Saturday, October 29, 2011

Entry for the Contest "Indochina in your eyes"!

The Great 14km Walk

It’s sunny and bright today. We woke up to promising weather that was to carry on the entire day. The skies have just begun to open up revealing the gorgeous sun! We rented a jeep, a seriously beaten up jeep that requires a few steps on the brakes before it works! A local driver brought us to Thac Bac waterfalls also known as Silver Waterfalls that cascaded 100m from above. It was a pleasant sight, nothing to shout about. We headed further north west arriving at Tram Ton Pass sitting between two mountains with Sapa on one side and Lao Chai on the other. Standing at the pass reminded us of views at Mount Kinabalu, Sabah. Towering hills continued endlessly and disappearing into a glimmer of shadows into the background. It’s a spectacular view indeed!

Thac Bac Falls

From Tram Ton Pass we scooted back to Sapa to head towards Lao Cai to Ta Phin village about 14km from Sapa. This village is home to Red Dzao’s the other minority group around this region. The ride brought us through bumpy and hilly roads and down steep narrow roads finally into the village. Spotting a few Red Dzao women from afar, they came running towards our jeep and as it came to a halt they surrounded our jeep instantly asking us to buy something from them. It wasn’t a very welcoming gesture, but we just had to be patient (for Terence, VERY patient) and maneuver our way out. Our jeep left us there as we decide to walk back to Sapa after the visit. The Red Dzao’s soon became out personal escorts as 6-8 of them persistently followed us as we walked into the village. There was no peace, and soon they started chatting up to us. Surprisingly their English was much better than some locals we bumped into in Hanoi. They told us that they learned how to speak in English from conversing with tourist – fast learners indeed!

Entry for the Contest "Indochina in your eyes"!

Voluntourism in Cambodia

The harsh realities of Cambodia stares me in the face. My second trip to this desolate country in a month has left an indelible mark in my throve of memories. Touching down in Siem Reap, we travelled four hours on a local bus to Battambang. Packed with over 40kgs of old clothes, medical supplies and a vague sense of what to expect, our team of a doctor and four medical students, 10 professionals and a little girl (Vanora) and set out to make medical aid possible for the rural village folk.

We met up with Pastor Sam of Legacy of Hope, an English language institute that offers quality education to children and youth. He brings us around the school, a few simple blocks of tiny classrooms with ceilings low enough to make you feel claustrophobic. Students stare at us intently offering welcoming smiles and respectful bows as we peeked in.

Prior to our arrival, Pastor Sam had organized the purchase of medicines and prepared a group of local translators to help us with the medical camp. We spent the rest of the day sorting, counting, packing and labeling medicines into the wee hours of the morning.

The next day, many questions still hung in the air as we travelled another hour into interiors of the country side– ‘How many people will come?’, ‘How will the response be?’, ‘What will we encounter?’, ‘Will we be able to cope with the numbers?’… To add to the sea of questions, it was the first time a medical team has visited this particular village.

A multitude of people were found waiting at the entrance of the school, the temporary ‘hospital’ for the next 2 days. Along the way as our van approached, groups of people were seen walking towards the school, some pulling wooden carts to ferry their children, others dragging their little ones by the finger in hope to get some medicines for their ailing bodies.

Children walked around with torn clothes, some half-naked and most of them without any shoes or slippers. Their hair streaked with a light tinge of blonde not from hair dye but as a result of severe malnutrition. Old women and men offer a smile to welcome us and I’m overcome by the sight of decaying and charcoal black teeth. I returned a smile with my best effort trying to hide the feelings that overcome me – feelings of empathy and despair.

Ha Long – a wonder of the creator

Located in Quang Ninh Province, Ha Long Bay includes the sea areas of Ha Long City, Cam Pha Town and a part of Van Don island district. With the admirable natural beauty and multiform, special values, Ha Long has become the must-see destination in Viet Nam for domestic and international visitors.

The legend has it that, once upon a time, soon after the Viet people established their country, invaders came. The Jade Emperor sent Mother Dragon and her Child Dragons down to the earth to help the Viet people fight against their enemy. When the dragons landed down on the earth, invaders' boats were rushing to the shore.

The dragons immediately turned into thousands of stone islands emerging in the sea like great walls challenging the invaders' boats. The fast boats couldn't manage to stop and crashed into the islands and broke into pieces. After the victory, Mother Dragon and Child Dragons didn't return the heaven but stayed on the earth at the place where the battle had occurred. The location Mother Dragon landed is present Ha Long Bay and Child Dragons landed is present Bai Tu Long Bay. The dragons' tails waving the water created Bach Long Vi (present Tra Co Peninsula). 

