Photofucket

When I started this blog in 2011 I had no idea that one day all the photographs on it would suddenly disappear.

But that’s exactly what happened after the site that hosts my shots, Photobucket, arbitrarily decided that it would no longer allow 3rd party photo hosting free of charge. That’s fair enough, you might think. Nothing’s free these days; there’s always some sort of trade off. And with Photobucket, there was. Users had to sit through adverts while their photos uploaded. (Using an adblocker slowed the whole process down, and in any case I can hardly object to adverts in my line of work).

But Photobucket clearly wasn’t satisfied with the revenue they accrued from ads. They wanted more. A lot more. And they could have got it, too, if they had emailed their users and explained that they were introducing an annual fee of, say, $25 or even $50. I’d have paid that; so would many others. But if the people at Photobucket did any business modelling to predict the likely income resulting from various subscription levels, they clearly didn’t follow it. Instead they just thought of a huge number – $400 – and decided they were going to charge everyone that.

Even worse, there was no prior announcement. Owners of sites and blogs simply woke up one morning in July to find that all their photos had disappeared and been replaced by this:Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 10.01.22

A visit to the link revealed that, unless I paid $400, I’d never see my photos again. Well, I could, but no one visiting this blog (or the ones here or here) would be able to. That’s a basically a ransom demand. Is it illegal? Probably not. Does it make good business sense? God, no. But it does mean I’m going to have to download all the 500+ photos I’ve uploaded to Photobucket over the years. I’m learning that this takes ages.

Then the real work begins

If I want to repopulate 10 years’ worth of blog posts, I’ll then have to:

  • Find a new 3rd party photo hosting website that’s either free or which doesn’t charge silly money. That’s NOT silly money
  • Reload all my photos to this new site, one blog post at a time
  • Match each shot to the position in the post in which it appeared
  • Copy and paste the link
  • Remove the ‘ransom demand’ notice
  • Wish I’d made a note of the original caption before removing the ransom demand notice
  • Repeat 500 times

Any suggestions as to how I can shorten this process will be received with bags of gratitude.

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Indochina 2016 – Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City

Days 21 – 24

This is the end, beautiful friend.

Oh yes. But first, two things to clear up. Why is it called ‘Indochina’? It’s not India and it’s not China. Why not call it South-East Asia? We can safely blame the French. When they colonised Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, they noticed the cultural influences India and China had on the region and dubbed it Indochine. The name has outlasted their presence.

Second, should we call the city we’ve just landed in Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon? We ask our taxi driver on the way from the airport. ‘We say Saigon,’ he says. But this has nothing to do with a fondness for the days before unification. ‘Saigon is quicker,’ he says. When he finds out that we’ve been to Hanoi, he says how crazy the traffic is there. ‘All drivers on horn, all the time! Beep beep! Crazy!’ He shakes his head at the craziness of it. We listen to the beeping, honking traffic outside and think, well, maybe he can discern a difference but they each seem equally cacophonous to our untrained ears.

We check in to the Cinnamon Hotel, a cozy, boutiquey sort of place in the middle of Ho Chi Saigon. A TripAdvisor reviewer says he would ‘defiantly stay here again’, suggesting that almost everything went wrong but he’s quite prepared to come again and stoically brazen it out. In reality, of course, it’s a very sweet and friendly place.

We have a little balcony from which we can marvel at the city’s seemingly chaotic cabling.

Get out of the way! I’m trying to get a close up of those wires

In addition to air conditioning, our room has a ceiling fan that reminds me of a certain film whose opening scene is set in Saigon:

We’re only here for a couple of days so we don’t hang about. We consult our map and head straight for Saigon’s Presidential Palace. The building and its bombed-out predecessor saw a great many presidents and ministers come and go, their departure sometimes enforced by means of assassination. The final occupant, General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, swore in his latest set of deputies on 30 April 1975 just a matter of days before a North Vietnamese T-54 tank crashed through the gates of the palace and effectively brought an immediate end to their careers in government, and to the Vietnam War itself.

Pic courtesy Life magazine

And here’s the tank today! Except that it isn’t. A plaque nearby lamely states that it’s similar to the one that crashed through the gates. I’ll just have to pretend.

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The interior is like a time capsule, with most of the publicly-accessible rooms preserved as they were found back in 1975. Presidential desks have dial-operated phones but no computers, all the televisions are big, polished-wood cubes and huge wall maps in the war room (‘You can’t fight in here! This is the war room!’) show the South Vietnamese army’s lamentable situation.

We leave the palace and head towards a couple of other Saigon landmarks, the Roman Catholic cathedral (closed when we visit) and the Gustave Eiffel-designed central post office.

Everything used to build the cathedral was imported from France

The post office

He loved steel, that M Eiffel. We associate him solely with the famous tower in Paris but he was responsible for much more than that. We came across another of his intricate constructions during a visit to Jerez in Spain:

P1010090

In the evening we go on a pre-arranged foodie tour of Saigon that turns out to be one of the highlights of the entire holiday. We zoom from eatery to eatery on Vespas driven by cheerful English-speaking local girls. We get totally immersed in the seething traffic and see parts of the capital that are ignored by most guide books. Every stop involves trying something new, ranging from scallops with peanuts and onion, to frogs cooked on a table-top barbecue (they somehow taste more like chicken than actual chicken), and even to baby duck embryo (no, I didn’t – there are limits), all accompanied by Saigon beer.

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As night falls and the beers take hold, the drives through Saigon become more fun and exhilarating. There are actually more scooters in Saigon than there are people to ride them and it feels as if they’re all out tonight. Our drivers expertly thread their way through the dense traffic while we soak up the sights, sounds and smells – and not a little pollution – of this frantic, friendly city. I don’t think I have felt as alive for a very long time. 

Our last day
The next morning brings us back down to earth with a sobering trip around the War Remnants Museum. This tells the story of the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese’ perspective, from those far-off days in the 1950s when they were slugging it out with the French, to the ongoing effects of dealing with the horrific legacy of Agent Orange

It’s not for the squeamish or for those who find its version of events at odds with their own beliefs about the war, its conduct and aims. (I overheard a middle-aged American mansplaining to his wife that the Americans left in 1975 because ‘they’d achieved their objectives’.) 

