!"

The second one was a douzy, and stopped us for something more like 30 minutes. It was around a blind corner, unlike the first one, where we could see all the mud and water flowing across the road. Speculation ran rife, so Duke took an umbrella and went to investigate, just as a police car went zooming past, so he stopped, and theories about an accident took sway. Eventually, we did start to move, significantly before any uphill traffic went past, so I suspect the police took charge.

And just as well! Around the corner, it was not a car prang, but a big boulder bang! A huge rock, about 4m high, was blocking the uphill lane, surrounding by piles of wet sloshy clay. A bloke was waving us past, but all eyes were on the boulder. I did get a picture of it (see Big Rock (no candy mountain!), but what was just impressive was the queue of cars behind it, stretching at least 500m back down the hill. Duke did say that if we got stopped for too long, he knew an alternative way back down the mountain, but I could not see how our driver, careful as he was, could turn the bus around in just the width of a (narrow) two lane road, with cars in front and cars behind.

We got past that one, and there were more, but they were anti-climaxes compared to the boulder one. Trees, mud and small rocks, but no boulders. Plenty of rain! So we were significantly delayed coming down the hill, and only got to the expressway junction at about 1100.

From there on, things were relatively uneventful. We had two "comfort" stops, which Duke explained were actually required by law for the driver. Every 2 hours, bus drivers must get 15 minutes rest break, and there are many service centres along the way to provide just those opportunities. A chance for passengers to stretch their legs, too, and visit the facilities (3000 dong each, about 20cents, but we quickly found out that 5000 would cover a couple).

Arrival in Hanoi at the Metropole was at 1510, so we did make up a bit of time. On unpacking the bus, we sorted out luggage, and said farewell to Duke, who was handing over to a new tourguide (whom we would meet tomorrow). He was most warmly appreciated by all the party, and we felt his leadership was all too brief.

My first priority in getting to our room was to recharge all the flattened batteries - one from the camera, one in the phone, and one powerpack used to recharge the phone. I was using the phone trip tracker to plot where we were (see today's plot), and that flattens the battery in about 4.5 hours. It does require a bit of electron storage planning if one is not to be embarassed by short-changed plots!

Then we decided it was time to cash up, particularly as we we short of cash and were unable to buy anything on the bus trip back. We had been told that there was an ATM just to the left of the rear (old) entrance to the hotel, so we went looking. We got distracted, however, by a charming waitress at the entrance to the Angelina Bar, who enticed us in with an offer of two drinks for the price of one! So while Barb negotiated the drinks, John went to find the ATM and withdrew some money (3M dong = $A209). On returning to find Barb well into her gin and tonic, John tucked into his first Bia Hanoi, and we both ate the delightful canapes which we were also served.

After we had pleasantly quaffed our two drinks, we decided to check out the French restaurant "Le Beaulieu" which John had passed on his way to the ATM. It wasn't cheap, but we said "Aw, what the heck" and sat down. The place had been recently renovated, and the decor was delightful. We settled on the two specials of the day, "Clam Vichyssoise" and "Hokkaido Scallops", followed by a shared "Crepes Suzette". We didn't have any wine, a) because we had just finished a 2 for 1 deal, and b) because it was fiendishly expensive. It all came with some hors d'ouevres, including a beautiful smoked salmon roll (and some other things, but they paled into forgetfulness after the salmon!) The vichyssoise and scallops were both brilliant, and well worth the money - or pretty close to it! We ordered a crepes suzette simply for the theatre, but it was pretty delicious too. The whole lot came to 5.7M dong (about $A380), so it was a bit of a lash-out. But we did enjoy it.

Then to bed. Tomorrow is a free day, so we can afford to sleep in.

29 Sep 2023, Friday (Day 5), Sticking to the sticky rice quest

What they said:

Spend a relaxed day in the capital city today. Head to nearby Hoan Kiem Lake, a short walk from your hotel, also known as Lake of the Returned Sword. Find a shaded spot, explore the nearby shopping streets, dine at local eateries, or visit some of the nearby galleries. Visit the Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum, displaying ancient through to contemporary Vietnamese art in an elegant French colonial building. Early risers can observe residents jogging, practising Tai Chi and even line dancing beside the famed Hoan Kiem Lake.

Tonight, meet more of your fellow travelers and Tour Director (Tim) at a Welcome Briefing and dinner in your hotel's acclaimed Vietnamese restaurant, Spices Garden.

What we did:

We had plans to set off for a cafe that the waitress from Angelina's last night had recommended to us. But the woman at the front door reminded us that rain was forecast for 1300 today, and we did not look prepared for rain. "Um" we said. "Would you like to take an umbrella?" she asked. I needed no second asking, but jumped at the chance. With that insurance under my arm, we set off to find the old French Cathedral which was marked on the map as a big icon, so it was easy to see on the map, but not necessarily easy to locate on the map.

After consulting my Pocket Earth maps on my phone, we settled on some building silhouettes that may have been a church, and headed for that. We did come across a church, but it looked far too modern for a french provincial cathedral, so we kept going (after a short break to recover from the heat!)

Our diligence was rewarded as we soon came across the dinkum article. It had a bit of a square in front of it, but the church itself was fenced off, and obviously discouraging visitors. Two young blokes would wave their arms and shout at any motorcyclists who dared invade the space in front of the cathedral, so it was fairly pedestrian friendly, although too many pedestrians were intent on taking photos of themselves, rather than the cathedral itself. You know, the sort of (usually) Asian tourist who delights in having a selfie stick, and goes around the world standing in front of landmarks and waving said selfie sticks at themselves and the landmarks. You get the picture (and I think I did, eventually, but even then, with tourists).

The place being closed scuttled a big part of our plan, so we pondered what to do, and decided to head off anyway on the rest of our morning's plan. We had barely gone 50m when John spotted a "Maison Marou", which had a very obvious espresso machine sitting behind the counter. It looked clean and air-conditioned, so we went in. They made chocolates, and small petites fours (I think that's a tautology!), so we ordered deux cafes and two small passionfruit macarons, and headed upstairs to a comfortable sitting area, with two tables occupied, one by a young couple engrossed in their respective devices, and one by two caucasian women chatting away.

We sat down, and soon our coffees and macarons arrived, into which we tucked. Barb overheard one of the women talking about Sydney, and so struck up a conversation with them. They had been in Hanoi for several days, and had just come back from Ha Long Bay, about to depart again for Da Nang, both of which are coming up soon in our itineraries. It was quite pleasant chatting with them, and getting a non-tour take on seeing Vietnam.

Coffees finished, out into the humidity and noise of the streets. We found an interesting "communal house" which, according to the information board outside, was used to worship typical gods of ancient Thang Long such as Thang Long Do (God Bach Ma), God Cao Son, Linh Lang, Princess Ha Duy and King Le Thai To. It was built in the Le dynasty (late 19th century), and renovated in 2020.

The roads, and more particularly, the footpaths became narrower, to the point where parked and abandoned motorcycles made passage along the foorpaths impossible, so we had to walk on the road (like many others). You won't believe the noises and smells we encountered - perhaps the most memorable one was a woman sitting on the kerb (motorcycles arrayed behind her on the footpath), poking what appeared to be banknotes into a small fire, which was making a vey acrid smell. We think the banknotes were not genuine - at least, no others were diving into the fire to rescue them, but we still did not understand the logic of carefully poking fake money into a fire, one note at a time, to make sure it was all properly burnt. (Unfortunately, I was so intrigued by this behaviour that I forgot to take a photo.)

Eventually after much dodging of both traffic and humanity, we found the Xoi Yen (Soy Yen) street cafe, recommended by our friendly bar waitress at Angelina's. We ordered sticky rice and BBQ pork, with two Bias, and sat down in a corner on two very small (kindergarten sized) stools. The rice was nice, and the beer most welcome. All for 82(000) dong, about $5.50! Now note that these beers were 20,000 dong ($1.30) each. Elsewhere we have paid up to 320,000 dong ($21), so you can see that Vietnam is a place of extremes!

Walked back to the hotel. Easy to write that, and much drier than actually walking in the humidty. The forecast was for 39 degrees, but I don't think it got that hot. It didn't rain either, until after we were back in the hotel, but it would not have mattered much, since we were so wet from sweating! The hotel air-conditioning was most most welcome.

We did the two-for-one happy hour at Angelina's again, but had to rush things a bit, as 1730 approached, and we were due to meet in the lobby for a briefing session. We were actually accosted by Tim, our new tour director, as we left the bar, and he directed us to the conference centre where the briefing was to be. There we met the new 8 people who were to join us for the rest of the tour: Tiffany and Mark, Jo and John, Robyn and David, Jill and Russell.

Tim gave us a talk on the history of Vietnam. "Vietnam" is actually two words (like most names in Viet Nam), "Viet" meaning runner or hunter, and "Nam" meaning south, so "hunting people from the south" (of China). He also explained the remaining activities for Ha Noi, and collected our choices for the FREEDOM OF CHOICE sessions for tomorrow.

Then to dinner in the Spice Gardens Restaurant (part of the Metropole), where we sat with Mary-Jean and Brian, and enjoyed Asparagus and Crab Soup, Green Papaya Salad, BBQ Pork or Spicy Fish, and Coconut Panna Cotta. Included also were 2 glasses of wine (other choices were available). Then to bed.

30 Sep 2023, Saturday (Day 6), Cyclo Metric Hanoi

What they said:

Begin this morning with a tour of Hanoi, taking in the city's most famous historical and cultural sites. Visit Ba Dinh Square, one of the largest squares in Vietnam with the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex. Learn more about the country's esteemed leader, where time permitting, it may be possible to enter Uncle Ho's final resting place. Your knees and shoulders must be covered. No cameras, bags or mobile phones are allowed inside. Nearby is the iconic One Pillar Pagoda, one of Vietnam's most significant attractions, marking a notable development of Buddhism in the country. Constructed of a single pillar of stone in the middle of a lotus pond, the pagoda is a religious stop for local pilgrims.

Continue to the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu), a beautiful example of Vietnamese architecture and the first university in Vietnam. Built in 1070 under the Ly Thanh Tong's dynasty, it was initially established to educate Vietnam's royalyu. Stroll through the numerous courtyards, admire the ancient brick walls, marvel at the fascinating architecture, and gain an insight into Confucianism.

