Tuesday, February 27, 2018

South East Asia 2018

We started in Hong Kong on 1 February arriving at our hotel in Kowloon at 4pm.  We were greeted by the receptionist asking if we were cold and she telling us she was freezing.  We then discovered that Hong Kong was having its coldest February day in some 30 years.  When we went down the hotel’s Chinese restaurant it was packed with locals all wearing the Michelin style puffer jackets.  The hotel was freezing and the only place that was warm was the hotel pub where we had dinner the next night.

We were going on a cruise but part of the deal was 3 free nights in Hong Kong and two free excursions which we took.  The first day was the standard Hong Kong Island trip of Stanley Bay (ie the first thing we saw in Hong Kong was a beach which was perfect for a Sydneysider), Aberdeen and Victoria Peak.  The second day was back out to Lantau Island where the airport is now located.  We went over the mountain, visited the Big Budda Monastery, where I found a thermometer reading 4° Celsius at noon.  We had a vegan lunch there followed by a spectacular cable car ride back over the mountain where we could see the airport and the new 55km bridge to Macao.  The infrastructure in Hong Kong is amazing.  We first went to Hong Kong in May 1975 it took 30 minutes to cross the harbour using the single tunnel and the traffic jams were horrendous.  Now there are six tunnels, 17 bridges and unbelievable road infra structure.  It now takes 5 minutes to cross to the other side even though the city has grown dramatically.

We joined the boat on 4 February and set sail on the 5th to Ha Long Bay spending the first night at sea.  Our first day in Vietnam consisted of an all day visit to Hanoi.  This is the capital and political centre of Vietnam and the centre of communist power.  The old French quarter is picturesque, the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum typically Stalinesque (against Ho Chi Minh’s wishes who wanted a cremation and simple burial site) but the highlight of the trip was the Hanoi Hilton.  This was jail set up by the French to imprison mainly political prisoners during their 100 years of occupation complete with a working guillotine.  The French left in 1954 following their defeat at Dien Phen Phu.  The jail was then used to imprison American pilots shot down during the American war 1964-73.  The (North) Vietnamese maintain the prisoners were treated humanely but the guides in the South subsequently said this was propaganda.  However the photographs and stories tell a fascinating if horrific story.  As one US army officer who we met on the cruise later said that after 1 week there would be nothing left to bomb in North Vietnam so what the USA dropped the bombs on for the next 9 years was questionable but drop them they did. 

What was interesting were the guides.  The Hanoi guide was around 40, highly principled and a member of the Communist Party (like 3% of the population).  However when he said the most important thing in life was money and the second who you know (the most important was the policeman who would get any charges against you dismissed, the second was the doctor who would enable you to jump the medical queues, the third was the local political communist party leader who could give you good contracts) we began to understand his disenchantment compounded when he said Vietnam needed more than one political party.  Every male guide said the biggest problem in Vietnam was the corruption.

The next day was a boat trip through Ha Long Bay.  Ever since I saw Caroline DeNeuve sailing through the bay in the film “Indochine” this has been a dream of mine and I was not disappointed.  It is a spectacular sight with 1969 limestone islands in an amazing range of shapes and sizes.

The next day we berthed in Da Nang and we did another all-day trip to Hue.   This was formally the capital of Vietnam and does contain a large fort.  Most of it was destroyed, particularly after its capture by the Viet Cong during the 1968 Tet offensive followed by the recapture by the Americans.  By now we were beginning to realise that we had arrived just before the beginning to the New Year or Tet holidays due to start on Feb 16.  The sidewalks were filled with stalls selling kumquat bushes, sunflowers and yellow chrysanthemums.  The girls were dressed to the nines looking spectacularly beautiful in long dresses and the streets were gradually emptying as people were leaving the cities to visit their families in the country side.  What was impressive in Hue was its first university, the Temple of Learning.  Somehow much of it had been preserved.

We then did a stop in Nha Trang which is a beach and a pretty grotty market but as we just missed the transit bus back to the ship we did have good massage (30 minutes for $13).  Nha Trang is being regularly advertised in the travel sections of the Sydney weekend newspapers (pay 4 nights & stay for 7) but seriously unless you can sit on a beach for 6 days there is little else to do.

