Ho Chi Minh City & The Mekong Delta

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HO CHI MINH City (also known as Saigon, its pre Vietnam-American war name, or simply abbreviated to HCMC) and the Mekong Delta: two very different places with a lot in common. HCMC is a sprawling, urban rush, whilst the Mekong Delta is a peaceful, rural area of farms and waterways. But both play an important part in Vietnam – Saigon drives the country’s economy and the Mekong Delta feeds the nation’s people. Both are some of the most densely populated areas in Vietnam, with the sky scrapers and streets of Saigon contrasting with the farms, fruit trees and rice paddies tightly packed into the Delta. And both share a common Southern Vietnamese heritage, a separation in attitude and history from the North that is still felt by many Vietnamese today. As people are fond of saying in Vietnam (of just about anything) – it’s same same, but different.

HCMC WAS OUR first stop in Vietnam. It topped the steadily rising crescendo of beeping horns that we’ve experienced as we’ve worked our way through Thailand and Cambodia. The streets are notoriously busy, thick with mopeds and the occasional car. Crossing the street in HCMC – or indeed anywhere in Vietnam – is one of those travelling rites of passage that is so often written about as to be cliché. There are ‘pedestrian crossings’, but no one stops at them; there are red lights, but these are optional; and there are pavements, but these are mostly for mopeds, so what the hell do you think you’re doing walking on them? In Hanoi, where I am as write this, we were at a busy intersection of a main road, waiting for a less-fatal opportunity to plunge across the road, when two distressed looking American ladies came up to us. “Have you crossed the road here?” they asked.
“We’ve never crossed the road here, specifically,” I replied, “but yes we’ve crossed the road in Hanoi.”
“Oh that’s great,” one of the women enthused, “we just got here. Can we cross with you guys?”
“Sure,” I said, gripping BK-C’s hand tightly whilst subtly attempting to position her as a human shield between myself and the oncoming traffic, “we’ll go over after this red bus… ready…and go.”
And we strode out into the road, in front of a battalion of buzzing mopeds which all beeped obligingly, either to tell us that they’d seen us and would drive around us, or that they were going to collide with us (I’m never sure which). We reached the other side in one piece, the American women deliriously happy that they’d survived their first road crossing. All such crossings are thus in Vietnam.

After you...

After you…

These are the drivers that had their lights on...

These are the drivers that had their lights on.

School children practice badminton in a park in HCMC. Badminton is big out here - it's common for courts to be marked on the streets. Perhaps the absence of mopeds driving across the court at the 2012 Olympics is why Vietnam's one Olympian badminton player failed to advance past the elimination rounds.

School children practice badminton in a park in HCMC. Badminton is big out here – it’s common for courts to be marked on the streets. Perhaps the absence of mopeds driving across the court at the 2012 Olympics is why Vietnam’s one Olympian badminton player failed to advance past the elimination rounds.

AFTER THE CITY, Mekong Delta was wonderfully quiet and horn free. We visited a market with our guide, Vien, and marvelled at the diversity and plentitude of the produce, most of which we needed Vien to identify for us. Vegetables, fruits, fish, snakes, chickens, flowers – it was all there.

The Vietnamese take their dried shrimp very seriously.

The Vietnamese take their dried shrimp very seriously.

A Vietnamese lady doing her daily produce shop. The marvel is that I saw ladies like this also crossing the road unscathed in HCMC.

A Vietnamese lady doing her daily produce shop. The marvel is that I saw ladies like this also crossing the road unscathed in HCMC.

I can't testify to the animal welfare standards in Vietnam - but at least they're not battery farmed.

I can’t testify to the animal welfare standards in Vietnam – but at least they’re not battery farmed.

A member of our tour group is a hit with the local women.

A member of our tour group is a hit with the local women.

I have no idea what the person in the top right hand corner of this photo is wearing.

A fruit seller watches a bag seller pass by.

Banana flowers, delicious in salads.

Banana flowers, delicious in salads.

