Today was supposed to be our Angkor main attraction day…
With no clear sky forecast and therefore no real sunrise visible, we decided to skip the “get up at five AM, get your sunrise picture of Angkor Wat” part.
Instead we made our way there around eight AM and one again cannot really describe the feeling standing in front of the ruins of the main temple at Angkor – Angkor Wat. Surrounded by a huge moat, with two main Gopuras as massive entrance gates, galleries, long terraces, many outlier buildings, Angkor Wat is a most impressive masterpiece of Khmer culture.
Only rediscovered in 1860 by the Frenchman and naturalist Henri Mouhot and 1864 by the German ethnologist Adolf Bastian. At the time, the monumental buildings of Angkor didn’t give up their secret easily: “The overgrowing jungle was so dense in this once civilized place, that we had to clear almost every step forward with a machete”, reported Adolf Bastian in 1865, shortly after his return to Europe. There is quite a tragic story behind their expeditions.
While Henri was the first European to sort of ‘rediscover’ Angkor Wat, he died one year later of tropical feaver. His servant brought Henri’s meticulous notes and sketches back to Europe, where they were presented to the Royal Geographical Society in London in 1864. His vivid descriptions and his sketches sparked the interest of the European researchers community.
When Adolf Bastian came back from Cambodia and presented his findings a year later in 1865, Angkor Wat was already on everyone’s lips. When Bastian presented his work, outlayed in a multi-volume edition and tiresomely detailed, but uninspired and untalented, especially without a single one of his drawings – this work hardly made an impression. It was mostly the french research community that later cleared, excavated and rebuilt the temples. After all – Cambodia was a french colony.
On an important note: Neither Mouhot nor Bastian ‘discovered’ Angkor Wat. The Khmer people who have lived in Cambodia to this day always knew about the existence of the old temples, the soul of the country, so to speak. Even long after the decline of their historical empire, Angkor Wat, like some other buildings, was consistently revered as a holy site. And in the 16th century, Portuguese missionaries and traders made numerous trips to Siem Reap, visiting the temples in the former capital of the Khmer Empire.
With so much history, we felt privileged to stroll around the gigantic premises for two hours with too many other tourists (for our liking, but still far less than pre-covid). The sky unfortunately was again an uniform overcast grey to Chris’ desperation. It did not diminish the grandeur and impression one gets from walking those sacred halls.
We made a mental note to come back the next day at a different time, outside the tour groups schedule.
After a nice lunch we visited several more outlier temples, too many to mention, just enjoy the grandiose pictures Chris took.
The temple that we found most memorable is Ta Prohm. It was left largely as it was discovered. Located in the middle of the jungle, huge trees have taken possession of the buildings, walls and courtyards.
Very impressive indeed. Green moss and lichen gave the temple an eerie feeling. The temple is one of the big attractions as it was featured in the movie Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie 20 years ago. It was the temple we liked most (beside a smaller one we saw the day before).
It is like Chris had imagined Angkor Wat, when he was a kid. Unfortunately nearly all others have been cleared of trees and are still impressive, but less romantic.
As our last visit for the day we chose the Royal enclosure also called Angkor Thom. This huge area is square with a moat, high surrounding walls and has four large entrance gates. Only three are accessible by car. Here lie the former show grounds called Elephant Terrace and leper King Terrace with many carvings along the walls. From up there the king liked to watch parades, games and other spectacles. Behind the terrace lie two smaller buildings, one the private residence of the king and his temple. Very steep to climb (we did not attempt) and an official one under construction.
This temple serves very often as a backdrop for wedding pictures but one had to be careful of all the monkeys trying to steal food and other items from you. We leisurely wandered around the huge grounds until we came face to face with a very unusual temple, called Bayon.
Bayon was the heart piece of the Angkor Thom and served as main temple and to conduct royal business. It is a massive mound of stones heaped upon each other (since the Khmer didn’t know mortar at the time, each and every stone had to be chiselet to fit). 74 Prasats were pointing their roof into the sky, a very large Prasat crowning the three level structure on top.
Each prasat has four large buddha like faces (or supposedly the face of the king himself) carved in each direction. Each face is about two meters high. You can only walk the bottom two layers of the structure but those alone are a maze in itself. Many little paths through small chambers and corridors lead to small prayer and altar chambers.
Some lead nowhere, others lead up or down. A true maze in massive proportions. Chris did not like this one as it looked to massive and messy for him … Esther was fascinated – except for the monkeys of course.
Calling it a day after seeing plenty of temples, we decided to make a half day trip tomorrow to a floating village on Tonle Sap Lake instead and stop by a few outlier temples conveniently on the way (Chris was templed out but Esther was not, so this seemed a good compromise).
After having walked 15 kilometers that day, we treated ourselves to a nice Khmer foot and back massage, given by two young women with six kids between them but no more husbands who told us the struggles they have when tourism is so low. They sounded genuine and it must really be hard getting by here with so little. Situations like those always remind us how lucky we are and grateful we should be each day for what we have.
We had another nice dinner here in Cambodia, Khmer curry and Loc Lak (Alaska and Finn might remember the Elephant Walk Restaurant in Boston…) Beef with a delicious sauce and rice – and as Esther now learned – with an egg sunny side up on top in the original version.
We had decided to add three days in Cambodia at the end of our trip to Vietnam as we were flying out of Bangkok. Cambodia lies smack between Vietnam and Thailand. Also we were hoping that tourism would not be back in full force after the pandemic and the many travel restrictions. Well – not all of Cambodia in three days, just a small portion around Siem Reap in the North.
So we booked ourselves for three days into one hotel and had one driver for the entire time there. It was Esthers big dream to once see the temples of Angkor. Which are normally quite overrun with tourists – 6.6 million registered visitors in 2019 to be precise. In December 2021 Cambodia opened its border again and tourists are slowly coming back. But the numbers are still low – so far only 62.000 tickets are being sold monthly according to Angkor enterprise. Do the math and you understand, why many Cambodians are in trouble.
But first Chris had arranged a three hours horseriding tour to one of the temples away from the others. One that was not on the normal tourist routes. We got picked up by a Tuk Tuk at 7 am for an early start to the ride as Cambodia was much hotter than Vietnam.
Forecast was to be mixed weather but 29°C and high humidity. It felt like walking in a hot house at 8 AM. Riding through town in a Tuk Tuk gives you great insight about a country. Cambodia is quite different from Vietnam.
Whereas Vietnam gave us the impression that it´s people were much closer to the Chinese in celebrating Lunar New Year, there were a lot of Taoists, Chinese influenced cuisine and the people had features and lighter skin similar to the Chinese. Here in Cambodia the influence of Thailand can be felt at every corner. Restaurants have often Khmer and Thai food on their menu.
The many golden pagodas, the Thai inspired cuisine, the features an skin of most Cambodians are much darker and looking similar to Thai. Buddhism and Hinduism are wide spread and their Khmer new year gets celebrated around April time frame. Cambodia also gave us the impression that the country is still very much struggling with the aftermath of Covid and the economic impact. Vietnam seemed to be on a fast track to become ‘little China’ as industrious and business like they appeared. Quite capitalist actually. While in Cambodia they still struggle to make ends meet.
Tourist numbers are still very low and many tourists just hop in and out of their one main attraction – the three major temples of Angkor – not spending much time or money in the country. We spoke to drivers, massagists, receptionists and the answer is always the same: we hardly could feed our families during the crisis. We had no work. The government is not giving any assistance and is at the same time very corrupt. And so many just scraped by working on the fields or on construction sites on a very meager salary. Despite the fact that (we felt) that the country is behind Vietnam in it’s development we instantly liked it a lot (more).
As we only had three full days there we decided to start with a slow way to explore on horse back.
There is only one stable in Siem Reap, the closest town to the temples and we heard good things about it. Established in 2002 by a Cambodian who used to live in California it is the only stable of it’s kind and quality in all of Cambodia. The horses were small but well shod, fed and treated. Instead of straw or wood chips, they use rice husks as stall bedding.
For us it was mainly a walking scenic ride and we went on small roads, bumpy tracks through the fields and even through streams.
For a change the sun was shining and we could observe early morning life unfold. Stalls selling gasoline in old Whisky, Gin and Batida de Côco bottles (cheaper than at the gas station) for the two-stroke engines, families following their chores.
Laundry is paid by the kilo and local specialties are large frogs from the grill.
After about a good hour we arrived at our first ancient temple, Wat Athvear, that still housed an active monastery and pagoda next to it. Obviously the first one is always impressive. We tethered the horses to a nearby tree and started walking towards the ruins. Immediately an officer started to meet us to check our Angkor temple pass.
We had bought a three day ticket online. We were to show that pass at every entrance point from now on and it’s been meticulously checked, even going as far as checking our pass numbers and pictures with the one they had on file and seeing if both match. We were quite surprised, but then crooks are inventive…
We wandered through the ancient small temple which was mostly in rubbles. There is so much still to restore here and not enough money so the bigger temples get priority. It was built in the 12th century and served as a Hindu temple.
We learned that each temple is laid out differently but shares a few elements that always repeat itself in some form or fashion.
Gopuras are the entrance gates to each temple. There could be at least two but as many as four. Some small-ish others very massive and elaborate. Then each temple has one or several terraces often lined with stone balustrades in form of Naga, the snake creature with a multi headed cobra front and pulled by many people, then there are multiple Prasats in each temple.
Prasats are conical shaped buildings with real or fake doors that symbolize a place that is closer to the gods in the sky. Temples often have small prasats around the base and a big central Prasat that is the main element around which all others are grouped in orderly and symmetrical fashion. Some temples are protected by a moat or are pyramid shaped. Pyramids often symbolize Mount Meru, the mountain where some of the gods live, and are hard to climb up as many of them are very steep. When excavating many temples a stone steele was found which often describes the temple and life at the time.
The temples of Angkor were all built between 890 and 1300 and depict the rule and might of the Khmers during that time. More to come later.
We wandered through our first small temple in awe. Not having the exact calculations on static and soundness, every wall and ceiling here seemed oversized. Walls were at least half a meter thick, the ceilings made of huge stone blocks, the windows supported by many small columns and the rooms and corridors are very narrow. Add to that the weathered appearance of a thousand years and you just stand there in amazement.
As our temple was an active monastery, we visited the very nice and small pagoda that stood next to it.
Finally we hopped on our horses again and made our way back to the stable. There is a lot of construction going on, so we are not sure if the ride will still be pleasant in the next years. But it seems, that the stable will be closed soon, since the owner is over 80 and his kids live in the US.
Already we liked Cambodia and in retrospect we should have maybe divided our time more evenly between the two countries.
Siphan, our very helpful driver, picked us up from the horse ranch and we had a yummy and very cheap lunch in a local shop next to the street. By now it was overcast and dark rain clouds seem to gather. We fear the bad weather followed us from Vietnam to Cambodia.
Many one day tours only do Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm as the main three temples and be done with it. Avoiding those tours was our goal, so we decided to first visit a few temples off the beaten track. Banteay Srei is also called the ‘citadel of the women’ and lies about 30 minutes north east of the main temple area and is known for it’s delicate and ornate stone carvings.
It’s a small elegant temple. We drove there and luckily there were only very few others, so we could explore at leisure. On every building we saw were lots of dancers engraved called Apsaras.
They differ in hairstyle, gesture and dress. Bantaey Srei had the most and finest we saw in all of Angkor.
We made our way back to the main group by stopping at several lovely and always different temples. Most are partly restored and all except one we saw are cleared of the big trees and jungle greens. One cannot describe in words really how it is to walk through those ruins. Thinking of how much power, life and action they once held. So we will not try to put it into words but let the pictures speak for themselves.
We had a few sprinkles while walking through but nothing major. Unfortunately no blue sky either. Just at the end of the day the sun started to peak out a little bit. That’s when Chris’ face lit up as well.
And so we made the temple of Bakheng our last stop as it is a well known sunset spot for visitors.
Walking up 15 minutes and then climbing the steep pyramid on top for another 5 minutes we arrived out of breath to see the last rays of the sun shining across the jungle forest.
The view was spectacular even though the sky was mostly cloudy and no setting sun was shining on Angkor Wat, which could be seen in the distance.
What an impressive first day here in Cambodia. Repeat tomorrow. We were exhausted having walked and climbed so many steps in 29 degree heat and high humidity that we just had a light dinner and plopped to bed for deep sleep.
Today is our last day in Vietnam. Tonight we´ll catch a flight to Siem Reap in Cambodia for a three day stop in Angkor Wat before heading back home by way of Bangkok from there.
As our plans is only leaving at 6.30 PM we still have a full day to spend. Unfortunately how else could it be, the weather gods still announced rain…. We’ve never had a vacation with so much wet weather than we had here. Don’t travel to Vietnam in January, unless you like overcast sky and rain. A mere two days of sunshine that was all. Add to that a warm haze in the Mekong and the rest was grey and wet. What a pity as the country itself would have looked so much nicer in the sunshine.
We still had some errands to run in Hội An.
Chris needed to pick up his shoes and belt, Esther needed a last fitting for her dress and pants at the local tailor. Both of which turned out great. Then we had to face the packing challenge. Stuffed to the gills, our suitcases each weighed just above or just under 23 kgs. We have no more room for anything else.
We said good bye to Hoi An, a lovely looking town that sometimes felt too crowded for us with all the tourists and with few interesting landmarks. For the folks who are looking for shopping and party, it’s the town to be.
There was one more attraction we wanted to see in Vietnam that was on the way to the airport. The Marble Mountains.
Originally a quarry for real marble, a whole village close to Da Nang, North of Hoi An, was specialised in marble stonemasonry. Add to that a series of caves and temples, you get quite an interesting place. The marble mountains consists of five large rocks in the outskirts of a Da Nang city, complete with temples and caves.
