Saturday, 31 December 2011

NYE 2011 - Bulls and Babes

Ahhh. New Years Eve 2011.
Being relatively new to Darwin I do not have a huge social life yet and did not have many options for New Years Eve. Plenty of pubs up here and various parties including masquerade balls but the idea of turning up to one of these alone was not highly appealing. I also had an offer for a private night at home cooking dinner with a new found friend. This was a lovely genuine offer but it is not a friendship that I want to encourage too much. Also there is always the option of staying home alone.
I settled on a Rodeo that was not a Rodeo. I think that is because there were no horses involved. It was promoted as the Bulls and Babes Spectacular. We were promised 50 Bull rides and a bevy of beauties. I justified this "spectacular" on the grounds of broadening my horizons and experiencing a bit of the local culture. It would be sad indeed in a few years time to look back on my life and say gee I never got to a Bull Riding show. I have seen plenty of babes so that bit was not so important.
The venue was a pavilion at the Darwin Show grounds. On arrival there was a bunch of what I took to be backpackers in a Camper van changing. It turned out this was the band and one or two of their friends.
Paying my entry fee ($30) I made my way into the venue and wandered around. Drinks were served from temporary bar areas, beer, soft drinks and premix spirits in cans all cooled in bins full of ice. You could have any choice of spirits as long as it was bourbon and coke. It was required that you bought tickets for the drinks from a different location set of tables.
The bull ring took pride of place and consisted of temporary fencing with a sand floor. Gates at the rear contained the bulls while they were being saddled and chutes allowed new bulls into the gated area. A stage for the band was to the right of the ring and tables and stools set up around the whole venue including an upper mezzanine level where I found a spare seat at a table.
Music was playing, a mix of light and medium heavy rock and pop. Think of Queen, We will Rock You, Metallica, Enter Sandman, Pat Benetar, All Fired Up. You get the picture.
The lights were low and Varilights and spotlights roamed the crowd and ring. A smoke machine filled the ring with smoke and a man commenced a spiel that was piped around the arena. It was almost unintelligable, a combination of poor amplification and speakers conflicting with each other. The crowd roared however and seemed to be having fun.
The event started with a herd of bulls running around the ring and then the Bull Riding really got underway. A succession of bulls released from the gates with riders on top. Few survived long and came off with various degrees of control. One rider rode his bull until it gave up, many ended up on the floor where upon the bull generally had an attempt to gore the rider with its horns. On these occasions helpers ran out to try and distract the bull enabling the rider to escape over the fence. Often the bull would give up easily and leave the arena on its own accord. On a few occasions the bulls proved uncooperative and refused to leave. They held their ground and attacked the helpers. Generally at this stage they released another bull and the two would generally leave together. One in particular, a mammoth beast, held its ground for about 15 minutes before finally being coaxed out. The crowd was cheering the bull.
But the riders did not always win. Two were carried off by ambulance having been on the wrong end of the horns. One of the helpers was attacked from behind when he foolishly turned his back on an open gate. A few riders were bruised and limping by the end of the night.
It was a pretty friendly crowd and I saw no evidence of excessive drinking or obnoxious behaviour. A lot of Cowboy hats, some genuine daily headwear but some in such good condition that I wasn't sure whether some of these belonged to urban cowboys or were their best going out hat.
Some of the bulls were obviously crowd favourites as were some of the riders. It was easy to get into the excitement and adrenaline of seeing a rider doing well on a particularly vicious bull.
Oh I almost forgot the babes.
Periodically a  competition was held which basically involved the babes appearing in bikinis and parading around the outside of the ring. All very amateur but appreciated by the crowd. Even the women seemed to be getting into it and I saw several women with cameras taking pictures. Yes they were babes, all slim, all with legs, all with breasts and all very very young, late teens I would guess. Sorry guys no pictures to show. These ladies were "judged" and I have no idea what the criteria was but one was awarded a cash prize.
Overall a fun night, the Bludger has spent worse New years Eves'.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Darwin Tourism - Nightcliff Pool

Nightcliff pool is my local swimming pool and I pass it regularly on morning walks. I had never ventured into the pool itself so decided to do so.
The entry fee was reasonable Adults $3.70, with concessions for seniors and children and a number of passes for regular visitors. I took in a portable reclining chair and settled down on a grassy section under the shade of a palm tree.
The pool had 8 swimming lanes, most had lane ropes up for the serious exercisers so that they can plough back and forth without accident. One side was left as an open area for the non exercisers. Huge shade cloths stretch over most of the pool and protect from the sun. One area is left exposed. I guess the pool is about 40 metres long, I didn't bring a tape measure.
The water was surprisingly cool, in comparison to the ambient temperature. It was refreshing after the heat of the day. An attendant told me it was about 29 degrees C. You won't get frost bite in this pool and boys will not be able to claim shrinkage.
I spent a pleasant couple of hours there alternating between the pool and the lounge chair. The weather eventually ended my day as a storm blew in. These storms are very intense but short lived.
The Bludger sheltered from the storm in the nearby Beachfront Hotel with a pint of cold Cider.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Darwin Tourism: Mandorah Beach

Being a little bit quiet over Christmas I have attempted a bit of tourism. It is wet season so a lot of the national parks are washed out. In fact Cyclone Grant cut the road south, and the railway line. The Stuart Highway has now reopened but the railway is going to need a new bridge. That has left the supermarket shelves a bit empty but no one is concerned too much. Well apart from the Supermarkets who have reduced quantities to sell.
This means that tourism needs to be close to home and have options to avoid storms that are common at this time of year.
Mandorah Beach Resort.
Darwin has a huge natural harbour and Mandorah is a short ferry ride across the Harbour. It is on Cox Peninsula and is part of the mainland. Getting there by road is a 190Km drive, around the harbour and estuaries and rivers. A good couple of hours. Getting there by passenger ferry is barely 15 minutes. I and my companion had decided to take the ferry.
I called the day before to check that the resort was open, that they were serving meals and that day trippers could use the pool. A very friendly yes to all three questions. The only unknown was the weather so final decision was deferred until the next day.
The day was typical for this time of the year, mainly overcast, but occasional patches of sunshine. Hot and humid.
Arriving at the ferry terminal early we took a stroll around the marina. Coming to an open bit we could see a storm coming in so returned to the shelter of the terminal. The ferry was now open so we boarded just in time to avoid a drenching.
We were on the ferry run by Sea Cat ferries. This was one of their last days of operation as a new operator takes over from January 1. The staff were friendly and helpful, assisting people with prams and and elderly man with mobility problems and generally making the trip enjoyable. The trip was short and before the trip had ended the rain was gone and we were back to the heat and humidity.
Being almost low tide there was a rather long climb from the boat to the jetty, which is set high above any potential tides and storm waves. Not a difficult climb. From there we walked a few hundred metres to the resort.
The Ferry with Darwin CBD in the background
The term resort had set an expectation in my mind. I was thinking of reclining by a pool on a banana lounge or similar under some shade with a drink by my side, a book in hand and some music on the iPod. The reality was a bit different. There was a pool. A very traditional Australian rectangular shape. Not a skerrick of shade to be seen, a couple of deck chairs for seating or a nicely maintained grassy surround. It was hot and sunny, not at all a pleasant prospect. Forsaking the pool we continued to the shelter of the pub.
The pub wasn't all that bad. It is an open bar consisting of a large outdoor area under shelter. Overhead fans churn the air for a semblance of cooling. Music - aussie pub rock - was playing but at a level not to be intrusive or prevent conversation. Tables and chairs to seat a fair crowd and a nice view of the harbour if you selected your seating carefully.
We settled in and had a drink. Then another. I ordered lunch next to a sign that proudly proclaimed that it was the only place that didn't serve greasy chips with every meal. In fact they didn't seem to serve chips at all. I settled on a "freshly made" hamburger. Dissapointing. A frozen bun that had been grilled to dryness, not burnt, just desiccated. A meat patty that looked like the frozen ones that you get in supermarkets in brightly coloured boxes at premium price. You know from experience that the patty is tasteless and the meat so finely ground that it has no texture. It was all of that. Drowning it in tomato sauce and washing down with beer was the only option to make it palatable.
Overall though I like the pub and could easily kick back there with a few beers and friends and enjoy a quiet session.
View of Mandorah Beach and Resort from the Jetty
I didn't feel  up to a swim so we made our way back to the ferry terminal. On arrival we learnt that the ferry had a small mechanical breakdown and was delayed. We waited on the beach which was probably a silly thing to do as it was murderously hot. By the time the ferry did arrive I was feeling light headed and close to suffering heat stroke (sun stroke), despite drinking water and pouring it over myself to keep cool. A cold shower and lie down ended the day for me.
The Bludger was pleased with the day out and recommends it to visitors.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Cyclone Warning - Sort of.

