Archive for December, 2013

Day 10 Monday 30 December. Disembark Ship, Siem Reap, Angkor

After breakfast this morning, it was time to say goodbye to all the crew and disembark the RV AMA Lotus that has been our home for the past week.  All the crew, including the captain, were lined up outside the ship to help us up the steps and to say goodbye.

We boarded our air conditioned coach for our 5 hour journey through the countryside to Siem Reap.  We travelled through rubber plantations, cassava fruit groves, rice paddies and various farming communities and some remote villages, all of whom are not reliant on the Mekong River for their livelihood.  We were surprised that for almost the whole trip, there were villages, towns or farming communities with houses of varying sizes lining the road.

We stopped for a “happy house” stop at Prey Pros Rest Area in Kampong Thom province.

Lovy pointed out a symbol of a kangaroo that was etched into the stone on several bridges that passed and he told us that the kangaroo meant that Australia funded the building of the bridges.  We also saw lots of ponds with water lilies or lotus flowers, which helped to purify their water.  The lotus was also well utilized – they could sell the flowers at the market, use the leaves to pack steamed rice or port or beef, they ate the seeds after boiling or grilling them and also used the root for cooking like potatoes.

We stopped at a sandstone and laterite bridge build in the 12th century called the Naga Bridge or Spean Preah Toeus – it is one of a few bridges from the Khmer empire to survive to the modern day.  The bus was not allowed to drive over it, so we walked across, taking photos and the bus drove around and met us on the other side to continue our journey.

We arrived in Siem Reap at our hotel, the Sofitel, around 1.00pm, had a quick pre-ordered lunch and quickly dropped our belongings into our beautiful room (see photos on gallery) and then headed off on our tour for the afternoon.  We were picked up by Tuk Tuk and taken to the Southgate area of Angkor Thom for our elephant ride.  The two of us sat side by side atop the elephant on special seat attached to the elephant and swayed back and forth as the elephant walked slowly along a path beside the river and past two old temple ruins. We were able to take some photos of Eenie on her elephant and the man who helped us onto our elephant to some photos of us.  We all thoroughly enjoyed this new experience.  Richard says that he wouldn’t recommend it for long distance travel !

We enjoyed our dinner at the Foreign Correspondence Club, where the three of us dined with Yolanda and her Mum, Lyn, who both live in Brisbane.  We were, once again, taken to and from the restaurant on a Tuk Tuk.

Day 9 Sunday 29 December. Wat Hanchey, Kampong Cham

Our shore excursion this morning was great.  The ship nosed into the bank again and we were assisted off the ship and up the steep bank by the crew.  The two of us and the rest of “the yellow family” (this is what our guide calls our group) followed our guide, Lovy, up a fairly step path to the top of the hill to explore Wat Hanchey, a beautiful hilltop pagoda, overlooking the Mekong River.  The pagoda is made up of many buildings where the monks worship, learn, eat and live.  We saw an old temple that was built from sandstone in the 6th – 7th Century, characterising the architecture of the Chenla Empire, which predated the Angkor period.

We wandered around the large hilltop area, looking at all the buildings and hearing about the history of the pagoda. We saw some monks sitting on the back of a truck and when Lovy asked them where they were going, he was told that they were heading off to the village to collect food (probably just rice) for their lunch and then the monks would not be allowed to eat for the rest of the day.  Wat Hanchey is on the bend of the river and there is a huge island opposite, in the middle of the river, which has paddy rice farms belonging to the village.

Two little girls, Sieyne and Sieylan, both aged 10, attached themselves to the two of us when we disembarked the AMA Lotus and walked with us the whole way.  Sieyne spoke some English as she is having English classes but Sieylan’s family could not afford for her to learn English.  They were very happy when Richard showed them the photos that he had taken of them and Sandy together! They were very grateful to receive a pen and exercise book from us for school. Sieyne told us that they do not have to attend school on Sundays but they go to school on all the other days.

When we had finished exploring, we walked back down to the ship via 380 steps, where we were met by the crew who assisted us down the slope to the gangplank and then other crew members welcomed us back on board with the usual cold face washer and cold fruit juice drink.

