Posts Tagged With: ho chi minh

2nd June – Day 14 – Planes, Cyclos and Sunsets

Today was our last flight of the tour – after this it’s busses, tuktuks and our own bookings. The timing was odd today, since our flight route (Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh) is an infrequent one – we actually ended up booked onto Qatar Airways who do a two leg flight between Doha and PP – stopping in Ho Chi Minh. This had one great advantage for us which was that the plane was a Boeing 787-800 – a ridiculously over-specified plane for the 25 minute flight! It was huge, and almost empty – I had my own row in the cabin, as did most of the group!

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Empty plane

Our flight was actually at 15:30, so the whole morning was lost to hotel time and currency exchange – I took my remaining Vietnamese dong to the local currency exchange and swapped to USD, which is the main currency in Cambodia. It was nice to have a lazy morning in the hotel after so many early starts and I made use of it to buy a Vietnam t-shirt as well as some postcards.

Once we made it to the airport, leaving Vietnam was easy – just a stamp in the passport – and we had a ton of time to kill. I had a small meal and a coffee, and still made it to the gate before the plane had even landed from Doha. Shortly after it landed, we were ready for boarding – and after what seemed like no time at all, we were in Phnom Penh.

The Cambodian visa process was a little more complicated – there were 3 forms to fill out and we had to queue up for our visa on arrival, in a chaotic system which involved handing over your passport and photo as well as one of the forms and then waiting for your name to be called out (or your passport held up, if they couldn’t say your name) before going up and paying the $30 visa fee and collecting your passport. The system worked, but it was slow and a little stressful compared to the other immigration processes in the trip. Still, my passport is filling up nicely now!

After we regrouped in the airport, we headed to our bus transfer to the hotel – which was a pretty large bus considering we’re a group of 9 people! Our hotel in Phnom Penh is our most basic of the tour, and Dek had warned us not to expect huge luxury – thankfully he warned us because the hotel was really fairly basic. My room had 3 beds in it, and a huge shower room, but that’s about the only good things – the air conditioning never really got the room cool (until 2am, when I would wake up freezing)!

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3 beds to myself

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Swimming pool

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Beer ‘fridge’

By now we were all getting desperate for our washing to be done, and this hotel offered washing at $3 for half a bag, or $6 for a whole bag. The bags were huge, so I threw all my dirty stuff in there and handed it in – we’re here 2 nights so there’s time to get it back before we leave.

At 5pm we met up for another Cyclo tour (noticing a theme here yet??) where we were lucky enough to catch Sunset hour. I love taking photos at sunset.

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Another cyclo tour

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Kiwi mart

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The sunset was beautiful

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Sun setting over the US embassy

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A famous nun

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More sunset

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The central market

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Proud of this photo

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The king of Cambodia, Nordom Sihamoni

 

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More celebrations of the new king

 

This cyclo tour was supported by an NGO which runs the scheme to encourage underprivileged Cambodians into work and it took us past some of the major sites of Phenom Penh. The city actually has quite a few sites, but they’re spread out which means that a tuktuk or cyclo is definitely required to get between them. The hotel is surprisingly close to the Royal Palace and National Museum of Cambodia however, so both of those could be on the hit list if we have time (they’re not on our tour however).

The Cyclos dropped us off in front of the Royal Palace and Dek showed us a big monument to the new King who was crowned a little while ago. He told us that the Cambodian people are a little worried about this King, because he is unmarried and really likes ballet…

The Royal Palace is located on the edge of the river, and we walked up the riverfront which had a really nice vibe to it – a few tourists but also a lot of locals just hanging out by the water and relaxing. Dek had booked us a table at another training restaurant, where locals are taught to be chefs and waiting staff. The food here was okay, although they were unable to cook my first or second choice so I ended up with steamed vegetables and rice – a little disappointing but extremely cheap! Even with a starter and 2 beers, the whole meal came to $9!

After the meal, we walked back to the hotel and to bed – in a room which I couldn’t get cool. Hmm, see you tomorrow… One way or another.

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1st June – Day 13 – Tunnels, Traps and Tapioca

After a brilliant nights sleep in the wonderful Continental hotel Saigon, I headed for an early breakfast at 7:15 and was amazed at the huge buffet selection on offer. One great thing the French brought to Vietnam is bread – there were authentic French baguettes and pastries which were a welcome change to the usual scrambled egg buffets in most of our hotels.

