Adios Camboya, hola Vietnam

Optamos por ir a Vietnam en barco desde Cambodia navegando el rio Mekong. Se suponia que el viaje era una experiencia inolvidable, la verdad es que no fue para tanto. En cualquier caso, fue una buena y relajada llegada a Vietnam en la ciudad de Chau Doc. Cenamos pescado en la rivera del rio y nos fuimos directos a la cama. Al dia siguiente nos tocaba seguir con el viaje.

Camino a Ho Chi Min City paramos un par de dias en Can Tho con la idea de conocer uno de los famosos mercados flotantes. Lo mejor es ir a primera hora de la manana, en torno a las 7, que es cuando el mercado esta mas activo.

Diferentes productores locales de los alrededores se acercan cada dia a vender sus mercancias, frutas y verduras principalmente. Se suelen comprar grandes cantidades pero nostoros, con ayuda del guia, conseguimos comprar una sola pina y disfrutarla mientras contemplabamos el panorama.

West Cape Howe Cabernet Merlot 2011

Not tasted in a proper wine glass. Not left to breathe.

Blackberry and raspberry, vanilla, eucalyptus, a touch of smoke with a hint of balsamic. Slightly acid with a bit of sweetness, medium aftertaste. 92/100. 19.50 AUD.

The rocks

There is a free shuttle bus from Central to The Rocks, the old city centre which has recently undergone a lot of renovation. It reminded us a bit of London's South Bank. We had a picnic, saw the Opera House (from afar), walked around the back streets and ended up by the Observatory with beautiful views of Sydney North.

Normally the shuttle bus stops at 15:30 so we just missed the last one. We were lucky someone overheard us and old us or we could have been waiting for an hour. Somebody else overheard that and offered us his bus ticket with 5 rides (he must have been just leaving Sydney and didn't need it anymore). Result!

Stopped at our playground again for a bit more frolicking. This time it was much emptier so Lucas and Aisha had a few goes on the zipline.

Just finished booking everything in New Zealand. Feels good to have it all sorted. As Peppa Pig famously sang, "we're going on holiday... in a campervan".

So what's it like being back in "civilisation"? On the on hand it's good to be a bit more independent. Speaking the language and having proper services and a kitchen means we are a lot more independent. No more middlemen to help us get stuff done. It's also nice to be able to walk on a pavement, not worry about illnesses, and brush teeth with tap instead of bottled water. On the other hand it's a lot less exotic and different, and a heck of a lot more expensive. No doubt we'll miss Southeast Asia and it's quirky ways.

Kampong Chhnang

Kampong Chhnang es una buena parada entre Battambang y Phonm Pehn, y una excusa para visitar uno de los mas famosos pueblos flotantes del lago Tonle Sap.

La ciudad en si no tiene mucho y gran parte de ella estaba levantada, como Madrid en agosto, con lo cual era bastante intransitable. Nada mas llegar encontramos un parque estupendo para los ninos asi que dejamos las mochilas en el hotel y fuimos directos para alla. Despues de varias horas de autobus era justo lo que necesitabamos. Fue un parque bien aprovechado ya que alli mismo conocimos y contratamos a nuestro conductor de tuc-tuc para el tour del dia siguiente.

Casi toda la manana la pasamos visitando pequenos negocios locales dedicados a la ceramica, una de las principales fuentes de ingresos de la zona. Por la tarde en el puerto cogimos un pequena barca, con una estupenda capitana, que nos dio una vuelta por uno de los dos pueblos flotantes de la zona. Es impresionante ver como todo un pueblo, con sus tiendas, casas  y colegio se puede trasladar al rio y acomodar a la temporada de lluvias sin problema. Segun nos contaron el nivel del agua puede subir hasta 10 metros.

Terminamos el dia adentrandonos en la zona mas rural, viendo el secado de chilis, los pueblos de pescadores y los campos de arroz.

Arrival in Sydney

Didn't want to worry anybody but now we have landed I can say it. We travelled Air Malaysia. Surely at the safest time during their history (and they are a very safe airline), after the disappearance of MH370 they are probably triple-checking everything.

Sydney is definitely a young city, we can hardly see anybody over 40 in the streets. Maybe it's the traffic lights - they stay green for such a short time there is no way a little old lady can cross the road. I guess all OAPs have moved or slowly starved to death because they can't get to the supermarkets. Which, by the way, don't sell alcohol. Licensing laws are very strict. Your only option (apart from the pub) is the bottle shop (aka an off license). Taxes are sky high, a can of normal lager will set you back about 4.50 AUD. Wine is much more cost-effective.