Ha Long Bay covers the area of 1,553km² and encompasses 1,969 islands of various sizes which are mainly limestone islands with tectonic age from 250 million to 280 million years. The process of long geological evolution created the unique Ha Long Bay in the world with thousands of islands which look like fantastic sculptural and artistic works of various graceful shapes such as Canh Buom (Sail) Islet, Trong Mai (Cock and Hen) Islet, Lu Huong (Incense Burner) Islet… All of them are vivid and soulful.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Entry for the Contest "Indochina in your eyes"!

An expedition to Vietnam’s Son Doong Cave – what could go wrong?

My eyes startle open from the sudden jolt of the overnight train as we pull into Dong Hoi. I watch my husband, son and daughter (aged 13 and 12) stir in their bunks when the realisation of our situation hits me like a brick. Few people in the world, let alone an ordinary family from Australia, have done what we are about to embark upon – a journey which will change our lives forever.

The obsession started seven months earlier when I read about Vietnam’s Hang Son Doong Cave in the January 2011 issue of National Geographic. Known as Mountain River Cave, Hang Son Doong is hidden deep within the remote and rugged mountains of central Vietnam’s Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. A cave so huge that stalagmites are the size of multi-story buildings and where underground islands of jungle the size of football fields flourish beneath skylights of fallen ceilings long ago. And here we now are after months of preparation – an ordinary family of four with our local support crew of eight.

The start of the trail commences high on a misty, windy mountain and disappears rapidly down into a seemingly impenetrable, humid jungle. Suitably clad in our expensive hiking gear, our packs containing equipment and supplies for any contingency, I am worried that our support crew is a little unprepared - wearing flimsy rubber sandals and packs seemingly fashioned from rice bags and rope. Our guide informs us that we need to take an alternative route because the river, which would need to be crossed multiple times, is flooded from the recent typhoon. We enthusiastically agree without realising the consequences – the new route is twice as long (12 kms) and traverses across multiple, steep mountain ranges.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The first expedition to Son Doong Cave with ATA – Unrevealed stories!

On 28th Sep, 2011, carrying the eager to explore the grandeur of nature, the first travelers together with ATA’s product manager – Mr. Tony Tran had launched the discovery to Son Doong Cave, the biggest cave in the world.

Accompany with the group is Mr. Ho Khanh who found the Son Doong Cave as a tour guide. The first meet with Mr. Ho Khanh really impressed everyone. Just a warm smile, a strong handshake from him is enough to make everyone feel warm at heart. At Ho Khanh ‘s house, the group had the moments of relax with green tea, a simple lunch with steamed rice cake and salted peanut and an open conversation. All of that was promising for a memorable journey.

Mr. Ho Khanh in old costume of troop

The first obstacle for the group is leaches. They are everywhere and all in hungry for blood. It was really a nightmare at first but as time passes, the scare was fade when everyone got used to them and they weren’t the obstacle anymore. In the deep jungle under shade, the expedition team followed jungle trails that on limestone Mountains to the Swallow Cave.

As planned, the expedition team would camp at the Swallow Cave. But “Man proposes, God disposes”, everything weren’t going as planned, it was dark so quickly so the expedition had to camp at a clear ground that is 30 minutes walking to the Swallow Cave. The tents were pitched up, dinner was also cooked and everyone had a good time to eat dinner together. Camping in the deep jungle, it was indeed an interesting experience!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Entry for the Contest "Indochina in your eyes"!

“Vietnam 2010, A Family Affair”

After an exhausting transpacific flight, we finally touch downed in Sai Gon and waited tirelessly in line for entry into the country. We gathered our belongings and made our way into the warm tropic air greeted by hundreds of Vietnamese smiles. Confused and overwhelmed as we were, familiar faces came out of the crowd to meet us, hugging and retrieving our bags. My mother naturally responded in her first language and began introducing everyone.

Although my mother and I had visited Vietnam previously, it was a first for those travelling with us; my teenage son on his first international holiday; my older sister returning to her country of birth; my father, a war veteran with suppressed memories from his deployment; finally arriving at a small yet significant country that that made a name for itself during the 1960’s.

We were immediately thrown into a chaotic city of petrol motos, rustic bicycles, horns blaring and a multitude of Vietnamese conversation. A thicket of fumes layered the city and grills sent smoke drifting across perilous streets. After reintroductions to our extended family, a large group of us headed to Nha Trang in a stiff passenger van for a five hour road trip. It was one of the most strenuous road trips due to the lack of organized traffic patterns but we eventually made our way outside of the city into some of the most beautiful parts that Vietnam has to offer. The land transitioned from flat rice fields to rocky cliffs in the west and mountains in the east. As we neared the outskirts of Nha Trang, the South China Sea glistened like jade stones under the sun. We rested at a seaside restaurant for lunch and enjoyed the warm sand and salty mist of the sea.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Mai Chau Homestay Trek Was So Much Better Than I Ever Imagined

"A buddy and I did 10 days in Northern Vietnam and wanted to get a few days of hiking in. We opted for ATA's 4-day Mai Chau Homestay. Mr. Hai picked us up at our backpacker's hostel with a private car and driver. Mr. Hai was very knowledgeable, had a great sense of humor, and spoke great English. The drive was quiet and comfortable, though uneventful as it was raining. 