The AMA Lotus continued her journey along the Mekong River and tied up at Kampong Cham.  The three of us boarded our bus for a tour of Kampong Cham. We visited the Twin Holy mountains and our first stop was at the boy hill, Phnom Pro Mountain, where there was a large pagoda, with several monkeys hanging around – we were very wary of them because we were told that sometimes they try to pinch your glasses or camera and we certainly didn’t want to get bitten or scratched either. Our guide told us the historical information about the pagoda while we toured the many buildings, which was quite interesting.

From there we walked down to the Monkey Garden where there were many statues of the Lady Wings and statues of Buddha through the ages as well as a big gold Buddha posed in the “teachings’ pose.  We also saw a reclining gold Buddha and visited a temple where there was an 80 year old man who found one of the mass graves of people who were killed in the killing fields. He said several members of his family were killed.

The bus then took us to a sandstone Buddhist temple built in the 12th century to honour Buddha.  We walked through the temple of three galleries and saw a Bunyan tree that was over 100 years old.

On the way back to the ship, Lovy asked the driver to stop the bus so we could get out and take a photo of a bamboo bridge being built.

We had our AM Lotus farewell dinner tonight and were served a special dessert that the waiters paraded, carrying sparklers and with the lights turned off, through the dining room. We thoroughly enjoyed our last day on the AMA Lotus.

Day 8 Saturday 28 December. Angkor Ban

This morning, after a leisurely breakfast, Eenie and Richard retired to the cabins to read while Sandy posted our blog from yesterday, as we discovered on the map that we are not that far from Phnom Penh.

At 9.30 Eenie and Sandy went to a demonstration of napkin folding by Sothy, the Food and Bar Manager and towel animals by Hue, from housekeeping.  We were so impressed with their ability and nimble fingers and were delighted with the results!!  Some of Sandy’s favourites were the napkin Sydney Opera House and napkin little girl and the towel elephant and towel swans!

We enjoyed the rest of our morning, relaxing and watching the scenery of everyday Cambodian life on the river pass by.

At about 3.00pm the boat arrived beside the village of Angkor Ban, nudging in to the bank, where the crew set up a gang-plank for us to step ashore.  The crew then lined up to help us up the steep bank and the steps as we headed off for our shore excursion.

Our first stop was at the temple where we were fortunate to receive a blessing from the Buddhist monks, who did their special chanting blessing using jasmine and lotus blossoms and oils. We sat on the floor with our eyes closed and hands together while they chanted and we were sprayed with the oils and blossoms.  Some of us received a special bracelet from the monks.  Behind the temple was the Stupa, which houses the ashes of the dead villagers.

Angkor is one of the only villages that was not burned down or destroyed during the Khmer Rouge tragedies and so we were able to see some of the stilted housed that were up to 100 years old.

We enjoyed walking through the village and Lovy, our guide, chatted to the villagers and translated for us.  We were made very welcome by the villagers and the children who happily followed us around smiling and saying hello.  We noticed that the houses in this village were bigger than the ones we have seen in previous villages and this was because they were slightly better off.  We saw Brahman cows tethered beside or under houses and at one stage two Brahman calves came and stood, mooing, next to our guide while he was trying to talk us.  Some of the children chased the calves away, giggling and laughing!

Some of the newer houses had wicker blinds on the outside of their windows that were ornately painted with pictures.

One of the families had a 50 year old lady and her 78 year old mother who were happy to chat to us via Lovy.  We also met a 90 year old lady, who told us, via Lovy, that she lives in the house by herself and is supported by her children who live in the city and on a farm in the outskirts of the village.  She also said that she had lived in the village all her life.

Our last stop was at a roadside stall of a girl/lady who makes ice blocks.  She demonstrated for us and Lovy gave her some money to make a few for the children who were delighted to receive the ice blocks!

