Category Archives: Wildflower Safari 2014

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

Two day trips from HCM city

Respectfully touring Saigon’s War Remnants Museum – with it’s photo galleries of war victims – records of American atrocities committed – agent orange’ victim images – then viewing the adjacent French (later SVN govt) ‘Tiger Cage’ torture prison (complete with guillotine) was salutary context for a visit next day to the VC/NVA tunnel systems at Cu Chi. As ever was so, the victors of war write the history and sanitise their own record. There’s no dispute that what’s displayed at the War Remnants Museum is factual, but the explanatory text expressed is often unsubtle propaganda – understandably being totally slanted from the Communist perspective. Interestingly, a couple of our more mature age guides who lived thru the war era have ‘unofficially’ noted brutality and massacre by VC/NVA against their opponents – both military & civilian.

When observing the tour itinerary, I hadn’t initially been interested in visiting Cu Chí, but I am very glad we did. Quite fascinating to witness the tunnel infrastructure and ponder the amazing discipline of the VC living underground, and how extensive and significant this was, yet never fully detected by the Yanks and their puppets. Interesting to learn that when 1 RAR were attached to the Yanks in this area early in the war, with their tracker dogs, they were the first to discover and destroy tunnels. Maybe the Aussies should have been kept here, rather than moved to Phouc Tuy.

The heavily treed, lush, light jungle around Cu Chí was reminiscent of some of the countryside we operated in – especially around bunker systems that we encountered and cleared. But a few days later in the Long Hai hills it was a surprise that landscape that had been largely open and dominated by boulders (even arid) in 1970 was now also jungle-like. The effects of large scale defoliant spraying from the air having diminished. Hearing the sound of ‘very real’ live fire from military weapons at the Cu Chí shooting range was quite surreal – literally ‘a blast from the past’ – with cowboy tourists burning their US$’s for the thrill. The loud noise a bit of a shock for non-vets in our party. Probably the only instance of Occ Health & Safety being enforced that I’ve witnessed over here, was the westerner cowboys being required to wear hearing protection!

Pics below selected from the delta trip – including elephant ears fish with lunch.

Our day trip from Saigon into the delta was very interesting – everything so green and lush. So it’s a bit ironic that VN is actually experiencing an unusually dry November, which is great for sightseeing, but some locals are quite concerned. Indeed it’s not uncommon for major flooding to be an issue normally in the delta at this time of year, like in 2017! Photo of Sth VN army veteran above with wooden leg – due to a mine explosion. Unlike most other ‘government wounded’ who were assassinated on returning to their village, perhaps he was spared for no longer being a threat to the VC. I took pleasure in exchanging big smiles, and a hand shake. He spends his days making sleeping mats.

Discovering HCM city / Saigon

Flights into Saigon (via Singapore) were pleasantly uneventful – apart from being served a Chilean Sav Blanc with distinctive unplalatable Chardonnay flavour. Then the Asian holiday fun started – endeavouring to buy an entry visa at the airport for US$25. I’d advise anyone contemplating this course, it’d be much smarter to pay a bit more and get it processed at the VN embassy in advance of your flight.

Having deplaned, it took all of 1 1/2 hours to exit the terminal. All government officials in VN are Communist Party members, with the entry visa operatives I imagine being fairly low level bureaucrats, with no interest in providing an efficient welcome for excited tourists. An unfortunate initial impression of the country. A team of 8 people stood around behind their safety glass barrier that had multiple customer counters, with just one officer accepting the completed entry forms. These were then passed to another desk where visas were glued in passports. The process concluded at another counter where an officer would occasionally call visitors forward to make the cash payment. Not a smile to be found anywhere. Much frustration and disbelief expressed by Western tourists. At one point, when all the staff disappeared, not to be replaced for twenty minutes, the penny finally dropped that we were witnessing an uncoordinated shift change. Processing then resumed at a snails pace.

This experience was totally at odds with subsequent very happy, very cooperative  interactions with people in Saigon streets – in shops – hotels and restaurants – markets – even when language hasn’t been shared. Interesting to note that English is now being taught in primary schools with children attending for half a day / 6 days a week, only because the population growth has far outpaced the availability of school resources. To achieve a living wage, I’m reliably informed that teachers need to take in extra curricular tuition – with kids from low income families obviously being thus disadvantaged.

Locals commonly use the city name ‘Saigon’ rather than ‘Ho Chí Minh City’. But posters and billboards of Uncle Ho, and the VN flag twinned with the now defunct Soviet Union’ ‘hammer & sickle’ flag are in abundance. People at all levels seem happy with their lot as they go about daily life, accepting the Communist Party directs all policy and administration. Many people have told me they’ve moved-on from the internal divisions & horrors of the recent past that reached into almost every family.  They see just one untrusted foreign threat : China. There is no apparent animosity to Americans, but it is widely expressed towards the growing influence of Chinese business & tourism. The Chinese & related Khmer Rouge invasions post-1975 – known as “the friends wars” – are not forgiven. Our travel guides freely admit that corruption exists in politics & business.

