Angkor Wat temples

19 January 2019

The alarm went off at 04:00 and, amazingly, both Ian and I had no problem getting up and sorting ourselves out.  I had a quick cup of tea, and put some Deet on in the shower (mosquitoes were likely to be a problem today), before I woke Cornelia using a similar magic spell that we’d agreed on yesterday, and as she was waking, I managed to get her clothes on.  So far, so good!

We were out of our room and downstairs on time for our collection by Xhi Vaht, our tour guide from Angkor Cycling Tours, at 04:40.  I asked him what time he’d had to be up… 03:00 was his answer!  I hope they are paying him well!

The streets were very quiet to start with, and Bugsy was in a remarkably chatty good mood despite being tired.  Xhi explained that we were going to drive to Angkor National Park first to buy our temple passes, then we would drive to Angkor Wat temple and park up, before walking to the West Gate and watching the sun rise from behind the temple.  The streets grew much busier as hundreds of people headed towards Angkor Wat, and we were in the queue by 04:55.  It didn’t take long to buy our one day photo pass (Cornelia was free), and Xhi had lanyards for the paper passes so that they didn’t get damaged. (If you are found to have a damaged pass, it would be deemed invalid, and you’d have to buy another one.)

We drove on to the temple car park, then followed Xhi through the crowds of people, as he led us all the way to the moat surrounding the temple.  It was about 05:30 by the time we arrived, and we were by no means the first people there! The crowds were already two deep from the edge of the moat, and we were lucky to find a spot we could squeeze into, from where Cornelia could see.  Which was not much to start with!  It was still completely dark, and all you could really see were the lights from everyone’s mobile ‘phones.  Then gradually, the light began to come from behind the silhouette of Angor Wat.  It was slow but worth every second of the wait, as the sky changed colours, starting from a dull deep orange and purple, into a bright explosion of fire, then finally the pinks and purples that would turn into a bright blue sky as the day progressed. It was really quite special, despite the company surrounding us!

Venus and Jupiter twinkling away!

Panorama of Angkor Wat and its visitors!

Cornelia was brilliant.  She was looking for stars and planets, and was very excited to see Venus and Jupiter so close together.  We then opened up my “star” app, and started looking for other planets and constellations, which occupied her for almost the whole time.  Far more interesting for a four year old than looking at the sky change colour, that’s for sure!

Once I had had my fill of taking photographs and just staring peacefully at the unbelievable scene in front of me, Xhi took us off for breakfast at one of the cafes 100 or so metres away.  Ian and I both had coffee with condensed milk (condensed milk is VERY popular here) and Bugsy had a hot chocolate.  Then we all ordered pancakes: pineapple for me; banana for Ian; and yes, chocolate for Cornelia.  The set up is great for the local traders.  They basically all serve the same sort of dishes and charge the same price, and all of the tables are lined up in rows, with a small kitchen at the end of each row.  Then, you are brought a menu from the kitchen of whichever row you happen to be sitting in!  As we ate, small kids did the rounds, selling postcards and magnets.  Naturally, I bought an Angkor Wat magnet for our ever-growing collection, but resisted all other offerings.

Unfortunately, as I don’t really eat massive pancakes or drink coffee at breakfast, I started to feel quite unwell almost as soon as we left the cafe.  Xhi took us into the temple and we followed the flow of people, as he gave us some details about Angkor Wat.  Originally built as a Hindu temple to the god Vishnu in the 12th Century, it was converted into a Buddhist place of worship in the 14th Century. Although the statues of Buddha have been destroyed or removed over the years, the many depictions of various Hindu symbolic iconography remain.

Inside the main temple, we explored the four now-empty pools representing the four elements of Fire, Water, Earth and Wind.  It felt slightly awkward being part of the growing mass of tourism movement whilst orange-clad Buddhist monks venerated various niches in the temple; and equally, there were clearly devotees of Vishnu trying to block out the crowds and engaging in worship.  Apparently, over the last twenty years, the number of tourists has increased from less than 20,000 annually to now over 2 million.  These tourists have also caused the steep steps at the centre of the temple to be closed.  The steps are incredibly steep and there had been so many injuries as a result of falls, that a new staircase was built to allow the tourists to reach the top.  The significance of this particular part of the temple was that only the king and priests were allowed there – it symbolised the stairway to heaven, and as the highest point, only the select few were able to climb the staircase.  Xhi also told us that when people climbed the staircase (at the invitation of the king), if they fell off, it meant that they had bad souls, and conversely, if they made it to the top, they were good.  Ian observed that maybe that was why so many tourists had fallen….!