After dinner, the crew entertained us, with each section performing in a talent quest.  Our favourites were the waiters, who sang “I still call Australia home” and also the housekeeping staff who sang, using their equipment as props eg one of them had the bottom section and pipe of a vacuum cleaner and was pretending to blow notes through the top of the pipe, another one had a mop with a microphone attached and in between singing he whizzed around cleaning the floor and another one had buckets set up as a drum kit, to name just a few.  We laughed so much we were nearly in tears!

To top it all off, when we got back to our cabin, the housekeeping staff had turned down our bed as usual and left us two towel swans (whose heads made a love heart) and a note to say “Sandra and Richard Forever” and a love heart from our two cabin stewards.

We have had a wonderful day in Cambodia, relaxing this morning, visiting the village this afternoon and being entertained after dinner by the crew!

 

Day 7 Friday 27 December. Phnom Penh, Chong Koh

After breakfast this morning, the three of us caught a Tuk Tuk back to the Central Market for more shopping!  We strolled around the market and bought lots of bits and pieces, thoroughly enjoying ourselves., However, we are hopeless at haggling over prices because we feel sorry for the vendors and know how hard they work to earn every dollar, so we give in too easily – but we are having so much fun!!

We caught another Tuk Tuk back to the ship – it takes about 10 minutes and cost $USD3.00.

The three of us had morning tea up on the Sun Deck, enjoying the breeze off the river, chatting and laughing about our experiences so far.

At midday we raised anchor and cruised to the traditional silk weaving village Chong Koh, which is on an island and has 417 families.  Richard and I went on the shore excursion while Eenie opted to have a massage.  We were taken for a gentle stroll through the streets of Chong Koh, a little-known silk-weaving village. The villagers also farm sub tropic crops, fruit trees and manufacture mosquito nets, silk sarongs, silk purses and Kroma (silk scarves).

Our first stop was the local school where they have Primary (age 6 – 11 year olds), Secondary (age 12 – 14 year olds) and High School (age 15 – 17 year olds). The children go to school in either of two sessions – morning session is from 7.00am to 11.00am and the afternoon session is from 1.00pm to 5.00pm.  Each month they switch from morning to afternoon session and from afternoon to morning session.  We were invited to visit a year two classroom of 24 children.  The children stood up when we entered the classroom and said “Welcome to our Classroom” and stood standing until we said “Thank you – please sit down” and then they said “Thank you” and sat down.  The teacher is a 22 year old girl who has been teaching for 1 year.  Lovy, our guide, asked one of the children to come out and go through some words they were learning on the blackboard and then they sang us a song, “Happy Families”. They were so gorgeous!  Some of our tour group had colouring pencils or books and gave them to the children who were very grateful and had big smiles on their faces.

We were then taken to a family house where the mother and daughter were using the traditional method of silk weaving to make scarves to sell to the tourists and they also sell them to the Central Market in Phnom Penh.  They told us via our Tour Guide that they can make 2 scarves per day.  We were invited to look inside her home, on stilts – two bedrooms upstairs with the looms underneath as well as their very sparse kitchen behind the looms. They made us feel very welcome and then we were able to purchase some of the scarves etc that they had made.

We went for a walk through the village to the river and then walked along the river back to the ship, all the while being followed from the time we left the ship, by a group of girls with scarves that they were trying to sell to us.  The children were happy to speak to us in their basic English and were eager to know where we came from, how long we were staying in Cambodia and what our names are.  We noticed a number on one of the houses and when we asked Lowy what it is, he told us that it is their mobile telephone number because a few of the less poor families have a mobile but none of them are able to input each others’ names and mobile numbers into the phones and the number on the house was so that people with mobiles could ring them!!

When we arrived back at the ship, there were many little stalls set up on blankets on the ground with lots of colourful scarves for sale – we wished that we were able to support each of the families as they all work so hard and it is a tough life for them.

We went to our usual briefing in the lounge about tomorrow’s activities and then headed down to dinner after a lovely day in Cambodia.

