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  • After an early morning start, we jumped on a bus with our cruise provider who would drive us the 4 hours to Halong Bay. The bus winded its way through rice crops and small Vietnamese villages and stopped at a Arts centre for disabled people who have been affected by the use of Agent Orange in the Vietnamese war. According to the people that work there, the centre employs over 300 disabled people with about 60% of the profits going directly to them. Pretty cool, if true.

    We arrived in Halong Bay around 11.30am and awaited the boarding of our ship in a room likened to a Greenhouse. We met two lovely English girls - Liz and Beth, who had been travelling through Myanmar and now Vietnam. We struck up an instant friendship and proceeded to spend the rest of the day with them discussing everything from health psychology to politics and our train trip through Russia.

    Once on board the boat, it was time to get fed and we sat down ready for our very gluttonous 6 course meal. My vegetarian option was fantastic, but massive and couldnt even attempt to eat it all. After lunch we got put onto a small boat and went kayaking through the islands and caves where we got to see Monkeys and some absolutely beautiful scenary. I was super excited as this was the first time I have ever seen Monkeys in the wild even though the number of tourists visiting them and feeding them means they arent really "wild" anymore. I was also so excited to be doing some sembalence of exercise, that I broke out my inner olympic kayaker and tried to take off across lake. Being a 2 person kayak, Jamie acted as my handbrake and told me to calm down and enjoy the scenary. We admired the beautiful Karst rock formations and sealife in the form of crabs and slowly made our way back to the boat.

    Once back on board the boat, we were taken to a small island where we hiked to the top to catch some pretty impressive panoramic views of the bay with hordes of other tourists of the 100's of boats dotted throughout the bay. We made our way back down and went for a swim in a small bay made even smaller by the buoys which constrained the swimming area. I managed to get in a couple of strokes of butterfly and then just proceeded to float around like the lazy tourist I am slowly becoming.

    It was time for happy hour - the most important hour of the day, so we jumped back on board and headed straight for the bar where all the cocktails were buy 1 get one free. I decided to make the most of this special offer and drank about 6 cocktails in the space of two hours (I had to try ever frozen dacqiri on offer - geez dont judge me 😉) and spoke more to Liz and Beth about their travels through Vietnam so far. We now have some fabulous tips for Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh. Before we knew it was time for dinner which was another massive 6 course meal. The lights went out, the music started and our spring rolls were brought in on laterns in the pitch black. Food is treated like royalty here (as it should be) and I love it!

    After dinner, we headed back up to the "Playground" being the top floor of the boat (aka party central) and ordered some soft drinks snd pineapple juice while Jamie headed back to the room to grab the illegal Midori. We watched the bay lit up like a christmas tree from the lights from all the other cruise ships while discussing Trump, War, Syria and Brexit. I can certainly tell I am getting older and more wise by the content of my drinking conversations. Teenage Courtney = boys, tv shows, swimming, gossip. Mature Courtney = war, terrorism, the state of our economy, the state of our world, job satisifaction (or lack thereof) and gossip. When did life get so dark?

    Being the Party Animals of the boat, Liz, Beth, Jamie and I stayed up until Midnight while the rest of our boat was fast asleep. We decided to call it a night because we had Tai Chi to do in the morning.
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  • By this morning, we had already explored the Old Town of Hanoi, and were looking for something more to see. We decided on a circumnavigation of Ho Tay, the largest lake in Hanoi. If I remember the display at the Hanoi Hilton rightly, it is also the lake that John McCain had the misfortune to land in, prior to his capture, imprisonment, and torture.

    Launching ourselves into an exciting day of walking, we made our way to the lake, which we had reached on our earlier aborted attempt to go for a run. And from there it was just a matter of keeping the lake on our left hand side. The use of the word lake to describe this body of water, was more than a bit opptimistic however. It seemed to more rather large stagnant, and polluted pond. It stunk, it was littered with rubbish, and a had a wonderful sheen from all the petrochemicals floating over its surface. That didn't stop the locals from fishing in the murky waters, or raising their chickens and turkeys on the water's edge, before they became dinner at a later date. This city based small scale argiculture was a bit different, but perhaps it is something that the Western world can learn from in the future.

