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Travels with Sir and Lady Gaw

The big world awaits!

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Sitting on the desert sand in United Arab Emirates waiting for the sun to set and always wondering where and when our next holiday - err trip - will be. So much to see, so little time!

Welcome aboard this page and come, if you dare, on a ride across the map of the world. Well not quite as the world is big, we're not in the rich class AND we're getting older.

I should explain about my screen name. Many years ago I started off a chat group here in Australia and we had so many David's, we had to somehow come up with a way of sorting out the David's from themselves. I got SirGaw and the name stuck. Naturally, any titled person should have an accompanying partner – and so Sandra became LadyGaw.

My first overseas journey was a cruise through parts of the South Pacific It was a fun-filled cruise of 24 days and the ship sailed from Melbourne to Hobart, Auckland, Suva, Apia, Tonga, Wellington, Sydney, before returning to Melbourne at the ungodly hour of 0600. Most of the trip is an alcohol fuzz of memory as I was single, early 20's and looking for a "good time" - whatever that meant to a young male.

A year after the cruise, I met Sandra and late in 1969 we got married and settled down. In the 1970's we were joined by 2 daughters and our travelling was severely curtailed as a result. Yes, there were family holidays in various parts of Australia.

The 70's and into the early 80's these holidays were heading off by car and sometimes for 3 days to reach holiday destinations. After too many to count, 'Are-we-there-YET?' comments from the back seat, we switched to flying for Aussie holidays.

Our first real taste of travel adventure occurred in 1984 when I represented a company at a conference in Singapore. Sandra accompanied me and tried to keep me well-behaved. After the conference, a flight to the Malaysian island of Penang. Four nights at a high-end hotel/resort followed by 3 nights 'on the road' driving back to Singapore via the Cameron Highlands, Kuala Lumpur and Malacca.

For our 2 daughters, their first overseas trip was Fiji in 1987 where we stayed on a resort for 7 nights and followed up with an expensive 3 night 'Blue Lagoon' cruise.

1988 and a trip to USA – Hawaii, followed by Seattle staying with friends, and then 2 weeks on-the-road in California. We even learnt how to speak so the locals could understand us - LOL

Lots of hard work for me as a taxi owner/driver paid off, and in 1989 I won a trip for 7 nights in London. We took that holiday in 1990 and had a side visit to wonderful Paris.

Economic conditions took their toll and apart from some trips within Australia, our passports had a long break in a draw until 1998 New Caledonia and a bit of French in the South Pacific.

Elderly Dad in Perth, Western Australia, meant lots of trips across Australia and took its toll on the purse strings, however in 2002 we combined a Perth trip and then went on and stayed in Hong Kong and Macau.

In 2007, we undertook our biggest overseas jaunt and titled 'Trip 07' – I'll include some of my writings and photography originally published in Virtual Tourist.

2010 and Dad passed away and so the need to travel to Perth ceased. The following year I retired and some long-awaited expenses curtailed overseas travel, once again. However, there have been some great trips within Australia. I'd love to share my experiences originally published in Virtual Tourist. Sadly a change of computer and I lost all the images for our trip to the Northern Territory and return on 'The Ghan', the train that takes 3 days to travel from Darwin to Adelaide, South Australia. However saved are trips to far north Queensland and Tasmania – all published in Virtual Tourist and to be shared here as time permits.

I did promise Lady Gaw that we'd return to Singapore, which we did in 2015 and followed on with 12 days in China. I'm not a fan of group travel and the China trip confirmed by views. The tour guides were great but the pace was set to fast, with too many over-priced shops included.

More tripping to far north Queensland to keep Lady Gaw happy – and a chance for the youngest daughter to have a holiday too. I had to return to Melbourne to mind the cats and birds, so it was a tag team in the airport at Cairns.

This year, 2018, a truly great holiday - err trip - in amazing Vietnam and all published here.

More to come as health and finances allow.

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From one of the rear seas in a Singapore Airlines Airbus A380 waiting to set off towards home at Shanghai, China, airport and looking through the smog to the setting sun.

Posted by SirGaw 06:48 Comments (0)

VIETNAM FOR BEGINNERS - INTRODUCTION

INTRODUCTION

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Fluttering above Mt Fanispan, the highest peak in Vietman and SE Asia, the National Flag

Long suffering wife (aka LadyGaw) and I decided we needed an overseas holiday – she insists they are trips and NOT holidays. She claims holidays are for relaxing, staying in the same place for too long and getting a bit fatter – boring!!!

We had a peek into the holiday – err trip, bucket list and the choice was Rocky Mountains and Alaska or Vietnam. After much soul searching and counting money, Vietnam won. Closer to home (Melbourne, Australia) and a LOT cheaper. In hindsight glad we choose Vietnam – from our 25 days, a country of contrasts.

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City if you prefer – but I'll stick to Saigon) was entry point. Direct flight from home city and took around 6 and a half hours while enjoying the service from Vietnam Airlines. We stayed in Saigon for 5 nights and tripped around the inner city. Hotel of choice was the 1880 built Continental Hotel for some old world charm. We ate a number of evening meals in the cheaper eats food court of a modern shopping centre close to the hotel.

Our only trip out of the city was a visit to the Chu Ci Tunnels and Mekong Delta. I spent a few hours at the most moving museum – War Remnants Museum – and various other points of interest in Saigon.

Following Saigon, we flew the nations capitol, Hanoi – or as the locals prefer Ha Noi – and spent 4 nights in the Old Quarter. An interesting area to visit as well as some of the cities highlights.