Obviously, Ian and I skipped our way to the top…! Cornelia, however, was not old enough to make the climb, and sat chatting to Xhi in the shade, as we took in the spectacular views, admired the magnificent carvings and strained our eyes for a glimpse of the “big Buddha”, who was set far back and protected by a fence.  But it was all slightly marred by the fact that I now desperately needed the loo!  I felt in danger of fainting or throwing up, as a hot flush engulfed me and my tummy cramped up.  I grabbed Ian as subtly as I could and growled “We have to go… now!” whilst managing to smile at everyone around me.

Xhi, bless him, insisted on telling us more about the history of various parts of the temple, but by now, my concentration had completely vanished.  As soon as I realised that we were about to leave the temple, I casually asked Xhi if there was a bathroom around.  He said “Oh, don’t worry, there are nice government ones at the next temple, which we are going to cycle to now!”.  At this point, I looked at him and just said “Actually, is there one I can just use now?!”  I think he realised my predicament, and took me off to the loo.  Typically, it was locked.  So, he went off to find the key holder.  In the meantime, just as I was considering ripping the lock off, a policeman came past.  I gestured towards the toilet block and he said “No, no, the government toilets at the next temple are better!”  Bloody hell, GIVE ME THE KEY!  He then said that the keyholder was somewhere in the temple.  I nearly cried.  I followed the policeman back around the corner and saw Xhi in the distance.  I waved at him (so far as I could stand up straight to wave, that is) and like a god, a grumpy man appeared with a key.

Why they needed to lock a hole in the ground is beyond me…! I shan’t give any details, but let’s just say, there was a porcelain hole and a large trough of water with a saucepan floating on top.  I’m glad I have strong legs.  And let’s just leave that story there…!

Reunited with Ian and Cornelia (who had found a tube of bamboo and was busy creating some lovely music!), we began our quest to get the helmets on.  We were, to say the least, slightly frustrated by them, as they were completely knackered.  Ian couldn’t get his on his head, and mine had a broken strap.  Cornelia’s was also ill-fitting, and as we knew the route we were taking was quite “bumpy” in parts, weren’t happy to spend the day with helmets that wouldn’t do their job in the event of an accident.  Xhi rang his company and they arranged to supply new helmets at the next temple, so finally, with Cornelia all strapped in to her child seat, off we went.

We had a terrific ride along tracks north of Angkor Wat, taking us to the ancient city of Angkor Thom, where we rode up onto the 7 metre high walls, after crossing an amazing bridge over the moat, lined with (on one side) 54 gods and, on the other, 54 demons, each holding their own multi-headed snake.

This ride took us mercifully away from the crowds and we enjoyed the route through a local village.  Only families living there prior to UNESCO World Heritage status, granted 27 years ago, are allowed to remain in their traditional homes.  No more houses may be built.  On the outskirts of the village was an elephant enclosure, containing fifteen of the beasts.  It was sad seeing them chained up (so they didn’t escape) – they are now only used for the tourist industry, rather than in their historic role as beasts of burden.

At the centre of Angkor Thom is Bayon, another extraordinary temple.  Cornelia was already feeling a bit “templed out”, so I offered to stay with her in the shade, while Ian and Xhi walked around.  By now, it was mid thirties and very humid.  We whiled away our time making funny faces at each other, before Cornelia spied another little girl, with her extended family, who were sitting behind us.  I said she could go and play with her if she wanted, and off she went to say hi.  It was my fault… I’d completely forgotten how popular Cornelia’s blonde hair is, outside of Europe and the States!  The family surrounded her, touching and grabbing her arm for photos with their daughter.  Cornelia did her best to smile, but was looking quite overwhelmed and eventually escaped to bury her head in my lap!  Then her little friend fell over and hurt herself, so Cornelia (bless her) went over to help her up.  This resulted in the family holding her to pose for more photos with their sobbing child!  Cornelia kept looking over at me, desperate for help, so I called her over, just as Ian and Xhi came towards us, having completed their navigation of Bayon.  She raced towards us, and burst into tears.  It was just all a bit too much for her.  The family still crowded around her, so I lifted her up and carried her back to the bikes, smiling and waving through my slightly gritted teeth.

