Rocks in the mist - an evening on Halong Bay

Halong Bay is one of *the* places to visit in Vietnam. A World Heritage Listed area, the bay is known for its hundreds of islands, caves and limestone outcrops.

The four hour drive from Hanoi was slow and bumpy in the rain and traffic, and we made the obligatory stop at a huge handicrafts complex on the way.

The port from which all of the cruises leave, was jammed with tourists and junks jockeying for position. The junks are lovely old boats, usually with 8-10 cabins on a lower deck, a covered middle deck for eating, and an open top deck for sightseeing and partying.

The huge rocks were shrouded in mist, which gave the bay a pretty eerie, mysterious feel. Fishermen pulled in their nets, while tourists kayaked by.

Lunch on the boat was delicious, particularly the grilled king prawns. I've been really impressed with the seafood here in Vietnam.

We motored on to one of the largest, and most recently discovered caves, and were able to wander through it. It reminded me of Jenolean Caves in Katoomba. The stalactites and stalagmites were enormous!

From there, some of the group kayaked through the surrounding caves. I stayed on the boat and watched river life go by. Some of the families in the floating villages had apparently never set foot on dry land. They bought food from floating vendors and fished. Such a simple life in a beautiful place.

We continued to motor on through the enormous rocks, and found a place to moor for the evening. Other than the hum of other junks around us, it was quiet, dark and incredibly peaceful.

Our captain became our bar tender and waiter, and the crew brought out an amazing dinner - more prawns, and fresh baked fish and crab. Such a memorable meal.

The boat was swinging around a bit, so getting long exposure shots was near impossible. We had to settle for cranking up the ISO and capturing whatever we could hand-held.

Cards games and cocktails ensued, and then a long, peaceful sleep. Despite the light rain and mist, our evening on Halong Bay was a highlight of my visit to Vietnam!

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Rainy days in Hue

Formerly the capital of Vietnam, Hue is located near the coast about half way up the country.

The arrival of Emperor Gia Long in 1802 brought with him much of the building work that remains in place in the city today - a Chinese-style forbidden city complex, and emperors tombs along the Perfume River.

It's unfortunate that it rained the entire time of our stay in Hue - the citadel is an impressive, massive site, despite much of it having been destroyed in a Tet offensive in 1968. It would have been great to have seen it under sunny skies, rather than from under the caps of our heavy duty ponchos.

Large ponds filled with Koi lined the main gate, and from there, a bunch of buildings and paths filled out the complex. The intricate stone and wood carvings gave a pretty good indication of how it would have looked in its former glory - brilliant red gates, mosaic tiled walls and ceilings, colorful sculptures, and a massive spire with the Vietnamese flag flying high.

Next on the agenda was a cruise down the Perfume River, in a boat that was kind of like a houseboat with the rooms - or a floating covered pontoon with a couple of dragon heads at the bow.

We saw men dredging sand, apparently to use to build their homes, many fishermen, and a steady stream of boats steaming up and down the river. It was a peaceful way to keep out of the drizzle.

The boat docked to let us off at a large pagoda atop a hill. It looked majestic in the mist.

Then it was on to the emperor's tombs - another huge complex with a number of buildings, lakes and courtyards. Emperors apparently built their tombs while they were alive and used them as a retreat from the Forbidden City.

One good thing about the rain, was that it gave us a great opportunity to capture water drops on the flowers which brightened the otherwise monotone landscape.

Here's hoping the rain stops in our next stop, Hanoi!

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Cooking extravaganza in Hoi An

One of the highlights of our two-day stay in Hoi An, was the half day cooking tour with the Red Bridge cooking school. Despite only booking the day before, we were able to join an afternoon tour that finished with dinner. Perfect! Meeting at the Hai Cafe in the beautiful old town, we caught up with some other travellers who had been roaming round northern Vietnam - to the parts where we were due to travel next. It was great getting a heads up on what we could expect to see. We were then divided into small groups, and started a walking tour of the local produce markets. We'd walked through the buzzy little markets a few times during our stay, but it's so much more interesting when you have a local pointing out what's what.

The Asian greens and herbs were all so fragrant, and between jack fruits, pomelos, pineapples and a bunch of other tropical fruits, incredibly colourful. Little old ladies hunched under their bamboo cone hats and pastel ponchos in the rain, chatting loudly to each other, seemingly oblivious to the tour groups marching past them. Our guide, Luna, explained the different flavors that say green or yellow mangos would give, and which would best suit certain dishes. We then wandered through the small fish markets, where the day's catch were laid out in cane baskets.

