The pool

We have had a lovely peaceful day today and done very little. Simon woke me up too early and the bed was so cosy I felt like I could have slept for hours longer. By 7.45 though, I was wide awake and ready for breakfast. We leave Ali and Maisie in bed and meet Mum and Paul in the restaurant. The breakfast is very good with lots of choice which is great as we are here for 10 days. I have spread cheese on toast and coffee- Yum!

We spend the day very quietly by the pool. The kids have a lovely time playing in the pool and throw themselves into enjoying the day once the obligatory hour of maths is out of the way! As usual Simon and Ali have to go through a massive discussion over it but Maisie and I crack on learning shapes and angles and she does really well.

Simon and Ali go for a bike ride later on once it starts to cool down. It is extremely hot even in the evening and when we choose to walk up the road for dinner we wonder if we have made a mistake when we stroll along for half an hour before finding anywhere to eat. Eventually we stop and the food we get is fantastic. We share a wide range of Vietnamese dishes including salt fish in banana leaf, beef and coconut curry and chicken with basil and cashews.

On the way back Simon picks up a cashew nut from the floor and tries to crack it open with his teeth. Almost immediately he is complaining that he has a burnt mouth and when we get back he’s got a burnt area on the side of his face. I give him some Piriton and he decides he will look it up on the internet tomorrow.

Mum and Paul and the kids play cards for half an hour and then Ali plays his guitar for a bit. Mum says how much she has missed hearing him play and he chooses some songs he has learnt since we have been away including Coldplay- The Scientist. Although I’m not really a fan of Coldplay (their songs are too sad for me) I love this song- it reminds me of home. He also plays Bob Marley (he learnt from this “G” in Langkawi) and some of his own songs he has written since we have been away.

Its 11pm now and we’re off to bed. Goodnight.

Mui Ne

Get up at 8.30 and after breakfast repack ready for our journey to Mui Ne. We have booked a big mini van for the 4 hour journey as Mum and Paul have a rather large suitcase with them!

We stop once on the way for a drink but as usual the time flies and we all chat on the way. The landscape is quite pretty in parts. Not as flat as Cambodia and there are lots of stony looking hills in the distance. We pass through lots of small towns on the way many of which seem to have a particular industry for example wooden furniture and aloe vera plantations etc

We enjoy pointing things out to Mum and Paul and it’s good to see things through fresh eyes. Although we haven’t been in Vietnam long there are many sights here that are common all over Asia and I think we don’t notice them any more. Particularly the bad driving skills of many people which we seem to think is normal now and don’t bat an eyelid at!

Eventually we arrive in Mui Ne and we’re thrilled and relieved when we arrive at our resort to find it’s really nice with gorgeous rooms, a lovely pool and beautiful gardens. We are also right on the beach which is clean and pretty with white sands and tall palm trees. In the evening we go across the road for dinner and despite having a great meal and a few beers are all really tired and head off to bed early.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Simon woke me up at 8.30 and I asked him to get the Hobnobs from Mum. They must have been knackered, all still asleep! We have our breakfast and make some plans for the day. We have decided to visit the Cu Chi tunnels.

The village of Cu Chi was of massive strategic importance during the war due to the closeness to HCMC and more importantly the massive network of underground tunnels that stretched 250km from Cu Chi almost to the Cambodian border. When the Americans arrived in Vietnam they set up a base camp at Cu Chi completely unaware that the tunnels were just below.

We get a big taxi and pay 35 dollars for our trip. We arrive at the Cu Chi tunnels and after paying 65 000 dong each make our way to the movie room. The movie showing is interesting and informative and we felt demonstrated that the Vietnamese are maybe not quite as forgiving towards the Americans as they would hope or have us believe when we have spoken to them about the war!

The guide that shows us around is really good. We wander over the tunnel complex and are amazed when we are shown the first tunnel entrance. It’s absolutely tiny and so well hidden we would have had difficulty finding it even if given the rough location. It’s easy to see how the American soldiers never stood a chance, especially in the dark with gunfire and explosions all around.

