South East Asia: Reflections On Six Months of Travel

Sunrise Over the South China Sea

After six months of travelling throughout South East Asia, we’ve come to the end of this leg of our journey. Where better to reflect on our experiences, and what we’ve learned, than relaxing in the heat of sun-kissed Perth for Christmas and the New Year before we set off again. 

First here are the crude numbers: 7 countries; 24,000+ miles; 50 hotels; 25 flights; 1000+ mosquito bites (Sam thinks that’s a conservative estimate!); 5 haircuts; 20 blogs; 100,000+ Chinese tourists (there may be some South Koreans in that estimate); 28 books read; 1000+ photos; and no arrests!

 Here are brief thoughts on each country we’ve visited 


To quote Frank S “if I can make it there…. I can make it anywhere”. Manic Vietnam is probably the best place to start a trip in S/E Asia –  it’s a complete shock to European sensibilities, especially the omnipresent motorbikes. But once you’ve adjusted to and embraced the mayhem, everywhere else will feel serene (except Phnom Penh and Jakarta). Sitting cheek by jowl with the vibrancy are gorgeous beaches, stunning scenery, a truly fascinating ancient and modern history, and welcoming people. For some reason Vietnam will always be a personal favourite for us, the wild child of S/E Asia, the tearaway younger sibling China can’t tame. Long may that continue. 

You need hands…Ba Na Hills


We only saw two cities in Laos and one of those was the dull capital Vientiane. So we have a lot more to see and learn about Laos. However, Luang Prabang was one of the stars of our journey, a beautiful town wedged between two great roaring rivers, with picturesque buildings and a calming atmosphere. We visited Luang Prabang out of season, which was probably a good thing as we hear it can be a bit overwhelmed at other times. We definitely need to return to Laos.

The Mighty Mekong flowing beside Luang Prabang


Like Laos we only managed two cities and again didn’t like the capital at all, but you have to go to learn first hand about the Killing Fields. Siem Reap on the other hand was another gem and not solely due to being the base for Angkor Wat explorations. It’s a lovely town and the people in Cambodia are incredibly friendly and warm. Of course Angkor Wat is astonishing – the range and beauty of the temples are unique, the crown jewels among the treasures of S/E Asia. It’s a must see and make sure you give it enough time. We spent five days exploring the temples and could have taken longer still.


Writing a blog on the experience of the Killing Fields was difficult: trying to find the right words and images to express anger and outrage alongside respect and humility.   Without question this was the most bewildering and upsetting experience of our trip so far. The sight of the tree where children were murdered will never leave us, nor should it. 



Good old Thailand – same same but different for us as we revisited some familiar haunts, but also discovered  new treats. In and around Bangkok has so much to offer, but the real surprises for us were the inexplicably low-profile ruins and temples at Sukothai, the jaw-dropping limestone karst scenery at Khao Sok National Park, and beach life at Krabi, all of which left us re-appraising our favourite Thai places. We also endured one night in the worst hotel of our trip, monkey-ridden Lopburi. Don’t go!

Ruins at Sukothai


Having briefly visited KL before we didn’t know what to expect from the rest of the country and were delighted with what we discovered. Multi-cultural, relaxed, great food and architecture. Plus you have the joy of the Peninsula (with another city highlight for us – GeorgeTown); and Malaysian Borneo which kind of feels like another country, but because it’s Malaysia is very accessible and manageable for travellers. Fantastic street art can be found in nearly every town and city. The wildlife and jungle is something else again. We’ve still got the central highlands and the east coast peninsula to explore, so we will definitely be returning. It’s a very relaxed place…..



We came to Singapore with a bit of a cynical “will it be clinical” mindset and left it starry-eyed. What an island! Take Hong Kong, stir in some Manhattan and add a dash of  Vegas with some great ethnic neighbourhoods and colonial charm thrown in. It’s not cheap but you can spend judiciously and have a great time. Soooo many highlights here but Gardens by the Bay is just remarkable. Anywhere that makes you wander around smiling like a wide-eyed kid has got to be great. 

Gardens by the Bay


We’ve visited three of the main islands (Sumatra, Java and Bali) and I still don’t have the foggiest idea of how to capture the essence of this country. I’m not sure the people do either. Maybe that’s its secret: the diversity of beliefs, peoples, languages, and the vast archipelago itself. It’s got it all, wild beauty, dense jungle, Borobudur, volcanic lakes, Balinese beaches and the most hospitable hosts. It has a horrible health and safety track record that can fray the nerves somewhat. Nevertheless it’s a really enigmatic place that has been fascinating to experience, and we didn’t make it to Komodo so we will be back to explore more.

Lake Toba

Mekong River

Okay it’s not a country but for several months it was a feature of our journey seeing it rolling alongside four of the countries we visited. From the deep red mud saturated delta in Can Tho, Vietnam to the bulging fast-flowing river crashing alongside Luang-Prabang, witnessing and boating along this mighty river fulfilled a lifetimes ambition. 

Dawn on the Floating Market on the Mekong, Can Tho

So, what have we learnt?

It would be easy to gush about all of wonderful experiences we have had – and there have been plenty. But we’ve always tried to balance the superlatives with some of the day to day realities of travelling in this region. Here are some random thoughts, compliments and complaints.

S/E Asians – the world’s friendliest people?

After you grow accustomed to the friendliness of the people of S/E Asia it is easy to take it for granted, but it’s such a warm welcome you get everywhere in this part of the world. Some of it is pure generosity, some of it is inquisitiveness, and at other times it’s amusement, but it’s always with goodwill and a smile on the face. Admittedly as travellers we encounter a lot of people in the service industry whose job it is to be welcoming – but just consider that proposition for a moment and apply it to London or Paris! 


Life’s a Beach

I’m not sure we are ever going to be able to hobble back onto the pebbled beach at home in Brighton and Hove after this trip. Talk about being spoilt!  The choice seems to be as endless as some of the stretches of beaches. Soft clean sand, warm crystal clear waters, and the sun beating down in what was often allegedly “rainy season”.  Having said that, it does pay to check whether you need to be on east or west coast of Thailand to avoid monsoon. The only cloud on this idyllic horizon? Litter. As the blog from Mui Ne (What a Waste) illustrated – when it’s bad, it’s appalling. Someone is making a lot of money from tourism and not re-investing in basic infrastructure. That needs to change.