Apart from that terrible flaw Sydney is a lovely city. It has the feel of a provincial city, but with skyscrapers. It is a cross between England (but newer, cleaner and sunnier) and the far East (there are Chinese and Japanese restaurants everywhere).

After settling in we went to the best public playground I have seen. It has a zipline, river, geysers, a huge slide and much more. Being Sunday it was completely packed but there was plenty of rides for all (though there was a pretty long queue for the zipline). We spent a couple of hours there and headed back for an early night to get rid of the jetlag.

Lesson learnt today: don't accidentally leave your food in the "common / left behind for others" section of the fridge at a YHA - it quickly disappears and there will be nothing left by the time you realise your mistake.

Last day in Southeast Asia

Quite a hectic day's travel. Got the bus at 8am and crossed back to the other side of Cat Ba, to the main pier. From there we got the boat to the mainland, and then the bus to Hanoi. We knew the taxis at the bus station were notorious for dodgy meters so we haggled for a fixed fare to the airport (knowing what the fare should be we haggled him down to half price). Then something bizarre, our taxi driver took us to a taxi rank and we changed car and driver (arranged price still stands). Either he didn't want to be seen round the airport with a dodgy meter (and probably no licence) or it made more sense for him to scoot back to the bus station to lure unsuspecting fares to use the taxi meter. Better for us, the new car was bigger, newer, more comfortable and more legal.

Got to the airport with plenty of time. Caught the flight to Kuala Lumpur and we are now just boarding the second leg to Sydney.

So what are our impressions of the 3 countries we have visited and the region as a whole?

Nearly three months in Southeast Asia is getting close to saturation. Differences between the countries notwithstanding, it eventually all becomes a bit "same, same". This is especially true if you travel with children and can't do much trekking or going off the beaten track. We are ready for something new.

It would have been nice to get off the tourist trail a bit more, but it's hard. There a quite a few things against us: finding milk, decent accommodation, heavy luggage, long bus rides... The kids don't appreciate it, and also we don't really have time to do enough research (I guess we could just randomly head out and hope it all works out with a bit of improvisation, but that could also end in a dead end).  All in all I'm sure we could have done more, but the aim of this trip is just to have a nice stress-free time, to bond as a family, and to go with the flow in exotic-enough locations. If we wanted to tread paths never trodden on before I guess we would have started out in Mongolia instead of Thailand.

It was a shame leaving Thailand a bit early. We could have definitely spent more time there, especially exploring the beaches. We had ruled out Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, but we could have also explored the East part of the country a bit.

Cambodia was the hardest country to be in, but being able to just get taxis everywhere for next to nothing made it pretty easy. What it lacks in laid back relaxation and beauty it makes up by being different and interesting. The people are incredibly friendly and helpful for a nation that has suffered so much and continues to be in a shambles.

In Vietnam we could have skipped the beaches. Not a patch on the ones in Thailand and pointless unless you are a kitesurfer. It was a shame missing out on Hue, Hoi An and Sappa. Here is where you have to keep your wits about you, there are many more scammers and self-interested people than in the other two countries.

I think we were wise to avoid Laos. Myanmar might have been interesting but we hadn't done any research. Northern Malaysia could also have been cool, or even Indonesia (though apart from beaching is there much else you can do with 2 small children?).

All in all it has been a stress-free taster of the region which we have all enjoyed immensely. It's great spending so much time together and seeing how the kids soak it all in. It's also nice to see we are pretty much on budget - money isn't important and all that but it is an issue if we want to do this for 8 months.

Conexion Battambang

A primera vista Battambang parece uno de esos sitios donde no hay mucho que hacer, pero la realidad es otra. En 4 dias, y gracias a nuestro genial conductor de tuc-tuc, conseguimoes ver un monton de cosas y acercarnos a la Camboya mas rural.

Empezamos fuerte con el circo de Phare, una asociacion con casas de acogida para la infancia, que educa a los ninos en el arte del circo, la musica, la pintura y el teatro. El espectaculo de circo fue muy divertido y emocionante, Lucas y Aisha querian volver al dia siguiente.