The museum is laid out on three floors and most of the rooms lack air conditioning. On a day when the temperature must have hit 38 or 39 we found ourselves drawn to those exhibits that happened to be located near electric fans, spending as long as possible reading about things like rice production in 1968.

A Chinook. Also on display in the grounds are a Huey, an F5 fighter and various tanks and howitzers

I can tell a Russian T-54 when I see one but I have no idea what this American tank is. An M1? An Abrahms?

Yes, it’s fairly one-sided, but we came away wondering why the US has never been prosecuted for war crimes. What they did to the Vietnamese was shocking and inhuman and ultimately futile.

In the evening we visit Vietnam’s tallest building and enjoy cocktails as the sun goes down over the city, move on to a bar atop the less elevated but infinitely more stylish Majestic hotel, then eat something nice, somewhere or other. It’s all a bit of a blur on our last night.

Negotiating our way back to the hotel. When there’s no room on the road they simply drive on what passes for the pavement. Carol does her best to avoid being mown down

And that’s that. We fly back the next day, first to Bangkok with its fascinating glass ceiling, then on to London Heathrow.

On our holiday we travelled some 14,500 miles on seven planes, four boats, one rickshaw, two kayaks, numerous cars, taxis and tuk-tuks and, most memorably, on the back of a pair of scooters. We stayed in some fabulous but ridiculously cheap hotels and were welcomed, served and shown around by some of the most helpful and friendliest people on the planet, both in Vietnam and in Cambodia. It truly was this year’s holiday of a lifetime, and I have one person to thank for making it all happen: the one-woman branch of Trailfinders that is Carol Mills. Where next, Carol?

 

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Indochina 2016 – Going Green In Hội An

Days 15-20

We’re two weeks into our Indochina adventure. Two weeks of traipsing from hotel to hotel. Two solid weeks of being flown, taxied, tuk-tukked, guided, assisted, welcomed, massaged, treated and entertained. It’s unrelenting. Some sort of change is needed, and it comes in the form of the Palm Garden Resort at Hội An.

We still get the welcome, the catering, the friendly service and all that. But because we’re staying here for six whole nights, we’ve temporarily put a stop to the traipsing-from-hotel-to-hotel bit. We have a base! We can unpack! Hang things up! *sniffs* Get laundry done!

It’s a large resort – not that I have anything to compare it with – with a choice of bars and restaurants. The main dining room is a cavernous, brightly lit hangar that’s so big it’s possible to stand at one end and detect the curvature of the Earth. We give that one a miss. In fact we’re not exactly regulars at the others, either, once we discover how much cheaper it is to eat off-complex, so to speak, in one of the restaurants that have sprung up across the street. Enterprising lot, the Vietnamese.

We’d let slip that it was our wedding anniversary and found our bed adorned thusly. No towels folded to look like swans, though. Amateurs

The next five days become more like a regular beach holiday but with less sunshine (we’re here at the start of the rainy season). We spend the time eating, reading, exploring, running up the bar bill, swimming in the pool, swimming in the sea while keeping an eye out for jellyfish – if we see people standing in the shallows and pointing downwards, we don’t venture in – and visiting Hội An itself, a five minute cab ride away.

I try my hand at jet-skiing and appear to lose one leg of my swim shorts in the process

Awaiting lunch. Or possibly dinner. Certainly not breakfast

A local struggling with his selfie stick

My beautiful wife on our beautiful beach

40 years on and they still haven’t lost their enthusiasm for tunnelling

Hội An is worth seeing, especially the Old Town. (Has anyone ever recommended visiting a city’s New Town? ‘You’re going to Lima? You simply must visit the Modern Quarter!’)

It’s Full Moon Eve on our first visit, not an official holiday but a good enough excuse for the town to go into partial party mode. This is on the riverfront when the night is still but a puppy:


Full Moon itself really does bring out the crowds. The town goes lantern and candle crazy, with locals pestering you to buy a candle in a little box, then lower it into the river while making a wish. We join in, because we’re tourists, but we wonder just how environmentally friendly the practice is. Wait, that should have been my wish! ‘I wish I knew how much damage this is doing.’

How can we resist? ‘We’ll have two, please’

Wait! Won’t anyone think of the fishes?! #waxdiet

Got any plain white ones, mate?

I’m guessing the one on the left reads ‘All kinds of laundering’

Most evenings we have a nightcap in the resort’s nightspot, the Contino Club. Service is very fast on account of the fact that we are generally the only people in the bar. There’s a resident house band who play a medley of what would normally be described as crowd-pleasing songs if only there was a crowd here to appreciate them. The stage is set up for three musicians but only the singer and the guitarist ever turn up, not the percussionist. So, perhaps after one nightcap too many, I ask to make the duo a trio. They say yes and suddenly it’s all ‘Killing Me Softly’ with a luscious bongo accompaniment being played out to an audience that’s now 50% smaller.

Flam strokes, paradiddles, accented triplets…these are just a few of the percussion terms I’ve heard of

Carol shot some video footage but there’s no way I’m sharing that.

Almost there
I mentioned that our visit took place during the start of Vietnam’s rainy season. There isn’t a lot of rain but the sky is frequently overcast, which perhaps helps to keep the temperature up in the high thirties. So we have regular dips in the pool. It never quite gets this empty but it’s generally free of people screaming, throwing each other about or suddenly landing by the side of the pool from the direction of a 10th floor balcony.

One evening I notice for the first time the trendy green highlights in Carol’s hair. When did she have this done? How come she hasn’t mentioned it? Should I have said something? Turns out this bold new venture is news to Carol, too. She’s aghast. In fact she’s as aghast as ever I’ve seen her.

Carol’s green locks. Out of frame: her look of overall aghastness

A panicky search on the internet tells her that the hotel’s swimming pool is to blame. Specifically, the amount of copper that’s added during the cleaning process. The copper in the water is oxidised by chlorine, which then binds to the proteins in the hair strands and produce a green tint. Ordinary shampoo won’t get it out. A little more rummaging reveals the unlikely remedy: tomato ketchup. Lots of it, lathered into every follicle. So that’s what we do.

I’ve no pictures of that. Sorry.

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Indochina 2016 – Hanoi to Hue

Days 12-15

We say farewell to Hanoi – laters, you crazy city – and head for Hue. Hue! That’s pronounced ‘Hue’, not as in Hugh and Cry, or Hue as in Hughie and Louie, but Hue as in ‘hooray’ when said by Jonathan Ross. 