Next we are shown a tank that came to rest in this spot. It was blown up by a landmine. The Vietnamese were extremely resourceful and despite a lack of guns made some vicious weapons out of bombs that were dropped on them. The guide shows us the bamboo trap, the doortrap and the see saw trap amongst many others.

We continue on and are shown lots of underground bunkers including dining areas, hospital room and kitchen. I think we all felt a huge amount of respect for the resilience and toughness of the Vietcong. The conditions they lived in underground must have been horrendous, the tunnels sometimes collapsed and were plagued with pests like rats. To avoid detection by “war dogs” that were sent down the tunnels the Vietcong would place the uniforms of dead US soldiers around the tunnel network to confuse the dogs. They also took to smoking American brand cigarettes.

There is a shooting range at Cu Chi and Simon, Paul and Ali all have a go shooting an AK 47. I talk to Ali beforehand as I was quite reluctant to let him shoot the gun and explain again to him the importance of recognising how dangerous guns are. I remind him of how many Vietnamese and American soldiers died here. In the end I don’t think he really enjoyed it anyway.

Next comes our opportunity to go down the tunnels. Even though we only make our way along a 40 metre stretch its quite scary. Pitch black and so narrow, the roof is so low I’m almost bent over double. We had read that many tourists find it too claustrophobic and I could see why.

Lastly we sit and have a cup of green tea with cooked tapioca. This is what the Vietnamese survived on and it’s so disgusting. I don’t think I could survive a month on it let alone years. The guide explained that the vents to the kitchen were over 100 metres away to avoid detection and only the minimum cooking was carried out.

We make a donation, give the guide a tip and head for the café. On the way we stop and look at some photographs of children injured by Agent Orange. Once the Americans realised the tunnel network was virtually impenetrable the entire area was blanket bombed with napalm and Agent Orange as well as blasted with huge B52 bombs. There are a number of massive bomb craters at the site also. The long term effects of the chemical weapons are that the fields still yield poor crops. In fact we only saw rubber plantations on the way and wondered if the ground is still too contaminated to grow food in.

After a quick drink we go back to the hotel. It has been a really interesting and informative visit which we all enjoyed. We agreed it has been very good to see the Vietnamese view of the war also as we felt previously we had been much more aware of the American version of events.

Mum, Maisie and I go to the health club and check out the facilities. We have a sauna, steam bath and Jacuzzi and emerge looking red and wrinkled! We wander up the road for dinner and have some decent Vietnamese food. Simon chooses snails and we all have a taste. I didn’t like them much though a bit tough and chewy!

Tomorrow we are leaving HCMC for the beach. We have booked to stay at the resort of Mui Ne on the east coast. Going to go to bed now, leaving at 11am. Bye bye luxury sob sob !

War Remnants Museum

At 8am Mum was banging on our door asking for clothes for Ali who slept in with them last night. It’s so good to see them first thing and I have my coffee sat on the end of mum’s bed. We head off for breakfast and the kids go wild! Ali has a mixture of sushi and chocolate cake for breakfast amongst other things and I’m not surprised when he starts complaining of belly ache. (Sorry Di!)

We sit and look at loads of photos on our laptop. As Mum and Paul moved house they have been unable to access our website while their internet has been off and have loads of catching up to do. We also look at photos of their new place and our niece Hope who is growing big now.

We set off for the Jade Pagoda. There doesn’t seem to be as many temples here as we have seen in some of the other Asian cities we have visited but this one is supposed to be very impressive. We get out of the taxi and the smell of the incense is very strong. The temple depicts The Taoist Jade Emperor. (The King of Heaven) and also has some interesting wooden panelled carvings showing the ten halls of hell. We point them out to the kids and tell them you have been warned! They were more interested in the birds in cages and turtles and terrapins for sale outside!

We have planned to visit The War Remnants Museum this afternoon and get a taxi to the bank of the Saigon River first for a drink. We spend an hour or so there chatting and catching up on news from home and watching the boats going past. When we arrive at the museum it has just reopened after lunch and is very busy. We spend an hour or so wandering around and looking at the exhibits. These mainly consist of photographs and there are some very upsetting and graphic images of both American and Vietnamese suffering.