This is the view from Darwin East Point Reserve looking out to the NNE towards the Low pressure system that is expected to develop into a Cyclone. There isn't a lot to see to be honest, just a dark band of clouds on the horizon. The eye of the storm is about 190 KM away, the band of clouds is probably only 20-30km due to the curvature of the earth. It is not surprising that there is not a lot to see.
The Low is stooging around to the north and east of Melville Island. Those guys are going to be in for some gale forcewinds over the next 48 hours.
So what's happening in Darwin at the moment? It is Christmas Eve, a Saturday. It's an odd feeling as people are out shopping and doing their bits and pieces. The markets are open and preparations are under way for tomorrow's Christmas feast. Lots of last minute shopping, no obvious signs of panic buying or Cyclone shopping. The shopping trolleys that I saw are full of Christmas food not Cyclone survival food.
The weather here is definitely cooler than normal. I slept with the windows and doors open last night to let the cool air in. I haven't done that in 5 months. It is windy. Not what you may call windy, only about 10-15 knots, but compared to the normal still air, it is a definate change. It has been wet, but it is the wet season, hard to tell if this is unusual.
View to the NNE from East Point Reserve.
What do I expect to happen? It seems that a Cyclone will definately form, but I expect that it will be short lived as it will probably hit land shortly after forming. The Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin, will be in for a battering. I expect Darwin itself will get some strong winds and rain, but miss the full force of the Cyclone.
Happy Christmas from The Bludger
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Sunday, 18 December 2011

Territory Wildlife Park & Berry Springs

A day trip to Berry Springs and the Territory Wildlife Park.
Add this to your agenda if you visit Darwin and the Northern Territory.
The weather forecast was not good, showers and an afternoon storm. But my new friend and I decided to chance it anyway. A day trip. A chance to get out of the city with company. Female company what's more.
Berry Springs is about a 50 minute drive south of Darwin on good sealed roads. When we left it was hot, humid and about 40% cloud cover. No immediate threat of rain.
Arriving at Berry Springs we had been talking so much that we had missed all road signs. So we popped into the Sunday morning Market for directions. We wandered around the stalls and I bought a jar of honey. (What? You wanted something more substantial than that? Bad luck.)
Berry Springs Pool. No Swimming today, but is that a mermaid?
We then proceeded to the Berry Springs Nature Park. The significance of this park is that it contains a pool of water fed by an underground reservoir. At the right time of the year it is a lovely place to swim, relax and cool off. Unfortunately this is not the right time of year. This is the beginning of the wet season and the recent rains had turned the water a bit milky. The pool is full of debris even the approaches were boggy. Also there is no longer a guarantee that the waters are Crocodile free.
So no swimming. It is a pretty spot however.
Tangled roots
From there we headed to the Territory Wildlife Park. My companion, Lei, was a bit reticent. On a previous trip she had been there in the wet season and most of the park was closed. Quite honestly she found it boring. However she went along.
Fortunately she had free entry. This is an offer extended to all visitors. A single entry allows repeat visits for the next 12 months, as long as you register. I paid my dues and registered for further visits.
Quite simply we had a lovely time. The entire park was open. The staff were very helpful. Arriving just before 11am we were encouraged to go to the "Flight Deck" and see the Birds of Prey show as our first item on the Agenda.
A bird of prey. An eagle from memory
The show consisted of a choreographed series of animals, mostly birds, performing for the audience. This is open air, and the birds could have simply flown off if they so desired. But they didn't. Instead they flew patterns around and over the visitors, plucked food out of the air and pond, flew to strategic locations for photographs and generally entertained. Yes it was choreographed but it showed a high level of training of the birds by the handlers. Most impressive.
One of my favourites a Sulphur Crested Cockatoo
From there we made our way to the Nocturnal House. This held an array of night creatures including Owls, Possums, rat like thingys, mice and snakes that were viewed under dim lighting conditions. During our night they live under spotlights and believing it is daytime go to sleep. This makes them active during visitor hours, when the spotlights are turned off.
From there we made our way to the Billabong. This has a walkway and viewing platforms but the Billabong itself is fenced off with a warning sign about an aggressive fresh water crocodile.
We took time out for lunch here. Mostly we could only see Pelicans, a few were getting a little bit amorous. A pretty spot.
If you name this correctly I will pat you on the head.
As we sat eating our lunch we could hear what sounded like thunder. I was worried about a storm coming. However moving on from the Billabong we came to the "Monsoon Forest Walk". This is a walk that takes in several walk-in aviaries, some enclosures with different landforms and therefore wildlife and a final large aviary that offers a treetops walk through the rainforest. This was lovely. The thunder that we had heard was part of the display, which was a simulated thunderstorm and rainstorm. A bit of fun. Very loud. Quite realistic. Having experienced a real thunderstorm the evening before I was impressed with the realism.
A bird. In the tree tops. Type: forgotten. Big(ish)
Next stop was an aquarium. This had various tanks in a very natural setting that showcased many of the local wetland aquatic life. This included large barramundi, turtles, crocodiles and various fish. It also included some salt water tanks that held corals, stingrays, sawfish and a GINORMOUS salt water crocodile.
A big bitey thing. Best avoided.