    Making our way around the lake, it quickly became apparent that it was less a lake, and more a fresh water sea. Certainly too far for us to contemplate walking around in a day, while staying comfortable. We decided we needed to change our plans, and headed to the nearest coffee shop to consider this exciting pivot in our plan.

    The first stop on the revised plan was a temple, pretty close to the coffee shop we had just stopped at. So far as temples go, it was pretty similar to many other buddhist temples that we had also seen. In Vietnam however, this was the first one we had seen that was full of Chinese pictographs, rather than Vietnamese in written in latin script. While there, as is customary in Vietnam, Courtney was accosted by a lady trying to sell awful postcards. She persisted with Courtney for a few minutes, even tucking her postcards into Courtney's bag to try and get her to buy them. As Courtney said no repeatedly, the lady tired to suggest that she was pregnant, and needed the money for her unborn baby.

    Unfortunately, for the Vietnamese lady, and many other hawkers we might meet on the way home, I have adopted a rather severe policy of not giving them a penny. It is the result of having been done a few times for rather modest sums of money, We all have, and yet it never feels wonderful when you work it out. So for this hawker who may or may not have been pregnant, I came to Courtney's rescue by removig the postcard wedged in Courtney's bag, shoving it back in the hand of the hawker, looking her in the eye and telling her no. When she interjected with something about her baby, she only got another no from me.

    If she was pregant and looking for money to feed her baby, then I was a bit more abrupt than I could have been. If she was not pregnant, and she certainly wasn't showing, then I wasn't abrupt enough. And this is the problem with hawkers, and selling things to people unsolicitied. In so many cases, the potential customer is going to either resent themselves for being had, or resent the fact that they are being approached unsolicited. In this part of the world, it is going to happen far more, but that doesn't change the fact that it weighs on the conscience when people use a sob story to sell you something.

    Personal introspection over for the day, we carried on to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. It was closed. This was annoying. But it serves us right for not doing the research. It isn't uncommon for 'attractions' like this to be closed on one or two odd days each week, or during the middle of the day. For us, the mausoleum was closed for the day, and was not opening again, any time soon. WIth that we decided to visit the Army Museum, and inform ourselves a bit more about the military history of Vietnam, which began so much earlier than the United States ill-fated intervention.

    Wandering through the musuem we learned about the the occupation of Vietnam by the Chinese, the French, and of course the Americans, before reunification and independence in the 1970's. While there, we were approached yet again, this time by someone claiming to be from the tourism ministry. It transpired that he was doing a survey for the tourism ministry. Having done the survey, the next question was if we would put our names in his book of interviewees. This was when the request for money came. Having had an inkling that this was coming, or names had been written in his little book os illegibly that I may as well have been writing in arabic script. He got nothing from me, and left rather angry that he got nothing too.

    For the second time in the day, it was time for some self reflection. How to deal with such people. You can be horrible to everyone, so that no one will come near you. Or you can be the polite person you were raised to be, and have people try to take advantage, at an emotional cost to yourself. So you take the high road, and hope that repeated attempts to take advantage don't take too much of a toll. Being an asshole to those that might approach you, will for now take a greater emotional toll. Hopefully that remains the case, but only time will tell.

    Wiser in the our knowledge of Vietnamese history, which in so many cases is one of conflict, we headed back to the hotel for a quick shower before heading out on a food tour that evening. Setting off with our guide at 1800, we headed directly to the first street food vendor of the night. Though it was a group tour, we were the only ones on it, which was pretty good.

    The tour was well worth it, if for nothing else than to understand how the street food world works, how much things cost, and what the etiqutte is. The best thing we had was definitely the the che, aka cold sweet soup. It is a mixture of green beans, black beans, coconut, lotus fruit, and somekind of gelatinous leaf product. It is entirely vegetarian, and incredibly tasty.