Later experience an authentic cyclo (bicycle rickshaw) ride through the Old Quarter. Explore the maze-like streets of this charming area where each street conveys the name of the type of business that once operated there, such as Bamboo Street, Sugar Street, and Silver Street.

This afternoon, join your Freedom of Choice Sightseeing. Choose from one of our included options to personalise your journey.

This evening, choose to dine at one of our personally selected restaurants for your Freedom of Choice Dining.

What we did:

We did not have our usual cup of tea in our room this morning, but elected to get dressed and go down to the dining room ("L'Orangerie") and have a cup of tea there. It was a much better choice, as the tea was a proper tea, made in a proper tea pot, and two cups at that.

While enjoying our tea, we were joined by David and Robyn, new arrivals to the party from last night, whom we had not met. They were from Brisbane, in their words "Mount Crosbie, a suburb in the far west of Brisbane". So we had an enjoyable breakfast chatting with them over pho and pastries (Barb), and (smoked) fish, yoghurt and pastries (John). Did have a bit of trouble negotiating a proper (espresso) coffee, as they interpreted “black coffee” as plunger coffee.

At 0815 we assembled (all 18 of us) in the lobby7 to meet Vinh, our tour guide for the day, and board the bus for this morning's adventures.

On the bus as planned at 0900, and headed to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. We had planned to get there early, as arranged by Vinh, because apparently the crowds build up during the day. It was all strictly regimented, and we had to be suitably dressed and respectful. I got told at one stage not to have my hands behind my back, but to keep them by my side. Yes, it was that regimented. We filed into the mausoleum two by two, but dropping into single file within the tomb itself. There was Ho Chi Minh, looking suitably serene, until you remember the story that Vinh told us about how they nearly cocked up the embalming process because they were using some chinese methods of embalming, and it was only when they switched to using the european methods that they made progress. It was hard to study the body closely, as we all had to keep moving, and the place was dimly lit, so one had to keeping looking where one was going all the time, not at the body.

It was all a bit of a farce, really (I shall probably get deported for writing that), as Ho's wishes that he be cremated were totally ignored. He wanted his ashes separated into 3: one to be scattered in South Vietnam, one to be scattered in the ancient city of Hue, and one to be scattered in the North pf Vietnam. All about unification of the country, and the symbolism of this seems to have been completely lost on the authorities of the time! Ho has now become a very avuncular figure, and is indeed familiarly called "Uncle Ho" by many people. It is a state-sanctioned hero worship, and his face appears everywhere: in homes, offices, on buildings, and indeed, on every banknote. Just like Queenie.

After checking out the body, we then toured the grounds of his living areas. He actually lived quite frugally, but everything has been tarted up to "palace" proportions in keeping with the hero worship. Almost comic-book material, really.

Then on to see the Temple of Literature. This was actually a Buddhist monastery, but because the Buddhists were strongly into education and learning (much like monasteries in the western world), it gradually became a seat of learning, and all top students throughout Vietnam would come here to learn the proper decorum that befits an educated person. Much like the elite schools and colleges in the UK.

The next stop of the bus was to drop us at a stand of cyclos. These are basically pedal rickshaws, but have the driver at the back, and the passengers sitting in a covered section at the front, which is hinged to the pedalling frame, and thus can be steered. Normally there are two passengers across the front, but we were privileged to have one cyclo each. Whether this was to save the driver the extra effort (the place is pretty flat, really), or to speed things up so that we were back at the hotel in time was not clear.

One thing I can say is that these were a fantastic way to see the city. I have mentioned the motor bike traffic before, but not much about the cyclos. Because they are about as fast as pedestrians, they are bottom of list in terms of road priority. But they are predictable as to where they are going, and hence are much more easily evaded by the motor cyclists, who dodge in and around them easily in a way that they cannot do with the same equinimity as with both cars and pedestrians! So cycling along in a cyclo gives one a feeling of protection, of being wrapped in an invisible forcefield, where everything else just makes way for you.

I took a movie of most of the trip all the way back to the hotel, and caught on camera the only bingle we saw in the whole time we were in Hanoi. Nothing serious mind, a woman motorcyclist got tangled up in the front fender of a car, whereupon she let loose with a great tirade of abuse at the car driver, who doubtless was less at fault than she was! (At least, if there was a "give way to the left" sort of rule, analogous to our old give way to the right.)

We decided to skip lunch, and just cooled down in the air conditioned comfort of our hotel room for an hour or two. At 1530 we assembled again to walk to the Water Puppet Theatre, about 500m away. The water puppets were amazing, and were worked by long poles held under the water in the water pond that formed the stage. The actors were hidden behind a screen, and worked the puppets by means of strings that ran along the poles to the puppets, thus actuating the movements of the puppets. We all thoroughly enjoyed the show, and were entertained afterwards by talking to two of the actors, who demonstrated with a working puppet how things worked.

Walked back to the hotel. There was a street festival on over this weekend, and all the roads were blocked off. Lots of people everywhere, with street vendor stalls all along the route, and whole families out and about enjoying the festival atmosphere. All very convivial and community spirited! We even saw a yellophant! (sorry)

At 1900 a group of us assembled to walk to the Ly Club, where we (Barb and I) had dined several nights ago. There were David and Lynn, Jill and Russ, Mary-Jean and Brian, and ourselves. We had a riotous time, to the point that the staff must have seriously wondered what we were on!

Back to the hotel and bed by 1000.

01 Oct 2023 (check), Sunday (Day 7), Ha Long to go?

What they said:

SIGNATURE EXPERIENCE Embark on your three-day cruise on the World Heritage-listed Ha Long Bay.

Travel by coach to Ha Long and set sail among thousands of limestone islets. Savour an assortment of Vietnamese dishes during lunch as the The Au Co slowly glides towards the southeast of Ha Long Bay, passing Trong Mai Islet, Ngon Tay Islet, Con Coc Islet, and Cua Van Floating Cultural Centre. Later, arrive at pristine Ba Ham Lake and take some time to enjoy a swim or kayak in its emerald waters. Tonight, perhaps take in a fun Vietnamese cooking demonstration on board your ship. The evening is yours to spend how you wish. You might like to watch a film in the onboard open cinema or order a cocktail to enjoy on the sundeck.

What we did:

Set off in the bus at 0830 for a 4 hour trip to Ha Long. We had one stop at ?, which was a rather weird place. At least it had clean toilets, but there were thousands of trinkets and stuff on sale, some of which were at least nice to look at, but certainly nothing I was tempted to buy. Barb did toy with a handbag, but when she noticed that the stitching was starting to come adrift, she lost interest. I did buy some Kopiko coffee lollies to suck on the bus. They were $A3 a bag.

We arrived at Ha Long at 12:30, pretty much on time, and transferred to the boat after a short wait in the lounge, long enough to get the laptop out and read email. Apparently we will not have wifi on the boat because of poor reception within the islands.

What can I say about the Ha Long Bay islands? They are absolutely unique limestone formations, created from a long-lost sea floor of crustaceans, that has since been eroded into thousands of tiny and not-so-tiny islands, creating an impression of a forest of islands. What I found so amazing about this was the fact that it is so unique - dwarfing the "12" Apostles in Victoria.

We anchored near a floating platform which provided kayaks, in which we could go paddling around a bay. Didn't fall in! Then a walk through a cave to a nice sandy beach, where we all went for a bit of a swim, before heading back to the boat.

A bit more time cruising around before dropping anchor for the night. That was about the same time as happy hour, so most of us moved to the top deck, the observation deck, with our happy hour materials, and spent the time a) admiring the view, and b) laughing at each others anecdotes. Happy hour indeed!

The men were dragged away (or rather, pushed away by the women) to attend a cooking demonstration on how to prepare Vietnamese spring rolls. It was pretty straightforward, and most of us managed to make at least one spring roll following the demonstration. Then they were deep fried by the chef, and we all got to taste our handiwork. Yum! (BTW, I am told that one must not say "yum" in Vietnamese company. Apparently it has a rude meaning, too rude even for our guide to say what!)

All too soon the sun set, and it was time for dinner. A 5 course meal, probably a bit too much for most of us, as there were comments like "Brian, are you going to eat all 5 courses?" But we had an enjoyable time.

After dinner, there was a rice wine tasting. It is called "wine", but it is really rice "spirits", as it is distilled from fermented rice. One was made from rice and coconuts, one from rice and apples, one from herbs (tasted too much like mown grass to me, and others agreed), and one from various fruits, IIRC. My favourite was the apple one. Rather reminiscent of drambuie in a way. That was the day.

02 Oct 2023 (check), Monday (Day 8), Chuck another prawn in the bay

What they said:

As the sun rises, perhaps rejuvenate your body and soul with a Tai Chi class. Later this morning, gain a first glimpse of Cat Ba Island before disembarking to discover Cat Ba National Park and enjoy lunch at Viet Hai Village. Following lunch, a secluded swim or chance to sunbathe is on the cards with a stop at Ba Trai Dao Beach. A barbeque dinner aboard The Au Co caps off an exciting day.

What we did

We went up to breakfast a bit after 0700 to find most people already there. We both had what we thought was Pho, but we were told it was in fact Bao Do, a mixture very like Pho, but different. John had some watermelon juice to have his pills with (rather different, I must say) and then some cold meats, followed by a croissant with marmalade.

Then we motored off to Cat Ba island, and after docking at a wharf, caught electric buggies to a small village called Viet Hai. As Vinh explained, this village had undergone a significant transformation over the last ten years, largely due to tourism, There was ample evidence in that in the many "home stay" houses, and the general cleanliness and affluence of the place. It was reasonable free of motorcycles too, most houses having a few bicycles stacked up in their front porches. I guess a lot of these would be rented out to the home stay visitors - we certainly saw a lot of caucasians cycling around.

We inspected one of the houses, which was in much shape than those we saw in Sa Pa, and it had a small home made still in the outhouse, steaming away. It was making more of the rice wine we sampled last night.

But the highlight of the visit was a visit to the "doctor fish", which was a small pool around which was a ledge under the water, and stools around the edge. In the pool were lots of small fish, and one sat on the stools with one's feet in the water, whereupon lots of fish would come up and start nibbling at the dead skin on one's feet. It was a curious sensation, very ticklish to start with, but quite pleasant once you got used to it.

Vinh promised a bpttle of red to the person who could survive this treatment the longest, and was the last person left with feet in the pool. But four of us, the 2 Davids, Brian and myself hung on in a 4-way standoff, until Vinh declared a draw, and said we each could share the bottle between us. Honour was satisfied!

