Category Archives: Asia

The seductive powers of Ms Jet Lag

Ms Jet Lag is a strange creature.  She creeps up on you at strange moments like just after you’ve downed a double double expresso Americano.  Hey – what the hell was that?  I am loaded up with caffeine…. back off already!  Oh but she’s a determined dame.  Before you know it waves of fatigue are sweeping over your body and you long to lie down…. anywhere, really.  Right here on the supermarket floor would be just fine!

When you finally give in to her seductive promise of hours and hours of sleep she cruelly wakes you up at 4 am and wires up your brain with chaotic thoughts of work, kids, bills, laundry and impending disasters.  Yes you can try and snuggle down again and pull the duvet over your head.  Forget it.  You can’t escape her.  She will taunt you with all the things that need to be done…. NOW.   Even though its 4 am and freezing cold the compulsion to get downstairs and fire up the old lap top is hard to conquer.

Just a couple of days ago I woke at some strange hour at home in my own bed but lay there like someone who has awoken from a 10 year coma – wide eyed and not quite sure where I was.  Without moving a muscle I checked out the room.   Window, curtains, dark.  Oh of course – this was the Transit Hotel in Seoul airport.  Hang on… what’s my mom’s hat doing hanging on the back of the door.  Come on Lesley – you can do it.  Think…..

It was quite a shock to realise that I was at home in my own bed and that in fact I had already flown from Seoul to Vancouver, then Vancouver to Calgary.  It was all like a bit of a black hole.  I sat up in bed bewildered and confused and I could almost hear the smirk on Ms Jet Lag’s lipstick red lips.

Sticky rice in Saigon

Well I thought I had seen it all in Hanoi;  streets packed with motorbikes, traffic lights a mere suggestion, pedestrians with nerves of steel.  Take all that and multiply by 10 when you arrive in Saigon – or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now officially called.  Rush hour is crazy and don’t think you are safe walking on the sidewalk – these are handy detours for traffic trapped scooters and motorbikes.  Although it all seems totally crazy and random there is a certainly logic about the whole thing that I can’t work out.  Walking down to the Central Market from our hotel I found that some intersections had traffic lights which, for the most part, were obeyed.  However other intersections had no traffic lights at all but for some mysterious reason the traffic would suddenly grind to a halt – lined up as if waiting for the starting whistle.  Weird. 

Whenever we looked confused or doubtful coming to a street crossing the friendly locals would invariably offer to help.  “Follow me” they would urge.  “Stay close – sticky rice”.

The Central Market is hot, sticky and noisy but it doesn’t deter us from hunting down bargains.  Will the T-shirts shrink in the wash?  Who cares?  It says Good Morning Vietnam (thank you Robin Williams) and that’s a good enough souvenir.

For a break from the traffic, the hooting of motorbikes, the heat, the shouting just step inside one of the many upmarket shopping malls in the middle of town.  Here you find all the top name brands, Ecco, D&C,  Gucci.  The price labels are in the millions – Vietnamese Dongs that is – but even so converting to US dollars make eyebrows rise with prices like $800 a dress.  Clearly this is where the affluent Vietnamese hang out – somehow I preferred the market where the goods might not be the same quality but the atmosphere and the smiles are indeed priceless.

On our way to Saigon

As we wait in the lounge onboard the Amalotus I have been going through my photos.  I love reliving the days we have enjoyed so far and remember the highlights, like the Tai Chi on board our junk in Ha Long Bay early in the morning, or meeting one of the hill tribe people at the Ho Chi Minh monument in Hanoi.  Other memories jump out from my photos – the children’s school in a small village in the Mekong, the crazy organised chaos of the bikes on the streets of Hanoi…. and I still have MILLIONS of photos to sort out. 

Still here is a glimpse of some of them so far  Vietnam and Cambodia 

Killing Fields

A visit to the Killing Fields of Cambodia and the infamous S21 detention centre is not a pleasant experience.  It is traumatic.  It is upsetting.  It is incredible how again and again these atrocities occur – despite the fact that we believe we learn from history and recite the mantra – Never Again. 
  The detention centre in Phnom Penh – S21 – used to be a high school.  Pol Pot’s regime turned it into a chamber of horrors and the evidence is still there – the shackles, the horrific photographs.  Only 7 people survived by the time the Vietnamese arrived and I had the honour to meet one of them.  Now in his 80’s  Chum Manh speaks little English but he does know a few words – like electric shock.  He explained to me by sign language and a few words how he was tortured by shock treatment in his ear.  He also showed me his knuckles and slid off his shoes to show me his feet where he had been tortured.  He has been a witness in the trials of the leaders of the Pol Pot regime.