In the Mekong Delta, intensively farmed and super self-sufficient, nothing is left to waste. The water hyacinth, Vien explained, typifies this approach. It is encouraged to grow by the side of the river, to prevent erosion; it is dried and then weaved into baskets; used as feed for animals; as a fertiliser; and finally its leaves are laid on the ground in the dry season to keep the moisture in the soil.

Over the course of a day and a half we also visited a fruit farm, a bonsai farm, a pottery, a floating market and a handicrafts market. Although there were a few tourists in some places, they where overwhelmingly thronging with locals. The impression that I was left with was of a highly efficient, complex and, above all, successful agricultural economy. Even the rolling pin in the handicrafts market used to make sesame snap was recycled – it was an old shell casing.

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NEXT TIME: I go cycling in the Mekong Delta. Hilarity ensues.

This post was written in Hanoi, Vietnam and Vang Vieng, Laos.

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Siem Reap & Phnom Penh: Or, Why I Love Morning Glory

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SOME FACTS ABOUT Cambodia:

– 53% of the population are aged 24 or under; 32% 14 or under;

– Average life expectancy is 63 years;

– Average daily income is $6.50/day, placing Cambodia at 129th in the world;

– Cambodians are the nicest people you’ll ever meet.

Children wave excitedly from the back of a rickshaw on the streets of Phnom Penh.

Children wave from the back of a rickshaw on the streets of Phnom Penh. We didn’t meet a kid who wasn’t excited to see us.

FIVE DAYS: THAT’S all. It didn’t seem enough time to spend in Cambodia, but we’re on a tour with Toucan Travel for our first month of travelling, whizzing through SE Asia. Despite only being there for five days, Cambodia has stayed with us. We entered overland from Thailand, spending three hours in a weird no-man’s land between the countries filled with run-down casinos and fake Christmas snowmen, incongruous in the baking heat. Our first stop was Siem Reap, from where we launched our trip to Angkor Wat. The centre is backpacker-fantastic, with the neon lights and booming music of the bar-lined Pub Street. But wander beyond and you’re quickly lost in dark streets with glowing shop fronts, mopeds galore and not a western face in sight.

“Is it right, right, left from the hotel?” asked BK-C.
“Definitely,” I replied. “Or right, left, right.”
“We’ll work it out.”

45 minutes later we were hopelessly lost. It was nighttime, and there are no street lights in Siem Reap. As with everywhere we’ve been in SE Asia so far, the pavement is a place for parking, not for walking. The only people who walk are the poor or foreigners. Curious faces peered out of shopfronts us as we stepped around mopeds and cars, avoiding potholes at the side of the road. Whole families buzzed by on mopeds, babies balanced on the handle bars. There was the occasional smell of drains, the frequent smell of street food. I refused to pay a dollar to get a tuc tuc back to somewhere that we knew. We pressed on. “If we go left here I think that should rejoin the main street.” We didn’t. Words were said. We walked some more. More words were said. We got a tuc tuc.

Thank goodness we did, because it turned out that some idiot had been leading us in completely the wrong direction.

Not once in this unplanned sojourn did we feel threatened. As with everywhere else in SE Asia, tuc tuc drivers are ubiquitous, all offering their services. A polite “no, thank you” and a smile, though, and they’ll smile back and leave you alone. No one’s pushy, everyone has a ready smile.

Later, riding on quad bikes at dusk through dusty tracks, we saw some of the smaller villages around Siem Reap. People worked the fields, children played outside stilted shacks, cows wallowed in mud. Clinging on to the back of the quad bike, BK-C waved at kids as we passed and they waved back. We watched the sun set over the rice paddies, and felt immensely lucky to be there.

The sun sets over a rice paddy  outside Siem Reap.

The sun sets over a rice paddy outside Siem Reap.

BK-C prepares to operate. Everywhere in SE Asia, people wear surgical masks. Mostly to protect them from the dust or smog when they're riding their mopeds - or in Vietnam, where there's a big line in leopard print surgical masks, just for fashion.

BK-C prepares to operate. Everywhere in SE Asia, people wear surgical masks. Mostly to protect them from the dust or smog when they’re riding their mopeds – or in Vietnam, where there’s a big line in leopard print surgical masks, just for fashion.