Beautiful Quy Nhon

Travelling not Holidaying

A corollary to our beach time has been the understanding that we are travelling and not on holiday, which in turn means not feeling guilty about having downtime. Doing nothing is not only fine, it’s essential to avoid total exhaustion. Sleeping well and eating as healthily as we can has also been key to our wellbeing. We haven’t over-planned things, rarely booking flights or accommodation more than 3 weeks ahead. Occasionally that has left us nervously wondering where we will be sleeping next week, but wifi has improved out of all recognition here and its been very easy to get online, understand and sort visa’s and book hotels, flights etc with the minimum of fuss.

Borneo Sunset

Back-Packing or Flash-Packing?

When we meet people on our travels and tell them our plans they often say something along the lines of “how wonderful, backpacking through South-East Asia”. We haven’t corrected this assumption because it makes us sound very adventurous and hardy. However, backpacking we are not! The idea of spending one minute let alone a night in a hostel sharing the same bathroom and oxygen with a bunch of hairy arsed flatulent 20 somethings is totally out of the question! We are “mature” travellers and need some level of comfort and privacy. It turns out that as with everything in life there is a label for us – we are “flash-packers”.  And with the incredibly affordable cost of living in South-East Asia and a reasonable but not over-indulgent budget, it’s possible to lead a very comfortable “flash-pack” life here.  Back-packer or Flash-packer?

Travelling light

Japanese Occupation WWII and its Legacy

As we’ve worked our way through countries and cities, reading about their history the common thread of the impact of Japanese occupation has surfaced frequently. In some cases at high profile sites such as Kanchanburi, but also at the lesser known: the Sandakan Death Marches that was an act of mass murder. It’s made us realise how little we know about the WWII Pacific theatre of conflict. Inevitably what little we do know tends to focus on Allied forces, but time and again we discovered the brutality and terrible losses the indigenous populations suffered at the hands of Japanese imperialism. Their departure created vacuums that nationalists tried to fill, but not before dreadful, misguided campaigns by the French, British, Dutch and USA caused further suffering and enmity. Seeing the work of COPE in Laos supporting victims of land mines was for us one of the most eye-opening experiences of this legacy, the effects of which continues today.


One Road, One Belt…..a big cheque book and a lot of debt.

Anyone who has (inexplicably) read a lot of our blogs will have noticed a recurrent theme: an antipathy towards China and Chinese tourists. This isn’t borne out of some irrational jingoistic prejudice. More a case of speaking as we find. It’s no secret that many third world countries have welcomed Chinese investment with open arms – why wouldn’t they? The problem is that many of these projects are destroying the environment and further harming endangered species, for example the Threat to Orang-Utans in Sumatra and the damming of the Mekong in Laos that will change the nature of the River downstream forever: Impact of Dams on the Mekong River. In addition to the environmental harm the Dam collapse in Laos in July killed 39 people and left thousands homeless. What is more, China’s huge One Road, One Belt project seems to have a canny knack of channelling its benefits back to the homeland.

Having invested so much in South East Asia it’s little wonder that the new Chinese middle classes who are now holidaying abroad in their millions treat it as if they own it – they kinda do!  Their graceless behaviour neatly leads us onto another gripe….

All Hail Insta-Culture!

Now we have no problem with Instagram, in fact if you go to  #samjohntravelogue on Instagram (shameless plug) you will find a thriving collection of some of our favourite travel images. There are no selfies. You won’t see a picture of Sam blocking out a perfect sunset or a gorgeous ancient temple with a vacant smile and two fingers in the air. Worse still you will not see a picture of one of us sitting crossed legged in a meditation pose in front of an image of Bhudda while out of shot hundreds of irritated sweating tourists mill around waiting to do the same. It seems to be a growing problem:  Instagram Snappers Hogging NZ Beauty Spot

“When you think you’ve gone too far…go farther”

Democracy – it’s so overrated

There is no denying that there are some dubious political practices and situations in this part of the world where there have been abuses of power. Men who were once freedom fighters have slipped easily into the role of dictators, holding onto power despite shocking levels of inequality and grinding poverty. It would be easy to point to a lack of true democracy in some countries. However, the recent pantomime performance of western-style democracy in the UK, USA, and Australia does leave you wondering who, if anyone, is getting it right.

We didn’t have any particular desire to visit Myanmar but would not do so on principal given the genocide that has taken place there over the past two years. It’s also been disturbing to see a serious shift towards some rabid homophobia – particularly in parts of Indonesia – in order to win votes. 

Books, Books, Glorious Books.

One of the unexpected joys of our trip has been having time to read and enjoy books in a way that we could never do when working. Biographies, crime thrillers, philosophy,  and spy novels have all been devoured. It’s interesting to see the path that we’ve followed in selecting books, where one novel has led us on to another.  Sam has been much more eclectic in her tastes, currently devouring Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming”, while I’ve become obsessed with George Smiley, enjoying the time we have to read every Le Carre book he appears in. 


What started out as a bit of an informal diary so that a few family and friends can keep track of us has turned into a monster! I’m a slave to it, constantly trying to source interesting stories, perspectives, and appropriate photos. It’s been great fun and it’s a brilliant way to keep track of what we’ve done. Comments and likes from readers is such a pleasant surprise. There have been times when I’ve got really frustrated with the limits of my vocabulary, and on one dreadful occasion I somehow lost nearly all of a blog I’d been writing for an hour or two. I crash out a rough copy then Sam patiently polishes it, correcting grammar, carefully editing and occasionally pointing out that “this paragraph makes absolutely no sense at all”. 

Working From Home

Jungle Wildlife

Last and most certainly not least we come to what we both agree is the highlight of our journey so far – wonderful wild animals. The sheer majestic beauty of lumbering Asian Elephants frolicking in rivers. Fireflies mysteriously lighting up a pitch black sky. Tree vipers lurking above our heads; Monitor Lizards scampering by our feet; Monkeys galore from the cute Dusky Leaf Monkey, ubiquitous long tailed macaques, and the downright bizarre Proboscis Monkey. Gibbons hollering and swinging through treetops. Sun and Moon Bears in their sanctuaries protected from poachers.