The a quick tour of the rest of the village in the electric buggies, before returning to the house for lunch, set up in a covered seating area out the back, next to the rice paddies and water buffalo. Lunch was 3 courses: Spring rolls with tamarind sauce and boiled vegetables with caramelized pork dip; Halong squid cake with sticky rice, stewed pork with green banana and tofu, Hanoi grilled pork with sweet and sour fish sauce; and fresh fruit (watermelon and nashi pear) for dessert.

After luch we headed back to the wharf and re-embarked the Au Co, before motoring to the Cua Van floating village. Transfering from the ship to the village by tender, we first visited a Museum (also floating), describing life in the village, and how the villagers survived by fishing and farming fish.

It was about this time that I started to feel a little off colour, and had to sit down while Vinh was describing daily life in Cua Van. It was a slight sense of nausea, and after that short rest began to feel a bit normal again. But it was not to be.

We then set off in a half dozen sam-pans, taking four at a time for a tour around the village. That was interesting in its own right, but what was consuming my consciouness was the increasing feeling of nausea, until it came to a head and I vomited over the side of the boat - several times! We were near the end of the tour, but a quick discussion between our sam-pan rower and Vinh, saw us change course for the wharf, where I was gently coddled ashore (? from one floating vessel to a larger one, actually) and sat down to rest. David(-Robyn) produced a small flannel which he soaked in water, wrung out and placed round my neck, which did make me feel somewhat better.

Once all the others were back, we reboarded the tender and headed back to the Au Co, where I was given lots of water and hydrolytes, and then retired to our cabin to rest. I skipped happy hour and dinner (and the engine room tour, as it turned out), but Barb went to dinner. She brought back Jo and Tim, who ministered to me with some Chinese herb pills and more water. But no sooner had they left than I threw up again, so back to bed and rest, rest, rest, until I fell into a fitful sleep.

03 Oct 2023 (check), Tuesday (Day 9), How long to Hoi An?

What they said:

Visit the Cua Van Floating Culture Centre, considered the most idyllic spot on the bay. Take part in a traditional Vietnamese tea ceremony on board as your ship makes its way back to port. Disembark and transfer to Hanoi airport for your included flight to Da Nang, from where you’ll travel to historic Hoi An.

What we did:

Some of our members were up bright and early to visit the ? cave with its 700 steps. That fact alone put both of us off, but particularly me, as I was still feeling a little wonky from yesterday. So we enjoyed a few minutes longer in bed, and then tidying up as we were due to "check out" (i.e., hand the keys back) before breakfast, which was at 0930.

I was treading gingerly, and restricted myself to tea, juice and dry toast, which did stay put. There were lots of concerned enquiries about my health, which was nice, and I did take Tim's pills (which stayed down) before returning the rest to him. As we were breakfasting, we started motoring back to port ...

... at which we arrived, much on the dot of 1030. Then collected our luggage and boarded the bus, which was to take us back to Hanoi airport. We had one stop about an hour out of Hanoi at which I got adventurous and bought some Pringles (which met with general approval from my fellow passengers), and so interesting chip-like things which were quite mysterious. Vinh translated the labelling, and said that they were made from "cereal", and should be OK. Once back on the bus, we tried them, and decided that they were quite nice. Sort of like big con flakes, but not as sweet (thank heavens).

On arrival at Hanoi, we did the usual puerile security things. I mean, taking of shoes that have absolutely no metal in them! What is the point of that? We were a bit early for the flight, and had time to buy a cup of coffee, after some confusion over language difficulties. Then lunch, which was a Banh Mi at the Lucky Cafe.

Boarding at 1430, and we took off a few minutes after 1500. An hour and 5 minutes flying time, during which I read a few chapters of the next Alexander McCall Smith on my Kindle. We touched down in Da Nang, and transferred to the next bus, after meeting our new tour guide Hoan (Vietnamese for "John", he explained), who is a very enthusiastic and infectious sort of character. Before long, he was explaining how to say "Oo chung Oy!" (my transliteration!), which means "Oh my Buddha" in Vietnames!

He and Tim gave us some running commentary on the history of Hoi An as we trundled along. All very interesting, but I won't attempt to recount it here, as you dear reader, will probably not pay full attention - just as we were not able to, but we at least had an excuse, watching the scenery pass by.

On arrival in Hai Na we had to transfer to small electric carts (like we had yesterday), as busses were not permitted in the narrow streets of Hoi Na. (It would be nice if they did not permit motorbikes as well!) After checking in at the Royal Hotel (painted in yellow, the Vietnamese royal colour) we quickly shed our travel clothes and changed in our swimwear for a dip in the wonderful pool that comes with the hotel.

All too quickly we had to get out and change for dinner. There was a general feeling that we had been plied with a bit too much food, and people were starting to get a bit picky. For example, one of the dishes was lotus buds in a ginger sauce. I, and many others, found the lotus buds a bit bland, and not at all exciting, so most of them got returned to the kitchen!

There was agitation in some of the ranks to kick on after dinner, but Barb and I wussed out, and retired early. Did not take us long to fall asleep, apparently one of the side effects of lotus buds!

04 Oct 2023 (check), Wednesday (Day 10), Short shrift for John

What they said:

SIGNATURE EXPERIENCE Discover Hoi An’s colourful market and find local ingredients you’ll use during an exclusive cooking class with the Red Bridge Cooking School. A boat cruise along the Thu Bon River takes you to the school, before visiting the herb garden and preparing Vietnamese dishes. Afterwards, sit down to dinner and enjoy your creations.

Set out on a guided discovery of Hoi An this morning, taking in sights such as the Japanese Covered Bridge and the 19th-century Chinese Temple. Visit a handicraft workshop to see local artisans making silk lanterns and other traditional crafts. You will also stop off at a local cafe to try a Vietnamese specialty, coconut coffee. This afternoon, a special Signature Experience awaits.

What we did:

Barb took a bag of laundry over to "Mrs Nga", a well known adjust to the Royal Hotel (and others). Mrs Nga, a dimunitive Vietnamese woman, simply weighed the laundry (2.3kg), calculated the charge (150,000 dong, approx $A10), asked for our room number (614), and then said "ready by 6pm". Simple as that. She obviously does very well by the process, as she had a neat shop, and owned the Spa place next door as well.

We had breakfast early at 0615 and were pretty much the first there. Neither of us were that hungry, as we had been fed very well in our travels. But a leisurely breakfast nonetheless.

Assembled in the lobby at 0815 for a tour of Hoi An. First a stop at Yaly, a big tailoring firm in Hoi An. The place is littered with tailors, and one wonders how they all make a living. The answer is tourists. They measure you, take your money, and promise a fitting by the evening. A few people did buy things, but Barb and I basically sat around drinking water (it was hot!) and getting slightly bored.

Then a walking tour of the old quarter of Hoi An, very interesting. We visited a few temples, including one where you could light an incense coil that took a month to burn completely! There were literally hundreds of them hanging around, so clearly quite popular.

Then to a silk factory where they not only weave beautiful fabrics and embroderies, but also grow and tend the silk worms and spin the silk. Fascinating! John was rather taken by a pair of cargo shorts (made of linen, not silk), and ordered a pair made from a forest green cloth. He got measured up on the spot, and told that they could be ready by 1800! That was not actually convenient, so we changed the time to 0700 tomorrow - no problem. As I type this tomorrow, I am now wearing them, and they are most comfortable. A good buy, at $US60/$A100, I think. Barb bought a T-shirt for David.

Then to an old house which has been lived in by the same family for 7 generations! Jemima and Tabitha, you have some way to go! It had been flooded many times (Hoi An floods regularly), and there were a dozen or so markers up the wall to mark the peak heights of recent floods.

Then most of us repaired to a nearby cafe, the Cargo Club where several beers were immediately ordered. Barb and I shared a King Prawn Salad together with a bear each (Tiger and LaRue resp.). We then walked back to the hotel.

Or rather, started to. Halfway back, Tim decided that Barb was finding the going tough, and walked up to a motorcyclist sitting on his vehicle nearby, did some sort of negotiation (we don't think money was involved), and then invited Barb to sit on the back of the motorbike for a ride back to the hotel! Barb's biggest challenge, apart from overcoming the terrifying excitement, was getting on the bike, because the pillon seat was just a little too high for her. But we managed, and off she went! Tim organized a similar ride for Robyn - I don't think either Robyn or Barb were really distressed, but it was such a nice gesture by Tim that neither of them could refuse.

It was stinking hot, and the rest of us were perspiring freely. David(-Jill) and I stopped at a small "7-11" sort of place along the way, and aided by Hoan's interpretation skills, bought a few beers each to enjoy once we got back to the hotel. Complicated by the fact that we tried to enter the hotel by the back door, but the lifts there would not recognize our room cards, so we had to walk round to the front anyway. Incidentally, the lifts were designed by some sort of dimwit. You had to hold your room card up to the lift button assembly before you could press your floor, but the only floor button that could be activated was your room floor anyway! Why the redundant action? Some sort of two-factor authentication? No, I think Nathan's Law applies: "when faced with illogical choice, there are two reasons: malevolence and stupidity. Choose stupidity everytime".

A cooling down period in our room followed, aided somewhat by the beers, before we (re)assembled in the lobby at 1530 for a cooking school. We caught the electric buggies to the markets, where we met the chef (he told us his name, but neither of us caught it) and two of his sous-chefs. We were split into groups - we were in a foursome with John and Jo, with Chinh as our guide. She led us through several market streets, explaining all the unfamiliar fruits to us, and bought 2 dozen mangosteens to share with the people on the boat. Then throught the markets proper, where I bought a cute little carrot peeler that shaves off carrot flowers. I thought that Jemima and Tabitha would enjoy that! A bit of the market which none of us enjoyed was the meat section, fortunately almost closed, but where there were slabs of meat sitting around, no refrigeration, and wiith flies crawling all over them! Thank heavens we were not buying any of that!

Then onto a boat (enjoying the mangosteens on the way), which took us to the Red Bridge Cookery School off a little backwater on the Thu Bon River. We had a welcoming drink of fruit juice and 7-Up, then into the classroom for the cooking learning experience. First the chef would demonstrate how to cook something, giving an entertaining commentary as he did so, and then we would move to our own hot plate and ingredients to duplicate his efforts, with varying degrees of success! John did get a little carried away with his success at flipping his pancake, and tried to do it again, only to have it land on the gas burner. Fortunately there were many young women around who would lend a hand when things went awry, and seemed very adept at rescuing things from disasters! That was certainly the case here, and the pancake suffered only minor burns.