Nowadays, recognizing the touristic value this respresented, and not wanting to eat away at their attraction, they stopped quarrying the local marble and instead work with imported marble from China. The whole street is lined with stone mason shops that offer figurines and larger scale figures and statues made of marble, jade, and all sorts of other stone in all shapes and sizes.
We had arranged for our airport transfer driver to stop for two hours at marble mountain as it was on the way to the airport. Taking advantage of a small rain break we made our way to to top of the largest rock formation.
You can see the seaside, the city and the inland with the other four rocks from up top. We wandered around the rock, visited five different pagodas and four different caves (all with shrines and buddha statues inside).
Some quite small, others rather large. Some statues looked freshly painted, other really old and weathered.
Here we saw lady buddha statues several times, which we had not seen in any other buddhist country before.
Lady Buddha is the Goddess of Mercy who is believed to see, hear and sympathize cries of people in the world.
Her right hand holds a water vase, containing nectar of life and a willow branch in her left hand, used to sprinkle the nectar on the prayers. She is especially worshipped in Vietnam and equal to the male buddha. Actually the largest buddha statue in Vietnam is a female buddha statue outside of Da Nang.
Some of the caves were rather small and one had to squeeze through narrow passages while others were very large and cavernous.
Some let natural light in and that added to the sense of awe when looking from above to many of the small shrines in the cave.
When we were nearly done with our sight seeing it started to rain heavier again and deciding to cut our visit short we headed back down hundreds of stairs to the parking lot.
Arriving drenched but glad we could still see the marble mointains we hopped into our car and drove to the airport for a last Pho soup and a good bye with mixed feelings.
We decided to write a separate final summary as Esther’s and Chris’ impressions as a sum total of the things seen, eaten and experienced in Vietnam differ slightly.
It’s the first day of the new year – and we were getting up at six AM. Not something we usually would do, but the sunrise and scenic beauty of the early morning in Tự Long Bay is just so unique and not to be missed.
We were lucky again and the sky only had a few clouds as the sun was rising slowly behind the karst rock formations. Our ship was swinging calmly in the sea and Chris decided to let his drone fly to catch this magic morning. Us others we were getting ready for our 6.30 AM Tai Chi introductory class.
None of us had done Tai Chi before and so what started easily, following simple movements morphed into the more complex series of connected, flowing poses which challenged all of us. It did feel quite similar to yoga in slow motion.
We had a good laugh trying to follow our Tai Chi master without toppling over. By now we had started the boat up again and moving again towards a small floating fishing village which we were supposed to visit. A village entirely built on water.
While the boat was moving Chris flew the drone again and sweated quite a bit until it was safely home again. Drones apparently don’t like landing on moving objects like boats and so he had to artificially crash land it on deck. At least for this segment of the journey we were really lucky with the weather.
Once anchored for the last excursion of this trip, we boarded our by boat and drove to a swimming dock where we changed into smaller rowing boats, four people to a boat.
Some of the rowing ladies looked like they came straight out of a photo shoot, one even complete with trench coat and hat.
She paddled us around the swimming village, consisting of small houses with small fish farms attached.
Each house had several dogs guarding it and often a colorful fisher boat tied in front. It was a picturesque view.
A challenge though for the families is the school situation. There is no school close by for the children and so either the families with children move to the main land or they board their children with other family members on the main land. They are mostly fishing for squid here and shrimp as the water is too shallow for big fish.
It is also extremely salty, washed from the many limestone formations into the ocean. This makes it perfect for growing oysters. The fishing village also had one pearl farm in their midst as well. Each boat was equipped with a landing net and the fishermen and rowers were catching floating plastic and trash from the sea if they saw any.
The bay and whole area looked very clean. We did not see much trash floating about at all.
Back at the Treasure Junk, we enjoyed a sumptuous brunch before packing our bags and heading back to the harbor.
We all would have loved to stay another day out here. Alas we have to say good bye to our very nice travel family and catch a shuttle back to Hanoi.
Arriving mid afternoon in Hanoi we had the rest of the day to stroll through the old town. Turns out the day of the Hanoi half marathon was today, several roads are still closed to traffic and so it was very pleasant to walk around Hoàn Kiếm lake on foot.
Plenty of families were out and about and enjoying themselves.
In the middle of the lake is a small old pagoda that has seen better days and a small island with a newer pagoda can be reached by a picturesque red foot bridge. Many locals went there to donate for good fortune.
Lunar new year is fast approaching and so everyone tried to get ready for it. This includes making donations, shopping for food and household things to cook for the entire family and of course gift shopping! The Old Quarter is teeming with people, little shops and restaurants are making good business.
We decided to try some street food, pork squewers, little snails, self made BBQ on a little table oven, sweetened water chestnuts just some of many things we hadn’t eaten before.
Glad to be walking after a filling dinner, we set out to explore the famous Hanoi Night Market. It’s only on weekends from seven PM to eleven PM and it’s an entire long road dedicated to little stalls of all kinds. And all kinds of fake goods too. Handbags, eyewear, clothing items of all kinds. Toys, cards, some true handicraft items but most of it was made of plastic.
In between we saw many small food vendors selling sweets and treats for the crowds. We slowly wandered through the sea of people just watching and taking it all in. Europe is so far away…
We decided to call it an early night as we have plans for the morning still before our airport shuttle picks us up at lunchtime. We really like Hanoi, but agreed that we could never life there for a longer period of time. Too much air pollution, too much traffic, too many people…
Today we got up early as we wanted to avoid the crowds from the previous day and see the Japanese bridge without people. Hội An was mainly made of three different groups. The Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese.
Bult in 1760 it is made from dark wood on brick stilts it has originally linked two parts of the city together – the Japanese part and the Chinese part. Largely inspired by Japanese design, the bridge features two dogs on one side guarding the bridge and two monkeys on the other.
In the middle is a door leading to a small temple where the smell of incense was so intense that we had to leave.
We wandered past the many temples and pagodas early morning but most of them were still shut. The old town is busy with locals setting up shop but tourists are not yet out and about (except us of course…). Back at the hotel we had a healthy breakfast and then Quang, our guide for today met us for a cycling trip across several islands.
Throwing ourselves bravely into the busy traffic we cycled across Hoi An, the old town, and over a bridge into the new town (Party town, called An Hội). as soon as we left a few streets behind us it got really quiet and the real town started to emerge with it’s busy morning activities.
We cycled on small country roads from island to island, connected by small bridges only accessible by scooter or bike. One of the bridges was made of steel bands and rattled like crazy cycling across. Past freshly planted rice paddies and vegeltable fields we cycled to a small village where we had our first stop at a rice noodle factory.
To call it a factory was a total overstatement as only one elderly couple was producing the rice noodles on four steam cookers. They have been doing that for 25 years and are quite famous around here. Chris and Esther both tried their hands at noodle making.
The most complicated thing is to not get it stuck together otherwise it’s impossible to separate it again.
We bought some really good rice crackers to go and on we went on the bike. Looking at some intricate wood carving and inlay workshops to a family that specialised making coconut cake. Coconut cake is a favourite sweet for us, that we discovered in the Mekong delta. Coconut shavings get soaked in sugar cane water, and colored with some fruit coloring (yellow, red or green, or left white). It is then cooked in a wok and then finally coated in more sugar. Yum! A real coconut treat! We would call those coconut bands, they call it coconut cake and it is only cooked for TET, their Vietnamese luna new year festival that is happening on January 21. this year.
So every familiy is getting ready for it. All the businesses are in high demand from the lady that sells fresh sand for the incense stick holders to the many lantern shops and card makers. It’s the biggest family festival of the year and the whole country takes at least three days off with all shops closed. It’s time for family and friends and not tourists. We bought some coconut cake as well to bring home and continued to cycle to a little boat that was supposed to ferry us back to the mainland, bikes and all for our kayak excursion and then lunch.
So far the weather goods have been at least OK as we had no rain so far. The ferry dropped us at the kayak place and we got into our two seater and started paddling through some canals close to the big river.
We colorful king fishers, white egrets, little crabs as we paddled through the forest of water coconut palms. It was a very peaceful half hour before it started raining again and we slowly headed back against the wind and arrived wet at the boating place. Well it would have been too nice without the rain….
After some biking we arrived at our lunch place and were glad to sit down and enjoy a delicious meal with local delicacies. As always we told ourselves we’ll go on a diet when we come home as we have eaten so many good things here that each of us put on a few pounds for sure!
Cycling back to Hội An in the rain was not much fun and so we cut the day shorter than intended. We preferred to kick back with a good cappucino at a french café around the corner.
At six PM Chris was scheduled for a fitting for his shoes and after that we had a delicious dinner at a small vegetarian restaurant trying out blue tea. Yes it’s a blue flower that’s called butterfly flower and the tea is called butterfly tea.
Once you pour water in it it turns blue, if you add lime (acid), it turns purple. Quite a strange sight.
We called it an early night as we had lots to pack for the next day and both were already on our check in limit of 23 kg for our luggage for the flight to Cambodia…
Today we traveled from Hué to Đà Nẵng by train and then by car to Hội An. Luckily we had seat reservations as the train was sold out.
There is only one railway track in Vietnam connecting the five major cities together. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Đà Nẵng, Hué, Dong Hoi and Hanoi. There are only 2-3 trains a day, plus some cargo trains and so for the majority of the distance there is only one train track for both sides. Every 50 Kilometers is a stretch of parallel track so the trains can pass each other on their way.
Train accidents are rare as there are only a few of them and the maximum speed is 60 km/h. They are very useful to travel overnight as they have sleeper cars . Our trip from Hué to Da Nang only lasted about 2.5 hrs. No need for a sleeper car for us. Waiting for our train at the Hué central station, we were amazed at how many people took pictures on the tracks as they are on level ground with the platform for the passengers. German train personnel would have had a fit.
Slowly and with some delay the train started to approach with a lot of honking to make the people leave the tracks and we heaved our heavy suitcases onto the carriage and into our very large overhead compartment.
They are really geared towards people having lots of luggage. We saw plenty of boxes, suit cases, bags of all shapes and sizes. Often a whole trolley full for a single family.
Settling down into our seats, having bought some Coke, Water and Pringles at the station to get us through lunch, we watched the other travelers. Opposite us was a Vietnamese couple, he much older than she, she wearing a mask at all times, he did not bother. opposite on the other side as a Swedish couple, that looked like they had no fun whatsoever watching films on their iPhones the whole time.
We have to admit: due to the weather there was not much of a view beyond watching the passengers in our coach. A number of the other passengers went straight to sleep curled up somehow in old fashioned plastic leather clad seats (with USB ports for charging!).
All of a sudden there was some commotion at the back of our carriage. Ah! food was arriving! Three trolley carts were wheeled in quite noisily, two filled with buffet style open containers full of cooked food.
The entire carriage started to smell like grilled pork and onions. Meals were served for the paying passengers on real plates (no plastic!) complete with steamed rice and vegetables. Quite fascinating to watch. The third trolley had smaller items and drinks. We opted for four hard boiled eggs as a snack which proved to be a good choice. Slowly the train chugged along the curvy tracks along the eastern coast of Vietnam. Sometimes with barely 10 km/h, depending on windiness, passing traffic and steepness. It would have been a great scenic drive were it not for the rain again. Big droplets on the windows does not make for great views.
Arrived at Đà Nẵng station we were picked up by our driver for another 45 min drive to Hội An. Đà Nẵng is a big city and quite commercial. Lots of businesses and trading hubs are headquartered here as it’s half way between HCMC/Saigon and Hanoi. We did not plan on spending any time there apart from using it as a landing and departing spot just like many others do. Our next target was Hội An.
Hội An has not been destroyed by the wars at all and has a beautiful old town that is largely preserved as it was in olden days. It is said to be the „frenchest” and most picturesque city in Vietnam.
Having checked into our centrally located hotel (Hội An Central Hotel its fitting name), we immediately set out on foot to explore. Having high expectations on temples, pagodas, old buildings etc. we almost felt overwhelmed by the number of tourists clogging the streets.
Except at the Pearl place, we had not met many tourists at all here in Vietnam, always avoiding the crowds and all of a sudden we were engulfed in masses of people. Chris muttered something about feeling to be at Disneyland. Talk about a cold shower…
We squeezed through some of the sights together with many hundreds of others about then decided that this wasn’t for us and decided to come back later in the hope that the crows would have dispersed in the late afternoon.
Wandering out of the old town, the crowds got immediately less and we settled down to an excellent Bánh mì, a Vietnamese style sandwich. Pondering when to give it another try, we decided first to scout out some tailor and shoe shops.
Hội An is famous for it’s custom tailors who sow a suit, shirt or dress over night to measure. Hundreds of different fabrics are on display, as are some of the styles but they make pretty much everything you want – even from pictures you find on the internet or your from your favorite brand.
As it takes some time to negotiate a price, select colors, fabrics and take measurements, we decided after having wandered around comparing shops, fabrics and their prices, to settle for a lady tailor a bit out of town. Esther wanted to get a traditional style dress made as well as a pair of light summer pants. The negotiation, selection of fabrics and measurement taking took some time but Esther felt the price of 55 dollars for the dress and pants were fair. She had to pay 5 dollars more because she was taller than most customers and the seamstress needed more fabric :-). Sunday morning (Day 18) we can pick it up.
Chris decided that he was going to take advantage of the show makers here (Vietnam is very well known for excellent shoe making) and after having decided between different leather shops he got his foot measurements taken on a piece of paper.
