Category Archives: Wildflower Safari 2014

Jen & Geoff’s 3 month caravan trip to Western Australia

Final reflections on my 2nd Vietnam adventure.

Of the 96 million plus population, few VN’ese people can avoid working long hours each day (many 7 days per week) to earn an adequate income. Even if having secure employment, many need to supplement their wage or pension in some way. My tourist guides all worked freelance, with the best one saying he on average earns income from his profession only 15 days per month. Several of them are engaged to sweethearts, but will be saving up ten years or so to afford marriage, and further to secure a modest apartment home.

Tipping is not customary in VN, but in the tourist industry it’s now normal (even expected) to tip your guides and drivers. The benchmark being US$1 per day for drivers, US$2 per day for guides (preferred as local currency equivalent). That’s a very modest token of thanks from us, but much appreciated by them. Best transacted with modesty on your final parting, contained privately in individual envelopes.

There are wealthy VN’ese families, and even a super rich elite. I saw a Rolls Royce dealership based near Ha Long City. Saigon and Hanoi have a couple of shopping centres (mini-Chaddy’s) housing mostly the regular exclusive international brand names, catering to wealthy, smartly dressed locals, as well as tourists. There are many successful business owners of all magnitudes, and literally multiple millions of micro ‘shopfront’ and pavement family businesses. Across a month, I saw only one street beggar, but quite a few men in the cities offering to clean people’s shoes.

Then of course there’s people in official positions of power who are able to extract corrupt payment. Corruption is openly acknowledged and accepted as normal. Im told by guides that Triads run protection rackets around the major port serving Hanoi -Haiphong – unofficially tolerated by the party and police.

So many people spend time in the street like this young man (below) trying to turn a buck offering a refreshing coconut juice, plying his business patiently beside the gutter. His is a very competitive market! Also below, a floating fishing village lady hawking trinkets and shells to cruise passengers anchored at Ha Long Bay. Raw private enterprise cocooned within a socialist system.

It’s rather mind-boggling actually to see so much business and essential daily sustenance take place on crowded city and suburban pavements, right beside highways, on any roadside, village pathway, or just open ground.

Having spent virtually a month travelling in what I believe is a football (soccer) loving nation, I didn’t see any adults or children actually kicking a football around – only ever saw a few people watching footy matches broadcast on TV. On only 3 occasions did I witness sport of any kind being played – badminton twice in Hanoi – once in a crowded street outside a hotel, the other on a paved park space. The third activity was marbles played with much enthusiasm by two preschool aged boys, near Sapa. I saw a few Europeans out jogging and cycling (suitably Lycra clad). And just a few older locals in various cities undergoing stretching routines, but not actually performing yoga or Tai Chi.

I’m so glad my visit essentially sat in the tourism ‘off season’, because in hot spots like Saigon, Ha Long and Hoi An, the peak pedestrian traffic and congestion must then be so frustrating, so challenging. With large numbers of North Americans and Europeans travelling to escape their Northern winter, Hanoi and Sapa are then less popular destinations than cities further South. Being so far North and adjacent to continental China, they too experience very cold winters. Even during my ‘off season’ travels, the mix of tourist nationalities blending with the dominant Viets and the minority groups presents a fascinating blend of humanity.

Interestingly, my Sapa guide informed me that contrary to the info provided at the Hanoi Ethnology Museum – and in all the tour guidebooks – there are actually 56 minority groups in VN – with the following two being defined several years ago in the far North of VN : ‘LoLo Pa Them’ and ‘ Choko’.

One night in Sapa, I enjoyed a minority’s dance and musical performance at my resort – pics below.

A highlight of my trip was in the first 11 days in VN, then accompanied by three comrades from my 1969/70 infantry tour of duty (in what was then South VN), we conducted a remembrance service for 9 of our ‘Killed In Action’ very near the location where they died. We also visited the Long Tan memorial cross replica in situ on that battlefield. The original cross now resides in Canberra at the AWM.

Another highlight was to twice rendezvous (in Saigon, then Hanoi) with my elder brother Rod and sister-in-law Donna sharing a dinner, experiencing a VN’ese opera performance (at the Saigon opera house), and swapping travelers tales. Between our times together, they sailed up the Mekong and enjoyed Cambodia.

Have I enjoyed what is most likely my international travel swan song? Yes indeed.