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A truly ‘Continental’ breakfast

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Beautiful location for breakfast

At around 8 we met again with our local guide, Tiger, to head to the Cu Chi Tunnels – around a 2 hour journey outside the city. The bus ride was fairly boring but we had a chance to look out the window and see more of rural Vietnam, although we already did 8 hours on busses in Hanoi so this was beginning to feel monotonous rather than exciting. Tiger gave us some summaries of the Cu Chi tunnels whilst we travelled, and also offered us the option to visit a lacquered wood store for disadvantaged families, although after our negative experience of the statue place in Hanoi, we declined this offer and this seemed to upset Tiger.

We arrived at the tunnels and joined a sizeable queue to get into the entrance before Tiger took us to one side to begin our private tour. I have to say that this tour was actually fairly bad – it felt like Tiger was rushing us around, each time we stopped he would reel off a few facts about whatever we were looking at and then immediately walk us to the next location. There was a lot to see, and I can understand that it’s somewhat upsetting to discuss some of the history of the wars, but if you’re a tour guide you should probably be okay with discussing it.

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Rushing around Cu Chi tunnels

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Tiger on the run again

If you don’t know, the Cu Chi tunnels are a 200km tunnel system constructed by Vietnamese Communiststs (Viet Cong) to give them a hiding place from the American soldiers. They were pretty impressive, with 3 levels of tunnels upto 9 meters deep, as well as a series of traps which they constructed to catch the Americans. The traps in particular were really uncomfortable to look at – some involved really horrible injuries or deaths for the soldiers who were unfortunate to step on the wrong part of the jungle.

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A demo of the tiny spaces the vietnamese left for them to enter the tunnel system

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The place was crawling with millipedes

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A small exposed section of the tunnels

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A US army tank which was destroyed by Viet Cong

The whole tour took place in fairly thick jungle and the soundscape was punctuated by regular gunshot sounds from a shooting range at the mid-point where they offer the opportunity to pay to shoot some of the guns used in the war. I actually quite strongly disagreed with this offer, since it feels weird that the Vietnamese would encourage foreigners to shoot guns in a place where their own people spent so much effort to avoid the gunfire just a few years ago. The shots were about 35,000 dong per bullet, with a minimum charge of 10 bullets – making the activity not only immoral but also expensive. I declined this opportunity although a few of the group did take them up on this, and I winced as the deafening sounds came from their guns towards the targets.

Also on the tour we saw some of the ways that the Viet Cong were able to survive for days or even weeks in the tunnels – they had small kitchens set up with ventilation systems to distribute the smoke so that the Americans weren’t able to detect them. We were even given a chance to try the standard food they cooked – Tapioca root with salt, sugar and peanuts as a dipping sauce, as well as some green tea. This was actually pretty tasty, although I’m not sure I’d want to eat it every day for 3 weeks!

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Cu Chi tunnels, under ground. I lasted 40 meters before giving up due to the heat.

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Tapioca and peanut dip

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Uncle Ho

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A site plan

At the end of the tour, which seemed to come really quickly thanks to Tigers rushed displays, we found a gift shop and members of the group bought some beautiful wind chimes and things like that – I don’t have enough space in my bag for these big things, but I bought a round of beers for everyone (it was definitely my turn). We jumped back onto the bus and a couple of hours later were back at the hotel – around 2 hours before Dek had told us we would be back, which gave us a real indication of just how quickly we had been rushed around the tour. I wonder if our declining the Lacquered wood shop had really upset Tiger, or if perhaps he just didn’t really like us or something. Either way, we gave him a small customary tip but discussed with Dek afterwards how we felt about this part of the tour.

The rest of the day was recharge time, but Dek had helped me, Karl and Petra to book an optional activity – a Water Puppet show which is a traditional Vietnamese activity. We grabbed a taxi to the theatre (even the taxis are crazy cheap here – just over $1 for a 15 minute ride) and took our seats for a really fun hour of puppetry in a small lake constructed on stage. The show had a really simple story to it, which was provided in the program in English, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, French and a couple of other languages – yet we could easily enjoy the spectacle with the live band accompanying around 10 live puppeteers and their clever little puppets. It was impressive to see this, and also make links to the water fountain displays at the Wynn in Las Vegas which I’m sure used parts of this show as their influence.

After the water puppet show, I headed to the local backpacker street for a small dinner before going to the hotel. It was a really nice evening and Saigon is definitely a city I want to come back to and explore more – I can’t believe we move on to our next country tomorrow morning already!