    Feeling very full, and very hot, we made our way back to the hotel after the tour, to get an early night ahead of our trip to Halong Bay tomorrow. We'll have to be up at 0600. Everthing starts nice and early in this part of the world.
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  • The day started early. 0600 early. Too early. But this was when Tai Chi on the top deck started, and we wanted to be there to give it a go. What better setting to do Tai Chi, than in the breaking dawn, while surrounded by the stone pinnacles of Ha Long Bay. It would have been easier to get up if not for the fact that we had been up too late the night before drinking malibu with Beth and Liz. It was too late to do anything about when the alarm went off though.

    The tai chi was not strenuous, but was surprising harder than anticipated. Holding your limbs outstretched for extended periods can certainly cause some strain. Also, we are hopeless at tai chi. We couldn't get the flowing movements right. It will take some more time than one go at this to get it right. Fortunately we have plenty of time left in life to pick up those skills.

    The next appointment of the day, was a small breakfast at 0700. Things start earlier in Vietnam than they do at home. Perhaps that should read South-East Asia in general. Breakfast consisted of some Vietnamese breakfast soup (the name escapes me), and french pastries. The soup was good, the pastries, not so much.

    Following breakfast we had a few minutes to have a quick shower, before disembarking the big boat, and heading to a cave system on one of the many islands. Once there we were joined by 100's of people from other boats, doing much the same thing. We had travelled to Surprise Cave, which was the last of a three chamber system. The name Surprise comes from the fact that of the three chambers, the last is about 100 times bigger than the first two, and was hence a real surprise to the first people to enter the cave.

    The cave system was also reasonably unique in that it had developed above sea-level, then been plunged underwater once upon a time, before being raised high and dry out the water once more as sea-levels changed. The effect of being underwater has meant that the roof of the cave was a beautiful smooth appearance. It looks artificial, but is instead the effect of waves on the soft limestone roof of the cave system. After about 45 minutes in the cave, it was time to head back to the mothership, for brunch, and to make our way back to dry land.

    Once back on the boat, we had our brunch, which was really a five course lunch. After the mountain of food we had eaten the day before, and the earlier breakfast, it was difficult to swallow the food, inspite of how delicious it was. The conversation across the table was a good way to slow down our consumption of food, and the topics ranged from the New Zealand property market, to the life of a caterer, to the pride of the French when it comes to their food.

    And before we knew it, we were back at the harbour, hoping off the boat, and hopping on a bus to get us back to Hanoi. We had the obligatory stop at some awful tourist shop built around a nice block of toilets, and got back to Hanoi, at the height of rush hour. Navigating the streets in a bus was both exciting and terrifying. It was exciting in that we could relax and watch the world around us, safe in the knowledge, that in any collision we would come off uninjured. It was terrifying in that the driver knew he was invincible, and drove through the sea of moped and scooter drivers on the assumption that his vehicle was bigger, and if you were on a bike, and didn't get out the way, then it was your own fault for becoming a red stain on his bus and/or the road.

    Arriving back at the hotel. We were pretty tired, and fancied getting a good night's sleep. If we ever catch up on our sleep, we seem to ruin it the very next night by staying out late. But we are on holiday, and sometimes that means getting up early, and some times it means staying out late. Either way, we enjoy ourselves, though we may need a holiday once we get home to recover.

    And so the day ended with a quick walk across the Old Town to get dinner at an Indian restaurant - we fancied something different - and a quick walk back, before a shower and sleep. Courtneys ex boss - Angela, from Lloyds was also in town with her family, but unfortunately due to limited wifi access while out and about, an attempt to meet up didnt go as hoped with communication only being made later on in the evening once we arrived back at the hotel. We then discovered we were on opposite sides of town from each other and they had to be on a train to Sapa at 9pm so there was no time for even a quick hello. Courtney, feeling a wee bit sad about not seeing Angela, fell asleep being consoled by Teemu who continues to eat honey even though we are in Vietnam. It appears he has no interest in rice noodles or Bun Cha. And with that another day in Vietnam was over, I believe that KISS wrote a song about this. I think the title is 'Crazy Nights'
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  • Travelling by train, as by plane, you have to get used to some really inconvient arrival times. Today was one of those days. We arrived into Hanoi, though not the central train station, just before six in the morning. We couldn't get all the way into the central station because of issues with the rail bridge, which was once the longest in the world, and is so old, it was designed by Mon. Eiffel, of Parisian scaffolding tower fame.