Would I recommend that friends discover VN for themselves? Certainly, if you are a fit, healthy specimen, have good walking shoes, an inquisitive yet patient countenance.

My only advice being to supplement your usual medications with a supply of ‘Gastro Stop’ capsules, or similar diarrhea treatment. Plus take with you plenty of ‘Sudafed’ tablets or similar suppressant of flu symptoms – even if you’re up-to-date with the latest Aussie anti-flu vaccine, like me. I was unfortunately caught short with too few of these legal drugs. Local alternatives can be purchased over the counter at many pharmacies – but not all. Including antibiotics without prescription in the bigger cities, if necessary.

This is my final blog installment, effectively terminating Jenny’s “ravensflight” travel blog website. If you’ve hung in to read this far, thank you for your interest in my observations and this selection from amongst hundreds of photographs taken across my latest adventures in VN.

Farewell. Geoff

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Bac Ha, then back to Hanoi

Wow. Being in Sapa and visiting several nearby provincial villages was a very special time. On my last day in the province, as well as trekking in to the ‘Love Waterfall’ in a beautiful National Park near Sapa, we drove beside the Chinese border, then inland 15 km to visit the renowned ‘Bac Ha’ Sunday market where 10 minorities are present, but especially the ‘Colourful H’mong’. This was actually my second return to Hanoi – first was after cruising at Ha Long Bay. I’ve got to say (overcoming my initial political antipathy, being the home town to Uncle Ho!) I’ve grown to like Hanoi more than Saigon, perhaps in part due to my greater familiarity. As you enter the city from the airport, there’s a large banner declaring “Hanoi is the City of Peace”. Clearly it’s Old and French Quarters have a very rich history and distinct charm – whereas apart from ”Cho Lon’ (the Chinese district) much of Saigon’s heritage has been sacrificed to modernity. And Saigon is a much bigger city, and seems so frenetic.

And shock, horror! I have to admit that while I didn’t pay my respects to HCM at his mausoleum, I sense a great admiration for the ‘old revolutionary’ and his devotion to his country and its independence – fighting off not just the French, the Japs, the Yanks & their lackeys, but also the Khmer Rouge and the Chinese invaders.

Sapa : Mountains, Minorities, Mist & Mud

A visit to Sapa, about 4 hours motorway drive North-West of Hanoi, sitting at high altitude at the Eastern extremity of the Himalayas and close to the border with China, is absolutely right up there on the VN tourist “must do” list. Equivalent to visiting Ha Long Bay, but probably the more fascinating experience because of the 8 ethnic minority groups living a traditional lifestyle in surrounding villages, plying their distinctive clothing and handcrafts in Sapa streets and village markets.

This region was occupied by the Chinese during the 1976 war (at least 300,000 fatalities on both sides) so while the locals are extremely welcoming of tourists – with overseas tourism now being a main plank in the local economy – they are reputably not so hospitable to Chinese visitors. Sapa is also a major destination for VN’ese tourists from the cities, especially at weekends.

I’m so glad I didn’t take the overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa (thanks for the advice Anna) having chatted with some UK visitors with return tickets, who were not at all happy to learn there’s a better way to make this trip. Limousine coach services are so much quicker, more comfortable and relatively cheap – with door to door pick-up/delivery.

I was fortunate to have 3 nights scheduled here as for the first day and a half the town was shrouded in mist and cloud. While not actually raining, the very rough roads and pathways were consequently very slippery, being coated with a layer of wet orange coloured mud. The cloud layer cleared when one travelled down into the valleys to visit villages. When the cloud did clear from shrouding Sapa, it revealed spectacular mountain scenery, and then walking about the hilly town became less challenging as surfaces dried.

Many of the surrounding mountain hillsides are contoured with rice paddies, but at this time of year going into their Winter season, they are bare after harvest. The photo below is of hillsides planted with green tea, and the emerging blossom trees are peach – unlike in the Southern Hemisphere, here they flower and produce in Winter.

My guide in Sapa was the only one during my travels in VN who shared meals seated with me in restaurants, so of course we were able to develop a much more intimate understanding of our life experiences and respective families. Interestingly he was also the only guide or driver to actually buckle-up his seatbelt when travelling – including all of the other limo and taxi drivers in my experience. He isn’t religious, so firmly believes we only live once, thus is not prepared to risk adding to VN’s quite high road fatality toll. He, his wife and children also wear Western style motor bike helmets, as opposed to the flimsy helmets worn by most riders – if at all.