Day 6 Thursday 26 December Phnom Penh

We were up early this morning to take in the river promenade as our ship approached the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.  Phnom Penh is situated at the confluence of three rivers, known as the “Chaktomuk” (four faces) or “Quatre Bras” (four arms) of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac Rivers.  Phnom Penh is a city of more than 2 million people and is the country’s commercial, economic and political hub.

After breakfast, we disembarked the AMA Lotus and were taken by bus into the city for a guided tour of the spectacular Royal Palace, with its dazzling white and gold architecture. This lovely complex of buildings serves as the royal residence of the king of Cambodia, King Norodom Sihamoni. As we approached the Palace, we could see the high-sculpted wall and golden spire of the Chanchhaya Pavilion, which stood out against the riverfront skyline.  We were not able to go inside the Royal Palace because the king was in residence.

Then we headed to the Silver Pagoda (Wat Preah Keo Morokat), located on the south side of the palace complex – there were several buildings and beautiful gardens surrounding it.   The Silver Pagoda is famous for its 90 kg solid gold Buddha with 2086 diamonds and also an Emerald Buddha, which is made of baccarant crystal (the original Emerald Buddha is kept safe elsewhere). The temple is called the Silver Pagoda because there are 5000 solid silver floor tiles, each weighing 1 kg, that adorn the temple building.

From there, the bus took us to the Central Market (Phsar Thmey), with its distinctive yellow dome.  We spent an hour wandering around the many vendors’ stalls in a well organised and clean building and bought lots of souvenirs and a pair of sunglasses for Richard so that he can put his prescription ones away in case the lens falls out again – we will get them repaired properly when we get back to Brisbane.

The bus collected us and took us back to the ship for lunch.

We spent the afternoon trying once again to upload our photos to our website while most of the other passengers went on a shore excursion to the Killing Fields.

At 4.00pm, the three of us took a Tuk-Tuk and asked the driver to take us for a drive along the riverfront – we had a hilarious time as he didn’t speak English, but through a third person interpreter on two separate occasions,  managed to understand where we wanted to go and to bring us back to the ship.  We thoroughly enjoyed our Tuk Tuk ride.  A Tuk Tuk is a motor bike with a 2 wheeled carriage attached to the back – they can carry four people comfortably.

Prior to dinner we were entertained by some local children who performed a set of four traditional Cambodian dances.  They were dressed in traditional, colourful costumes and were an absolute delight to watch, as they were so skilled in their performance.

We sat with our now usual dinner companions and had a most enjoyable time, telling stories, laughing and enjoying the food.

Our photos are in the Gallery

We have arrived in Phnom Penh and have internet access!!  Our photos are in the gallery.  Will do today’s blog and photos tonight.

Day 5 Christmas Day Tan Chau, Border Crossing

This morning, being Christmas Day, after having breakfast together, we went to Eenie’s cabin to exchange our Christmas presents. We are very spoilt because we had already had our family Christmas at home!  It is a lovely clear day, warm but with a gentle breeze blowing off the river.

The Mekong River is a very wide river, which is a light brown colour and appears to flow quite quickly.  At times there are clumps of water hyacinth floating past and there is always a number of boats of varying sizes, all appearing to be fairly old. Mekong means “Mother of Water” and more than 60 million people in Vietnam and Cambodia rely on the River for their livelihood.

The AMA Lotus had travelled overnight and anchored midstream opposite Tan Chau, which is a district of An Giang Province and is the regional capital.  It is famous for Tan Chau silk and is an agricultural centre, producing significant quantities of rice.

This morning, we disembarked our ship via a small local boat for a journey across the river to the town.  Our group was then helped onto individual rickshaws that were quite different to the ones we rode on in Saigon.  These had a full bicycle at the front and the driver sat on the bicycle seat to pedal, with the passenger carrier mounted on two wheels at the back and fairly primitive.  They took us through the streets of Tan Chau town, where the people seemed to be not quite so poor.  We travelled through the markets and the narrow streets that appear to make up their commercial area.  It is hard for us to differentiate between commercial and residential as most of the Vietnamese have their own small business at the front or under their houses.

