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Archive for January, 2014

A Christmas in Cambodia (Part 1)

After two weeks away on holiday in Cambodia, we were supposed to be back in Hanoi by 9pm after a two hour flight by the Vietjet flight from Ho Chi Minh City, but we ultimately landed at 11:25pm after a number of changes in our flight timing – the last of which was on Boxing Day, just a day before our scheduled flight home from Ho Chi Minh City, which our travel agent informed while we were still in Phnom Penh. After the half hour it took to collect our considerably heavy baggage (compared to when we left for our Christmas holiday), it was well past midnight by the time we reached home.

After a quick bath and a light meal of instant noodles, I went out to our balcony and, looking out from our 15th floor apartment, drank in the fresh and chilly air of Hanoi which, coupled with seasonal decorative lights still twinkling below, made it seem like Christmas was still around the corner. After two weeks basking in the warm weather and warmer company of friends in Cambodia, the cold air and familiar sight of the golf course to my right along with the ever-busy airport road in the distance still filled with considerable traffic rushing late night passengers to and from the airport made me realize that we were back home after a most fulfilling and memorable family holiday.

And, just like that, a two-week Christmas holiday we had planned for almost a year became a memory. Like a good dream from which you never want to wake up, but eventually must.Image

…..leaving on a jet plane. On the flight from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City

I had booked our seats more than three months in advance not only to avail of the cheapest fares available but also to ensure that, by paying the full, non-refundable price for the air tickets, we were committed to a real family holiday. When I booked and confirmed our tickets, we were to leave Hanoi on 17 December by 7am and be in Ho Chi Minh City by 9am, which would give us two full days to see the sights before we caught the bus for Phnom Penh two days later, on 19 December. The only hitch at that stage was whether we’d be able to wake up early enough to catch the flight but the flight timing kept on changing and, when the day arrived, we left at 5pm and reached Ho Chi Minh City after dark, at 7pm – a whole day wasted, giving us just a day to explore and see the sights.

Ho Chi Minh City

17 Dec 2013

From chilly Hanoi, we arrived in Tan Son Nhat International airport at 7pm and breathed in the comfortably warm weather of HCM City for the first time. Mr. Chanh, the Consulate driver, was waiting for us as we walked out of the arrival lounge. He, of course, id not see us walking out with the other passengers. Expecting an Indian family, he looked past us as we trooped out with our baggage. A dignified looking man, probably in his 50s but looking much younger like all Vietnamese, I spotted him almost immediately as we walked out. As we were about to pass him, I took out my phone and called his number and I saw him reach into his pocket to take out his phone, looking past us into the mass of passengers exiting, still looking for Indian faces.

I tapped him on the shoulder from behind and watched as it took a few seconds for him to realize that the Viet Kieu-looking family that just walked past him was actually the Indian family for whom he’d probably missed a good family dinner to rush to the airport. Introductions duly made and doubts cleared that we were actually the people he’d been asked to pick up from the airport, we quickly put our bags into his Mercedes and drove into HCM City and so, finally, began the family holiday that we had so looked forward to.

Unlike Noi Bai airport in Hanoi which is 28kms from the city centre, Tan Son Nhat airport is within the city itself and, as we drove out of the airport, we joined the early evening traffic of this bustling, lively and impressive city still affectionately called Saigon by many of its residents and expats. After driving about 20 minutes through well-lit streets full of festive and blinking decorations and signs wishing us Merry Christmas, we reached the residence of our colleague Manoj Kumar, Consul and Head of Chancery at the Indian Consulate, where dinner was waiting for us. Despite our protests that our good friend Lucy had already prepared and kept dinner for us, we sat down for a nice dinner prepared by his wife Rosy. By the time we reached Lucy’s apartment in District 7, where we would be staying for two nights, it was past 10pm. We huffed and puffed our way up five flights of stairs, carrying our baggage, cursing the absence of a lift all the way

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Morning, 18 Dec 2013. View from Lucy Pautu’s apartment

Cu Chi Tunnels

18 Dec 2013

We asked the Consulate-arranged Innova to pick us up at 8am as we had just a day to see the sights but, as it turned out, we just about managed to leave at around 9am. After a few more precious minutes wasted debating on our itinerary, we finally agreed on starting with Cu Chi Tunnels, about two hours’ drive from Lucy’s place.

We duly reached Cu Chi Tunnels at around 11am. Located in Cu Chi district of HCM City, the tunnels are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels 121 km long and the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tet Offensive of 1968 as well as several other military campaigns during the Vietnam War and have been preserved as a war park and the main tourist attraction of HCM City. We duly did the touristy round of the place, sneaking into many of the tourist groups and listening to their tour guides as they went on and on about the history and significance of the tunnels. Andrew and I even entered into one of the tunnels. The ten minutes or so we crawled around the tunnels which had been widened enough to allow the mainly western tourists to comfortably crawl around, searching for the nearest exit, was enough to give us an idea of what the Viet Cong must have gone through during their years-long struggle to finally defeat the Americans. One has to just crawl through one tunnel to realize the truth in the report that ‘Sickness was rampant among the people living in the tunnels, especially malaria, which was the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds. A captured Viet Cong report suggests that at any given time half of them had malaria and that “one-hundred percent had intestinal parasites of significance’.Image