After some research, the former French hill station of Sapa was on the list for 4 nights. I did find it difficult to get the accommodation I wanted and spent more time e mailing hotels in that town than all the other places we visited combined. We got what we wanted in a town that is being torn apart with re-building for the tourism boom in full swing.

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A great way to be welcomed back to a hotel

A 2 night stay back in Hanoi and a warm 'Welcome Home' as per photo above at the La Siesta Diamond Hotel. A bit more sight-seeing and a last walking lap of the famous Lake of the Sword Restored Sword (Lake Hoan Kiem) for me.

More pre-holiday research and the small town of Tam Coc just outside Ninh Binh for 4 nights at the best hotel I've ever stayed in. Not the building itself, but the wonderful staff at Ninh Binh Hidden Charm Hotel. It was a fun few days with 3 boat trips through the Karst formations that rise dramatically from the rice paddy's.

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Ha Long bay is also a fishing area

Originally we'd planned to travel from Tam Coc to Ha Long bay and a 2 night cruise, followed by 2 nights winding down in Ha Long City. Sadly plans changed only 10 days befoire we were due to fly out and with some trouble we did a swap.

After the small cruise ship docked we made a hurried run for our waiting car and driver for a hurried 3 and a half hour rushed trip to Hanoi airport and a sad faiwell to Vietnam – a country we would like to re-visit.

Return to this page as more of our holiday, err trip, is revealed and pages for the towns/cities of our stays.

Posted by SirGaw 23:09 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Introduction – 'Grateful to Uncle Ho Forever'

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We were wandering the labyrinth of narrow streets in the Old Quarter of the nations capitol Ha Noi (note the correct 2 words rather than Hanoi) and stumbled upon a small shop that advertised revolutionary posters – I bought 5 as a unique souvenir of our visit to the fascinating country of Vietnam. When we returned home, I purchased a stretched canvas, spray paint, spray on protective coating and acid free double sided tape and put together the item as above, which hangs in my computer (and mess) room. Further down this page, larger images of all 5 posters and the translations.

Like many in the 'west' I'd heard of Ho Chi Minh but in all honesty knew nothing of the man – until we visited Vietnam and saw the influence he has bestowed upon his country. I'm not going to even try and put words together that trace the history, work and struggles of the man still today known as Uncle Ho – and almost 50 years since he died.

If you are interested in further reading, 2 links worth following: Wikipedia Article and New York Times obituary - both excellent reading.

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On a walking trek, we visited a country school in the Muong Hoa Valley near Sapa in northern Vietnam and saw a classroom with a framed image of Ho Chi Minh on the wall directly above the blackboard and below Vietnam's National flag. An adjoining meeting room contained a golden bust of Uncle Ho on a plinth with fresh flowers in a vase to the front and again the national flag behind. That same valley we visited a home with an earthen floor, soot blackened walls – taking pride of place was a framed image of Ho, although another wall had an image of Christian Saint – all bases covered in that rustic home.

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His image appears on all the bank notes of the country. There are statues in many parts of Vietnam and in the capitol Ha Noi, his mausoleum, museum and the humble stilt house preserved. He could have lived in the presidential palace, but instead choose to live in a home more befitting his past.

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GRATEFUL TO UNCLE HO FOREVER

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TO PROTECT ALL OF THE PEOPLE OF VIETNAM SOCIALISM
(Images represent in order L to R; Police; Soldiers; Workers; Citizens)

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EVEN IF WE HAVE TO BURN ALL OF THE TRUONG SON MOUNTAIN RANGE,
WE HAVE TO TAKE OR WIN FOR THE INDPENDANCE OF VIETNAM
(Thuong Son Mountain Range – 1,100 km length – was the location of the Ho Chi Minh Trail)

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UNCLE HO IS STILL MARCHING WITH THE SOLDIERS

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MOST POWERFUL ADVANTAGE OF THE USA AIR FORCE
IN NORTHERN VIETNAM CRASHES.

Posted by SirGaw 04:01 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Introduction - Hello Comrade

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I must admit that LadyGaw and I like to travel. We'd much prefer to travel as independently as possible and 'do our own thing' rather than a tour where all is organised – we did that for a 12 day China trip and, in hindsight, would have prefered 'our way'.

Not always easy but we like to take a bit of effort and learn at least a few words/phrases in the language of a country we are visiting – usually opens doors and smiles, even if our efforts are incorrect. At least we've tried.

I'm reminded of our first overseas holiday to Singapore and Malaysia. We went on a 4 hour limo tour in Kuala Lumpur and visited the National Mosque on a Friday. The place was closed to visitors as it was an important day on the local calendar. I approached a security guard and in Bahasa Malay said, 'Hello, my name is David, what is your name.' He told me his name and then he switched to English and asked me what I wanted? 'Can I please go in and take a few photos?' To which he replied, 'You nice man, you learn a little bit of my language, please go ahead.' Not only did I open a door, but I got a smile – and photos!

To most, Vietnamese is a hard language to learn and the written form contains accent marks that can change meanings of a word. As said in Chapter One – Saigon, “Confusing for those not versed in the Vietnamese language that Pho can mean a soup, or a street depending on where the complicated accent marks are placed. We even saw a sign, 'Pho To Copy', but guessed that had nothing to do with either eating or walking.”

I did try and lean at least a few words of Vietnamese using a few of the on-line tutorials and then I happened across 2 words . . .