But first, here’s some slo-mo footage of a crossroads in Hanoi Old Quarter that I think is a thing of beauty. Turn your speakers on.


It’s an early morning, 70 minute flight from Hanoi to Hue. You wouldn’t have thought they’d bother offering breakfast, but they do. That’s the first surprise. The second is that I’m willing to give it a try, my last breakfast being three hours ago. The third surprise is what’s on offer.  I can’t have heard the crew member right and ask her to say it again.

‘For breakfast is chicken pie.’

This is perhaps the last thing I’d expect for breakfast, and the least Vietnamesy thing I’d expect at any time. Would I like a drink with it? Well, I’m on holiday AND I’m about to tuck into a hearty, warming pie, so I ask for a glass of red wine. The server looks at me as if I’ve asked for the bottled tears of Ho Chi Minh’s widow. ‘No wine!’ she says. I say to myself that’s probably just as well, wine would be silly, what was I thinking, but she says ‘You can have beer!’ I settle for coffee. The pie has a surprisingly crisp pastry crust. I later learn from my friend John that Ho Chi Minh was once a pastry chef on English cross-channel ferries. Perhaps chicken pies are served in his memory. It’s that sort of country.

We arrive at the Eldora Hotel and check in using an iPad. How modern. There’s a Renaissance feel to everything else, though. It’s a lovely place. Well done Mrs Mills.

This'll do

This’ll do

Genuine push-button digital phone from the renaissance

Genuine push-button digital phone from the 1700s

We had the pool to ourselves. In fact the whole hotel was strangely devoid of other guests *hums theme from Twilight Zone*

We had the pool to ourselves. In fact the whole hotel was strangely devoid of other guests *hums theme from Twilight Zone*

The amazing thing was how little the place cost, offering 5-star luxury but being comparable to the rate of a Travelodge back home. We could stay in the hotel all day, but we have Hue to explore. Let’s go!

To the Citadel!

To the Citadel!

For about 150 years until 1945, Hue was the capital of Vietnam. The Citadel, or Imperial Palace, was built for the Emperor and his family. A bit like China’s Forbidden City, it once comprised many courtyards, temples, pavilions and pagodas, but many of them were destroyed during and after the Tet Offensive in 1968. (Hue is where the second half of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket was set, although as everyone knows it was actually filmed in London’s East End.) 

We have a guide for the day and he escorts us around what’s left, explaining the significance of this statue and that building. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Vietnam and Cambodia it is that anything with a royal or religious element is rich in symbolism. Everything has a meaning. I suppose it’s not that surprising when you consider who’s responsible for the buildings. There’s the client – in this case a self-proclaimed Emperor –  and his architects; then you have to add to the mix buddhist monks, who tell you things like how many levels you need and where the serpents need to go; and a geomancer, a kind of mystical town planner who determines the layout of your construction using a pointy stick and some divine inspiration.

First up, Thien Mu, Vietnam’s tallest pagoda. After checking that is has the requisite number of sides and levels we move on to a smaller edifice containing a giant cast iron bell.

The trick with 1,700 kg cast iron bells is to refrain from striking them with your knuckles. Any sound you get from the bell is easily drowned out by your sudden cry of pain.

Next we pass the 1950s Austin Cambridge that a Buddhist monk called Thích Quảng Đức used to drive to a busy Saigon road junction in June, 1963. Upon alighting…hang on, wrong choice of word… Upon leaving the vehicle, he doused himself in petrol and set himself on fire. It was his protest at the South Vietnamese government’s treatment of Buddhist monks.  The car clearly receives a lick of paint now and then, as it used to look like this.

We check out the various other buildings, statues, gates and elephant-shaped bushes found within the walls of the citadel. 

A detail from the ceiling of the, er, royal-something-or-other

That evening we dine by the side of the Perfume River before returning to our strangely guest-depleted but ever-so sumptuous hotel.

The only other guests I saw were a pair of young twin girls outside room 237

Ciao, Hue
It’s a Saturday but, because we’re on holiday, it’s indistinguishable from any other day. We don’t lie in or anything. That comes soon, I hope. Because today we’re leaving Hue and looking forward to a few days’ chill time at a coastal resort. We jump in the back of another Toyota Camry and ask the driver to point the car at Hội An, about 120 kms south east.

He’s a guide as well as our driver so we stop a few times at local points of interest. There’s a lakeside fishing village, the Marble Mountain (lots of steps, lots of tat merchants selling trinkets made from stuff that isn’t marble, but also some beautiful roofs); and a beach at Da Nang where American servicemen used to go for a bit of R&R during the Vietnam war.

The beach is mightily popular but, unless the coachloads of tourists disembarking there have some connection with the place and are returning for old times’ sake, it’s hard to see what the attraction is. It’s just a stretch of beach, although I later learn that it’s a good surf spot.

These are old American aircraft hangars at Da Nang. There’s loads to see and do in both Cambodia and Vietnam for those with an interest in the Vietnam War. You can visit a B-52 Museum in Hanoi, hold a rocket launcher in Cambodia and even shoot an AK-47 in Ho Chi Minh. Maybe next time… for now, let’s hit the sunbeds!

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Indochina 2016 – Ha Long Bay

Indochina 2016: Days 10 – 12

These next few days are going to be the opposite of the previous ones in almost every aspect. For crowded, read deserted. For dusty cities, read the great outdoors. And for terra firma, read gently undulating H2O.

We’re aboard Prince 2, a holiday cruise ship designed to look a bit like a traditional Vietnamese fishing boat, and we’ve just cast off from Quang Ninh at the start of a three-day cruise around Ha Long Bay.

Hand on heart, I’d never heard of this place before. Which is unforgivable as it would easily qualify for the much-disputed Eighth Wonder Of The Natural World. It consists of thousands of green-peaked limestone rocks jutting out from the emerald green waters of the South China Sea. Some are pointy, some rounded; some have deep caves and sandy beaches, some have delicate waists worn narrow by tidal motion. All have thick rainforest vegetation sprouting from their sides and top, and no doubt an abundance of wildlife within that.

It is one of the most spectacular places we have ever seen.

It's like this. Only better than this

It’s like this. Only better than this

Maybe more like this. And then some

Maybe more like this. And then some

Our home for the next three days

Our home for the next three days. The sails are just for show

Lifeboat? Pah! We'll never need that!