En los 3 dias siguientes visitamos la zona rural donde las familias viven de la pesca, los cultivos, la fabricacion de papel de arroz o el procesado de la pasta de pescado, uno de los condimentos mas utilizados en la cocina asiatica. En todos los casos son procesos muy rudimentarios que se suelen desarrollar con mas intensidad en la temporada seca.

Tambien vimos una granja de cocodrilos. Yo no habia visto tantos cocodrilos juntos en mi vida y me quede impresionada con la velocidad con la que reaccionan ante cualquier estimulo. Estaba deseando salir de alli!

Desde Battambanag tambien se puede visitar el tren de bambu, visita obligada si viajas con ninos, varios templos y la cueva de los muercielagos. Un espectaculo de la naturaleza que deja boquiabierto a cualquiera. A diario a las 18 de la tarde, con puntualidad inglesa, salen escopetados por una ranura de la montana cientos de miles de murcielagos con rumbo a un bosque cercano donde se ponen las botas comiendo insectos.

Por la tarde-noche la oferta de restaurantes y bares en Battambang no tiene despercicio. Hay para todos los gustos y bolsillos.

Cannon fort

Woke up to the sound of blaring techno at 7am. They have some sort of festival going on and what better time to do a sound check?

No plans for today. We had thought of doing a spot of rock climbing but the weather forecast looked bad. Plus with my toe I wasn't going to slip into some climbing shoes very easily. Instead we did the small walk up to the cannon fort, built to fight the French and later used against the Americans. It is on a small, strategic hill dominating the nearby seas. I read on the ticket a drink was included at the terrace bar at the top. When we reached there and asked for a couple of bottles of water and the woman asked for money. When we said it was included she said oh, yes. You really need to keep your wits about you here.

The two cannons are suitably impressive, and there are a few rooms with items used by the soldiers during the war: rifles, radios, ammunition boxes... There is also a scary U-shaped tunnels and a few sleeping quarters with beds.

This is our last full day in Vietnam. Tomorrow we travel to Hanoi and from there to Sydney to start the English-speaking leg of the journey. Sadly it will be less exotic, but I'm sure we'll make up for that in other ways.

Halong Bay

As expected, Halong Bay is truly magnificent. The reason to come to Cat Ba was twofold. Firstly to see a part of Halong Bay not normally covered by tours from Halong Bay City. Secondly to do it on the cheap, as being in Cat Ba means you are in the thick of it and a one-day tour is enough, no need for expensive overnight boat trips.

It didn't start perfectly. I dropped a bottle of water on my toe and it hurt like hell all day. I wouldn't be surprised if the toenail came off someday soon.

We started out from Cat Ba Town's tourist harbour, a short bus ride from town. From there we caught the boat out through a floating village inhabited by local fishermen and their families. In no time at all we were in Lan Ha bay, a truly beautiful bit of the Cat Ba island coastline with towering rocks and the odd fishing boat. The weather was pretty overcast but visibility was OK. Even though the light wasn't perfect the view made up for it, and I beat my record of photos taken in a day. It would probably be even better in sunlight, or even in mist, but as it stood it reminded me both of the Antarctic and of the Galapagos islands, two of the most amazing tours we've been on.

After Lan Ha bay you come into Halong Bay proper. We then headed for Thien Cung (Heavenly Palace) Grotto, recently discovered and only opened to the public about four years ago. It was well lit and quite easy to walk around. The kids had a great time inside, especially since in one of the rooms (the "party room") you could bang on the stalactites and make a drum sound.

After the cove we headed to a lovely area for a spot of sea kayaking. These kayaks were more comfortable with the kids than the ones in Cambodia, and we had a dry bag to put the camera in. However navigating was a bit more complicated (in this case having to keep up with the group) and the camera less accessible, so there were less photo opportunities. The hardest bit was the first cave. With the low tide we managed to get completely stuck round the first bend. As we were right behind the guide we messed it up for all the rest of the kayaks. In the end the guide came back, saying he couldn't go further because of the tide. I suspect he said that to make us feel better.

Next cave (a short tunnel really) was much better. But the tide was too low for the third cave to we had to double back. By then Aisha had fallen asleep on my lap - she can fall asleep anywhere. We were nearly back at the boat, just one more cave / tunnel so I didn't have to put my back out trying to avoid hitting her on the head.