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Some fried rice for dinner

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31st May – Day 12 – Good morning, Vietnam

After last nights fun cycle tour and dinner, I slept really well and woke up at 6am naturally. These mornings are really becoming normal now!
After a small breakfast at 7, we met in the hotel lobby at 8:15 to head to the airport for our flight to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Dek had given us a little longer in the hotel than he normally would, so we had a short wait in the airport before the flight – I bought a small sandwich and some green tea because the in-flight meals haven’t exactly been glorious so far!

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A step up from the inflight options, believe me

During the flight I went through my Peru photos with Karl and Petra, who are considering a trip to Peru as their next adventure. It was fun to relive the memories of that trip and to share it with some new friends.

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Obligatory plane selfie

The flight was fairly short and as expected, we were presented with a terrible in flight meal. I enjoyed my egg sandwich instead, and shortly after we landed in Ho Chi Minh City, better known as Saigon. The city was renamed after the Vietnam war to honour the leader of the time, who still holds mountains of respect in the country.

One really weird thing about our arrival was that one of the first planes we saw when we touched down was a US air force transport plane.  It resounded with us just how monumental this could be, coming just a week after Barak Obamas visit in which he agreed to sell arms to the Vietnamese forces again. Perhaps this plane was carrying a shipment?

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An ominous delivery?

A short transfer in the airport and we were headed to our hotel – the Continental Hotel in District 1. District 1 is really fancy, and the hotel is stunning – it’s actually where all of the western journalists were based during the Vietnam war, so it’s got a pile of history itself. I was amused to see that Saigon is divided into districts, which reminded me of the Hunger Games – perhaps an unfortunate coincidence in a communist country.

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The continental hotel

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My room

Across the road from our hotel was an ATM and I easily withdrew 2 million dong to cover the next few days activities, then headed to my room to cool down before our first activity of the day. It’s really great how they pile these activities into travel days, so you’re not wasting any time in a new city.

At 3pm we met for our cyclo tour of the city – our second cyclo tour in as many days! Our guide in Saigon is called Tiger and he guided us around the city as we stopped in various locations. The first stop was at the Vietnam War Remnants museum, which had some US army helicopter and tanks outside. We were only given 30 minutes in the museum which was quite disappointing as it was nowhere near enough time to explore the whole place and in order to get a feel for it, we had to skim over a lot of the exhibits. It was actually pretty harrowing to read the local perspective on the war and hear some of the stories of the events of the war. I’m not going to cover too much of my opinion here, but there’s no denying that the after effects of the war are being felt by the Vietnamese people today and onwards.

Our next stop on the tour was “Reunification Palace” which has served as a royal palace as well as a political palace and was famous during the Vietnam war as the place where the gates were closed and helicopters lifted around a thousand Vietnamese out of the country during the ending of the war. We only had a chance for photos here before moving on with our Cyclos.

The next stop with our Cyclos was the Cathedral in Saigon which was built by the French in the style of Notre Dame. It’s really interesting how the occupants of these countries imposed their own religious style and beliefs upon the locals during the colonial times, and there are still many Catholics in Vietnam because of the French occupancy.

After our photos and explanations at the cathedral, we crossed the road to the Post Office – our final stop on the tour. The Post Office was historically very important in Vietnam and again the building style was very European, yet in the centre of the building was a huge portrait of Ho Chi Minh. Now it’s a tourist attraction, with tons of small shops selling Vietnamese souvenirs at inflated prices.

Once we were photo’d out, our Cyclos brought us back to the hotel where we had a couple of hours to cool off and change before dinner. The hotel is in a really great location, so I was happy to relax there but used my time to go out to a local coffee shop.

At 7 we met Dek for a short walk to our dinner location – the famous Pho 2000, which was made famous by Bill Clinton visiting in the year 2000 (not sure what the name was before then) – this was seen by the Vietnamese as a huge sign of respect and the start of rebuilding their relations with the Americans. In the restaurant (which was a little place up the stairs at the back of a coffee shop), there are photos of Bill Clintons visit and the table where he sat has details of what they ordered. I chose the Vegetable Pho and a pineapple juice, and the food was really good – authentic and flavourful. Thankfully that place hasn’t turned into a huge tourist trap, and there were locals enjoying the food too.

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Pho 2000

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Pho fit for a president

After our dinner we walked around the Night Market where the sellers seemed really desperate and pushy – grabbing onto us and trying to lure us into their stalls where they all sell pretty much the same t-shirts. I like the Vietnam t-shirts but don’t really want to be pushed into it, so I’ll probably come back tomorrow alone when hopefully they will be a little less pushy!