Lifeboat? Pah! We’ll never need that!

Our cabin has meny freebees

Our air condishoned cabin has meny free bees

We’ve never been cruise-type people but this is definitely tolerable. We spend the day reading, sunbathing, chatting to our six fellow travellers (a French couple and an English family), or trying desperately to do something a bit active so that we can build up an appetite for the amazing six and seven-course meals the chefs insist on throwing at us.

Something like kayaking. We tried this once before during a 198o’s holiday in the Dordogne, with limited success. We never quite managed to sustain the paddle synchronisation that is a fundamental requirement of successful kayaking. Pretty much as soon as we set off it becomes clear there have been no miraculous improvements to our technique during the intervening years. We start competently enough, with both of us adhering to a strict left-right, left-right regime that propels us smartly though the water. But after a minute Carol decides to take a short break, and I paddle for two. When she resumes paddling it’s to her left just as I’m paddling to my right. As we swap sides, there’s the inevitable overhead paddle clash, as serious kayakers (kayakists?) almost certainly call it. Anyway, we lose the rhythm and have to start over. This happens again and again.

If it mattered it would annoy me, but we’re merely splashing about on holiday. Yay, holiday! Left, right, left, right, left, CLANG! No matter! Left, right, left, right, left, OH SHIT WE’RE IN THE WATER! How the hell did that happen? I guess we must have both pulled a little forcefully, for once simultaneously and on the same side of the kayak. We’re in life jackets and our camera gear and iPhones are in a waterproof bag, so that’s OK. The big surprise is suddenly looking up at everything. Our fellow travellers come to our aid, two of whom luckily have kayak skills. With a bit of undignified heaving and spluttering, we both clamber back on board and gingerly resume paddling.

We weren't allowed to play with the kayaks again.

We weren’t allowed to play with the kayaks again.

 The highlight of the next day was a barbecue on a deserted beach.

This isn’t the beach and that wasn’t the barbecue. This is Halong Bay’s equivalent of roadsweepers: people whose job is to clear up any mess left by previous visitors. By clear up I mean burn.
This is our beach. It just needs tables, a BBQ and us.

There we go. The food is stunning, even though it’s the first BBQ I’ve ever had without sausages. It’s about 38 degrees celsius in the shade and a dip in the bay does nothing to cool us off; the water is the temperature of a tepid bath.

Later we visit a floating fishing village, of which there are quite a few dotted around Halong Bay. The villages support up to 600 people and actually do rise and fall with the tide. We were shown where they, well, do things with fish, basically. Store them. Get them to mate. I don’t know. We also see the village classroom and are rowed about by wiry, Sampan-wearing villagers.

We also get to visit one of the caves. The entrance is way up the side of the rock; God knows how anyone found it in the first place. It’s pretty big inside, big enough to host a junk-full of people for a candlelit dinner, but without any of the coolness you normally associate with caves. There’s a good view from the entrance and, for those caught short, a ‘happy room’, the Vietnamese euphemism for a rest room (the American euphemism etc etc).

Now it’s our last night and the crew have laid on a special farewell meal. I think it might have been this one:

APPETIZER
Sour and Spicy Seafood Soup
Chicken Salad Flavored with Herbs

MAIN COURSES
Grilled Sea Clams with Onion, Celery and Butter Sauce
King Prawns Marinated in Asian Spices cooked on hot rock
Pan- fried Squid with Fresh Cream
Hue’s Royal Palace Steamed Sea Bass
Stir-fried Vegetables with Garlic and Oyster Sauce

Steamed Fragrant Rice

DESSERT
Tropical Fresh Fruit

Then, as something of a grand finale, they present us with incredibly detailed models of a serpent, an eagle and the junk itself, all constructed entirely from foodstuff like pumpkins and watermelons. The models were made during the course of one afternoon, displayed to us and then chucked away.

Back at the port, I do a quick timelapse while we’re waiting for our luggage, in the process breaking two cardinal rules of timelapse photography. One, don’t suddenly move the camera mid-filming and two, make sure your foreground isn’t some filthy rock-strewn tip. But I like the way one of the vessels seems to move sideways.

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Indochina 2016 – Siem Reap to Hanoi

Indochina 2016
Days 7 – 9

The strangely designed wheelchair-like seats at what the hotel probably calls its ‘business centre’.

Today we say goodbye to the Golden Temple Hotel, to Siem Reap and to Cambodia itself. Next stop: Vietnam. We’d previously asked at reception how long it might take us to get to the airport.  The guy reckoned two hours. ‘More if traffic’. Two hours? We don’t mean by tuk-tuk! How long by taxi? ‘Yes, yes, taxi take two hours!’

This morning’s receptionist has different ideas. ‘Half an hour’, he says. That’s more like it.

Now before you start thinking ‘surely the duration of the return journey to the airport will be roughly the same as the one that brought you to the hotel’, I should point out that we made the 320 kilometre trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap by car. It took about five hours, including a brief stop along the way stop for our driver to have lunch at his home. We were happy to sit quietly in an environment which, for once, wasn’t a hotel or restaurant. Chickens ran around in the yard while the driver’s son was busy fixing his motorcycle. When we left, the whole family came to wave us off. His baby grandson was in tears at our departure. Or possibly joy.

The road and the roadside were busy for just about the whole trip; there were few stretches of pure countryside. We passed houses, shops, warehouses, small farms, agricultural equipment stores, schools, temples, buddhas, banana plants, the odd rice field, scrawny looking beige cows and a red fire engine with, paradoxically, the word POLICE written on it in big white letters. There were some distant hills but otherwise the terrain was flat. The driver kept to a steady 60mph. 

Anyway, that all happened a few days ago. Today we’re off to Hanoi. Vietnam Airways flight VN635 lands right on schedule and pretty soon we’re heading into central Hanoi and our hotel.

Frank Zappa once claimed he could learn pretty much all he needed to know about a country he was playing in just by studying the billboards along the route from the airport to his hotel. Today, he’d have learnt that Vietnam loves its mobiles, opts for English as its second language rather than French, favours Western models for its fashion brands and that, for a communist country, it embraces advertising with enough alacrity to prompt a government crackdown.