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. . . which translates to Comrade.

===And so another crazy SirGaw idea was born===

I had read that there is a strong police/military police presence in Vietnam – although not as strong as I'd witnessed in neighbouring communist China. People in Vietnam, or so I'd read, have more respect for their law enforcement authorities than my own country, Australia. The nail saloon where my wife attends is owned and staffed by Vietnamese now living here – they told tales of those breaking the law in Vietnam are beaten up by the police/military. As a result any badge being 'flashed' in Vietnam could be trouble – big trouble.

Various trips to a few local opportunity (second hand) shops and eventually I found what I was looking for – a cheap new plastic leather look-alike wallet (US term = bill fold) on sale for $2. Then I went 'ratting' through a small box of my late father's collection of odds and ends – the sort of stuff that probably should go to an opp shop. I have a collection of old taxi drivers certificates (DC's for short) and one had a photo of me in a particularly bad mood of 'not this %$^& for another 3 years'.

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A bit of ingenuity, glue, red ribbon and about 2 hours of effort and 'The Dong Chi Badge' was born

Upon landing at Saigon International Airport I retrieved The Badge from my suitcase and put it in my pocket for the duration of our holiday. As a bit of added confusion, the wallet contained a small amount of both US and Australian currency, which I would forego in case of attempted robbery. Additionally there was 7 or 8 high-value Monopoly Money paper notes to thwart would be scammers – this little duck was well-prepared for anything that might eventuate.

As we approached the cab rank at the airport, we were immediate targets for those offering their services. I polity declined and those who persisted got The Badge treatment. This had the instant effect of them backing off and looking for easier targets – SirGaw 1, them 0

When we got to the marked cab rank we were still being hounded by taxi touts and one even said, 'Why you don't want to come with me,' as we silently ignored him. Soon after we found a cab of our choice and settled in for the journey to our hotel – after I had made it quite clear that I was the holder of The Badge.

Like many countries in Asia making a living is tough and less astute tourists are easy prey for all manner of scams. Shoe shine scams, overpriced rickshaw scams, massage scams to name just 3 of the many scams where the tourist and his/her money can be easily parted. In all cases where I saw a threat to my hard-earned money, out would come The Badge and I would say loudly the magic words 'Dong Chi'. Almost immediately they would back off, such is the respect, or is it fear, of those in authority.

The usual effect of The Badge being presented would their eyes would immediately be drawn to it and I could see minds ticking to try and identify what sort of authority was represented by all the hardware. A young woman in one store asked if she could take a photo of The Badge and in turn ask her military officer boyfriend to look up the organisation I represented. I readily agreed in the full knowledge she – and boyfriend – would not be able to track me down.

The more success I enjoyed the cheekier I became and even started flashing The Badge at security guards outside stores and buildings – some even stood to attention and saluted. Each time I tried very hard not to laugh, but would smile and say, 'Xin chao dong chi.' (Hello comrade). Some of those with English would ask, 'Police or military,' to which I would say 'Shhh.' A few times I did think that maybe I'd overstepped the mark and if not careful, could be charged with impersonating an official or similar. LadyGaw did remind me of the stories she'd heard of the police beatings.

Perhaps the cheekiest Badge episode was when we pulled up outside the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum in Ha Noi. A very smartly dressed white uniformed officer was close by and so I showed him The Badge. Immediately he stood rigidly to attention, saluted and said loudly, 'SIR.' I smiled a reply of, 'Xin chao dong chi.' As I was 'out of uniform' I therefore could not return the salute, but we shook hands instead. In reasonable English he offered to escort us, but I declined fearing my cover would be exposed and I too would became a statistic.

Over the 25 days of our holiday in Vietnam I would hate to try and calculate just how many people saw The Badge. Our trusted motorscooter driver/guide in Tam Coc asked how I knew of the words Dong Chi as, he explained, both he and his father are members of 'The Party'. Even the owner of one of the hotels after we'd moved on in an e mail asked 'How's Mr Dong Chi.'

I'm not sure that too many people should try a similar 'trick' that caused so much confusion to so many – and to LadyGaw and myself, memories and laughter. Thank you and in Vietnamese . . .

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Posted by SirGaw 20:29 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Chapter one - Saigon

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Old fish traps on a bicycle outside The Opera House with the Continental Hotel in background

We touched down at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport right on time – thanks Vietnam Airlines and a great flight too. We'd arranged Visa on Arrival (VOA) as a much cheaper alternative to getting a full visa through the Embassy in either Canberra or Sydney. OK in theory, but the authorities seemed to be very slow in getting our passports back to us.

Finally out of the clutches of arrivals, we headed to the money changer to get some dongs (VND) before tackling the taxi rank – and the touts who I just could not trust: “Why you no want to come with me?” from an unkempt looking guy and we stoically strode to the taxi rank. My research suggested that we should go with either the distinctive green Mai Linh taxis or Vinasun. I'd used an on-line translator to prepare and print out an instruction to take us to the Continental Hotel – address was included – and that I would pay as per the meter reading in VND. All was good when I saw a uniformed Mai Linh representative at the rank and a green taxi ready to go.

First introduction to Saigon and we saw the hoards of motor scooters outnumbering the 4 wheeled vehicles seemingly on a ratio of 10 scooters to 1 4 wheeler. It was like being constantly surrounded by a swarms of insects.

