Saturday March 16, 2019

Have you ever been to a stage performance, a sports event, a visual spectacular where so much is happening that you don’t know where to look? Well, that’s what it’s been like for our Mad Kiwi Midlifers over the past few days – since our long-awaited cruise up the mighty Mekong began.

We left Ho Chi Minh City on Thursday morning, and drove to the port on the Saigon River where we were welcomed aboard the lovely Avalon Siem Reap. We met the crew, unpacked in our roomy cabins, and got acquainted with our floating hotel before a mouth-watering lunch was served. Then we motored out into the current.

“There are few tapestries of river life as fascinating and varied as the Mekong Delta,” claimed one website. And as we’ve sailed further and further away from the bustling, chaotic cities we’ve encountered in Vietnam, it’s hard to imagine a more striking cultural contrast. The boat-life on this astonishingly busy waterway must be seen to be believed. And the riverside towns and villages we’ve been visiting are oh-so-photogenic. A fascinating, noisy, colourful kaleidoscope called ‘everyday life’ has been happening all around us, and we’ve often not known where to point our cameras!

Take Friday, for example. After being rocked to sleep on the Avalon Siem Reap, we awoke in time for some early morning tai chi, downed a yummy breakfast, then transferred to a sampan for a scenic cruise to the village of Vinh Long – where local workers showed us how they make rice paper and rice wine – actually rice-whisky, which we sampled – ouch! (This potent spirit is also available with real pickled snakes floating in the bottle, supposedly an aphrodisiac!) We then watched hard-working locals making ‘popping rice’ (a bit like popcorn), which they combine with honey and sugar to make popular sweet-cakes.

In the afternoon, after lunch back on the ship, we hopped into another sampan and chugged along a side-river to Cu Lao Gieng – stopping, first, at a workshop where skilled family members hand-craft sampans for a living … and second, at a humble home where a family weaves classic conical hats (called ‘non la’). Then, en route back to the river, we rode on bouncy motor-carts past ramshackle homes and waving schoolkids to visit one of Vietnam’s oldest Catholic churches.

An amazing day? You’d better believe it! But enough words. You’ll get a better feel for all this from some of the countless photos we’ve been taking …

COMING UP: We go walkabout through a farmers market in Chau Loc … then ride another sampan through a shambolic-looking stilt-village to some famous religious sites … then visit a family in Long Khong A that has developed a home-grown business weaving cotton. On the way (no kidding) we get to talk with a Viet Cong vet. So don’t turn off your set …

ON OUR MINDS: Christchurch and the tragic event that unfolded there on Friday have been uppermost in our thoughts and conversations ever since the dreadful news first broke. We Kiwis feel somewhat helpless and away-from-home at this time – however, we shared a moment of silent prayer and reflection the other evening. Our heartfelt concern goes out to all the families who have lost loved ones and are suffering so much.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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Wednesday March 13, 2019

We’re well into our second week now, and having the time of our lives. On Monday we left the peace’n’quiet of laidback Hoi An and flew into the well-ordered madness and mayhem of Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as it’s still called by many locals). Its youthful population of 10 million-plus ALL seemed to hit the road whenever we went walking or driving!

You know the feeling you get on NZ roads when a big bunch of motorcyclists overtake you? Well, multiply that feeling by at least several thousand – and repeat it at every intersection – and you’ll start to get close to what it’s like in this bursting-at-the-seams Asian metropolis. Imagine torrents of helmet-clad bikers (often mum, dad and the kids) whizzing around you, behind you, in front of you, straight for you, and (seemingly) underneath you! Frankly, it’s wonderful!

Don’t ask me what the road-rules are (survival of the fittest?), but the system (or lack of it) works amazingly well … and driving through NZ’s big (small) cities just doesn’t compare.

Tonight, and for the two previous nights, we Kiwis have bunked down in the opulent Hotel Reverie Saigon – listed amongst the world’s Top 100 hotels, and normally way out of our league! But this is the kind of added value Kiwi Mad Midlifers have come to expect!

