Vietnam Part I

The geography of Vietnam lends itself to one of two routes for exploring. You either go from North to South or from South to North. The flights worked out cheaper to Ho Chi Minh City so that’s where our Vietnamese adventure began.

The heat and noise hit us as we left the arrivals hall. It felt strangely familiar, despite never having been there before. We couldn’t get a price we were happy with for a taxi into town so climbed aboard a local bus and whilst the children were free we had to buy a ticket for our large backpack. We trundled through the swarms of motorbikes and were set down somewhere near our hotel. The welcome in HCMC couldn’t have been more different than in Tokyo. “The room you have booked is too small for you and your children.” Oh, here we go again we thought. “I’ll put you in a bigger room for the same price. Your kids are so cute!” I knew then that I’d like Vietnam.

We spent a happy few days in HCMC. My faithful flip flops from Western Nepal gave up on me so we wandered round the market looking for replacements. Everything is fake branded so I am now the proud owner of a pair of Aberconnbies [sic]. There are some cool playgrounds which the boys enjoyed no end. Not least because a random encounter with a lovely family from New Zealand provided them with a playmate for a large portion of our time in Vietnam.

We weren’t sure about visiting the War Remnants Museum with children but it worked out really well. They enjoyed seeing the planes and tanks outside and there is a playroom on the top floor. Nick and I meanwhile took it in turns to play with the children whilst the other visited the museum. I walked through the exhibition with tears streaming down my face. I learnt more about the American/Vietnam war and the far reaching implications of Agent Orange. There are some truly horrific photos of the brutality of war, in particular of children, which made me despair for humanity and stayed with me for a long time.

After zipping round the Far East we were in need of a rest. The plan had been to settle for a month in the beach town of Mui Ne to recuperate. We had a not-so-little house that I’d found on Air BnB and we were happy to fall into the routine of domesticity after so many hotels. We were excited to cook our own food and do our own laundry. We loved having mango trees in the garden and having time to think about where we’re going (literally and figuratively).’

 

Mui Ne is a big draw for Russian tourists so between self catering and all the Cyrillic signs we didn’t really feel as though we were in Vietnam. We enjoyed the company of our Kiwi friends who joined us for a few days and all had fun in the nearby sand dunes. The beach was a let down however, as the water was dirty and I was savaged by sand flies. We took to using the pool at Joe’s (a local cafe/resort) where the boys perfected their swimming. After a couple of weeks, feeling rested, we cut our losses and were back on the road.

We headed up to the Central highlands and the hill town of Dalat. Enjoying the cooler climes whilst we saw the sites including Hang Nga Crazy House, Elephant falls and the beautiful Xuan Huong lake. Dalat is well know for growing vegetables and the surrounding countryside is covered in poly tunnels.

We had planned an overnight trek with camping at nearby Mount Langbian. The start of the trek was rather disappointing with lots of rubbish and noise from jeeps. However after a steep climb we were soon away from the busy tourist area and horses painted to look like zebras. The next part of the walk was really enjoyable as we ambled through lush pine forest, even Tom managed the whole thing without complaint. As we got to the top the clouds had rolled in and we seemed to be right inside the peals of thunder. The heavens opened and we got soaked to the skin on our way down the mountain. Slip sliding on mud and trying to avoid the torrents that cascaded down the path next to us. At one point I had a couple of kilos of extra weight in clay stuck to my feet. We decided we didn’t have anything to prove by staying in the tent and beat a retreat to the warm shower in our hotel.

From there we hit big brash seaside town of Nha Trang. The beach was lovely, if crowded and the boys loved jumping off the diving board at the Central Park pool. We attempted the ‘Total Wipeout’ style bouncy stuff in the sea, but didn’t really get the hang of it. It was a good place to break up the journey northwards but boy were we happy to reach Hoi An.

 To be continued…

Keralaaaaaa

A three hour bus ride took us from Mysore to Sultan Batheri in the Wayanad district of Kerala. The journey passed very pleasantly marred only by a slight concern that a fellow passenger’s luggage may escape it’s precarious position and land on my head.