Eventually we arrived at the hotel and just knew from first friendly greetings from both doormen and reception staff, that we'd made the right choice. We just had to have the national soup dish Pho (*) and, with some help from the hotel staff, found the impressive food court at the nearby Vincom Centre. It is a ultra modern western styled multi-level shopping centre with heaps of designer shops seen in similar centres in many countries around the world. The food court is located in one of the basement levels and is a popular eating place for many of the locals. All up we enjoyed 3 evening meals there – a Pho place, an all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ restaurant and part of a chain of yummy Vietnamese food – Wrap and Roll. We liked the last one so much we lucked in when staying in Hanoi as there was a Wrap and Roll outlet close to our accommodation– see Hanoi for the tale of the hilarious evening at Wrap and Roll.

Over our 4 full days in Saigon we managed to get to a large number of the 'touristy' sites of Saigon, but first there was the all important issue of clothes shopping. Research had suggested that the Russian Market was the spot for bigger sizes, Cab from hotel to the market (driver needed his GPS thingy) and then an interesting experience in the over-crowded with stock and under-crowded with customers indoor 2 level market. We did buy what we wanted, but I'm not sure, in hindsight, it was worth all the trouble.

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The art of tee shirt selling is alive and well in Saigon - and the rest of Vietnam

We grabbed another taxi and wanted to go to the Independence Palace. He had trouble locating same and I watched as his map tracker thingy did blocks. When we got there I pointed to the incriminating cyber evidence and gave him less that the meter reading. As we got out I was told by a uniformed man the Palace was closed – grrrrrr. Map to our rescue we found the Central Post office and a chance for LadyGaw to go souvenir hunting not too far away. We ticked off a few more on the 'to-do' list and then headed back to the calmer oasis of the Continental Hotel.

The following day was our early start and a trip to the Chu Ci Tunnels and Mekong Delta (separate write up to come).

Last 2 days for Saigon and we returned to the Independence Palace and again found it was closed. So while LadyGaw went exploring in another market, I visited the very moving War Remnants Museum (separate write up and images). We re-united a few hours later and managed to get into the Independence Palace (write up and images to come). Finally, the Ben Thanh market where LadyGaw got a genuine fake Omega watch. As time was ticking on (pun – LOL) we found a place for a cool drink as it was quite hot and humid.

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One of the Nth Vietnamese tanks that stormed the then Presidential Palace and ended the war

We also visited the Ho Chi Minh City Hall, Notre Dame Cathedral which was undergoing renovations and could hardly be seen through all the scaffolding, fascinating but small book street, Saigon Opera House was next door to our hotel and the Jade Emperor Pagoda. It was close to the latter where I nearly lost a small wad of US and Australian money to a shap-shooter of a taxi driver. I'm sure it was a deliberate attempt at robbery, but I would think he'd fain an accident if I'd challenged him. Needless to say a tip was out of the question. LadyGaw wanted more shopping centres and owing to the heat and humidity I grudgingly agreed (B/s – I wanted to be cool - LOL)

At the end of the last full day in Saigon, back to the hotel and then after a bit of a nap after all the tramping our last trip to the Vincom centre and dinner.

We packed up, had the last delicious buffet brteakfast in the Continental Hotel and grabbed a taxi to the airport. Unfortunately the Mai Linh taxi driver gave us less than a good last farewell to the city and we had a heated debate over some sort of car parking charge. Seems it is a common scam according to a very helpful local who jumped to our defense and even called over a uniformed official.

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Fountain outside both the Opera House and our hotel[/center]

Next stop Hanoi.

  • Confusing for those not versed in the Vietnamese language that Pho can mean a soup, or a street depending on where the complicated accent marks are placed. We even saw a sign, 'Pho To Copy', but guessed that had nothing to do with either eating or walking

Posted by SirGaw 08:16 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Chapter One - Saigon - War Remnants Museum

A chilling reminders of a war that should not have happened

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Main entrance to the 3 level interior of the complex

My wife overheard another guest saying to a hotel employee, 'I want to apologise for what my country did to your country during the war.' I had a long conversation with that gentleman, who is from California, USA, as we'd both visited the very moving War Remnants Museum.

In the 1960's and 70's I remember the almost nightly graphic footage of a terrible war played out on the TV news. I applauded my country's (Australia) Prime Minister Harold Holt, who announced to the world, 'All the way with LBJ' (US President Lyndon Baines Johnson). I hated the protesters who stood up and shouted 'Get Out of Vietnam', I still cry with emotion when I hear the song by the Australian group 'Redgum - Only 19' - then in April 2018 I saw the truth at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon and like so many visitors, I cried at what I saw as mans total inhumanity against man.

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Chinook Helicopter made by Boeing

The outdoor section of the museum contains military hardware including a Chinook Helicopter. I never knew just how big those 'birds' were until I stood beside one (photo). In hindsight I'm very glad I did not take my wife to the museum as I just know she would have been even more touched than I was at the former prison contained within the grounds of the museum. I'll let the attached images speak for themselves.

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So much torture - perhaps the best escape was the Guillotine

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Like the Tiger Cage

The 3 level indoor section of the museum contains 11 different exhibition spaces - and each with chilling tales to tell, well not quite and you need to see for yourself, to understand, to reflect and to shed a tear of more and then go with a sense of hope that wars will one day cease. My own philosophy suggests we all - and particularly Kings, Queens, Presidents, Prime Ministers and the like - should listen at least one a month to the song written by John Lennon - "Imagine."