It’s a tough call selecting photos to include in this post. Here is a selection of ethnic group people – it’s the females and children who are the most colourfully attired. Some of the minority groups being : ‘Red Dzao’ – ‘Black Dzao’ – ‘H’Mong’ – ‘Zay’.

Afloat at Ha Long Bay, World Heritage Site

Driving from Hanoi to Ha Long city, to then board a cruise boat for Halong Bay takes about 3 hours. Twenty tour cruise boats then sailed taking 45 minutes to reach the World Heritage Area which, being extensive (about 2,000 islands and limestone peaks) easily absorbed all these boats. In high season this excursion is so popular the number of boats apparently jumps up to 40 boats per day, with a mix of trip options : day trippers / over-nighters / or two nights afloat, which was my choice. Included in my itinerary was a day kayaking and swimming at a beautiful, secluded sandy beach.

This tourist attraction really does measure up to the professional publicity photos and rapturous brochure descriptions – I’m disappointed that my photos just don’t fully capture this very special place.

On the Hanoi-HaLong tollways – many with 6 lanes of traffic travelling at 120 km/hr – thankfully the ubiquitous, low-powered motor bikes are excluded. Like here, it seems most of VN’s major roads are now lined with eucalyptus trees. And its common to see large plantations, even weed-like infestations of ‘our’ distinctive gums across areas of the countryside.

Since back in the mid-60’s various quick growing species derived from Northern Australia have been introduced, originally to revegitate land degraded over many centuries. And of course to rehabilitate areas more recently denuded by American spraying of herbicide to destroy enemy crops and forest cover during the re-unification war. Export of eucalyptus wood chips to Japanese and Korean paper mills is now big business. And eucalyptus oil distilled from gum tree foliage is probably more popular than in Australia – often made by small scale local operations.

Shrubs planted in median strips, and running alongside major highways (especially in the South) are sculpted into attractive, repetitive pattern shapes. These manicured gardens typically run for many kilometres in a stretch, obviously providing employment to maintain them. And I’ve seen work teams manually sweeping up litter from the side of these highways as high speed traffic wizzes past, just a metre or so from the workers. OH&S is not a priority in VN with high risk taking also very evident on building sites. The following pic being a rather minor example of that.

Hanoi – more formal than Saigon, retaining its old French quarter

With approximately 8 million people living here, against Saigon’s 12 million, its not the relative scale but apparently the different personality of the people that gives Hanoi a unique feel. This shows in the more formal presentation and language, the less easy friendliness of my guides than experienced in the Sth. And fewer smiles on the face of people in the street, but the smiles are big and genuine when given. I’m told the distinctly different cold winter climate plays a part in this, and also ethnic differences. Certainly Saigon’s architecture and cityscape is more modern, with many more high rise commercial and residential buildings than Hanoi. While the Southerners complain about the imbalance of national development resources being invested heavily in the North (where political power resides), Saigon’s old French quarter is being progressively replaced by modernity.

The dominant Viet people make up 86% of VN’s population, with the balance spread across 53 different ethnic minority’s. Hanoi has an excellent Museum of Ethnology elaborating these differing heritages and cultural practices. Somewhat by chance my guide took me here when I declined the offer of queueing for at least 2 hours to pay my respects to Ho Chí Minh in his mausoleum. He was very impressed to learn that Jenny and I had seen the embalmed body of Lenin in Moscow in 1977. With that I think I trumped him – for while Uncle Ho is revered all over VN, foreigner Lenin is seen here as the all time Communist super star.

When I was driven into town after an evening arrival at the airport, there were many women selling flowers from motor cycles, push bikes and carry baskets. This was because ‘Teachers Day’ was imminent, where current and past students present gifts (at least a bunch of flowers) to teachers who have been significant in their education. My 23 year old guide goes out of his way each year travelling to give a gift to a teacher he says rescued him from a misguided path as a poor student.

Interesting to see Christmas decorations in some hotels and restaurants – I’ve even spotted a larger than life, plastic blowup Santa. As in all VN cities, most shops in any old quarter street specialise in one type of product or other – be it hardware, repairing motor bike seats, leather goods, etc. In one very colourful street, it’s Xmas decorations – presumably mainly catering to the Christian community.

