Monday, 22 January 2018

Phu My,Vietnam Part 11

Moving on from Da Nang the next stop was Phu My which some cruises advertise as Ho Chi Minh City. It is in fact a couple of hours away but many take a tour there specifically to see the Cu Chi Vietcong tunnels. It was our second visit to this huge working port so we knew what to expect, you need to plan something as there is nothing at all locally. 

The size of some of the container ships is mind boggling, this photo is taken of part of the rear of one of them. The onboard value must be staggering.
The port is own miles from the nearest town but at least there is a free shuttle bus to take you there. That said once there there is little to do but it is a handy place to meet an independent  tour that's been pre-booked as it avoids them having to pay port fees to pick you up at the ship. It's a big saving too,$25pp if I remember correctly.
Last time here we'd decided Ho Chi Minh City was too far and instead arrange a local tour to Vung Tau and it was very good. They now offered a new tour which sounded a good proposition, it was basically a countryside tour but included a visit to some now opened local war tunnels followed by lunch. Just the job I thought and signed up for it. To bring the cost down for me I needed to find 2 other people to join up and in fact I managed three without having to try too hard by contacting a couple of people I'd discovered where on this cruise by signing up for the Cruise Critic website. 
5 was nice number, there was no benefit in having more so I was under the impression that is how many we would be. It wasn't as it happened, there were 7 Australians joining us so the mini bus was full when you added in a local guide and the part owner of the company. We set off on the tour and the guide announced that first we were visiting Vung Tau. I was confused. I asked one of the Australians if they had known they were going to Vung Tau and the guide overhearing me asked if there was a problem. I simply said I hadn't signed up for a tour of Vung Tau. When we arrived though it was a different matter, I cornered the part owner and told her I was really, really annoyed. I didn't want to be there, I had done all this before. I was though aware that the other three who had joined us probably hadn't but they were happy to back me up. We didn't want to see religious sites, giant statues of Christ or the Temple of the Whale.
Fair play, the part owner said her other half had amalgamated the two tours (presumably to make it more cost effective) but no one had told her. She arranged for another mini bus to come and pick us up and joined us in our countryside tour which seemed to annoy the Australians because they ignored us when we finally met up again !
Anyway we didn't care.
Off we went but I did notice we drove at a really slow speed so I had a feeling that she didn't know where she should be taking us or at least how to get there! 
First stop was a traditional coracle making yard... and they weren't trying to sell you one either! Then it was down to the beach to see them in action.
Coracle fishing, Vietnam
Instead of traditional materials they now make them out of fibre glass and even have an outboard motor on the back.
As the sea was a bit rough most were on the beach.
Coracle fishing, Vietnam
Interesting though and a change from the normal temple tour.
Next stop was a local market and first a really refreshing iced coffee.
Iced Coffee
We were the only tourists there and they made you feel really welcome even when photographing them!
Local market, Vietnam
I have to say though I saw the cruelest thing I have ever witnessed amongst the fish and meat stalls.
Local market, Vietnam
Those poor Bullfrogs were skinned alive as they were prepared for the pot.
Local market, Vietnam
I was left quite speechless for a few moments. Awful by my standards but the norm I guess in Vietnam. I gave up eating Frog many years ago when I discovered butchery methods in Europe are just as barbaric.
Anyway, from there we headed to the war tunnels, first calling in at the little museum they have opened on the site.
Vung Tau tunnel museum
The tunnels themselves appear to be as claimed and very authentic, just as they were left 40+ years ago.
Apparently the Americans built their camp right next to the tunnels not knowing they were there and couldn't understand where their attackers vanished to as suddenly as they had appeared! 
Vung Tau tunnels

They apparently stretch for a few miles.
Vung Tau tunnels
There are little, and I mean little , recesses for kitchens and sleeping areas but you can barely stand up in them.
Vung Tau tunnels
With one of our number getting claustrophobic we were all happy to get out after a relatively short distance travelled. Fascinating to see though and definitely preferable to travelling several hours to Cu Chi.
That done it was the lunch venue next. 
The owners of the tour company have purchased a small holding and now they grow all their own produce, well as much as they can anyway.
We were offered a warm foot bath each which was unexpected and seemed rather an odd thing to me but why not! When we were offered cold beers it got even better ( despite the expression on Chris's face!)
Next it was lunch and just as it was on my previous tour with them, it was excellent.

Vietnamese lunch
I could have stayed longer, there was birdlife to see in the paddy fields we were overlooking but sadly it was time to return to the ship.
Rice paddy, Vietnam
What had started off rather badly ended up well anyway. Everyone enjoyed a slightly different day.