Inside one of the tunnels in Cu Chi

All through our tour, the one constant sound we heard was the sound of gunfire – the rat-a-tat of machine guns as well as single rifle shots. At one stage I thought that they were some kind of sound effect from hidden speakers to make our experience of the tunnels more realistic until I realized that it was actual gunfire which came from somewhere ahead. As we continued our tour, we suddenly came upon a clearing where the sign read ‘National Defence Sports Shooting Range’ and we saw a line of wannabe soldiers lined up in front of a counter below a signboard which listed, among other weapons, AK-47, AK-52, M-16 rifles and all sorts of machine guns which could be fired at prices ranging from VND 35,000 to 50,000 (US$ 1.50 to 2.50) per bullet (minimum of 10 bullets). From the long line that sneaked from the counters to the constant sound of gunfire coming from the firing range just a few steps away, one could immediately make out that the Vietnamese Army or whoever had stumbled upon the idea had come out with a brilliant idea for minting money by catering to one of man’s basic instincts.Image

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Andrew and Esther in front of the Museum (no idea how this photo came up here, should’ve been down there 😉 

And, almost by instinct, Andrew and I found ourselves lining up in front of the desk as we mentally ticked off which weapon to choose. And that’s how I found myself cradling the AK-47 of legend and shooting off live rounds one after another at a target in the distance. Whether I hit the bull’s-eye or not, I’ll never know, but I can now say that I’ve held a real killing weapon and fired live rounds from it. It was only later on that the creepy thought hit me whether the AK-47 that I held in my arms (which looked well-used) had actually been used to kill people.

Though we had planned on a quick tour of not more than half an hour as we had only that day to see the sights in HCM City, we still spent an entire hour there even though we skipped entire portions of the regular tour. Back in the city, we had a quick lunch at the first KFC we came across before driving around downtown HCM City, past the Reunification Palace and well-maintained parks, and stopping at the Notre Dame Cathedral, a beautiful cathedral with two bell towers, reaching a height of 58m, built by the French during 1863-1880

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Notre Dame Cathedral with my girlsImage

Feeling truly touristy by now, we decided to visit a Museum next and our driver immediately suggested the War Remnants Museum, said to be one of the main attractions in HCM City. But, already having been to the War Museum in Hanoi a couple of times and having just come from Cu Chi Tunnels, another memorial to war, we told the driver to take us to the National Museum, or any museum which had more to do with the culture and people of Vietnam.

We tried our best to explain to the driver but our best efforts ended up lost in translation and, in the end, we landed up at a museum dedicated to the southern campaign of the Vietnam/American War. Since all signboards in Vietnam are in Vietnamese (naturally), and still thinking that we were walking into the National Museum, I was surprised at the absence of any sort of crowd at the ticket counter. In fact we were the only visitors till, halfway through our tour of the museum, a lone European guy came walking in, looking slightly bemused and bewildered. I suspect he also thought he was walking into the War Remnants Museum as there were the usual US jetfighters, tanks and other wreckage greeting visitors near the main entrance gate. Since we were there (and the entrance tickets were non-refundable), we dutifully made a quick round of the museum and, deciding that we had had enough cultural education for the day, headed for the nearest shopping mall.

Our driver dutifully dropped us at Saigon Square as the girls were ostensibly looking for boots which turned out to be a rare commodity in hot Saigon. Of course, that didn’t stop them from looking for the boots anyway as they checked out each and every other item on sale in the hundred or so shops in the mall. I, of course, was long gone by then, walking up Le Loi street to the Opera House, camera in hand, taking in the sights of downtown HCM City, which looked as prosperous and glitzy as downtown Singapore or Tokyo with its highrise buildings and many designer stores and five-star hotels.Image

Opera House, Ho Chi Minh CityImage

Lovely park in downtown HCM City

Having been out since morning and having covered quite a lot of ground from Cu Chi Tunnels to some of the main sights and having somewhat satiated the shopping urge, we decided to call it a day and headed for Lucy’s apartment to rest for an hour or so before venturing out again for dinner onboard one of the floating restaurants that ply the Saigon river.

The Saigon River Cruise is one of the main tourist attractions of HCM City where ‘floating restaurants’ which are actually double-decker boats capable of seating upto a hundred diners or more take you on a leisurely one-hour cruise of the Saigon river with live music on board. A cool gentle breeze was blowing as we reached the dock at around 7:45pm and saw a line of brightly lit boats waiting for customers. We boarded the nearest boat and were ushered on to the upper deck where we saw a rather garishly-dressed lady and a gentleman in white suit, both of indeterminate age, checking the microphone while another guy sat behind a console fiddling with their sound system. Looking at our ‘band’ for the evening, we sat ourselves at a table near the steps which led down to the lower deck, on the port side, as far away as possible from the stage.Image

On board the ‘My Canh’ floating restaurant on our Saigon River Cruise

As we settled in and pored over the menu trying to decide on what to order, the afore-mentioned lady took to the stage and started belting out what we presumed were Vietnamese classics, soon followed by the gentleman in white as they took turns singing to soundtracks being played by the guy behind the console. Suffice it to say that, as far as we were concerned, the evening would have been much more enjoyable and memorable without the ‘band’.Image

Saigon skyline from the CruiseImage

Fried frog meat, anyone?