There seem to be many more push bikes being routinely used in Hanoi than I’ve seen in other VN cities. And more ‘cyclo’ pedal bike taxis – catering not just to tourists but locals too. Where as size definitely rules in the law of the traffic jungle, it’s clear the traditional cyclos are respected, and so given right of way even by buses and trucks – this I experienced first hand as a cyclo passenger. As per normal, the margin of vehicle/pedestrian or vehicle/vehicle passing clearance is often just a couple of centimetres – seriously!

I’ve only seen old men reading newspapers. Everyone else has an iPhone or Android, if not conversing then seemingly constantly online – school kids, even many elderly people as they squat on the pavement – people as they drive their various vehicles one handed – police on guard duty at government buildings and soldiers at military bases. With 93 million people in the country the mind boggles imagining how many mobiles are out there. Generally, the internet network coverage and speed is excellent. And unlike in Australia – it’s free in all hotels, restaurants, shops, tourist transit vehicles – everywhere.

Passing the Australian Embassy, the outer wall displays posters of ‘Australiana’, including several still featuring our most recently deposed Prime Minister shown together with his local counterpart. ‘Scomo’ hasn’t made an impression up here yet.

One night I imagined people must be celebrating a religious feast day or significant political anniversary, as for several hours there were very excited and vocal people on motor bikes roaming the street in convoy, constantly tooting horns, all waving VN flags. Turns out that VN had just defeated Malaysia in a football match. I’m told they patriotically perform this way even when the national team loose a match! Our own excessively nationalistic Aussie Tennis Open ‘Fanatics’ are by comparison a non-event.

Thought I’d won a jackpot when I found a 2,000 denomination money note in the street today, till I realised its worth less than 10 cents Australian. No one else could be bothered picking it up.

Hue – A Royal City on the beautiful Perfume River

Capital city of VN for almost 150 years from 1802 until the last Nguyen dynasty emperor abdicated to the Communists in 1945, Hue, with lots of beautifully treed streets and parks has a very different, softer, more relaxed feel to the more bustling other major cities. But even with a modest population of about 400,000, at peak times of day the density of motor bike traffic in the city streets becomes frenetic, like everywhere else.

Unlike Hanoi and Saigon, I think I’ve been drawn to visiting Hue ever since it was a focal point of TV and press reportage during the 1968 VC/NVA “Tet Offensive”. The heavily fortified Royal Citadel was occupied for 3 1/2 weeks, by three thousand communists ordered to fight to the death. With assistance of double agents inside the Citadel, the substantial fortress walls were breached by tunnels. In Hue city, over 2 1/2 thousand local officials, merchants, government workers, priests, and intellectuals were assassinated – “being lackeys owing blood debts”. All-up until the Citadel was retaken after being heavily bombed into submission by the US – over 10,000 people were dead – mostly being civilian casualties. The publicity given to the events at Hue and the breaching of the US Embassy in Saigon proved to be the turning point for US public opinion about this war, with active resistance against the war then beginning to escalate.

None of the atrociousness at Hue is evident today. The massive citadel wall structure (including moat) has been much restored, with work continuing. The scale of the various rebuilt enclosures, Royal pavilions and residences is awe inspiring.

Elsewhere close to Hue are impressive pagodas housing tombs of various Nguyen Emperors – some regarded favourably – others less so due to their subservience to the French colonialists.

My 23 year old guide in Hue is betrothed, and saving to afford a modest wedding. Somewhat amusingly, he refers in conversation to his ‘wife’ (not fiancé). He has an excellent command of English – with a clipped accent. Both he and his ‘wife’s’ families are from Hue, and both of them now flat independently in Danang. While seeing each other almost daily, he being a strict Buddhist – she apparently less so (something that concerns him) abstinence prevails in their relationship. Her family were at first very unhappy at the prospect of this match, as his deceased grandfather had very bad standing in the community, being a habitual gambler. He escaped his creditors only by running away to join the NVA. His father was arrested at a Buddhist anti-government protest and severely beaten-up in prison. Consequently he joined the VC and was lucky to survive having been badly wounded. His life was saved by surgery performed in China.

My guide is a very serious young man, claiming no vices, believing in reincarnation. He considers in his immediate past life that he was a mature, and wise old man – explaining the discipline he is able to exert in his life today – and the fact that he has few friends amongst his contemporaries.