We ate what we made as we went, except for one or two things which were kept for dinner proper. The most successful of these was chicken noodle soup, for which we made the noodles ourselves from rice water batter. That was quite delicious!

As part of the dinner, the successful fish feet four from two days ago opened their bottle of red to share amongst themselves, and quite enjoyed. Nothing spectacular, but an enjoyable drop nevertheless, which went well enough with the fare.

Then electric buggy rides back to the hotel, where (most of us) retired for the night.

05 Oct 2023 (check), Thursday (Day 11), Bums rule in Hoi An

What they said:

Today, catch a glimpse of rural Vietnamese life as you set out on an agricultural eco-tour. Visit a local garden and meet the farmers who work there while taking part in a number of different farming activities. See how soil is prepared and how vegetables are watered and transplanted. You’ll then set out on an exploration of the water coconut palm jungle by basket boat. The afternoon has been left free for you to explore more of this quaint town at your leisure. This evening, take in a performance at Hoi An Lune Centre, the first and only bamboo theatre in Vietnam. Experience Vietnamese culture at its most unique as you hear stories of daily life from different regions in Vietnam, brought to life by the Vietnamese Bamboo Circus.

What we did:

Today was a rest day. While the rest of the tour party went off to see local farming activities, Barb and I stayed at the hotel. Barb was feeling somewhat uncomfortable with her gut (a repeat of John's episode they other day? Maybe, but no vomiting at least) and did not feel happy travelling very far from where there might be a toilet.

It was a great opportunity to catch our metaphorical and physiological breathes at the same time. Barb slept most of the morning, while John got his new shorts delivered, updated his emails, this diary and the downloading of lots of photos under control. He did go for a short walk along the river, but discovered that his camera battery was flat, and so could not take many photos. One of the camera batteries seems to have reached its end of life.

Not quite! When he got back to the hotel, he put it on charge. It did seem to take forever to charge, but charge it did. I suspect it had been over discharged (if that is possible?). Maybe it got too hot? When people in the tour party have got hot, they seem to need a bit more recharging than normal - at least their gastro-intestinal systems do! Barb and I are not the only ones to have experienced problems in that respect!

That was all before lunch. About 3ish, John felt peckish, and decided to walk to the Morning Glory Cafe, near where we lunched yesterday. It was hot, but the restaurant was air-conditioned, and he enjoyed a beer (LaRue) and a Banh Mi, as recommended by Tim. It was delicious! As I said to the waitress when I paid the bill, "It was the best Banh Mi I have eaten in Vietnam"!

The evening's activity was a visit to the Lune Theatre, where we saw a performance by the Teh Ber circus troupe at 1800. They were a bunch of young men and women, very athletic, doing amazing things with bamboo poles, and not much else! There was a story attached to their actions, but as it was all in Vietnamese with no surtitles, we could only guess at the story line. But is was most absorbing.

The cast posed for photos after the performance, singing and dancing, and people were invited to go and sit in front of them to pose for photos. We did!

After that we all (most of us, anyway) trouped along to the Morning Glory Cafe (again for me!) for dinner. I had Fish in Caramel Sauce, and Barb had a Whole Snapper. Both were delicious, accompanied by lots of fun and laughter. Then back to the hotel to pack, ready for an early departure tomorrow.

06 Oct 2023 (check), Friday (Day 12), Up and Over the Cloud Pass, then into the Cloud Burst

What they said:

Travel past the Marble Mountains and cross Hai Van Pass on your way to Hue. Lunch is in a garden restaurant before visiting Hue’s Imperial Citadel and the historic Thien Mu Pagoda.

What we did:

Bags out at 0700, and on the bus at 0800. First stop was at a marble factory and shop, where Barb and I bought bought some little trinkets: Barb a turtle, John an elephant. Then to Da Nang, where we stopped to look at the Dragon Bridge, and the Love Bridge. The former was a road bridge, the latter a tourist attraction (lots of padlocks attached to the grating on a bridge). There was also a statue of a carp, rather like the Merlion in Singapore, which belches fire and water at various times, but we didn't see that.

Then the bus took us over Cloud Pass, so named because occasionally it disappears into the clouds. But it was a fine day, although quite hazy, and we could see both Da Nang and Long Co (the next city north) from the summit. Various photo stops along the way, and in Long Co we stopped for "Coconut Coffees", which were most interesting and very refreshing. All agreed that it was a most welcome stop.

We did get somewhat delayed along the way. Lots of stops, lots of bus disgorging and regorging, which meant that we got to our lunch stop a half hour late at 1230, rather than 1200. The Moc Vien was a most tasteful restaurant and building, with lots of Buddhist inspired stone work and water courses everywhere. Lots of brightly coloured Koi Carp swimming around. We had a variety of dishes, fig salad (green figs!), spring rolls, sweet and sour fish, et al, and dessert was a creme caramel (thanks, froggies!)

We then pressed on to the Hue Citadel, for a walk around the Imperial Palace and the Forbidden City. Quite a few of us noticed the ominous clouds that were louring in the distance, and the occasional flashes of lightning from them!

Inside the Citadel, John did nearly get run over by a car that refused to give way, in spite of a give way line on the road, and yelled at the driver. Tim and Hoan quickly rushed over to calm him down, explaining that that is "normal" behaviour in Vietnam. This explanation I could understand, as we had seen how Vietnamese drivers drive (they are awful!), but it did seem to be the wrong priority.

I have to say that while the architecture was very interesting, it did explain a lot of the Vietnamese resistance to foreign powers. The kings were not very replete with compassion, and it is called the Forbidden City because for common people to set foot in it was summary execution. It became a stronghold for the Viet Cong during the Viet wars, and several of the buildings were destroyed by bombing and artillery. Those buildings that did survive were heavily pock-marked with bullet holes.

But those louring clouds proved to be much more of an issue for use. We happened to be sheltering under a small pagoda when the clouds just opened, and the rain came down so heavily, it was deafening. None of us dared brave it - had we done so, I think we would have rushed back into the shelter to escape the bruising that the rain would have inflicted! So we just waited it out.

Eventually it did abate to the point where we could head back to some waiting electric buggies, but we did have to wade through some rather deep puddles on the way. All the buggies had wet seats, so we got wet bums anyway, as well as wet feet and shoes. Tim asked whether we wanted to continue with the tour, and go and see the Pagoda, and rather strangely, only 2 people volunteered!

So the hotel it was, and we checked in, looking forward to being able to dry off. The Silk Path Hotel Hue had the widest bed I have ever seen. It was wider than it was long, and John measured it by lying sideways on it. He could only just hang his feet and hands down either side, so it was at least 7 feet/2 metres wide!

Dinner in the hotel - another 9 course affair, culminating in a dessert of fruit and red beans in a glass. I'm not mad on red beans, but I noticed that I ate more of them than anyone else around me!

07 Oct 2023 (check), Saturday (Day 13), Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh

What they said:

Fly to Ho Chi Minh City and enjoy the rest of the day at your leisure before dinner.

What we did:

Slept in this morning until 0715, best night's sleep we have had on tour! We packed up (0900 bags out), had breakfast, and caught the bus to the Hue airport (1000-1035), where we had about an hour's wait before boarding the plane for the short hop to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. Incidentally, the locals seem to use either name as it suits: Saigon for informal conversations, HCM for more formal use (such as on aircraft departure boards). However, the airport code for HCM is still SGN.

On landing in Saigon, we were collected by Minh, our new APT guide, who was as much a character as the previous 4. I think APT does an excellent job with its guides, and they have all proved entertaining and informative. Boy, do they know their stuff! There was not a single question that the group asked him (and the others) where the response was "I don't know". (No voting No here! :-)

Dropped at our hotel, today was unusual in that there were no organized tours for us. We had the afternoon to ourselves. Several group members explored the market, and John went looking for a camera shop to see if he could get a replacement for his powerpack which had died. No joy on that, but he did discover a place that sold 4 beers for 70,000 dong (compared to 320,000 at the Metropole for 1 !!! About 18 times the price!)

At 1900 we assembled in the Park Hyatt Ballroom for a buffet dinner with our expanding APT tour group. An extra 20 people joined us from the "blue" group (we are the "yellow" group), and new conversations were had. Unfortunately, many of the blue group never received their name badges, so it is not going to be so easy to get to know them. At our table, we did get to meet Jenny and Kerryn from Melbourne, and Julien and Sally from Somerset (yes, UK). Early night, early start.

08 Oct 2023 (check), Sunday (Day 14), Tunnel Visions

What they said:

SIGNATURE EXPERIENCE Journey to Ba Ria and learn about the Battle of Long Tan, followed by a memorial service at Long Tan Cross, a memorial marking the site of this battle. Erected by the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, it is located in a rubber plantation. Or visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, built by Vietnamese resistance fighters during the war. This remarkable tunnel network concealed the Viet Cong and served as supply and communication routes, as well as hospitals and weapon caches.

SIGNATURE EXPERIENCE Experience dinner at Vietnam House, founded by Australian-Vietnamese celebrity chef Luke Nguyen. Choose from one of two Signature Experiences today. Tonight, another Signature Experience awaits.

What we did:

Bright and early this morning for breakfast, so that we could catch the 0745 bus to Cu Chi. Barb had Pho for breakfast, and it came in a huge bowl. John confined himself to an omelette, and thinking that it might speed things up a bit, ordered a cappucino, but when that arrived, he did not enjoy it that much, and so ordered an "Americano" as well. So we only just squeaked onto the bus.

It was a 40 minute drive to Cu Chi, and Minh took us on a guided tour of the tunnels and all the features. I won't bore you with details, except to say that the Viet Cong really did deserve to win - they were far more resourceful and husbanded their resources very well, as well as repurposing much captured american stuff, like turning old car tyres into rubber sandals. As an example of their resourcefulness, they made their sandals so that they could be worn backwards as well, thus tricking any Americans who came across their tracks that they were actually going the other way!

Incidentally, Minh dismissed the impression that I think all of us had: that the tunnels were built by the Viet Cong during the 1964-1975 Vietnam War with the US. No, they were built in the early 50s in response to French oppression, and only extended during the American occupation. (Please note: APT) The French were indeed responsible for much of the tragedy of Vietnam.