The highlight of the highlight? The moment after hours of trekking through the jungle we looked up and saw wild Orang-Utans just a few metres above us in the trees. It was overwhelming and very emotional.

Orangutan Mother and Child


Finally, we would like to say a bug thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read our thoughts, and send so much generous feedback. It really is appreciated and we look forward to resuming our musings in 2019 with blogs from our travels in Australia.

In the meantime Happy New Year and All The Best for 2019.

Sam & John xx




Happy in Hanoi With Hannah



One of the challenges we continually face on this trip is keeping our bags under the 20kg imposed by the internal flights we take. We are both unapologetic shopaholics and it is taking remarkable willpower not to buy lots of gorgeous knick-knacks from the markets we visit that would look lovely in our home. Occasionally we do yield to temptation and buy some clothes, but this is more from necessity than retail addiction. We have an agreement that if we buy new clothes something has to be jettisoned from the wardrobe – one in one out! There is something quite disciplined and liberating about this approach. Slowly but surely the climate demands thinner tops & trews, so that we are leaving a trail of thick European clobber throughout S/E Asia.


Along with one-in-one out, we have another rule that is written in stone – there will be no elephant trousers! Under no circumstances will either of us allow this sartorial Armageddon. Sam showed signs of weakening when she bought what appeared to be a nice, light white dress in Laos. However, closer inspection revealed a small elephant print that just about stayed on the right side of acceptability.

Having said that, I will forgive Sam just about anything for coming up with the most wonderful birthday ‘gift’. As we can’t buy stuff I assumed I wouldn’t get a pressie (this was exactly the excuse I gave Sam on her birthday). However on my 55th (!) she revealed she had been in clandestine communications with my daughter Hannah who was making arrangements for a 2 week trip to meet us in Vietnam – what a marvellous surprise! We quickly researched a suitable beach location that we knew Hannah would enjoy and booked our flights back to Vietnam from Cambodia for a few days in crazy Hanoi, then down to the beach on DaNang together with a detour to Hoi An. Hannah visiting gave us the perfect excuse to revisit places we’d been to 8 years ago and hadn’t initially planned to go to see on this trip. We’re so glad we had the opportunity to revisit them.


In Hanoi we had our first really bad hotel experience. We booked a ’boutique’ hotel in the Old Quarter – where all hotels call themselves ’boutique’ as there isn’t the space to build anything bigger. On arrival our hearts started to sink when we checked into a bedroom that reminded us of the Crossroads Motel – it looked as though it hadn’t been updated since 1973. Happily Hannah’s room was much brighter. However, the deal-breaker was the uninterrupted building works taking place a few floors above our room. “Yes, we renovate the spa and gym on the 8th floor” the Receptionist proudly told Sam when she complained about the noise which had been going on non-stop, resulting in next to no sleep. When the receptionist read the signals that a sleep-deprived Sam is one of the most dangerous creatures on the planet and not to be messed with, she added nervously “I will ask them to stop”. Of course they didn’t, Vietnamese builders don’t stop when mild mannered receptionists asks them to keep it down. They carried on morning, noon & night, until we could stand no more and checked out early, much to the surprise of the hotel staff.

On our first trip out into Hanoi, Hannah was still suffering jet lag from her 12 hour flight. Combined with a temperature of 35+ degrees and crippling humidity she was taken a bit poorly at the temple on the lake in the centre of Hanoi. Fearing she might faint we stopped in the shade for a while. Unfortunately she felt a bit nauseous and it looked as though she might actually be sick into the lake, or worse still, on the sacred temple! While Sam made all the right sympathetic and comforting noises, my mind played out a scene of vomit, uproar at a cultural atrocity followed by imprisonment – all in the blink of an eye! Moments later when Hannah indicated a slight improvement we quickly shuffled her off the temple site with the unsympathetic advice … “you can throw up anywhere you like now”.


The suffocating heat in Hanoi then took its toll on me as we strolled through the night market. While Sam and Hannah checked out the stalls I sensed my body temperature rising and rising. In response I gulped down bottles of water. However rather than cool and hydrate me the water gushed out of every pore – like some great sweaty waterfall drenching my shirt and shorts. I squelched home reluctantly accepting that I probably wouldn’t get a second wear out of my undies on this occasion.

A trip to the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ provided an interesting and disturbing insight into how the French treated Vietnamese prisoners during their occupation, including the guillotine used to execute revolutionary patriots. The prison was subsequently used by the North Vietnamese for captured US Airforce pilots, including Senator John McCain who passed away this week. He revisited the prison years later and met with his captors, all part of the reconciliation process that took place between the USA and Vietnam.


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Our detour to Hanoi meant that we could hook up with another familiar face from home, Aiden, the son of our very good friends Anthony and Carolyn. Aiden has been in Vietnam for several months teaching English and he arranged to take us out for a good night in Hanoi, starting with a great little restaurant off the beaten track, shoes off, knees up, no table or chairs – a great menu and delicious food.


After that it was back into the Old Quarter and sampling Vietnam’s version of home brew – Bia Hoi. Dirt cheap (about 30p a glass) it’s a street drink that is rough, ready, strangely refreshing and possibly a risk to your health. We followed that with a session on a rooftop bar that ended at midnight when the authorities decree all bars must close. An end to the night? No chance, as Aiden skilfully guided us to a discrete lock-in.

The memory of this is understandably vague – we were hammered by then and having a wonderful time. Unfortunately one of the things I can recall is hearing Jumping Jack Flash come on the jukebox and immediately springing to my feet, insisting that “I do a great Mick Jagger.” For reasons that remain unclear I felt the impersonation would be enhanced if I donned the motorcycle crash helmet I found on a table. In full flow I jerked about Jagger-like, strutting up to the bar, lifting the visor on the helmet and shouting “well alright” to the bemused bar staff and customers before snapping the visor down, spinning 180 degrees and marching back down the bar clapping my hands together Mick stylee! What could possibly add to the embarrassment…………… discovering that your hysterical daughter has recorded the “performance” on her iPhone for posterity/blackmail! Sam recalls a local asking her if I was her husband. When she replied I was, he just looked at her sympathetically and said ‘I’m sorry!’