Worst of all are the photos of Vietnamese people injured by Agent Orange and napalm. We stand and look at the famous image of a naked little girl running down the road screaming having been injured by napalm. It is grim viewing and reminds us of the evil of war. Having looked at the replica’s of so called “tiger cages” when political prisoners were held I feel like the kids have seen enough and we leave. In the taxi we talk about the war, all they can say is that it is horrible and I feel sad that they aren’t little innocents like Hope anymore and like all kids are aware of bad stuff in the world.

Like in Cambodia I worry about them knowing stuff and don’t want to upset them but don’t want to ignore it and pretend it didn’t happen either. It’s difficult trying to balance this in a sensitive way though.

It’s very hot now and we are in need of a bit of aircon so stop off for some drinks and pizza. When we get back to the hotel Simon and Ali go to the gym. (Mad) and Mum, Paul and Maisie go swimming. I lie on the bed reading Hello magazine and generally chilling out.
In the evening we cross the road to a sushi bar, Ali is desperate to show off his love of sushi and I think Paul is very brave when we are offered an almost raw egg to drink. Simon also knocks his back but the rest of us chicken out.

After dinner we catch a taxi to Pham Ngu Lao and have a walk along the busy streets. We stop for a drink and watch the world go by. Ali asks for a tonic and they bring him gin and tonic! I ‘m tempted to have a go on a machine that weighs you, checks your blood pressure, takes your temperature and plays the theme tune from Titanic when it’s all done. The kids persuade me it’s a bad idea though and I guess I am a little concerned about having my temperature taken with some grubby thermometer!

We get back around 11pm and crash out, feeling very tired and hoping to have a good nights sleep.

Mum and Paul arrive

We transferred to the The Kindo Hotel as soon as was possible today. It was like stepping into heaven and I know we acted like the Clampits. Walking around the room fiddling with the complimentary slippers and bathrobes, marvelling over the expensive toiletries in stone pots and flicking through the numerous TV channels. We all showered and pampered and finally, thrilled with our new and posh surroundings ordered room service.

The entire day was spent lazing around counting down the hours until Mum and Paul arrive. At last its 6.30 and time to go, we get in a taxi and head for the airport. The kids have made signs to hold up saying “Nana and Granddad” and “Welcome to Vietnam”.

Two hours later and finally we see them waving through the barrier, at last they are here and its tears all round! It’s wonderful to see them, until this point I don’t think I had realised how much I have missed my family and we gabble at each other in the taxi on the way to the hotel.

They have brought the kids loads of presents and Maisie poses in her new clothes looking like a real star. We have a few beers sat on their bed and Ali orders some food from room service. Its so good to see them catching up on all the news and gossip, we all have so much to say but eventually crash out and head for bed. I’m so excited that they are here and can’t wait for the morning.

We are really looking forward to sharing a bit of our world with them. As they were landing Mum said how amazing that they were about to land in Saigon. They of course remember watching the war footage on the telly. I don’t remember that but them being in Vietnam does seem amazing, a bit unreal after all our months of travelling but really great.

The Reunification Palace and American Vietnam War

Our task for the day is to find a decent hotel for the next three nights. This isn’t as easy as it sounds as the prices in HCMC are considerably higher than in the Mekong Delta. We have checked out loads of places on the internet and having discarded all the big hotels as too expensive we set off for the area of Dong Khoi. It is the best area in District 1 which is where we want to be. On the banks of the Saigon River, all the top name hotels are here and we check out The Continental first. At 300 dollars per night, its time to look elsewhere.

We head for a three star place we have checked on the internet. It is called The Kindo Hotel. We are pleased to see it looks great, lovely rooms, a pretty restaurant and even a pool although it has to be the smallest pool I have ever seen. After a prolonged bargaining session we eventually book it. Really we are just trying it on, as we know it’s a good deal at 140 dollars a night per room. Seeing it in black and white is slightly scary though. The grand total cost of this place is 18 dollars a night for 2 rooms.

We stop for lunch in a gorgeous restaurant Ali and I have lentil and bacon soup and Simon and Maisie have sandwiches. We have decided to visit The Reunification Palace this afternoon and try and learn a bit more about the conflict here in the 1960 and 70′s.