We were taken to one of the Silk Factories, where we had an interesting tour.  The family business had 19 electrical looms, which produced white silk material and then these were dyed to the desired colour.  Each worker works 8 looms for 8 hours per day. It takes 2 days for 2 workers to thread the looms with over 1000 threads each for the patterned silk material and they use paper/card for the patterns.

From there, rickshaws took us to a mat factory where we were shown how they make mats from rattan after dying them before weaving them.  One worker, using the older method, makes one mat per day.  However, the machine allows them to make 5-7 mats each per day.

We saw how incredibly hard they work, in extremely poor conditions, for a very small amount of money per month.

We walked through part of the town to the river and were met by our local boat and were taken past a Floating House Fish Farm, where the cages were fed into the river through a hole in the floor inside the small houses.  The boat dropped us off at Tan San, a small village where the people either had small rice paddies or were fishermen.   We walked through the little village and had lots of smiling children running out to see us, calling out “Hello”.  The houses were built on stilts because in the wet season the whole village is covered in water.

We had an interesting morning seeing lots of new things and the people we saw, despite how poor they are, were very friendly and eager to smile and wave at the visitors to their town.

We came back to the ship for lunch and the boat continued up the river.  At 2.10pm we arrived at the Cambodian border and our passports were taken over to the government offices for processing.  While this was happening, we were treated to a cooking demonstration and a fruit carving demonstration, which Sandy attended.  She was very impressed with the chef who did the fruit carving – he showed us how to make a tomato flower and he carved a watermelon as well as making a rabbit out of a melon – very clever

After that, it was time for our ice-cream party, which Eenie and Sandy attended while Richard “read his book” – there were 5 different flavours of ice-cream and about 10 things you could put on it as well as a few different sauces. Delicious!

After our briefing about Phnom Penh, we had a lovely dinner and enjoyed the company of three ladies who we have chatted with many times previously.  Interestingly, two of them are mother and daughter and it turns out that the daughter, Yolanda, is someone who Sandy has spoken to many times when she rang the Regional Office of Education Queensland, but had never actually met her before – it sure is a small world!!

The three of us have thoroughly enjoyed our day today and have agreed that it has been the most unusual Christmas Day we have ever experienced!

 

Day 4 Tuesday 24 December. Cai Be, Sa Dec

This morning, we were taken by small local boats to the river town of Cai Be, which is one of the Tien Giang Province’s most important centres for distribution of agricultural products, especially tropical fruits for the whole region as well as the entire country.  The little wooden boats had a roof and wooden chairs for us to sit on.  We were taken through the Floating Markets and although the wares on sale were not unusual – vegetables and fruit – the manner of selling was novel in that the transaction was conducted on water.  Stallholders sell from their boats, hanging samples of their wares from a long bamboo pole, while shoppers mill about on the water in smaller boats.  We were told that the only floating markets in Vietnam are in the Mekong Delta.

Our boat dropped us off at the village where we were taken for a walk – we saw the 19th century French Gothic Cathedral, whose spire can be seen from the river, as well as several family businesses along the river.  We saw the major Longan fruit exporters, a fish sauce manufacturer who makes the most popular fish sauce in the whole of Vietnam, as well as a business that makes coconut lollies and snake wine, a medication for various ailments made from snake, gecko and scorpion. The three of us declined the offer to try some! We also saw a local rice paper manufacturer and were given samples of popped rice and dried ginger, among other things.

After a very interesting morning learning about day-to-day life in a Vietnamese river village, our little local boats returned us to the AMA Lotus for lunch.

 

This afternoon, our shore excursion took us to Sa Dec, which is a city in the Dong Thap Province in the Mekong Delta of southern Vietnam.  It is a river port and agricultural trading centre. Sa Dec is a peaceful little town and is famous as the setting for The Lover, a film based on the novel by the award-winning French writer, Marguerite Duras, who met her Vietnamese lover, Huynh Thuy Le.

We started our tour with a visit to a brick factory where we saw how bricks are made in the old, traditional way and this process is still being used commercially in Saigon today. It was interesting to see the whole process and watch the workers producing tiles and bricks.