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We found a great restaurant and enjoyed a beautifully spiced biryani and set meal. Fully fortified we squeezed into an auto and headed to Spice Garden Farmhouse where we would hang our hats for the next few days.

The farm is set on 15 acres of coffee, rubber and spice plantation, with a stream, swing, tree house and rabbits. It was a really beautiful place to while away the hours. The boys loved having company in the form of Santosh’s daughters and nieces. During our visit we got to pick coffee beans and learnt how to make rubber sheets.

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We arrived on a Sunday followed by a Public holiday and a state-wide strike. Whilst this meant we didn’t get to visit the nearby wildlife reserve it did afford us with plenty of time with Santosh and his wonderful family who were hosting us. Not to mention all the delicious South Indian food we devoured!

Our next destination was Fort Cochin (read about the fun we had getting there here). We enjoyed having a go on the Chinese fishing nets, seeing a crab sculpture made from waste plastic and wandering through the back alleys admiring Indian antiques and the beautiful architecture. Other than that it was hot, expensive and full of mosquitos. We were quick to move on.

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A chance conversation lead us to Mararikulum. A beautiful and wild stretch of beach on the Keralan coast near to Alleppy. Think postcard perfect; white sand, palm trees and few people.

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We turned up and schlepped down the beach with our backpacks looking for a place to stay. Happily we found a great guest house with a lovely garden, hammocks and lots of friends for the boys to play with. One of whom invited us to visit her school, which is memorable not least for Nick’s basketball demonstration during break time.

Our next stop was another homestay. This time in the backwaters of Kerala.

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I was really looking forward to this part of the trip and it more than exceeded expectations. We were taken on an afternoon tour by canoe through the waterways around Munroe Island and Ashtamundi lake. It was very peaceful and we enjoyed close encounters with many bird species and a beautiful sunset.

The following day our host Vijeesh took us out on a walk round the village. He is very funny and was great at engaging the boys. He told us about many of the plants including a hydrophobic leaf that has been used to model technical waterproofs, an exploding seed pod and he showed us what happens when you slap a fern leaf against your skin.

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(we haven’t been able to it ourselves so will need to find out the trick!)

We also popped into the village kindergarten where we experienced an uncomfortable silence until Nick burst into song, which at least made me laugh, if none of the children.

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We also visited the ladies working hard sorting nuts in the cashew production factory, and some others spinning cotton. The boys cooled off with a dip in the river.

Kerala is a beautiful state; the spice covered hills, the golden sands and the palm fringed back waters. The pace of life seems slower than elsewhere in India, and the food is some of the best we’ve had. It is with happy hearts and happy tummies that we head into Tamil Nadu.

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And just like that Christmas is over

I haven’t missed all the Christmas hype at home in England. It begins sometime in October and builds momentum until the children are in complete frenzy come December 25th.

You could be forgiven for the big day passing you by entirely here in South Goa. There were some children on the beach trying to sell us their handmade cards (the snowmen seemed particularly incongruous). The boys helped decorate the tree at our guesthouse. There are a few detailed nativity scenes around complete with

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living grass and flowers. And a few restaurants even offered roast turkey dinners but that’s about it.

The boys slept until 7.45. A lay-in by any standard and completely unheard of on Christmas Day! (being woken around 5am by my niece running in to our room yelling “It’s Christmas!!” will remain one of my favourite festive memories).

As soon as his eyes were open Tomas asked “has Santa been?!” and after checking whether Rudolph had eaten the carrot we’d left out for him the boys had a jolly few minutes opening their stockings containing a couple of trinkets and some sweets.

They were delighted with their presents of Shreddies (for Tomas who has asked for them everyday since we left Brighton) and a snorkel (for George who wrote a beautiful letter requesting one upon our arrival in Goa). The usual chaos of mountains of gifts and tantrums over wanting more presents to open happily passed us by (mind you there were tears over both boys wanting the chameleon toy which went missing later that day sparing us from further dispute).

We did miss our family and friends and a paper hat would have been nice as we ate our seafood dinner (and did the quiz) with an old friend but we have all become accustomed to living with fewer possessions and I hope we remember the beauty of this Christmas without ‘stuff’.