    As is customary in this part of the world, it was time to run the gauntlet of taxis, trying to provide their services. We shared a cab with Aisha, a traveller we met on the train the night before. She had been travelling through Japan and China, on her way to Melbourne, Australia. Hanoi was her last stop, before hopping on the plane for the long flight to the Antipodes.

    Even with the train not going right into the middle of town, and the taxi ride, we still got to our hotel at about 0630, far too early to check in. We did take advantage of the hotel breakfast however, and were offered the option of using the room of someone that had checked out early, before it was cleaned. This was a rather strange offer, and not one we had ever had before. The hotel was fully booked, and this was the best way that the hotel could accommodate us, an at the very least have a shower, and use the toilet facilities.

    Having taken the hotel up on the offer, we sat on the end of the bed in the room, and watched the final US presidential debate. It didn't take long however, for the debate to transform into more of an argument, and for Courtney's attentive viewing of the television, to become an inattentive examination of the inside of her eyelids.

    Once the debate was over, and after an hour and a bit's sleep for Courtney, it was time to set forth, into the world of Vietnam. The time was 0915. Now to learn the weird and wonderful road rules of Vietnam. The lesson is quite quick. There are rules, but they are treated as suggestions. If you want to do anything as a pedestrian, cyclist, or driver, you just need to do it confidently, but carefully, and everyone else on the road willl give you the space that you need.

    Our first purchase in Vietnam was a Vietnamese coffee. These come with condensed milk in the bottom, and an espresso over the top. When you come to drink the coffee, you mix the two together with a stirrer, and enjoy. It is a wonderful combination, not necessarily unique to Vietnam, but stereotypical, all the same. As we walked, we passed St Josephs Cathedral, built by the French, when Hanoi was part of French Indo-China. It was an excellent example of a building built in a style very different to those around it. Though there is a French quarter that still remains in Hanoi, the Cathedral isn't surrounded by buildings that were built at the same time it was.

    Continuing our walk we headed to a temple in the old town, which sits on an island, in a lake. It contains many treasures, including a wooden horse that over-indulged in a few too many magic mushrooms which Courtney was obsessed with. Wishing that we had the same energy as that wooden horse, as we started to flag, we had some lunch to try and perk ourselves up. It was tasty, but the energy it provided was short lived. Between the heat, humidity, and lack of sleep, we were not going to be able to make much more of the day.

    Back at the hotel, we indulged in another shower, before perusing the internet to source tickets to our next stop, Dong Hoi. Inspite of the internets ability to lower the cost of things the world over, in Vietnam, it turned out that the cheapest way to buy our train tickets was through the front desk of our hotel. Having sorted the longest train leg of our trip through Vietnam, we headed out for dinner, and a wander through the night-time streets of Hanoi.

    They were littered with people cooking dinner, washing dishes, and selling all manner of food. Needing to catch up on some sleep, we didn't stay out too late, an were in bed by 2100. As I am sure you are aware, Will Smith wrote the Grammy winning song, 'Party Starter', about us.
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  • Our first morning in Hanoi started off like any good morning should, with a early morning run. We chose a nearby lake to run around, but had to negotiate the narrow streets within the old town which were already buzzing with millions of scooters. We set off from our hotel with the receptionists laughing that we were already too late at 7am, but we went anyway and when we finally got to a street that was wide enough for us to run down without being mowed down, we started a slow jog. 30 seconds later I had pulled my hamstring but not wanting to prove the receptionists right we decided to "walk it out". We got back to the hotel about 1 hour later and thanks to the humidity, it looked like we had just done a hard out work out. This is now my third injury of this holiday... travelling is hardcore or I am just an extreme gump.