Next stop was a 20 minute boat trip, where we saw more of how the local people lived and worked on the river. We passed fish nets and rice padis, and hundreds of boats - fishing is such a critical activities here - and the seafood was definitely a specialty of the region. As the rain drizzled down, we arrived at a the Red Bridge Restaurant's jetty. Lush, tropical gardens were lit with lanterns, and we were offered a drink, before heading out to explore this top restaurant's herb garden. Lemongrass and mint, bitter herb and basil grew under shade clothes, once again, all very fragrant. I wish I had the space at home to have such a herb garden! Then it was time for the real action - cooking class, with Tun, one of Red Bridge's chefs. Our "cooking school" was in a thatched hut which literally backed onto the river. 20 gas stoves were set up in an L shape at the back of the hut, with the demonstration area and large mirror sitting over it so we could see what the chef was doing. The chef was hilarious - he seemed to really understand and cater for the Australian sense of humor, and cracked jokes about us, food and pretty much everything. His first dish was a seafood salad served in half a pineapple. Lots of fresh, finely grated veggies and some local prawns, all swished around in the fry pan, and within about 3 minutes he'd turned the lot out into the pineapple shell. Talk about making it look easy!

We then learnt how to make batter for rice paper rolls - it's pretty easy - just soak rice for about 7 hours, mix in some water, and throw it all in the blender. It looks just like pancake mix. To cook rice paper rolls, the chef used a large pot of boiling water with a white cotton gauze secured tightly over it. He ladled a spoonful of the batter onto the cotton, spread it round with the spoon, then closed the lid to steM it for about a minute. He then used a sliver of bamboo to lift the rice paper from the cotton and flip it onto the plate. From the, you could fill with pretty much anything you like - he used a seafood mixture, with bean sprouts and lots of mint. So quick! So delicious!

Trying to photograph the demonstration was fairly tricky - it was low light conditions and the chef moved very quickly. Even at f/2.8 and ISO 2000 on the 5D, it was hard to get sharp shots. Oh was after all, all about the food. We then made our own pancake, using a nifty little frying pan that would have been no more than 12cm in diameter. We used dried rice paper rolls to make another form of cold roll, again adding greens and sprouts. The final dish was an eggplant hotpot, and once we'd tried our hand at cutting up the ingredients according to chef Tun's instructions and getting it on the boil for 7 minutes, we saw how to carve cucumber and tomato create edible plate decorations. My attempts at carving cucumber were not at all successful, but Michael did a pretty good job. Here's what the cucumber was meant to look like...

We then collected our bags and simmering hot pots, and headed up to the restaurant to consume it. They brought out more of the seafood salad from earlier in the demonstration, and with a few drinks, we concluded a very tasty evening. It was a great class, and yet another fascinating view of how the Vietnamese people shop, prepare and cook food. Just wondering how to smuggle the chef back to Australia with me.... Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Motoring through Chau Doc

Cruising down the Mekong River for five hours from Phnom Penh (Cambodia) into Chau Doc (Vietnam) was a peaceful change from the bumpy, frenetic roadways.

Fishing is such an integral part of life for the communities that lined the banks of the river. We saw hundreds of aerosol cans in rows that signalled where their fishing nets were, and low boats pulling in the morning's haul.

As soon as we docked at the bustling port town of Chau Doc, there was a distinct difference between Cambodia and Vietnam. It felt like it was about 5C hotter and way more humid than Phnom Penh. The people seemed different too - it was hard to put a finger on exactly how they seemed different, but it definitely felt like we were in another place with a distinct culture.

I tried beef pho for my first Vietnamese lunch, and despite the heat outside, the soup was pretty tasty.

We pottered around the local markets for a bit - the food was also slightly different from Cambodia - lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, but different varieties of dried and smoked meat hung from string. I always wonder about the hygiene in food markets like this, but I guess the people in these towns have been eating this sort of food from these sorts of markets for years, if not centuries.

Next on the agenda was an optional scooter tour of the town and the surrounding villages. I'm not a huge fan of motorised bikes - scooters, vespas and motorbikes always seem like mobile death traps to me, but they're the primary form of transport in Cambodia and Vietnam. So when in Rome...

My driver was an older guy, which suited me. They dished out helmets and off we went, through the crowded streets and out past farms and rural areas.

We passed a goose farm, where a farmer was herding hundreds of birds into pens. We later learnt that goose eggs with baby geese fetuses are a delicacy here in Vietnam. Er, pass on that thanks.

My Canon 24-70mm lens was the lens of choice for this ride. It has been my choice of lens for most of the trip actually.

We started to climb up the only hill in the area, and my driver motioned for me to hold on to him around his waist. He didn't need to tell me twice...