What a luxury having leather shoes made to measure for 75 USD a pair. He picked on of the designs they had in their shop but modified it with a design he liked from home. The shoemaker is going to work off a picture to make it happen. Chris selected two different tone leathers and then decided on the spot to have not one, but two pairs made. It’s really easy here once you see the quality/ price ratio.
Saturday evening he is going back to try them on and in case some changes need to be made, they will be finished by Sunday.
After all this shopping it was dark and we decided to head back into the old town.
We were amazed at how many people had already left. Turns out that many of the tourists only came as day tourists from Đà Nẵng and are leaving around five PM.
It felt much more relaxed walking the old town with a lot less people in it. Now we can actually enjoy the old buildings, the many small shops, cafés, restaurants and street vendors.
Opposite Hội An across the river is An Hội, the party town.
We still saw many people, blasting music and blinking lights there but after a quick tour around we decided that we much prefer the relative quietness of Hội An. We ended the evening, thinking Hội An was not that bad after all, with a drink at a local bar, where two elderly gentlemen played the guitar and banjo. That is more down our alley.
Today we woke up to a drizzle again. The weather gods are not with us on this trip… More rain than sun and many days just a cloudy and hazy grey sky.
Nevertheless we set out with a full day of activities planned, hoping for some rainless windows during the day. Both clad in Gore-Tex ( had to put that plug in…) we drove to the ancient citadel. Hué was the imperial capital for many centuries, before Saigon and Hanoi.
Strategically situated between the North and South of the country, king Gia Long built a huge fortified complex between 1803 and 1833. The outer square wall measures two meters thick and ten kilometers long once around. The moat protecting it measures 30 meters across and four meters deep. It has ten gateways. It is a huge area once you enter it.
The citadel has three distinct sections: the outer fortifications, the imperial palace and the purple forbidden city. All square shapes nested inside each other.
The imperial palace, where the king resided unfortunately was under renovation, as was the queen’s palace. While select few guests and dignitaries were allowed in the imperial enclosure, the forbidden city was strictly forbidden to all men except the king. Here is where all the hundreds of concubines were living guarded only by eunuchs.
The queen mom also was living here and had a very charming property including living quarters, temple and tea house with pond.
Despite the drizzle we took two hours to wander through the vast terrain of the citadel, admiring the many artifacts that we saw.
The kings seals, the treasury, the royal theater, the many gardens with their meticulously kept bonsai trees and of course the many pagodas and temples inside the citadel.
Too many things to mention, other that the whole complex was badly destroyed by the French and American wars and is slowly still being rebuilt one house at a time. The renovation and cost to keep up such a vast property must be mind boggling.
After the visit to the citadel, we had one more stop before lunch: the Tien Mu Pagoda. This is the most famous pagoda in all of central Vietnam. Built in 1844 directly on the Perfume river on a small hill it has a tower with seven stories for a total of 21 meters, a modest temple but a huge significance.
Since 1966 political protest has assembled here after one of the monks who trained here drove to Saigon, poured gasoline over himself and set himself on fire as a sign of protest against the suppression of buddism in comparison to the catholic faith.
We went to lunch by dragon boat. The 30 minute drive on the Perfume river (named after the many flower blossoms scents in spring time) is usually very picturesque but with todays rain it literally was a wash out…
We had lunch at a restaurant called litte Italy, of all places, but had a completely Vietnamese meal there.
On we went to two of the six kings tombs around Hué. Not expecting much, we were surprised to see the splendor and size of the tombs.
First we climbed up a hill where King Khải Định is buried.
King Khải Định was emperor of Vietnam between 1916 and 1925. The tomb took eleven years to built and Khải Địn died before it was finished.
A larger than life size bronze statue of him sits inside the building on top of his actual tomb underneath.
The whole area is a weird mix of French grandeur like some of the French kings had and Chinese tradition, as everywhere Chinese symbols and craftsmanship are on display. From French golden mantle clocks to intricate Chinese mosaics. From Louis XV furniture to lots of Chinese stone dragons everywhere.
This tomb is quite a statement for a king, widely regarded as a French puppet as Vietnam was a French colony during his reign. It was nevertheless a worth while visit.
On we went to the second tomb for today. This one in total contrast to the first one. King Minh Mạng’s reign lasted from 1820-1840 and it was him who planned this stunning landscape tomb but he never got to build it.
It was actually then built by his successor king Thiệu Trị and took only three years to build. What makes this tomb so unique is the garden setting and the intricate ponds and lakes that surrounds the multi tiered layout. Laid out on flat land it nevertheless makes one climb up and then down stairs to get from one section to the next. From the Honor courtyard (complete with honor guard in stone consisting of two elephants, two horses and eight Mandarin warriors) steps lead up to the Stele pavillion, from there steps down, and then up again to the Pavilion of light (where the king was supposed to spend leisure time).
Then down a flight of stairs again and up to the kings sepulcher where his actual gravesite is. In between staircases are bridges across artificial lakes with plenty of fish in them.
All this built in traditional style and in a grandiose garden setting. The pictures speak for themselves. It was a really impressive afternoon, despite the weather.
Back at the hotel late afternoon, we just wanted to relax and pack for tomorrows trip to Da Nang and Hoi An.
Today was mostly a travel day for us. Leaving the cave region and making our way by car to Hué. During the trip we have two stops planned: one to visit the Vinh Mốc tunnels and other on the demarcation line formerly separating North and South Vietnam into two nations.
We arrived at the Vinh Mốc tunnels during a drizzling rain adding to the gloomy atmosphere there. During the Vietnam war, one costal village was the target of unrelenting US bombing as it was known that many of the weapons deliveries for the insurgency in the south were going through Vinh Mốc. As a response to the bombing, the villagers dug an incredible series of tunnels underground. When they heard the bombers come close, the entire village of 90 families disappeared underground.
The maze of tunnels with ten exits/entries was dug into the clay soil by hand. Each tunnel was no more than 130 m high and maybe 50/60 cm wide. In total nearly two kilometers of tunnel were dug. The underground maze was built on three levels. On level one, about seven meters underground were the tunnels for the soldiers / fighters. Level number two, about 15 meters underground, housed the villagers. In intervals, small niches were dug out into the tunnel walls that served as sleeping and living space for each family. The space was only two meters by 120 cm and was no higher than 120 cm. Easy to become claustrophobic under ground.
This level housed also a hospital, maternity ward (in total 17 children were born underground) two water wells and a meeting room.
The third level, another seven meters below level two is where the weapons and ammunition were stored. A few of the entrances faced the seaside so goods could easily and quickly be brought to and from shore into a tunnel. The other tunnel entrances/exits were facing the mountains as potential escape routes.
Walking crouched through those dark tunnels with sticky, stale air made one immediately uncomfortable and living down here for a longer period of time seemed awful.
While we had smart phone flash light functions on and some tunnels had a few light bulbs, in former times they only had candles to give a bit of light. No electricity down here.
It brought back the war and it’s gruesome realities to ones attention, especially as we have a war going on in Europe right now. We shuffled our way under ground through all the tunnels that we were able to visit and came away in awe of the sheer grit, wit and ingenuity by which the Vietnamese defended their country against the US.
Continuing on to the actual demarcation line between the South and the North, we entered into the DMZ (demilitarized Zone), a ten kilometer wide strip which was declared no man’s land between the two Vietnams.
Nobody was allowed to live here. Right smack in the middle flows the Bến Hải river.
We walked over the original border crossing bridge from the North to the South, the different color of the bridge as well as the white line on the ground making sure everyone knew were the two Vietnams met.
Arrived in Hué we checked into our hotel and pretty much called it a day. Enough rain, drizzle and sobering sights for one day.
Today the weather gods again were not favorable to us. We are staying in a very nice lakeside resort with beautiful views and a bungalow directly on the water – but at 15 degrees and drizzling rain, we don’t feel like swimming, kayaking or hoping on a SUP.
Instead we chose what is the best thing to do on a rainy day: visit some caves. We chose two great caves, one on foot and one by boat.
Fearing that we’ll face a crowd of tourists in a confined space we asked to start the day early and our guide Ngoc agreed. We set out at 8 AM and 30 minutes later we arrived at a large empty parking space in front of Thiên Đường Cave better known as Paradise Cave. Not to imagine what this place looks like with thousands of tourists in the summer.
We were literally car number two in the parking lot. Setting out on a leisurely walk for about a mile, declining the golf cart, we arrived at a set of stairs and had to climb up for about 15 minutes. Our thighs were burning at the end of the climb. After a short rest we descended a hundred+ steps again into the cave mouth of Paradise cave. This cave was only detected in 2005 by a local farmer and only 2010 made accessible to the public. It lies in the middle of Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, one of the UNESCO world heritage sites.
In order not to destroy the cave interior and natural set up by trampling tourist feet, a wooden walkway and stairs were installed to protect the cave. With its length of one kilometers, it figures in the Vietbook (Vietnamese Guinness Book of Records) as longest wooden bridge in Vietnam.
The cave mouth is not large and so one has no idea about the vastness of the cavern hidden behind it. A huge open space becomes visible after climbing a few steps down into the cave. Stalagmites and Stalactites are visible everywhere and some have reached enormous dimensions over the millennia.
It is truly a breathtaking sight wandering through the ancient rock formations nearly all alone in the cave. We were so lucky. It was quiet, one could hear that many drops splashing down from the cave ceiling and its many cracks. Bizarre shapes had formed and are still growing today. The entire cave is lit and so one gets a very good sense of the huge dimensions of the cave.
The ceiling is at places more than 70 meters high and the width can span 150 meters across. We felt privileged to have that cave nearly all to ourselves where otherwise thousands of tourists shuffle through. The noise level must then be awful whereas it was completely silent for us except for the dripping water and one lone singing bird that must have gotten lost in the cave. That little chap was singing his heart out on top of a stalagmite and looked really lost.
The wooden walkways only get you one kilometere inside the cave, the other 30 kilometers of the entire cave length are not open to the public with the exception of some overnight expeditions under the right circumstances. The cave is partly submerged further down and so passages are only open during low water levels.
Walking out again we saw a wave of tourists flooding in after us and felt blessed again for having gotten here so early.
On we went to Cave number two, Phong Nha Cave in the same national park. Those two are only 20 minutes apart. We decided to go there at 11.30 AM as most tours are getting ready to have lunch during that time.
Phong Nha has been voted as one of the most wonderful caves in the world for a number of reasons: for its longest underground river, for its most beautiful underground lake. For its highest and widest entrance, for its most beautiful and widest dry cave, for its most beautiful sandbank and reef, as well as for its most spectacular stalactites, stalagmites and longest water grottos.
You can’t get there on foot, so we boarded a covered little boat. A line of blue boats were tied to the dock and we boarded one in the company of two girls from South Korea. We were only four passengers plus our guide Ngoc. It took about 30 minutes to get to the mouth of the cave with a slow, noisy diesel motor propelling the boat forward. We saw dozens of blue boats tied when we left and only one blue boat at the entrance to the cave, ready to leave.
Our boat captain had to check with authorities that we were good to go in. Only 20 boats were allowed in at one time. In peak season blue boats have to queue up and wait their turn to go into the cave. But we could start immediately and as soon as we reached the cave mouth the motor was switched off and our crew of two took up rowing the boat into the cave. The silence was a blessing!
Lit in similar style as Paradise cave, we glided silently on the river, deeper and deeper into the cave. The cave is a bit more than seven kilometers long, the river that runs through it originating from Laos, but at times not navigable. Either too shallow (so the boats only go 1.500 meters into the cave) or too flooded and then no tours can operate at all.
We were in awe looking at all the bizarre and beautiful rock formations. Here is where supposedly the NVA (North Vietnam Army) hid a huge stockpile of weapons for the fight against the South. And as the US tried to bomb the cave mouth during the war, they accidentally enlarged the cave mouth even further rather than having destroyed the entrance which was the original plan. We did not meet a single other boat on the entire trip inside the cave until the very end.
Right before exiting the cave one could hop on one of the sand banks and walk the remaining 100 meters on foot. Some views nearly looked like paintings. Absolutely beautiful.
Again we were the only ones walking the last 100 meters so we had the place to ourselves for as long as we wanted. Walking out of the cave mouth one passes the obligatory little stalls selling souvenirs, food and drinks. Business must be tough on a rainy day and off season. Our boat was the only one tied to the quay waiting for us to arrive and drive home.
Just as we set out on our return journey we could not believe our luck, as we saw six full blue boats turning around the corner and starting their journey into the cave. Again we felt blessed by our luck having been here so early. For the little stalls this is good news though as tourism is their biggest source of income and easier than the hard farm work.
Back at the dock we had a yummy late lunch in a local restaurant and felt we definitively needed to walk some of that good food off. Only item on our afternoon schedule was the Phong Nha Botanic Garden about 30 minutes away.
Not sure what to expect from a botanical garden in the middle of a natural reserve and with so many plants growing freely, we set out on foot with our umbrella as it had started to rain again.
Walking through a jungle path we saw various plants and trees unknown to us, porcupines and for a brief moment some monkey’s. Our destination was the Gio waterfall. We were in more for the exercise than having expectations to see anything remarkable on a rainy day with low hanging clouds. We were pleasantly surprised.
After a steep and rocky climb down, using ropes and little rickety ladders, lucky not to slip, we arrived at a small picturesque waterfall flowing into a basin that absolutely invited for a swim were it not for the drizzle and coolish temperature. On a warm sunny day we would have loved to dive in and get wet.
Ready to turn back and start our return journey, we were surprised when Ngoc started to climb up to the top of the waterfall on the right hand side with the help of some ropes and motioned for us to follow. Climbing with an (by then folded) umbrella in hand up on a slippery slope and holding onto a moving rope was quite a challenge.