The crocodiles seen this way are quite scary. They float almost totally submerged, with only their eyes above the water line, difficult to spot. However their powerful hind legs are resting on the bottom, ready at a moments notice to thrust the body forward and out of the water. A croc in this position is not relying on being able to swim fast, it is like a sprinter in the traps ready to leap forward. Having seen this I do not want a closer encounter with a croc, I was happy to have a layer of thick glass between me and it.
Incidentally, apparently, there are more crocs in the NT than people. Oh joy.
By this time Lei had expressed her delight at how much better the park was than her previous visit and was a convert to it being a good place. I was happy about that to know that she was not bored.
There are several attractions that we bypassed. Leave these for another visit. Our final place to visit was Goose Lagoon. This is a place where wild water birds visit. It has a large hide and an impressive pictorial display of what we may encounter. Unfortunately at this time of year we were treated to an almost empty lake. Our total "bag" was 2 ducks of some sort and possibly a Jabiru hidden in the trees.
The wildlife at Goose Lagoon.
We called it quits after that and caught the open air transport bus, which they call a train, back to the main reception. After a quick refreshment we left and headed home.
A lovely day, the weather held off, it wasn't too hot due to cloud cover and plenty to see.
The Bludger recommends visiting the Territory Wildlife Park when in Darwin.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Wrapping up. - Not marrying a Vietnamese Person

It is now about 2 weeks since any plans to marry my Vietnamese girlfriend had turned to custard. I am back in Australia and well removed physically. Untouchable.
Pretty much as soon as I left Lac Quoi communications dropped off to such a low level that even a blind man could tell the relationship was over. When I got back to Australia and had access to my translation tools I sent a series of messages trying to explain that I was angry about the demands for money. I don't know if they were understood. I guess that I was trying to explain myself. The responses back were short and showed disinterest.
I also met up with my Vietnamese teacher, Mai. She had spoken to Phuc, before my final trip, acting as an interpreter for me. Now that things were over, Mai, confessed that she had doubts about Phuc but did not want to relay them to me. In her view Phuc had seemed too focussed on money and not enough on the realities of living in Australia. Also the eye problem had been discussed and the operation had been described as not very expensive. In comparison the $500USD that I had been asked for was expensive. Mai agreed that in stopping the relationship I had done the right thing.
Also I have been remembering conversations with others on Phu Quoc island. I have identified at least one person who appeared to be in on the scam as she was also urging me to give Phuc the money for the eye operation.
I formally ended any relationship with an SMS Text message. That may sound harsh or weak, but it was our best communication medium. We both used it a lot, sometimes when sitting together we would write out a text and show it to the other. It removed some communication difficulties.
In response to that message I had a reply "Would it help if I learnt English?" I responded that Language was not the problem. I have not heard from her again. (Update: I had a brief message shortly after writing that sentence. "I miss you honey". I have ignored it as I think it was a test to see if I would respond.)
Phuc chose this over what I could offer.
I am not feeling hurt or burnt or depressed or upset in any way. Maybe a slight singe on the edges? I went into this romance with a hope and desire to make things work, but always in the back of my head that there was a risk. The risk turned out to be true. Overall I think that I have come out of this relatively unscathed and on balance a winner.
On the downside is the costs of 2 unexpected trips to Vietnam, disruption to my employer, and about $1,300 that has been scammed from me. Putting that in perspective, if I was dating a lady in Australia, I could have spent almost that much on dinners, weekends away, gifts and other attempts to woo her.
On the upside was 2 unexpected trips to Vietnam, holidays that I had not intended. A unique experience to learn a little bit about Vietnamese culture through the eyes of a Vietnamese family. I spent almost a week in the Mekong Delta, with a personal guide, living with a family, partaking in their daily life and seeing some local sights that few foreigners have access to. A travel agent would charge more than $1300 to put that package together.
I certainly don't feel that I have suffered a huge loss.
I am disappointed in the actions of Phuc, I wonder why she did it, I wonder what is going through her mind. I will never know. Was it a scam from the first night we met? Or did that come later?
Is she a professional and I am just another in a long line of fleeced tourists. I like to think not. She made a lot of mistakes in the first meeting that indicates she had not done this before. She didn't know about the strict hotel rules about foreigners not being allowed locals into their rooms for example. She was very honest about money that first time. However she was easy to get into bed, so I suspect that while she would not consider herself a prostitute, she was willing to hop into bed with a foreigner for money if the opportunity arose.
My guess is that sometime around my second visit, the thought occurred to her that she could siphon money from me. I was a target, I had been and gone, now I had come back and my level of interest was such that she could exploit that. Maybe someone got in her ear. That second trip we had some genuinely nice times that would be difficult to pull off unless you were an accomplished actress.
Maybe it was a honey trap all along. I will never know. But if it was the honey was sweet.
The sun has set on a relationship and an adventure.
 So back to being single. Just as in life, when you trip over, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep moving.
Maybe I will visit Thailand in 2012 and make the same mistakes all over again.
The Bludger is undaunted.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Vietnam Trip 3 - Saturday - Saigon