Our hotel is located smack-bang in the centre of Hanoi’s Old Quarter and we emerge from the climate-controlled cab into a maelstrom of heat, noise and activity. We’ve arrived just as the hugely popular night market is getting into full flow. The streets are barred to traffic while hordes of tourists sample the many shops, stalls, bars and restaurants. We dump our bags and join the throng.

The market was yet to attain peak bustlingness

Already fairly bustling, the market was yet to attain peak bustlingness

We explore the streets and pretty soon discover that the range of goods on offer in the shops isn’t that extensive. Scarves, t-shirts, luggage, local ‘handicrafts’, and then back to scarves again. There’s the odd exception:

I love a good pun, me, but this one will have to do

I love a good pun, me, but this one will have to do

There were scores of restaurants and after a few false starts we picked one that gave us a good view of the various comings and goings and, up over the rooftops, an impressive yet strangely silent thunderstorm. Back at the hotel, our room faced away from the heaving streets so we were able to get a good night’s sleep.

We see Uncle Ho – eventually
He was the evil commie man-monster to us in the West, but in Vietnam Ho Chi Minh is widely revered as the man who defeated the mighty Americans and brought unity to the country. His body is now preserved in a huge mausoleum. We join the queue to deposit our backpacks but are allowed to keep our cameras. We rejoin the queue, then arrive at another checkpoint where we are now obliged to hand over the cameras. We re-rejoin the queue, and slowly edge forward for perhaps 20 minutes under the scorching sun before we finally enter the temperature-controlled room in which Uncle Ho is entombed. He looks in pretty good shape, considering what’s happened to him. We shuffle around the corpse, soldiers sternly shouting at anyone who dares to loiter, then exit via the opposite side of the room.

Hope I get something like this

He asked for something simple. “You know, just a 20,000 tonne air-conditioned granite mausoleum”

Some Vietnamese soldiers are tiny

Some Vietnamese soldiers are tiny

We retrieve our cameras and backpacks and head for our next stop, the Temple of Literature. This extremely important cultural site has stood here for almost a thousand years and looks like it’s been carefully preserved and maintained for the whole of that time. Within its perimeter wall are pagodas, courtyards, ponds, statues, pavilions, a giant drum and gong (both, alas, unbangable) but, surprisingly for a temple of literature, not a single book. I looked everywhere and couldn’t even find a Dan Brown. But if you love early Vietnamese architecture and the history of Confucianism, this is the temple for you.

We spend the rest of the day wandering around Hanoi. A bar highly recommended by Lonely Planet could only offer warm drinks without ice (we made our excuses), an angry rickshaw driver demanded $4 at the end of a journey after quoting $2 at its start (I paid up, reasoning that a man who spends his entire life pedalling pairs of adults around a hot city could quite easily make trouble for an overweight tourist), and we come across a couple of gents in period costume pretending to play a game of xiangqi for a photoshoot of some sort.

Checkmate! Or whatever they say in xiangqi

Checkmate! Or whatever they say in xiangqi

The Hanoi Hilton
Hòa Lò Prison was built by the French at the end of the 19th century to house Vietnamese political prisoners. The French were nasty bastards, regularly torturing the inmates and even installing a guillotine to despatch prisoners in le style français. A reconstruction purports to show what a cell looked like during those pre-1954 days.

OK guys, this is the last time we book with Hoseasons

OK guys, this is the last time we book with Hoseasons

Then the French left and the prison was next used to house American PoWs, typically US Air Force pilots shot down during bombing missions (Senator John McCain amongst them). Famously nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by inmates, our tour of the prison buildings shows the Vietnamese now attempting to suggest that the epithet was applied less with ironic intent and more as an accurate reflection of the prison’s 5-star comfort. Believe the various exhibit labels and photo captions and you’d think the Americans were queuing up to be let in. Here’s a shot of smiling PoWs playing pool, here’s another of them tucking into a hearty Christmas dinner. Well, they might not have been guillotined, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest American prisoners were treated abysmally, with regular beatings, periods of prolonged starvation or being served food contaminated with human and animal faeces. 

On our way back to the hotel we walk past a massive hostel.

 
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Indochina 2016 – Temples, Pagodas and Palaces

Days 3 – 6

Enjoyment is hardly the right word, but I got a lot out of visiting Phnom Penh’s prison S-21 and the Killing Fields, mainly because the events they commemorate happened during my lifetime. I find it difficult to get similarly enthused about Cambodia’s ancient temples and pagodas. Their very ancientness is one reason – the country’s oldest temple is at least 1,600 years old. There are thousands of them, too, and although some might look a bit samey, don’t let a Cambodian catch you saying that. And the detail! Here’s what Wikipedia says about one part of one wall of one building in one temple: 

‘The east-facing pediment on the northern library shows the god of the sky Indra creating rain to put out a forest fire started by the god of fire Agni for purposes of killing the nāga king Takshaka who lived in Khandava Forest. The Mahābhāratan heroes Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna are shown helping Agni by firing a dense hail of arrows to block Indra’s rain. Takṣaka’s son Aśvasena is depicted attempting to escape from the conflagration, while other animals stampede about in panic.’

Now, moving on to the NORTH-facing pediment…

Let’s face it, ‘Cambodian Temples’ is never going to be my Mastermind specialist subject. Our guide does his best, but it’s hard to maintain the requisite levels of interest when faced with such an immense, epoch spanning volume of history. Especially when the tour is being conducted in ferocious heat, zero wind and sauna-like humidity. There’s also a lack of objectivity – our Hindu guides in Cambodia (as in India during our holiday there back in 2014) believe totally in their stories of sky gods and monkey kings. That’s great, but it means we can never let slip any sense of incredulity. 

Politically incorrect but faintly amusing misunderstanding

Anyway. Our first stop is not a temple but a palace. Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace is a mere baby at about 150 years old.  Our guide explains that the current King is the only one not to have had any children. “Maybe he’s linguistic,” he says. I smile while trying to make a connection between language skills and a lack of kids. When the guide’s back is turned I discreetly ask Carol. “Linguistic?” I ask. “Limp-wristed!” she corrects.

Phnom Penh's Royal Palace

Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace

And now, in no particular order, some of the many other temples and other significant sites we saw over the course of the next few days.

Angkor Wat time-lapse sunrise. We were at the less-touristy western embankment, which meant we only had a few hundred people around us: chatting, shining torches, walking in front of the camera and using flash to photograph a sunrise. I’d have been better off taking a still, which is exactly what Carol did.