It proved absolutely worth it. Up on what we believed the top of the waterfall was. Turns out the climb opened up onto the real larger waterfall not visible from below.
Due to the rain the waterfall was much more impressive than during dry season our guide told us. It was very picturesque and wonderful to watch.
We had to cross the stream and had to climb up more ropes and ladders to the real top of the fall, nearly slipping but happy and exhausted on the top. What a nice walk! It was nearly dusk by the time we arrived back at the car park.
We certainly had an action packed day today and we felt we made the best out of a bad weather day. The day calls for an early night and a good sleep…
After yesterdays stroll through a crowded old quarter, we had the opposite this morning. Leaving our central hotel quite early at 8.30 AM we walked through sleepy streets and closed shops in Hanoi center. We were headed to the temple of literature again, as Esther wanted to see it this time without that many tourists and Chris was a good sport. Of course by the time we walked there a number of local tourists had arrived and the place wasn’t as empty as we had hoped.
Armed with a packet of incense sticks and matches, we visited the ancient school and made our new years and good will wishes while leaving the incense to burn slowly. Apparently Confucius was already teaching at this school. He is so revered everywhere for his state building and moral compass but what many people don’t know is that he had very clear opinions on what a man’s or a women’s role should be.
Men are to be taught literature, math and writing women are supposed to be beautiful, gentle and well behaved. His attitude would not have been working in todays world. But he did get credited by defining many of the do’s and dont’s that make up a functioning society.
After the temple we stopped by the ancient citadel in the middle of town. It is still being excavated in many places, dated back to the 11th century, then converted into a military training ground during the Vietnam war before being turned into a large scale open air museum today. The sheer size of the citadel, which had originally three rings of protection, is amazing.
There was also an exhibition to commemorate the 50th anniversary of (North)Vietnams victory over the US, which Chris found very interesting. After all, the Vietnamese successfully stood up against the USA, whose military power was already overwhelming at the time. They were specially proud of shooting down the fearsome B52 bombers.
It was time to head back to the hotel, as our flight to Đồng Hới was leaving mid afternoon.
We allowed ourselves one last delicious freshly prepared smoothie, sitting on mini chairs on a street corner opposite our hotel watching the traffic go by.
By now it was lunchtime and traffic had resumed to it’s normal crazy level. Honking horns are omnipresent. Hundreds of thousands of scooters (an estimated 450 000 scooters in a city of 8 million) descent upon the city each day. They are everywhere. They jump the queue at every red light, forming a moving bee hive when the light turns green. One way streets do not apply to them, even though they officially do. Helmets seem to be optional here (even though officially they are compulsory), masks are optional (even though everyone wears one while driving).
Also optional are the sizes and dimensions of loads that can be transported on them. We saw anywhere from two meter wide loads full of sugarcane to three meter long scooter trailers carrying live animals.
Got three grown live pigs to transport – no problem. Stick each one into a long bamboo basket, strap one on the left, one of the right side of your scooter and one across the back … Got chickens to transport? no problem – strap the dead ones to the front and keep the lives ones in a cage in the back.
Got three dogs to transport on a scooter? no problem – put them in the open foot room of your scooter and hope none falls out. Get four family members across town? No problem – take one child in the front standing before you, let daddy drive , squeeze second smaller child in between Mum and Dad and squeeze Mom on the very back hoping she does not fall off during the journey. Maybe Dad wears a helmet … no need to bother for the others…
It’s amazing what one scooter can take… but cars are simply way more expensive here and a lot slower. And rickshaws aren’t really an alternative we found. You can imagine the air quality all that traffic produces and we feel sorry for the poor people that can’t afford a scooter and have to use a bike each day. We know now why so many scooter drivers are wearing masks while driving. The air pollution is pretty bad.
One thing we haven’t gotten around to yet is to take a GRAB taxi. A scooter taxi of course. Green GRAB scooter drivers are everywhere. They carry a spare helmet and you can book them for anything by app. (Uber has no chance here…). Personal transport, food delivery, running errands – you will find a GRAB driver that is close by and does what you need done.
That’s a wrap for Day 12 as the rest is travel to Dong Hoi and settle into our very nice lake side hotel.
Today we need to say good bye to Tâm and Dong. One last fantastic breakfast in our lovely hotel and off we went early as we had a four hour drive ahead of us to Hạ Long Bay harbor. It started great with us stopping at a small coffee shop that had egg coffee for Chris (which he had come to love) and a real cappuccino for Esther (which she really misses). Egg coffee or Cà phê trứng is made, by the way, by beating an egg yolk with sweetened condensed milk for about ten minutes until it makes an airy, creamy, meringue-like fluff. This eggy goodness is then slowly poured on top of hot (robusta) espresso.
Driving for about two hours we stopped at a rest station that was famous for a vast array of traditional sweets. The Vietnamese turn pretty much anything into a snack or sweet treat. Beans, shrimp, fruit, nuts, beef, pork, soy beans etc. pretty amazing.
We loved one of the nutty treats best and one made of thin coconut shavings rolled in fine sugar. Very yummy. And of course the dried and candied mango. Chris did not want any sweets or salty snacks, he just wanted to take the little kitten with him that he found attached on a leash in the corner of the store. At least we gave it some water.
Continuing on our way we had one more stop before Hạ Long Bay harbor. We stopped at a pearl production site. Together with what felt like a thousand tourists, mainly domestic or from other Asian countries, we watched the painstaking process of pearl seeding, growing and harvesting.
The venue had a number of guides but they all seemed to be busy so Tâm quickly organized for us a French speaking tour guide and simply added us to a group of French to follow. We learned that there are three main types of oysters that produce different pearly. the most common one is the Akoya oyster, producing while translucent pearls. Then the Tahitian Oysters that produce a steely silverish and purplish pearl, often larger than the Akoya. And last but not least the beautiful South Sea Oyster and pearls that are the largest and have a beautiful creamy and yellow color. We watched how the oysters were carefully seeded with a small round ball made of another mussel shell. The oyster is carefully opened a little bit and the round seed ball is implanted carefully into the oyster. Naturally pearls develop around grains of sand that accidently find there way into the oyster.
After having put back in cages into the ocean, the oyster takes between two and four years to encase the little ball with thousands of layers of nacre (mother of pearl/ Perlmutt) before it’s being harvested. Man has no control over this process other than seeding the oyster and putting it back into the ocean. The size, shape or color of the pearl cannot be influenced or seen from outside. About 30% of the oysters die during that period and that can’t be influenced either. When the oysters are opened after their number of years is up it’s always a surprise what pearl awaits. While natural pearls are often asymmetrically shaped depending on the sand corn or dirt that caused the nacre, the cultivated pearls are very often symmetrically round due to the seedling inside, but not all. The best pearls are being used to make jewelry, the others ground and used in cosmetics powders to make our skin glitter.
While the process was fascinating to watch we wanted to escape the many tourists that clogged the pearl shop. So we went on our last drive and arrived at Halong Bay harbor right before 12 noon. We said good bye to Tâm and Dong as they will have three days off now and then ferry other tourists around next week. They have been a very nice, humourful and attentive guide and driver and we told the agency that as well.
Soon after at the very busy ferry and boat terminal we met our fellow travelers who we will be spending new years eve with on board the ‘Treasure Junk’ (yes we know, not a great name in English, as junk means trash). Luckily the boat was far from trashy. It was a very elegant but a bit aged wooden vessel with sails and motor. We were lucky again as the boat was laid out for 30 people and we were only six adults and two children on board. That’s all.
We met a very nice couple from Canada with Polish heritage, now working in Switzerland. And an English couple with two adorable little girls that moved a year ago to Thailand working for the British embassy there. Having plenty of space on the boat we were lucky that the two couples got the prime cabins on the upper deck. What a luxury!
A cabin with at least 20 square meters and a bathroom double the size of ours at home complete with shower and bath tub. Each cabin had an own sun deck as well. The British couple were happy too as they got an extra room for their girls despite not having booked one. What a nice and accommodating crew!
We all got our luggage and had some relax time on the top deck followed by a nice lunch while driving out to Hạ Long Bay.
Where to start to describe this wondrous area? Turquoise blue seas are sprinkled with thousands of little islands.
Those islands are rocky karst formations very raggedy covered partially with greenery and sometimes a small sandy beach. Those island can range form a few meters diameter like a rock in the water to hundreds of meters across. It looks otherworldly and nothing we have seen before. Birds can be heard in large volumes and supposedly monkeys live on some of the rocks as well.
Luckily the sun managed to burn away the haze and so we had a whole afternoon of sunshine and blue skies. It was really an amazing sight as we cruised through those rock formations from Hạ Long Bay to Tự Long Bay. While many only come for a day trip, those ships stay in Hạ Long Bay as it’s easier to reach. s we are spending the night on the boat we cruise further to Tu Long bay, and this one has the same charm as the other but is much less traveled and quieter. Fewer boats, fewer tourists and that’s how we like it.
After about a two hour boar ride we anchored in a small secluded bay, took the smaller side boat and were driven to a floating fishing village that stored canoes to paddle for us.
Two to a boat we headed out with our guide and four boats to spend a leisurely afternoon paddling around the karst rock islands. Very relaxing. The water was clean and not too cold and the sun was shining. No better way to start new years eve.
After an hour and a half of leisurely paddling around, Chris could not wait to finally fly his drone from the top deck into the setting sun, sipping a coke and admiring the world from above through his drone’s eyes. A pretty impressive sight! and finally the weather he had hoped we’d have on this trip.
Before dinner we learned how to make Vietnamese spring rolls (not easy with sticky rice paper) and had another hour to relax before new years eve dinner.
Unfortunately Chris was out with a migraine for the rest of the evening and so we were only grown ups to celebrate New years eve. The crew outdid themselves with amazing food decorations, even carving a watermelon with new years good luck wishes.
May 2023 bring many good things to this world.
We are staying two days in a lovely hotel in Tam Cốc, the best on our trip so far. Le Clos du Fil is a boutique hotel in cooperation with a women’s embroidery initiative. The make lovely hand crafted and embroidered things like bags, table cloths, napkins and many more things.
Everything in the hotel room reminds us of it, from embroidered air condition covers, Toilet roll covers, water bottle covers to an embroidered angel on our panoramic window so that birds don’t crash into it. The bathroom amenity kit holder is embroidered as well as the bath robes, towels and bed linens. All with loving detail. The breakfast is fantastic as was our dinner there last night.
Today is our day of the dragon as Esther calls it. She has seen a dragon sculpture on a mountain top that looked very cute and that’s what’s on the plan for today. But first we enjoyed our fantastic breakfast buffet. Fresh fruit, fresh juices, fresh cooked eggs to order, fresh Pho Bo or Pho ga, all sorts of hot local foods, even croissants and very good yoghurt.
We feel we are stuffing ourselves at every meal. Luckily today we are doing some exercise. We picked out some push bikes and headed out of town by bicycle. We got an early start as Tam said day tourists arrive around ten from Hanoi. First we cycled along country roads when we had an unplanned stop at a fish farm that had just brought in their first catch of the day. All sorts of carp and tilapia were in the basin swimming around with the local customers taking their pick from the wiggling fish.
Cycling further we soon arrived at Bích động Pagoda, a buddhist temple, actually three of them.
We were the first visitors there today and everything was empty besides a few locals trying to sell you incense, which we bought for good luck. Crossing a small adorable arched bridge we entered the temple grounds through a pagoda like entrance gate.
Walking up the hill a bit, we saw the first and largest one of the three pagodas. Bích động Pagoda was built in 1428 under the reign of Le Thai To following the ‘three’ Han scripts of three unconnected temples.
The lower one called “Ha” has a beautiful stone dragon in front of an otherwise unassuming building (dragon number one). Many golden buddha statues were inside depicting buddha in different stages of his life. From the three buddhas representing past, present and future to the little boy buddha to buddha being the only one connecting heaven and earth together. The rest of the temple was quite simple.
Up a flight of 100 stone stairs one enters a little shelf of a cave mound into which temple number two, called “Trung” was built into. It had a main building that was smaller than the temple below and to it’s left an even smaller matrimonial temple.
One had to cross through a cave behind the second temple to get to a steep flight of stairs to the third temple called “Thuong”. It’s the smallest of the three and has again little buddha statues inside. One has a great view from above, but cannot be seen from below. It is as if all three pagodas are invisible from below.
It is a privilege to have the place to ourselves as the buildings are small the the stairs steep and narrow. Not great for masses of tourists. The temple is a big attraction for Asian instagrammers, but only the little bridge in the front with the gate in the background.
Our second stop for today is another boat trip on the Ngô Đồng river. Again we were the only tourists and it was very relaxing to be rowed in a small boat through the quiet waters of the river. Pink water lilies were blooming everywhere, occasionally birds would be flying up, king fishers, white cranes, a bird of prey that we could not decipher.
Our rower was a lady who actually used her legs to row instead of the arms. It looked quite weird and uncomfortable but we actually glided quite fast on the river.
Three times we went through caves by boat. Two of them were quite short, but we needed a flash light to cross nevertheless. The third cave was huge and at least a kilometer long.
Pitch black and with the ceiling less than two feet above our heads it felt quite strange. Luckily our rowing lady had a powerful flash light and she pointed out glittering stone formations that grew from the ceiling to us. It looked like silicate that formed low hanging sparkling stalactites over the millennia and they sparkle as light hits them. We explored all three caves on our way.
Back on the bikes we made our way to Tam Cốc again for a (not so) light lunch. Before handing back the bikes. We decided to take a nap at the hotel before heading out to Múa cave and viewpoint by car.
