Cambodia

Arriving in Seam Reap, Cambodia, it became apparent very quickly that we had arrived at a very special time.  After being sprayed by giant water guns for the umpteenth time we finally asked someone – Maha Sangkran – New Year!

Well this turned our trip to visit the temples at Angkor Wat into something much more interesting for the children.  By day we walked the temples, by night we were water warriors!

Max was very excited to see Angkor Wat however I was not looking forward to wondering around old buildings all day, I know I’m terrible.  After squeezing all five of us into one tuk-tuk (money saving Yorkshire mentality is hard to let go of) we at least would have a fun ride there.

First impressions weren’t great as we were inundated with pushy sellers that I personally find very uncomfortable (and that’s quite an understatement).  The upside was the advice to buy a top to cover our arms; we had come with legs covered but in a vest top.  Max also loved his discounted book on the temples.

We then spent the day walking around the temples, even I was impressed, they are truly stunning. Looking out from the top gives you at least a feel for the vastness of the development.  I would have loved a helicopter tour to really see the extent of the ruins but when travelling for six months these luxuries are out of budget.

It was also lovely to be walking the temples with locals rather than just tourists as they enjoyed the temples as part of the 3-day new year celebrations. Seeing large family groups pitched up by the side of the road, cooking, playing and having an amazing time was a privilege.

Xander and Scarlett were pretty impressed with the temples however it was the evening that they continue to talk about daily.  Both children were bought their own small water guns and we entered the “zone” in the centre of Seam Reap.  It took about 5 minutes before Max bought himself the biggest one he could find.  It was great good-humoured fun.  Lots of water, smiles, music, dancing, and a gentle talcum powder rub on each cheek to wish you a happy New Year.  If anyone knows the background to the talcum powder please share!

We left Cambodia after a couple of days with fabulous memories of the sun rising over Angkor Wat, big smiles, warm welcomes and wet clothes.

 

Viet Nam – the conclusion 

After a wonderful few weeks already in Viet Nam we finished off with two very different locations, Ho Chi Minh city (HCM) and Pho Quoc island.

HCM was everything we expected, crazy traffic and high rise buildings and lots of hustle and bussel.  The food was again lovely and going to a rooftop bar to enjoy cocktails and the view is a must!  Pho Quoc was the complete opposite, a wonderfully quiet Island that is still in the early stages of commercialisation.  Lots of sunbathing, swimming and Xander qualified as a PADI open water junior diver.  Forever memories made.

America War

To balance out all our relaxing so far, and that to come on the Island, we decided to take the children to the War Remnants Museum and out to the Cu Chi tunnels, with the aim of educating them about the more modern history of Viet Nam.  Both were well worth a visit, but I would be very cautious about what in each place you allow the children to see.  The museum contained many photographs of very disturbing images and there are recreations of the barbaric traps at the tunnels.

Although I wanted the children to learn about the horrors of war, particularly this one when “collateral damage” seemed to first become an acceptable part of strategy, I didn’t need them to see it in full technicolor at their young ages.  I must admit I, as a 40 year-old women, found both the photos and traps very disturbing.

Our guide for the Cu Chi tunnels was a fascinating man, a vet of the war who supported the Americans as a communications engineer.  He was keen to give us insights into the real experience, rather than the adapted ‘Tourist” version.  Slightly worrying that he stopped talking whenever one of the state guides walked past.  He underwent two years of reeducation camps and is still blacklisted from most jobs, hence freelancing as a guide.

My lasting impression, and personal view, was just the sheer horror of a war that reduced normal people to nothing.  Made even more sad, given the unimaginable casualty numbers (again sanitised language – dead people), by the fact the war wasn’t primarily about Viet Nam or its people – just a old fashioned pissing contest between larger nations.

PADI  – back to happy thoughts

Well, back in the UK Xander was desperate to learn to dive, but you can only start when you are 10.  He turned 10 three and half weeks before we set off.  Never one lacking in determination he attended a weekly course in Harrogate with OverlandUnderwater and crammed in all the book learning as well.  Super proud Mummy when he got 86% in the test.  However disappoint was felt when the weather came in whilst we were in South Africa preventing the qualifiying dives.