WHERE WE CAN, we try to avoid restaurants and instead eat where the locals eat. A line of mopeds outside a street food stall is always a good sign. It was at such a roadside stall, sitting in a tiny plastic chair, that my love affair with morning glory began. Morning Glory with Beef turned out to be a tasty dish of spicy, tamarind-tangy beef with a delicious shredded, green bean-esque vegetable – Morning Glory – chewy and crunchy at the same time. Yes, I ordered it purely on the strength of the name, but I never looked back.

Yes, its true, I have become one of those people who insists on taking a picture of their food before they eat it,. If I had 3G I'd be uploading it to instagram. I just don't know what's happened to me.

Sour Beef Soup With Morning Glory. Yes, its true, I have become one of those people who insists on taking a picture of their food before they eat it. If I had 3G I’d be uploading it to instagram. I just don’t know what’s happened to me.

As we sat and ate our lunch people would drive up on mopeds to buy soups from the giant bubbling pots at the front of the restaurant. The owner would ladle them into little plastic bags, like you might take home a goldfish from the fair in, and then they'd zoom off. Meanwhile, nearby shop holders would wander up and give the big pots a contemplative stir. If they liked what they saw, they'd get it to go as well. If not, they'd wander on. We soaked it all up.

As we sat and ate our lunch people would drive up on mopeds to buy soups from the giant bubbling pots at the front of the restaurant. The owner would ladle them into little plastic bags, like you might take home a goldfish from the fair in, and then they’d zoom off. Meanwhile, nearby shop holders would wander up and give the big pots a contemplative stir. If they liked what they saw, they’d get it to go as well. If not, they’d wander on. Through all of this, the staff of the restaurant stared entranced at the tv, occasionally with hands over their mouths, all caught up in the drama of a Cambodian soap. The food may change the world over, but the people don’t.

I didn't have the guts to try these.

There were large dishes of fried insects in quite a few places in Cambodia, especially in rest stops at the side of the road. I never saw anyone eating them. I wasn’t about to be the first.

CAMBODIA’S YOUNG POPULATION, the youngest in SE Asia, is largely a result of the Khmer Regime. Half of the population are post-regime baby boomers and remember nothing of the genocide between 1975 and 1979 when 1.7 – 2.5 million Cambodians were killed out of a population of approximately 8 million. Pol Pot is what people outside of SE Asia are most likely to remember Cambodia for, and it seemed wrong to go to the country without engaging in some atrocity tourism ourselves. It’s that awkward-morbid thing where you want to visit and feel that you should do, but almost feel bad for wanting to go. So we went, and it was horrific, and sobering, and utterly terrifying. The killing fields were very peaceful, with silent white bones placed in piles. I thought if that happened to me, I’d like there to be such a place for people to visit.

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Chum Mey, one of only 12 survivors of S-21, the infamous prison where over 17,000 people were tortured and subsequently killed under the Khmer Rouge. He visits the prison everyday to sell his book and to talk to tourists.

Chum Mey, one of only 12 survivors of S-21, the infamous prison where over 17,000 people were tortured and subsequently killed under the Khmer Rouge. He visits the prison everyday to sell his book and to talk to tourists. I’m not sure that I could do that if I were him.

WE DROVE BACK to Phnom Penh, leaving the Killing Fields behind. The cool air conditioning of the van was a relief after the sticky heat of outdoors. I’d like to say that we travelled in silence, each wrapped in some deep thoughts about the inhumanity of killing – but that would be a lie. As soon as we were in the van, the serenity of the place behind us, we were raucous and joking.  What’s both chilling and hopeful is that those things happened – all those Cambodians were killed (with an 800,000 people error margin in the death toll. Think about that: 800,000 may or may not have died, and we’ll never know) and yet life just goes on, eventually mass graves becoming a tourist attraction with an organised shuttle bus from the city, and vendors selling Coca-Cola.

We were bound for the market in Phnom Penh, a place bustling with people and life. There we jostled and haggled, browsed and bought – and over a big bowl of Morning Glory, I met a man called Sovann, who worked for an NGO, and who told me that the future of Cambodia was in its communities, which his organisation was helping to build.