On the way back we stopped for a spot of swimming by a small deserted beach. The water was pretty cold but Lucas and I braved in (I wasn't too keen on the idea, I'm more of a warm seas swimmer myself). Then we headed home, with a beautiful sunset (the clouds had cleared up a bit) to accompany us on the way. Magic.

First impressions of Cat Ba

Hmm, not good. We are in the middle of Ha Long bay and it doesn't feel like a "rock wonder in the sky". One of the reasons for this is because it is misty and cloudy. The other is because we are in Cat Ba Town, not on a junk in the open waters. We have come here to be in the thick of it and at the same time escape from the crowds doing the "normal" tour from Halong Bay city. There are dozens of hotels but it feels like each only has one room occupied - there are very few tourists around. We are getting hassled my motorbike taxis and shop owners in ways we haven't seen since Cambodia.

We have some sort of fair going on. Not quite sure about what it is - there seem to be Cat Ba tourist stands, but virtually all the visitors are locals. There is a speaker blaring out something in Vietnamese at machine-gun speed, it feels like an experiment in hypnotising or brainwashing you into buying stuff.

Apart from the town being pretty ugly (even uglier when you contrast it with the lovely green mountain backdrop) and the food not being anywhere near as good as Hanoi, or even Scunthorpe, the decision still looks good. Tomorrow it may be a bit sunnier. We have booked at a reputable agency. What can go wrong?

The ride in was interesting. Halfway through Aisha, asleep, had a wee all over the bus seat and down the aisle. She didn't even wake up. I joined the conductor in towelling down the floor a bit but soon after we changed bus so all was well. Then on the third bus she nearly vomited but kept it in like a trooper.

Mausoleum and water puppets

Ho Chi Minh's body is displayed at his mausoleum, near the old quarter. It s only open until 10:30 so we knew there would be no chance of seeing him. We went anyway, just to see it from outside and check out the mausoleum complex. There is a Ho Chi Minh propaganda centre museum, a lovely tiny temple (the One Column Pagoda), gardens and open square areas (not as big as expected, I thought they would be a bit more over the top) and the mausoleum itself, a proper totalitarian concrete neoclassic symmetrical carbuncle with serious-looking soldiers dressed in white dotted about the place.

After getting told off by the soldiers (not sure if it was because Esther and Lucas were running around in front of Ho Chi Minh's resting place or because Aisha crossed a yellow line, or both) we spent some time by the pagoda. Lucas and Aisha found some rooms and, deciding there were too many leaves, decided to sweep the place. They could have spent hours there so finally we dragged them off back to the old quarter for lunch.

Water puppetry originated in Northern Vietnam in the 12th century. The shows were played during the rainy season when everything was flooded. I'm not a great fan of traditional music in general, especially from Southeast Asia. Vietnamese music is no exception, to me it sounds a bit like Ali Farka Toure on Valium. But together with the puppets it was all right. Bit 'a culture innit. The puppets have some quite cool moves for things made out of wood and wire. The stage itself is a pool (hence the name) and they are controlled by some sticks which disappear under the water, with the puppet masters hidden behind some blinds.

Went to the post office to send a few useless items back to Madrid. We no longer need one of our guide books, nor the mosquito nets. Also sent off a couple of pairs of shoes that Lucas and Aisha have hardly used. With that gone we have a bit more space in the backpacks.

Early rise tomorrow - we have a 7:20 bus to Cat Ba, an island in Halong Bay.

Temple of Literature

The Temple of Literature is a temple dedicated to Confucius, built in the 11th century and expanded and restored over the years. It hosts Vietnam's first national university which was established to educate the nation's bureaucrats, nobles and royalty. Eventually it was abandoned when the capital (and Imperial Academy) was moved to Hue in the 18th century, to be finally restored by the French as a historical monument.

It is within walking distance from the old quarter so we decided not to catch a taxi and take in the sites of the streets of Hanoi. Progress is pretty slow with two small children in tow, especially if you pass 5 toy shops on the way. We still had a third of the way to go when we stopped for lunch.

Finally we got there and went inside. It is a lovely complex, though the first few courtyards are overrun with tourists. At the back Lucas was impressed by a huge drum the size of a small house, though the highlight of the tour was the ice creams. They also had a great time tying their fleeces round their necks like a cape and flying around being superman (and woman). I got saved from a volcano, a snake, a crocodile and 8 baddies. I don't know what Confucius would have thought of it.