The road wove up the mountain until we reached the peak. Despite the haze, we could see out over the rice padis and back to the river we'd journeyed down. It was going to be a great place to watch our first sunset in Vietnam.

We grabbed some beers and a plate of local nibblies - lotus seeds and wild cherries, and watched the sun turn gold, then red, as it sunk behind a mountain into the horizon.

Driving down the hill was a bit hairy - the pot holes seemed larger and there were bugs everywhere. It was hard trying not to snort mozzies...

We stopped at another large temple complex on the way back to town. The statues of kings looked great under moonlight. Hello high ISO and f/2.8!

We ended our evening in Chau Doc with dinner on one of the floating restaurants. The mozzies were rampant, and about as noisy as the bunch of drunk Chinese blokes at the table behind us. Still the food was ok, and would get better as we journeyed further into Vietnam.

Next stop...Ho Chi Minh City!

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S-21 the Cheuong Ek Killing Fields - a glimpse into Cambodia's dark history

As a kid, I remember hearing about the Khmer Rouge on the news, but I was too young to understand or care or what was going on at the time in Cambodia.

Visiting any country gives you the opportunity to learn more about it's people, culture and history, and a visit to the former security office 21 (or S-21) and Cheuong Killing fields in Phnom Penh, certainly gives a chilling, tragic insight into Cambodia's darkest days.

S-21, or what is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, is located in a suburban looking street in Phnom Penh, and was opened on August 19, 1979, when the Kampuchea People's Tribunal began the prosecution of "Democratic Kampuchea leaders" Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and Khiev Samphorn - amongst others. The museum, a former school block, shows the cell blocks and torture rooms, where some 20,000 victims were killed between 1975 and 1978. This figure does not include children killed by the Khmer Rouge.

Imprisonment in the appalling conditions at S-21 lasted between two and four months for typical inmates such as Cambodian academics, doctors and teachers. Political prisoners were held captive for six to seven months before being killed.

The compound is surrounded by two rows of fencing, topped with dense barbed wire. Barbed wire was also laced across the balconies of the three floor, to stop inmates from jumping to their death. The cells were sparse, some having just a bed, while others had no bed at all. Some had an iron bucket or plastic water container, which was used as a portable bathroom, and the prisoners were fed tiny amounts of watery porridge each day.

It's hard to imagine how people lived each day in this hell hole. Our guide explained how a wooden pole in the yard, one used for physical education for students, was turned into an interrogation and torture machine. The interrogator tied both hands of the prisoner behind their back and lifted them upside down. This was repeated a number of times until the prison lost consciousness, then the interrogator would dunk the prisoner's head into a barrel of filthy water. This shocked the victim back into consciousness, and the interrogation continued.

Each victim was photographed and numbered as they entered the facility, which allowed for easy identification if anyone tried to escape. These photos now line the wall, as a tragic, permanent memorial for the victims of S-21.

Walking around S-21 is a confronting experience. You just feel so desperately sorry for everyone who passed through its gates believing that the Khmer Rouge were "taking care" of their houses for a "a few days".

With these grisley images in our minds, we headed out to the killing fields, where some 89 mass graves were found. As equally morbid as S-21, the walk around the Cheuong Ek Killing Fields, was near silent, and very reflective. Signs told us pretty much all we needed to know - the large huts were mass graves, where 450 bodies had been found, while the smaller indentations in the ground were smaller mass graves...

Recent flooding in Cambodia, and particularly out in this area, has resulted in bones and clothing of the victims buried here, rising to the surface. It was eerie to know that we were inadvertently walking over all of this...

A short video presentation provided more details about the atrocities committed by Pol Pot's regime. It's just truly difficult to imagine how - or why - a government would do that to its people.

As we drove back into town for lunch, I reflected on how lucky I am to live freely in Australia, and how resilient the Cambodian people are for pushing on, and re-building their country. It was an eye-opening morning, which I think left us all feeling pretty sombre and sad about what had gone on here in the 70's, but definitely worth a visit. - Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

What the hell are cyclos? Roaming around Phnom Penh...

We arrived in Cambodia's capital (last week) after a long drive from Siem Reap. Cambodia's roads are pretty basic, but it doesn't stop trucks and buses from hurtling by.

I loved the buzz of Phnom Penh as soon as we arrived, and we set off on a cyclo tour of the city.

Cyclo's kinda feel like wheelchairs attached to pushbikes. Strong, wiry little blokes pedal you around, weaving in and out of the traffic. It's actually a pretty pleasant way to get around - and for the equivalent of USD$2 for a couple of hours, it's cheap, and environmentally friendly.