Our local boat picked us up again and took us to the Sa Dec town where we walked through the local markets along the paved riverbanks – the local school had just finished, so there were lots of people on motor-bikes with their children, shopping at the markets for their dinner.  Our guide, Thung, took Richard and me to a watchmaker to repair Richard’s prescription sunglasses – a screw had fallen out and so had one of the lenses, but luckily he still had the screw and the lens didn’t break.  We were extra lucky that our guide told us about the watchmaker this morning and said that he would translate for us and so the lovely Vietnamese watchmaker fixed the glasses for us!!

Our local boat picked us up again and dropped us at another section of Sa Dec so that we could visit the Cao Dai temple, the sacred site for the Vietnamese founded religion, which draws its beliefs from Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, as well as Christianity and Islam. We were then taken back to the AMA Lotus for showers, our briefing about tomorrow and our Christmas Eve Dinner.

We had a buffet dinner with some traditional Christmas food, eg turkey, and one of the kitchen staff came out dressed as Santa and one of the Security staff came out dressed as a girl with high heels etc, to the music of  “We wish you a Merry Christmas” – lots of hilarity!!

Another good day was had by the three of us in Vietnam.

Day 3. Monday 23 December. Saigon, Freedom of Choice Tour, Embark Cruise

This morning was an exciting morning for the three of us.  At 8 o’clock, we started our Walking Tour of Saigon – the first part of this was a half hour Cyclo Tour.  For those who don’t know what a cyclo is, it is a bicycle that has a seat mounted on two wheels in front of the cyclo driver, who sits on a bicycle seat and peddles and steers like a normal bicycle. The cyclo has one wheel at the back. Our Cyclo Tour took us through the bustling city streets in the middle of peak hour traffic.  We saw lots of street vendors setting up their stalls and having breakfast out on the footpaths, as well as people exercising in the parks and we even saw a little primary school class with children in uniforms sitting cross-legged on the floor. It was an exciting experience to actually be on the roads with hundreds of motor-bikes and cars all jostling for their share of the road. It amazed us how all the drivers seemed to know just where the others were going to go and at times there was only a matter of inches between each of them and us but at no time did we feel uncomfortable beause our drivers were very skilled.

After the Cyclo drivers dropped us off at the Reunification Palace, our guide talked to us about the Palace, while Richard and some of the others took photos.  We were interested to see the actual tanks that knocked down the Palace gates of the then Presidential Palace, bringing the war to an end.

From there we walked past several lovely parks to the Notre Dame Cathedral where we saw several soon-to-be brides and grooms having their professional photos taken.  This is something that they do a couple of months before they get married. We were allowed to go inside the cathedral but only able to stand at the back.

Across the road from the cathedral is the Central Post Office.  We went inside and were given time to look around before walking back to the hotel via the Opera House.

We thoroughly enjoyed our morning!

We then checked out of the hotel and boarded a bus for our one and a half hour transfer to My Tho Port.  As we drove along, Thang, our guide gave us some interesting facts, as well as pointed out various things about the rice paddies, cane farms and local activities along the way.

One of the interesting things he explained to us is the Vietnamese call the city Saigon, although the ‘official” name is now Ho Chi Minh City, which seems to only get used for “official” things.

Another interesting fact is that they are only allowed to have motor bikes with an engine capacity not exceeding 175ccs.  It is illegal for each motor bike to carry more than 2 adults and 1 child, however if the police do not enforce that because they understand that families of 5 cannot afford two motor bikes or a car.  At one part of our journey we were travelling on a 6 lane highway reserved for cars, with another 4 lanes could be used for bicycles and motor bikes.

When we reached the Mekong Delta area, we went from Highway 1 to a Freeway, where no bicycles or motor bikes were allowed. The Freeway is only 40 kilometres long but they are building another section.  Along this stretch beside the road were many rice paddies and some sugar cane farms all of which had ancestral graves in the middle of the farms.