Following a thousand years of Chinese rule, the Chinese were eventually expelled in the 15th century. The mid 18th century saw the beginning of 70 years of French colonial rule and in 1941 Ho Chi Minh established the Viet Minh whose goal was independence from the French. This was finally achieved in 1954 after years of fighting.

Vietnam was by now, divided into the communist north and the anti communist south. For years, the United States had been supplying the French with military support to forward the” worldwide struggle against creeping communism.” The campaign to liberate the south and the battle against the communist National Liberation Front of the north had begun. The NLF would come to be known as the Vietcong or VC. There would be American soldiers on Vietnamese soil for the next 25 years.

The war in Vietnam escalated rapidly with the intervention of America. US President Johnson ordered 1000′s of bombing raids on the north and eventually every road and railbridge in the country had been bombed. The American soldiers usually controlled the countryside by day but by night the Vietcong got the upperhand.

By 1968 the war had been raging for years. The VC frequently led raids into the south and hundreds of villages were evacuated by the US troops so that they could use heavy weaponry such as napalm. Although the US soldiers were meant to protect the villagers many were killed and their surviving relatives soon joined the VC. The cost of the war in lives and money was absolutely massive, 60,000 Americans, 4 million Vietnamese and a cost to the US of 165 billion dollars. What a waste.

At the end of January 1968 the Vietcong launched a stunning offensive, bombing hundreds of villages. The Americans immediately counter attacked and the result was massive bombing and shelling of the cities. This would prove to be a turning point in the war, as Americans sat watching their TV’s at home grew increasingly disillusioned with the war. There were anti war demonstrations in the States as news of atrocities and massacres against unarmed Vietnamese villagers and the bombing of neutral Cambodia began to leak out.

On the 30th April 1975 the Vietcong tanks smashed into The Independence Palace in the capital of Saigon and South Vietnam surrendered. Saigon was immediately renamed Ho Chi Minh City. As the South collapsed, the last of the American soldiers left as did thousands of southern Vietnamese people. They would come to be known as the “Vietnamese boat people”

As we walk towards the gates of The Independence Palace we stare up at the flag of United Vietnam. We can both remember seeing TV footage of the tanks as they crashed through the gates and a VC soldier ran up the steps and raised the flag on the roof. The Independence Palace was renamed The Reunification Palace and remains today as it was left in 1975. We wander around for a few hours trying to explain the historical importance of this place to the kids. We all enjoy looking at the 1970′s décor which Ali thinks is cool in a retro way!

We head back to our hotel. I am having difficulty understanding the complicated history of the war here and we decide to buy some films to watch to see if this will help. We get Platoon, Apocalypse Now and The Quiet American. (2 quid for 3 films) and decide on Platoon first. It’s a gory film that I have seen before and we decide at the end of it that it has done nothing to make us understand the war history anymore. Although Simon felt it showed how war strips people of humanity and makes them do unbelievable things, we didn’t feel any connection between the film and being here in Vietnam.

It’s quite late but we turn the telly on and are delighted to find an episode of Globe Trekker on. Although Simon and I read loads and did lots of internet research for our trip watching Globe Trekker DVD’s was a huge part of our introduction to travelling for the kids. Listening to the familiar music makes us think of all the nights I used to sit watching them longing for our trip to start. This episode is about Cambodia and its interesting seeing all the places we visited. It does make us both want to go back there though and explore it more.

Off to bed now. Mum and Paul are coming tomorrow, so excited just can’t wait.

Ho Chi Minh City

Our repacking was a very quick affair today as we had hardly unpacked much. We did have some laundry done so have clean gear although we are having to get our stuff washed after one wear as it is so hot and we all get fairly sweaty! We have arranged a taxi to Ho Chi Minh City. (HCMC) and it is supposed to collect us at 11am for the 3 hour trip. At 10.15 the phone rings ad reception tell us the driver has arrived. Oh my god! We chuck everything else in quickly, race downstairs, pay up and collect our passports.

