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Three days on the Mekong a highlight

A crocodile farm and Angkor Wat, one of the largest religious temples in the world, were just two of the many diverse sights enjoyed by a group of Gisborne locals on their recent escorted tour of Cambodia and Vietnam. Pat Wakelin was there.

Siem Reap, Cambodia — early evening and after getting our visas, we are met at the airport by our guide, Vudha, and driven to the hotel.

We are warned that the next day will be exhausting — be prepared! Drink plenty of water, put on sunscreen and insect repellent!

After a hearty breakfast, a bus is to take us 6km out of town to the Angkor Complex. It is election time in Cambodia and we get caught up in a long and noisy procession of supporters of the Cambodian Peoples Party. Flag waving, loud speakers, hooting and tooting delay us for at least half an hour.

After a full day at Angkor Wat we enjoy dinner at a wonderful Khmer restaurant with the added bonus of a glass of champagne.

The three-day Mekong River cruise aboard the Mekong Explorer with our new guide Adam was undoubtedly a highlight of the trip for me. We travel down the Mekong to Phnom Penh, stopping at various points along the way to observe rural Cambodian life.

Just outside Kampong Chhnang our guide introduced us to a family involved in harvesting coconuts from the sugar palm tree. This involved climbing high into the palms and walking on platforms to harvest the nuts from which various products are made. On the way back we stopped to watch a young woman making “daily use” pots. She worked incredibly hard with very basic tools to support her two children and father.

The afternoon visit to the Green School in the village of Kampong Tralach saw us interact with the children and the teachers and return to the boat via ox cart which was a unique experience and great fun.

There was great hilarity that night as two members of the group were dressed by ship staff in traditional Cambodian attire and then paraded around the deck.

Phnom Penh — so hot and yet so much to see! A visit to the Teol Sleng Genocide Museum during the morning was a must. This reminder of a very brutal and unforgiving period in Cambodian history made me appreciate how lucky I am to live in New Zealand.

The afternoon visits to the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda and the National Museum were a sharp contrast and showed a different side to life in Cambodia.

In Vietnam, we meet our guide, Loc. The following day, we travelled to Tra Su where water-loving plants have formed a large, protected forest. Sampans and canoes took us on a quiet cruise among the vegetation to observe the wildlife.

Lunch was at a crocodile farm where up to 25,000 crocodiles are kept in large concrete enclosures and bred for meat and leather.

On to Saigon and the highlight of the day was an evening performance of the Teh Dar Show, a spectacular showcase of Vietnamese culture and performance art.

Saigon — a walk through the market in Chinatown and then a cyclo ride to central Saigon followed by a visit to the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace. Dinner was on board a beautifully restored rice barge and members of the group let their hair down.

The next day was a sobering visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels which offered a fascinating window into the hardship and traumas of war. Some, but not all, went down into the tunnels.

A visit to a cricket farm followed. Some brave souls tried this delicacy which was cooked, wrapped in rice paper and lettuce leaves and dipped in sauce. Yum!

Hands-on cookingHoi An, south of Da Nang, retains the feel of centuries past. A morning spent touring the market and discovering traditional ingredients was followed by a hands-on class in cooking Vietnamese food. Lunch included the items we had cooked.

Hue is Vietnam’s Imperial City and was modelled on the Forbidden City in Beijing. A walking tour of the Imperial Citadel showed how the buildings have been damaged by war over the years and are now being restored to their former glory. A vegetarian lunch had been prepared by the Buddhist nuns at Lien Hoa Pagoda and was delicious!

Then on to a small village where we were shown the 300-year-old tradition of paper flower-making. A number of the group attempted to make their own flowers with some success.

Hanoi was very hot and humid. The hotel was in the old quarter of the city among crowded market alleys and street vendors. After a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and lunch our guide took us through back alleys and into the home of a water puppet artist, the descendant of a family of water puppet performers. We climbed up a spiral staircase to enjoy a private performance of this ancient art. Superb!

The last few days were spent on a cruise in Halong Bay. Activities included swimming, kayaking, a visit to a cave which has become an archaeological site and a visit to a floating fishing village.

Back in Hanoi for our last night we enjoyed dinner at a lovely French style restaurant where farewells were said to our guide Loc.

Many thanks to our three guides, Vudha, Adam and Loc. Their knowledge, encouragement, enthusiasm, general cheerfulness and mastery of the English language made this the adventure I had expected.







SEAFOOD DELIGHT: Baskets of crabs destined for the dining table.
Harvest: Colin Jones with a local man who harvests coconuts from the sugar palm tree, Kampong Chhnang area.
ALL ABOARD: Patricia Hutchins ready for her ox cart ride, Kampong Tralach village.
Happy band: The travellers from Gisborne.
Underground: A visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) was a sobering reminder of the Vietnam War years.
Cruising down the river: A three-day cruise on the Mekong River gave glimpses of rural life in Cambodia.
JUST HANGING AROUND: Thousands of crocodiles are bred for meat and leather.
DELICIOUS: Crickets for lunch!