Friday, 19 January 2018

Da Nang and Hoi An,Vietnam Part 10.

We woke up to a pleasant morning in Chan May port, judging by the state of the decks there had been a considerable amount of rain during the night but as long as it stayed at night that would be fine by us! It was pretty humid though and the camera lens kept on misting over until it warmed up outside.
Chan May,   Vietnam
Chan May port isn't the biggest of ports, in fact it's small and not the main port for Da Nang I don't think. It's set in a back drop of pretty countryside and it seems the biggest movement of cargo is tarmac for road surfacing. 
It's not really geared up for cruise ships but I have a feeling that will possibly change. Tourism appears to be a big growth industry in Vietnam and Chan May is handily placed for Hoi An ,Hue and even Hanoi.
One or two enterprising locals have opened makeshift bars and set up stalls selling clothing and other souvenirs however the most enterprising appear to be the police or whoever else it is that wears military style uniforms and man the port entrance.
I mentioned that taxis were few and far between here, that's because they have to pay a bribe to be allowed to pick up fares. We set off on our tour bus and I had a bird's eye view of the tour guide handing over a wad of cash to one of the officials just below my seat on the coach. We were asked for $5 per person and there were quite a few on the coach, and several coach loads were waiting too. A very lucrative little number on the side.
Anyway it was all aboard our bus and ready to go on our tour. It seems the numbers had steadily grown and we now had one small coach and a mini bus in the party run by the same operator.
Although we heard there was far less room on the mini bus as every seat was taken, the larger vehicle was disadvantaged when it came to parking places.
Our first stop in fact was almost within spitting distance of the pick up place at Chan May. A coffee stop just around the corner but fair play in a very scenic spot overlooking the bay.
There in the distance a photo shoot.
Chan May,   Vietnam
I rather think it was a pro modelling shoot.
Chan May,   Vietnam
Surely no one gets married at that time of day!
Now much to my frustration I don't seem to be much good at landscape pictures but as there were no birds I settled for having a crack at these boats.
Chan May,   Vietnam
I am copying shots I have seen elsewhere probably, certainly with the first one.
Chan May,   Vietnam
but I have to admit I was rather pleased with myself when I looked at the results!
Chan May,   Vietnam
Maybe the composition needs looking at on the last one!
Anyway, coffee over we headed off the long way over the mountain side to get to Da Nang. There were some fabulous views but we didn't stop as presumably parking was the problem Apparently the mini bus had their coffee break up there somewhere.
Our first stop was near the bottom of the pass to watch a train go past.
Da Nang   Vietnam
Damn that sign!
The mountainside was lush and green and it seems unimaginable that once not so long ago the US Air Force was dropping napalm on the very same spot.
It's ironic really that a terrible episode in history has now become a source of tourist revenue.
Strange world we live in isn't it.
Da Nang   Vietnam
By now we were about half way to Da Nang, we'd set off from beyond the hillside jutting out in to the sea in the last shot.
First stop on arriving in Da Nang was to take some photos of the vast fishing fleet. There were 100's but they were all in port as the weather hadn't been the best.
Fishing fleet,Da Nang   Vietnam
A row of parked motorcycles was just a typical scene in the Far East, bikes and motorbikes are the normal transport mode for the majority.
Da Nang   Vietnam
Next stop was China Beach which made it's name as the place the US soldiers went for R&R between their duties.
China Beach,Da Nang   Vietnam
We stood there for 15 minutes with little point really, I got the feeling the guide was just padding out the tour.
There was big billboard nearby which reminded that the recent APEC conference had taken place here. Donald had been here the week before, thankfully we missed him.
China Beach,Da Nang   Vietnam
We didn't miss the opportunity for another of those artisan stops though.
The Marble Factory and showrooms.
Marble Mountain,Da Nang   Vietnam
The range of models on offer was huge.
Marble Mountain,Da Nang   Vietnam
Marble Mountain,Da Nang   Vietnam
How anyone gets one home locally I wouldn't know, certainly not suitable for a foreign purchase anyway!
In fairness they did have small objects on offer but as you can see the sales staff where not exactly run off their feet!
Marble Mountain,Da Nang   Vietnam
These showrooms were one of several that were situated below the tourist attraction that is "Marble Mountain"
You get up there in a lift then wander through a collection of temples and religious statues.
Hoi An    Vietnam
Marble Mountain,Da Nang   Vietnam
There is a network of caves too but we didn't get the opportunity to explore, not that I wanted to anyway.
Marble Mountain,Da Nang   Vietnam
No, we left and drove on to Hoi An and a booking for lunch.
Fair play it was excellent.
Hoi An,   Vietnam
The food just kept on coming, all of it delicious even if it was a bit messy to eat!
All this endless supply of food for a few dozen people was prepared on the simplest of kitchens too.
Hoi An    Vietnam
Excellent though it was, it was also noticeable it was one of the few really good meals we had during our months tour and nearly all that were were ones that had been organised or taken independently.
Lunch was without doubt the highlight of the day.
Next we walked down to the river to board a boat for a short trip of around 500m. 
Hoi An    Vietnam
We visited a building site or was it a sand depository?
Hoi An,   Vietnam
We passed quite a few sand filled barges along the way. it was incredulous they hadn't sunk they were so low in the water!
Hoi An,   Vietnam
Anyway, the only other thing of note was how high the recent foods had reached just a few weeks ago. You wouldn't have guessed it as everything seemed very normal in the town.
Hoi An    Vietnam
I could have happily walked around the colourful streets that were full of interesting shops, cafes and bars but our tour took us instead to the major tourist highpoint.
The Chinese Bridge.... or was it Japanese?
Hoi An,   Vietnam
The oldest house in town.... perhaps?
Hoi An,   Vietnam
Shame on me for not paying attention.
We also visited a temple, I really don't like temples, before the guide called us together and asked what we should do next.
A choice of wandering under on own for 30 minutes or all follow him to the silk factory and shop.
Some were in favour of wandering alone and that's when the guide pulled a trump card and told us the chances of getting lost and separated would greatly increase if we split up and besides it was much further to meet the bus if we went alone too.
One Australian tourist hit panic mode and was asking what time we intended leaving as we needed to get back soon to make sure we didn't miss the ship's sailing time. this must have galvanised everyone into accepting defeat and visiting anther artisan tourist attraction.
I hate them. It's the downside of so many tours. Maybe they are necessary to invent something to take people to see? However, Hoi An had plenty had we simply gone on our own and not taken a tour at all. The cost of $120 charged for the tour would easily have covered a taxi there and back and our time would probably have been better utilised.
You live and learn!
Anyway, the one thing these tour guides can be sure to do is to get you back to your ship in plenty of time. Their reputation and future business depends on it.
We came back the fast was through the longest road tunnel in Asia!
Longest road tunnel in Asia!   Vietnam
With time to spare we had a couple of cheap beers on the dockside before boarding the ship to set sail and enjoying a superb sunset too.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Chan May Port, Vietnam... Part 9