Arrived at the Múa cave area, were were amazed at the number of tourists there and the many costume shops renting authentic local dresses, that people and especially instagrammers love to pose in when atop the mountain.
The Múa cave is nothing spectacular and rather disappointing but the viewpoint on top of the hill is spectacular.
Having to climb up 499 stairs to the top is a challenge for a lot of people attempting the climb. Huffing and puffing, resting often and with unsuitable footwear they make it barely to the top. For us mountain goats – no problem. there are two peaks, one with a small shrine and one with a little pagoda tower on top. We went for the shrine first with a lady buddha watching over the land. The attraction though is not the statue or the view it’s the stone dragon (dragon number 2) that is set atop the ridge leading from a nearby peak to the shrine. That’s the dragon that Esther has been waiting for.
Surprisingly small yet several meters high and about 30 meters long, it looks like it’s hopping on top of the mountain ridge. It looks really cute. And lots of people found the same. To get a picture alone with the dragon proved to be impossible. Well one can’t always have no tourists…
Chris took advantage of five other drones flying to blend in with them flying his own and getting a few good shots from above. Luckily the sun has made it through the cloud cover and the light was a bit better. His mood had improved by now….
Moving onto the second peak to the little pagoda tower on top, that turned out to be the instagrammer’s / TikTok spot du jour… during the short time we were up there, three Asian insta girls wearing different costumes posed in front of the little pagoda tower.
They had even brought their own photographer with them. Other tourists became impatient as they were hogging the sole spot in front. Makes you wonder what they will be doing in a few years time, when instagram or TikTok are no longer the cool thing to do….
Once down at the bottom again we wandered around the compound. Every ten meters there was an instagram posing spot.
We saw countless swings, Heart shapes, LOVE signs, buddha statues, little bridges and yes also a once colorful dragon (dragon number 3) which by now has really seen better times. Nobody paid any attention to it, except Chris who tried to wrestle it.
On our way out we could not resist to use one insta spot ourselves, especially as we won’t have the opportunity to ride any horses in Vietnam. We hopped on some stone horses as the best alternative and shot our own Insta blog picture….
Back at the hotel we allowed us the luxury of a full body massage which made us wan to go to sleep straight away if it were not for the french fusion dinner we were promised. Unfortunately ‘Chez Loan’ proved to be rather disappointing. No fusion and just an average Vietnamese meal and so we went home as soon as we were done eating. Dragon day came to an end and we finally saw some sun today.
Today we said good bye to Pù Luông Reserve and the mountains. We did not do as much hiking as we would have liked, but nobody was keen to get drenched with all the rain pouring down. If the weather does not change Chris is getting the weather blues as the grey uniform sky and the drab light makes it impossible for him to take good pictures which is bad for business.
According to the weather forecast we still have two more such day in front of us. Let’s hope it gets better than forecast. Today is mostly a driving day from Pù Luông reserve to Tam Cốc, a little township in the state of Ninh Bình, south of Hà Nội or Hanoi and half way to Hạ Long Bay.
When leaving Pù Luông mountains we drove by an astounding piece of craftsmanship and asked to stop and see it close up. It turns out the structures we had seen from the road were three gigantic waterwheels made 100% from bamboo.
Not a single nail or metal thing in them. We walked up to one of them and got to see how they worked.
Tied to the wheel are bamboo tubes in just the right length and tilted exactly so that they take water when submerged into each bamboo tube and dispose of the water on top of the wheel into a larger Bamboo tube that is then connected to a series of connected bamboo pipes, transporting the water in an open aqueduct like bamboo structure to the rice fields.
The pedals that drive the rotation are also made from Bamboo, but those approximately eight meters high wheels need to be constantly maintained and all bamboo parts are swapped out after two years, if they even last that long.
On we went as we had quite a drive in front of us that day. Driving down from the mountains onto the flatlands, we saw the agriculture work and fields changing. Whereas in the highlands the fields were mostly rice terraces and worked on with water buffalos or small hand held tractor like machines, down in the flat lands we saw more big tractors and other crops such as corn, sugar cane or cassava (also known as manioc).
Water buffalos can still be seen in many places here but while they still are used for farm work in steep areas, down in the flat lands they seem to be more for eating or buffalo fights rather than doing much field work.
After our lunch (Goat and quail for Chris, vegetables and rice for Esther) that wasn’t one of the best we had, we walked to a boat quay to board our Sampan for a tour through the largest wetland reserve in Vietnam.
Van Long Nature Reserve is home to countless types of water birds and carpets full of blossoming pink water lilies. It consists of vast areas of slow flowing water, reed forests and karst rock formations that are typical for Northern Vietnam. small canals have been kept open for the small sampan boats to be rowed through.
The water is shallow, only about one meter deep, and the sampans are flat bottomed bamboo boats lined with concrete on the inside. They can take only two passengers each as well as one rower. This area is also the last refuge of the most endangered species of primates called the Delacour’s Langurs. Once abundant in Northern Vietnam, those primates have been hunted by the locals to near extinction. Van Long reserve with the karst rock formations that provide the Langur’s home, protected by water is the last refuge of those monkeys. Only about 120 of them still live in the wild. We weren’t lucky enough to spot one in the dense forest that covered the rocks.
Nevertheless we saw some birds that we could not identify, while being rowed calmly through the countryside. Without another boat in sight it felt very remote and peaceful even though Chris was nearly despairing with the fuzzy light and the overcast sky.
90 minutes later, back at the quay, we were treated to an Italian Coffee there, well what they called an Italian coffee, that at least had some real milk in it. While drinking it, we noticed another one of those signs, that take a western word and simply spell it the Vietnamese way. That way Café becomes Ca Phé and auto becomes ô Tô.
In general we observed that there is no Vietnamese word longer than six letters. So they must chop words that we combine in German into multiple shorter words. It makes for sentences with very many words in them and you always need a context to understand the right meaning of the word. And then there is the pronounciation… you think you pronounce it the right way and still all the Vietnamese around you are bursting out laughing when they hear you say something like “cảm ơn rất nhiều” (Kamm uuhn dset nhoui) for “thank you very much”.
On we went to our last stop before the day was over. During the 17th century the Dinh dynasty was ruling Northern Vietnam and the kings made Hoa Lư their capital until it became too small and they moved it to Hanoi. Hoa Lư is surrounded by protective hills but has limited space to grow.
All what’s left of the dynasties remains are two temples that are nearly identical in layout but do have subtle differences. Bot have fish ponds inside their walls, both have a three tiered set up (first gate, second gate and then the temple). But they are dedicated to different people.
One is dedicated to the emperor king Đinh Tiên Hoàng and his three sons. Đinh Tiên Hoàng was very successful against the Chinese invaders and unifying the country. Unfortunately none of his three sons became his successor.
The second temple is dedicated to his successor, a general, the monarch Lê Đại Hành, who married the widow queen. Both temples were nicer to look at from the outside than the inside which was quite sinister . We even saw a fabled creature called a kỳ lân or Qilin, a type of Chinese / Vietnamese Unicorn.
And what would a Vietnam visit be without riding a real water buffalo? Of course Esther can’t resist to sit on any rideable four legged animal, and so she didn’t need to much convincing to hop onto a buffalo at the temples just for fun and a photo op.
On that hilarious note we finished our day, drove another 40 minutes and checked into our lovely hotel in Tam Cốc.
Not many western tourists make their way to PuLuong Reserve. They flock to Sapa in the very north western corner of Vietnam, close to the Chinese border. Not only is Sapa known for their beautiful rice terraces, also motorcyclists love te curvy and beautiful country roads. As it’s 200+ kilometers from Hanoi, it takes a long time to drive there and when the weather forecast is not great (like it is for us), then you may only be cold, wet and miserable without a view.
We decided to visit Pù Luông Reserve instead, a hidden gem, only half that distance away from Hanoi and a popular vacation spot for the locals. In summer that is. So at the moment there aren’t many tourists at all going there.
We set out early again from Hanoi with Tam and Dong driving along a highway at first (with separate lanes only for scooter drivers) stopping several times for tea, buying oranges and mandarines and at a spot on a mointain pass usually famous for it’s sweeping vistas.
We were driving in clouds so thick that we could not see ten meters in front of us. What a pity. We kept driving over the pass, slowly passing lumbering trucks, hoping that their breakes will hold. We stopped at a viewpoint on the other side where the clouds were not as dense. At least here we could enjoy a nice surround view of a beautiful valley with a little town called Xuan Mai, where we had a delicious lunch.
We already have crossed into the Pù Luông Nature reserve and were amazed at how many little settlements and villages were located inside the nature reserve. Turns out many people of Thai origin were living here. Rice and fish farming are the two most observed activities here and everyone seemed to be out and about in the fields repairing, fishing, preparing the ground etc.
Lovely rice terraces line every corner of the valleys where possible and the fish ponds are full with Tilapia and Grass Carp. We stopped at a small parking lot in the middle of nowhere. Cars can’t go any further here and several scooter drivers are waiting for customers to drive them to the little village of Kho Mường.
We decided to walk of course, walking off some lunchtime calories. It is a 30 minute hike, mostly downhill to a small hidden away village at the end of a valley without exit on the other end nor any other road leading to it.
About 60 families live here in this very rural and picturesque setting. Houses are made of wood and are mostly on stilts. The space underneath the house is often used for storage or to house animals, while the upper floor is used for living quarters for the entire family. No house had more than one upper floor. The roofs are traditionally made with palm leaves, but as those need to be replaced every two years, corrugated iron roofs are used nowadays with a layer of palm leaves on top against the summer heat. Everything looks neat and tidy here. Kids playing on the little walkways, dogs and ducks running about, a very peaceful and idyllic looking village.
We walked further to the end of the valley, through rice fields where people were fishing with a small net for little fish and crabs until we came to the entrance of a huge cave mouth.
The Kho Muong Cave, home to four different species of bats and very deep. Without a local guide that knows where to go and has powerful flashlights, we cannot explore the cave by ourselves. Esther felt a bit sorry that we could not go inside. Chris was glad. we still had a 40 min walk back up to the car and it felt like a good exercise after all that sitting in the car. We drove further into the nature reserve to our overnight location.
We have booked a homestay in one of the hillside resorts and were wondering what a homestay meant for the Vietnamese. In Bhutan it meant staying with a local family and we had expected something similar here.
Well not quite. We are staying in the Puluong Resort, a mix between a hotel and a communal hut. While it has all the amenities of a regular hotel (Pool, Pool bar, Restaurant, souvenir shop) it also has some communal sleeping quarters for up to eight futons in one big room.
That’s where we were booked into. The first night we were alone here, the second night a German/Irish couple moved in with us. The whole resort is beautifully laid out and blends in perfectly with nature. All guest huts are on stilts with palm leaf roofs and so it does not feel like a big resort at all. There are also only a hand full of guests here at the moment. After check in and getting settled with a drink at the pool bar, we had dinner ( yes also very good food) and turned in quite early for the night.
Woken the next day by dripping rain and loud roosters claiming their space, we headed to breakfast which was a large buffett with more good things to eat…
The rain had dwindled to just a light drizzle and so we set out on foot with Tam, walking from the mountain side of the resort to the valley and the little villages we saw from above. Meticulously maintained rice terraces line the hillside, carp ponds are plentiful and we saw gaggles of ducks everywhere, happily splashing in the shallow flooded fields.
While everything looks so peaceful and enchanting, it must be a hard life with lots of farm work and not much income. We saw guest houses spring up in multiple places as roads that cars can drive on are being built, but many of the villages are still very small and hard to get to.
We hiked a few kilometers between rice fields and on little paths until we came to a small village that specialized in weaving beautiful and colorful scarves, blankets, table cloths etc. Esther bought a colorful table runner there which we for sure will use at home. The old lady weaving those was absoutely adorable and we did not even want to haggle here, knowing that she spent hours making it. We said our farewell in Vietnamese and the ladies giggled with laughter. Saying good bye, thank you or simply ‘Hi’ in Vietnamese always makes the locals laugh when we are trying to get the pronounciation right. We must sound very funny to their ears, but we are trying.
It was nearly lunchtime and it started to rain in earnest. Not nice hiking weather. We found a small shop serving tea and some sweet treats and hung out a bit waiting for the rain to lessen.
We were a long way from the resort and walking back in the pouring rain was not something we were looking forward to. Tam decided to call the driver Dong and we got picked up and driven back to the resort. Yes a bit of luxury , we know….
As the weather forecast claimed that it’ll be raining for the remainder of the day we decided after yet another yummy lunch, to just rest and relax, catch up on our blog entries, take a nap and read a bit.
We woke up fairly early again, as days start with pick up at 8 AM. We are in the middle of down town Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. Already yesterday on the drive from the Airport, we noticed how different Hanoi is from Saigon. It is also bustling with people, cars and scooters but it somehow has preserved much more of an original atmosphere than Saigon. Maybe because many more of the original French architecture is still intact or because the streets are smaller and everything is closer together. We were in instant agreement that we like this city better.
First we visited the Ho Chi Minh Complex. Ho Chi Minh is the national hero of Vietnam who is being called the father the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, having laid the foundations for both the defeat of the American forces as well as the reunification of Northern and Southern Vietnam. He died before both were accomplished but was credited with the mastermind behind the original plans.
All Vietnamese go on a pilgrimage to see Uncle Ho, as they lovingly call him, at least once during their life time. So we went to see uncle Ho as well. Unfortunately the mausoleum was closed that day, we could only see the outside, not the embalmed body inside. The Vietnamese say that Ho Chi Minh is only sleeping in there, not dead.
Once a year he gets transported for three months to Russia (Moscow) for an embalming update as they have experience with Lenin’s embalmed body there and are fellow communists. We were nevertheless able to see Ho Chi Minh’s house, the impressive presidential palace and botanical gardens that surround the Mausoleum.