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The truth

In other travel sites, reviewers for the War Remnants Museum state that much contained is Vietnamese propaganda. I disagree. The 'stuff' we in Australia saw on TV was the lies that we were told. I'm so sorry for not believing the other side, I'm so sorry at what was done to Vietnam, but I'm so glad that the Vietnamese themselves have moved forward and are creating a great country for themselves. 

Allow at least half a day to view all that is offered in this museum and please reflect and, as I did, shed a tear.

Posted by SirGaw 07:57 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam museum war Comments (0)

Chapter One – Saigon - Chu Ci Tunnels, Mekong Delta & more

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"The lotus is a flower that grows in the mud. The thicker and deeper the mud, the more beautiful the lotus blooms." (attributed to Buddha) May you live like the lotus: at ease in mud yet can rise above. The Lotus is the floral emblem for Vietnam

It's not always easy deciding in advance which of many companies to take for a tour. This is where travel sites are so helpful - reviews and more reviews; they can't all be wrong. As a result of research we choose Vietnam Adventure Tours for a full day luxury limo tour - and I must say we were VERY happy with the day and how we were treated by Mr Binh.

The web site states there is a maximum of 7 passengers - we were lucky as it was only a young New Zealand couple and ourselves. Well not quite right - she was from Scotland, he from Germany but they lived in New Zealand and both fascinating people - glad we got to meet and travel with them.

Mr Binh - our driver/guide for the day - was a wealth of knowledge on the American War (term used by the Vietnamese to describe the war that raged through their country for so long) - he served in that war. He kept up an almost constant commentary on the war and the history of Vietnam from the time we were picked up at our hotel.

First stop, and not mentioned in the on-line tour schedule, was a visit to a sheltered workshop where they made lacquered goods for sale. Called '27/7 Ho Chi Minh City Company limited' sadly I am unable to locate any reference to them for a well-deserved review or at least a web link of their own. There was an undercover workshop where perhaps 15 workers and one cat were busy in a production line like sequence creating the works for sale. Surprisingly one of the main elements is broken up duck egg shells, which does give a mosaic like appearance. Shells – and I thought maybe scallop shells – were also used after careful cutting using a razor saw. Both are glued onto wood and then lacquer is applied to the art. After all that careful preparation the lacquer is rubbed back to reveal the detail contained within a black background.

After the fascinating look through the workshop area, we were led into the sales area. Lots of great items for sale, but we really only bought one small item – a lacquered duck. As we'd only arrived in Vietnam 2 days earlier, we were still not used to the currency. An item priced at 250,000 VND (Dong) sounded really expensive, but was around $A14 (about $US10). Perhaps that sheltered workshop might gain sales by displaying prices in $US as I would think many of those bought there are foreign visitors and, like us, unused to the Dongs.

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If they put their minds to it, cats can achieve greatness

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Painstaking work getting it right

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Part of the lacquering process

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Nearly finished and ready for sale

After the sheltered work shop, we were taken to the Cu Chi Tunnel complex - a tourist re-creation of the famous tunnels, deadly man-traps, living quarters etc and all underground. It was a graphic presentation of the war. The man-traps were designed to maim and not kill – simple reason, that would take 2 troops to get the injured out, plus helicopter to evacuate and all the hospital workers to treat. Seems cruel and it is, but then again Agent Orange effected so many more!! We had a chance to crawl through a tunnel – and I did find it very difficult, but then again at 72 I'm a bit past all that.

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Mr Binh our driver/guide for the day in fine voice

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One of the many styles of man-traps

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Plenty of hiding holes in the jungle

I teamed up with another New Zealand gent and together we partnered in a 10 shots at a firing range. I was very glad I wore ear protection.

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Next stop was lunch at the Mekong Restaurant Stop and too much delicious food was served up - we simply could not finish it all. Lunch over and we continued on to the Mekong River and a boat ride across whilst admiring a huge bridge we were told was financed by Australia. The other side of the river to touristy Ben Tre Island. We stopped for a honey talk and taste – yummy, and particularly the honey tea – it was so good even the bees thought so. All that honey led to a walk through to see local musicians and singers performing nursery rhymes - "interesting"!!! Following on was a row boat trip along a waterway - sadly I took a tumble and a couple of band aids to the rescue.

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We were told the Australian Government paid for this impressive bridge across the Mekong

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Careful Mr Binh, they can sting

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A busy backwater close to the Mekong River

We returned across the Mekong and a 2 hour return trip to our hotel. The day started at 7.30 am and finished around 6 pm - it was a long day and even the chatter-box Mr Binh was talked out - great and memorable day and well-worth the extra we paid for a high-end tour. Well recommended and thanks again to Mr Binh

Posted by SirGaw 00:09 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Chapter One – Saigon – Independence Palace

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As I wrote in the entry, Chapter One – Saigon, it was third time lucky getting into the Independence Palace. First time around and I showed a cab driver a small image of the building – perhaps he should have gone to Specsavers – LOL. Even his map tracker 'thingy' on his dashboard showed he had done a lap. When we finally got there, the building was closed owing to some important visitor. Second time around and it was closed – siesta time. Third time lucky and sorry to say my 'Comrade Badge' did not help getting in at a reduced price.

At the entrance and on each of the 3 visits, we were swamped by trinket sellers, offers for rickshaw rides, attempts at shoe shine scams and a few other nondescripts.

To help you out if you plan on a visit, a link to their web site The Independence Palace. It is open every day 7.30 to 11.00 am and 1.00 to 4.00 pm (unless an important visitor happens to want to visit) Ticket price is 40,000 Dong (about $US1.80 and SirGaw was trying to get that reduced – the skin flint!!).