John was brave enough to actually descend into the tunnels (along with a few other hardy souls), and crawl through 50m or so of 1.4m high tunnel (it has been enlarged from the original 90cm). He emerged to great cheers from the watching masses!

I have to say that I felt thoroughly vindicated in the stand that I took during the Vietnam War (1964-1975). It was clear to me at the time that the Vietnamese had suffered at the hands of the French, and the subsequent partitioning of Vietnam into North and South Vietnam was entirely down to capitalist machinations. The "domino theory" of communist advancement was completely at odds with Ho Chi Minh's vision of a united Vietnam. It was, and now is even more, clear to me that the Vietnamese disliked the Chinese threat from the north and were never going to be part of a Chinese Soviet-style union. It was unbridled hatred of all things communist, still very evident in the US today (to a lesser extent, Australia, but still surfacing from time to time), that led to the US engagement in Vietnam.

And it was so futile from the start. The Viet Cong had everything to win and nothing to lose by resisting the capitalist forces, and the American soldiers were the opposite, and only there because they were told they had to be. Their hearts were not in it, the Vietnamese hearts were. Millions of lives were lost for absolutely no purpose at all. It is quite depressing.

But here's the rub, and a reason that western forces will never appreciate: the Vietnamese people are now very positive, and optimistic about the future. I doubt that there are many like that now in the US. There is no resentment about what the US did to their country, although they have not forgotten. They are still living with the effects of things like Agent Orange. No one in the US has to do that.

After that very sobering tour, we moved on to a delightful little restaurant for a "light lunch" (1300). Knowing that light lunches have often turned into 7 course dinners, we were a little apprehensive, especially when we saw the menu. But we need not have worried. Everyone at our table (we divided into 3 groups of about 8) agreed that the food selection was good, both in quality and quantity, and we departed very satisfied.

A 40 minute trip back to the hotel where we cooled down and relaxed a bit, until heading out at 1500 to find the Notre Dame Cathedral, which was a bit of a challenge, as we were navigating from a tourist map, which just showed the tourist attractions as great big icons plonked across 3 city blocks, and no clear indication of which street to walk down. But we found it, and to our great disappointment, found it covered in scaffolding! Memories of Ray Keightley's constant grump about all the buildings in Europe! One or two record shots, and we started back to the hotel.

We did not get very far. It started to rain, and before we could find shelter, it started to pour, just like in Hue. The Saigon Central Post Office was just nearby, and there were clearly many people sheltering there, so we joined them.

The Post Office was a big French-built hall, probably designed by Gustave Eiffel, although I have not checked that out. Just did, and I quote from Wikipedia: "It was designed by Alfred Foulhoux, but is often erroneously credited as being the work of Gustave Eiffel". So I was not the first person to jump to that conclusion!

We sheltered there for probably 30 minutes, and while sitting on a bench waiting, were accosted by a small group of primary school children. They had been given a challenge by the teacher to talk to several foreigners, and to try out their English with them by asking at least 3 questions. I spoke to Ken, Anna, and Honey, and fielded questions like "What is your name?", "Where are you from?", "How old are you?" (this is not a rude question in the Vietnamese culture, as it often determines how one should speak), "Do you have any pets?", and so on. They were delightful children to talk to, and very polite.

The rain eased, and we were able to resume our walk back to the hotel, via the Opera House (French built) and Hotel Oriental (also French, and star of several movies, like The Quiet American). Finished the 2 cheap beers John bought yesterday on return to the hotel, and then went for a swim in the hotel pool. The water was lovely and warm, almost spa-like!

At 1900 we assembled to walk to Vietnam House, where Luc Nguyen's restaurant is located. Barb and I were rather disappointed with it. John's comment was that the courses came out too quickly, the next dish appearing before we had all finished the previous dish, and it felt like they were trying to hurry us through. Barb's comment was that they seemed to be trying to hard, and several dishes sounded good on paper, but lacked finesse in preparation and presentation.

It was a tiring day.

09 Oct 2023 (check), Monday (Day 15), Serenity at last!

What they said:

FREEDOM OF CHOICE™ Today you can choose to enjoy a leisurely walking discovery of Ho Chi Minh City, visiting the Reunification Palace and the Central Post Office. Or you might like to jump on the back of a motorbike for an exciting city ride. Alternatively, you may like to try Tai Chi early morning at Tao Dan Park, or take a shopping spree.

Choose your sightseeing this morning, then be transferred to your river ship. Tonight, a Vietnamese welcome dinner awaits, showcasing the diverse flavours from the region.

What we did:

We got our bag out by 0645 for 0700 bags outside collection, then went to breakfast. Somewhat quieter engagement with breakfast, not because of any untowardness, but more because of the conciousness that we had been developing that we were eating too much! Chatted with Tiffany and Mark over our coffees.

We cancelled on the pillion motorcycle ride this morning, mainly because of a chance remark by Lyn(-David) about motorcycle travel being specifically excluded from our travel insurance. Barb checked the policy, and yes, motorcycle travel, either as driver or pillion, is not covered. So without too much remorse ("exciting" or not), we told Tim that we would rather stay in the hotel this morning until boat check-in time. I took the time to get computer affairs up-to-date, and Barb read.

At 1100 we assembled in the Ballroom for collecting passports and getting boarding details for the MV Serenity. Then at 1200 we boarded the bus to My Tho, about 2 hours drive away through Saigon traffic. Even when we got to the "freeway" or speed never got much above 70, simply because there was so much traffic, and all the trucks wanted to drive in the "fast" lane. Several times we sdat in the fast lane stationary, while cars and other busses zoomed past in the "slow" lane! I think lane discipline is a very foreign concept in Vietnam!

So indeed, 2 hours later (average speed 45kph) we arrived at My Tho, and transferred straight to the Serenity. We checked out our cabin, very nice, very comfortable, and then were ushered straight to the dining room for a "light lunch". Ha! We have got a renewed understanding of what that means on an APT tour :-) But it was indeed light, and we enjoyed the view across the Mekong while we ate. It was around 1km to the other side where we were moored.

Then to sort out the unpacking, and try and do something with the two bags of non-dry clothes that we had not been able to get dry. An improvised clothes line in the bathroom sort-of got them underway in the drying stakes, but it did not look promising, as everything was very humid, even with the air conditioning going non-stop.

At 1600 we had the mandatory safety drill, wearing our life jackets, and then enjoyed a beer until 1800 when we had a briefing from Tim on the next day's events. Incidentally, all alcohol is included in the fare, and one can rock up to the bar at any time and get a beer/wine/cocktail/whatever. Some people did exploit this, and became a little obnoxious, but most were responsible.

Dinner was at 1900. Barb had egg drop soup, miso salmon, chocolate ice cream with longans, while John had cream of broccoli soup, some nice rare sirloin steak pieces, and a pavlova. At 2100 there was to be a performance by some local musicians, but they were late turning up, so Ghi gave us a talk on meditation, and we all went "Ommmm" obediently at the right time.

Then the musicians arrived, with 4 Vietnamese instruments: a 2 string Vietnamese violin (looking nothing like a western violin), a 2 string lute (looking reasonably like a western lute), a Vietnamese guitar (looking very like a western guitar), and a "Dan Co", a 1 stringed zither-like (if that is possible?) that we had seen and heard previously at the water puppet show. It is plucked, and a lever at the end allows the player to very the tension on the string, and hence the pitch of any plucked note. You get different notes by plucking the string at its harmonic node, and while it seemed very easy to play, getting the right sound out of it was much harder.

I mentioned some obnoxious charcters before. They sat at the very back, and insisted on talking the whole way through the performance. When I stood up to take photos (I was in the otherwise back row), they objected, to which I pointed out that if they were not respecting the performance, they could hardly expect respect from other members of the audience, who did want to listen. This was a red rag to them, and they became even more obnoxious! Takes all kinds!

After they show we were invited to talk to the performers (translations were needed), and have a go at playing it. Barb and John both had a go at playing it, and were impressed at the skill of the woman who had been playing it! She finished off the demonstration by playing Auld Lang Syne.

Then to bed.

10 Oct 2023 (check), Tuesday (Day 16), Confusionism

What they said:

Day 16 Cai Be, Sa Dec In Cai Be, visit the French Gothic cathedral and port area. Then, at a rice paper manufacturer, learn how this Vietnamese staple is made. Continue to Sa Dec where French writer Marguerite Duras met her Vietnamese-Chinese lover, Huynh Thuy Le. Tour his former home and learn the story behind Marguerite Duras’ best-selling novel, The Lover. After, visit a traditional Cao Dai temple.

What we did:

Up at 0615 this morning, and to breakfast an hour later. Then at 0830 we boarded sam-pans to take us to the village of Cai Be. It was a pleasant relaxed boat trip to the village, firstly to see the Roman Catholic Cathedral built by the French in 1929-32, and still in daily use. Then back to the sam-pan to cross the river to a rice and coconut factory, where they were making rice paper, dessicated coconut, candied coconut, poprice (like popcorn, only with rice) and rice wine. All very interesting. We bought a couple of bags of the candied coconut and candied rice noodles. Then back to Serenity in the sam-pan.

A talk at 1100 on the Mekong Delta by Hung, one of the guides, about the history and agriculture. It was interesting, but a little long. Then lunch followed at 1230. John had creamed vegetable soup, a banh mi, and a little green papaya salad, while Barb had chilled pineapple soup, Banh Mi, and a selection of fruit. One of the fruits was snake fruit, which had a very interesting sweet and sour taste, with very large pips. An acquired taste!

Afternoon snoozing and catching up with this diary, before at 1500 we jumped on the sampan again and headed off to see the Cao Dai temple. It was dedicated to all religions: Hindu, Buddism, Confuscionism, Christianity (Jesus), and as I commented, Confusionism. Then via the sampan to cross the river to the local markets. It was peak hour for dinner shopping, and absolute bedlam. Consider a 5m alleyway with stalls encroaching at least a metre or two on either side, hordes of pedestrians walking in both directions, and then, madness of madness, motorcycles trying to weave their way through all that! It was amazing that anyone was able to make any progress at all!

Lots of fish for sale, as well as all the usual vegetables. Not quite so usual were rat bodies (dead) and toads (alive). None of us Aussies were into eating any of that stuff! Then to the house of "The Lover", a book by a Madame Butterfly-style heroine jilted by her lover, and upon which a movie has been based. The story does bear some following up, which Barb and I thought worth exploring.