    After a delicious buffet breakfast complete with rice noodles and papaya galore we headed towards Hoa Lo Prison (otherwise known as the Hanoi Hilton) and on the way made a quick stop at a local coffee shop where we tried Vietnamese coffee delicacies. Jamie had "Egg Coffee" which consisted of raw whipped eggs, coffee and condensed milk and I had a special coffee made with coconut milk, condensed milk and coffee. Both were absolutely delicious and we had the added bonus of making friends with the cutest cat ever, who I named Zeus. I wanted to steal him as much as I have wanted to steal Chinese and Vietnamese babies, but Jamie keeps ruining all my fun. At least I am moving in a more acceptable direction by wanting to steal pets instead of children.

    When we finally got to the Prison, I was disgustingly sweaty (im so sexy) so a beeline was made for the nearest fan while reading up about the Prison's history. It was incredibly sad learning about the atrocities that have been committed here by the Chinese, French and more recently and famously the Americans. Roaming around the city, you can certainly see the Chinese and French influences remaining from their respective occupations here but impressively the strength of the Vietnamese culture shines through and their hard fought resistance against the respective revolutions has certainly won out.

    After the Prison we decided to wander down to a big park and lake located south of the old town. The park was like a desolute creepy childrens themepark with old uninhabited rides dotted throughout. There was however, an outdoor gym with a few shirtless Vietnamese men working out. Oh la la. We decided to join them for a few minutes as running was now out of the question. After our brief workout we decided to reward ourselves with a lunch of champions - ice cream and beer, whilst discussing our plans of what to do when we are back in good ol NZ. Im not the biggest beer drinker but this weather makes me want to drink anything cold and the beer is so cheap.

    Our next stop was another bar, but more importantly - a bar with a view of the Hoam Kiem lake. So, we headed north until we reached the lake and made our way up the tallest building that we could find (about 6 stories) to have more beer and mojitos. Mojitos here are about 3 pounds so I am in Mojito heaven. After our stop we decided to go check out the Dong Xuan market near our hotel where they sold lots of cheap chinese merchandise, food and animals for pets or eating including big turtles. I wanted to buy one to set it free but couldnt think of anywhere that the turtle would actually be safe to live a carefree happy turtle life without being recaptured for culinary purposes.

    All this walking was making us hungry, so we decided to have a snack and went to a restaurant nearby our hotel. I ordered normal things like vegetarian rice noodle fresh spring rolls and Jamie decided to eat some locusts. Disgusted, I told him he wasn't getting a kiss for the rest of the night. I decided to put some distance between me and locust breath man and went for a 60 minute foot massage which only cost £10 pounds. The massage man had hands of a genius and it was bloody amazing.

    I didnt want to walk ever again because my feet now felt so amazing but we had made plans to meet up with Aisha and 1 hour later we were walking to her hostel to hit the beer street for a few drinks before heading for dinner. We found a bar that was having a happy hour where we could get two gin and tonics for just over £2 pounds, this was even more incredible when we got the drinks and discovered it was mainly gin with very little tonic. After two of these I was feeling incredibly drunk and hungry, so we went to a nearby restaurant for some bun cha. As we were eating our meal we overheard a group of Indian men behind us doing rounds of shots. It wasnt long until we were joined by two very drunk Vietnamese men who were with the group of Indian Men (doing "business") and who had the biggest bloody hipflask I have ever seen filled with Vietnamese Vodka. They took an instant liking to Jamie and offered all of us some shots. Jamie and Aisha were game but I was a little suspect so had already come up with my "Im Pregnant" excuse and discretly pushed my beer over to Jamie's side of the table. Aisha let me smell hers and it certainly had a strong smell and it apparently tasted as bad as it smelt. Jamie, forever polite, said how much he enjoyed it and they proceeded to pour him a few more. After telling us that they were now marble traders after being kicked out of the UK for the illict trading of weed, they left the table to return to their Indian friends who they were doing "business" with. We decided to try and make a quick get away before they came back, but they caught us and convinced Jamie to come and join the group for some more shots.