When we reached Mai Chau, we stopped at the Homestay HQ where we were treated to a good 4-5 course meal and waited for our local guide, Thanh. Thanh did not speak a word of English, but was friendly and pleasant from the start. She would prove to be absolutely wonderful once the trip started. From Mai Chau, we took a short car ride to the beginning of the hike. 

We departed our transport and hiked to a Hmong village high in the mountains. Though it was still raining and chilly, the Hmong house was warm and comfortable. Right when we arrived, Thanh headed to the kitchen and began working over a wood fire. We quickly learned that this would be the norm, regardless of how long the hike was prior. The Hmong family pressed on with their day-to-day activities. At dinner time, Thanh delivered the first of several unbelievable meals. The typical dinner meal was about 7 courses with the freshest ingredients I've ever tasted. I can't begin to express how good the food was throughout the trip. The Hmong husband and wife joined us during the dinner and shared their company as well as their homemade corn wine with us.

Entry for the Contest "Indochina in your eyes"!

Border town 

Continuing her trip into the remote north of Vietnam, Duc Hanh travels to Simacai, a mysterious border town with imposing cloudy peaks and a vibrant market.

Before traveling north my friend had recommended I rent a room in Bac Ha then take a day trip to Simacai as there are no rooms in the border town. At just 26km from Bac Ha town, it is a relatively short trip, though the road is a long and winding one. As I am travelling on the back of motorbike on unfamiliar and unpredictable roads a bit of caution is required by the driver (my husband!.

Contrary to the misty Can Cau market the sky above Simacai is clear and blue. With a cool breeze on my face I take a deep breath and bask in the glory of the seemingly endless mountain ranges around. On the road I can see the roof-tops far down below in the valleys. The landscape is the most beautiful and peaceful I have come across on my journey so far.

The young flower Mong women I see along the road are like the fairies in this bucolic paradise. After an hour driving at a snail’s pace, I arrive at the Border Martyrs’ Cemetery on the outskirts of Simacai. Here brave border soldiers who laid down their lives to defend their country are buried. Situated at an altitude of 1,000 meters above sea level, the average temperature of Simacai town is about 15 degrees Celsius. The district of Simacai stretches across 23,000ha in Lao Cai province.

There are 11 ethnic minorities living in the district, but Mong people account for 81.4 percent (The name Simacai means “the new horse market’ in Mong.) Different from what I imagined an out-of-the-way town might look like, Simacai town is rather spacious and tidy. The town centre is positively stately with modern governmental and administrative buildings leaning against the mountain backdrop.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Frustrations of a single white female in Hanoi Vietnam

Carolyn Shine got so fed up with being rejected by Vietnamese men, she wrote a book about it

Romancing the Hanoian male? Tricky -- for a female Westerner, anyway. I’ve seen Western gays have more luck.

And I feel compelled to point out, for vanity’s sake, I’d had solid success with most other sorts of male when I turned up in Vietnam expecting to acquire a special friend in no time.

The cruelty of the whole thing is that Vietnamese males lit up my visual cortex like candy, yet after 18 months in the country I was forced to accept the truth: my cross-cultural ambition was doomed to fail.

Western women of all ages go to countries like Indonesia and Nepal to team up with local boys in a trice. I know of several instances of women having a fling with a local in next-door Laos, and any number of cases of women finding themselves a Japanese partner.

But while I’m aware of a handful of Western women who have married Vietnamese men, on balance there are very few such cases.

The fact is, in general, Asian women are more appealing to Western men than Asian men are to Western women.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Entry for the Contest "Indochina in your eyes"!

South to North Vietnam : An Unforgettable Experience

Hitting the road to Vietnam, I didn’t know what to expect; the journey began in Southern Vietnam in Ho Chi Min City, formerly known as Saigon. We started off exploring the city, with our pro globalization cyclo driver kept saying "Got mouth to eat, Got no mouth to speak".

We then traveled to Cao Dai temple, in which the temple was like going through some mad alice in wonderland dream. The architecture was like nothing I have ever seen before, it was modern with lots of exquisite art and detail everywhere. The religion is a combination of teachings from Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, Islam and other religions with the intention to promote peace.