Spoilsport health & safety people made it impossible for me to bound up and down those steps

Health & safety killjoys make it impossible for me to bound up and down the steps

We traipse through a jungle to see a long line of underwater carvings known as the River of a Thousand Lingas. A linga is a representation of a Hindu deity. My rational mind wondered why, and particularly how, people could spend a large chunk of their lives engaged in probably unpaid underwater carving work, then answered my own question. Because religion. It was all to do with sanctifying the river, apparently. We didn’t linga.

They might look like tiles half-inched from a French farmhouse but they're delicate underwater carvings made about 1000 years ago

They might look like wall tiles half-inched from a French farmhouse but they’re delicate underwater carvings made about 1000 years ago

We declined the offer of lunch

We decline the offer of lunch

Locals cool off under the 35-metre waterfall at Kbal Spean. I'd have plunged in myself, especially knowing that the water had been sanctified, but I had no trunks.

Locals cool off under the 35-metre waterfall at Kbal Spean. I’d have plunged in myself, especially knowing that the water had been sanctified, but I had no trunks

Next up, the temple at Banteay Srei. It was built in 967AD, abandoned some time in the 14th century, then rediscovered in 1914.

The temple at Banteay Srei was built in 967AD, abandoned some time in the 14th century, then rediscovered in 1914. There's barely a surface without intricate carvings.

It’ll be nice when it’s finished

We move on to Ta Som, a smallish temple that was in the process of being reclaimed by nature when someone thought a little maintenance wouldn’t go amiss. Thankfully the fig trees slowly strangling the ruins were left in place (inevitably they’re now sacred figs) when the site was made safe for tourists.

Should have done something about that creeping ivy years ago

Should’ve done something about that creeping ivy years ago

The temple at East Mebon is guarded by stone elephants and has some seriously daunting steps leading up to it. At one time it was only accessible by boat. You really had to want to worship there. 

Elephants always go down well with Carol

Elephants always go down well with Carol

Our visit to Angkor Thom actually came after Angkor Wat, which itself took place the day after we went to East Mebon. I hope you don’t mind this haphazard continuity.

Angkor Thom was once the capital city of the Khmer Empire and, considering it looks hugely impressive today, must have been awe inspiring when it was built in the 12th century. They reckon up to 150,000 people lived in its nine square kilometres. A scene from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was filmed here.

The tiny figure lower right gives a sense of scale. That's why I included her in the shot. Oh yes

The tiny figure lower right gives a sense of scale. That’s why I included her in the shot. Oh yes.

This was the most photographed part of Angkor Thom, so I'm guessing it featured in Tomb Raider

This was the most photographed part of Angkor Thom, so I’m guessing it was where they did the Tomb Raider filming

Highly blasphemous. Locals were outraged. Even now I'm considering alerting the authorities.

Highly blasphemous. Locals were outraged. Even now I’m considering alerting the authorities.

The highlight of one afternoon is a river trip to see a fishing village built on stilts at the edge of an enormous lake called Tonlé Sap. It starts badly. As we step on to the tiny boat – it’s small so that it can navigate the narrow channel until it becomes wide enough for us to transfer to a bigger boat – the wind picks up and the heavens open. We slowly putt-putt-putt our way into the teeth of a raging gale, the rain driving horizontally into our faces. As water rapidly collects around my crotch I use a little umbrella to try and protect my un-waterproof camera bag with its expensive cargo of DSLR and iPhone, and wonder whether we’d have been better off visiting more bloody temples.

We eventually make it to the transfer point. I clamber out on to the riverbank and my sandals sink into wet, gloopy clay. Slipping and sliding into the second boat, I collapse into a chair only for one of its legs to go straight through some rotten planking. Carol whips out her hand to stop me falling overboard, some furniture rearrangement is hastily undertaken and off we glumly go.

However, the skies soon clear and all thoughts of being soaked dissipate as we approach the fishing village. It is an incredible sight; hundreds of houses, shops and schools built on platforms supported by a network of 10-metre-tall poles, high enough to survive the rising water level during the rainy season. I’m no meteorologist, but I’d say that’s imminent.


Our vessel passes by the last of the houses and we’re briefly in Tonlé Sap itself.

The above visits and excursions took place over three very long and very hot days, and incorporated a move from the Pavilion Hotel in Phnom Penh to the Golden Temple Hotel in Siem Reap. (If it doesn’t have a regal/religious-sounding name, we’re just not staying in it, OK?)

The Golden Temple was brilliant. Recognising that merely offering exemplary service and amazing food might not necessarily distinguish it from any other local hotel, the Golden Temple adds a bunch of extras such as a free body massage, a free dinner, a free picnic, free WiFi (admittedly fairly standard), free T-shirts and even free drinks for an hour and a half every evening. Free drinks! While we’re here! Idiots.

Cheers!

Cheers!

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Indochina 2016 – Heathrow to the Killing Fields

Indochina 2016
Days 1 & 2

We’re on planes. We watch films. We use headphones to blank out the sounds of bawling babies. We eat, drink, stretch, read, doze. We spend more than 18 hours travelling, yet still manage to arrive at Phnom Penn on the same day we set off from Heathrow. And somehow it’s still daylight. Weird.

There to greet our bleary-eyed selves is Veasna, sent from the Pavilion Hotel to pick us up in the hotel’s vintage Jaguar XJ6.

Perhaps the only 1986 Jaguar XJS in all of Cambodia. I notice it has more than 80,000 miles on the clock. Veasna taps it. ‘No, is broken’, he says.

The hotel is a quiet green oasis in the full-on hustle of Phnom Penh. The weather is hot and humid and we spend the afternoon reading and occasionally sleeping in one of the raised-bed platforms that surround the pool.

All is calm within the hotel’s walls. Outside it’s a different story

The hotel offers a range of diversions and excursions so with nothing else in mind, we choose the Mekong River Sunset Tour.

We quickly learn that the sunset part is not guaranteed

Our vessel has repurposed old sewing machines to serve as tables. This example is typical.

An on-board commentary is provided but a combination of engine noise and unfamiliarity with the Cambodian accent unfortunately renders it largely incomprehensible. But gently cruising along the Mekong River, beer in one hand and brolly in the other, isn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hours. 