Yesterday, after an over-the-top breakfast, we took to our feet and checked out Ho Chi Minh City’s historic landmarks – like the Reunification Palace and the Notre Dame Cathedral – including a stop at the Rex Hotel for a refreshing drink at the rooftop bar where the U.S. Military held their infamous ‘Five O’Clock Follies’ during the war.

Tuesday afternoon we dropped in on the Saigon Culinary Arts Centre for another fun Vietnamese cooking class (we’re getting good at this now) … followed by a wander through the bustling Ben Thanh Market.

At some point we also spent an hour in the sobering War Remnants Museum – a grim reminder of the tragedy that shook this region (and the world) back in the 60s and 70s.

This morning, we pursued the theme a little further, motoring out through the rush-hour crush (then, later, past endless rubber-plantations) for yet another unforgettable Indochina experience: the remarkable Cu Chi Tunnels. This 250km-long network of narrow underground bunkers and passageways was used by the communist forces (Viet Cong) to carry out the long struggle for independence that they remember as the ‘American War’. If you’re feeling brave, you can even try some tunnel-crawling yourself – and several of our Mad Midlifers got down-and-dirty doing just that! We also got to see some of the lethal weapons and booby-traps, and watched a guy making Viet Cong sandals out of old tyres.

This scandalous chapter in military history cost 58,000 American GIs their lives … and left 3.5 million Vietnamese dead: most of them simple peasant farmers (along with their women and children) who understood little or nothing of the grand political theories being outworked here in this bombed-to-bits land.

Mixed feelings? I think we’ve all had them during the past day or two … big time!

COMING UP: We transfer to the port on the Saigon River where we get welcomed aboard the Avalon Siem Reap – to start our long-anticipated cruise up the mighty Mekong. Please stay tuned …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Another happy Quacky Yellow Duck has flapped off and found a new home …

  • PHIL (who bravely undertook to be a guinea-pig ‘tunnel rat’ this afternoon) wins our ‘Breaking & Entering Award’ – for entering the hotel’s spectacular ballroom, forgetting to close the door, and setting off alarms that had security guards running! Phil and Janet, fortunately, escaped without injury.
  • ROB walked away with our ‘Lost & Found Award’ – after walking from the hotel back to the War Remnants Museum, then losing his normally reliable sense of direction and walking around in circles for up to 100 kms (slight exaggeration) before finally turning up hot and flustered a little late for dinner.  

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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Sunday March 10, 2019

Being a tourist is hard work. Exhausting, even. And far from envying us (like some people do), real friends feel SORRY for us – right? And they agree that, every now and then, we deserve a break – right?

Well, you’ll be pleased to know that we’ve finally got one! After being on the road nearly a week (phew!), we’ve spent the last three days enjoying one of the loveliest, prettiest, most tranquil places in all Vietnam – the charming old riverside town of Hoi An. And, for a bonus-reward, we’ve been staying in the gorgeous Palm Garden Resort – with trees and flowers to write home about, a pool to die for, and a white-sandy beach with palm-trees, rolling surf and sunshine!

The day before yesterday, we made our way to Hanoi airport, flew south to Danang (one-time fishing village, now Vietnam’s 3rd-largest city), and got taxied to Hoi An – once a major Asian trading port, now a bustling tourist hotspot and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After lunch at a local restaurant, we wandered through the ancient town centre – greeting laidback locals in their colourful stalls, dodging flying motor-scooters, eyeballing an ancient Hokkien temple and a 400 year-old Japanese Covered Bridge, and learning how farmers raise wriggly silkworms for the textile industry.

Before the day was out, several Mad Midlifers had chosen dresses/jackets/shirts/whatever to be tailor-made overnight by Hoi An’s famous garment industry. Overnight? Yep, that’s what they do here!

Yesterday morning we got to sleep in, walk the beach, splash in the pool, or do some more shop-shop-shopping in the Old Town. Then, after lunch, we were off with staff from the Red Bridge Cooking School for a quick tour of Hoi An’s Farmers’ Market … where we were introduced to vegetables, fruits, concoctions and aromas (some familiar, others strange and foreign) that were gonna form part of our dinner tonight.