I spent a fairly fretful night. Despite feeling very tired I was unable to sleep properly. I could not get the room at a comfortable temperature and was constantly turning the aircon on and back off. I could feel my body temperature going up and down. I surmised that I may be ill. In fact that was proven to me in the early hours when evidence of Saigon Belly made itself known. I will spare you the details.
I found it funny. I had survived 5 days in the Mekong Delta in barely sanitary conditions, but it was only when I returned to what I considered civilisation that I picked up a stomach bug. It turned out to be not serious and I decided to not allow it to hold me back.
I made it to breakfast, which was a buffet with a nice mix of Western and Vietnamese food, with lousy coffee.
What to do with the day was another problem, I had visions of massages and spas and copious amounts of alcohol to celebrate my new found freedom.  That was all nice in theory but getting drunk is not a lot of fun on your own.
I decided to go and visit the Cu Chi tunnels. The Cu Chi tunnels are the famous (infamous?) series of underground tunnels to the north and west of Saigon where the Communists dug themselves in during the Vietnam War. This formed a stronghold for the North Vietnamese which the Americans and Southern Vietnamese were never able to break. It had good supply routes from Cambodia and the Ho Ch Minh Trail and was close enough to Saigon to be very important for the Communists to launch their campaign to invade Saigon.
A guide about to disappear into a hidden tunnel
By day the Americans controlled the area, by night the Viet Cong controlled the area. The Americans bombed it incessantly but could not manage control.
I arranged a tour bus which took us on the 90 minute drive. The bus stopped at a factory that made Lacquerware,  a Vietnamese speciality, and to me seemed highly overpriced.
Arriving at the Tunnels we paid the entry fee and then were led around as a group. The first start was a propaganda film about how nasty the Americans were and why the Vietnamese had to hide in the tunnels. It was informative at times, but as I looked around the audience I wondered how the Americans would take it. In fact I saw 3 people leave, I don't know if they were American but they weren't hanging around any longer.
The tour then took in the above ground. Here we were led to an area of scrub and told to find the tunnel. Of course we could not. A guide then showed us the concealed entrance and demonstrated how to get in and out without leaving the entrance exposed. A few of the tour group tried it with various levels of success.
One of the people on the tour doing a disappearing trick
We wandered on past displays of uniforms, the remains of a tank and various traps designed to maim the American troops and slow down their advance. The Vietnamese were quite ingenious in their man traps, few would kill but most would maim and require you to be released and evacuated to medical facilities. Also they were ingenious in tunnel digging operations. The material removed was used to fill bomb craters so that it was not obvious that digging was taking place, ventilation holes were buried in all sorts of places, ant bear holes was a favourite.
Air holes in an Ant Bear nest
Our guide kept telling us to follow him and stay on the paths as we might fall into an undiscovered hole. At one stage a loud explosion went off nearby and the guide indicated that a tourist must have wandered off the path and stepped on a landmine. All very theatrical. It was a gag but it did highlight how nerve racking it must have been in the war years to be in this area.
We then came to the part where we had an actual underground experience. We had the opportunity to go underground and experience first hand how things were. I suspect that the tunnels were widened for westerners. Certainly it seemed concrete lined so that it would not collapse and had regular exits with stairs. I am mildly claustrophobic and found myself having to fight the urge to make a break for the surface. I had people behind and people in front so that all that I could do was continue along. I went I suppose about 30 metres and then came to an exit and took the opportunity to head for the surface. The tunnels were in operation for 20 years, I managed about 5 minutes.
Tank remnants
After that we had an opportunity to go to the live firing range and try out some of the weapons there. I had enough money on me to buy 10 bullets for an AK47. I was given a clip and led there by an instructor. He loaded the gun for me and one by one I shot the bullets. I took my time and sighted on a target. I slowly corrected each shot until I was hitting the target fairly close by the end of ten shots. What surprised me about the shooting was how fast the bullets travelled. I felt the kick in the shoulder and the puff of dirt from the bullet impact seemed instantaneous. If someone shoots one of these at you, you are probably injured or dead before you hear the shot. One of the people on the tour fired an M1 machine gun. It was fun, but over before you knew it.
I am not fussed about the morality of shooting these weapons. It was fun and plenty of women were doing it also, it was not a macho thing.
We were then treated to lunch, our food was what the residents of the tunnels had. This consisted of a root, something like tapioca, and weak tea. Not nourishing, not tasty and I decided that if I had to spend a week in the tunnels eating that and being claustrophobic I would have been heading to the surface and asking the Americans to shoot me.
After that we, that is the tour group, headed back to Saigon.
I had a shower and a pitstop and a change of clothes, before a short rest.
I then decided on my massage. I had plenty of choices but settled on a place near the Ben Than markets. The girls were gathered out the front and wore skimpy blue and white shorts and tops. I had a shampoo which was a solid 30 minutes scalp massage, followed by a much needed haircut and then an hour long massage. After that I felt that normality was being restored and the events of the last few days were fading.
Despite the uniforms and external looks this was a massage not a special massage. Specials were not on offer, certainly not at 4pm in the afternoon. It was great. I am a fan of a fairly hard deep tissue massage but this masseuse talked me into an oil massage which also included hot rocks. It felt good. All that time she was chatting me up. The conversation made its way to how I was single and she was single, I looked 10 years younger than I was and I needed a nice Vietnamese girlfriend. I could see where it was leading. But once bitten twice shy, at least for this week.
Incidentally for those who may visit Saigon, the massage worked as follows. I paid an advertised price for the massage, and haircut and shampoo. I was then expected to pay the person who did the work a tip, this was roughly 100% of what I had already paid. These people did not get a wage, their money came from tips. The tips went straight to the person and the advertised price went to the cashier at the front.
Departing the massage parlour it was now time for that drink. I wondered the streets and then came across a small outdoor Cafe, with a restaurant behind advertising happy hour mugs of Tiger beer. They had nice Jazz music playing. Who was I to refuse when one of the staff approached me and suggested that I step inside.
I had a couple of drinks, then found something to eat, rice and something, not very memorable and headed back to the hotel.
At the hotel I paid my bill, packed for an early start, and then turned on the TV as I was about to head to bed. I thought that I had inadvertently switched to a porn channel as scantily clad women were doing gyrations in a park. After watching a little I realised that it was "Aerobics Oz Style" how long has it been since that was on TV in Australia? On second thoughts that was soft porn, maybe I was on a porn channel.
During the day there was no contact with Phuc, if things were normal there would have been a series of SMS messages. The silence was telling.
Destination tomorrow, Singapore. I will summarise my Vietnamese experiences in another posting and that will be the end of that stage of my life.
The Bludger had a growly stomach and an early start the next day.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Vietnam Trip 3 - Friday. Back to Saigon

The trip back to Saigon was characterised by poor timing. My travel bag had been loaded up with beers. That was thoughtful and welcome. However I had been forced to leave with a partially full bladder as I had not been given time to find a toilet. Although I did change, from the minibus that picked me up, onto a larger bus, there was no toilet at the transfer point. Thus I sat for almost 3 hours not daring to drink in case I got desperate.
Funny how so much of travel is dictated around two key things, where will we eat next and where can I next use a toilet.
So with four cans of beer in my bag I was reluctant to consume them in case pitstops were a long way away. Eventually I judged that I must be close to a toilet break, so I opened a can. Almost immediately we stopped and I had the opportunity to relieve myself. Bad timing as there was no time to process the beer, it was still sitting in my stomach when the bus resumed it's journey. I was back where I started with plenty of beer but scared to drink it.
This bus had no opening windows and it was a hot cramped journey. I was sitting directly under a loud speaker which was playing some Vietnamese music. My experience to date of modern Vietnamese music is that it largely consists of sappy love songs. The Vietnamese seem to love it, I could have done without it. I don't like sappy love songs.
Most of this section of the blog was written during the bus trip. The road was bumpy and the tablet a bit cramped to type on. Given that it was also using predictive text most of what I wrote was pure garbage, with strange words and nonsensical sentences. I also had no reading glasses and could barely read what I was typing. I had not packed my bags, they had been packed for me, as part of getting rid of me as soon as possible. I was not sure where my glasses were, or even if they were with me. I did find them later in my larger travel bag that was in the luggage area of the bus.
The bus eventually stopped at the large shopping centre on the outskirts of Saigon that I remembered from the way up. Here it was confusing, I assumed that a minibus would turn up and take me the rest of the way, but the person in charge seemed more intent on getting rid of me. The minibus that did turn up was already crowded, but by waving my ticket around I was able to be squeezed in. The minibus made several stops to let off passengers, the driver kept looking at me and motioning me to get out. I stayed put and kept indicating that he should continue. Eventually we arrived at the bus office, which I recognised from the way up and I did get out.
From there I took a taxi back to the Hotel where I stayed the weekend before. I had called them on route and arranged a room. Glad that I did, I was hot, tired, dirty, stiff and in need of a shower and toilet facilities.
I ate dinner at a pub/restaurant around the corner. It should have been nice pork chops in a sauce. I spoke to the French Chef before he cooked it. It was not memorable.
The Bludger however did not care, he was tired and went to bed.

Vietnam trip 3 - Friday, Departure

I awoke on Friday morning and was told that I was returning to Saigon today. I was surprised, but I met this news with relief as otherwise it was looking like a final day of awkwardness.  The only redeeming feature of the day ahead was going to be a full case of beer. However I would not need that now.
With today being Friday and me not flying until Sunday I wondered if Phuc had miscalculated or simply wanted to get rid of me. The suspicious side of me assumed that her purpose was now fulfilled as she had a promise of payment and only needed to get me to an ATM to fill today's cash requirements.
We went to Phuc's parents for breakfast. This consisted of rice, fish, dried fish and shrimp. The dried fish was truly lovely. I was offered beer but beer is not a breakfast drink. Straight after that Phuc and I hit the road in search of an ATM. I am fairly certain that we went to Tinh Bien. This is a small town right on the border with Cambodia. We followed a channel and flooded land to get there and Phuc pointed across to let me know that the other side was indeed Cambodia. Once again this was a pleasant ride in mild conditions. As I stated earlier the rice harvest is in full swing and the narrow roads are lined with bags of rice ready for pickup.
Once again we managed to find an ATM with low withdrawal limits, this one only allowed 2 Million out. I could see that Phuc appeared to be frustrated as my credit card was ejected time after time until I found a value that it would accept. It was below her demands and I feigned consternation before suggesting that we look for another ATM. We did find another and between the 2 I was able to withdraw enough for her and myself..
Returning home I was offered more beer, I accepted this time. Some of the family had one too. I will consider it a fare well drink. The other alternative was a celebratory drink at successfully fleecing me. Maybe the family just drink on Friday mornings.
Anyway I had barely sat down with the beer when I and my bags were bundled on to a motorbike and it was off to the bus stop. My elation was hard to conceal.
In the past when leaving Phuc there had been tears and extended periods of her holding onto me. This time there were no teary farewells, no "when will I see you next" just a quick cuddle and good bye. In fact as we waited for the bus she spent more time talking to the other people around rather than me. I think that she well and truly understood that this was the end of the gravy train.
A minibus arrived, I and my bags were bundled on board and I was taken away.
It is funny how in such a short time, 5 days, my attitude was turned around so completely. As the bus pulled away my primary thought was:
The Bludger "WAS FREE".