For our journey tomorrow, Dek has warned us that there aren’t as many lunch opportunities so we stopped in a little convenience store to buy some snacks for the journey – I bought a pack of dried pineapple and some drinks, plus a bottle of ‘English Breakfast Tea’ – mainly because I really want to see how awful it is!

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It was predictably disgusting

It’s another 8am start tomorrow, so we headed to bed early-ish. I like Saigon, it’s got a real buzz about it.

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May 29th – Day 10 – Ha… Long Day!

Today was another early start – a 5:45am alarm to be precise. Don’t come on this holiday if you like lie- ins!!

I had requested an iron from the hotel the night before, and was told they would bring it at 6, since the housekeeping staff weren’t working at night. It never came, so I put on a crinkled shirt and went down for breakfast. These hotel breakfasts are so impressive but I’m eating less and less at them- I guess it’s natural that you don’t need to overindulge when each day there is more and more amazing food!

Duc Lee introduces himself

Duc Lee introduces himself

At 6:30 we met our guide for Hanoi and Ha Long Bay – Duk Lee.  He’s local to Hanoi and works for a third party tour company who G-adventures contract in Vietnam (Wide Eye Tours). He arrived a little bit late so we were already getting onto the minibus before his introduction, but we had a short ride before the first stop – Ho Chi Minhs mausoleum. It was only a few minutes ride from the hotel, and once we got out of the bus we had a lot of queuing and waiting around for permission to go for our visit.

The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum

The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum

Me at the Mausoleum

Me at the Mausoleum

Soldiers at the mausoleum

Soldiers at the mausoleum

Delivering flowers for Ho Chi Minh

Delivering flowers for Ho Chi Minh

The flowers in place

The flowers in place

Duc Lee gives us information about the national pride in Ho Chi Minh

Duc Lee gives us information about the national pride in Ho Chi Minh

It was an amazing place to visit. We didn’t have time to actually go into the mausoleum itself, since the queue can be 3-4 hours even if you arrive at 7am – instead we just visited the outside which in itself was imposing and impressive. The building was designed by the Russians and it had a truly communist feel. Visitors travel from across Vietnam daily to pay their respects to Ho Chi Minh and to deliver flowers and gifts to him. They have a special ‘VIP’ queue which is only a couple of hours, for those from hill tribes who make a special effort to get there – sometimes travelling 2-3 days to get to the mausoleum.  It’s hard to overemphasise the presence Ho Chi Minh has here, even posthumerously.

Our visit was relatively short since we had a long journey ahead – 4 hours infact, to get to Ha Long Bay. By 7:45 we were on the road, settling down in our air conditioned bus for the long slog.

En-route we stopped at a rest stop run by a statue manufacturer, who tried to sell us huge statues and offered shipping around the world. I bought some water.

En-route we stopped at a rest stop run by a statue manufacturer, who tried to sell us huge statues and offered shipping around the world. I bought some water.

The bus ride wasn’t the most amazing part of the trip – I processed some of the photos from earlier and in the trip and watched a movie on my iPad, as well as napping a little. It was interesting to see all the streets of Vietnam passing by, with their motorcycle obsession and amazing use of space – there were all sorts of shops on the road side, hoping for weary travelers to stop by and buy whatever weird thing they were selling.

After just over 4 hours we arrived at the pier for our boat cruise in Ha Long Bay. There were hundreds of boats parked up and our bus drove past most of them to arrive at our cruise, which was parked up right at the end. I half expected to end up in a dinghy after we passed some huge cruise boats and the boats decreased in size but Duc explained that our boat is only for us, so it’s quite a small one since we’re only 10 people.

Arriving at the boat

Arriving at the boat

Boarding our ride for the next 2 days

Boarding our ride for the next 2 days

A welcome drink

A welcome drink

After a quick toilet stop on land, we boarded our junk boat for the overnight cruise.The junk boats name comes from the French Junk, not the English Junk – they’re wooden boats. We were presented with a welcome drink made with passion fruit and then we were shown to our rooms before we embarked on our journey.

My room on the junk boat

My room on the junk boat

I had my own room, complete with two single beds, life jacket, hammer, torch and private bathroom.  It was actually pretty cosy and I settled down there for a few minutes before our lunch was served on the middle deck.

As well as being crew to the boat, the cruise staff also doubled as waiting staff, barman and chef and the food was actually really impressive – fresh seafood for most and tofu for me, with rice, vegetables and lots of other things. By the end of lunch I felt stuffed!