Next, we boarded a water-taxi for a leisurely 25-minute glide along the Tu Bon River – arriving at the legendary outdoor school on the jungle-smothered riverbank, where a professional (hilarious) Vietnamese chef showed us how to prepare specialty Hoi An dishes (like fresh rice-paper … shrimp spring rolls … Vietnamese pancakes … seafood salad … plus a variety of sauces). Then we tried our hand (with much hooting and laughter, but without  much success) at food decoration on poor, unsuspecting cucumbers and tomatoes – and sat down as darkness fell to eat our own creations.

Today, lucky us, we’ve had time to sleep in … relax over a posh breakfast … wander the lush tropical gardens … go sightseeing/pottering/meandering/shopping/whatever … and cool-off in the pool.

Has lovely Hoi An been a highlight? You’d better believe it! And one we won’t forget for a long, long time …

COMING UP: We grab a southbound flight to crowded, historic, dynamic Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by many locals) in what we used to call South Vietnam. So don’t change channels …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Two more Quacky Yellow Ducks have found new owners …

  • SOMEONE NAMELESS wins our ‘Overzealous Lifeguard Award’ – for causing a splash in the pool the other night and getting herself ‘rescued’ by the super-eager lifeguard on duty.
  • KEVIN got himself embarrassed and took home our ‘Lost in Translation Award’ – for his frequent use of the word “yummy” at the Cooking School yesterday. Turns out “yummy” in Vietnamese means “horny”.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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Thursday March 7, 2019

Yesterday morning, once we were properly up/dressed/fed/watered, we said “Tam biet!” (goodbye) to Hanoi and drove for four hours through the rich farmlands of the Red River Delta … past scenes of rice fields, rural towns and everyday Vietnamese village life … arriving in the bayside resort town of Bai Chay: gateway to beautiful Halong Bay. There, we boarded a look-alike Chinese junk and motored away for an overnight Bhaya Classic Cruise through this astonishing coastal seascape, dotted with thousands of pointy, lumpy islands (mostly uninhabited) and recognised as one of the New World’s Seven Natural Wonders.

We made ourselves at home in our comfy cabins … partook of a fresh-cooked lunch … snapped endless pix of passing islets and other junks-cum-cruise-boats, large and small, that were plying these astonishing waterways … grabbed a relaxing massage in an open-air ‘spa’ on the back deck (well, I can’t speak for the others, but I sure grabbed one!) … and enjoyed a hilarious demo of traditional Hanoi cooking.

Then, after ‘Happy Hour’, a sumptuous seafood dinner and a bit of amateur (unsuccessful) squid-fishing, we retired to our beds for the night.

Aaaah yes – magic!

This morning, bright and early, we wakey-wakeyed to some brisk tai-chi that was happening on the top deck – then up-anchored and continued cruising – going ashore on Sung Sot Island to explore some colourful limestone caves, before downing a fresh’n’healthy buffet brunch and sailing back to Halong City.

Our return-coach-trip to Hanoi was broken with two stops: the first at a pearl farm/factory/showroom where we saw how they (the oysters) do it … the second at a huge art’n’crafts workshop where many of the young people exhibiting their skills (at silk-weaving, for example) were victims of the war: landmines, Agent Orange, and worse.

It’s these kind of experiences that we’ve come here for. And, so far, Vietnam has not disappointed us …

COMING UP: We fly south on the morrow to Danang and get taxied to the charming old riverside town of Hoi An. So don’t hang up just yet … 

PEOPLE-NEWS: Our internationally-renowned Quacky Yellow Ducks are once again being awarded to Kiwis in our group who do silly, embarrassing, award-worthy things …

  • CATHERINE & GRANT shared our ‘Very Early Earlybird Award’ – for getting their wires crossed before they’d even left NZ, and almost, very nearly, going out to the airport, bags and passports in hand, the day before we were due to depart.
  • HEATHER earned herself our ‘Breaking & Entering Award’ – by standing in the hotel corridor on our first night in Hanoi, trying desperately to open the door with her plastic key-card (wait for it …) of the room next door to hers!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.) fffffff



Tuesday March 5, 2019

You’ve probably worked this out already, but our long awaited adventure in Indochina is underway at last! Late on Sunday, we flew backwards through the night (well, not actually backwards, but back through the time-zones) to Singapore, where we swapped planes and got airborne again, landing late Monday morning in the cosmopolitan city of Hanoi – in what used to be known as North Vietnam.