Two hours later and we have travelled the grand distance of 2 km. The kids have been angels, no complaints at all despite the fact that we haven’t eaten today and when it eventually becomes apparent that we are in fact queuing for a ferry across the Bassac, Simon jumps out and runs across the road to buy some rice, spare ribs and bananas. Our driver speaks no English but drives well and I quite enjoy the ride despite the increased journey time.

We pass lots of rivers and at Vinh Long cross the huge Mekong. As we get nearer to HCMC the number of motorbikes increases a lot. Everyone we have spoken to has mentioned the traffic here and we’re not surprised when the driver is pulled over by the police for committing some minor traffic offence. He pays the fine and gets back, despite his lack of English and our lack of Vietnamese we all speak the same language when nicked by the police and his resigned acceptance and obvious pissed off face was plain to see!

He drops us at An Phu Hotel in Pham Ngu Lao. This is the backpacker HCMC equivalent of Bangkok’s Th Khao San Road. A great place to be, loads of cheap accommodation and very central. As we will be overspending in a serious way once Mum and Paul arrive on Friday we opt for a budget place that turns out to be a real bargain with a bath in the kid’s room, loads of TV channels and free wifi. For 4 pounds 50 per night per room we are pleased with our choice.

I sit and watch American Idol and we head out to get some food around 8pm. As Simon gets some money from the ATM he bumps into Dave the conservation biologist we spent some time with in Chau Doc. It’s good to see him and he joins us for dinner and tells us about his past few days further exploring The Mekong Delta. After a hourn or so catching up we say our goodbyes again, return to the hotel and crash out.

Its 10.45 now and I’m feeling knackered, tomorrow we have to go and get a decent hotel sorted for the weekend so as I guess we will be traipsing around for a few hours I’m going to get some sleep now.

The Floating Markets

Due to sleeping late yesterday I was completely unable to drift off last night and as we had to be up at 5.30 I had a complete freaky at 1am and resorted to a chemically induced coma. Taking sleeping tablets is something I only do in an emergency and when Simon woke me up when the clock went off I really didn’t think I had been asleep for any longer than an hour max.

I was so tempted to tell him that the floating markets could shove it and it was only due to his usual chirpiness that I managed to scrape my sorry arse from the sheets. It was as much as I could do to brush my teeth, chuck some clothes on, my sunglasses and in an effort to convince myself I looked normal, some lipstick. If I still smoked I would have had about 10 by now and even I admit I probably looked fairly sad stumbling along the street, clutching a baguette and scowling around at the world. I am so not a morning and that is the understatement of the century. Being drugged with night sedation really doesn’t help.

By the time we reached the river a little of the early morning goodness has started to seep into my black world and I am actually feeling not too bad. We clamber into the boat and I lean back close my eyes and let the warm sun slowly coax me awake. After about an hour we reach the floating markets and hallelujah the first seller we meet does coffee. Simon grabs a few and despite the fact that he has to gently point out that the fella has short changed him (Twice!) we are on our way.

The floating market here is the largest in this region and we can see straight away the difference between this and the less authentic floating markets near Bangkok that are geared towards tourists. For a start the sellers ignore us knowing that we won’t buy anything of substance. The huge wooden boats are laden down with all sorts of fruit and vegetables. We see pumpkins, pineapples, potatoes etc. The much smaller boats are busy buying from them and will take their produce back to Can Tho to sell in the street markets there.

After paddling around for an hour we start to head back but take a much quieter route through a network of canals. It is a shame to see how disgusting and polluted the water is. We had to stop 4 or 5 times when the propeller became choked with plastic and despite the natural outstanding beauty of the waterways it was spoilt by the rubbish everywhere.

When we arrive back we have our photo taken with a giant Ho Chi Minh statue (No Vietnamese city is complete without him. We make our way to Nanbo’s for breakfast and try and consolidate some of the information we have learnt with the kids about Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh. It is complicated and takes us a few hours to decipher the American intervention in the civil war here. Explaining it to Ali and Maisie is hard and inevitably they draw comparisons on their own about the current situation in Iraq.