The grand curving driveway is impressive leading to the palace completed in 1966 and home to the South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu. A moment to digress – about 30% of the population of Vietnam shares the same surname (family name) of Nguyen – and interesting history for Professor Google to share with you.

The grand curving driveway led to an even grander covered entrance way. A short up ramp or a flight of marble stairs led to the air-conditioned splendor of the 1st level.

Ist level contains the Cabinet Room, State Banqueting Hall and the Conference Hall.

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Cabinet Room

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Conference Hall

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Almost as a symbol of defeat of South Vietnam is the bust of Ho Chi Minh with the Communist and Vietnam flags above

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Opposite end to above is a huge water colour on paper 'Viet Nam Quoc to' – the legendary ancestor of Viet Nam

2nd level contains: National security council chamber; Presidential office; Presidential reception rooms; Vice-president's reception rooms; Ambassadors chamber; Vice-president's office; and the private apartments – a number of rooms fronting on to an enclosed court yard, which contained a wealth of gifts from visiting heads of other countries Governments. A mezzanine level contained the Presidential bed room.

3rd level – an impressive library, a game room (just what do presidents get up to? - LOL), a cinema and the First lady's reception room. Doorways led to the helicopter landing pad.

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First lady's reception room had well-chosen works of art including 3 porcelain figures each representing the traditional Gods of Happiness, Prosperity and Longevity

4th level was the Salon of the 4 cardinal directions and afforded great views of the city of Sai Gon. Also a view of the helicopter pad one level below and the HU-1 Huey. Close to the helicopter, 2 round red circles marking the spots where South Vietnamese pilot Nguyen Thanh Trung dropped 2 bombs on 8th April 1975.

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Moving back to the Ground level, more egalitarian but never-the-less interesting kitchen, ready to hit-the-roads Jeep and Presidential Mercedes and a souvenir shop. For the history buffs, a small theater showing documentary films of the war. Surprisingly, next to the toilets and children's centre was the Shooting Gallery – I hope the bullets hit the right target.

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Perhaps more interesting – and particularly for the technology old-stuff buffs is the Bunker, comprising Command Centre, Communications, Presidents war, radio and bedrooms and the all-important Security section.

Before we departed and faced the dangers of trinket sellers et al, we paused to look at the 2 liberation forces tanks that burst through the gates of the palace on 30th April 1975 and in effect brought about the end of the war that cost so much.

I'm always thoughtful at palaces similar to the Independence Palace of Sai Gon. The costs to build and maintain are huge and in effect a show-piece for a few. The remainder of the country almost certainly languished as a result of the wanton waste – but then again South Vietnam was no different to many other countries who squandered their money for The President. One notable exception was Ho Chi Minh who remained loyal to his humble origins. Perhaps a number of the first ladies of countries including South Vietnam subscribed to the Marie Antoinette school of thought – 'Let them eat cake!'

The palace is certainly worth visiting and allow at least 2 – 3 hours to take it all in.

Posted by SirGaw 18:33 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Chapter Two – Hanoi – Part One

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The symbol of Ha Noi - temple in the Hoan Kiem Lake

Again a comfortable trip and right on time for Vietnam Airlines. A man in front of us seemed to be collecting the coffee/tea cups from the in-flight meal tray, so we donated our to him. Seems they were, as the story goes, for his granddaughters dolls tea parties – although I did have my suspicions!

The domestic terminal at Hanoi Noi Bai Airport is not quite complete and is ultra modern, however like most airports it is a bit of a rabbit-warren for first timers – like us. I was quite adamant that I was going to take a Mai Linh taxi after all the warnings I'd read about other cab companies. Mai Linh used to have the concession for the Hanoi Domestic terminal, but appeared to have lost it to a competitor. I was able to secure a cab from, I was told, a company allied to Mai Linh. All seemed in order and there were no issues. Seems the driver is a member of a group trying to improve the image of taxis in Hanoi.

I'd spent some time on the research of accommodation for Hanoi and managed to secure a good deal by taking a risk and pre-paying for the 6 night stay in Hanoi (4 nights and 2 further nights after a 4 night stay in Sapa). We arrived at the Hanoi La Siesta Diamond Hotel and Spa located along one of the many narrow streets that make up the 'Old Quarter.' Right from the first greetings by the doormen I just knew we'd made the right choice.

Like many of the hotels in the Old Quarter, Hanoi La Siesta Diamond Hotel and Spa has a narrow frontage to the street, however it rises 12 floors. Each of the accommodation floors has only 5 suites, with the top floor with great views of the city being the excellent restaurant with full kitchen. At the time of our stay work was going on to open up a roof top bar. I am unable to comment on this new addition to the hotel.

What made Hanoi La Siesta Diamond Hotel and Spa shine was the staff. Nothing was too much trouble from the very professional team who made sure we were looked after. The breakfast buffet was one of the best I have ever enjoyed with a very extensive array of food to suit both Eastern and Western tastes. In addition to the excellent buffet, there was a menu with the days special offerings - mostly included in the price. The real surprise was Eggs Benedictine, which was freshly made to order and I can vouch that it was prepared and cooked to perfection. The service we received at reception was outstanding and the staff did all they could to assist us - including arranging taxis and a hotel car for a special tour we did. I cannot speak highly enough of the Hanoi La Siesta Diamond Hotel and Spa.