The next day we were berthed on in the centre of Saigon or Ho Chi Minh city.  Luckily were on a smaller cruise chip (640 passengers or 30,000 tonnes) so we could sail up the river unlike many of the larger boats that have to dock some two hours outside of Saigon.

The first day we did a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels where the Viet Cong and Americans fought an unbelievable battle of wits.  The tunnels stretch for some 250 km.  During the day the Viet Cong hid in the tunnels and the Americans would use dogs to sniff out the hiding places.  If the dogs started barking the Americans would send down small soldiers (the tunnels were small and at 3 levels) of whom only 25% would return or use gas to force them out.  The Viet Cong would emerge at night to fight the Americans, set new booby traps, lay down stuff to distract the dogs etc.  First they used chilli peppers to distract the dogs but that signalled to the Americans that the tunnel was being used.  So the Viet Cong then broke into US camps and stole & spread hamburger meat which dogs finding the smell familiar thought that Americans were in the tunnel and not Viet Cong.  The tunnels are very narrow and there is size limit on going down which I unfortunately exceeded.

The second day in Saigon we did a city tour.  The old South Vietnamese Presidential Palace which is now named the Reunification Palace is easily the most impressive building.  It contains the usual reception and dining rooms upstairs and the communications and escape tunnels downstairs.  In the garden are replicas of the two tanks that crashed though the gates and ended the civil war in 1975 where the South Vietnamese President ceded power to the tank commander.  By now most of the 7 million motor bikes that generally reside in Saigon had now gone out to family homes based in the Mekong Delta.  We also had our first Vietnamese joke:

Motorcyclist goes though a red light and is stopped by a policeman.

Policeman asks, “Didn’t you see the red light?”

Motorcyclist replies, “Yes but I did not see you!”

The accident rate on the bikes is very high and given the way they drive not surprising.  Saigon in particular reminds one of New Delhi.

We then had day at sea, a day in Singapore, followed by a day at sea.  On the days at sea we typically had a bridge lesson in the morning followed by bridge in the afternoon.  The lessons were good; unfortunately not matched by our play.

It had been at least 15 years since I had been in Singapore.  The city is even cleaner now.  Given the proximity to the Chinese New Year we decided to go to Chinatown on the MRT.  It was buzzing with people getting ready for the 10 day holiday. Several older Singaporeans approached us and as soon as they discovered we were Australian told us they had units on the Gold Coast and how unfair it was for Julia Gillard to increase the taxes on the rental.  We then a had a stroll through Clarke Quay and up to Raffles for the mandatory Singapore Sling.  Unfortunately, Raffles is being renovated and so we ended having tapas at the Luke Mangan pub across the road.

Our next stop was the Thai island of Koh Samui where we did a half day trip visiting various honey pots (waterfall, coconut plantation, rubber plantation, etc.)  The highlight was a visit to an elephant sanctuary where Vivienne had a foot massage from an elephant. 

Finally we reached the end of cruise in Bangkok.  Again the benefit of the smaller boat meant we could go up the river and moor in the city as in Saigon.  We did an interesting tour of the river and canals.  The river is full of catfish that you feed with bread.  That night we had a great meal with an old friend Peter Thomas who then took us the next day to the former Thai capital Ayutthaya.  We visited the summer palace of Rama IV which was very impressive.   We hired a golf cart and Vivienne drove use around much to the amazement of the rest of visitors who would expect one of the males to be driving.  For lunch we had what I can only describe as catfish crumble.  Pieces of catfish are put into boiling oil which causes to pop (like popcorn) and turn into fishy crumble.  It was very good.

In my last cruise blog I described cruising as coach tours for rich people.  You go to a lot of places you would not go but you don’t really get inside each stop.  On the other hand you do get a feel and that can be enough.  I would put Vietnam in that category – I am glad I went but there is no need to return.

Chris Golis Australia's expert on practical emotional intelligence website: www.emotionalintelligencecourse.com Linkedin: www.linkedin.com/in/chrisgolis Email: cgolis@emotionalintelligencecourse.com mobile: +61-418-222219

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