I was a bit reluctant at first for him to learn in Viet Nam due to unfounded prejudice on the potential professionalism and safety. Xander did a two day course with RainbowDivers, fitting in five dives, passing the practical tests, and making a new best friend. He is now a fully qualified PADI Open Water Junior Diver.  Awesome, or as they would say in New Zealand SWEET (where I am writing this avoid the torrential rain). Future posts will have him diving in Byron Bay, the Great Barrier Reef and Poor Knights Islands.

Bye Viet Nam

Upon leaving Viet Nam we were all very sad, a truly lovely country – great people, great scenery, great food – just great!  However on our next journey we began to debate whether the country is equally great for the people living there.  It is clear that economically the country has opened up, but are the people free, do they care?  Whilst travelling  in Viet Nam I read Aldous Huxley A Brave New World, and although on a day to day basis people seem to have all they need, is freedom more important than that? Are we putting our views onto them, would they see our slave to commercialism as equally constraining.  I’m afraid I have come to no conclusions, just lots of thoughts.

The Pictures  – more to follow

 


Game day 

About to head out to meet a friend and her family in Auckland, not seen her since University.  So excited that our travel round the world has finally got us to New Zealand to enjoy the Lions tour.  

Hue – Vietnam

Only a short stay, only two nights, but also a guided day out and a visit to a Zombie Waterpark…

I really liked the feel in Hue, it could be that Laura and I got a night out without the kids -date night!  We found a lovely spot at an outside table to have a lovely meal. cocktails and enjoy people watching the very drunk and happy locals at the bar across the road.  Great night.

Our main experiences were the guided tour around the local temples, the Marble Mountains and the Citadel.  All of it was great however I think the Citadel and the Marble Mountains stood out.

The Citadel was just vast and it was really interesting to learn about the different Emperors and their way of life.  After all this learning the kids loved dressing up in traditional outfits.

Marble Mountains were just amazing, however (as usual) I was very worried about the steps to the top.  Much relief was had on spotting the glass lift.  The views were wonderful but the highlight was the various temples in the caves with the Big Buddha statue in one of the caves really standing out.

Despite all this culture the adults and kids alike have only one favourite memory from Hue, the waterpark.  I have no idea how Laura found out about it but we visited an abandoned water park.  We all agreed it was perfect for a Zombie movie!

Hoi An – Vietnam

After constantly moving location since we set off it was a welcome break to arrive in Hoi An where we stayed for a week in an AirBnB.  The house was on a normal Vietnamese street and was in the traditional style.  It was fabulous  – if you are interest see link: airbnb.

I just loved Hoi An, it was a beautiful place with a river through the centre and lit up by lanterns at night.  As with all the locations we visited in Vietnam the food was spectacular.  The only downside was that this was planned as a beach week and the weather let us down, only made one day on the beach.  It was still very relaxing, and we actually enjoyed a more sedate pace and I caught up on some Reading 📖 – the thing to do in a thunderstorm ⛈ .

Cooking Course   – Following our trusted Trip Advisor we attended a cooking course with Green Bamboo.  The day started with a trip to the market to purchase all the ingredients for the various dishes (each person on the course was going to make their own dish).  This in itself was a great experience, learning about the meat, fish, vegetables, herbs and staples and seeing all the colourful fresh food.  Once back at the house we all then made our dishes, and as each was ready enjoyed a steady 12 course banquet!  I made a chicken curry, Scarlett fried spring rolls, Xander BBQ fish in banana leaves, Max traditional Pho and Laura Prawns.  We left the premises very full, with a cookbook and a commitment to each other to do a Vietnamese dinner party when we got home.

Tailoring – Hoi An is known for its exceptional tailors so getting something made was a must do activity.  I was being very me  and being scared of the shop assistants, but by day three of visiting even I was persuaded to get something made.  It didn’t seem optional after even Scarlett’s monkey Charlie got a new outfit – a banana shirt.  For those coming to Richard and Maria’s wedding in September look out for Max and Xander new suits!

Diving –  Xander (my little 10 year-old boy) worked very hard in the weeks before we left to pass his exam and swimming pool skills to enabling him to become a PADI Junior Open Water diver.  All he had left to do was his four qualifying dives.  Unfortunately there wasn’t time in Hoi An due to the weather but he did get in his first real dive, a discovery dive.  Look out for his blog on how he enjoyed it.