His story and the stories of all the Cambodian people should be treasured and perhaps one day in the future we will be able to realise the dream of Never Again…   Slide show of our photos Genocide Cambodia

Phnom Penh’s best dry martini

Sipping a dry martini in the roof garden bar of the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh I could not help thinking back to what it must have been like in ’93 when Cambodia opened its doors to foreign journalists and diplomats.  The country had been through hell and the FCC as it became known was THE place to hang out.  It still retains a special atmosphere with its wooden rafters, ceiling fans and wide selection of menu surprises – such as cottage pie or fish and chips with mushy peas.  Clearly the Brits had let the restaurant know what their favourite food was.  No noodles for this crew!

Our ride town the esplanade along the river front by tuk tuk was an education in itself.  The streets were crowded, motorbikes competing with fancy imported cars.  The riverwalk pathway was wide enough for what looked like an aerobics class – speakers set down on the pavement, instructor standing in front of what must have been 50 people.  At first I thought it was a line-dancing class – hey you never know. 

Every second store seemed to offer either food or massages – or maybe both.  Can you believe $4 for a massage?  Conterfeit DVD’s were on sale everywhere.  Films probably not even released in Hollywood yet….  And yet I found the street sellers so much nicer than places like Mexico or Jamaica.  Yes they wanted to sell their wares but they did not become a nuisance, were never aggressive and those big smiles just melt your heart.  So needless to say I have a whole bag of “stuff” that I would normally not have purchased but console myself with the thought that I am doing my bit for the Cambodian economy.  Just hope I am not going to end up paying for extra baggage!

Contrasts of Cambodia

We have cruised overnight across Tonle Sap lake and are now on the Tonle  Sap river.  Recent floods have widened the river which is dotted with floating hyacinth, stilted houses and the odd small island.  We disembarked this morning to visit the floating village of Kampong Chhnang by small motor boat.  As we cruised the waterways children jumped up and down and waved but for the most part life went on as usual at the floating school, the floating shop and numerous other floating businesses. 

 Finally we docked at the pier and went on a walking tour.  The poverty is amazing and yet everyone is clean, well fed and seem to be happy.  How little they want from life.  Unlike many other places I have visited where a photo means a dollar or two – here the children were more than happy to have their picture taken and then to have a chance to look at the digital image in the camera.  Big smiles blossomed when they recognised their faces.

We could see the French influence at the market bread store where baskets of golden baked baguettes were laid out for sale – but the amazing thing was that this was bread made out of rice flour.  What a boost that would be in Canada for people with wheat allergies. 

After touring the village we got back onto our motor boat and travelled back to our luxurious river boat – what a strange contrast it is.  We float down the river in such luxury with air conditioning, ice clinking in our drinks and crisp white sheets on our beds.  Somehow it seems a bit wrong.

Ooodles of Noodles

I am not an adventurous eater – heaven forbid I should ever get invited to participate on Survivor or the Amazing Race.  I just couldn’t do it.  I can see that I would totally let my team down by not being able to scarf down fried grasshoppers or live bugs.  I was therefore a bit dubious about what to expect in Vietnam. That sounds silly, I know, because there is a Vietnamese restaurant in just about every suburb of Calgary – but I have never visited any of them.  Now here I am in Vietnam faced with the real thing – and you know what – it’s great!  Spicy broth with fresh veggies and rice noodles sprinkled with fresh cilantro just before eating.  Yum.  It’s called Pho.  (Pronounced FOH).  Here’s another weird thing.  There are no fat people in Vietnam.  Honestly, I did not see one.  I asked my guide, Bik, about this.  She laughed and said that she had married an American and when he moved to Vietnam to live permanently he lost 25 pounds just over two months and he eats even more than he used to.  So clearly the food is good for you.

Drive through any town in Vietnam and there is sure to be little “snack huts” along the side of the road where you can buy Chicken or Beef Pho for the equivalent of 50 cents – sometimes less.  It’s Vietnam’s fast food – call it McPho if you like.

Sometimes you have to be a bit adventurous with food when you travel.  I know none of us want to be hit with Montezuma’s revenge and trust me, I keep the Imodium and Gravol handy when I travel.  Perhaps however you might want to stretch the envelope a bit on your next trip and eat outside of your comfort zone …. But maybe leave out the grasshoppers.

Junking in Vietnam

Junk  – the word has bad connotations for North Americans – so the idea of spending a night on a junk in Ha Long Bay was received with mixed feelings.  “Don’t worry”, said Huy our guide “You will have a soft mattress and a small private shower.”  In fact what we had was a beautiful room furnished in rich warm woods, crisp white linens and a constantly changing view of magical Ha Long Bay.