Another highlight was visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels, which is an ingenious invention of seeing how resilience the Vietnamese during the American war. The Vietcong controlled under the grounds while Americans controlled the sky and land. The tunnels were tiny and it was amazing to realize that people lived there, cooked, slept, used the bathroom and even had children. The visit was quite emotional because our tour guide was quite the opposite of our cyclo driver, he was a Vietcong fighter during the war. As we watched movies of how Vietcong rewarded brave soldiers that fought the evil Americans, it took me back to realize how symbolic nationalism was during that time.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Vietnam: ethnic tourism among the valleys with no name

A typhoon had blown in during the day. White rain clouds lay like a boiling sea in the valleys, creating the illusion that the twisting mountain pass was an ocean road. As our vehicle turned a blind corner we came across a gaggle of motorcyclists, caped against the rain and gawping over the edge.

A Red Dao mother and child

A lorry had gone over while overtaking another lorry, trusting to a hard shoulder that had gone soft in the rain. Through the clouds we saw that the plummeting vehicle had ploughed a vertical groove of red earth in the sheer mountainside. Its roof was visible, a couple of hundred feet below.

Incredibly, the driver had just been hauled up alive and whisked off to hospital. As the men continued to stare, a woman in a beautiful and strange costume strode away from the scene as if in disgust. She was the reason we had come to this remote, mountainous region in the north of Vietnam, just 50 miles from the Chinese border.

Her distinctive look – black tunic

Entry for the Contest "Indochina in your eyes"!

Backpackin’ the Delta……..for old time’s sake!!

First things first.............. The writer is a 60 year old Aussie, who has in the past, "flash packed" around Vietnam with his wife, this time, traveling solo, and having one last go at backpacking. It's been a very long time. So, cheap accommodation, cheap food, cheap grog and cheap transport. Leave the credit card at home and travel on the bones of my rrrrr's.............a real test of my resolve, for old time’s sake !

Nothing’s changed……………..Saigon's still hot, noisy, hot, crowded, hot, and full of rats with gold teeth. Plus….. it’s still bloody hot! I squibbed on the public bus system from the airport and opted for a taxi. Not a great start when trying to travel cheap, but I figured $6 was not going to break me !!

First night at Long’s guesthouse in district 1, $15 US/night, your own bathroom and air-conditionings a bonus. With help from Mrs Long I managed to buy a sim card for my phone and change some $AU into Dong. So, armed with a phone that worked and a wheelbarrow full of was out into the night.

I hadn’t walked more than 50 meters and they were onto me like blowfly's on a cow pat………….. Ladies, well sort of ladies. I probably wouldn’t have taken one home for a Sunday roast with the family, but I’m sure their mothers probably still love them. The first to approach what is obviously a potential client, i.e. a western man walking without a female partner, and in her eyes, desperate for the carnal delights that she has to offer, was, and these are her words, not mine, a bootifool girl........... My words…"well past her use by date"….if you’ll pardon the pun. I’d reckon somewhere around the 60 mark, and that’s being kind. She informed me that $20 US would satisfy every dream I had ever had and that I would be sure to be looking for her “nex night”. " I vely good" she said “ you look me nex night…I vely vely good, I love you long time” was the last I heard from her that night. At least 6 – 8 more girls and 2 young guy’s masquerading as women tried it on, and all got the short shift quick smart.

Entry for the Contest "Indochina in your eyes"!

Pol Pot’s Clippers

Holidays can be really hard work, so after a fairly busy week and a big day at the temples I am about ready for a day off to relax, do the laundry and get a haircut. Around the corner we find a laundry and drop the washing in making sure we settle on a price which was fair at $2 a kilo. Just down the road is a barber shop with an old dude cutting hair and I think this is the spot for me, it should be nice and cheap. I walk in and do the sign language for a head and face clip and asking the old barber how much? He just smiles and gently pushes me towards the chair, I ask again how much and he just smiles and wraps the apron around my neck. I look at this man in the barber mirror and see the wise old smile on his face and get the distinct feeling that this man understands more than he makes out and I am going to get fully stitched up here. He pulls this old pair of hand operated clippers out of a drawer and proceeds to start clipping my hair clip, clip, clip, bit by bit. These clippers are that old I am sure he must have cut Pol Pot’s hair with them 40 years ago. After about an hour the clip is finally finished, he brushes me off, unwraps me and as I stand up he sticks his hand out and says with a smile“ that’ll be $10 thank you” in perfectly good English.

Jo and the kids who have been sitting in the shop the whole time are laughing their heads off. We all know that I have just paid this wily old barber 2 days wages for a 1 hour haircut. But I figure because I haven’t paid for a haircut in over 15 years I am in front anyway. I also say that hair is overrated at the best of times, if your not paying for a haircut or shampoo or something you’ve gotta wash it, comb it, brush it and look at it in the mirror. So obviously hair is a complete waste of time and money.

Jo and the kids decide that they want to explore Siem Reab by pushbike on our last full day in town so we organise some bikes through the hotel and they are set to go. Now I like 2 wheels but they must have a motor between them so I do some research and come up with a Honda XR 250 for $25 a day hire, I pick up a map which looks like it has pretty good detail and plan a day ride to the north.