Several mornings I went for an early walk around the Lake of the Restored Sword (Hoan Kiem Lake)while LadyGaw snoozed on. With her leg becoming more of a sore issue, joining me on an early morning stroll was difficult. Have a look at what the locals get up to:

Every walk in the Old Quarter was almost an adventure with street after street of goodies of almost every type, size and shape. Originally each of the businesses along each of the 38 or so narrow streets specialised in a particular product or service. Even today that tradition is kept alive. I wanted a pair of sunglasses and with some help located the 'sunglasses street' where there are at least 8 shops on one side of the street selling only sunglasses – one of which got my business, a fake designer brand.

Crossing the roads had its own issues and it almost seems to be total anarchy. It took us some time to get used to the Hanoi way of crossing a street on foot – walk at the same pace, do not try and make any eye contact with the riders of the countless numbers of motor scooters zooming only inches away, keep walking, under no circumstances stop as 'they' will continue go around you – you hope. When you reach the comparative safety of the other side, maybe a silent prayer to which ever God you put your trust in. Traffic lights seemed to have no real meaning to many, in fact LadyGaw bought a tee shirt – see below.

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Ha Noi traffic lights tee shirt

LadyGaw and I went our separate ways for a few hours. She went to the Vietnam Women s Museum, while I visited both the Hoa La former prison, followed by the Hanoi Police Museum. The prison was a reminder of just how badly people were treated within the prison system. I almost cried at what I saw, but in fairness it was not as confronting as the War Remnants Museum in Saigon (separate write up). A great tale, as photoed is a section of the sewerage system, through which, in March 1945, 100 political prisoners escaped. They became the political and government leaders. My cynical self got in the way of this tale. In Vietnam those imprisoned escape through the sewers and become government, unlike other countries (no names mentioned) where some are elected into government, get into the s*** and then end up in jail, where they really belonged in the first place. The prison was the infamous Hanoi Hilton where USA airmen were imprisoned after capture during the American War (note I have adopted the term American War instead of what we describe in the west as the Vietnam War).

I walked back to the women s museum and had decided on a great street cafe for lunch – food was great, too much of it and so cheap. With some help from English speaking locals, we caught a taxi and visited the Temple of Literature and a wonderful place to visit. There is a warning on the web site – 'People with disabilities are especially severe' – this is an example of the old expression ' lost in translation.' There are many high steps to get over at the various gates and those with disabilities would find it almost impossible to enter. The Temple is the old university and was founded in 1070 and pre-dates many of the religious and educational structures in Europe.

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Temple of Literature

We caught a taxi for the return to the hotel, but with my many years in the taxi industry I knew there was a scam in the making. I gave the driver the card showing name/address of hotel and indicated that was where we wanted to go. The meter started up and soon after we got going, I knew it was 'hot' (meaning significantly overcharging). He stopped some way from our hotel and pointed to the meter indicating that was what I was to pay. I pointed to the business card and held my ground. With much pointing from both sides, we got out of the taxi. Strangely LadyGaw wanted me to give him something, but I refused. As we walked back to the hotel the argument continued between us. I told hotel staff what had happened and showed them the photos I'd managed to snap off – which included phone numbers of taxi company. Hotel staff rang number concerned – the taxi was not one of theirs and must be a fake, they were told. I was glad I refused to pay and issued a warning to LadyGaw.

More of Hanoi can be found at: Chapter Two – Hanoi – Part Two

Posted by SirGaw 07:53 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Chapter Two – Hanoi – Part Two

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Night at at Lake of the Restored Sword

I loved walking in the streets of the old quarter – so much colour and movement, with a bewildering array of shops and small eating establishments. Sometimes it was easier to walk on the road way rather than the footpath (sidewalk if you must). Hanoi must be one of the most densely populated motorscooter/bike cities in the world. I'd just love to know the numbers, but from what I saw, I'm reckoning in the many millions of them. Of course they have to park somewhere and all that footpath space must be used – for parking.

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I was constantly amused at the wiring on posts throughout Vietnam – here is a great example of the rats nests of wiring that I saw in the Old Quarter

One of the evening highlights for us was a visit to the famous http://thanglongwaterpuppet.org/en/ Thang Long Water Puppets Theatre - only 5 minutes from our hotel. Truly spectacular, although the music and singing is, shall I say, an acquired taste! We were seated to the back of the theater and, as a result, viewing was not as good as I'd liked. The seats – and in particular the leg/knee room - were designed for smaller audience members than us westerners. All up a great show, but we got 'blown away' a week or so later when we visited Ha Long City and the Mystic Mountain operated by the Sun Corporation. Front row seats in an outdoor theater was a magnificent spectacle with great sound of another puppet theater. My suggestion for Thang Long is to buy tickets early for as late in your stay as possible – a lot of tour groups include the theater in their itinerary so it is a busy place. I am unable to locate an on-line ticket sales section of their web site – suggest an e mail.

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Evening meals was a mixture to say the least. Our accommodation - Hanoi La Siesta Diamond Hotel and Spa – had an excellent restaurant on the top floor with sweeping city and surrounds views. Their evening meal was superb and some of the greatest staff you'll find anywhere.

We ate twice at Wrap and Roll a small chain of enjoyable Vietnamese food. One of those evenings we were seated just inside the door and next to the panoramic window giving us a great view of the passing parade of people. An elderly man employee was positioned there to try and entice passers by into the restaurant – it is a competitive business. As a joke I started to give 'just looking' passers by the thumbs up, licking my lips and beckoning them in. It worked so well that through my outlandish efforts the restaurant was full. Mean management did not even offer a free dessert or coffee for all my effort.