Neighbours – Our next door neighbours helped look after us and came in each morning to make us clean and make breakfast, usually omelet and lots of fresh fruit.  One morning they brought another neighbour, Gary, with them to explain they needed to come early the next day as they were celebrating the death of the husbands father, followed by an invite for us to attend.  We were very confused as it seemed odd to invite us to the funeral and assumed it was lost in translation.  Mid-morning the next day they popped in to ask (well gesture) if we were coming as food was ready.  Laura, Scarlett and I jumped up, got dressed (chilling remember) and headed over a bit worried.  Turns out it is an annual event to remember his father rather than a wake, and involved lots of family and food.  We were made to feel very welcome and the food was lovely if a little daunting.  Again just showing the welcoming nature of the Vietnamese.  (The boys missed out as they were diving)

Birthday Girl – Having your eighth birthday without all your family and friends could have been hard, but thanks to the present from Laura and all the e-cards and videos Scarlett had an amazing day.  We got a lovely birthday cake delivered (the French influence is really evident through the amazing bakeries) , attended the neighbours celebration, and finished the day with a lovely meal and putting lanterns onto the river.  The most memorable bit though was the YouTube birthday song.

 

 

SaPa – Vietnam

The journey to SaPa started with the taxi ride to the train station.  This was probably our only negative experience with the taxis which we got frequently in all the placed we visited in Vietnam.  This particular driver I feel was somewhat disappointed in the shortness of our intended journey and took us a lovely scenic route.  I think I would have been OK with this if it wasn’t for the time critical nature of our journey – I didn’t want to miss the train.

The train was massive, with rooms on the side and a long corridor.  We had a two berth for Scarlett and Laura, which although booked to enable Laura to sleep soundly without stranger danger proved to be essential for the storage of our luggage on the unused two top berths. (footnote: poor Laura did not sleep soundly due to a bad cold)

After all our research I was expecting a poor nights sleep on the bumpy noisy train.  I couldn’t have been more wrong, I enjoyed the first 20 mins looking out the window watching the world go by then I slept soundly until the last 20 mins.

The transfer to Sapa from the train station was awful.  Poor Scarlett was very travel sick, not surprising given our drivers wish to try and speed round all the bends – I am sure he was trying to kill us all, mixed with his odour.  We found a new use for her Vietnam hat – sick bucket!

The experience didn’t get anymore positive for Scarlett.  We were taken straight the offices of Sapa Sisters (https://sapasisters.com) ready for breakfast and onto our trek.  By this time we were in the middle of a thunderstorm.  Well, when you have travelled all night, and you are only in the place for three days, you say “yes, what the hell, lets trek in the rain”.  After a surprisingly nice breakfast, and depositing Laura into a room to try and sleep off her cold, we headed out.

Our guide was from the H’mong tribe and the plan was to trek for two days with overnight being a homestay, with hopefully Laura joining us for tea.  Well,  what do they say about plans!

It all started as an exciting adventure, we were all wet through almost straight away and were still in great spirits, with Xander particularly excited about his Bear Grylls style trekking. Point to note – my umbrella was useless. Walking down the side of the rice paddy fields, which was very steep and clay like I took the first tumble.  I think it was fun for all to see Mummy slip and land in deep mud on her butt!

Bamboo sticks were found for the Max and the kids to help with the walking, I didn’t get one as my hand was still full with my useless but essential umbrella.  We continued on down the steep hill for a few more minutes until Scarlett began screaming.   For those who know me you will be unsurprised that my first thought was just that she now had her butt in the wet sticky mud and was over-reacting to the situation. On turning round she was as expected now sitting in the mud. What wasn’t expected was the blood pouring from her head.

Scarlett had managed to impale herself on the bamboo stick when she slipped down the bank.  For all those who know Max you will be unsurprised that he had on a backpack with an extensive medical kit inside.  This is where Max’s cautious attitude really helped.  He had something called “wound seal” in his pack – just sprinkle onto the wound and it stops bleeding.  It worked wonders.  It did take him a bit of time to explain to the guide what it was, and she had already gathered some plants and was holding them to the wound – apparently it did the same thing – we went with the powder.