We arrived at the AMALotus at 1.30pm and were taken to the Lounge for a brief orientation meeting before heading to the Dining Room for a late lunch.  After lunch, we collected our key cards at reception and were escorted to our cabin/suite, which is very nice.  We have a king size bed, a little sitting area and twin balconies.

The RV AMA Lotus was commissioned in September 2011 and has 62 suites.

From the Sky Deck, we watched the AMA Lotus leaving her berth and heading upstream for our adventure on the Mekong River.  We had the mandatory safety drill with life jackets, and then met the captain and crew before a tasty dinner.

An exciting day in Vietnam!

Day 2. Sunday 22 December Saigon, Long Tan

This morning after breakfast, the three of us boarded the bus that would take us to Vung Tau and Long Tan.   Sa, our tour guide, kept us entertained with lots of stories about life in Vietnam – politics, the economy, employment, daily life in the different regions (North, Coast, Central and South) and the different languages spoken in each region.

After we left Saigon, we travelled along Highway 1, which is a toll road and has 4 lanes each way and separate motor-bike lanes.  Along the middle of the road and at each roundabout there were beautiful, well maintained gardens and in many places, sculptured trees in the colourful median strip.

We passed a huge private Amusement Park/ Playground/Theme Park and a large Coca Cola factory.  We crossed  a bridge overthe Dong Nai River and Sa told us that the water from the river is treated and pumped to the Saigon City Centre.

After an hour of travelling, we stopped for a quick comfort stop and when we returned to the bus, while we continued our journey, we watched a documentary about the Australian Mine Fields bungle and then stopped again form morning tea and to pick up our Australian guides at Ba Ria.

As we drove towards Nui Dat, the guides talked to us about the history of the Vietnam War.  We saw the Nui Dat Hill (which means mountain of clay) and then on to what was the Australian Military Camp during the war at Nui Dat.  We saw the remains of the Luscombe Bowl, which was used as a stage where Little Patty, Col Joye and Johnny O’Keefe entertained the troops.  We stopped at what was once the airfield known Luscombe Field and were told about the brave helicopter pilots who flew close to the battle to pick up the wounded.  There is a village here now and we were interested to see some grain mats on the edge of the road where the villagers were drying corn.

We then drove to Long Tan through the Rubber Plantations to where the Australians fought the well-known Battle of Long Tan against overwhelming odds, and many lost their lives.  At this site is one of two foreign memorials to non-Vietnamese soldiers.  The Australian memorial, the Long Tan Cross, sits quietly in the middle of a working Rubber Plantation.  We experienced an emotional time at the memorial where a Vietnam Vet laid a wreath and Sandy, on behalf of her brother, Peter, who served in the Vietnam War, laid a wreath in memory of Peter’s fallen mates.  After this, the group observed a minute’s silence and then were given the opportunity to have a closer look at the memorial and have photos taken.  The memorial was 50 metres off the road down a paved path and it appears that the memorial and the surrounding area are well-maintained.After leaving the memorial, we had the opportunity to see how the rubber trees are milked for their sap.

From there we drove though the Long Tan village and saw Horseshoe Hill, which was where the artillery was located and then through Dat Do Village where we saw a Golden Statue of a young 15 year old girl who was a Vietnamese heroine during the time of the French occupation.

We came back via the coast to the South China Sea, now called the Eastern Ocean, which is a resort area in Vung Tau, where we had lunch at Tommy’s 3 at Front Beach.  Upstairs was an Aussie bar with lots of memorabilia – the bar and restaurant are owned and run by an expatriate, who now lives in Vung Tau.

As we continued our journey back to Saigon, we were interested to see nice houses and well-maintained unit blocks right next to sections of run-down dwellings that were a combination of residence and shop or people sitting on little stools out the front selling their wares.

Our tour guide also explained to us that the haze over south Vietnam is caused by the smoke from peat fires blown over from Indonesia.

We arrived back at our hotel just after 5.00pm after a long and interesting day.  We had our showers and met the rest of our tour group to walk the short distance to Xu Restaurant where we enjoyed a Luke Nguyen-inspired degustation dinner.