Outside we got in a taxi and noticed the meter was clocking up like it had had too many Vietnamese coffees so we told the driver to stop. Had an argument, paid him what the meter said, and got in another taxi. Foolish us for getting into a taxi waiting outside a tourist attraction. At least after the Saigon experience we can catch them early.

We were trying to get to a theme park on the West lake, but our taxi driver hadn't heard of it and we didn't have the proper address. The West lake is huge, so it was going to be like finding a needle in a haystack. Went to a cafe to grab some WiFi and, third taxi lucky, got to the place. Unlucky really, it was closed. We still had a backup plan, a shopping centre with a play area. Vowed never to promise the kids rides ever again. With all this rushing around we didn't get time to see the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum complex (closed on Monday's, bu we just wanted to see if from the outside). Maybe tomorrow.

One last adventure before bedtime: Aisha vomited during dinner. It was a pretty controlled affair and I think most people didn't even notice, lucky them. She doesn't look ill or anything, it was completely out of the blue (well, pink actually as she had beet eating ketchup).

Lesson learnt today: if fruit sellers spontaneously offer you all their gear for a photo op they will suddenly insist you buy loads of fruit off them. We just told them no way Jose; got a free cool photo and serves them right for being so cheeky. I realise they are poorer than us (though they aren't exactly desperate) but that tactic is out of order.

Hanoi old quarter

We are smack in the old part of Hanoi, which is great. Just stepping out of the hotel means you get straight to the business of doing tourism. Today was cloudy and cold (it looks like the next few days will be similar), so we all sent our shorts to the wash and put on long trousers. The old quarter is really cool. For once it all the adjectives in Lonely Planet are fully deserved. It is full of narrow streets crammed with food stalls, cafes and all sorts of shops. There are virtually no house fronts, you access your flat through narrow dodgy looking passageways dotted about the place.

After walking for a bit we came to Hoan Kiem lake, a small lake in the middle of the old town. Next to the lake is the municipal water puppet theatre where we bought tickets for the Tuesday show. After that we crossed a short bridge to an 18th century pagoda on an island in the lake, Ngoc Son (Jade Mountain) Temple. Gave Buddha an offering of incense sticks, looked around for the 200 year old turtle of the lake and soon headed out.

The kids insisted we get a rickshaw tour for an hour, so we got cycled around the streets as the sky turned darker. Soon it started to rain, but the rickshaw has a roof, plus you get covered in plastic sheets, so we were perfectly dry. It was the only shower of the day, so it was good it didn't catch us on the streets.

Hanoi is famous for it's food, especially on the streets. We dove into a local place (with roof, in case it rains again) with plastic stools and had a great lunch, followed by a great coffee next door (where the kids were subjected to a photo shoot by a group of Chinese tourists).

For the rest of the day we went to a shopping mall to go to the cinema (Mr Sherman and Peabody). Did a spot of shopping as well, while we waited for the film to start. Lucas got new shoes (with lights when you walk!), Aisha got some sandals to replace the $3 ones we bought after forgetting hers on the bus, and Esther got a pair of jeans. I'm OK for clothes.

Flower power

There was one last thing in Dalat I had decided to visit, alone: the flower garden. I wanted to have a nice quiet photo session there so I got up at 7 (the garden opens at 7:30), grabbed the camera and crept out. Had to jump the fence as it was closed an none of the hotel staff were around. Later I remembered we had been given 2 keys, maybe one was for the gate padlock. In any case I didn't have the keys on me and I wasn't going to go back to the room.

It's a nice walk round the lake to the gardens and I got there about 10 minutes after opening time. Despite the time (actually the sun was pretty bright by then) there were quite a few people inside. All Asians - some local, some tourists - I guess they are more used to getting up with the sun than Westerners.

I wondered around for over an hour, blissfully taking photographs without having to keep one eye open for the kids. The garden wasn't that amazing, and flowers are not exactly my favourite subject matter, but it was pleasant enough.

Walked back to the hotel in time for breakfast with the rest of the gang. We spent the rest of the morning just lazing about the garden and doing some serious packing (unlike the bus, we need to keep the number of hand luggage bags down to 4 for the airport). Had lunch in our train carriage ad then caught a taxi to the airport (which is quite far our of Dalat).