And so after a memorable Hanoi night we said our goodbyes and set off but not before Aiden asked that I message him to let him know we had got back to our hotel – you know you are getting old when your mates kids insist on being told that you have got home safely!!

The next afternoon we flew to DaNang, famed for being a key American base in the War, but now boasting a glorious 5km beach of soft sand, clean warm sea water and climbing temperatures.


On our first day it was a bit grey and overcast so we decided to head for the hills – Ba Na Hills to see a bizarre European theme park and the recently opened Golden Bridge, held up by the Hands of God. The only way up to Ba Na Hills is on a jaw dropping 5000 metre cable car journey that is worth the day trip by itself. We kept getting higher and higher with great views back to the coast and the adjacent Monkey and Marble Mountains.


Once you arrive you are greeted by the site of a mock French village, town square, hotels, restaurants, and a cathedral – all false (should that be faux?). We wandered into the “church” and Sam stepped up to the altar to inspect what appeared to be a giant bible but in fact was a large piece of polystyrene. In a plasterboard confessional box I assumed the role of priest and told Sam to say two Hail Mary’s and an Act of Contrition for her sins: “……sounds like a good deal” was her reply!


The Golden Bridge held up by two giant hands is remarkable. It doesn’t serve any purpose, such linking two hitherto unconnected points. Rather it seems to exist as a striking sight and feat of engineering, and of course it’s all very Instagram. Even the most cynical of visitors can’t fail to be impressed by the sheer scale and drama of those hands high in the hills, frequently draped in mist, cloud and marauding Koreans armed with selfi-sticks!


Some serious sunbathing took place over the few days including the chance to meet with more friends on An Bang beach near Hoi An. By chance our travels crossed with Chris, Karen and their children. Sam and I regularly fail miserably to visit Chris and Karen at the wonderful Purple Carrot in Hassocks, so it felt ironic that we should finally see each other on a beach thousands of miles from home. It was a lovely relaxing day catching up and even though we’ve only been away for two months it was great seeing family and friends.


We promised Hannah a trip to Hoi An, just 30 mins south of DaNang. It’s a beautiful town and world heritage site full of quaint independent shops and ancient homes. Hoi An miraculously escaped the ravages of War. Being south of DaNang it wasn’t carpet bombed by the good old US, and once the South Vietnamese Army collapsed, the Liberation Army swept through towns like Hoi An without much military exchange or damage.


As a result Hoi An retained its unique character which comes to life at night when lanterns adorn the streets and candles float gently down the river – it looks almost too good to be true and can rightly claims the title of Vietnam’s most picturesque town.


If that wasn’t enough for Hannah it also offers shopping heaven with pretty, independent shops sitting alongside a vibrant night market and rock bottom prices! We’ve noticed that fruit inspired clothing is really popular in Vietnam……


and when in Rome……


We returned to DaNang and enjoyed a boat cruise on the River Han underneath the many bridges the town is famous for, particularly the multi-coloured Dragon Bridge.


Like Nha Trang further down the coast DaNang has a bit of a reputation for being touristy and lacking charm, but when you have a beach that is so good and quiet it’s hard to find fault. DaNang enjoys the added benefit of its proximity to Hoi An, and a large airport that has great connections to cities throughout the region. Well worth checking out, especially if you are a beach bum.


All too soon we were returning to Hanoi and accompanying Hannah to the airport for her flight home. Her visit has felt like a holiday within our travels and we were thrilled to share time with her. It also marked a bit of a milestone in our travels as we left Vietnam a couple of days after Hannah, heading for Laos.

Vietnam is a wonderful manic country that is so full of vitality, lovely people and a fascinating history. There are a few corners of the country we still haven’t seen yet – the perfect excuse for a return visit…..and some more Bia Hoi!!

Travellers Top Tips
Short and sweet this one – we could not survive without our eye masks and ear plugs to block out the lights and sounds that seem to accompany most hotel rooms. It can make for some tricky conversations when one or especially both of us have our ear plugs in. They’ve given us hours of extra sleep, but even they couldn’t block out Hanoi builders!!

Next Week – Learning about Laos

Saigon Revisited & The Mekong Delta


After a month away from Saigon we returned to it with a bit of foreboding – would it be as overwhelming as when we first arrived? Our journey back from Mui Ne started well with another trip on the Vietnamese Railway. We travelled second class again but our carriage wasn’t overcrowded & we had seats with plenty of space to stretch out, unencumbered by boxes, although we were nearly crushed by a very large bag of kumquats – what a way to go!
We read, dozed & watched the countryside roll by for four very relaxing hours, chatting to travellers intrigued by our visit to their country & the impressions we had gained.

We may have acclimatised, & not had a long flight to recover from, so our second stint in Saigon was much more manageable & we felt we got to know the city much better. Our first full day back was taken up visiting Cholon – Saigon’s Chinatown. It’s an intense, fascinating area which captures much of the spirit of Saigon in its dense ramshackle streets, marketplaces, and elaborate Pagoda’s where incense fills the air. Occasionally there are glimpses of colonial architecture that adds to the neighbourhoods character.



You can’t go too far in Saigon without coming across reminders of its 20th century conflicts. Amid the Pagoda’s in Cholon is Cha Tam Church, the final hiding place of the hated President Diem & his brother before their brutal assassination in 1963. The Kennedy administration had given up supporting Diem & acknowledged they had hung him out to dry by backing the coup against him, effectively signing his death warrant – just 3 weeks later JFK himself was assassinated.

In contrast to Cholon we spent the next day in the upmarket area of Saigon, with its high rise buildings & western designer shops; Gucci, Chanel etc – a chance to replenish our meagre stock of clothing! (Zara & H&M I should add, not the former!) We’ve started ditching items that are too hot to wear or have been shrunk / discoloured in the laundry, replacing them with the thinnest cotton we can find that still preserves modesty. We also discovered that although the plentiful, & incredibly cheap, laundry services are on the whole very good, they clearly chuck everything in on a hot temperature & don’t separate colours. So whites soon become grey & ankle length trousers start heading north.