He lamented the recent protests in Phnom Penh, over wages, where – a couple of days before we arrived – three protestors had been shot and killed when police fired into the crowd. We’d seen camps of police, their riot geared racked up in neat piles on the floor, outside of the Palace in the centre of the city. It had all seemed quiet, the most significant action being when we saw an officer helping an old lady to cross the road. Two days after we left, however, there were more protests, and more deaths.

In the market, though, like after the Killing Fields, people were living life. We joked with stall holders and haggled good naturedly over snacks. Five days hadn’t been enough to even scrape the surface of Cambodia, but it was enough to convince me of the essential good naturedness of Cambodian culture, to convince me that whatever problems the country had in the past or faced now, it’s people were on the up – and, of course, enough time for me to enjoy plenty of Morning Glory.

We vowed to return to see more of Cambodia, and departed for Vietnam.

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NEXT TIME: You suffer too many ‘ironic’ references to Vietnam War movies, whilst I eat some delicious Southern Vietnamese food.

Angkor Wat: A Photo Essay

WE ROSE AT 4am. It was still pitch black when we reached Angkor Wat, yet people were queueing for tickets. We traipsed along the causeway crossing the temple’s moat, led by our guide’s torchlight. It was warm; cicadas buzzed in the trees and the glassy black moat reflected the stars. Angkor Wat was a grey outline across a wide pond. We joined the seething mass of tourists and guides, all stood at the water’s edge, awaiting the breaking of the night. Red began to creep up the edge of the sky. We and a thousand others began to snap blurry images of the temple’s towers.

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When the sky was light we crept further into the temple to witness the rising of the sun. The smell of incense wafted across us as we quickly left the crowds behind, and we found ourselves at the foot of a smaller building, which we climbed using steep stone steps. At its top we paused, not a soul in sight, and watched the sun rise.

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When the sun had fully risen, we joined the rest of our group – those wise enough to have had the extra two hours in bed – and followed our guide (a short, well meaning, though somewhat long winded man), through the temple as he explained to us the history of this twelfth century temple, the largest temple in the world.

There were a lot of engravings.

They were amazing, interesting, full of history and…. a little bit boring. Unfortunately, our guide also had a very pronounced accent and at one point spent ten minutes telling us how the French had used semen to mend a part of the temple. “They used semen?” I asked. “Yes, that’s right,” he replied, pointing to the cement on the ceiling, “semen.” Obviously, I was very mature about this mispronunciation.

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Eventually, mercifully, the engravings ended, and by popular mutiny we decided not to follow the guide’s suggested course through the temples, and instead bussed directly over to Ta Phrohm, AKA the “tombraider temple,” where Angelina Jolie was filmed jumping through ruins as Lara Croft. Many photographs ensued. Roots wider then me gripped, broke through, supported and entangled walls built many centuries ago, their trees rising tall tall, high above, their tendrils coiled and looped like someone had poured them over the temple. Here and there, the face of Buddha peeked out from between roots.

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Inside, the temples were dark and wonderfully cool except for shafts of muzzy sunlight lancing through the broken roofs or walls. Here and there, monks prayed, and wizened old women sat burning incense or selling trinkets. Outside, the sun hammered down, ratcheting up the humidity.

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We made one final stop, to Bayon – the temple of the faces.

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We left hot and tired, having only seen a fraction of the whole complex, but happy to have been there. And that was Angkor Wat, the largest temple in the world.

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Upon Arrival

WE ARRIVED IN Bangkok tired, unwashed, and with the faint whiff of vomit about us. The flight from Dubai had been traumatic. Five and a half hours in which the flight crew attempted to serve two meals and three drinks to us and our tired co-passengers, interrupted by long bouts of turbulence over India.

The turbulence was a problem, hitting us just after dinner had been served. There’s a special art in getting food into your mouth rather than your ear when the world is moving up, down and sideways, seemingly all at once. The turbulence was making BK-C feel queasy, so she donned her eye mask to try and shut out the world whilst I continued to plaster food all over my face. Fifteen minutes later she said she needed a sick bag. There was no sick bag. The crew were busy with clearing away dinner, and I couldn’t get anyone’s attention. So I gave her a cup – you know, one of the really tiny plastic things that they give you on flights. Not a great substitute for a sick bag, but BK-C managed. With the first cup. Unfortunately, she was still wearing her eye mask and wasn’t able to see the second cup that I held out for her.