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Vietnam Day 5 - Thursday, Long Xuyen 24/11/2011

We had an early start today. We picked up my passport and Phuc's ID from reception and headed off. It was a slight concern that Phuc had my passport, but I did not make a big thing of it on the basis that causing a scene can harden attitudes and a fight in the middle of the street would not be good.
Our destination was Long Xuyen to "get married". I knew that was not a possibility but still I was nervous.
Once again a lovely ride through the Vietnamese countryside. We passed rice paddies in the middle of being harvested and once again lovely views of the Vietnamese countryside. This is truly a beautiful country.
Vietnamese Countryside
In fact the rice harvest was in full progress. People in the fields were reaping the rice. Brown rice was laid out on sheets by the road drying. Bags of rice lined the roads and bullock carts and trucks were picking it up. I saw bags being weighed and tossed around. I reckon they weighed about 50 Kg each. I would have liked to stop and absorb the scene and the moment, but we pressed on.
We got to Long Xuyen and stopped outside a bridal shop. My heart hit the floor. However next door was an ATM and I was almost frog marched into the ATM. The ATM would only let me withdraw 3 Million VND, about $150 and Phuc was watching me like a hawk. She certainly saw the rejections when I tried to take out higher amounts. I think that this may have saved me a litle.
Afterwards we were met by Phuc's younger Sister. She is a nurse and I met her briefly on my last visit. She guided us to a Cafe where I was plonked down with our drivers. Phuc dissapeared with her sister for well over an hour. I arranged drinks all round and the boys ate. I wish that I had too.
Myself, Phuc's sister and Phuc. No one looks evil.
Phuc and Sister returned and shortly some friends who between them were to act as interpreters. It was an odd experience discussing at times personal matters to total strangers. We discussed several topics. Amongst these was the prospects of Phuc marrying me and moving to Australia. By this time it was the last thought on my mind but my poker face was in place and I explained that Phuc could not get to Australia without marrying me. The Australian Dept of Immigration simply would not allow her into the country any other way. In this conversation it turned out that her daughter, Jin, would not be coming. More warning bells for me as it reduced Phuc's total committment to coming to Australia as a Vietnamese marriage that could be annuled fairly easily. In fact in the future all she had to do was hop on a plane back to Vietnam. I had a mental image of being bled dry financially and when the money ran out her dissapearing on a one way ticket back home. If she was in Australia with me it would be very difficult to withstand a barrage of requests for money to be sent back to Vietnam. I was also asked if she did not work whether I could support her. I made it sound possible but tight financially.
We then went through the finances of the house purchase. I had the story fairly straight, she needed $15 million dong to pay on Friday, the next day and a further 10 million in 30 days. I could not get a straight answer out of her as to why I had to pay for this. Anyway we went through an accounting of money and with the money that she had stolen and had obtaind out of me since she was about 6 Million short. She then counted the 3 Million that I had withdrawn today and a further 3 million that I could withdraw the next day and she was happy that she could do it. I countered with a need for 1 million for bus fares to get back to Saigon money for Taxis at the other end and to pay for our current accomodation. She acceeded to that. She could make up the shortfall. I wondered where from. I suspected the $100 that I could not account for or from the $500 I had sent for her operation.
I was philosophical, I was going to buy my way out of a difficult situation. She still had my passport, I was not in a position to escape, not that I felt a strong desire to at this point.
We also discussed me returning to Saigon. Now I had to return on Saturday to catch an early flight on Sunday. Phuc new this, she had seen the itinerary. It was decided that it was not sensible for her to come to Saigon with me, I would travel alone. I liked that as I had a time frame to freedom.
Two of the interpreters plus sister
We then departed and made our way to an office that I assume was the Department of Justice, we discussed marriage with an officer there. Well that is to say I sat there trying to look intelligent and not understaning a word that was said. My passport was produced and inspected, it was returned, and I casually scooped it up and stuck it into my pocket. A piece of paper was produced that detailed the requirements for us both. Interestingly Phuc never made any attempt to explain it to me. I suspect that her desire to be married was at the same level as mine, we were merely playing a game now.
Incidently I should mention what happened when we left the Cafe. Naturally we had to pay for the food and drinks. Naturally I had to pay. I handed over 200,000VND, guessing that it would be enough to cover it. Phuc demanded more. Another 200,000. When the bill arrived it was for 162,000VND I never saw the 200,000 extra again. That was one way that she was bleeding me.
I should also mention that I did not mind paying for drinks and meals. The real bill was about $8. I can't get a coffee and cake for that in Oz, so the money was trivial. It's the big expenses that I was being shafted on that pissed me off.
On the way back we went shopping. That seemed natural to me, we were in a big city with supermarkets, when you live in the country you take advantage of these opportunities. I was pacified with a case of beer for 58,000VND ($3!!!!). The total bill was 400,000VND.
We then went to a karaoke place. We had a private room and each had to take turns at singing. I am not a singer but had to keep the Aussie flag flying so I did my 2 songs. This cost another 400,000VND.
At the end of the trip the drivers were each given 200,000VND plus their fuel tanks were filled. All up we spent over 1.2 million. This was handled without Phuc batting an eyelid. So much for scraping to get the 15 million together. The neon signs were now flashing very brightly and the warning bells were running continuously.
Once again the return trip was long, hot and through lovely countryside. We stopped for petrol at one stage and Phuc came to me "honey buy me motorbike". I had a moment of perceptual narrowing, I swear that I had tunnel vision and I was looking at her face but my mind was just seeing a scheming little....mmm....schemer. Why would she need a motorbike if she was planning to marry me and come to Australia? Answer, she wasn't planning on marrying me and coming to Australia. Where did she get the audacity to ask me to buy a motorbike, when she had just stiffed me for about $1,300 (operation $500, house $750) and wanted me to fork out another $500 in 30 days. I could not believe the sheer audacity. My answer was "I will buy you a motorbike in Australia". She had to accept that.
We got back to Lac Quoi late in the afternoon. I found myself a beer and pondered things. The prospect of the next day was not good, I envisaged one more day of boredom and then leaving on Saturday. Before the beer was finished I was ordered onto my bike and we returned to the hotel. We had dinner on the way. Two days without lunch, I hoped that I was losing weight.
Nocturnal activities were still banned and Phuc explained that she was having her period. I was glad to hear that as it meant that there had been no accidents that were going to make me a father and complicate things in the future. I was glad not to have sex. I would be able to leave a free man.
The Bludger went to bed a relatively happy man.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Vietnam Day 4 - Wednesday