    My poor little Jam was now feeling a bit drunk, so we decided to walk it off and headed to the Friday night markets where the middle of town was shut down to sell everything from Street Food to Clothes. At 11pm or so, I started to feel incredibly tired so left Aisha and Jamie to head to another bar while I headed back to the hotel to get my beauty sleep and an Ice Cream (dont judge me its hot).
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  • Another early morning start today to ensure we arrive in time for our train leaving the station at 9am which is destined for Dong Hoi. Our journey time today is a lot shorter than previous journeys with an arse on seat time of 10 hours.

    We arrived at the station after weaving our way through the small streets of Hanoi and millions of scooters and had plenty of time spare to pick up my fav drink - iced vietnamese coffee with condensed milk. We found our platform and jumped on the train to find out seats. We had a four seater table and ended up sharing with an older vietnamese gentleman and a mother with her 2 year old child who seemed to be in awe of Jamie and I (and who wouldn't be right?). Behind us, we had another young child (about 7 or 8 years old) who was very interested in everything we had ranging from my tablet, Jamies iPod and our food.

    To be honest, there isn't a huge amount to report today. So i thought I would just list some interesting observations

    🔶The train was a bit older than the ones we had been on previously and instead of having a restaurant car, people come through the carriage with a trolley selling everything from curry, steamed corn, donuts and rice. Unlike our previous journeys, you would never go hungry on this train.
    🔶There were a number of cathedrals spotted in and amongst the country on our train journey which was extremely odd considering the main religion of this country is Folk Religion, followed by Buddhism.
    🔶The high water mark, indicated by the discoloration caused by mud on the trees indicated that the water level in Typhoon season was as high as 5m above the normal water level.
    🔶The train is quite slow and we ended up being nearly 1 hour behind schedule, but was pleasant enough and was nice to be sitting with the locals.

    Once we arrived in Dong Hoi, we grabbed a taxi to our hotel which is on the waterfront, pleasing Jamie. We checked into our room and decided to eat in the hotel restaurant as we were tired from the long day of travel. We ordered a salad and what turned out to be a whole chicken cut up and presented on a large dish, bones and all. I didnt look at the plate as soon as it was placed but apparently the head of the chicken was also cooked, split in two and presented as the main event on the dish. Jamie fortunately moved it before I could see, but once I was finished eating he proceeded to show me the head, to which I almost vomited and had to excuse myself from dinner for the rest of the evening to run upstairs and away from chicken. I know, I know, im such a GIRL.

    Another day down, and I can safely say that Vietnam is one of the most amazing places I have ever travelled to. The people are friendly, the food is amazing and the culture is beautiful. Im so glad we have another 2.5 weeks here.
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  • So after a few days at sea we have arrived in Vietnam and is cloudy but very hot. Today we opted for doing the city on our own. The port is over an hour from Ho Chi Minh city so we first disembarked and boarded buses into the city. After wandering to the market we successfully found bargains here.

    The market is hit and sweaty but crammed with stalls and local craft. The crowds of locals and tourists come to shop

    As we were leaving the Ben Thanh Market we were wandering around and found a beautiful place for lunch called Bep Me In, we had done stunning local spring rolls, beef noodle and beef skewers.

    We continued wandering and explored many areas while avoiding scooters, it's amazing how easy it is to cross the road given the mayhem, we would have liked to see more but the heat meant we were forced to seek beer and wifi

    Next stop Bangkok
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  • This morning started at the very reasonable time of 6:00. We were getting picked up by the tour bus at 7:45, so need to get ourselves in order before then. As we sat in the lobby of the hotel, we waited in the presence of the T&T FC team, who were similarly waiting for a bus to come to pick them up.

    Having been picked up by our tour bus, we headed out of Dong Hot towards Phong Nha Village, about 45 minutes. As we drove through Dong Hoi, we rolled past a small army of men running with AK 47s on dangled over their shoulders. Enquirying as why there would be a large number of men in civilian clothing, running through the middle of town with guns on, we were realiably informed that there is a large army garrison in town, and the men running through town, were in fact the soldier completing their morning PT, complete with guns. The heat and humidity were already pretty stifling, depite the fact it wasn't even 0800, so these guys running through, at a decent pace, were probably not the sore of people you wanted to meet in dark alley.