Another evening we ate in the small restaurant of a hotel near our hotel – turned out to be in the same hotel chain and service and food was just as good too. After lots of Asian food, we really wanted western food for one evening – not that I have any complaints about Asian food, in fact we love it. We just needed western that night. A chain prides itself as the best burgers – sorry I've had a lot better than we were dished up – darn, back to Asian.

Rightly so, the memory of Ho Chi Minh is revered in Vietnam. His likeness appears on all the bank notes, in schools and offices almost every where. Hanoi has his mausoleum, a museum dedicated to his work and his original stilt house all located within a park like area. In time I will add another blog on Ho Chi Minh or as he is still affectionately known today as 'Uncle Ho' and include more images and information on what we saw. We reget that we did not visit the mausoleum.

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Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

In the park land surrounding of the above is the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_Pillar_Pagoda]One Pillar Pagoda (< ERROR: the link title is too long!) reportedly one of the most sacred temples in Vietnam. That web site states the temple was destroyed by retreating French troops, however another version states it was destroyed during one of the many USA bombing raids that wrecked so much havoc in northern Vietnam. Original or not, it is a wonderful and peaceful site to visit.

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Some distance from our hotel is the http://www.vme.org.vn/home/[Vietnam Museum of Ethnology (< ERROR: the link title is too long!). As we were to travel to the Sapa region, home to various ethnic minorities, we wanted to learn at least something of what we would be seeing. In hindsight, we may have been better served to skip this museum as there is an extensive display at the Sapa museum. It was an interesting museum – and in particular the outdoor section where there has been constructed housing typical of some of the various ethnic groups. Next to and built right up to the property line was a low rise apartment complex and we could see the locals going about their daily lives through the windows – were they another minority?

We had a 4 night break in Sapa and returned at 9pm tired and hungry to our Hanoi hotel and a very warm 'welcome home.' While LadyGaw got on with domestic chores, I went out on a take-away food hunt. As it was around 10pm, many of the eateries I'd seen in our previous visit had closed, but the bright lights and delicious aromas led me to an eat in/take away place where I managed to get a meal for each for us. Turned out to be omelets. It was not quite what I had in mind when I ordered, but at getting-close-to-bed time, we just wanted to eat. It had been a long 6 hour trip with a few 'issues' along the way – see Sapa for more details.

Our last full day in Hanoi and another early morning stroll around the lake for me, return for a relaxing and delicious breakfast – including eggs Benedictine – and then a trip to the money changer. The changer was located on the 2nd level above a jewelers shop and the kings and queens were in their counting house counting all their money. They had almost bricks of Australian $50 notes that they were busy counting. I think I saw more of my own countries currency in one place at the same time than I've ever seen at home.

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There was an interesting temple across the road from the money changer and, judging by the activities, a festival in the making. Even the street was festooned with colourful decorations.

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LadyGaw had developed quite a sore knee from all the tramping – and climbing the highest mountain in SE Asia did not help (see Sapa for details – to come). We strolled through more of the narrow streets taking in the ambiance and almost insanity of the Old Quarter. A couple of stops to buy items on the shopping list and then a well-deserved lunch stop overlooking what I think is one of the maddest traffic zones I've ever witnessed. With all the craziness of zooming traffic totally uncontrolled we didn't see any of the road rage so common on Australian roads. Of course we had to add to the confusion by walking slowly through the mayhem - and survived!!!!

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We wanted to visit a number of sites and also pay the remainder of our 2 night cruise on Ha Long Bay. Originally this was all to be done using a taxi, but as I wanted cab and driver to wait for us at 4 locations and each for around 20 minutes each, the hotel strongly suggested one of their cars. More expensive, but no hassles, so we agreed.

First stop was the famous Long Bien bridge designed by Mr Eiffel of Paris tower fame. The bridge is for trains and motorcycles only, but there is a viewing point looking over an industrial area.

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We'd booked and part paid a 3 day, 2 night cruise through Gray Line and needed to pay the balance prior to boarding. Gave us a chance to meet up with Sulli from the office, who'd been so helpful. Great meeting up with the young lady. Next stop was the Chua Tran Quoc temple, located on the shores of West Lake. The temple is a photographers dream – a tall spire with hundreds of intricately carved figures inside each of the 6 niches on each of the 11 levels. I had a chuckle when I saw a lady obviously from the Indian sub-continent (or derived from) with a digital devise in the shape of an elephant – must have been for big photos – LOL.

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Our last stop was a visit to the Cathedral, where we gawked at the trappings of religion more in keeping with our heritage. The surrounding streets were awash with traffic – and particularly the ever-present motor scooters.

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Back to the hotel, some packing, quick meal at Wrap and Roll – sadly the elderly man was not on duty that evening and via a very belligerent tee-shirt seller, returned for the last time to the really great Hanoi La Siesta Diamond Hotel and Spa.

Early morning, pack up, quick breakfast and a taxi to Ga Ha Noi (Hanoi Rail station) where I missed seeing a couple of steps on the floor in the marble interior and took a tumble and ended up sprawled on the floor. Not too many bruises and lots of helpful people to assist us getting to the right platform for our trip to amazing Tam Coc.

Please note this write up is in chronological order with Sapa followed by Tam Coc and finally Ha Long City followed by Ha Long Bay and cruise

Posted by SirGaw 23:33 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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