In the morning Phuc and I were picked up and we were taken back to the parents place. I had expected another breakfast out but we ate at the house. A simple meal of rice, fish and some vegetable. The fish are small and have many bones, everyone eats it with gusto and the occasional spitting out of the larger pieces of backbone. I am a bit fussy and ended up finding the best way was to suck the fish off the bones. Not very elegant but it got the job done. I kept thinking of Bear Grylls. He still wins hands down.
This was dinner, but you get the idea of eating arrangements.
The family are fish breeders and the fish we were eating is bought in bulk, I assume at a nearby market, maybe 10 - 15 Kg at a time. This fish is de finned, gutted, heads removed and split in half.
Cleaning the Fish
Larger fish are dried, the dried fish is lovely. Other fish is reserved for that days meals and the rest is fed to the developing fish. The other bits i.e heads fins etc are ground up into fish paste. This is fed to the hatch lings which are kept in a nearby enclosure. The fish are fed 3 times a day. It is hard work, done by the women. I never saw the males do much work other than fish feeding. The fish that they grow reach reach about 70 - 80 cm long and are then sold in the markets. I could not determine the breed, they are a fresh water fish.
Fish feeding time, the nets keep the fish from swimming off.
For most of the day I was left to my own devices. I was not sure if I could leave and go for a walk or was going to be dragged off at any second. No books to read, no music to listen to, just lie in a hammock and try to pass the time. Phuc disappeared with family and it was only the children that had any interaction with me. The kids were a mixed blessing, the younger ones wanted to crawl all over me and by the end of the day I was filthy from the dirt off their feet and food and drink particles that they managed to drop on me. On the other hand they at least tried to communicate and the older ones tried to teach me some Vietnamese. However they were painful, when I took out a notebook and pencil they ripped it off me and wanted to play with them. They were not malicious, but I decided to leave the Tablet in my bag where it would not attract their attention.
I missed out on lunch that day, I don't think it was deliberate just that everyone ate privately and forgot about me.
In the early afternoon Phuc loaded me up onto a motorbike and we went to the nearby town of Ba Chuc. Once again no explanation just "later". Our first stop was a Pagoda built on a jumble of rocks overlooking the flood plains. Quite pretty and we could see back towards the nearby hills. It was a nice spot but I was not allowed to linger.
Phuc with the Delta in the background
We next went to a park of remembrance, actually a War Remnants Museum. Once again with no explanation of what or why. I managed to piece together that this was a memorial to the local Vietnamese who had been butchered by the Khmer Rouge. I have mentioned that this area is close to the Cambodian border and during the height of their power, in 1978, the Khmer Rouge crossed the border in force and continued their butchery on the Vietnamese locals. In total over 3000 people were killed. This page may help if it translates into English.  The Stupa held masses of skulls and bones that had been recovered. Some of the skulls were cracked or had holes in them, evidence of the brutal way that the people were killed. From what I could piece together no one was spared, the old and the young, men and women and infants. Those that ran away and hid were tracked down and killed also. This Stupa while not on the same scale was every bit as emotional as visiting the Killing Fields memorial near Phnom Penh. These incursions contributed to the Vietnamese finally invading Cambodia and putting an end to the Khmer Rouge.
The Stupa. Bones and skulls behind the golden posts inside the glass case.
We returned home and I returned to boredom. But only briefly.
A little later Phuc came to me and informed me that she needed a lot of money to buy her parents a house. She had promised to buy a house for her parents and needed to make a down payment on Friday (today was Wednesday) and a final payment within 30 days. I was astonished as it was clear that I was meant to dig her out of the financial hole. By that time I was surrounded by family members and it was difficult to give a straight out "no". I did not feel threatened but I was uncomfortably aware that I was in the middle of nowhere heavily reliant on these people to get around and that I could not even find a bus to get me back to civilisation.
I was trapped. If this was by design it was a very neatly executed trap. If it was by accident, they had managed to happen on a clever way of seperating me from any support. I feigned a lack of understanding and suggested that we needed an interpreter. She managed to get a commitment out of me to assist. It would be easy to say yes now and renege on the deal when I was safe! I took the safest course.
I was left alone again with my thoughts in turmoil. This place is really remote, no one speaks English, and as I later discovered I could not have arranged to catch a bus out on my own. It only occurred to me much later that I could probably have gone to the Police, but I already knew that they did not speak English. I didn't want to escalate that far as it would be easier for the family to accuse me of some mis-demeanour than I could defend myself.
Late in the afternoon I took a walk, I ended up taking a couple of the children with me. I managed to buy some beers and some drinks for the children with me. I made a faux pas as I overlooked buying Phuc a drink. She asked me if I had bought her one and made me feel guilty that I had not. She had a point, it was not very thoughtful of me. However it is not every day that you are dragooned into buying someone's parents a house.
Beer and fish with the neighbours.
On the positive side I now had beers so that at least I could have a drink and while away the hours. As it happened though, in the early evening, a couple of neighbours came over and I shared the beers with them. They contributed some nuts and dried fish, which was very nice and tasted like Kippers and it looked like we were about to start a jolly party. Just then I was dragged off back to the hotel.
I was informed that we were off to Long Xuyen in the morning to "get married". That scared me. I had by now got serious doubts about maintaining a relationship.
Serious doubts! I was trying to work out the quickest way of leaving. I was never on my own long enough to make a run for it and being the only Westerner for miles, I would be quickly found if I did make a run. I had another sleepless night.
As it happened nocturnal activities were cut off that night with no explanation. Adding it all up I think that my usefulness was almost at an end. The marriage bit worried me, but I knew that Vietnamese buraucracy would not allow that to happen the next day.
The Bludger was putting on a poker face and dreading putting up a front for the next couple of days.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Vietnam Day 3 - Tuesday Afternoon

After a quick toilet break we were off again. Once again I had no idea where. At one stage we were joined by another couple of males on a motorbike. As before we passed through lovely Vietnamese countryside. We then turned into what looked like a private road and into a little nightmare. The road entered what at first sight looked like a village but on closer inspection was a series of souvenir shops and Cafes. I correctly deduced that we were near another tourist attraction. Crowds of males were waving us down and pointing to places to park the bikes. We passed on through these and the guys jumped on their own bikes and gave chase. It was confusing and when we eventually stopped it looked like an argument broke out. With hindsight I don't think it was an argument, often the Vietnamese seem to be shouting at each other, but it is actually just the way they speak.
I was loaded onto the back of a bike with one of the males we went to some sort of office and then I loaded up again and we were taken up a most spectacular mountain road. This road had many fine views across the Mekong delta and rice paddies, but I was not allowed to stop to take photos. At the bottom there was a check point and the driver handed over what was an obvious entry ticket for me. At the top...well wait and see.
I have seen this a few times in my travels to reach some places you are not allowed to take your own transport and must rely on a guide. I don't know the reasoning, possibly to stop you straying and getting lost, possibly to provide some income to locals, in some cases to prevent the roads and tracks deteriorating too much. Anyway that is the situation that I found myself in.

The rider took me to the top to a place that I believe is called Tượng Phật Di Lặc. This is a lake at the top of the mountain surrounded by a Pagoda complex and a huge statue of Buddha. The rest of the family were already there and we spent some time exploring the Buddha and surrounds. More frustration we then sat in a cafe for no apparent reason other than have a cold drink and then disapeared back down the mountain. I would have liked to walk around the lake and explore the Pagodas but that was not on the agenda.