The guide was fantastic, calling a taxi to meet us back at the main road and giving Scarlett a piggyback ride all the way – even more impressive when you think that this lady was only really Xander’s size and in plastic slipper type shoes.  It was still absolutely terrifying being in the middle of nowhere with a distraught child with a very deep wound right between her eyes.

Scarlett was treated at the local hospital, needing a wound cleaned and three stitches.  The experience was not good, as even the anaesthetic was administered with a large needle.  The people were great and she was all fixed up for the very expensive sum of $20.

Obviously this mean the end of the trek and no homestay.  Xander was gutted.  Therefore, despite our experience, Max and Xander attempted the trek again the next day.  Still terrible weather but at least predicated to get better by lunch.  After a restful night in the hotel both Scarlett and Laura were feeling better so we went on a scary taxi ride to meet the intrepid trekkers in one of the mountain villages, Tan Van.

IMG_2107

In the village we had a Batik class by our guides aunt.  We sat outside her craft shop on very small plastic chairs around a small fire pit, used to melt our wax, and did Batik.  It was absolutely brilliant.  Everyone had an amazing time, I think even the locals did who seemed to enjoy our presence and gathered round at various times to watch us.  We finished our pieces and left with them a quite a few pieces from the shop (shirt, bags, purses, headscarfs).  Still one of my favourite days of the trip so far – I don’t know if that was become it came after such a deep low, but it was fantastic and I would highly recommend SapaSisters.

I could keep talking about SaPa.  I loved it.  The main streets were lots of fun, and turned into a river when the rain came down (which was often).  The clouds were always very low in the sky and we didn’t really get many of the famous views of the rice paddy terraces.  The locals, from the different indigenous people, were very colourful and I especially loved the headscarfs.  Food was fabulous and cheap and the ambiance of the place was very chilled.

More Photos!

 

 

 

 

Halong Bay – Vietnam

The sailing trip didn’t get off to the greatest start as apparently our boat was in for repairs as the tide was low?!?!?

Well, it turned out that did not matter, the boat we were on was fabulous and Halong Bay was just as beautiful as all the pictures on the internet. Our pictures on the other hand do not do it justice as the sun didn’t stay out long enough.  The cabins were fabulous, the food was abundant and great, the activities were fun – just the weather that could have been better.

The main highlights, other than the spectacular views, were:

Kayaking – A lovely way to explore the bay and appreciate the views and tranquility.   I swapped partners for the return trip, I am too unfit to be paired with Scarlett!  Laura and I did much better. The only downside was the rubbish floating at points in the bay which apparently comes from the shanty villages (imagine boats, wooden rafts etc roped together and you all have an idea) being damaged in high winds.

Caves – I must admit I was quite vocally against this trip, in my defence all the boats seemed to follow the same itinerary and that meant lots of people were there, add to that the steep set of steps and it wasn’t something I was looking forward to (and we had also seem spectacular caves in South Africa).  Well, the first cave was disappointing and I was all, I told you so, but then we entered the next cave and it was truly stunning.  Well worth the steps!

Pearl Farm – This was a surprisingly interesting visit.  They took us through the farming processing then Scarlett got picked to choose an oyster which they then checked for a pearl.  Well, Scarlett chose well and a pearl was found.  With Vietnam being Scarlett’s birthday location she came away with her pearl and a set of pearl earrings (not bad for a nearly 8 year old). What about you Maria I hear you ask? Nope I got nothing :(.

Food – Xander would say it was 11 courses (he was counting all meals in a day) and lovely.  It might not have been that many but it was lovely and fresh.  The best bit being the self-made fresh spring rolls we all attempted after our mini lesson.

Hanoi – Vietnam

Hanoi was just amazing.  I won’t bore you with a hour by hour review, but just some of the highlights and some photos (which I have tried to caption – not sure I’m skilled at that).

Night market – This was full of great crafts, like the handmade pop up cards that were just beautiful, mixed with lots of fake goods.  Max, being a Yorkshireman, couldn’t resist what appeared to be great bargains and we left with a Bose portable bluetooth speaker, new Nike trainers for Xander, pink headphones for Scarlett and a NorthFace t-shirt and coat for Max.  Anyone would think we had unlimited luggage allowance!