Dinner that night was in the IndoChine, an up-market dining room, but which did not cost any extra. The food in the LemonGrass Restaurant (the regular one) was fine, but this was a step up from that. We had the company of Brian and Mary-Jean, and Margaret and Jim (from WA). See the photo of the menu for further info about the food.

11 Oct 2023 (check), Wednesday (Day 17), Milking the Silk

What they said:

Day 17 Tan Chau, Evergreen Island, Border Crossing Transfer to a small boat to cruise the tiny tributaries around the town of Tan Chau. Disembark for a rickshaw tour and visit a local silk and rattan weaving workshop. Then explore an evergreen island to see authentic rural Mekong life.

What we did:

Set the alarm this morning for 0545 and made it to cup of tea time at 0600, and a relaxing cup of tea as we steaming up the Mekong to Tan Chau. Then to breakfast at 0700, to have muesli and egg benedict. We had to be ready for the excursion at 0815, and it was still a bit of a rush getting there! But we made it.

In a big sam-pan to Tan Chau, where we all boarded "rickshaws", one person per rickshaw. These are bicycles (tricycles actually) with a relatively conventional front fork that steered, but the frame extended into a seat mounted over a pair of rear wheels. Son told us that they could seat 6 Vietnamese people, but it certainly would have been a squeeze. As it was, it was not all that comfortable, and one had to have one's knees splayed to fit them into the available space! I don't know how 4 people would have managed (2 could sit on the back, facing backwards, but that looked even more precarious.

First port of call was a silk factory, where we saw Jacquard looms in operation. Noisy machines! John had a go at driving one by hand, and only succeeded in jamming the shuttle halfway across the warp. I did it properly, had to be fixed by an expert!

Barb bought 2 nice blue silk shirts, and John decided to join in - but only bought 1. A nice short-sleeved affair with a blue pattern. Will go nicely with all the other foreign-bought short sleeved shirts!

Then onto a rattan mat manufacturing place to see semi-automatic looms in operation. These had a captive shuttle, to which a woman had to attach a grass thread each time it reached through the warp. All very quick, and skillfully done, but awfully tedious!

Then back to the sampan, when we crossed to the inaptly-named "Evergreen Island" - it wasn't any different from land we had seen elsewhere. But we walked across it, stopping to inspect a villager's house, complete with colour TV set. Then back to Serenity for lunch.

We reached the Cambodian border about 1400, and then waited. Just like most bureaucratic institutions. We did try and attend a cooking class on making spring rolls (again), but it was hampered by a scrap iron recycling facility on the nearby bank. Two claw cranes picking up clawfulls of scrap iron and dropping them into an adjacent barge, making loud metal-on-metal crashing noises each time. A little bit distracting.

After that there was a comprehensive fruit tasting, which Barb explored, but I went back to the cabin to download a few more photos. Then dinner, then bed.

12 Oct 2023 (check), Thursday (Day 18), Blessed are the Tourists, for they shall provide money

What they said:

Day 18 Phnom Penh FREEDOM OF CHOICE™ Experience some of Cambodia’s sobering history with a visit to the infamous Killing Fields. Afterwards, see the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, on the site of the Khmer Rouge’s notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21). Otherwise, discover Phnom Penh on a tuk tuk ride past the railway station and the city’s namesake, Wat Phnom. History buffs can embark on a visit to the National Museum. Alternatively, perhaps explore the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, partake in some retail therapy on a shopping expedition.

Enjoy your Freedom of Choice activity then relax back on board this evening.

What we did:

The activities for today and tomorrow were swapped, because there was a Buddhist festival event in Phnom Penh, and the traffic was twice the normal madness. So we boarded a bus for a very slow trip through the Phnom Penh suburbs to a small(ish) village called Udong, some 40km north of PP.

There we first visited a silverware factory, and watched as the local artisans cut the base metal (brass/copper) into the desired shapes, hammered in the relief patterns, and then plated it with silver. They used some form of chemical plating based on potassium nitrate (so they said), but neither Barb nor I could remember enough first year chemistry to recall exactly what the chemical reactions should be. It certainly was not electroplated nickel silver!

We did not buy anything (sorry, Rachel), since most of it was not to our taste, and as Barb said, she doesn't wear jewellery anyway. Back on the bus, we then journeyed to the Buddhist temple, which was the "Buddhist Centre of Kingdom of Cambodia". Not just a temple, it was the learning centre for all levels of schooling, and trained monks and nuns in the deeper philosophies of Buddhism. So there were dormitories, classrooms, prayer centres and the like, not just the grand temple itself (sort of like a cathedral in catholic terms).

Withing the temple itself, we had to take off our shoes and hats, and sit facing a pair of monks, who recited a blessing upon us all. The blessing was quite long, made longer by the fact that each line of the blessing was repeated three times. (Pedants will argue that it was repeated twice, after the initial statement, but I think you will know what is meant.) One had to sit so that one's feet did not point towards the monks, as that was regarded as disrespectful, which meant effectively kneeling (in bare feet, remember) for the duration of the blessing. Towards the end of the blessing, I hoped that the blessing was mentioning knees and feet, because they were very much on my mind!

We lined up in twos so that each couple could have a photo taken with the monks, who remained quite serious throughout the proceedings. Then we had a group photo taken of the whole yellow APT "family".

A visit to the "happy house" (WCs) where there were no flush toilets, only the pan into which one had to ladle sufficient water from a big bucket to remove the evidence one had created. Somewhat basic, but better than the old long drop toilets!

Back on the bus, and back (slightly faster than the forward journey, but not much) to the Serenity boat and lunch (and cooling off - both of us were quite wet with sweat from the humidity). Then a free afternoon, which we turned to relaxing recovery and a bit of a snooze.

At 1800, we were treated not just to the usual briefing on the next day's events, but also a display of Cambodian dancing by a local troup of youngsters ("children", Tim called them, but they were teenagers). Very stylish and idiosyncratic movements (especially the hands), representing various folk legends from Cambodian culture.

That was followed by dinner, but dessert was not part of the sit-down dinner proceedings. Instead we were ushered upstairs to the pool deck for a selection of desserts and beverages, accompanied by a country and western singer called Kevin, from New Hampshire, now living in Cambodia and running what seemed to be an orphanage (but he did not call it that, rather just a "centre", and probably spelt "center" rather than "centre"). He sang a whole range of C&W songs, accompanying himself on a guitar, and entertained the troups very well. We had a ball!

13 Oct 2023 (check), Friday (Day 19), Cyclo Phnom Penh

What they said:

Day 19 Oudong, Koh Chen, Oknha Tey SIGNATURE EXPERIENCE In Oudong, be treated to a Buddhist Blessing Ceremony with local monks at a monastery.

Explore Oudong, Cambodia’s former royal capital. Return via Koh Chen village and perhaps visit local copperware workshops. Back on board, cruise to Oknha Tey, known for its silk weaving traditions.

Enjoy your Freedom of Choice activity then relax back on board this evening.

What we did:

As pointed out yesterday, today's excursion was actually scheduled for yesterday. We had elected to do the cyclo ride around Phnom Penh, and upon exiting the Serenity (through the AmaDara), we found a row of "rickshaws" all lined up. Chantha explained how to board one safely without getting tangled up in the framework, and thus armed, we all boarded one each, 21 in total.

Then off we set. We passed a few landmarks, and stopped for photos (but did not get off) at the Post Office (very similar to the one in Saigon), then the Railway Station and the Golden Temple. We did stop and dismount at the Independence Monument, and inspected the statue of King Norodom Sihanouk next to it. As it started to rain, we rejoined the cyclos, and I got all rugged up in plastic to keep the rain off, thanks to my attentive driver. Barb didn't.

A slightly wet ride to the Imperial Palace to dismount and inspect it from the outside. We did not go in, as the King was in residence, but just talked about the various buildings from the square just outside the gates. There were quite a few French provincial buildings around the square as well. By then the rain had stopped, and it was just a short 5 minute ride back to the ship. No sooner had we arrived than the ship left Phnom Penh, surprising all, as we had been told it would leave at 1245, during lunch. We dined with Mary-Jean and Brian, at which John had a few slices of a meat-lovers piazza. Almost as good as Smokey Joe's!

After lunch a little free time. Barb snoozed, John did the usual updating of all things photographic. The ship moored at some remote spot, and hung around there until 1515, when our tour of Koh Ohkna Tei started. We visited (another!) silk factory, although this one was somewhat different from the Vietnamese ones - the silk cocoons were yellow, rather than white. We saw the process of growing the worms, spinning the silk, and the weaving, this time without the aid of a Jaquard loom - all the pattern making was done by hand, requiring the woman who (hand)worked the looms to remember where they were up to in the pattern. Challenging, and rather time consuming.

We did buy a silk scarf for Beth in a rather nice bronze and silver pattern. We hope she likes it (we did!) Then we wandered around the grounds of the "Silk Community", which seemed to provide recreational and picnic facilities for families. It was an odd place. Then back to the ship for a beer with Mary-Jean and Brian, before retiring to our cabin until 1830 briefing time.

A short briefing about tomorrow's activities, which included a relaxed morning of no excursions (phew! they were getting onerous in the Cambodian heat), so we relaxed in the cabin after breakfast, and read. Then dinner, with Rosalynne and Stefan, and Andrew and Emma. The conversation was relaxed and convivial, until Rosalynne dropped the bombshell that she had voted "No" in the referendum. "You did what?" I exclaimed. She tried to defend her decision by saying that she was part-aboriginal (which may be true), and that she had read the Statement from the Heart (which I very much doubt). I am afraid that I do not suffer such fools gladly, and told her so. I just could not believe that someone who had expressed such sympathy for homeless and down-and-out people could come to such a conclusion. Her decision to reject the compassion and understanding that a Yes vote would bring seemed wholely irresponsible. I guess it is how people act out of ignorance rather than take the effort to learn for themselves. It was so reminiscent of the bullshit that I heard during the Vietnam War from ignorant people who arrogantly told me "John, go and read a book about it and you will understand". I did, and they didn't.

For the rest of the evening, a Trivia Quiz and Karaoke was planned. Barb and I decided not to go. Reports in the morning confirmed that this was a wise choice.

14 Oct 2023 (check), Saturday (Day 20), Ankor Village, aka Encore Village

What they said:

Day 20 Angkor Ban Enjoy a walking discovery of ancient Angkor Ban today, one of the few villages in Cambodia that was not destroyed under the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. Here, people still live in traditional wooden homes and keep ancient cultural traditions alive.