Feeling adventurous, we decided to order frog meat, fried, which was the first time for all of us, along with the usual Vietnamese dishes. Soon enough, as the waiters brought the dishes we ordered, our boat left the dock and we began our cruise on the river Saigon, dining on frog meat and other Vietnamese delicacies. We spent the next hour cruising the Saigon river, admiring the well-lit and impressive Saigon skyline. By the time we came back and walked down the gangway to our waiting car, it was almost 10 and the cool early evening breeze had become decidedly cold. We reached Lucy’s apartment well after 10 and, setting our alarms for an early morning wake-up to catch our 8am bus for Phnom Penh, turned in for the night.

Though Mr. Chanh turned up with the Consulate car by 7am the next morning, and we had planned to make it to the bus stop well in time, we barely made it with about five minutes to spare. But we did make it and were soon on our way to Phnom Penh, seven hours away.

Phnom Penh

19 Dec 2013

After driving for what seemed like hours through HCM City and its suburbs, we finally left the city behind and reached the Moc Bai border crossing at around 11am. We all got off the bus and, after completing the immigration formalities which was surprisingly fast and smooth, made our way to our bus which had also crossed the border into Mavet, Cambodia while we were completing our entry procedures.

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Typical Khmer architecture – immigration check point at Bavet, Cambodia

As we crossed the Customs/Border gates into Cambodia, we almost immediately came upon glitzy Casino-hotels on both sides of the road with names like Las Vegas Sun, Golden Palm, Goodluck 9. There are more than 30 casinos on the Cambodian side of the border, catering mainly to Vietnamese gamblers from the southwestern provinces including HCM City. Everyday thousands of Vietnamese go to Cambodia to gamble in these casinos and many of them are said to have gambled away their houses and assets. A number of media reports have appeared about gamblers being held hostage by lenders at these casinos who have had their fingers and ears cut to be sent to their families in Vietnam to force them to bring money to Cambodia for redemption. After another 10 minutes’ drive the bus stopped at a restaurant run by the same bus company where we had lunch and freshened up to ready ourselves for the remaining 3-4 hours’ drive to Phnom Penh.

After over an hour’s drive through a countryside dotted with the occasional village and town and rice fields on both sides of the highway, we reached Neak Leung where we crossed the mighty Mekong river on a ferry. I was pleasantly surprised at the efficient manner in which we crossed the Mekong river on the ferry which could take at least 4-5 big buses/trucks as well as smaller cars and other vehicles. It took hardly 5-10 minutes from the time our bus drove up to the ferry crossing to line up with other vehicles, wait for the vehicles on the incoming ferry to exit and then for us to drive onto the ferry. We sat in the bus and watched fascinated as the ferry came slowly onto the dock, disgorged its load in a few minutes, clearing the way for our bus as well as a big truck and several SUVs and cars to drive onto the gangway and into the ferry.

We didn’t even have to get off the bus and from out comfortable seats watched the majestic Mekong flow by, as it has done for centuries, as the ferry made its way to the other side. The crossing took about 15 minutes and, without so much as even a short stop on exiting from the ferry, we continued on our way to Phnom Penh, some 60-70 km away.

Soon, after about an hour, we reached the suburbs of Phnom Penh. The number of tuk-tuks and two-wheelers increased proportionately as we neared the city centre and, coupled with ongoing road construction work almost every few hundred metres, our bus slowed down to a crawl and it took us almost an hour to reach the bus stop. Taxis are conspicuous by their absence in Phnom Penh and, in the absence of a proper public transport system, its denizens depend on tuk-tuks, a cleverly constructed two-wheeled four-seater trailer pulled by a two-wheeler/bike, something akin to the autorickshaw in India or the ‘phut-phuts’ that used to take us from Connaught Place to Chandni Chowk/Red Fort when we first came to Delhi all those years ago.Image

On a tuk-tuk in Siem Reap

As soon as we got off the bus at around 2:30pm and claimed our luggage, we were surrounded by tuk-tuk drivers. But they were not as aggressive and obnoxious as the taxi drivers in Delhi fighting with other drivers for fares. In any case, our good friend Yesudas Bell, a former diplomat and owner of Futurelinks, a business consulting firm based in Singapore with rep offices in several SE Asian capitals including Hanoi and Phnom Penh, had kindly arranged for his office to provide us a vehicle to pick us up. Rajshekhar, the Futurelinks rep in Phnom Penh, with whom I had been in phone contact from the time we left HCM City, was waiting for us with their office SUV and we were soon on our way to my cousin Dinpui’s house in Bassac Garden City, one of the exclusive gated communities that have come up in Phnom Penh in recent times. Image

Off to shop, soon after our arrival (poimaw full thrak 😉

(to be continued)

(8 Jan 2013, Hanoi)

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