By now Esther was craving a real cappuccino, as the hotel and most regular coffee shops here only serve the super strong Vietnamese style coffee. It’s many times stronger than an espresso and even with a lot of milk (they usually served condensed, sweetened milk) it’s hard to stomach. We stopped at a promising coffee place and indeed them made an excellent cappuccino. Esther was happy. Chris tried a local specialty: coffee with egg yolk. It actually tasted quite nice but was as rich as a dessert. Chris loving Tiramisu, said it tasted like one without the Mascarpone, alcohol and lady fingers and that egg yolk and coffee go together well.
Next stop on our Hanoi city tour was the temple of literature. A very impressive compound, consisting of 5 sections from the front entrance and court yard until a very large temple at the last court yard. Each separated by a set of entrance archways. This entire complex is dedicated to Confucius and his four scholars. It used to be the first university in Hanoi, fully dedicated to studying and learning. While we were pleasantly surprised how few tourists were at the Ho Chi Minh Complex, we were a bit put off at the number of tourists at the literature temple. I guess we are spoiled by the absence of people during our covid travels.
Locals tell us that the number of tourists is still far smaller than it was pre covid. Well one could not tell when visiting the temple. Esther decided that we’ll come back in a week in early morning, when we have another night and half day in Hanoi.
It was time for lunch now and we headed into the French quarter for a delicious multi course meal. Food is great here and always super fresh. So far we haven’t experienced anything that did not taste good. But the best was still to come. We are booked on a food tour through Hanoi in the evening. Right after lunch we decided to walk off our full bellies and to roam the crowded streets of Hanoi.
Each street seems to have a different motto, like the former guilds. The street of the leather workers, the street of the scooter repair shops, the street of the flowers, the street of the animals where poor song birds in cages and colorful fish for fishtanks are sold. In the street of sweets we bought dried, candied mango and we bought tea in the street of spices, herbs and medicines. Each street has it’s unique own smell.
We also (literally) crossed railway street and its railway tracks. The spot has become very famous through the internet, but is kind of closed for tourists now.
There are railway tracks running through a narrow alley between houses barely four feet away from the house fronts. The side walks are barely three feet wide and the train still rumbles through twice a day with up to 50 km/h. But since Instagram & Co made this experience go viral things got so out of control with foreign visitors posing on the tracks that the police closed off walking train street for tourists.
Now you have to have a personal invite from one of the house owners on train street to walk that section. Needless to say that we managed to get invited to one of the houses turned coffee shop in the back. It was a weird feeling to be so close to the tracks, even crossing them twice as there is nothing like anywhere we have been. We enjoyed the special atmosphere here with a yummy passionfruit juice drink and watched the police and the locals chasing ‚invited‘ guest from the tracks. They are keen on keeping their license.
On we went and hopped on a bicycle rickshaw to bring us to the water puppet theater. What a great mistake! Not the theater – but the rickshaw… Instead of the nice small alleys we saw in the French Quarter our driver decided to take only the main roads, crammed full with scooters and cars so it felt like we were breathing in only exhaust fumes while moving at a snails pace. Just as most of the people on the scooters we put on our facemask. Well we’ll certainly not repeat that experience. 45 minutes later we were so glad to arrive at the theater.
We were curious what the water puppet theater was and Chris was a little bit concerned about it being so touristy with up to five performances a day. But then we spent an hour watching an enchanting yet so strange performance. Wooden puppets are being moved from behind a screen in a pool of water telling different stories.
It’s similar to what we know as Kasperletheater and Marionettentheater just with puppets in water placed on a submerged stick. Hanoi has a very long tradition of water puppetry and to watch it was quite extraordinary. I am glad we went even though we did not understand any of the talking or singing and the music accompanying it sounds strange and somewhat lamenting to western ears.
After the theater we freshened up a bit in our hotel and the headed out for a highlight of our stay in Hanoi. Our street food tour. This we’ll cover on our food blog entry.
We got up for our last breakfast on board the “Mekong Eyes” ship. We only have a half day left in the Mekong Delta before heading North to Hanoi by plane. We had packed our bags already and were boarding a smaller boat with all our luggage. During the whole trip we were really lucky with the weather. It was warm, but not too hot, Sunny but hazy, so you never felt you sweated too much or got sun burned. The Vietnamese told us it was unusually cold for this time of the year but we found it to be perfect.
Heading out on a very wide stretch of the Mekong river, we encountered an ever increasing stream of trading vessels, loaded with fresh produce. As is customary here, each ship, small or large, has a set of eyes painted on the front hull. Those are the Mekong eyes watching out for each boat as to not have an accidental crash with a rock or another boat.
We were heading to Cái Răng floating market, one of the nicest floating markets that are custom here in the delta. The lack of roads and the ease of transport by boat make the water a natural trading place for goods of all sorts. Each merchant boat is anchored on the floating marketplace and announces it’s goods by attaching a sample to a long pole in front of the boat so everyone can see what’s being sold there.
We saw turnips, watermelons, carrotts, tomatoes, jack fruit, and many other fruits and vegetables tied to the long poles and the smaller boats of the customers moving in between the larger boats and doing their shopping like on a regular market. Small kiosk boats dash between the larger boats selling breakfast (rice noodle soup of course) and drinks.
The market is only from about 5 AM to 12 noon each day and the traders stay there for a week until they sold most of their goods. They practically live on their boat for that time and then return home to get more goods.
Hence the ships are like small houses complete with dogs, kids and laundry hug out to dry. It’s a lovely sight. Everyone is shouting from boat to boat so it’s not a quiet place but rather bustling with energy and commerce.
We stopped at a floating supermarket, where four boats were tied together to form one big shopping area. One boat sold anything dried fish and seafood, another sold anything rice noodle related, One sold everything sauces and spices and the last sold drinks. Did we mention that the Vietnamese are the kings of commerce?
We would have loved to spend more time here, but it was time to head out again, for us it was towards the airport of Cần Thơ to catch a flight to Hanoi. From the very south of Vietnam we fly to the very North.
On Dec. 24th (Christmas Eve) in Vietnam we just leisurely hang around the boat and did some excursions. In the morning we set out on a sampan (a small wooden boat that is mostly rowed or has a small motor) to explore some small side canals too small for larger boats. We saw an equal number of men and women rowing with two passengers per sampan.
We made or way through small waterways and saw weird looking stalks. We weren’t sure if those were roots growing up from the mangroves or small trees trying to make it into a larger tree (anyone?). It gave the canals edge an eerie look in any case.
The water in the Mekong delta is very low at the moment, so some of the small canals were impossible to navigate. We had to cut our trip short and instead rented some bikes to explore the river banks with their small villages spread out. As the river is being used for much of the heavy transportation, between the houses and villages on the banks only small pathways are used.
While those are impossible to navigate for cars, they are perfect for bikes, scooters and pedestrians. Some of the little 2 feet wide bridges without rails were quite adventurous to cross on bikes. One of the local stores served us fresh fruit an tea.
Some of us had never tried jackfruit. The less smelly sister of Durian. One is advised to eat it without smelling it. Esther has tried it seveal times but does not like the rubbery consistency, Chris does not mind. But we both are not fond of the smell. Jack fruits grow everywhere here to an impressive size of over a foot big.
After some exercise biking, we were put on a smaller boat to see how rice paper, and puff rice are being made. Rice paper is used in the Vietnamese style spring rolls and needs to be dipped in water before being soft enough to be eaten. It starts out as a hard, translucent disk . Turns out is is just rice flower and water that gets spread very thinly across a piece of cloth stretched across a steam basin, heated by the rice hulls left over from the rice mill. This is a cheap source of heat. The thin, crepe like rice paper get steam cooked in about 3 minutes and gets carefully taken off and laid out to dry for several hours before being cut into sellable shapes. In contrast, the rice puff is made in a big wok filled with hot black Mekong river sand.
The sand is used to transfer the heat more quickly than the wok alone. The rice is then filled into the wok and stirred around. We were all amazed how quickly the rice started to pop with this heat. thousands of little rice explosions happened in a matter of a few seconds. The whole mixture of sand, puff rice and rice shells is then put through a sieve where first the and drops out, being heaviest, then the rice shells an whats left in the sieve are only the white puffs. Pretty impressive to watch! we all had a taste before those get manufactured into rice crackers and rice candy.
What we gladly passed on was to try the snake wine though. Just seeing a small snake and a scorpio floating in a bottle of wine …. no thank you!
Back on the boat we had another delicious lunch, only to find out that our small cosy group of eight guests on board was to be history and we had 17 other passengers boarding early afternoon. Most of them belonged to a large Israeli family, but also some Italians and Americans. The boat feels crowded now.
We spent a leisurely time on the upper deck, while the new arrival were walking yet another village. At around six PM we had the most beautiful red sunset, setting a spectacular scenery, when the crew came up onto the top deck and started to fold down the railings and asked us to move to the lower two of the top decks. We were wondering what was happening.
Turns out we were going under a bridge that was just high enough for us to float under. The top deck was less than 20 cm from that bridge! it was quite spectacular to watch. Certainly a different Christmas eve than usual. Were it not for us all wearing silly reindeer antler ornaments , we would not have felt it’s Christmas eve.
Opposite to Chris, Esther found the food quite delicious, and after connecting with family through Signal videocalls, we had a good nights sleep as all mornings here start early. Breakfast at 7 AM…
After a short night, we headed down to our traditional Vietnamese breakfast of rice noodle soup and fruit. We were scheduled to be picked up by a shuttle bus in Saigon along with other guests that were booked on a Mekong delta cruise with us. We were curious and a bit weary. Three days on a boat could be totally fun with the right people and totally awful with the wrong ones…
Turns out that we were lucky again and so we were heading to Cần Thơ on the Mekong river together with three other couples. One German couple, one from Austria and one from Canada. All easy going and all non complainers. Phew!
After a three hour car ride through the countryside we finally arrived at our boat. It is a converted rice cargo ship, beautifully refurbished with lots of wood. It only has 12 cabins for a maximum of 24 passengers. That’s all. And it turns out that we are the only passengers. eight people on a boat for 24, yeah! what a luxury! tourism is definitively not back to pre pandemic levels here…
We have a lovely and spacey cabin, a cosy ensuite bathroom, even an air condition unit that’s not too loud.
After boarding and depositing our luggage in the cabin, we noticed that we started our journey. Wanting to see this great river delta from the top deck, we were immediately noticing a deceleration of our life. The river calm, the few boats, the gentle glide, all made us forget what day of the week it is.
We watched the scenery glide by. Big boats that barely float above the waterline, carrying mountains of heavy cargo.
Small boats that carry everything from coconuts to car spare parts. And even smaller boats used for shopping trips. All mingling on the same majestic river avoiding colisions with a quiet grace.
After a fresh fish and vegetable lunch, which was delicious, topped by some very nice Australian Chardonnay, it nearly felt as we had traveled together as a group for a while. Easy conversations on the top deck, under the sun roof, a mild breeze gently blowing, a cup of very strong coffee in front of us and watching the world drift by slowly. Life could not be better at the moment. We are spoiled and we felt it right then and there.
A few hours later we stopped at a small country village. We took a small ferry across , as there aren’t many bridges at all here, and went for a walk around.
Directly on the river, there is no need for real roads. Everything is carried and driven either by a scooter or by muscle power to the river’s edge and then picked up and shipped from there.
All paths are small and we could see the villagers planting and harvesting lots of fruits along the river. Papaya trees, next to mango trees, banana and coconut palms, jack fruit , pomelo and oranges. All growing in abundance here. Little chicklets and their motherly hens were running around everywhere , life seemed to be slow and predictable here. The people are very friendly and polite. Nobody approaches you to sell you something, they just wave and greet with a big smile – even though we passed through their backyard from time to time. We stopped at a small fruit farm and were served a delicious medley of fresh fruit. Small sweet bananas, perfectly peeled pomelos, sliced mango and coconut fritters. And a strange looking dipping powder. No one in the group had seen that before and the farm lady did not speak any English. She just motioned to dip the fruit into the powder and eat it. Sceptic a few of us dipped their fruit in just a little and gosh! what a weird , spicy but different experience eating fruit! The dipping powder consisted of some spices, salt and small chili flakes which contrasted sharply with the normal sweet and tangy fruit taste. Again a combination of flavors not experienced before.
Fruit can be bought directly at the farm. There are no big shops anywhere, no western supermarket chains, just small local stores and markets. And floating kiosks. Smalls ships that are mini supermarkets inside, complete with live chickens in cages, approach the big ships , take orders, pack and hand over the shopping bags with the desired goods. At home delivery since decades ….
One thing though cannot be avoided here in Vietnam, no matter how far off the beaten track you go…. even is the smallest village there is at least one little shop that has over the top Christmas decorations on full display, shouting merry christmas through loud speakers (even though the Vietnamese usually celebrate lune new year as their big event, like the Chinese in January).
The displays shall entice the customers to either enter into the Christmas craze, buy decorations for luna new year or celebrate birthdays. And so the displays here happily marry all three things together for maximum effect…
And we thought we’d escape the Christmas season … not a chance!
After long and exhausting flights (Esther two planes, Chris four planes), we both made it to the hotel in Saigon (we like the old name better than the new, turns out many of the locals as well…) and practically just dropped into a deep sleep. The next morning we got up fairly late at 7.30 AM local time. Our journey across Vietnam can begin….
The best way to arrive at your new destination is a healthy local breakfast. And so we did as the locals do and had rice noodle soup with beef for breakfast. Plunged into a new world seeing stir fried rice and chicken curry for breakfast at the buffet we knew we were definitively not in Europe anymore.