This is the first flight we have taken since hearing bout the Air Malaysia flight, but we weren't nervous. I was much more queasy getting on a flight from Madrid to Bilbao a week after the 2008 Spanair crash (you could actually see the charred crater during takeoff). Arrived at Hanoi without incident. We has a pickup to take us straight to the hotel (apparently airport taxis can be a bit dodgy in Hanoi, plus the price was good). It was already dark so we didn't see much on the way. Fairly cold and drizzly as well.

Lang Bian and Truc Lam

Lang Bian is a mountain a few kilometres out of town. You can walk up for a few hours or take a jeep. We were quite lucky as there were 4 people hanging around waiting for a car to fill up (they take 6) so we joined them - otherwise we would have had to pay for a complete jeep. The views at the top are supposed to be amazing, but not if you follow our usual timetable - by the time we arrived it was all pretty hazy. Still, we had plenty of fun at the top of the mountain looking at the horses, playing with various farm implements and relaxing on the swings.

Nearby is a Lat tribe village, famous for its weaving. Since it was getting on for lunchtime and we didn't think the kids (nor us) would be interested in visiting a workshop we gave it a miss and went straight to the (very modern) cable car. This takes you o'er hill and dale to the Truc Lam religious complex. Here we saw our first Vietnamese monks (in Thailand and Cambodia they are everywhere). The pagodas were in a much more subdued style, with beautiful gardens. Much more Japanese: cosmopolitan, sophisticated and minimalistic. Your typical Thai temple is much more baroque and bling - a tad naff, provincial and nouveau riche by comparison (though still awesome and much enjoyed, don't get me wrong).

Today is our last day in Dalat. Frankly we could have spent a few more, it has been a much better experience than the two beach places we have just visited. There are quite a few more things to see here, though we have covered the essentials. Tomorrow we catch our first flight in ages all the way to Hanoi. It would have been nice to stop at Hue beforehand but we didn't think we'd really get the most out of it with the kids (mostly palaces and temples).

Train day

The train line from Dalat to Saigon got all but obliterated during the war and after that was never rebuilt. Everything salvageable was slowly converted to scrap and only two weeks ago a group of train enthusiasts (the owner of our hotel amongst them) managed to rediscover the location of the last station remaining to be found, deep in the jungle. 8km of track, from Dalat to the nearby town of Trai Mat, have been conserved however and a train goes back and forth various times a day for the tourists.

Even though we had reserved seats yesterday it hadn't actually been written down anywhere. Luckily we bumped into the conductor who had "organised" it and were allowed on.

Trai Mat is a dusty ugly town that doesn't have anything much going for it except a beautiful pagoda on a hill. However you only get 40 minutes before the train leaves again so there is no time to visit it. So we just went hunting for ice cream instead (mission impossible, settled for sweets instead).

We were supposed to get another cable car to a monastery but we didn't have the energy and it was getting late (most tourist attractions in Dalat close around 4-5pm). So instead we just hung around the market again. The kids got some much-needed new trousers (it's amazing how quickly they can get a pair dirty).

Crazy house and Datanla Falls

Looking for a taxi we ended up at the old train station. While there we booked our train for tomorrow (a short 8km journey down a surviving bit of track to a nearby village) as it gets fully booked. From there we drove to the Crazy House, a really mad construction on the other side of Dalat. It is a cross between Gaudi and Giger, with maybe a bit of Dali and Escher thrown in. I'm glad we didn't book a room here though - I guess it can get really annoying with all the visiting tourists and the winding walkways with room just for one person (and sheer drops down below). But for a short visit it's great, even though you have to hold your kid's hand all the time - even without a person coming in the opposite direction the walkways are tricky.

From there we caught another taxi to Datalna Falls, the closest waterfalls to town about 7km away. Had a great ride to the first waterfalls on a sort of bobsleigh down a metal rail track. You control the brakes so you can go as fast or as slow as you like (as long as you keep a 25m distance to the bobsleigh in front). Esther rode with Lucas in the first sleigh and I with Aisha right behind.

The first set of falls are OK, but then you can take a cable car and lift further down to a second set. We liked these much more as there were many less people milling around - we were virtually on our own. The kids went skinny dipping in the (pretty cold) river for a while and then we headed back up to our waiting taxi - they are pretty happy to hang around for you if you go out of town.

With all missions of the day completed we just hung around the market for a bit and then we took the kids for a treat to the children's play area at the shopping mall.