 Now that it has been named one of the natural wonders of the world Ha Long Bay is certainly busy with visitors from all over the world.  I couldn’t help wondering what it was like for those intrepid travellers who ventured out to this region before it had been “discovered”.  It must have been magical.  Even with numerous junks and day trippers the area has a certain mystery about it – especially when the mist slides over the sea and wraps around the tall jagged islands.

 Our visit there included a ride around a floating village.  The village is relatively new, about fifteen years, and was a brilliant solution to the overcrowding of Hanoi.  People without homes were offered the chance to come out and start a fishing village and pearl farm which in turn has developed a little tourist industry all of its own.  The local people – mostly young girls – ferry visitors around in traditional Vietnamese boats – almost like a gondola in a way.  Kids here learn to row from an early age and we saw several very small children lying back in the boats and operating the oars with their feet.

 Other highlights of the area include visits to immense caves in the heart of the limestone islands as well as a gruelling 400 step walk up to the top of one of the islands for the “view”.  That’s if you can breathe by the time you get up there.  Phew!  In the heat and humidity that was a mini marathon.  By the time we all got down to the beach a dip in the sea was a must – even without a swimsuit.  Yes some of our ladies just walked right in with all their clothes on!  Good for them!

Shop till you drop – your pants……

Girls just love shopping – so when my sister arrived to join me in Hanoi it was a given that we would hit the shops.  Well this is a little different to heading over to Chinook Mall for a dose of retail therapy followed by a Vente skinny latte.  Nevertheless we knew what we wanted – a traditional Vietnamese suit called “ao dai” which is a long slit tunic worn over wide pants.

Cruising along the streets I spotted a colourful tunic hanging on the wall next to a dark narrow alley.  Quick as a flash a tiny smiling Vietnamese lady bobbed up.  “Bonjour… you like… come come” she beckoned.  I followed her down the tiny alley squeezing past parked scooters until we came to – literally – a hole in the wall lined with shelves and packed with colourful silk garments.  She eyed me up and down and quickly assessed  my size and pulled out a silk tunic from a shelf.  Bloody hell!  It said extra large on the tag.  Oh well – I guess in this land of exquisitely tiny women I must be like a giant.

“Come come you try” she urged – pulling off my shirt.  There I stood in my bra, in the alleyway while busy commuters made their way down the alley pausing only momentarily to glance at this crazy half dressed tourist.  Next thing came the silk trousers.  Again she urged me to try them on by tugging at my shorts.  Oh well, in for a penny in for a pound (or a dong…. well I am in Vietnam after all).  At this stage she realised that her husband/father/brother or whoever was watching all this anxiously – clearly wanting the sale.  She also realised that maybe a little privacy would be in order and with a big smile she pulled across a curtain which covered half of the room and only a quarter of my fat butt.

Look, I thought to myself –  I will never see these people again.

The situation deteriorated however when my sister spotted a cotton blouse further down the road.  Again we were seduced down a long narrow alleyway but this time there was no hole in the wall – just a table with piles of shirts at a busy intersection of alleyways.  No curtains here – just Trish in her bra trying on the blouse while two suit-clad ladies squeezed past her with their scooters in full rev mode.  What were we thinking????

Zebras in Hanoi

….. as in crossing that is.  Our guide was very specific about instructions for negotiating the streets of Hanoi.  “Always cross at the zebra crossing.  Once you start crossing the street keep going but slowly.  Do not run.  Walk slowly so motorbikes will have a good chance to avoid hitting you.”

And they're off!

Now that’s pretty good advice if you ask me.  Forget about traffic lights.  They work for the most part but don’t be surprised to find scooters, motor bikes or even cars driving around you, in front of you and behind you while crossing at a pedestrian crossing.  Oh and don’t get too relaxed walking down the sidewalk.  Many bikers use this as a handy way to avoid the traffic.  Go figure.

I use the term “bikers” loosely.  For us in North America it conjures up Hell’s Angels or mid-life crisis executives clad in black leather from head to foot sitting confidently astride beautiful Harleys or BMW’s.  In Hanoi a biker could be literally anyone wanting to get from point A to point B.  Lots of girls.  Pretty office workers in stockings, suits and heels.  Moms and Dads with one or even two babies wedged between them.  It’s amazing what these bikes can do and how the riders can balance huge bags of rice, baskets piled sky-high and very long unwieldy aluminium ladders with no sight of that familiar red cloth tied to the end.  It’s pedestrian beware and the sight is enough to make any North American traffic cop want to hang up his radar.

I was astonished to see a group of tourists on a bicycle tour through the city.  Truly they deserve a medal – maybe this is going to become an Olympic sport one day.  It would certainly call on athletes with nerves of steel and great balance – qualities unfortunately that I do not possess.  So you won’t be seeing me on the bike in Vietnam – at least not in Hanoi that is.