Sailing south our next port of call was Da Nang, famous for it's being a major base for the USA's war activities back in the 70's. It was made even more famous by the film "Good Morning Vietnam".
We however weren't actually docking in Da Nang, in fact we were about 40 miles away at the industrial port of Chan May. Not exactly a cheap taxi ride but that was if you could get one, we had been told they were not allowed in to the port.
We had planned to do our own thing when we arrived but in the end decided the best option was to sign up for an organised tour we had found a fellow passenger had arranged. That though would be on the second day, we had an overnight stop following our early afternoon arrival.
The ship or port or more likely, a local resort hotel paid for a free shuttle bus as this was where you were dropped off. We  were fortunate to be at the front of the huge queue and so didn't have too long to get on a bus
When we got to the drop off point there were lots of mini buses and taxis all touting for trade. Our friends we'd met at the bar in Cai Lan were ahead of us and negotiated a minibus trip for $25 pp but we declined their offer to go along on the grounds we were doing that the following day. We opted to wander the street ( it was just one long dual carriageway road ) and see if we could find a chemist as Claire needed some antibiotics for a head cold.
The shops we found certainly didn't sell anything like that but we did discover there was a chemist in the next township. Hiring a taxi we had a successful mission then returned to find a place for a beer. Instead of going in to the resort we found a "Bar" . I say "Bar" but really it was a shop of sorts that sold beers and had a few plastic chairs outside. The owner put some cans in his freezer and we passed an hour or two sat alongside the traffic! Hardly inspiring but very cheap!
There was some wildlife too, well a few Mynah Birds.

Common Myna   Acridotheres tristis
and this Gekko that I watched climb out of it's hiding spot in broad daylight.
It slowly walked down the wall then stopped a few inches from it's target, a small spider that was heading his way.
I thought the Gekko would suddenly pounce but no, it sat there perfectly still until the spider reached it. Then the extraordinary thing was the Gekko opened it's mouth and the Spider climbed in!
End of Spider.
That was nearly the end of our day too. We wandered back to the shuttle bus stop, had a beer at the resort then headed back to the ship for another night on board.
Next morning we were off on our tour!