We hit the road again and the group split up more by accident than design I hope. My rider stopped, had a phone conversation and then we entered a roadside cafe and waited. We had more drinks. Suddenly we were off again and taken to a place described as Phuc's grandmother's house. Phuc, sister and mother were already there and looked like they had been for a little while.  Since I had met a grandmother the day before at lac Quoi, I was not sure if this was a title of respect or a real grandmother. With hindsight I wonder about this delay was it innocent or sinister allowing time for some briefings to go on? Anyway we finished the beers and then headed off again. Back home this time.

I had a lot of thinking time on the back of the bike and things were not adding up for me. Her medical expenses I strongly suspected were way below what I was asked to contribute. I had a strong feeling of being ripped off. Going through my bags as she did was not behaviour that many societies would condone. I was definately being taken advantage of.
Later that night I spent a lot of sleepless hours with my suspicions slowly crystalising into a definate feeling that I was being played as a sucker. Against that though was the wonderful and what looked like genuine interactions with the family. Surely not everyone could be in on a scam? Would the parents really condone a foreigner sleeping with their daughter when the only desire was to extract money from me. I hope not.
Dinner that night was at a nearby restaurant where we had hot pot once again. It was good food and plentiful. With more beers.
The bludger was troubled.

Vietnam Day 3 - Tuesday Morning

We awoke early and dressed for the day. After my shower I found Phuc on the floor with the contents of my suitcase. She was systematically going through the contents and I was shortly to learn that she had taken every bit of foreign currency that I was travelling with, a mix of USD and Aussie dollars. Some of this was spending money and Phuc would have had the benefit of it plus leftovers, some was my emergency reserve that experience has told me I need. I confronted her with this theft but she merely said "give to mummy" and kept repeating that. I was a bit angry but had the foreigners dillema of not being able to explain why I was angry. This soured the day ahead and rang alarm bells in my head.
We met her brother and another person for breakfast which Phuc paid for. With my money. We then proceeded to her parents place where I was left to my own devices for some time.
Breakfast with Phuc, Hai and one other.
We suddenly hit the road I was informed that we were "going to Tri Ton" and when I pressed for details was brushed off with "later". I thought at first that it was just the four of us, Phuc another man whose name I never got, Hai her brother, who was ferrying me around, and myself. That is four of us with Phuc and myself as pillion on 2 motorbikes driven by the others. These two guys were our nominated drivers and ferried us around most of the time. This trip however turned out to be a road trip with others including Mother, cousin Tien, sister, sisters boyfriend and various children. Later in the day we were joined by even more.
We passed by rice paddies and through villages and took the back roads rather than the main thoroughfares. I could see duck farms and people working the paddies and lovely vistas. With the sun shining down and lovely Vietnamese rural scenes it was a pleasant ride. If I were to visit this area again I would bring a professional camera and arrange my own transport so that I could stop where and when I wanted to to take photos.
Frustratingly I had no idea where we were going or what we were doing or how long it would take. At one stage we crossed a canal via a steep narrow bridge, barely wide enough for 3 people to walk abreast. As we approached I expected to get off the bike and walk across but we just rode straight over it.
We arrived at our destination. This seemed to be a cafe in the middle of nowhere. There was a bus stop, and what looked like a military establishment across the road. The bikes were parked and we waited. I was not sure for what. However shortly one of the boys who had dissapeared came back with a case of beer. Then the cafe owner who had also dissapeared came back with some food, jugs, cups and ice.
Tien (red top), Mother (yellow), sister's boyfriend (white t-shirt).
I was still confused but we picked up the goods and walked up the road about 100 metres and then entered what I guessed to be a Theme Park. We were the only visitors. Phuc took care of payment, which I assumed was paid for by the money that she had taken from me. (Park entry fee 15,000VND each - less than $1). I believe that the park is called "Khu Du Lich Tuc Dup"
The park had a series of tourist souvenir shops and eating establishments. The first thing that we came across was a crocodile compound. Near that was a boating lake.
Phuc and "Jin", boats in the background.
We followed a pathway that led up the side of a rocky hill. The rocks had numbers and markings painted on them. It reminded me of pictures of airforce target practice ranges that I have seen. I could not see evidence of bombing or bullet marks however. We didn't explore far however. We stopped at the top of a flight of stairs. At the top we explored a small cave and then we waited. The family chatted amongst themselves and waited. I had no idea what for and was still met with the "later" response.
Various Family members
Eventually the cafe owner came up the steps, lugging what turned out to be a gas burner with hot pot, bowls, chopsticks and a bowl of what I took to be a Thai green curry. Suddenly activity took place, beers which had previously been in the ice were distributed, the stove was set up, the curry heated and we all gathered around to eat. This was communcal eating, although as the foreigner family members kept putting choice delicacies into my bowl. It turned out to be chicken and vegetable hot pot, i.e in a thin soup. The soup was thickened by adding 2 minute noodles. The beer was flowing and suddenly everyone was in party mode.
Chicken Hot Pot
Every so often someone called out "yoy" and we all had to take a swig of beer. Even mother joined in and I could see her getting flushed and garrolous. At one stage she told a story and kept taking furtive looks at me, it was obviously about me, but I did not understand a word. She finished with a flourish, blushed a little bit, and everyone had a good laugh. I would like to know what the story was that could make her blush.
The delicacies that I had been given included parts of the chicken that I would not ordinarly eat, but I kept as straight a face as I could and developed a new respect for Bear Grills from Man vs Wild. I was being squeamish over chicken bits he eats all sorts of crap. I baulked at one bit that I suspect was offal. I passed it to Phuc and she devoured it with gusto. Mother watched this interchange and I could see her mind working but what she thought I never knew.
After lunch the rubbish was scattered around the countryside, so I picked it up and placed it into a bin. There were some comments about this, but while in Vietnam I have been careful not to contribute to pollution and show the locals that there is a better way.
We made our way back to the motorbikes and mounted up. I assumed that the day was over but I was wrong.
The Bludgers bad mood had almost been erased by a lovely picnic and some beer.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Vietnam Day 2

We got up early as we had a bus to catch and headed off to what passed as a bus station. Hotel front counter was unattended and only the night guard was awake to let us out.
Almost at the bus station when oops, major mistake, my passport and Phuc's ID card were still at the hotel. A quick U turn, back to the hotel and check out properly, then back to the bus station. We still had time for a bowl of noodles and wait before the minibus arrived. That means I lost about 30 minutes sleep!