Lunch is served

Lunch is served

Lunch in progress

Lunch in progress

As we ate lunch, the boat cruised out to the famous islands and we all agreed that this was probably the most spectacular scenery we’d all eaten in.  The meal was accompanied with a free glass of wine, and then we had a choice to buy more from the bar if we wanted – the barman kept a tab for each of our rooms and we could settle at the end, just like a hotel.

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Ha Long Bay really is spectacular

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Steve and Fred chill out on deck

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We had boats in front and behind us, but everyone kept their distance so it didn’t feel crowded

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Some of the islands have names, such as this one which is meant to be a cockerels head

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Boat selfie with my terrible hat

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Steve offered to take my photo with a nice island behind me and I ended up with this

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It would be rude not to try the Ha Long beer whilst in such an amazing setting

Once lunch was done we got some really nice relaxing cruise time in with the stunning scenery accompanying us.  Dek and Duc (I only just realised that when writing this up) interjected occasionally with facts and comments about the bay (there are over 1300 islands!) but in general it was just chilled out and relaxing – a huge change from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi the night before.

In the early afternoon our boat pulled in to a small habour and we disembarked to go visit the Thien Cung caves, which are a small set of caves open to visitors for 50,000 dong ($2) per visit.

The caves were discovered a couple of decades ago and when they were found, they were occupied by monkeys.  Now they’ve been cleared out and lit and turned into a pretty spectacular tourist attraction, which was totally unexpected! The cool but humid air was a welcome break from the heat of the bay too.

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Enetting the caves, we had no idea what to expect beyond some rocks…

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The first chamber was quite cool, but a fairly normal cave

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As we progressed deeper the colours became more vibrant and my selfies became more arty

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The ceiling was amazing

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Enetting the third chamber the vista was incredible

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The humidity created a constant mist near the entrance which looked so cool, it was like being a psychedelic kids dream

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The cave actually went quite far back

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The top of the cave (near the exist) gave a really incredible view of Ha Long Bay

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Obligatory “I was actually there” photo

Unfortunately whilst enjoying the caves, one of our group (Fred) stepped backwards off a small pathway and fell and hurt his wrist.  We won’t know how serious it is until we get back to land tomorrow, but he seems to be in quite a lot of pain – but Dec responded brilliantly taking him down to the boat immediately and getting it on ice, whilst Duc looked after us through the rest of the cave. I really admire a company like Gadventures in a situation like this, taking care and calming the situation whilst still ensuring that everyone is enjoying themselves (even Fred seemed to be enjoying himself although with a slightly limp wrist once we got back on the boat – I suspect a break 😦 )

After the caves, we had a choice of optional activities – kayaking or being rowed by someone else into a small lagoon.  Jackie and I chose to do the kayaking, whilst the rest of the group took the rowing option – wimps! The kayaking was so much fun!!! We jumped into the kayak which was brought alongside the boat by a local guy and then off we went – through a small tunnel and into the lagoon.  We actually got to kayak for ages – around 90 minutes – for 250,000 dong ($12!)

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Jackie had the front of the kayak

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Our ‘instructor’ couldn’t speak English and kept his distance – pretty sure he was just there to save our lives if we did something dumb

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Kayaking was amazing!

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Jackie in the tunnel

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Me in silhouette in the tunnel

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In the lagoon chilling

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Jackie jumped in, even though swimming isn’t really allowed there

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I promise I didn’t push her!

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The sunset started whilst we were out on the water, it was so beautiful

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Towards the end we found another tunnel and some amazing rock structures.

By the time kayaking was finished, it was almost sunset and Jackie and I had to chase the main boat back to our mooring position to finish our kayaking adventure.  This was by far one of my highlights of the trip – even if I and my camera were absolutely soaking by the end of it.

After we showered and cleaned up from the kayaking it was time for dinner, which was similar to lunch but still impressive being served on a boat in the middle of the ocean.  We all enjoyed it and as we ate, the sun set to give us amazing vista of the other boats in the area. We finished dinner with some drinks from the bar and a spot of squid fishing until the generator on the boat had a bit of a fit and the light to attract the squid conked out, putting an abrupt end to that activity.

My favourite part of the night was heading up to the top deck sun loungers to lie and look up to the stars.  Since we were so far from land, the sky was clear and there were thousands of stars in the sky to enjoy.  You don’t get a photo of that though, because a moving boat doesn’t make an awesome tripod.

What a wonderful and relaxing day. I went to bed super happy.

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Goodnight all

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Relections in the bay

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