    Clearing the outskirts of Dong Hoi, we continued into the courtyside, through paddy fields, plantations, and water buffalo making their way to their local field for a bit of munch. The scenery changed around us we drove, turning from flat coastal plain, to undulating hills, to the towering limestone escarpments of the Phong Nha National Park. Arriving at Phong Nha village, it was time to pick up some more people, to fill out the bus, that until that point, included just the tour guide, driver, and the two of us. This was slightly problematic for some reason, but after 15 minutes, the van was loaded, and it was time to head deep into the natural park, to explore its beauty.

    Our first stop on the trip, was the Eight Ladies Cave, so called because of the eight ladies that took shelter there during the Vietnam War when the road the cave is next to, formed part of the great logistical effort that was the Ho Chi Minh Trail. As the road was bombed, the unlucky eight sheltered in the cave, only to be sealed inside what would become their tomb, when a bomb hit the entrance to the cave and collapsed. Those inside survived for days before finally succumbing to their fate. A pretty horrible way to go. Their bodies were only recovered in 1996, and now a temple exists to honour their memory.

    The next stop on the tour was the Paradise Cave. According to the marketing, this is "probably" the third largest cave in the world, and it was only discovered in the past twenty years. So if you want to become an adventurer, and accomplish something no one else has, perhaps consider a spelunking holiday to Vietnam, to search for the entrance of another cave.

    Arriving at the car park, we took to some golf carts, to take us a bit closer to the cave entrance. There was still a 500m walk to go howevr, up the worlds slipperiest, mossy concrete path imaginable. Despite our investment in sensible walking shoes, we both came close to hitting the deck on multiple occasions. And further along the trail, we ran into obstactles of the human kind, that took a special liking to Courtney. A group of Vietnamese ladies was making the trek to Paradise Cave too, and took it upon themselves to variously help Courtney by pushing her in the back, up the hill, and then grabbing hold of the back of Courtney's top, to be jokingly pulled up the mountain. Without the ability to communicate, it was all a bit surreal, and a bit weird. We would spend the next hour or so, trying to avoid this same group of Vietnamese ladies with Courtney hiding in between the three of us whenever they came near, and fortunately, they were able to find some other victims, as time passed.

    Paradise Cave is incredibly large once you get inside through the comparatively tiny 2m by 2m entrance. The main chamber is 1km long, about 50m tall, and maybe 50-100m wide. This was a far more specatular cave than Surprise Cave that we saw in Ha Long Bay. It also provided the opportunity to talk rugby with Will, an English guy on the tour, something that had been lacking from our lives in the previous few weeks. Will's travelling companion, Anja was unimpressed with the turn of the conversation to sports, given the beauty of our surroundings, but only to make sure that conversation turned to a more inclusive topic, which is fair enough I suppose.

    After Paradise Cave, it was time for some lunch before heading into our second cave, the Dark Cave. Lunch was pretty damn delicious, for meat-eaters and vegetarians, and consisted of sharing plates, with ingredients used to construct fresh spring rolls. The quality of the meat was a bit dicey, but it was well cooked, so hopefully, safe enough to eat. No one keeled over in pain later in the day, so it must have been fine.

    Following our hearty lunch, it was time to zip-line across a river to the Dark Cave entrance. This was slightly scary, given the height of the zip-line, but we both made it across the river, only to have to jump into the water immediately to get into the cave. Climbing and crawling your way through a cave system barefoot, with just a helmet and lamp for protection might seem a bit relaxed, but there was method to the madness. You see, the Dark Cave contains within it, a supposedly therapeutic mud, that washes in with the rainy season each year, and to take full advantage of that mud, you can't be wearing that much.

    Crawling, sliding and falling through various side passages, we eventually ended up at a mud bath, which was a rather strange experience. It was liquid, like water, but was so dense that you couldn't sink in it. In fact, if you tried to get your shoulders under the water, you needed the weight of multiple people pushing down on you, because of your positive buoyancy. It would be the ideal place to learn to swim, as the chance of your head finding its way underwater is slim to none. Aside from the physical properties of the medium we found ourselves in, it was could fun to wallow in the mud, like Farmer Brown's prize pigs. A group of 15-20 people, of all ages, reverted to a child-like state for 15-20 minutes, giggling and laughing like school kids.