It’s not uncommon when chatting to someone in a shop or restaurant – or even pavement  traders – to find they have a relative or two in Australia who they may have visited, and that they are aware of various Australian city names.

Our group was fortunate on our first day in country to spend the day with a local expert historian who gave an excellent insight to the deep & complex history, geo-politics, and heritage of VN – including a central Saigon walking tour. He is an advisor to the government and relates that sadly the driving political force underpinning Saigon’s rapid development is a desire to replicate Singapore city – create a new “pearl of Asia”. Architecturally & historically significant districts been lost, with the program rolling on. The main Chinese quarter – Cholon – is still in tact, much of it as it has been for centuries.

VN’s population is approximately 96 million and the economy is expanding rapidly, with it seems like thousands of apartment blocks mushrooming. And yet the majority of people & families – including the professionally employed – eat most of their meals seated in the street, on a pavement, or at very basic ‘fast food’ stalls. The new appartments don’t have western style kitchens.

Five metro train lines are either planned or under construction in Saigon. By far the major mode of transport is by low-powered Honda motorcycle – many millions of them seemingly always on the go. Astonishingly, many of these carrying not just the driver but up to 3 adults. I’ve even seen a family of 2 adults with 2 children, plus pet dog. Traffic flow on the laneways – streets – highways – and even footpaths can best be summarised as organised chaos that needs to be seen to be believed. Crossing a road, even at a traffic light controlled intersection can be an act of faith and desperation. There are very few conventional bicycles in use. Except for regional coach travel, there appear to be relatively few commuter bus services.

 

Doha – last day

Postscript:  Museum and souq didn’t open at all yesterday and remain closed until after the end of fasting this evening, so we we won’t be able to visit either as we head for the airport at 9pm to catch our 12.55 am flight. Strangely, one of the less sophisticated shopping centres was open last night until very late, but it wasn’t anything special although it does feature a big funfair and an ice skating rink.  It  was at least somewhere to go!  Being tourists, we can scurry from one air-conditioned environment to another but the construction workers we can see from our window were hard at work this morning.  It was already 38.5 deg at 9.30 am.  There is a pool here but very little shade around it.  The water temp is 30 deg.  Why bother!  Some hardy souls were lying on banana lounges in full, albeit murky, sunlight.  Dust seems to be much worse today and the wind stronger.  

Today is a very relaxed day and I have booked a massage for this afternoon.  Nothing to do but eat, read, nap and do sudokos.  Geoff is enjoying following every tiny detail of Hawthorn’s latest victory.  

 

View from our hotel window – one of the many construction sites to be seen in Doha

 
Looking forward to being back in Melbourne.

Doha, Qatar

Well – Doha is an interesting place.  It is not very big and has a population of 2.2 million, only 20% of whom are Qataris, the remainder being foreign workers from the Phillipines, India, Sri Lanka etc.  The latter are mainly employed in hospitality and the construction industry.  This huge, poorly-paid workforce enables a level of service that is almost embarrassing.  Our two night stay at the 4* Radisson Blu is part of our flight package with Qatar Airways so we are enjoying a level of luxury to which one might readily become accustomed.  Water poured, plates whisked away, fresh toast made, paper towel actually handed to you in the loo; nothing is too much trouble. Staff hover and watch, ready to anticipate your need.  If you stand in the lobby for more than a few seconds without apparent purpose, someone will offer assistance.  There are 11 restaurants in this hotel, although some of them are closed for Ramadan which commenced yesterday.  Muslims are requested to fast during the Holy Month of Ramadan and can only eat and drink between sunset and dawn.  It is forbidden to eat, drink, smoke or even chew (gum, sweets etc) in public during the day.  Non-Muslims are required to show their respect by also complying with these rules.  Within the hotels the restaurants continue to cater for guests as usual but don’t serve any alcohol although it is normally available.  If you want alcohol, it can be served in the privacy of your room.  Friday is a holy day so nothing is open today and opening hours for every enterprise are affected by Ramadan.  We were taken on a private tour this morning and the city resembles a ghost town, but we understand that the Islamic Museum, which we are keen to see, will open between 8 and 10 pm this evening.  Our guide took us to the souq  (market) this morning (all closed up) but apparently open tomorrow for a few hours.  We did visit the stables where the police horses reside (for patrolling the souq) and saw falcons tethered, ready for sale.  They are no longer used for hunting but rather as status symbols and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.  I am not sure that there is anything at the market we want but we are keen to see the Gold Market and the Spice Market.  The time we spend there will depend on how long we can survive the heat. It is the middle of summer and daily temps range between 45 and 50 deg.  It was still 35 at 9pm last night.  The city is very murky, apparently due to the sand in the air, but a lot of it must be dust as well.  There is an extraordinary amount of construction underway in preparation for the 2022 World Cup.  This city is RICH.  Public buildings are lavish and numerous.  There is some very interesting modern architecture and all the high-end luxury goods you could possibly imagine are available in opulent shopping arcades.  I presume that most of the women who patronise these boutiques can only wear their glamorous clothes and shoes at home or under their black robes.  They must have their heads and hair covered in public but it is not a requirement for foreign women although I have been warned to cover my arms and shoulders for the visit to the Islamic Museum.