Back at the hotel, we consider our options for the rest of the evening. The night’s still young. But where to go, in this heaving, sprawling capital? Independent travellers that we are, we ditch the maps, discard the guidebooks, throw caution to the wind and ask the bloke at reception.

He suggests we visit Phnom Penh’s Foreign Correspondents Club. Sounds good! The easy and most obvious way for tourists to get there would be to simply hail a tuk-tuk from right outside the hotel, so that’s precisely what we do. But first, we get a price from the driver.

He says that the ride will cost us two dollars. We act surprised and say ‘two dollars!’ Yes, he says, two dollars. We eventually settle on a figure of two dollars.

Later we’ll get better at this whole haggling thing.

Once inside the Foreign Correspondents Club it becomes obvious that we’ve hit pay dirt, as the Americans say. Pictures and clippings on the wall suggest the Club has been there for decades, somehow surviving US bombing, the murderous regime of Pol Pot and the subsequent Vietnamese invasion. I have images of booze-and-baccy-fuelled war correspondents hammering out the latest news of coups and curfews while looking out over the Tonle Sap River, bullets whizzing overhead.

In fact, the only bullets would have been fired by drunken journalists themselves. Turns out the Foreign Correspondents Club is much younger than I thought, dating from the early 1990s rather than when the REALLY bad things were happening. This new-found knowledge doesn’t make the bar/restaurant any less enjoyable in my recollection. It might not be 100% authentically or exclusively Cambodian, but it is the ideal place to settle down with good food and cold beer and watch the relentless traffic hoot and beep its way outside. 

The FCC. Pic courtesy Alex Masterley on FlickR

The FCC
Pic courtesy Alex Masterley on FlickR

Day 2
This morning there’s no need to even go through the motions of haggling with our tuk-tuk driver as a price was worked out months ago. We’re in the company of Lan, who’s going to show us around us around Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace and other local attractions. That’s tomorrow, though. Today he’s taking us to see the S-21 prison and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.

A fate worse than death

The S-21 prison was operated by the Khmer Rouge. It was where people were taken to be questioned, then tortured, then questioned some more, then repeat until dead. Seriously. And by people I mean anyone middle class, anyone who could speak French, anyone vaguely intelligent. There was a steady stream of new prisoners because most people who were tortured for the names of free thinkers or French speakers would eventually blurt out any bloody name in a futile attempt to make the pain stop.

By the time the place was liberated in 1979, as many as 20,000 people had been imprisoned there. Lots died within its walls; most were carted off to be killed elsewhere. Only a handful got out alive. Two are still alive today, and we get to meet one of them.

Bou MengHis name is Bou Meng and he sees it as his job to remind and educate the world about the horrors that took place in the prison and elsewhere in Cambodia. I was happy to buy his book and privileged to shake his hand.

The Killing Fields

My only mental image of the Killing Fields was formed by the 1984 film of same name. (Worth rewatching, by the way.) But rather than the flat fields I envisaged, perhaps with a big notice board explaining what happened here, the actual site is a mixture of paths, hollows, shrubs and trees. Superficially it seems almost pleasant until you notice the shreds of torn clothing in the grass or the fragments of bone embedded in the earth. An audio guide details the horrific history of each viewpoint. You stand by a dip in the ground, almost exactly where a blindfolded victim would have knelt before being killed by a soldier using a bamboo pole or machete. You see a solid-looking tree and learn that the children of prisoners were killed here, their skulls smashed by soldiers swinging the infants by their legs.

Millions met their deaths at camps like these. Millions. It’s all very grim. What’s worse for me is just how (comparatively) recently these terrible events took place. Khmer Rouge soldiers were busy slaughtering millions at a time of space travel, colour TV and Pink Floyd. If it could happen there and then, well, it just goes to show that the unthinkable can happen just about anywhere, at any time.

In fact it happens later that day when Carol says she wants to visit the local indoor market. I hate markets. They’re always noisy, crowded and disorientating, they never have anything I want to buy, still less carry around for the rest of the day, and I’m always wary of being discreetly relieved of my phone or wallet. 

If Cambodia had one elephant for every elephant adorning t-shirts, trousers and tablecloths, they'd have many more than the handful that survive today

If Cambodia had one elephant for every elephant adorning t-shirts, trousers and tablecloths, they’d have many more than the handful that survive today

Every three or four metres I’m stopped by a vendor demanding I look at her colourful piles of tat. “I don’t want to be here,” I say.
“You look,” they insist, “nice cloth, big bag, T- shirt, not fake…” 
“Where is the exit?” I ask, wishing I could just go and smoke something.
Carol senses my discomfort and we leave the market early. She’s only managed to buy three things with pictures of elephants on them.

Let’s move on. A Royal Palace awaits…

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Tuscany 2016

A week in Florence and the Tuscan countryside

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We fly BA into Pisa and head straight for the tower that makes the town famous. People are busy doing that thing of pretending to hold the tower up.

dsc_0019_zpszlj2atk2The view from the top showing the cathedral and, behind it, the baptistery. There’s a slight lean to that, too.

dsc_0016_zpse3pzxwdh There are 296 steps to the top and climbing them is alternately hard going and slightly easier going, depending on whether you’re climbing the ‘up’ or ‘down’ part of the lean.

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Right. That’s Pisa done. We take a train to Florence and check into our AirBnB apartment. This is the amazing view from its terrace – the dome of Florence Cathedral. You can climb to the top of the dome as well as the marginally shorter bell tower nearby. Climbing up things is going to be a feature of this trip.

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A touristy shot of Florence’s most touristy bridge, the Ponte Vecchio. We’re tourists, OK?

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The next morning we take a guided tour of the Palazzo Vecchio’s secret passages and hidden rooms. It’s fascinating even for someone like me who had no prior knowledge of the palace or the people who built it or lived in it. I show off by correctly identifying the panel that leads to a secret stairway. The scuff marks on the floor, see?

A trip to Florence isn’t complete without a visit to its famous vegetable market most famous statue, David. There’s the original statue in the Galleria dell’Accademia and a full size replica standing outside on the Piazza della Signoria. Naturally we had to see both and I’m glad we did. Michelangelo’s original is truly breathtaking while the replica benefits from changes in the light, plus is free to view. For true fans, all the gift shops offer a selection of day-glo Davids.