It looks like we have made an expensive mistake concerning New Zealand. We knew the flight to Auckland would be over 400 euros cheaper (for the four of us) than Queenstown, but we want to explore the South island first before Autumn sets in. Since it would take 3 days intensive driving paying a bit more made sense. But now we have realised campervan rental prices are more expensive in the South, so not starting in Auckland looks like a much costlier affair.


Up early to catch the bus to Dalat (had to fight for our rightful seats again, I'm glad this is the last sleeper bus we need), a town about 4h away in the interior. It is quite a mountainous region so the road is a bit wobbly, which eventually triggered a bit of breakfast overflow from Aisha. This bus was much older than the previous two we have been on and, barely 20km from Dalat, it refused to go up a hill. It took an hour tinkering with the motor before they convinced it to continue.

This area is famous (in Vietnam at least) for grapes (and wine), strawberries and flowers. There are a few waterfalls and lots of nice countryside to visit. The town itself is very pretty, set round a nice lake. You could be forgiven for thinking you are in Switzerland.

Our hotel is pretty cool. We wanted something a bit different so we are in the outskirts of town with a nice garden area. It is near the old train station (much of the train line was bombed to smithereens) and has a distinctly train theme about it - the restaurant and breakfast area is a train carriage. I hadn't realised it but we actually have a lounge and a small kitchen so after lunch we headed out to find a supermarket.

Just before we found it we bumped into a bunch of small electrical cars for kids. Lucas and Aisha loved them and after a few false starts were soon driving round the small square with the rest of the kids (like yesterday, all local). It took a bit of convincing (well, the promise of more another day) before we convinced them to leave for the supermarket (a very modern affair in a shopping mall by the lake). Cooked our own dinner for the first time in months.


Happy St. Patrick's day!

First sighting of rain since we left. Must have come straight from Ireland. This morning it was pretty cloudy and, on our way to the water park, we found ourselves under a chilly drizzle. Then we also realised the small, cheap water park is no more. The dry rides were rusty hunks, the wave pool had been converted to a pond, the kiddie's pool had been stripped down and was now an up-market sunbed lizard paradise with a cocktail bar, and the slides had been taken down. Phu Dong water park must have died a death and the salvageable parts of it converted into commercial ventures.

We promised the pool if the weather got better (at least it had some lilos and rubber rings to play around with) and headed into town on our trusty #4 bus. Thank god for shopping malls. You normally don't see us a hundred miles from one back home but when the weather is bad the play area and arcade are a life saver. I even had a peek on the last floor to check out timetables for the cinema if the weather stayed ugly in the afternoon.

It was already warming up when we headed out to the bookstore opposite. Bought some more nice activity books for the kids and then headed back to the pool. Soon it was cold and cloudy again so after a quick dip we were ready to leave. Took the kids back to the centre where there were some rides (purely for local kids - they reminded me of the sort of rides I used to go on when I was small). All in all we made up for the lack of water park. At least the kids thought so.

Hon Chong II

There is an amazing 5-star water park here which we had promised the kids, but it has amazing 5-star prices. Luckily we found a less-than-amazing cheap and cheerful alternative to fulfil our parental obligations. We have left it for the last day to miss the weekend crowds.

Which leaves today to fill with activities somehow. Looked at another beach to the South, over 20km away and probably not worth it. So we decided to check out the local beach, maybe a different spot closer to the centre of town. It was a no-go, the waves were bigger than ever and there was a lot of wind. Decided to go to the same place as yesterday. There it was great again, the wind and sea were much calmer. The kids used to complain every time we mentioned the beach (once there they were fine), but they have stopped doing so lately.

Hon Chong

The beach at the end of the road from our hotel is OK, but not great. It gets quite deep quickly and it is pretty wavy, so it's not ideal for the kids. We saw there are a fair amount of nice beaches to the North, but they are all bout 40km out of town. In the end we decided to give Hon Chong promontory a go. It is a nice view only about 6km North and there is a local bus to take you. There are some beaches around so we thought we could try those.

This bus must be the first public transport we have taken in Southeast Asia since the river boats in Bangkok. It took us right next to Hon Chong. There we paid a little entrance money and scrambled round the rocks for a bit. It's quite a lovely area, and the sea was a brilliant turquoise colour. We were very lucky with the timing, as we were leaving 3 big tour buses pulled up.