The traffic is more manageable in the area and although modern it boasts the Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office (designed by Gustave Eiffel), the Opera House, and the Governors Colonial Home – all built in the late 1800’s by the French Colonialists. Here is Sam in the Post Office:


Towering over the area is the Bitexco Tower a stunning addition that provides wonderful 360 degree views from its sky deck. We made two visits to enjoy the stunning city views during the day & again to see the neon come to life once darkness falls.


One of the must-do trips in Saigon is to the Cu Chi Tunnels, 30kms north of the city. Started during the war against the French, they expanded dramatically when the Americans arrived, the Viet Cong building an incredible 250kms of tunnels in Cu Chi, several storeys deep that included living quarters, kitchens, and meeting rooms, and extended under the American’s bases. It’s an astonishing testament to the tenacity, endurance and ingenuity of the Vietnamese and you begin to understand why the Chinese, French & Americans have all been sent packing. The tunnels have been enlarged for tourists to experience, but they are still small, hot & claustrophobic. Sam was far braver than me & managed to get through a section of the tunnels in one piece but was happy to step out before they narrowed to the bottlenecks that require crawling to get through – designed to prevent larger GI’s from pursuing their enemy.


Alongside the tunnels are displays of the gruesome booby traps that used various combinations of spears & spikes to kill or seriously injure – when camouflaged they are undetectable. With the energy sapping heat & jungle reducing visibility it’s hard to imagine how typical raw, young recruits drafted by the US coped with chasing & fighting an enemy they couldn’t see while constantly risking stepping in mines & traps. It must have been terrifying & bewildering.

Cu Chi is remarkable & it’s a privilege to see it, but it feels as though the drive to make it a tourist attraction might have gone too far. You can go to a range & fire off deafening live rounds into a hillside if that’s your thing. However, there didn’t seem to be anywhere that remembered & honoured the thousands that were killed at the site, which American B-52s tried to carpet bomb into oblivion when they couldn’t locate and destroy the tunnels in any other way. Maybe there is a memorial & we weren’t shown it, but if there is it should be a part of every tour. After all, this site is a mass grave.

Mekong Delta

After our return to Saigon we headed west to the Mekong Delta, Vietnam’s pancake flat rice bowl that sits in the south west corner off the country, bordering Cambodia. The Rivers that make up the Mekong Delta look unreal, being red/brown in colour with all the mud and silt collected from a journey started thousands of miles north in China & Tibet. On checking into our hotel in Can Tho we were lucky enough to be put on the 31st floor giving us an amazing view of the rivers and delta. We could easily have spent the week staring out of the window.


After a day familiarising ourself with the town & checking out the obligatory Ho Chi Minh statue (in Can Tho he looks a bit like the Tin Man from Oz), we were up at the crack of dawn next day to head off to Cai Rang floating market, the largest in the Delta. The market is at its best & busiest between 5 – 6.00 a.m, hence the early start. We clambered into a small sampan with a lovely couple from Belgium & puttered up the river toward the market. It takes about 45 minutes & by the time we got to the market we were both feeling a little queasy. Our boat was tied to the sampan that serves breakfast for tourists & market folk alike. A very hearty bowl of vegetable noodle soup with chilli went down surprisingly well (especially given the time of day) and immediately settled our stomachs – it’s surprising how easy it is to adapt to local food & eating habits when there is no Plan B!


The market is a wonderful site & our guide pointed out how boats advertise their wares, tying the fruit or veg they sell to the top of a long piece of bamboo that is erected flag like, so pineapples, corn, sweet potatoes, even pumpkins were hoist aloft on bamboo poles. It was full of colour, characters, life & laughter, and we followed brekkie by climbing onto a market boat to enjoy sweet, succulent fresh pineapple.


Lots of the boats have clothes hanging on lines & rudimentary ‘kitchens’. Having assumed the boats were used just to sell produce our guide explained that in many cases these were homes as well, where people spend most of their life living on the river. Although picturesque the market is also gritty & workaday – it’s where people are making a living.


After the noise of the market we headed up a small tributary, enjoying peace & tranquility, until I spotted a river snake & excitedly pointed it out to Sam. It was very idyllic, gently floating along sipping on fresh coconut water. Our friends from Belgium were enjoying a pre-wedding trip & were perfect company.


We took an even smaller boat a couple of days later to travel up narrow forest streams in an area where like Ch Chi, the Viet Cong established a base and tunnels to fight the South Vietnamese & Americans. These are on a much smaller scale, but interesting nonetheless especially as they were built alongside waterways. Apart from a small pathway you arent allowed to wander far from the stream & certainly can’t investigate the jungle it meanders through as there remains unexploded bombs & mines in the area. This ever present contrast between the beauty & tranquility of Vietnamese countryside & it’s bloody history is jarring.


Given the absence of hills the Delta is perfect cycling country – as long as you don’t mind pedalling along in 30+ degrees & very high humidity! The bike trip included visits to sample raw organic chocolate & local coffee. As she doesn’t eat chocolate or drink coffee, Sam wisely headed for the Spa. Happily the bike ride involved several pit stops for food & drink, sampling aforementioned treats, along with sugar cane drinks (delicious), fruit & a very tasty savoury pancake with veg, at the end of the journey. Although the paths were flat, getting up & over several bridges required some ooomph. My friendly guide Mario insisted we take a break in a coffee spot where you don’t pull up a chair, but slip into a hammock. I readily agreed to this but had the usual problems folding my long legs into Vietnamese size hammocks! The guides on the trips in Can Tho we’re all good & if you ever visit, check out Mr Hieu for local tours – they are great.

On our last day in Saigon, after travelling back from the Mekong Delta, we decided to stay in the Continental Hotel – famed for being the base for journalists from Time Magazine, New York Times, Washington Post etc. during the Vietnam War. As big fan’s of Graham Greene (& given his Brighton connections) we were delighted to learn that he stayed here when he wrote The Quiet American.
After a detour into Cambodia our travel plans will take us to Hanoi in the north so it will be interesting to refresh our memory of the capital, having visited it around eight years ago, and compare it to Saigon. Although it doesn’t have quite the ‘Old Town’ charm of its northern rival, Saigon is a great city that buzzes with life & never seems to stop. The longer we were there the more we liked it. Interestingly, very few people seem to call it Ho Chi Minh City, (as it was renamed in 1975, after reunification). The preferred ‘Saigon’ is far more evocative.