Halong Bay, Vietnam..... Part 8

After a day at sea we arrived in Cal Lan Bay, Vietnam. We had an included tour to take here but first we had to get off the ship.
We had been sent the following instructions for the ports of call where a trip was included!

 IMPORTANT NOTE: It has not been possible to arrange for group disembarkation times on board the Sapphire Princess. When you board the ship, please proceed to Guest Services and request the below disembarkation times. This is the easiest way to ensure that all passengers in your group disembark at a similar time, so that we do not keep your coach(es) waiting. 
- 14-Nov: 8:00-8:30am (your transfer is due to depart Hong Kong Port at 9:30am) 
- 16-Nov: 5:30-6:00am (your transfer is due to depart Cai Lan Port at 7:00am) 
- 22-Nov: 5:30-6:00am (your transfer is due to depart Laem Chabang Port at 7:00am) 

- 27-Nov: 8:30-9:00am (your transfer is due to depart Singapore Port at 10:00am) 

We knew these instructions were unacceptable before we had left home and had had to send a letter to the tour agents telling them a) the ship wasn't due to arrive and drop anchor until 7.00am and b) as it was a tender port we might be somewhat delayed in getting off the ship. The answer we got was basically do your best! Not a good solution at all.
Fortunately most of the passengers who were taking cruise ship organised excursions were boarding their junk boats directly from the ship and didn't need a tender. Someone in our group of 69 ( yes the two we'd left behind in Cambodia had successfully made their way to Hong Kong to board the ship) had somehow managed to get a group disembarkation time for us so we virtually all got off the ship at the same time without too much delay. A coach was waiting to take us to our departure place which involved a drive through the local town which seems to be in the middle of a major upheaval, They are planning big things for Halong Bay as a major cruise ship destination as well as land based visits too. A new airport is being built too apparently.
If you are not familiar with Halong Bay, it's considered one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World as designated by UNESCO.
This is what the tour brochure had promised!
False promise!
This is what we got!
No... not the one in front, the bigger one behind. Not exactly looking like the brochure photo though is it! Some more deception on the advertising front in my opinion!
There was an armada setting sail on this grey foggy morning.
Apparently it's very common to have poor visibility, especially first thing.
The waters though were pretty uninviting and appeared very polluted which is hardly surprising as 1000 boats are licensed to sail around these waters.
We were heading for some caves where they are expecting more and more tourists to arrive in the future and they are busy expanding the landing stage.
Halong Bay  Vietnam
A walk around the circuit to see the illuminated stalagmites and stalactites which were lit up colourfully 

Halong Bay  Vietnam
then it was off to a rustic fishing village to delve into the culture and customs of the local inhabitants! Well maybe not, we did stop at a man made beach where you could go for a swim and I seem to remember there was a rather incongruous statue to a Russian Cosmonaut built there, not sure why. There were a few gift shops too but no sign of a fishing boat! Nobody fancied taking a dip in the water either it was pretty filthy.
My overall impression wasn't that high, on a nicer day the limestone karsts might have looked better, in fact as we returned to our port of departure the sun did brighten up a bit.
Halong Bay  Vietnam
Somehow I couldn't see the waters ever turning emerald green as we had had described in our cruise plan but you never know.
I have a feeling things will only get worse though unless someone takes the initiative to protect what is potentially a stunning seascape. They even celebrate it on one of their bank notes.
Halong Bay  Vietnam
Halong Bay  Vietnam
200,000 dong! You don't need to be minted to own one though, there are 30,000 to just £1!
In fairness we did get served a nice seafood lunch on board and I did see one solitary Pacific Reef Egret, the only one of the whole tour.
Pacific Reef-egret Egretta Sacra. Vietnam

Overhead a few Black kites too making challenging photography in those light conditions.
Black Kite  Milvus migrans
The Kites of course are scavengers so I presume quite a lot gets thrown overboard from the boats that sail there. One hopes it's just organic matter that gets chucked in to the sea.
It was an OK day, not the best, not the worst. Mind you I could have done without the obligatory visit to an artisan craft centre.
here it was all about cultured pearls which I found rather distasteful when you see what happens to a poor oyster.
Eventually we got back to the tender port in Cai Lan and while most headed straight towards the tenders, Claire and I thought we'd find a bar.
And find we did. One with a grandstand view over the bay, the river and the illuminated bridge.
Cai Lan  Vietnam
and the nearby "big wheel" which didn't seem to be operating.
With drinks a fraction of the cost of the ship's bars we stayed quite a while in the company of another canny couple we met there!