The beach just after the promontory looked promising so we walked up it a bit to an area where there were some sunbeds. Not being jet-setters we plonked our towels on the sand next to them. Here the sea was much shallower, the beach much less crowded, and the waves of the ideal height for splashing around (if you were a brave boy or girl). Had a great time. Quite a few locals turned up later in the afternoon, after their work shifts I guess, and joined us bobbing amongst the waves.

Recently I have developed an acute need for meat - I haven't had a decent steak for 2 and a half months - so for dinner we went to a steak house. It was empty but TripAdvisor said it was all right. Meat from New Zealand apparently. It was delicious, I hope they have more there and don't export it all. Washed down with some nice red from Dalat (not great, but pretty drinkable) it will keep me going for another month.

Haircut and beach

The 2 kids and I had much-needed haircuts this morning. Lucas looks Russian now. Aisha just had a bit chopped off the back. I have it a bit longer than my usual number 2 shave.

Then we hit the beach. Saw kitesurfers - a bad sign. After fleeing the wind at Mui Ne, where the wind was dying down, it looks like the wind is now picking up here at Nha Trang. In the end it wasn't too bad: the wind came from the sea (so no flying sand), plus we now have a proper town (instead of a strip of resorts) so if things get ugly at least there is stuff to do. Leaving a day early was worth it.

It actually got a bit chilly in the afternoon, with a few clouds to go with the wind, so after lunch we just had a walk down the beachfront instead of going to the beach again. It is a huge paved area with gardens, slides and exercise machines so we had plenty to do while the sun went down.

Family friendly beach

Kissed a nights' hotel goodbye in exchange for more time at the family-friendly beach town of Nha Trang. A worthwhile sacrifice we hope. The hotel didn't offer us any money back but that's understandable as they have a massive sign at reception saying "sorry, no refunds". Next time we will just not pay in advance.

This time we had insisted on bottom bunks in the sleeper bus. We got them. It was so much better than the previous trip. And the WiFi worked as well so I could wile away the hours with useful activities such as booking our accommodation in Sydney, filling out the eVisitor forms, and checking out the possibility of visiting the Blue Mountains.

We got here after sundown (18:30) but Nha Trang looks nice. Touristy but not as much as expected. Quickly visited the night market for tomorrow's presents and then had a nightcap at a place with love music so the kids could let off a bit of steam after the 5 hours bus ride. Spent some time explaining Another Brick in the Wall to Lucas, and how some songs had lyrics with a story or a message, while Aisha got adopted by a Russian lady on the dance floor.

Sand dunes and fairy stream

Where there is wind there are sand dunes. And where there are sand dunes there is a sand dunes tour. Virtually all the tours use US Army jeeps, for reasons unknown as the jeep doesn't actually go on the sand at any point. Our guess is that a canny businessman started the fashion a few years ago and all the other agencies copied him.

Most of the hotels in Mui Ne are not in town, but strung along the main road down the beaches to the South. The first stop of the tour was in town, near the mouth of the Fairy Stream. This is a brown, muddy stream (or crystal clear stream with a brown, muddy bed - it's difficult to tell in 1cm-deep water). Walking upstream for a bit you enter a small sandy valley with amazing wind-swept formations and eye-catching colours: the top layer a dark red and the bottom layer pure white. Combined with the green vegetation and blue sky it would be postcard-perfect were it not for dozens of other tourists walking down it.

After a short stop to see the fishing boats from a small cliff we got to the red sand dunes. Here you can hire a plastic sheet to use as a sleigh to go down the sandy slopes. Had a great time. We only hired one so we didn't get that tired, though walking up dunes is a hard slog. Hot on the feet too, if only wearing sandals. The girls renting out the sleighs were all wearing socks, German style.

Something had happened to the jeep's wheel but in no time it was fixed and we were on our way. This time to the white sand dunes (the kids fell asleep for a bit in the jeep). Here you can rent quads but we didn't bother. We just walked up the first hill to admire the view; it looks like a desert after the borderline fringe of vegetation.

On the way back we stopped at the red sand dunes again to catch the sunset, before speeding off on our merry way (on an amazing road, methinks the product of some budget over-allocation; it even had huge pavements with lamps and trees in an area with no actual people) back to the hotel.

Aisha's scalp is very itchy lately (been using adult shampoo but now we have some kiddie shampoo which is much milder) so we have got her some aloe oil. Her scalp has always been very delicate, let's hope this does the trick.