Top Travelling Tips..

If you are going to go somewhere in rainy season get a decent rain Mac that you can sling on at a moments notice…….& look really stylish


Next Week: we explore Cambodia.

What A Waste…


In your minds eye imagine for a moment your perfect beach scene: gorgeous waves lapping up onto miles of sand, lined by palm trees, maybe a hammock or two swaying in the gentle breeze, that cools you from the heat of the sun. The beach at Mui Ne ticks all the boxes as the pictures above and below shows.


As I stood in the sea taking this snap of our beachfront villa I felt something…..not in a spiritual or emotional way, I felt an actual something……clinging to my knee. A sad, limp, sandbag, minus its cargo, had abandoned its post & attached itself to me. As it held on it was joined by other bits of rubbish, plastic bags and unidentifiable fishing detritus. Normally I don’t mind being the centre of attention, but I draw the line at becoming a waste receptacle.

More seriously, this summed up one of the greatest challenges facing Vietnamese tourism – litter, piles and piles of it. In the UK our beaches are pretty good & we have armies of volunteers only too willing to do litter picks & clean ups. In fact some of those events now struggle to find much to clear. In Vietnam there is a real problem & with it comes the risk that it will kill the golden goose, turning off the tourists who are a key part of the country’s economic growth. More important than the aesthetics, is the damage being done to sealife as well as the risk to public health.


Most of the beaches we’ve visited so far haven’t been too bad, with a judicious turn of the head any litter in view could be moved to our blind spot, edited out of our beachside bliss. There is no escape from reality at Mui Ne beach. Don’t get me wrong, this is a glorious spot, but it’s become completely spoiled – saddening and maddening in equal measure.

As we wander down the the main drag of shops & restaurants which, run parallel to the beach, piles of rubbish are deposited along the route. With no strict system of refuse disposal & collection these huge mounds will, no doubt, end up with the other piles of rubbish on the beach ready for its journey into the ocean.

As I type this a dozen people are doing their best to clear rubbish in front of desirable beach homes. I don’t envy them & I’m not entirely sure it’s being collected for removal, or is just being moved around the corner – out of sight, until high tide comes to redistribute it elsewhere on the Vietnamese coast. I fear the blight of litter is something we will return to as our travels & this blog progresses.


Let’s Go Surfing…..

One of our indulgences is having massages & our hotel in Mui Ne included a beach side spa. That makes it sound very grand, it was really more of a glorified hut with a few beds installed. Both Sam & I went for a back, neck & head massage, 45 minutes for just £7 each – bargain!
I always seem to get more robust treatment than Sam & this was to be no different. Lying face down trying to relax after the masseur had pulled my pants down to reveal more bum cheek than I felt was absolutely necessary, the bed shook as she hopped onto it. Using only my sense of touch (& the accompanying pain) I detected a foot starting to rest on the base of my spine swiftly followed by her second foot being planted firmly between my shoulders! As my eyes nearly popped out of my head from the pressure I tried to picture the image in my minds eye…..she’s surfing me! Remarkably I felt the outside edge of both feet fit snugly either side of my spine, a technique I imagine was last used by the Viet Cong to extract intelligence from captured G.I’s. If I suffered osteoporosis she would have been ankle deep in my lungs at this point. The whole experience was quite traumatic, so much so that I went back for seconds a few days later……Sam taking the opportunity to capture the scene in all its glory (minus excess bum cheek I’m pleased to say).


Jeep jeep, jeep jeep yeah!

These ‘lyric’ headings are starting to get tenuous – apologies to Macca for that one!

With the beach less of an option, we took a tour of the local sites to see what Mui Ne has to offer, which is quite a lot, from Red & White Sand Dunes….


Fishing Villages (happily you can’t smell the stench which hit us upon arrival!!)..


to a journey up its Fairy Spring, a lovely stream leading to a waterfall…



We toured around the sites in a battered old jeep with a driver who spoke no English. It was sign language all the way, which didn’t detract from the experience at all. No question of seat belts as the seats themselves didn’t appear to be fixed to anything! I looked down to see a large hole in the footwell that I could have put my feet through Flinstones style. As we careered down the streets, which at best were pothole ridden & at worst uneven dirt tracks, my seat began rocking back & forth. A short while later it broke completely & I took up a reclining position stretched out in an apparently relaxed (not!) position. I couldn’t help recalling the Beverly Hillbillies, my daydreaming regularly disturbed by a banging sound from the rear which turned out to be Sam bouncing back & forth across the back seat like a pinball. Initially we thought we wouldn’t be able to cope with this chaos for the duration of the trip, but like Vietnam itself you find yourself quickly adapting to the madness and before you know it there is a crazy grin of happiness creeping across your face.


World in Motion

In the past we’ve often taken holidays in late June/early July so we’ve watched the World Cup & Euro’s from some weird & wonderful places – witnessing Zidane’s Final head butt while breakfasting in the Big Sur being a highlight. Just days before setting off we learnt that Vietnam had not secured any broadcast rights for the tournament – panic!! Inevitably a deal was sorted & there was full coverage. The main problem was the late game, which for us kicked off at 1.00 a.m – so we abandoned hopes of watching the matches against Belgium & Colombia. The earlier Sweden game was hugely enjoyable & despite knowing no Vietnamese it was clear that the pundits weren’t impressed with Raheem Sterling. Here is a pic of us celebrating that win.

We couldn’t sleep through the Croatia game, resigning ourselves to the probability of extra time, penalties, defeat, & bed at 4.00am. Unfortunately, the English defence curtailed our pessimism. As ever, we found neutral fans supported Brazil, although once they were out & given the huge popularity of the Premiership, England became more popular. There might also have been an element of pity, supporting a small, increasingly isolated nation with an unstable government & uncertain future – a plucky team of underdogs led by an eccentric bearded man wearing an inexplicable waistcoat. Had we won the World Cup superstition would have dictated that we watched every future tournament in Vietnam! It’s the hope that kills you.