What we did:

We started motoring from our anchor point overnight just after 0600, and went up to the Harmony Lounge at about 0630 for a cup of tea. Breakfast was not scheduled until 0730, and we were 15 minutes late at that. But we had a very relaxed breakfast by ourselves, with Jim for company. He explained that Margaret was OK, but was still asleep, and he did not want to wake her. Fair enough, we said.

After breakfast, more relaxing in our cabin until 1030, when Sean gave a talk on the history and geography of Cambodia, which was quite interesting. Then Chantha gave a very entertaining explanation of the many uses of a Cambodian scarf, including how to use it to maintain "privacy" when visiting the "open air happy room" (translation; how to piss and poo in the open air with only a scarf to hide what was going on!) He had the audience in fits of laughter!

Lunch at the appointed hour of 1230. Barb and I had fish and chips with mushed peas. The fish and peas were nice, but the chips needed a second frying. More quiet time for reading after lunch.

At 1445 we were due to land at Ankor Ban, but as we arrived, the place was absolutely humming with people and deafening load noise. Turns out a) they were celebrating the 3-day Buddhist festival, and b) there were local dragon boat races. So we had to stooge around for another hour before we could tie up and disembark. The tour round the village was much the same as the several other village tours we have undertaken, although the place did seem a little more organized and less obviously squalid. For example, Chantha told us that they all had flushing toilets and electricity - but still had to collect rainwater for drinking and cooking. Even so, I saw no evidence of sanitary waste disposal!

Back to the village square in time to see all the Buddhist monks walking to the temple for their 5 o'clock prayers. The racous band music had stopped, perhaps in deference to the monks' prayer time.

By then it was getting late (dark), and so we motored off as soon as everyone was on board. Cooled down with a beer or two, and waited until dinner.

Had dinner with Bill and Lyn, Jim and Margaret (the West Australians), and then, following injunctions from all the wait staff and bar crew, we went to the Harmony Lounge for the Mekong Serenity Crew Got Talent Show, a variety of acts put on by the various sections of the crew, namely the Restaurant staff, the Bar staff, the HouseKeeping staff, the Kitchen staff, and Admin (?) staff. They were judged by a panel of guests, viz., Jo, John and Rosalynne, and they all displayed heaps of enthusiasm and imagination. The Kitchen staff won with straight 10s from the judges, doing a dance to the YMCA song. It was all fun, and most of the audience (not us!) got up to dance after the result was announced. Then we made a graceful exit before things got too out of hand!

On a more sombre note, we heard just before dinner that the referendum had failed. As expected. Sigh.

15 Oct 2023 (check), Sunday (Day 21), Wringing in the rain

What they said:

Day 21 Kampong Cham, Koh Pen If you are feeling active this morning, walk to the hilltop pagoda of Wat Hanchey, for views over the Mekong. Lunch is back on board before taking a tuk tuk to explore the island of Koh Pen with its wooden stilt houses and local farming culture. On your ship this evening, enjoy a final farewell dinner.

What we did:

It was a bit of a surprise this morning when we noticed that we had gone past Kampong Cham, which is where we are supposed to disembark on Monday (tomorrow). I asked Tim about this at breakfast, and he said that it was to see Koh Pen, and then we would return to Kampong Cham. So at 0900, we disembarked at Koh Pen, and the hardier souls amongst us elected to walk to the top of the hill (height TBA?).

After a rather steep climb, we reached the temple, parts of which date to the 8th century. Chantha guided us around, and explained all the various subtlties of the place, as well as advising us to be careful of the red fire ants!

We descended from the hill and temple not by the way we had come, but by a huge flight of steps, over 300 of them, down to the road and the Serenity.

We did start on packing after lunch, but there was another excursion, this time to a little village on the adjacent island of Koh Pen. On the sampan, and then we walked through the village admiring (not always the right adjective) the various houses, purportedly still in the Kymer style, as the village had not been touched by the Kymer Rouge. We admired the garden of some random family, and tasted his produce (pomelo - a bit dry; papaya - very nice),

In the background, some of us noticed that the clouds had started to lour, and then some lightning lit up the sky. Shortly thereafter loud claps of thunder announced that a storm was about to hit us. Too late Chantha suggested we return to the tuk-tuks, but the rain hit us as we clambered about. The poor driver tried to keep us dry by offering to roll down the side blinds, but it was a bit late for that, and as we drove off, the heavens just kept opening up further.

Before long, we were driving along creeks, not roads - everything was just getting flooded. There was no let-up in intensity, and Barb and I were very much in the wrong seats - in the front seats facing backwards, so that the pelting rain coming through the front of the vehicle just saturated our backs!

Things just went from bad to worse. By the time we got back to the ship, we were sodden. To make matters worse, the path (some 50m or so) to the ship was a muddy quagmire, and we had to pick our way very very carefully down the slope so that we would not slip and fall heavily on our bums. We help from some of the ships crew, who braved the wind and rain to assist us, we got back on board, where housekeeping had laid out lots of slippers for us to remove our muddy shoes and slip on some slippers. It was beers all round to celebrate our return!

The beer soon turned to champagne, as it was the captain's cocktail hour (or rather, canapes and champagne hour), and we were treated to introductions to all 43 of the staff on board. Much appreciate applause from the assembled passengers!

Then the farewell dinner.

16 Oct 2023 (check), Monday (Day 22), A rare duck treat

What they said:

Day 22 Kampong Cham, Disembark Ship, Siem Reap FREEDOM OF CHOICE™ Tonight, take the opportunity to savour a taste of Cambodia with a choice of local restaurants for dinner.

Disembark at Kampong Cham and transfer to your hotel. Then, head to World Heritage-listed Angkor Archaeological Park to visit Angkor Thom and the 12th-century temple, Bayon. Choose where to dine in Siem Reap this evening.

What we did:

Bright and early again this morning, as our bags had to be out by 0630, which was also when breakfast started. We were indeed 10 minutes early, and thereby the first to start breakfast. There was some suggestion that we needed a hearty breakfast, as we were not due to get lunch until after 1400, due to the long drive, but we moderated ourselves nevertheless and had a light breakfast of cereal and smoked salmon (John).

The crew formed a human chain to get the bags off, largely due to the wet and muddy conditions. They had put matting down to provide a more stable walking surface, and as we disembarked, we were thankful for that! The drive to Siem Reap was 5 hours 54 minutes, starting at 0756, with two "happy house" stops along the way, and arriving in SR at 1350.

After depositing personal paraphenalia and plugging batteries in for recharging, we went for lunch - a club sandwich in the Citadel Restaurant in the hotel. It was simple, but welcome.

Then at 1515 we re-assembled for the afternoon tour of Ankor Thom, one of the local temples (there are literally hundreds of them!). But first we had to detour via the Ankor Ticket Centre that was set up to issue "Temple Passes", which required each of us to have our photos taken. In spite of lots of added bureaucracy, the process went smoothly enough, and we then went to see the Bayon Temple, a 12th C construction, and very weathered! Spent an hour so walking all over it and getting thoroughly drenched in sweat, due to the heat and humidity. Tra, our local guide explained the stories behind lots of wall carvings, all based on old Cambodian myths and legends. But it was worth it. Took lots of photos.

Back to the busses and air conditioned comfort (!) for the 20 min ride back to the hotel, where we relaxed until 1930, and time for dinner. Tonight was a Freedom of Choice dining experience. We chose the Sokkhak River, which claimed some authentic Kymer cooking. Some 12 of us went, although the other couple that shared our tuk-tuk on the way there had organized some special celebration, and did not join us at the main table. Barb and John both had a crispy prawn and calamari dish, with a delightfully piquant sauce, and followed that with a rare roast duck. The waiter was a little puzzled that we chose "rare", in spite of offering us a choice between medium and rare, but nevertheless, when it turned up, it was indeed rare - and delicious. John had a dessert called Kymer Delight, which was basically a coconut sticky rice. Jemima would have loved it! (John did.)

An interesting ride back to the hotel in our tuk-tuk. The other couple with whom we shared on the forward journey were still going on their special celebration, so we had the tuk-tuk to ourselves, and our driver took us a quite different way back, which involved drives down bumpy back streets (past a man having a pee by the side of said bumpy street), and all sorts of quiet back roads. Indeed, we met up with a couple of other tuk-tuks from a different choice of dining, and had a race down the main street of Siem Reap!

Early bed, as we have a 0400 start tomorrow!

17 Oct 2023 (check), Tuesday (Day 23), Stairways to Heaven

What they said:

Day 23 Siem Reap SIGNATURE EXPERIENCE At Angkor Archaeological Park, enjoy a special sunrise experience at Angkor Wat.

Return to Angkor Archaeological Park for sunrise over Angkor Wat. Take a guided tour before breakfast at your hotel. Later, explore Ta Prohm Temple and visit ‘Opportunities of Development thru Art’ (ODA).

What we did:

Yes, really, a 0400 start! It was still totally dark as we boarded the bus at 0445 (no breakfast yet!), and travelled to the Angkor Ticking Office again to get our Temple Passes punched. Then to Angkor Wat, where we parked by the temple moat. We had been issued with a torch each, which came in handy as we crossed the moat via a floating bridge, which bounced up and down with each step, rather like a suspension bridge. We entered the temple via the West Gate, which was a bit of an insult, as that was the gate used to bring elephants into the temple grounds. Did mean we did not have to squeeze through, though.

Our first stop was at a big refreshment tent at 0515, where we were invited to stop for a cup of tea or coffee. I ordered tea, but got coffee, which was a bit of a surprise, particularly as it had had sugar added to it. Maybe they ythought I needed the extra energy?

We stopped there for an hour or so, because that was the vantage point to watch the sunrise over the temple. The first light was the best, silhouletting the temple spires in a warm rosy glow, and providing the opportunity of capturing a) lots of different exposure times for best effect, and b) lots of different vantage points for best effect. Whether the serendipity followed or not remains to be seen when the photos are downloaded!

Then on to the temple proper, now that it was daylight. One thing about visiting temples that I should have picked up from yesterday is that visiting temples requires lots of step climbing and descending. Partly as a deterrent to invading forces (as I understand it), corridors are divided into lots of little rooms, each perhaps 3m square. Between each room there is a sill some 60cm high, and wooden steps (3 in total) are constructed to pass over each sill, 3 up, 3 down. So to walk along the corridor requires a continuous climb up, climb down every 3m. Rather tedious, and quite enervating.