His mother ‘got religion’ at age 70 and now visits a pagoda 3 times a week. Both his sisters pray at a prestigious Buddha temple each weekend. They burn incense above plastic water bottles as they offer prayers for health & happiness, then drink the enhanced water when the incense is gone. None of the family make a major decision without first consulting their ‘Fortune Teller’.

As everywhere in VN, the food is good quality, except that today I had a stir-fry dish with the meat described as ‘Aussie Beef” – unfortunately it was quite tough. I also saw “Aussie cherries” advertised at a street stall, but didn’t sample them or check the price.

Return to what once was Phouc Tuy Province

Vung Tau is a major port near the mouth of the Mekong River. During the American war it was the main logistics support base for regional American forces and the Australian Infantry’s Task Force base at Nui Dat, located in the centre of what was then Phuc Tuy Province. Now VT is a hub for a thriving offshore oil industry, largely operated by the Russians. The lights of many ships can be seen from shore at night.

VT is a pleasant, almost sleepy seaside resort city thru the week, then experiences a massive influx of Saigoner’s each weekend as they seek temporary relief from their fast paced, big city life. While I never visited Saigon in 1969-70, on 2 occasions I had weekend “R&C” (Rest & Convalescence) visits on leave here. Ironically, the VC used the city for the same purposes back then, but obviously they kept a very low profile. The city has grown enormously & is unrecognisable from those days, with many new tourist resorts and appartments up or under construction. Our hotel was genuine 5 star – far beyond the level of accommodation existing back in the war years. It is built on what was then the beachside site of the Australian R&C accommodation.

Virtually no evidence of the Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat – or its associated ‘Horseshoe’ fire support base – remains today, apart from occasional concrete footings. I wasn’t surprised that we could only speculate just where our unit lines on the base perimeter might have been, as over the intervening years, there’d have been at least 6 rubber tree plantations (replaced every 7 yrs) grown and then replanted again, there.

What had been the bases sealed airstrip now serves as the main thoroughfare of a very small village of Nui Dat, and quarrying is eating away at the actual “Nui Dat” hill where the Special Air Service were based. Meanwhile, the minor nearby villages of Hoa Long and Baria (now the province capital city) have both prospered and grown exponentially, with just a couple of Baria town reference points from my first visit remaining in tact.

Several days later in Hoi An, I met a SVN Regional Force veteran demonstratingaccomplished Aussie English, who back in the 1970’s worked for the Australians in Baria. He was later wounded by a VC bomb – showed me his leg scar. He was very keen to have some Aussie dollars – specified not coin. He seemed excessively pleased that I took his photo (included in Hoi An Post) – we shook hands – and I obliged his quest for Aussie dollars.

First photo below : “Once were warriors” – 4 of our tour group vets served with 8RAR. SAS hill in background. Pic taken from what was “Kangaroo Pad” for choppers.

Pic below : plan of underground Long Phouc tunnels

We visited and entered the VC tunnel system at Long Phuc (refer pic of plan, above) which was rather breathtaking to me & my fellow vets, as it’s located just 2 km from the Aust Nui Dat base perimeter. It can be certain that Australian infantry (including maybe even myself) would have patrolled unawares, directly over this installation. My RF friend from Hoi An claims that the Baria RF knew about the VC use of these tunnels, saying they had no incentive to expose them to the Aussies. Astonishing if true. Unlike at Cu Chí where tunnels were first dug to fight the French, here they started tunnelling in the 1960’s when the Americans invaded.

Several photos of our wreath laying visit to the Long Tan cross – one of just three foreign war memorials permitted in VN. Also one by the French at Dien Bien Phu. The other not accessible as it’s within the walls of what was the American Embassy in Saigon.

From VT we also visited the Long Hai hills “Minh Dam” secret zone, where as a result of “Operation Hammersley” on February 28th, 1970, 8 RAR were awarded a SVN Presidential unit citation. During that operation 1 Platoon, A Company lost 7 Killed In Action / 1 Died Of Wounds / plus 1 supporting arms KIA on what was reported in the Melbourne press as “Black Saturday”. The three 1 Platoon members in our touring party held a remembrance service aside a jungle track, laid flowers and lit incense to our fallen comrades. For the definitive story of this action, I refer you to “Combat Battalion” by Robert Hall, Allen & Unwin, 2000. Much of the Long Hais area is still restricted entry due to the danger posed by still live land mines.