Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Mui Ne morning

Since I shook off the evangelist in Saigon, I joined the Vietnam tourist bus trail north. My first stop was Mui Ne. A beautiful beach but too quiet and couple-populated for a newly solo traveller like me. I woke up at 4.45am for a sunrise tour of the massive Mui Ne sand dunes. The bungalow resort place I was staying at had big gates which were sensibly locked at that time of the night. I forgot to tell them the day before I was doing a sunrise tour and couldn't see anyone around. So, with my jeep driver and a Belgian waiting on the other side, I climbed over the fence. It was dark and I was still half asleep and I cut my hand on the way down (not badly). A bit too much action for pre- 5am.

As we approached the sand dunes, I thought we were driving into a mob of early rising local children protesting with banners. 'Save our dunes', 'No child exploitation' etc. Very wrong. They were holding up slippery plastic sheets which are forced under every visiting bum to assist your slide down the sand dunes. So much for 'Save our dunes', more like 'Give your dong' - (Dong being the Vietnamese currency for anyone who thought I was saying something else).

I was really looking forward to peacefully watching a glorious sunrise after a quiet trek up the dunes. No such luck. Tom from Antwerp and I were escorted by four of the young 'demonstrators' who periodically raced each other down the side of the dune only to come running up moments later. Certainly, this must be one of the more fun ways for kids in Vietnam to earn a few dong. The sun rose, as it does, and I succumed to the 'madam you slide' mantra, as I'm sure everyone eventually does. It was fun but my white top still carries traces of the red sand. The colour of the sand and topography in the area was so familiar, I felt like I was at Mungo National Park in NSW!

What didn't feel anything like Australia was the fishing village we then visited at 6.30am. The market was at its chaotic and colourful peak. The fishing boats were moored just off shore and there were baskets everywhere on the beach containing the night's catch which was being weighed, peeled, gutted etc by women in conical hats. There were even buffalo-drawn carts on the beach ready to take the fresh produce off to the market. It was very photogenic. I'll try to post some photos soon. I'll write more soon about my couple of weeks in Dalat, Nha Trang, Hoi An and Hue. I'm off to Lao in a few days too so stay tuned!

Monday, July 11, 2005


Born again in Saigon

Welcome to my first post from Vietnam. Today was my first day travelling alone. I began the new chapter this morning with a reasonably drastic haircut (but not drastic enough to warrant a photo - sorry!). It was a relaxing experience which included a surprise facial, that is, I was surprised when they started cleansing and massaging my face as well as my hair. So I now feel lighter and ready for my adventure. After the salon I confidently set out on foot, waving away cyclos, motos and taxis in the direction of some markets I wanted to visit. With the assistance of the map, I found what I was looking for. This was exciting for me since I have a particularly bad sense of direction and spent the last week following Jono around like a puppy while he lead with map and compass. A compass would just confuse me further so I was just going with the map. I detoured via a bank and managed to let them give me a cash advance for $100 using my advanced diving certification as ID, which incidentally has my name spelt incorrectly as Natlaie, (together with a photocopy of my passport). Normally you are meant to have your passport to get money but the hotels here hang on to your passport and show them to the police apparently - some communist keeping tabs on foreigners thing...

After the bank, I was walking through one of the pleasant Saigon parks, when a Vietnamese guy on a bicycle calls me over and says he's a student and asks if he could practise English with me. I thought why not - seems harmless and I'm in my new confident and open minded traveller mode. He signaled to a park bench close to the road. I made up a story that I couldn't talk for long because I was meeting a friend. The conversation starts relatively predictably.
'Where are you from?' Australia.
'Where in Australia?' Sydney.
'Are there a lot of Italians living in Sydney - you're Italian aren't you?' Well no.
'But your grandparents are Italian - am I right?' Yes my grandparents are Italian. (well....it was much easier to go along with it!!!!) 'Can I ask you a question?' Sure.
'Do you want to be brung again?' Sorry?
'Do you want to be brung - b-o-r-n - again - you know, recycled?' OK I know what you're trying to say (laughing by me).
'Don't be nervous, Jesus loves you and died for your sins.' etc etc etc etc.
I asked him some questions like Aren't Vietnamese people normally Buddhists? He said yes but he found God in 1990 when a New Zealand guy asked him 'Do you want to be born again?' and he said yes. Now he cruises the streets of Saigon on his bike with his black brief case using cunning means to 'spread the word'. I found it all quite amusing and just smiled said I wasn't interested and walked away to my 'lunch appointment' with him calling out to me that Jesus died for my sins. Sad now that if a Vietnamese student really wants to practise English with me I'll be a bit suspicious.

The week I spent with Jono travelling from Phnom Penh by boat to the Mekong Delta then through the Delta to Saigon was great. There are many stories from that week. I might let Jono tell them on his blog (link on the side of my blog page) and hopefully the photos will be on his blog also.