Barb and I had decided to split up, as our group formed two parties: the "quick steppers", and the "slow walkers". Barb decided that her hip dictated that she join the slow walkers, but confided with me later that she was the spritliest in that group! John went with the quick steppers, and accordingly racked up 68 flights of stairs on his fitbit! Probably a record, but I have not been keeping track of that metric!!

So John ended up climbing all the way to the top of the temple, some 100m above ground level, and got appropriate drenched in sweat as a result. But the views from the top were worth it, and worth the hair-raising climb of the 50% gradient of the stairs, with only one thing rusty iron piping for a handrail! I wasn't sure which was worse: climbing it (puff, puff), or descending it (trying not to look down).

We did do a fairly thorough exploration of the temple, as the crowds built up, and given that the heat of the sun was also building up, we were all fairly glad to return to the bus after an extra long walk back. Then back to the hotel, for the usual cooling, relaxing, and changing of shirts. Followed by a somewhat delayed and very welcome breakfast at 0830.

We were scheduled to do another tour of another temple in the afternoon, but both of us decided it was an APT tour, and not an ABT tour (Another Bloody Temple!) So we wussed out, and went for a swim in the hotel pool for the rest of the morning, enjoying a beer at the swim-up bar by the pool.

Lunch was not included in the tour fare, but Barb decided after a length laze around that she would like a hamburger, so we repaired to the walk-in bar (the restaurant was by this stage closed, it being just after 1400) and had a more than adequate hamburger and chips, together with - dare I say it? Another beer!

By now we had missed the departure of the ABT bus, so we took changed back into our togs, took our books, and went back to sit beside the pool for another couple of hours. I have to say - we went into resort-mode, and resort-ed to pleasure. Wunderbar!

But the sun rapidly went down on our pleasure, and so we went back to our room for a bit of a lie-down until dinner time. While we were lying there, the phone rang, and it was Tim, with a message that somebody wanted to contact us. Who could this be? It was Jeanette Coutts, who was on the Viking tour, which also happened to be staying at the Hotel Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra. She and Ken were just about to go out on one of their excursions, but we had a window of 15 minutes to meet up and have a quick chat about our respective experiences. We were quite amazed, as we had understand that the four of us were never going to be in the same city in Vietnam/Cambodia simultaneously, but Jeanette had spotted our names on an APT list and contacted us through Tim. How about that?

We said goodbye at 1845 as their bus came, and we wondered what we might do for dinner. Neither of us were hungry after the hamburgers at lunch time, so we went to the hotel restaurant and ordered a bowl of soup each: John french onion soup, Barb a vegetable puree. Then we were just so tired we fell into bed and were asleep by 2030. Oh, and by the way, the heavens opened again as we left the restaurant, but we were say and dry this time!

18 Oct 2023 (check), Wednesday (Day 24), Horse before the Cart

What they said:

Day 24 Siem Reap FREEDOM OF CHOICE™ Perhaps visit the temple of Wat Preah Prom Rath for a Buddhist blessing or enjoy a tuk tuk ride to the Senteurs d’Angkor workshop. If you’re feeling energetic, join a quad bike adventure or take a leisurely bicycle tour through the Cambodian countryside. Other options include a horse and cart ride, a shopping adventure, or why not indulge in a relaxing spa treatment.

Embark on your selected activity today. Tonight, take in an Apsara dance performance, before a memorable farewell dinner.

What we did:

Due to John misreading his watch in the early morning light (?), we jumped out of bed at 0600, only to discover a short time later than it was really 0500 - so we relaxed and spent the time lying in bed and gazing at the ceiling, and the ceiling fan.

But 0600 soon rolled around, and we got dressed, and off to breakfast. The breakfast here is not as good as the Serenity breakfasts, and I am puzzled as to how an up-market hotel like the Sofitel cannot keep sausages hot, when the Serenity staff could. Am I missing something? Even when I took a sausage from a tray just brought out from the kitchen, it was only luke-warm. Bit shonky.

Assembled at 0800 for the horse and cart excursion. There was some confusion between groups, as one of the other tour groups had busses assembling to collect them, but we were expecting tuk-tuks - who had a problem negotiating past the busses! Eventually sorted out, and off we went.

For miles. The transfer to the actual horse and cart was right on the city boundary, which I guess it would sort of have to be, if we were to see rural Cambodian countryside. The horses and carts were quite comfortable, although Barb told me afterwards she had to sit at an odd angle which was quite uncomfortable. I told her she should have changed places with me, but she said she had not thought of that.

Anyway, we did see some rural Cambodian countryside, along with some rural Cambodian roads. Particularly muddy after the rains last night, and flooded in many places. But the horses were quite unfazed by such things as water on the roads, and ploughed on through. "Ploughed on" is appropriate, as the ruts and mudholes were quite deep in places!

One delightful thing (and I should have mentioned this before), the local children all seem to emerge from nowhere when we pass by, to smile and wave at us. Very cheery and friendly, and quite delightful as a welcoming gesture. Even the adults often stop to wave.

We did stop by a pond with lots of lotus flowers, and Raksha our guide waded out (not very deep) to pick a couple for us, and show us the useful features of a lotus flower. Not only are they very pretty, but the seeds are good to eat, and the stem contains a silk thread which is often harvested.

Finished the course, and transferred back to the tuk-tuks. We did stop at the stables for the horses, ostensibly to use the "happy house", but only the gents seemed to be working, and the ladies balked at using just half the facilities. Besides which, all the horses were out, pulling carts for some tour company or other.

Back to the hotel, where we were in time to catch the Coutts as they left for their Mekong River cruising part of the tour (they were going downstream). Had a bit more of a chat before their bus called and they were off. Then we went and put our bathers on, and went for a swim - spending the rest of the morning and half the afternoon there. We did share a bowl of "flat rice noodles with prawns and calamari" for a very light lunch, aided by an Angkor Beer for John, and a Mohito for Barb. We partly ordered it because it was brought to us by a man on a bicycle, carrying a tray with the dish under a food cover in one hand, while steering the bicycle with the other! Clearly quite an accomplished one-handed cyclist.

The second half of the afternoon was spent reading and downloading photos (of which there are many, dear reader. Just click the date link above :-)

19 Oct 2023 (check), Thursday (Day 25), Business Class NOT!

What they said:

Day 25 Depart Siem Reap After breakfast, transfer to the airport for your onward flight.

What we did:

We had lots of time on our hands this morning, as the first thing we were scheduled to do was to put our case out at 1200. Plenty of time for breakfast, which was more leisurely than we had had for some time!

We packed and were ready by 1130 and put the case out for collection (at 1200). Then went and waited in the hotel lobby for 1230 and departure. Saw Jenny and Kerryn in the lobby, and Kerryn had her leg in plaster having broken a toe last night. Ouch! We extended our sympathies, and I was forward enough to ask Kerryn if she would mind having her photo taken - I was so impressed with her cheerfulness and resilience at what must have been a most frustrating incident.

We also took the opportunity to get a photo of ourselves with Tim, who has been a most helpful tour guide over the last 4 weeks. We particularly remember how he looked after Barb with her walking stick, and lack of mobility, ensuring that she was able to negotiate all the obstacles, such as getting on and off busses, and finding transport when others were walking (see 04 Oct).

Then we bid farewell to the Sofitel, and climbed about a big bus - all 6 of us! It seemed a bit of overkill, especially as the bus had to negotiate a lot of roads that had all sorts of the usual impediments, motorcycles, street stalls, slow moving lorries, etc.. It took us an hour to get to the airport, and that was only because the last half was along a new freeway (Chinese built) to the airport, where we were able to zoom along at 90+ kph, motorcycles and tuk-tuks notwithstanding.

The airport itself should not have been opened - it was not ready. Most of the facilities had not been opened, or even built. We were given two vouchers to obtain a drink and a sandwich, as the business lounge was just a vacant space. There were only two food/drink outlets, one had no coffee, the other ran out of food! The only difference between the "business lounge" and regular passenger fare was the fact that we had the two vouchers, which were paltry in the extreme. Very poor service!

We had a few hours to kill in the airport, so it was just as well we had our kindles with us and could read. There was nothing else to do. The flight to Saigon was short enough, but we did not have much time there to check out their business lounge, only 1 hour, and little entertainment or food. I settled for a glass of wine, Barb just had water. Boarded flight VN781 at 2110, and settled into a more regular business class environment. The flight itself was comfortable, and smoother than the forward journey. I watched one movie "God, It's Me, Margaret" (or something), about a teenage girl and her puberty frustrations. A bit forgettable, apart from the constant menstruation references! Then I read, until sleep overtook me.

20 Oct 2023 (check), Friday (Day 26), Staggering home

What they said:


What we did:

Managed to get a bit of sleep overnight, but only a couple of hours, as they turned the cabin lighting on at 0730 (+11 MEL time), so we lost 4 hours of the day. Breakfast followed almost immediately after, at which I had a cup of tea, corn flakes (I had asked for muesli), yoghurt, pho and fruit. All very nice, but the pho just about philled me!

Read a little, and ere too long we were withing striking distance of Melbourne, so started gathering my bits and pieces up. It is very easy on boarding a plane to spread oneself out, and add extra things from the overhead locker on the way, but the big price to pay is gathering all the stuff up again, and then worrying as to whether you have missed anything. I don't think I have ...

Big queues at immigration when we landed at 0907 and we did not get out of customs until 0956, when I received a text message from Mohamed our driver, who was to pick us up at 1000. True to his word, he appeared pretty well on the dot of 10, and we soon had all our luggage in the back of his car, and were heading homewards on the freeway. He was very obliging, and dropped Barb first at the church so she could supervise the book operations for tomorrow's fete, and then me and the baggage at home.

I unloaded a few things, and started the massive task of transferring all our data memories from my travelling laptop onto my dektop machine and our house server. Made a start on clearing the piles of snail mail, too. "Snail mail" is very appropriate - the kids had not cleared the mailbox often enough, and most of the mail was either waterlogged, snail munched, or both!

I then drove up to church to see what I could do, but the answer was not much! Sorted a few books, and prepped my iPad so that it could be used for card payments tomorrow, and then we were told by several people watching our drooping eyelids to go home and have some rest! Buggered we was.

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