We were met by our friendly Vietnamese guide-for-the-next-four-days – Thang (or ‘Tongue’ as were we told to call him) – and taken to our posh inner-city hotel for a freshen-up and a quick snooze. It had to be quick, because awaiting us in Hanoi’s colourful Old Quarter was a fleet of ‘cyclos’ – Vietnam’s traditional pedal-powered mode of transportation – along with their drivers, all limbered-up and ready to do the work.

For the next hour or two, these skilled, mostly-skinny blokes pedalled us Kiwis through Hanoi’s utterly chaotic traffic, dodging swarms of flying/weaving/tooting buses, trucks and overloaded motor-scooters (so close we could almost touch them) – then steering us into a maze of small back-alleys, lined with shops and stalls and on-the-footpath foodie-joints, crammed wall-to-wall with people, more people, and still more people. (Some eight-to-10 million live in Hanoi alone, plus at least four million motorbikes.)

Talk about a heart-in-mouth, hold-your-breath introduction to Hanoi! That cyclo-tour was unforgettable, laugh-out-loud fun. And all we had to do was hold on tight and click our cameras!

We capped the day off with a delicious Vietnamese banquet at a local restaurant – then collapsed, comatose, on our hotel beds!

This morning (Tuesday) began as all mornings should: with an eye-popping, over-the-top breakfast. Then off we zoomed to a Very Important Landmark where we joined one of the longest queues in the world – comprised of zillions of adoring Vietnamese, squillions of exciting schoolkids, and a generous sprinkling of tourists, all lining-up to view the embalmed body of Ho Chi MinhUncle Ho, as he’s known here – widely honoured as the founder of Vietnam, and now lying in state in his imposing mausoleum.

Here beginneth our first-of-many-history-lessons-to-come about Indochina  …

We broke for lunch at popular Koto (‘Know One Teach One’) – a restaurant where former street-kids and orphans are given the opportunity to learn skills which will help them find jobs in Vietnam’s burgeoning hospitality industry. Then we drove to a nearby centre for lacquer-work artists, where many of us spent more than we should have (and are now wondering how on earth we’re gonna get it home in one piece!). Finally, we caught the last 45 minutes of a traditional water-puppet show in a local theatre.

But our highlight of the day was yet to come …

We footed it down a mad-busy side road (don’t ask me to find it again) and followed our guide, single-file, into a dingy, narrow, badly-lit alleyway that led up several flights of dingy, narrow, badly-lit stairs, past discarded junk, wildly dangling power-lines, and limp hanging washing that had seen better days. Franky, the place seemed decidedly dodgy – and we all agreed later we would never have ventured into such a shambles on our own.

But suddenly, stepping single-file onto the second floor, we found ourselves in a tiny café – I kid you not! I think it was called ‘Time’ or something. It was nothing to write home about – a few old chairs and tables and couches, and a weather-beaten veranda that opened out onto that mad-busy road.

We could hardly believe our eyes! Talk about ‘local’ and ‘authentic’! I don’t think any of us had ever been in a café like it! The owners/couple-in-charge couldn’t speak a word of English. But the thick strong coffee they served up in miniature cups was as good as you get anywhere – and the ‘egg-coffee’ they gave us to sample (a Hanoi delicacy: coffee with a raw egg stirred into it) was surprisingly yummy

“What a fantastic day!” we kept saying, as we drove back to our big soft beds in our big posh hotel. And we weren’t exaggerating …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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