Top Travelling Tips #3

Learning Vietnam’s Rules of the Road:


Rule 1 – there are no rules
Rule 2 – there is no such thing as a one way street
Rule 3 – there is nowhere a Moped can’t go
Rule 4 – when you think you’re safe – that is when you are most vulnerable
Rule 5 – when crossing, look left & right…..simultaneously
Rule 6 – traffic lights:


Next week – Sai Gon Revisited.

It’s Delightful, It’s Delicious, It’s D’lovely…….It’s Dalat.


Sunset over Dalat

We’ve taken the 3-4 hour trip inland from the south central coast to the central highlands city of Dalat. Whenever we told the Vietnamese friends we’ve encountered our plans they smiled and made a shivering gesture, saying Dalat is “very cold, nice change from heat” with a knowing smile that made us rather nervous.

It’s true that Dalat is cold compared to where we’ve been, but even at it’s elevated altitude in the mountains the typical daily temperature is in the mid-20s, with evenings dipping to about 15. It makes for a very comfortable change and the novelty of not having the background soundtrack of air conditioning constantly on in our room.

Dalat is simply wonderful. An old French colonial settlement that has the reputation of being the garden of Vietnam, where fruit, vegetables, flowers and coffee grow abundantly in volcanically enriched soil cheerful in the knowledge that the climate never swelters or frosts – to pun another Cole Porter lyric: Anything Grows!


The buildings & proliferation of pine trees set in green gardens makes you feel you are in the French countryside……


Home for a week – a room in a French Colonial Villa

Poo Goes the Weasel:
During our trip into the countryside we were offered the opportunity to try ‘Weasel Coffee’. As a non-coffee drinker Sam wisely opted out, but I thought I’d give it a go – sounds interesting, I thought, probably got nothing to do with Weasels I told myself. Wrong, wrong, wrong….the clue is in the name you idiot Mitchell!

Vietnam is now a major coffee producer, but Weasel Coffee is a speciality as it relies on the ‘productivity’ of said Weasels. Many years ago local farmers noticed that Weasels liked to eat coffee beans – after being digested & fermented by the Weasel, the beans would then re-appear in their faeces. A brave & entrepreneurial farmer then took these weasel crap encrusted coffee beans, cleaned & roasted them to produce Weasel coffee – which turns out to be quite a delicacy locally. So, long story short, I drank a cup of Weasel shit. I’m pleased to report no ill effects, although I’m sure I still have a slight after-taste of weasel!


One of the more unexpected things we’ve learnt in Vietnam is the growth of religion in what is a predominantly secular country. Make no mistake, Ho Chi Minh remains predominant in the culture, but there has been an increase in Bhuddism & Catholicism, especially when the diktats of Communist rule became more relaxed. Churches and temples are very popular attracting the devout & curious alike. We’ve noticed a competitive streak when it comes to building bigger, better & higher statues of Buddha in Vietnam – not sure what Buddha would make of this (Buddha envy?). On a visit to a temple our guide asked us what religion we had. When we told him we are atheists, he replied, “ahhh…..freedom,” with a wry smile.


Haircut, Haircut!
It’s said that the only things in life you can’t avoid are death & taxes… which should be added haircuts (although Donald Trump appears to have avoided all three – sad). So it was with some trepidation that I had my first Vietnamese haircut last week. We found a local hairdresser & through the power of sign-language, google translate & the barbers 10 & 13 year old children who spoke a bit of English we established the order – the old classic short back & sides, with a little bit longer on top. 5 minutes later everything was done as requested for a mere 100,000 Dong – just over £3. It was like being back in the 70’s.


We stayed a chatted to the lovely family as best we could, showing them pictures of the Royal Pavilion the Pier & the seafront, giving the impression we live in a theme park, leaving the children wide eyed with curiosity & envy. We’ve found the children love to take every opportunity to practice their English & this gave a perfect setting for the hairdressers children to do just that – we were a captive audience. There are the stock questions; where are you from, what is your name, how old are you….. & a genuine curiosity to learn what we like about their beloved Vietnam.




We both hoped to lose a bit of weight & get fitter on our travels, and regular swimming & profuse amounts of sweating has probably helped a bit (scales suggest no change….grrr). In Dalat as we walked up a hill to our room I turned Sam & said I was so unfit my breathing was laboured. Sam said she felt exactly the same, & after thinking about it (& doing a bit of Google research) we attributed it to the altitude at Dalat, which is over 1500 metres – the point at which mild altitude symptoms occur. Reassured & delighted with our diagnosis we indulged in Passion Fruit cake later that day!



Highlands on the road to Dalat

Top Travelling Tips #2

Instead of finding/buying/packing lots of travel plugs, just take one attached to a home multi-plug lead. So simple but so convenient & no more fighting over who gets to charge what up first. I don’t know why we didn’t think of this sooner. So far we haven’t tripped any electric systems either – which is a surprise given how much we load up! (Credit for this ingenious idea goes to Sandy – a friend of Sam’s sister Tina)


Next Week: We return to the coast to talk rubbish (no change there I hear you cry) & watching the World Cup from afar.

Thoughts on Nha Trang


Nha Trang is one of Vietnam’s premier beach resorts, and with its seemingly endless stretch of sand it’s isn’t difficult to see what the main attraction is. However it’s not everyone’s cup of tea and at face value you could make a case that it’s sold whatever soul it had to the rouble & the yuan. It’s certainly growing at a giddying rate – from the hotel rooftop bar (our preferred location for undertaking research) there were at least seven hotels in various stages of development within a half mile radius. It feels more Hong Kong than Ha Noi.



Despite this we had a great week in Nha Trang for a number of reasons. Given the amount of competition the quality & value you get from the hotels is excellent – we bagged a deal at £40 a night for a 4 star hotel 100 yards from the beach, further sweetened by a room upgrade on check-in. Then there is the beach, soft white sand, warm sea lapping up against a backdrop of mountains & islands. A solid week in Nha Trang alone might be too much, but this is where it’s other great attraction comes in – the variety of trips & tours you can take into the beautiful surrounding countryside and islands. We spent a day on a snorkelling trip to a local island enjoying crystal clear water and sea life on a coral reef….



….and another on a motorbike tour that took in various stops including the precarious wooden bridge over the River Cai…..


….and up to Hon Ba Mountain to swim in a wonderfully cold waterfall and lake alongside Vietnamese families escaping the overwhelming heat of the city.