Our bus was heading to Tri Ton with final destination Lac Quoi (pronounced Lack woy) where Phuc's family lived. We were only in the minibus about 15 minutes when it dumped us in the carpark of a large shopping centre. Shortly a large long distance bus turned up and we were shepherded onboard.
Long distance buses in Vietnam are not by any means luxurious. This one had windows that opened. It was hot and the only welcome relief came from the air blowing in through the windows. Unfortunately the Vietnamese don't like draughts so most windows were closed. I was the minority wanting them open.
The journey was relieved by travelling salesman who boarded the bus. The first one got on at a rest stop and harangued us with a travel bag full of goodies. I explain more about these people in a later post. Think of a late night TV infomercial but rather than call this number with your credit card details you can buy on the spot. It is all junk.
During the trip Phuc met a man who lived locally. Lam was a nice man and when we crossed the Mekong by Ferry I stepped off the bus, to stretch my legs and relieve my numb bum, and met Lam at the bows. He convinced me to walk off the ferry with him, rather than getting back on the bus.
The ferry crossing was interesting. At this time of year the Mekong is flowing quite rapidly and the ferries cannot use all of the assigned docking points. They therefore jockey for position to use the docks that are open. It all seems to work however.
My trust in Lam was rewarded as the bus stopped to pick us up on the other side. Phuc, and a couple of other passengers, were leaning out of windows looking concerned. I felt happy about showing a bit of independence, even in such a minor way.
Nominally starting at 7am, we had 2 rest stops and arrived in Tri Ton at about 3pm where we had a wait until another minibus took us the rest of the way. While waiting Phuc took out my Tablet which caused a bit of interest for the locals.

A stranger, Phuc and Lam checking out my Tablet.
On the bus a young man also introduced himself to me and wanted to practice English. I was happy to indulge for a little while. He was a trainee accountant about to Audit a company.
By this stage in the journey social barriers had broken down. Food was shared amongst fellow travellers and conversations had been struck up. It was quite a social gathering and I was drawn into the general goodwill, even though no one could understand me. It was nice.
After arriving at Phuc's parents place I was treated like a long lost family member. That is to say I was almost totally ignored. I went around each person plus neighbours to say hello. After that I felt a little bit awkward.
I had brought Phuc's mother a present. Phuc took the present, opened it and then disappeared. I was a bit put out by that. It was my present to give. But I built a bridge and didn't sulk. Apparently I got a thank you.
Shortly after arriving 2 men turned up in white T-shirts and green trousers. I looked at them and figured they were here on business. They left after talking with the family. After a little while I was loaded onto the back of a motorbike and we went to a nearby office. The same men were there plus a person in uniform, who I believe was a policeman. It turned out that I had to be registered as a guest. Phuc and her mother had some discussions with the men, my passport was handed over and scrutinised and a ledger filled out. At one stage there was an attempt to pass money across the table but this was rejected with great theatricality.
I found out later that I was allowed to stay with the parents but Phuc was not allowed to be under the same roof. I found this amusing as the thought of any nocturnal adventures under the roof of the parents was about the furthest thing from my mind.
But that worked out in my favour as the 2 of us ended staying in a nearby hotel. The hotel had a shower a squat toilet, air conditioning and a relatively comfortable bed. I had been wondering about sleeping, cleaning and toiletry arrangements. I am broad minded but the thought of jumping into the lake for a wash was not thrilling me. And the toilet was a platform over the same lake. It was not much of a hotel and we were locked in from about 11pm until 6am each  night. Literally, behind steel gates. I guess it was for our protection, both from burglars and midnight police raids, but I also wondered how we would get out if there was a fire.
I should probably just finish with a bit of Geography. Lac Quoi is just on the Vietnamese side of the Cambodian border, south and west of Ho Chi Minh City. At this time of year a stretch of flooded land separates the two countries. When it is dry you can probably walk into Cambodia. This is An Giang province and considered part of the flood plains of the Mekong. Look at a map and find Chau Doc and Ha Tien, it is about half way between the two. Height above sea level 4 metres. Google Earth shows dry land, but at this time of year it is still flooded and only small strips of land are above water and safe to walk and drive upon.
All things considered the Bludger is having an Adventure.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Vietnam trip 3 - Day 1 Sunday afternoon

I returned to the hotel via a rip off tax driver who over charged and dumped me out before reaching the hotel. Phuc met me outside. I could see no obvious signs of eye trauma. Whatever the operation was it was 6 days ago now and it was impossible to get from her anything that I could understand.

We had lunch in the nearby Ben Than markets and then wandered around shopping. An eventful time in the course of the next hour the following:
1. Assisted a fellow tourist how to find the Ben Than Markets. Gosh I felt like a knowledgeable local.
2. Assisted a German tourist who had a sudden fit. Cool calm and collected (really) I took charge ensured that he was safe and comfortable, stopped people trying to shove Lime and drinks into him, stopped people calling for Police and Ambulances - generally not needed for a mild fit and talked to him in German. When it was passed helped him into a taxi with his companion and instructed the companion what to do.
3. Assisted an Israeli tourist who was the subject of a drive by motorcycle bag snatch. The girl was stupid and did not learn her lesson as afterwards she continued to walk along the edge of the road very vulnerable and unable to comprehend that she was an easy target.
I have no idea what Phuc was thinking but once this was behind us she demanded a Taxi and then whisked me off to a mystery destination.
This turned out to be the Suối Tiên Theme Park, some 20 km from the city centre.

Not that I am into theme parks but it was a lot of fun. We wandered around a crocodile enclosure and fed the crocs with pieces of meat dangling from a bamboo fishing rod type contraption.

We also looked at animal enclosures and went into a freak tent. This consisted mainly of baby animals or foetuses including those of chickens, pigs, sheep etcetera with some form of deformity. Some were obviously twins that had not fully separated and had 2 heads or 2 rear ends. Some were larger animals with extra legs. Overall it was grotesque and after the initial scientific curiosity had worn off I was glad to escape.

There was also a large show that we were in time to see. The story made no sense but involved what appeared to be two tribes fighting over something. The tribes would put forward a champion to fight until one was tossed, theatrically, into the lake. Boat people arrived and the whole display ended with huge jets of water and an army descending into the arena, brandishing fiery torches, down a flying fox and all ending up in the lake.
We also went on a ghost train ride and had front row seats as no one wanted to be at the front. It was a full afternoon and by closing time at 5pm we were both glad to be moving on.
Getting home proved to be a bit difficult. There were no taxis, it was peak hour and buses were full. We tried to find some form of transport but after an hour it was looking fairly pointless. We ended up waiting by a bus stop and simply waited until an empty bus or taxi came along. Eventually we caught a small taxi and were taken back to HCMC.
I had wanted to freshen up and put on nice clothes before dinner, but Phuc was hungry and was not willing to wait. We got out of the taxi and walked a few dozen meters before I took charge and steered us into the nearest good looking restaurant. Dressed as I was I felt uncomfortable but we were shown to a nice romantic table for two in a window alcove. To get there we displaced a lady very elegantly dressed in traditional costume. I thought at first that she really was window dressing, designed to be seen by the people in the street to indicate that the restaurant was both busy and full of beautiful people. It turned out a little later that she was 1/3 of a musical trio playing traditional Vietnamese music.

The Musical Trio - Lovely music and stunning ladies and costumes.
We had chanced upon the Hoi An Restaurant, one of the best restaurants in Saigon. This is 4 or even 5 Star Dining. We chose a Set Menu for each of us this consisted of several courses. The food was Vietnamese but served in a very classy standard. I selected a bottle of French white wine to accompany the meal. If I had been thinking about restaurant reviews I would have made more careful notes of the courses and wine, but I was just taken with the ambience.
The remains of some very lovely spring rolls. Minor criticism the wrapper was a bit dry.
Soft Shell Crab in a Lemon sauce with Calamari rings. Lovely
Dessert. The French Crepes were cooked in front of us in traditional fashion with a nice flambee. A blob of ice cream with a face in it.

It was a USD 200 meal but The Bludger had lovely company and lovely food and drink. Well content.