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That evening we meet up with my friend Craig and his wife Jenni, who happen to be in Florence at the same time as us. We enjoy a great meal somewhere (thanks, Craig) then spend about an hour looking for a bar. Any bar. But at 10pm it seems we’re too late, or perhaps too early. Plan B is to grab a bottle of wine from a supermarket and head back to our terrace. When the shopkeeper tells us that it’s illegal for shops to sell alcohol after 9pm, we do the right thing and call it a day.

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A few more shots from Florence:

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Plus proof that those Renaissance artists might have been great at popes and disciples but they just couldn’t do babies. This one looks like a miniature Simon Heffer, with Princess Di as his mum.

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And what baby has ever looked like this?

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We say farewell to Florence and pick up our hire car. It’s a Nissan Juke, perhaps the ugliest car in production and allegedly an upgrade from the vehicle we actually wanted, a Fiat 500X.  We head off to Radda in Chianti where we had pre-booked a wine tasting and vineyard tour. I learn and taste the difference between Chianti, Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Reserva. Pound signs, basically. We buy a few bottles of the cheaper stuff purely to see if it travels well. I’ll let you know.

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Thousands of gallons of red ruby wondrousness.

Next stop Siena, and one of the most amazing cathedrals I have ever stepped inside.

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Siena Cathedral is a medieval marble marvel. The striped black and white marbling gives the place striking views and angles wherever you look. It’s got all the tombs and frescoes and iconography you’d expect, it’s just very different from a design perspective. It’s also an ideal place for a cartoon bank robber to hide.

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A few more shots in and around Siena. It was grey and gloomy, so there was no chance of getting (sun) Burnt (in) Siena.
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We spent two nights in Radda in Chianti. Its mammoth medieval walls and tunnels provide protection against the thunderous downpours.

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We drove to Volterra where our hotel offers no fewer than eight WiFi networks with just the one password that doesn’t work with any of them. There’s a slightly worrying sign on the lift door.
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The Piazza Del Campo in Siena is normally packed with either tourists or with galloping horses being watched by tourists. This is what it can look like on race day:


And this is what it looks like during our visit:

The countryside is pretty deserted too. Not sure what the big steel O ring signifies.

Our last stop is the multi-towered medieval masterpiece that is San Gimignano. Unfortunately, I’ve done something horrible to my back and am unable to climb any of its towers.

But Carol does, and I while away the time with a quick time-lapse of the comings and goings at San Gimignano.

An equal number of comings and goings, I’m sure you’ll find. And that’s it – the next morning we drive to Pisa, have a heated argument with the ‘We Try Harder to Stitch You Up’ Avis representative, and fly back to the UK.

Where the weather is hot and sunny.

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Waves, whales and wharves

Canada 2015
The penultimate day and the final day

Weather update: it’s cold, damp and windy today. Which is good and bad. Good, because it means I feel less sad about our imminent return to the UK. Bad because we’ve booked to go whale watching today.

Yes, AGAIN.

How do you feel, Carol? ‘Buoyant.’

I know it seems only one or two posts ago that we last chased whales, but over here on the eastern side of Vancouver Island you get different kinds of whales. They live closer to the border with the USA, so they swim with a bit more swagger. Their skins feature a loud check pattern. And the noise they make through their blowholes sounds a lot like ‘awwwwesssommme’.

We climb into our waterproof buoyancy suits, step aboard our boat (probably not a Zodiac) and head out to sea. Immediately we see this:

If only. Our whale sightings today are a bit more like this:

A few distant orcas. Not brilliant. But my, it’s quite an adventure. The wind is strong, the grey sea is crested with whitecaps and our craft plunges and ploughs through the waves throwing spray everywhere. We’re lifted out of our seats and have to hold on tight. Photography becomes impossible. Two people throw up over the side. It’s all pretty exciting until I discover that my waterproof suit isn’t waterproof after all. A small pool of cold salt water is forming around my crotch.

We change back at the hotel then take one of Victoria’s adorable little water taxis to check out Fisherman’s Wharf, a charming ‘float home village’ to the south of the city.

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In the evening we eat at the wildly popular Bard & Banker, a pub whose odd name is explained here. We’re up at 05.00 the next day to fly from Victoria to Toronto, and hence back to Heathrow. And that’s it. 

So. Canada. Thoughts?
Glad you asked. Here’s a few:

  • Plastic currency. Not sure if the Daily Mail has been moaning about the UK’s planned introduction of polymer banknotes, but our experience is that they’re fine. Clean, uncrumpled, not smelly, won’t get damp and sweaty in your back pocket, better tactile appeal. Bring it on.
  • First Nation art. I failed at discerning the difference between genuine First Nation art and tourist tat. Even worse, I didn’t really like either. I still feel oddly guilty about this.
  • Everyone is warm and friendly. They might say ‘have a nice day’, like their North American neighbours, but Canadians really mean it. They check up on you later.
  • Everyone says ‘for sure’ a lot.
  • The free wi-fi is generally rubbish. In terms of the time I wasted trying to access Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, it’s worse than having no wi-fi at all. A problem for people who like to share, but maybe a relief for those who don’t.
  • The coffee is even weaker than the wi-fi. I know I’ve already ranted about this but by God it’s dire. It says something when the best coffee you can get is the stuff that comes out of machines in hotel rooms. Best tip: take some ground coffee and an Aeropress.
  • Canadians seem to go about their lives without too much supervision. In three weeks we hardly saw any police or CCTV cameras.
  • If you like driving, you’ll love Canada. Even if you don’t like driving you’ll love Canada. It’s all to do with the space: in the UK, there are roughly 139 cars per km2. In Canada the equivalent figure is 2.2 cars per km2.
  • Canada seemed to go through a phase of expunging all traces of First Nation (i.e. Native American) history from its shores in a process described as cultural genocide. Now it looks like the process has been halted. 
  • About bloody time.

My wife Carol made this trip possible through meticulous planning over the course of many months. I can’t end this blog without saying how much the end result justified all the work. *blows kiss*

Distance travelled: Approximately 12,000 miles (3,500 in country). Modes of transport: One Airbus A320, two Boeing 747-400s,  two hire cars, two long distance trains, three shuttles, two ferries, threes Zodiacs (or similar), two bicycles, two water taxis  and one helicopter. Plus lots of leg power.

 

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