In the afternoon we swim at the Victoria hotel and Simon and Ali play tennis. In this heat they must be mad and return to the poolside very hot and tired! We get pizza for dinner and eat it in our room. Tomorrow we are going to Ho Chi Minh City and are hoping to see a bit more of Vietnam and make a bit more of a connection with it. The people I have met here have been so friendly and welcoming to us but I feel there is so much more to Vietnam that we haven’t touched yet. Feeling tired tonight, hopefully will get to sleep a bit earlier and feel more refreshed tomorrow.

Conserving energy

Today has been quiet. We didn’t get out of bed until very late and spent a few hours with the kids teaching them the history of Vietnam. They make notes and we decide we are going to base their literacy learning on this subject over the next few weeks.

In the afternoon we had planned to visit the waterpark but unfortunately when we arrived it was closed. Taking the easy option we headed for the most expensive hotel in town and were delighted to find there is no charge for the use of their pool. We surround ourselves in luxury and get on with doing nothing all afternoon.

I have been feeling slightly guilty that we have done very little since we arrived in Vietnam but decide in the end that is a waste of time and just get on with it. Although it does sound very lazy, the heat is draining and sucks all the energy out of you. Like the locals we seem to be spending longer sleeping than usual and have resigned ourselves to the fact that Vietnam is probably not going to be a great cultural experience for us but more of an extended holiday.

Tomorrow we are going to be getting up at 5.30 to visit the floating markets. Oh god. I will never get used to the idea of getting up that early. Enough culture there to last a lifetime I reckon.

Can Tho

When we awoke this morning not only was our room in total darkness as usual but it was also very hot. We quickly realised there had been a power cut overnight which isn’t too good as we have to pack. Simon goes and asks the fella downstairs if we can move to a room with a window so we at least have the benefit of some sunlight and when he agrees we lug everything across and go down for breakfast. We have got the kids some chocolate money and give them 20 dollars each. Happy Easter everyone!

By midday it is unbearably hot and I have already had 2 showers. The fans in the restaurant do make a big difference and after packing our stuff up we sit and do some science with the kids. Maisie and I learn the composition of rocks and soil and Simon and Ali learn about sound and the structure of the ear. We are leaving at 2pm and nip round to a decent bookshop so I can change the latest trash medical drama I’m reading for something a bit more interesting.

At 2.15 a car arrives to take us to the bus station. We have paid 5 dollars each for our tickets and this turns out to be nothing short of daylight robbery as we see the locals all piling in the mini van and paying around a dollar each. Most intriguing is a very large lady who gets on in front of Simon. Half way through our journey she starts to undress and we realise she is padded all over with cigarettes. She must have had at least 20 thousand fags strapped around her body, legs and arms! It was quite bizarre watching her taking them all off. Simon said she went from being Jo Brand to Twiggy in 15 minutes. We sat there wondering if she had stolen them or smuggled them perhaps. Either way we decided it definitely wasn’t the usual way to transport your smokes!

Despite that bit of interest the journey is pretty bad. We literally have no room and I felt very sorry for Simon who looked like a scrunched up spider with his knees up around his chest. We don’t see much of Vietnam on the way but what we do see looks very densely populated after the miles of deserted roads in Cambodia. We follow the river and I look at the houses on the way. They are built over the river half on the bank and the other half on long wooden stilts.

After a shorter journey than we expected, which was a godsend due to our squashed up conditions, we arrive in Can Tho. It is described as a large cosmopolitan city and also the political, economic, cultural and transportation centre of this area. We have arranged to stay in a midrange hotel at a cost of 10 dollars per room per night. We are pleased to see it’s in a great location and the rooms are clean and bright with a few extras such as a fridge and telly.

We choose a restaurant by the river for dinner and have a fantastic Easter nosh up. Not very traditional I guess, the kids had pizza and Simon and I shared a set Vietnamese meal which was really good. We had fresh tomato soup, spring rolls, beef with green chillies, chicken with lemongrass, pork with coconut, mixed vegetables, steamed rice and apple pie with ice cream. We washed it all down with a few local beers and filter coffee and despite saying we would get a taxi back decided to walk in an effort to walk off a few calories! The bill only came to 13 quid which was great and we sat in our room planning how to spend the next few days.