Our favorite, fresh fruit was a bit limited, consisting of papaya, watermelon and dragonfruit. As many ex-colonial countries, the Vietnamese prefer instant coffee with condensed milk (that is hardly heard of in Germany anmore) to real brewed coffee… not drinkable for coffee aficionados like us. Luckily there are many coffee shops on every corner that serve cappuccino or latte close to the real stuff.
After our breakfast, we were already expected by our driver and guide. We had a whole day to explore Saigon City. Where to start. It’s not really a pretty city.
Neither architecturally nor street wise. It’s a mega busy and bustling hub that houses more than 8 million people. …And it feels like 8 million scooters all trying to cram into the streets at the same time.
Crossing the road even at a traffic junction with a pedestrian walkway feels like a mad dash for one’s life. It’s like Paris at the arc de Triomphe. When you start crossing the road, don’t stop or you’re run over…. scooters don’t care about red and green lights, if the road is blocked, they simply take the pedestrian walkways unless it’s blocked by a anti scooter set of rails. One way streets? – no problem for scooters- they just ignore them.
So we got into our air conditioned car (outside it was already a pretty humid 29 degrees) and made our way to the Independence Palace.
Chris had an immediate flash back to his early communist Prag days. What was once a lovely palace in refined French architecture, known as Norodom Palace and was housing the king, was rebuilt after having been bombed in the war as a very sober, communist monstrosity. It was named Independence Palace or Reunification Convention Hall to honor the reunification of Northern and Southern Vietnam.
At every turn you felt the 60s and 70’s in communist Europe shine through. No ornaments whatsoever, everything is functional, sober, without frills. But of course not complete without old tanks in the back yard and an old helicopter on the roof. It’s a museum now, but still occasionally hosts top guests at international meetings here.
It’s weird here as this is a socialist country and you can see communist references on posters, buildings and monuments everywhere, but the people here are all about commerce and capitalism in the streets. A weird mix.
Due to the heavy traffic we decided to walk the town on foot and set out to a small replica of Notre Dame (did I mention South Vietnam was a French colony once?). Unfortunately it was all scaffolded up. You could barely see the outline. But next to it was a lovely old colonial looking building that still serves as the main post office. Complete with the old phone booths, luring Chris in to make a call…
On we went to an equally impressive City Hall and Opera House, built in the 1800s. It’s nice to see some of the old buildings have survived the war and are still being used today. We decided on the spur of the moment to buy Opera tickets for a Bamboo Circus troupe in town performing at the opera that evening.
By now our stomachs told us it was definitively time to fill up and so our driver took us to China town for a yummy lunch. Missing her morning cuppa coffee, Esther decided that Highland Coffee ( a local Starbucks) had a latte to go and was happy to try.
As we always love to explore the local markets we stopped at Binh Tay Market in China Town.
It’s not touristy and here is where the locals shop. Narrow alleyways, some under cover, some outside here we squeezed through hundreds of little stalls, selling everything from toys, to clothes to kitchenware but also food items as weird as dried sea cucumbers, dried sharks finns, swallows nests (used to make soup?!), and a huge array of dried mushrooms of all kinds.
We were not sure what was used as medicine and what was for eating. Monk’s fruit and a strange hairy little berry we had never seen before. Esther tasted it but it did not make the favourite list. And everywhere sat street food vendors cooking on little stoves or selling prepared delicacies. Customers huddled on little tiny chairs around eating.
Nobody really speaks any English, French or German and so we weren’t brave enough on day one to just dive into the street food without any explanations. On our first day we wanted to be rather safe then sorry – even though some of the dishes were tempting, while others were just a tad to exotic.
After squeezing through the crowded market we met our driver again for our last stop. The oldest (1760) pagoda in town is the Thien Hau pagoda.
Built in the 18th century it has lovely ceramic reliefs everywhere, especially impressive above the entrance. Through some iron gates the intense smell of incense hit one immediately. The tempel/pagoda is dedicated to the lady of the seas, rumored to help sailors in need. Remember we talked of commerce? This is the first temple we have seen that even has selling booths for donations.
You donate a certain amount and your name gets put on a pink slip with the amount and posted on a huge wall for everyone to see. You can also buy large incense coils and sticks that when lit are either stuck in a big sand basin or hung overhead with your name for good luck.
One such coil bruns a whole week and walking underneath you have to be careful that hot ash is not dripping on you. The Chinese definitively know how to make money.
Back at the hotel, we had a small rest before having to head out on foot again to the opera for a lovely bamboo circus show. The acrobatics were impressive and nearly Circus Krone level.
We let the day end with another yummy local food experience before packing our bags for an early start tomorrow morning to the Mekong Delta.
Today is our last day in Jordan. As our flight leaves Amman only in the afternoon, we decided to still fill it with more sight seeing.
While we had seen some churches and archaeological sights already on our first arrival in Madaba, this time we set off early and walked up to the church of Jean Babtiste the beheaded.
We only had seen it from the outside due to the late hour last time. This time we walked in the church ruins and catacombs below.
The entire church was built upon another and excavations are still ongoing. A cute orange cat kept us company during our subterranean excursion.
The highlight was not the church itself, it was the attached bell tower that we climbed. Many stairs on small staircases, past four bell ropes and bells we went until we arrived at a small opening that led to a very tiny ledge around the outside of the tower.
With barely 50 cm width and a rickety reeling around it, we kept close to the walls.
Esther’s fear of height was very present and when the church bells started to ring she jumped at the loudness of it. The bell tower is the highest point in Madaba and we had a 360 degree surround view from up top.
Once we left the church compound we wandered in the fairly deserted roads of the old town, which only seem to come alive around lunchtime.
We were in search of a shop that sells those nice pashmina scarfs made of cashmere. Those are incredibly soft and this was the place to get them. Esthers bartering also yielded an additional pair of earrings made of silver, green Malachite and Agate.
Once back at the Mosaic hotel we did a final packing of our bags, before our driver Hamdi picked us up. We had decided to get to the airport with a detour to Mount Nebo. We probably should not have bothered.
Barely ten km outside Madaba is Mt. Nebo and it’s basilica.
This is the spot where Moses supposedly stood and overlooked the holy land (you can find two other places in the region that claim this honor. One in Israel and one in Egypt). On one side you can see the Dead Sea and Israel, on the other Madaba and the surrounding hills.
The modern looking church sits in full sunshine with an iron cross in front. Originally only a small Franciscan Friars monastery was situated there, and it served as a pilgrimage site until today on the route between Jerusalem and Damascus.
We were disappointed to see that the restoration work was carried out with modern materials. Not much of the old, original materials exist anymore. Behind a modern facade, only a few original pillars exist inside the church as well as a very nice, well preserved mosaic on the church floor.
All the other outbuildings around the church are barely more than low walls with a few mill stones strewn about.
Not so much into the mystique of the bible, we could have really skipped that visit but at least it was a nice sunny day and we enjoyed the last warm rays of sunshine before having to embark on our flight home.
Check-In at the Queen Alia International Airport was quick with no complications, so we had about two hours of relaxation in the Crowns Lounge of Jordanian Airlines that welcomes Star Alliance guests as well.
An interesting open structure at the second floor overlooking the Terminal with a decent choice of warm food. As we boarded the plane we had the whole front section of the airplane for ourselves.
Since Chris doesn’t feel any ‘Flugscham’ or ‘flight shame’, Esther compensated our CO2 footprint by donating to a very nice project providing families in India, Nepal or Ruanda with smoke free efficient ovens reducing CO2 generation. More on these projects here or here.
That way we were the first out of the plane and managed to swiftly pass through passport control and security check and reach the plane from Vienna to Munich in time even though we only had a layover of 35 minutes.
All in all it was a very nice vacation, and again we had the feeling that despite Omicron slowing down the world, it did not manage to slow down our travels around the globe. Any suggestions where we should go next?
Today the Dead Sea was beautifully calm. No wind and no waves . The ground could be seen crystal clear and so we spent the whole morning on and in the sea.
This is the picture perfect photo op that can be seen in many travel catalogs as the Dead Sea typical experience. To complement it, we smeared each other from head to toe again with mineral mud, harvested right behind us from the sea bed.
It takes a surprisingly long time to wash it off again and you always miss bits and pieces, as the towels and bathing suit can tell. It was still fun to just do nothing and enjoy the morning.
By 12 noon, we got picked up by our driver Hamdi again to drive us to Karak Castle. Down the Dead Sea highway we went again and then turned into a windy mountain road.
Nothing but stones, rocks and sand could be seen. Very harsh living conditions and for miles we did not see a living thing. Until passing a mountain ridge, all of a sudden there seemed to be water on the other side and a bit more green could be seen.
Clearly the trees here had been watered and they gave a hint at what this land might have looked like thousands of years ago. It was supposed to be full of trees, but most of them had been cut down as fire wood or for construction purposes. Karak, the biggest of all crusader castles, lies atop a mountain pass and everyone wanting to go from the Dead Sea eastwards towards Amman and Damascus needed to pass it. Its strategic position was still clearly visible, even though the town of Karak has sprung up around it, partly engulfing the lower castle walls.
We meandered through the only partly excavated ruins and marveled at the sheer size of it and then thickness of the walls, built entirely out of stone. Up to 6 feet strong, those walls seemed unbreachable and for many years the crusaders ruled undefeated.
Until the Turks came and set years of siege to the castle until it’s inhabitants gave up and fled to Madaba. Turkish rule took over and so some elements of the castle are Christian, while others are Byzantine.
Only parts of the ruin is excavated but the whole complex and it’s size must have housed hundreds of inhabitants at it’s prime time.
The many sleeping chambers, large kitchens, gathering halls and church all surrounded by thick walls with many arrow slits gave us a glimpse of how strong this castle once was.
We spend a good portion of the afternoon exploring the castle in beautiful sunshine before meeting our driver for a very nice, typical Jordanian lunch at a local restaurant.
As so many times before we were pleasantly surprised by the freshness of the food, the amount of vegetables served and the nice taste of it.
Back in Madaba, we just had a light dinner and a short trip to the local high end shopping mall which made us smile a bit when comparing it with western malls.
Not only was it very small (compared to US malls), it had only one clothing store but many cosmetics shops. Complete with kids amusement section, kids hairdresser and a food court. Different clientele, different shops…
We decided on the fly to change travel plans and stay at the Dead Sea a day longer. To just baths in it for a few hours and then take off again did not seem to do it justice. We booked ourselves another night here and adjusted travel plans accordingly.
After a rather large breakfast of good quality but in a noisy hall reminding you of an cantine, we took our belongings and wandered down to the beach. The sun had come out by then and the wind from the previous day had lessened. It was very relaxing to just float in the Dead Sea, cover ourselves with dark mud and let ourselves dry.
It is surprisingly sticky and took a while floating in the sea again to get all the mud washed off. It is such a large body of water but something seems off: There is not a single boat in sight. No fisher nets drying on the beaches, no sail boat, no ferry. No smell of ocean. Other than a few people floating on the shore line, it is literally a Dead Sea since nothing survives in it (apart from some microalgae and cyanobacteria). The water is so reach with salt and minerals (remember: ten times more then in your common ocean) that it almost feels like oil on your skin.
We can see Israel quite clearly from our shore. It does not seem to be far away, but in reality there are worlds between.
We relaxed on the beach and did not even use the nice looking swimming pool further up – thinking of chlorine on our skin seemed like a sinn after having cleansed it in the Dead Sea water. The special composition of the Dead Sea is helping many people with Psoriasis or other skin irregularities. Chris loves the effect on his scalp: No dandruffs or scalp irritation for at least a week!
There is an intense water shortage in the region. The Jordan river used to compensate with it’s inflow the evaporation of the Dead Sea but nowadays it only trickles into the Dead Sea and so the last 20 years the water level has dropped by 15 meters.
This means for the resorts that original beaches had to be moved further and further down. In our resort we could see three terasses, where the beach had been moved further down with all it’s sand and amenities like showers, sun chairs and umbrellas.
There are many ideas how to fight the dropping levels, f.e. using water from the Red Sea to fill up the Dead Sea. But none of these projects have been realized so far, and all of them are controversial from a nature conservation perspective. No one really knows what damage it would do to the unique eco system.
There are only a few guests here as so many had canceled due to Omicron. We had the beach nearly to ourselves. To top our relaxing stay we booked ourselves into the hotel spa for a massage and facial. What a luxury!
By 9 PM and with all the sun and pampering we turned in for an early night.
Today we first had a long drive from Aqaba to the Dead Sea. At the occasional police control stations, we had to put our masks on quickly until we passed. Otherwise it was an uneventful drive on a highway leading straight to a barren landscape with a lot of power poles.
The only memorable thing was that all of a sudden the sandy and dusty landscape started to get dotted with green fields the more North we drove. Rows and rows with little plastic tunnels started to appear that seemed to be mini green houses for small plants.
We had arrived at the tomato growing region in Jordan and everywhere now acres with tomato plants, some young , some ripe were appearing on both sides of the highway. Crates stacked high with tomatoes could be bought on the road side and trucks laden full with tomatoes could be seen lumbering slowly across little side roads. People worked in the fields and seemed to live in large tents next to them.
There is a distinctive difference between the have and have nots here in Jordan. Some things are inexpensive to us westerners, others have the same price in Jordan Dinars as at home. We literally paid 1,35 JD ( roughly 1,5 EUR) for 20 freshly fried falafel at a small falafel restaurant, and 30 min later 9 DJ ( roughly 11 EUR) for a pint of local beer. Some things are hard to understand.