But just in brief... after our river border crossing which involved many hands 'borrowing' our passports and an order that before anything else can be done we must go to the toilet (a problem with our helper's lack of more subtle English words rather than a requirement to enter Vietnam we assumed), we boated along the canal into Chau Doc. There we visited some interesting temples and had a sauna and massage at what was certainly a brothel (very innocent, I assure you - but maybe keep an eye on Jono's blog for that one). The local mini bus we took from Chau Doc to Cantho was part of a cigarette smuggling operation. I was sitting next to a women who looked like the Michelin man with cigarette boxes strapped all over her body under her clothes. At one point she handed me one of her many bags full of cigarettes to hold but I maintain that I lacked the mens rea to be guilty of the smuggling. It was only confirmed to us after the trip what was really going on.

In Cantho we went to the floating markets at 5.30am. They were amazing so hopefully you will see photos soon. Another highlight of the Delta was a homestay we arranged by complete luck and fluke with a family on an Island in the middle of the Mekong River. The family was lovely, especially the gorgeous grandkids. They showed us around the lovely island and fed us well and we repayed them adequately for the damage done when Jono crashed their motorbike into a ditch. Those so inclined, don't panic. Jono only got a couple of scratches. RIP banana tree and papaya tree.

Saturday, July 02, 2005


Sounds of Phnom Penh

I'm off to travel in Vietnam tomorrow so this will be the last post from Cambodia for a while. It's hard to believe I left Australia exactly 2 months ago. I have really enjoyed being in Phnom Penh and the couple of trips around Cambodia but am also very keen to hit the road and experience the new sites, sounds, smells (well maybe not keen for all the smells) and tastes of Vietnam.

To give a bit more of a picture of Phnom Penh, I will try to describe some of the interesting calls and sounds I hear everyday from inside and outside the house. There are many street sellers here and many of them have a unique cry to alert potential buyers. A ubiquitous call is what sounds to me like 'bung bung'. This is the bread man on his bicycle. We sometimes like to buy his fresh baguettes and delicious sweet bread in the mornings but the problem is he thinks he's competing in the Tour de France and by the time we fumble around for money and gate keys he's a hundred metres down the road. Anthea sometimes chases him down on her bike.

The next most often heard cry sounds to me like 'ot chey' which is the people collecting bits and pieces for recycling. I should make it clear that this is NOT because Cambodia is such and environmentally friendly place and they are trying to entice Ian Keirnan to orchestrate a clean up Cambodia campaign... it's a place where the road/footpath etc is the rubbish bin. It's just people trying to eke out a living. Often the children and babies will travel with the scraps in the wooden carts that are slowly pushed along.

Then there's the ice cream trolley. We are not talking 'Streets' here, it's ice cream on a stick sitting in little metal moulds. A treat I will probably not risk trying here. However, just like the 'ice cream van' of my childhood, this one plays music but instead of greensleeves (is that what it was called??) it plays the Lambada. Anthea told me the other day that some reversing trucks also play the Lambada. Not a very safe double-up for the hungry distracted child I would have thought...

My favourite sound of all is our washing machine at home which plays 'here's comes the bride' before AND after the wash! What's the message there? And if there's not meant to be a message - What the??!

There's also the guy on the pushbike with a stereo on the back who you give money to to play your favourite Khmer tunes so you can listen to 20 seconds of it as he rides off down the road... (as you can tell I haven't quite figured out how this one works). There are also various horns and bells to signal the coming of items I haven't worked out yet. Of course there are dozens and dozens of other street sellers on foot, push bike, or more sedentary, who don't use music, sounds or calls... they sell anything and everything like noodles, sweets, savory little pancake things, tiny snails with chili (very popular with the locals), fried fish, unidentifiable things to drink, brooms, sarongs, bath mats, plastic bowls etc etc etc. There are even people walking around with a set of scales you can stand on to weigh yourself for a small fee.

The other obvious sounds of the streets are constant beeps - just to warn other vehicles that you're there, and, especially if you are a foreigner, the cry of moto, motorbike... but my thoughts of and experiences with moto taxis are the subject of a whole other blog!

I just want to finish with one story which I love from my flatmate Stewart. He works for Oxfam and very often travels to remote villages in the provinces. He gives his spiel to the villagers about the work he does and the Oxfam project in the village then asks if there are any questions. Inevitably there is one question for him. 'Are you married?' Cambodia can be a sweet place!


Dolphin in Kratie province

Dolphin in Kratie province
Originally uploaded by nat neumann.
Ever wondered where your donation to Oxfam goes?! Hope you like kitch faded statues. Just joking - Oxfam does really great work here. Next to this Oxfam dolphin was health promotion and anti-domestic violence billboard sponsored by Oxfam. I'm showing this photo as a poor second to the real thing which were much better in real life than in the photos. Have a look at the link 'nat neumann'to see some more of my recent photos from Kratie and Phnom Penh.

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