    Dragging ourselves out the mud, we made our way back to the cave entrance through as much water as we could find to clean ourselves off. Despite our best efforts, we'll be finding mud in the shower, for the next few days, I am sure. We then kayaked back across the river, to the showers, the bus, and civilisation. After some further attempts to clean off the muc, we repaired to some benches to indulge in some rum and coke, as well as conversation with the rest of the tour group.

    And then it was time to head back to the hotel. On the way, we passed over a bridge that had become a makeshift car park for what seemed like 100s of scooters. As it turned out, the group were searching for an 11 year old child that had gon missing from near the bridge. All they found was the school bag, and the assumption was that the child had been swept away by flooding in the area a few days before. Sadly, they were looking for the body.

    Having been reminded of the fragility of life, we arrived back in Phong Nha Village, to offload some of the people on the tour, including Will and Anja. They are travelling to Hue tomorrow, the same as us, so we'll try and catch up with them, once we get there.

    Arriving back at the hotel, we made yet another attempt to clean all the mud off ourselves in the shower. Judging by the state of the shower afterwards, we hadn't done a very good job earlier in the day. And then it was time to get some dinner.

    After the episode with the chicken's head last night, and the very western menu offered in the hotel, we ventured out, into the great wide yonder of Dong Hoi. Unfortunately, I think that in the high season, our hotel is very much a resort hotel, being across the road from the beach. All the other hotels in the area are similar, and so, there aren't too many restaruants to choose from. But after a bit of searching, we did find somewhere to eat, and both had a very nice vegetarian bun, and a couple of drinks. Pudding consisted of a couple of ice Vietnamese coffees.

    And that was the day over.
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  • Yesterday we went to see the famous Vietcong tunnels in Cu Chi. The tunnels themselves were super small. Remarkable if you think that people actually lived down there for years to survive. You can enter in a small section of the tunnels. 3 different levels worth one being so small that we would have had to crawl to move forward. We were to sissy to do that but went into the other two parts where you still we far away from standing up.

    You can see some parts of the old tunnels now made accessible for tourists, like a kitchen, an armory or a hospital. And then you get to see a little 20 minute propaganda video, which is fun for 5 minutes. All in all, the visit was definitely worth it. Some downsides though: a LOT of tourists, some them drinking beer all the way through this museum. Also, they have a shooting range there, where one could fire some guns like ak47 and other stuff. Quite disturbing to wander through a place like this and hear constant gunfire. Or, if you want to phrase it positively, it sets the atmosphere.

    In the evening we met with a couchsurfer who is teaching English at university and his students to speak some English with them. First we had some street food together and then sat down in their class room to just talk. This is supposed to help them build up some confidence in actually talking in English and we think that it is great initiative on the teachers side to make that possible. That was really fun and a great conclusion of the day.
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  • After eating a good Phở (beef noodle soup) for breakfast we directly went to the bus station (yes... we finally didn't go to the war museum...) We decided to go directly to Cần thơ, the major city in the Mekong delta instead of starting by a Mekong delta tour from Saigon which were either private tours and thus too expensive or with a group of 25 people and full of tourist traps. Neither was too appealing.

    We arrived on the afternoon and booked a street food tour on the evening. We were with an Indian family and our guide brought us to different places in the city and explained us typical dishes for real Vietnamese people. In the programme: pork barbecue (that is just the name, no barbecue involved here), special muffins with green beans, pork and shrimps made only in one place (deep fried twice, it can on be excellent ;), eggplant stew, mouse, sticky rice (sweet colored rice in a waffle with coconut and sugar) and... duck embryo (Claire was the only brave one but all wanted to see ;) a very good experience overall! And yes, you also read mouse in that list. A typical dish for the Mekong Delta but less common nowadays because of the pesticides used on rice fields which are the major source of food for mice.
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