Food – At first we were very worried about the food given the fact that it was all on display.  Where are the fridges we cried!  Also the general hygiene was not great – don’t look at the walls. Well, all the food was fresh so no need for fridges and none of us got food poisoning. We did however get the most amazing food, my favourite being from New Day that Laura took us to on the first night (TripAdvisor wins again).

Hanoi Hilton – Our visit to the old prison was very interesting and gave us an opportunity to teach the kids (and ourselves) a little bit about the French and American wars.  I was very cognisant of the victor-bias in all the information but was still struck by the sheer amount of conflict this nation has had in recent history.  It just added to my positive feelings that they could be such a welcoming happy nation in the light of such horrors. Prison visit – Hà Nội

The Bridge (and views) – The never-ending crazy busy bridge (trains, mopeds, cyclists and stupid tourists).  I was absolutely terrified, given the height and the big gaps and loose paving slabs, but determined to walk across.  I was rewarded with great views of the river, and ordinary people living and working.  We even saw a cockfight going on amongst the allotments (can’t think of a more apt word) near the shanty houses.  The bridge itself was subject to constant bombing in the American War but they found a solution – get the POWs to fix it.    Apparently this resulted in the USA stopping the bombing to protect their service men from the rebuild dangers.

Turtle Temple – In the middle of Hanoi is a lake, which is lovely to walk around, and on that lake is a little island temple.  The story is that of a turtle and sword.  The detailing was just stunning and it was great to see locals as well as tourists still using it for reflection and worship.

Water Puppet Show – The puppets were just beautiful and the show was great.  Only downside was that the low lighting level and relaxing music, combined with dialogue we couldn’t understand, seemed to create a lovely sleep-inducing effect and I had to constantly fight my nodding head.

Vietnam – first stop

After Xander being very unsure in Hong Kong and our expectations of Vietnam being “very different”, we were all a bit anxious about our month there.

First step was getting into the country, Max and I had decided to follow the embassy website advice to not use the e-visa process as it can’t be guarenteed, and go all the way to London and get the visas in person over two days.  It was just an added bonus that this meant we could have a fabulous two evenings out in London with Yvonne, Amanda, Laura and Pete wishing us luck for our travels.

Laura went with the e-visa…would she get in?  How long would it take? Well, e-visa worked fine.  Really quick (Xan says it was still longer than having the visa already!).  Would have saved us train to/from and two nights hotel in London.  This was one of Max’s caution decisions that wasn’t needed…

In keeping with our cautious approach to Vietnam, all the accommodation was booked in advance along with hotel pick ups and transfers.  The transfer from the hotel consisted of us looking out the window at the traffic in utter amazement and trepidation that we would have to figure out how to manage through this craziness of mopeds.

Pulling into our hotel, the Angel Palace, the challenge began – could we cross the road?

For those on Facebook you may have seen our short videos of our road crossing attempts.  We managed that afternoon with the simple advice of “just walk slowly across the road and let the traffic go round you”.  Seemed simple. I was just a bit worried about the added “don’t stop, or walk too quickly, otherwise you will get hit!”.

By the end of the first day we were already in love with Vietnam and its energy.  The hotel, although only a 3* was very modern, clean and perfect.  The traffic was daunting but we managed, the difference to the UK is that no one seems to have the right of way, so everyone is expected to pay attention to everyone.  It works.  It also took at bit of getting used to the noise. All the “beeps” were not people being angry with each other, the noise was not one of aggression.  They were just curtesy beeps to let people know they were there.  The crazy traffic, the noise, and the people.

The people, or more specifically families, are just on the street.  Small plastic chairs and tables outside their home, shop, restaurant are were they seem to spend the evenings.  Watching the world go by whist cooking their dinner.  As an avid people watcher myself I just loved it.

Well, that was my first impression of Vietnam from Hanoi.  I’m going to post more about Vietnam with our photos and writing about the various places we visited, but my first impression never changed.  An amazing place, great people, great feeling, just love it.

Will definitely visit again.

Footnote:  Electricity…don’t look up!