The motorbike trip included a frantic 15 minutes riding through Vietnamese city traffic, where it’s everyone for themselves. I was going to say that you need eyes in the back of your head to ride a motorbike in Vietnam, but that isn’t true as no one gives a toss about what’s behind them, it’s what’s ahead & to both sides you’ve got to be worried about. In fact, the first bit of advice about riding a bike in Vietnam was to point out where the horn was with the instruction, ‘Don’t be scared to use it – often!!’

The motorbike tour was great fun and we even got to do our Easy Rider poses – it really is the only way to travel in this crazy and fantastic country.



We had a great tour guide & as we had him to ourselves we were able to ask about Nha Trang & the impact of the influx of Russian & Chinese tourists & investors. He seemed indifferent about the Russians, not so the Chinese. Given the long running & troubled relationship between these neighbours this wasn’t entirely surprising, but he gave some interesting examples to illustrate his antipathy. “The best and most tasty coconuts are the small ones, but the Chinese always insist on buying the biggest ones to fill their big stomachs….and why is the sea called the South China Sea? It’s on our coast and is the Vietnam Sea, it’s not China’s sea…..and when they eat at seafood buffets they eat too much too fast, no respect”. We clearly had touched on a bit of a nerve here, but to be fair our own experience of Chinese guests in our hotel was that they were quite belligerent and very, very loud. I’ve no idea where the expression ‘Chinese whispers’ comes from but there was precious little of that in our hotel lobby. In the interests of balance I’m sure there are lots of very nice and considerate Chinese tourists in Vietnam – we just haven’t met any of them yet.

In what may become a running theme of the blog I’m continuing to have problems with my size. During our bike trip we visited a place making rugs & got to have a go, but I couldn’t get into the required cross-legged position, my legs just don’t fold up that way. Unfortunately, Sam captured my awkwardness for posterity, or should that be taking the pissterity.


Later we stopped at a cafe where the heat & dehydration called for a rest & sugar cane drink – exhausted I had to sit down & plonked myself on the only chair available which looked like it was built for a 3 year old. I’m surprised I didn’t leave with it wedged on my arse.


Our guide had promised us a glimpse into the lives of local people & as we sat sipping our much needed drink we observed the parenting approach of a young family. A whining toddler was not comforted by his mother but slapped around his head. When the wailing continued, one of the little chairs we were wedged into was used to whack him on his body. Quite a shock to see this, but after a minute or two all seemed well & harmony was restored between mother & toddler.

Top Travelling Tips #1

Finally for this week we are introducing an occasional series of top travelling tips (ooh – lovely alliteration), starting with Cubism. Nothing to do with Picasso, rather how we manage to keep track of our stuff. We left home over a month ago & without our cubes all sorts of carnage would have befallen our cases. Instead our cubes bring order and calm to our packing and unpacking – can’t recommend them highly enough!


6ft 1 – A Figure Of Fun

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There is a wonderful moment early on during your travels when you realise you have left your culture behind and feel truly alien. Naturally the weather, language, food, sights & sounds all contribute to the sense of otherness. However there is another crucial tell-tale sign – being laughed at.

In towns like Quy Nhon where westerners remain the exception, being 6ft+ & crashing about in giant size 10 Converse boots creates responses varying from curious smiles to politely concealed sniggers onto blatant pointing and laughing. John doesn’t mind being a figure of hilarity & ridicule – the Vietnamese are so charming about it.

On a visit to Quy Nhon’s Cham civilisation monument Thap Doi – a site of not insignificant importance – a coach load of Vietnamese tourists abruptly ended their interest in matters ancient on seeing John’s lumbering frame loom into view. From that point on, it was selfie central as the party insisted on having their pic taken alongside the hapless westerner – not so much celebrity as oddity. They jostled with each other to ensure they got their photo taken with John & he happily obliged! He loved the attention & insisted on having his picture taken with the ladies of the group.

Similarly, on our train journey to Nha Trang our presence in the station waiting room caused stifled grins. Occasionally someone will break ranks & talk to us, enjoying the chance to practice their English. On the train Sam watched the mirth in each row of seats as John wandered down the carriage, surfing the wave of laughter & incredulity. We haven’t quite worked out if they are laughing with John or at him – probably a bit of both which is fine by us, it’s always nice to make people happy, especially when it involves absolutely no effort.

Talking of no effort, this blog has been composed while having a foot massage on Nha Trang beach.

In terms of our journey, after the resort outside Quy Nhon, we spent a few days in the town itself. The size of Brighton & Hove it remains slightly off the beaten track due to its relatively near high profile neighbours Da Nang & Nha Trang, which attract a lot of Chinese & Russian tourists (& money). Given its stretches of gorgeous sandy beach it’s only a matter of time before the same tourist boom follows. It seems to have taken the decision to prepare itself for growth by directing investment into bright neon lighting just about everywhere. No doubt Quy Nhon on a Saturday night can be viewed with ease from the Space Shuttle.

We found an Aussie run bar & treated ourselves to burger & pizza while watching the astonishing sight of England’s 6-1 win over Panama. A crushing victory tinged with sadness – “we may never live to see that happen again”. Only England fans can snatch feelings of mortality from the jaws of victory.

On Tuesday we took the 4.5 hour train trip from Quy Nhon to Nha Trang where we immersed ourselves in local culture by travelling in the second class carriage – top marks for authenticity, zero for comfort. The train was 45 minutes late, but given that it had set off from Hanoi in the north 24 hours earlier, that didn’t seem bad going – punctuality Southern Rail could only dream of. The carriage was packed, not only with Vietnamese travellers, but their over sized boxes which they all seem to travel with. They stick these in front of their seats & use them to rest their bare feet on. This meant we had limited leg room & the frequent brushing of their bare feet against our hot, sweaty legs. The ‘refreshment trolley’ consisted of frequent vendors touting their food which ranged from local tea, fresh mango & other home cooked hot food we couldn’t identify.

We’ve arrived in Nha Trang, Vietnam’s premier beach resort city, details of which will follow in the next blog. Tonight we are out celebrating our anniversary – although being 14 hours ahead of Vegas where we wed it should probably be tomorrow night. We’ll just have to celebrate twice!