My driver pointed out some of the local sights - the town hall, opera house and various parks, and we made a couple of stops where our tour leader gave a bit more of Cambodia's history.

We headed down to the riverfront, which was absolutely heaving with tourists and locals, and had a great group dinner overlooking the water. Phnom Penh was a vibrant little city - and is somewhere I'd like to spend more much time exploring!

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An afternoon on Tonle Sap, Asia's biggest lake

One of the optional excursions during our free afternoon in Siem Reap, was a boat trip out on Tonle Sap lake.

According to the guide book, "Tonle Sap represents one of Earth's most interesting natural phenomenon...each year, during Cambodia's rainy season, the swelling Mekong river actually back flows into the "Great Lake" via the Tonle Sap river. During the dry season, the lake's surface area is 2,600 sq. kilometres, but expands to a sea-like 12,000 sq. kilometres.

The drive out to the port was eye-opening in itself, in that we passed through villages which had been severely affected by recent floods in Cambodia.

The road was being re-built after being hammered by floodwaters, and large piles of gravel and construction vehicles lined both sides. Rural Cambodia is pretty dusty at the best of times, but with all the roadworks in progress, everything was covered in a thick film of red dust.

Being stuck in gridlocked traffic on what was effectively a single lane road, gave us a chance to peer into people's homes and see how they lived. Old TV's powered apparently by rechargeable batteries seemed to dominate homes, as did hammocks for beds. Houses are typically small wooden structures on stilts, and washing is strung across whatever poles are available. At least it wouldn't take long to dry in this heat.

We drove past a wedding, where we could see guests dressed in bright silks, mainly orange, peach and gold colored. Two large framed studio portraits of the couple stood on easels outside the building. It's tradition here, like other Asian countries, to have studio portraits done in wedding and traditional costumes before the wedding. It probably pays really well to be a wedding photographer in Cambodia.

Arriving at the port, which is now being developed by the Koreans, our bus driver found us a boat for the afternoon. We had to giggle - it was sort of a covered long boat, with wooden chairs strapped into position. Each chair had a life jacket strapped to it, which formed a backrest, and a cushion for a seat.

We headed out into the canal. Because of the recent floods, litter was strewn high into the mangroves, in some cases, two meters above the waterline. I can only imagine how many of the rickety little houses had been completely swamped...

Long boats zoomed up and down the broadening river, ferrying locals back to the mainland, and tourists out to the Great Lake.

Houseboats started to appear, and we could see straight into them. Small children ran around riverfront balconies, dogs and cats lazed in the shade, and life went about as usual, except it was all on water.

Our guide had warned that boats carrying small kids would pull up beside us and they would either try to sell us something or pay to take a photo of them and their pet pythons.

Sure enough, the very next boat we passed had a couple of young boys and their father, and the little one pulled out a young python. God I hate snakes, and was now within a foot of one in a situation where I couldn't get away. It was bad enough knowing that these waters had once been infested by alligators, but live pythons at close range were a tad confronting. The boys were just after a couple of bucks, which we happily paid to get them further away from the boat.

The lake was massive! As we ventured out into what felt like open water, we saw a floating monastery, telecoms tower and absolutely no sign of land on the other side of the lake. Apparently it's about a 5-6 hour speedboat ride from where we were to the capital, Phnom Penh.

We turned around and headed back inland for a look at the other side of the floating village. There were floating bars, kindergartens and shops, and our boat pulled into one large barge which had a bit of an observation deck.

Getting on and off these boats is not the easiest thing in the world, because you usually have to clamber over the bows of three or four boats which are also moored and bobbing up and down from the wash of passing boats.

We made it "ashore", and I happened to see something out of the corner or my eye move in the water. I was actually looking into a submerged wooden cage which contained about eight alligators. While the were not huge, they were very much live and looking upwards to see if they could catch their next meal ie, us...

The crocodiles bothered me because small children floated around the barge in small boats, and in a few cases, tubs that I'm sure were washing baskets. They were clearly used to living around water, but I don't think it would have taken much for the alligators to bust out of their enclosure and into a feeding frenzy!

Questions about where are the loos and how do you cook with open flame stoves or fires on wooden boats went through my mind. How and when do they teach kids to swim? Where does all the garbage go? However they did it, these mainly Vietnamese communities had adapted to life afloat Tonle Sap. It made me think about the creature comforts I take for granted every day back home.

As the sun descended, and we motored back to the port, the whiff of fires and yummy foods filled the air.

We stopped at a bar on the drive home, and watched the sun set through clouds over rice padi's, while swaying gently in hammocks.

I'm so glad we chose to do this optional mini tour. It was certainly a fascinating glimpse of rural and river life in Cambodia.

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