“Oh no… you just missed the cup,” I offered, helpfully. As if she didn’t know. It was everywhere. On the traytable, on BK-C, on me. The guy sitting next to her moved pretty damn quick, I can tell you. Meanwhile, I offered a consoling pat on the back and attempted to mop up ineffectually with a tissue. Trapped in the window seat, it was all I could do. “Oh well,” I said brightly, “at least we’ll be in Bangkok soon.” BK-C began to weep gently behind her eyemask.

SO, AS MANY other stories doubtless start, we arrived in Bangkok. Prepared for the worst, we approached the baggage collection only to find that our bags had arrived. Prepared to be ripped off, we approached the taxi rank, only to walk right up and get a taxi that ran the meter and charged us less than we expected to pay. Unprepared to be wandering around Bangkok so soon and in such good, if tired, spirits, we walked like zombies through gringo-central, where we were staying, slack jawed, wide eyed and mono-syllabic through lack of sleep. Ate Phad Thai. Were disappointed. Slept for two hours. Felt worse. Met tour group. Bought some hippy flip-flops, failed to haggle. Ate at a restaurant, drank first beer of the trip. Nearly fell asleep in food. Did a tour of 7-11 shops looking for wheat-free portable food for BK-C for the long journey to Cambodia the next day. Bought more snacks and then some more just to be sure. Collapsed into bed. Declared Day 1 of travelling to be a success.

Not, as I thought when I bought this snack, wasabi peas.

Not, as I thought when I bought this snack, wasabi peas.

NEXT TIME: We visit the largest temple in the world. I do an impersonation of Lara Croft.

Lost in Transit

Airport!

WORLD, I’M FREAKING out. Actually, that’s a lie. I’m not freaking out, but I feel like I should be. I’m sat in a very comfy reclining seat with a footrest, looking at a giant sign for Le Clos, purveyor of the Finest Wines & Luxury Spirits.  This is Dubai Airport: a shining glass and chrome building dedicated to the quiet, desperate, soothing capitalism of travellers in airline limbo.

Next stop: Bangkok and a year of travelling in Asia and Australasia.

Costa Coffee: It gets everywhere. There's probably some witty joke about arabica coffee beans to be made here, but to be frank I'm just too tired.

Costa Coffee: It gets everywhere. There’s probably some witty joke about arabica coffee beans to be made here, but to be frank I’m just too tired.

BUT LET ME take a step back. My last update was 3 November. What happened to my promised posts? Time accelerated. Travmin took over. Packing up our flat became a priority. Saying goodbye to friends, equally important. I veered between frustration at having to repeat the same information (“yes, yes, we are going away for a year and yes it’s going to be awesome – what of it?”) to embarrassment that we’re privileged enough to be going away for a whole year (“yes but guys, think how depressed we’ll be when we get back.”). We packed, we moved, we said our goodbyes, Christmas and New Year happened, and now I’m sitting here in front of Le Clos, having circumnavigated the departure lounges twice, declined to buy any camel-related merchandise (if the shop Dubai Gifts is anything to go by – and really, what better way to judge a place than its airport giftshop – then camels are pretty big out here) and nipped into McDonald’s for the sole reason of seeing what concession they’ve made to the locale (the Arabian Plate, in case you were wondering).

Christmas and New Year in different parts of the UK made me miss both my friends and the English countryside before I’d even left. At 8.30am this morning, saying farewells to family, a year seemed like a long time. So BK-C and I were strangely subdued as we boarded the plane. Even the very best in-flight entertainment systems known to humankind (for which the Emirates systems must gain the accolade simply for having all three of the Back to the Future movies available for your viewing pleasure) could not alleviate the malaise. Landing in Dubai – A Real Foreign Place – changed it all. The year stretches out ahead of us, unblemished and full of promise that we could go anywhere.

World, I’m freaking out.

English Countryside

All that’s left behind.