Arrived finally at the Dead Sea, we checked into the luxury part of our journey, the Holiday Inn Dead Sea Resort & Spa. While the others in the group had day tickets that included lunch and the use of the facilities ( Pools, beach, mud bath etc.) we were booked to stay for the night.
Chris had been to and in the Dead Sea several times on the Israeli side, this was his first time on Jordan soil. There were quite a few waves and it was funny and challenging to keep bobbing on top without getting salty spray into ones eyes and nose which is not only really disgusting, but also a little bit dangerous. The Dead Sea contains over 30 % of Salt, Magnesium, Potassium, etc. (which is ten times more then our oceans). It is quite a unique experience to not go under but to float on top without effort.
Some of us generously used the olive colored mud to cover ourselves from head to toe with it. Supposedly it has minerals and other healing and soothing ingredients. Indeed the skin afterwards felt very soft and smooth. We nearly had the beach to ourselves. Besides a few day spa guests, we discovered that the hotel was very lightly booked and we could get our room several hours earlier than we thought.
After a late lunch at the resort and a nice coffee (for once it was not Nescafé with milk powder) it was time to say good bye to our French friends who had to fly of early morning the next day. It was a very nice group and we had a lot of fun together.
Our last day in Wadi Rum included a drizzly morning and a 3 hr. ride to bring the horses back to Wadi Rum village so they could travel home by truck from there on.
What we thought was a leisurely ride turned out to be quite an effort. All the horses somehow knew that this was our last day and that they were going home. They did not want to walk anymore, but dance around impatiently.
Once we returned to their stables in Wadi Rum village, we said good bye to them, their riders even fond of the difficult ones by then.
We were invited to a nice cold lunch at the brother of our camp owner. We were lucky that the riding was finished as it started to rain now in earnest.
We loaded our luggage into two cars and set out for Aqaba where all of the French folks were scheduled to have a PCR test late afternoon. When we arrived at our hotel in Aqaba we were surprised to lear that the doctor was already waiting to take all the tests. A very good organization.
All of us were craving hot showers and a good hair wash before heading out to discover the souk of Aqaba.
It was still daylight, when a smaller group of us set out to do some souvenir and spice shopping. We sampled the most delicious freshly cooked Falafel and shopped in a great bakery for sweet desserts.
We wandered through stands with fresh spices, fruit and vegetables as well as gristly looking butcher shops where sheeps heads were offered wrapped in cling film.
This was out last evening together as a group and we had gotten to know each other really well. It was fun to talk so much French again, even though our brains were fried at times switching between German, English and French all the time.
This was to be our last full day in Wadi Rum and our longest ride yet.
We set out to brilliant sunshine, the rain was long forgotten, the cascades had dried up and the little streams that had formed were running dry again. Only the sand was still wet.
And talking of sand: we had not known that there were so many different shades of sand in the same desert. From a vivid orange to more subtle tones of beige, grey and even greenish tones. It was pretty amazing to see that color variety in such a barren land. Besides a few birds and domestic animals, we did not see a single antelope, fox or other mammals.
But we saw plenty of 4WD tourism that drove up and down steep dunes of sand. The 4WD seems to overtake the traditional means of transport like horses and camels and we fear that a few years from now, it won’t be possible to have a quiet ride in the desert with all the traffic that is criss crossing the Wadi Rum at high speed. We could not really picture what it would look like if all those bedouin camps were to be full of tourists, all doing outdoor activities and unfortunately many leaving their trash behind. And what’s even sadder is that the locals themselves did not seem to care much to keep their environment clean.
Broken auto parts, thousands of discarded plastic and glass bottles, Chips wrappers , plastic bags and other plastic packaging could be seen everywhere even on our trip. Imagine what it will look like if they do not start cleaning up or stop littering.
Despite all the negative things that civilization has brought , the landscape is still breathtakingly beautiful and we all agreed that the last two days were the best of our trip. Back in the camp nearly at complete dark, two surprises were waiting for us there.
The not so good surprise was that apparently despite a full day of sun, the water tank for hot water had not been filled , so only cold showers were possible. The good one was waiting for us at the camp.
As it was our last evening in the camp, our cook outdid himself and cooked another traditional bedouin dish, this time with Chicken and vegetables called Zarb. A large round hole about half a meter deep gets dug into the sand and a fire lit until there are only hot coals left. Then a large round cylinder with several shelves in it gets stacked with different ingredients. The bottom layer, closest to the hot coals houses the meat. In our case Chicken. The layer above houses potatoes and on the top shelf other vegetables like onions, carrots, zucchini and aubergines are packed before the whole cylinder is closed, is put into the hole and covered entirely with sand. That way it has to cook for several hours. Once they unearthed the cylinder a delicious smell emanated from it and we all agreed that this is a superb last dinner of a memorable trip.
Since it was the last day, the singer from the desert showed up again with a pretty impressive boombox, probably with enough juice to charge some hundred phones in the desert. He also used a stage mike and his iPhone to choose the background orchestra.
Marie, a french girl straight out of Paris tried some karaoke.
And Chris got the cloth of Suleman, the camp owner and tried his own interpretetion of a beduin dance. Indeed, a very funny evening.
What you don’t see in the pictures: at the end of the night you smell like smoked meat, since all the cigarettes, the nargile and the smoke from the fireplace fills the tent.
We all awoke on New Years day to a hefty rain that drenched our tents. While all of us, coming from countries that have plenty of rain and were not keen on riding in the pouring wet, the bedouins were all excited and took pictures of a fast developing cascade behind our camp.
Esther in her inner eye already saw the camp flooded with the fast increase in the cascades downpour with a hint of panic in her eyes. Our horses were drenched wet and shivering. Soon a little stream was running in between their feet. We had to get them to a safe and dry place.
Unfortunately many of the caves that are part of the rocky boulders have been taken up by pop up tourist bedouin camps so there was really only one place 2 km away where the horses could be moved out of the rain.
We bundled up into rain gear and started to walk the horses on foot so they could warm up. We arrived at an overhang that was big enough to provide shelter and dry ground for the horses to dry off and wait our the worst.
We then saw a unique and very rare sight in the desert: once the sky started to clear a bit, we saw a beautiful full rainbow from one end of the Wadi we sheltered the horses to the other. A full 180 degree circle was glistening in the drizzle. It was a spectacular sight and we felt privileged to have witnessed it.
The sky cleared even more and lit up in an incredible turquoise blue without the haziness that we usually saw with sand flying in the air. And – something we haven’t seen so far in our life: a rainbow in the desert.
By late morning the horses were dry and we could start a shortened ride that day.
What we did not know is that several riders did not book the entire tour but had to leave one or two days early, which in retrospect was nice as we could ride in a smaller group and leave 3 of the difficult or injured horses behind.
So we set out late morning 3 riders less than the days before and had the most beautiful ride of the trip. The air was a clear blue, no sand flying and from many rocks there were cascades streaming down from the recent rain. Our Bedouins were telling us that they had not seen such cascades for 4 years and took pictures to post on social media as this was such a rare occurrence. We hadn’t known that rain could turn into such pleasure.
Today we set out around 9 AM for another ride . Two people switched horses as their mounts were not very well matched to their riding ability. In all we did notice that the horse quality of half the horses was not great. All of the riders had been to other riding tours and were able to compare. Several of the horses were very restless and dancing all the time, others were quiet at the walk only but when the speed increased were very difficult to hold back.
Indeed one of the riders could not hold her mount and raced at break neck speed in a wide circle around the group and was just lucky her horses did not stumble or she would have fallen off for sure. We asked why such difficult horses were chosen for this trip when the trip was advertised for medium riding skills. The issue was that the first set of horses that originally were scheduled for us were not available due to several equine herpes cases in that barn, so they shut that barn down for the moment. The organizer then had trouble recruiting enough replacement horses so that horses that should not have been on this trip were selected out of desperation.
Unfortunately this also meant that there was a lot of unreliable and insufficient tack that came with those horses – many of them probably straight out of the Petra tourist parcours.
We had several pieces of equipment break, reins, martingales, halters. Several stirrups had no stirrup grips on them and all horses had old and some not healed wounds from the past. We had to retire one horse early due to a swollen leg, which took the second guide away and one old mare clearly was beyond stressed out and could not finish the trail. On a good note they were well shod and we saw no saddle sores.
As today was Friday Dec. 31st and we got served the signature dish of the bedouins: Mansaf. It consists of tender lamb meat on the bone slow cooked in sheeps milk served on a bed of rice with one nuts and lots of different spices like cardamom and others. The sheeps milk is served on the side as a sort of sauce and generously sprinkled over the whole dish. Needless to say that Esther was no fan but Chris enjoyed it quite a bit, telling Esther that it wouldn’t taste a bit like sheep.
As no one could envision staying up until midnight to celebrate new year, we simply as a group decided to celebrate new year at 12 Islamabad time. We popped some bottles of bubbly for the occasion and most of us retired to sleep shortly afterwards. But the evening was far from over for the ones that stayed in the tent a bit longer: Some musicians arrived at 11.30 PM and played bedouin music until well past 1 AM. The dance ws – as we were told – very easy to learn as it consisted only from some kind of squats and rhythmic clapping while singing reap – reap – reap.
The night was freezing cold in the desert. Despite very good sleeping bags we had to don socks and fleece jackets to sleep. When we woke up it was a big surprise to see our surroundings for the first time.
Our small camp is at the foot of a rock wall and looks out onto a large Wadi. Shivering we all met in the big tent around a wood fired stove to warm up a bit. We had a hearty breakfast with fool and hummus (yes it’s really called fool or even foul, it’s a breakfast dish made with crushed white and red beans that originated from Egypt). Wadi Rum is a very large protected area on the border to Saudi Arabia. It mainly consists of Wadi’s (Valleys that serve as river beds during rainy season) and rocky mountains that aren’t very high but look like gigantic boulders strewn about.
No palm trees, no green, just dry brushes and tire tracks everywhere. We saddled up our horses and set out for a first exploratory ride. The horses were motivated and forward. Some of the riders struggled with holding their horses back when we cantered and gallopped. Chris got the most calm mount while Esther had a hot little mare that always wanted to go faster than the herd, shaking her head when she was not allowed to.
We had a nice outing in sunny weather and were back for lunch at the bedouin tent for a scrumptious lunch of local salads and local dips. After some very sweet bedouin tea we set out again for another stroll on horseback. There are very few tourists in the area as it is off season.
We saw many camps that were entirely empty as they had received a large number of cancellations due to Covid as well. We saw a few 4WD groups, a few rock climbers and a camel safari, but other than that it seemed to be the occasional local traffic from one family to another.
Back in the camp after having unsaddled and brushed the horses, we were delighted to find out that due to the sunny day, we had hot water (heated by the sun) for some quick showers. Night fall is early in winter, as early as 5 PM. That evening we had a delicious rice dish with a tomato sardine sauce. We popped open some of the beers we had brought from Aqaba and had a very nice relaxing evening. We were coming together as a group and the atmosphere was good. Dinner was a quick affair, and we were all tired from so much fresh air that we retired by 9 PM for a much milder night than the one before.
Today we finally were riding our horses for the first time. But as we learned early plans change often. The weather forecast predicted 4 days of rain coming from the North and that would mean the original date for little Petra would have fallen in that period with Little Petra most likely closed. Obviously tourists have drowned at Petra in the past. So plans were changed and that riding day up North was put to the front of the trip while the weather was still nice.
We drove all the way from Aqaba to little Petra again, to finally meet our horses. As predicted those were Arab Berber mixes, some quite small, others medium size. All rather thin but well shod. The saddles were a mix as well. Everything from Western, to Endurance to English saddles. We were mostly matched by weight not necessarily by riding skills. Small riders to small horses and larger riders to the larger horses.
Our first outing was just at a walk so it was difficult to really see if horse and rider fit together.
Chris was matched with a large grey with henna colored mane and tail which he really liked. He first thought its name was Kabir – until he realized, that Kabir means ‚big’ in arabic.
Esther got a smaller chestnut mare which was OK at a walk but a bit annoying at the canter which she only found out later. We rode at a walk for about 3 hours in an area that very much looked like big Petra, very arid and dry.
Then we stopped for a nice picknick lunch and handed over our horses to two grooms who then waited until the horse trucks arrived to transport them to Wadi Rum. We were driven to an unassuming outpost in the desert on the foot of rocky hills, which was a much smaller operation than big Petra.
We walked through some gorges to a lovely open space where we saw similar Nabathean buildings then in Petra. Mostly facades of tombs but some converted into housing. It was much smaller than Petra but we found it more charming. We had the place pretty much to ourselves. Hardly any tourists in sight and we left some money with the locals for souvenirs as they must be hurting badly from the loss of revenue. They got many cancellations in because of the world wide Covid and Omicron situation.
We strolled through the valley, had some tea and were volunteered to try out some Khol – the Arabic version of eyeliner. On the way back we passed one of our horse truck which was an adventurous construction of an open top truck with high sides and only a flap in the back.
To load and unload the horses the truck needed to be backed up against a hill. Unfortunately on the transport Chris’ Horse got injured and did not make it all the way to Wadi Rum.
The night we are supposed to spend in our Bedouin camp with a nice local dish dinner with no alcohol. The evening before Chris and some others in the group had snuck out to a liquor store and bought some bubbly for New Years eve as in all of Wadi Rum, you cannot buy any alcohol.
So we drove to Wadi Rum Village and changed from our Minivan to two open top 4 wheel drives. In Chris’ car, the 10 year old son of the owner of the Bedouin camp site took the wheel. Obviously we wouldn’t be stopped by police here in the desert. In the dark at break neck speed we drove to our camp and had a hearty dinner in a big smoky bedouin tent before each couple retired to their little Bedouin hut for the night.