To live in Doha would be to live in a bubble and your place of birth would determine how comfortable your bubble was.

We are reconnected with world events via BBC News and were congratulating ourselves on having avoided the violence in Paris and Lyon related to the taxi driver protest.  Now there has been a terrorist attack in Lyon.

 

Abu Manaratain Mosque , restored in 2004, with traditional dhows in foreground

 

A reminder of the once-thriving pearl industry which ended with Japan commencing commercial production

 

Purpose-built accommodation for pigeons for there are virtually no trees

 

The Amphitheatre – a modern collisseum

 

Three sculptures fashioned, from household items. Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil, See No Evil

  

 

Some of Doha’s modern buildings

  

  

  

Doha’s business district

 

Zagreb

The drive from Split to Zagreb is about 5 hours and we took the freeway, which meant that we quickly came to appreciate how rugged and mountainous Croatia is and how short of arable land.  The road is an engineering marvel of arial bridges between mountains and long tunnels through them.  We guessed one tunnel to be about 5 km long.  The tunnels generally have only two lanes and the speed limit drops to 100 kph as opposed to 130 kph on the open road.  Rain threatened for much of the journey but didn’t start to fall until we were about half an hour out of Zagreb, which was lucky.  The rain really set in and we got quite wet finding our hotel, transferring luggage and returning the rental car.  After weeks of hot weather we were reaching for sweaters and socks.  Rain must have a huge impact on the restaurant trade because there were hundreds of empty outdoor tables and dripping umbrellas.  We had a great meal at an Italian restaurant ( real risotto) and were grateful to walk into warmth and red wine.

It was still raining this morning when we set off to explore the Upper Town/Old Town but it had cleared by lunchtime.  We visited one of the more unusual museums in the city, the Museum of Broken Relationships.  The museum offers a chance to overcome an emotional collapse by contributing to its collection.  There were some very strange mementos and accompanying stories!  

Zagreb has a lovely feel and we both wish we would spend longer here but we fly to Doha tomorrow, homeward bound.

 

Nikolas Tesla in the rain

  

Dolac Market

  

St Marks Church

  

Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary , a largely Neo-Gothic structure dating from the late 19 th century


 

The Croatian State archives, topped with groups of globe-bearing owls symbolising the library’s educational purpose

  

The Well of Life, National Theatre, one of the many sculptures to be found in Zagreb

  

A couple of OAPs busking

  

Zagreb, Old Town

   

Not a sculpture this time but a real, live frog in the Botanical Gardens

Split

We hadn’t pre-booked our accommodation at Split so decided to go a bit more upmarket (4*) and had a room with a balcony and a great view of the port where there are ferry boats constantly coming and going.  So tempting to order champagne and install ourselves on the balcony for a few hours but we were good little tourists and went directly to the main attraction of Split, which is Diocletian’s Palace and The Basement Halls.  The Palace itself was begun around 298A.D. and took ten years to complete.  Typically Roman, its two main streets, Cardo and Decumanus, run N-S and E-W, to create four quarters.  Each main gate is located in the centre of each main wall.  The palace is billed as one of the best-preserved Roman buildings of its type in the world but it is occupied by souvenir shops and restaurants and there are even people living within the walls.  Some structures have been destroyed and the stones used to construct ‘new’ buildings.  It is quite a hotchpotch and unlike any Roman ruins that we have seen elsewhere.  It was very disappointing, but the Basement Halls are interesting and well preserved, although one wonders for how long.  The virulent green of the moss patches on the stones testifies to the amount of water seepage occurring but, in the the basements, at least, you can still appreciate Roman ingenuity and design.

   
         

Dubrovnik to Split

We changed our itinerary to spend one night in Split and only two nights in Zagreb.  We collected a hire car (a nice little VW Polo which behaved perfectly) in the new part of Dubrovnik which we thought looked really attractive.  We instructed Dulcie to take us to Split, and away we went.  The drive takes about three and a half hours and the road hugs the coast, which is absolutely spectacular.  If there had been opportunities to take photos we would never have arrived at our destination but the road is windy and we were against the rock face so couldn’t stop.  We have never ever seen such a gorgeous coastline.  We took a lunch break at Baska Voda where there were lots of tourists enjoying the beach.  The rocky mountains seem to be part of film set.  They stand out so clearly against the sky.