Although Ian was glad he’d looked around Bayon, he’d been unable to take many photos, as the whole place was just packed with people, all jostling to take photos at the same spots. The walls captured historical every day moments, such as crocodiles, cock-fighting, pig-fighting, gambling, cookery and hunting, as well as depictions of Khmer stereotyping of various races with whom they were in conflict.

We cruised on for a short distance, before stopping for lunch.  The set up was similar to that at breakfast – a cluster of tables and kitchens – and Xhi (who knew the staff at this particular one) sourced drinks for us, while we browsed the menu.  Cornelia had some scrambled eggs with a baguette, Ian tried the lok lak again, and I had a chicken and mango salad, despite still not feeling brilliant.  I went off to visit the government bathrooms that had come so highly recommended, and when I returned, everyone was ready to go – complete with new, much-improved helmets!

Experiencing road cycling in Cambodia for the first time, we headed a little further east for a while, before dodging off the road and back onto the quiet tracks, that once again led to the most incredible smaller temples.  They were all built without any kind of mortar to stick the blocks together, so inevitably over time, many of the walls, roofs and doorways have collapsed.  In the main temples, these have been reconstructed, but the smaller ones remain in their natural state, complete with tree roots growing over the masonry.  It is quite surreal – think Indiana Jones meets Tomb Raider!  Even more surreal was the appearance of several runners who, it transpired, were participating in the Angkor Wat ultra marathon / marathon which was taking place this weekend.  I cannot believe that this race was on and I hadn’t realised!  I would have LOVED to have done it, and it is now most definitely on my list of races.  What an epic run that would be!

Cornelia fell asleep in her child seat for about half an hour, as we cycled on through the heat, visiting more relics and our final temple, Ta Prohm, riddled with the giant silk-cotton trees.  Bugsy was now awake, and we strolled through together, but to be honest, we were all now a little temple-weary, and the hordes of people lining up for photos meant that you couldn’t really walk around freely.  Xhi wanted to take a couple of photos for us, which was sweet of him, and I’m glad he did as it preserves our place in history.  Unless the authorities do something to control access to the temples, we can see it all being ground down over the coming years.  And yes, we contributed to that today, I know!

Xhi was completely charming all day, and his knowledge of the area was extensive.  We followed him back along the busy main road (genuinely a fun experience!), stopping only to feed the monkeys some leftover pancake that I’d been carrying around all day.  It turns out, they don’t like pancakes, but Xhi kindly offered up his banana which was snatched right out of his hands and devoured by a pregnant monkey halfway up a tree!

Back in the saddle, we had one final push back to the bike shop, where we were refreshed with cold wet wipes and icy water.  Heavenly!  We had been hoping to buy the blue Angkor Cycling Tours jersey that Xhi had been wearing, but they only had the short-sleeved version in Ian’s size in yellow… So, that’s what he got!

We clambered into our first tuk tuk of the trip, and for $US1, were ferried back to our hotel, at around 16:00.  Half an hour later, Cornelia and Ian were in the pool, while I relaxed on the lounger.  Cornelia got into trouble when, for the second time, she spat water out at Ian (like a spout, as opposed to maliciously, I think), so Ian moved into the warmer jacuzzi tub, adjoining the main pool.  She decided to get in too, but then of course, she didn’t want to get back into the colder water.  It was the perfect way to get her out of the pool and upstairs for a shower.

It had been our intention to go out to the Cambodian street food market for supper, as recommended by Chun yesterday, but Cornelia was now very tired and asked if we could stay in the hotel.  We had enjoyed our meal last night, so agreed that this made sense.  Ian showered first, and went off for a quick explore of the local area (and to try and find a birthday card for me, that I am not supposed to know about), and then Bugsy and I went down to the restaurant, where I ordered her pasta and waited for Ian.  He was only supposed to be half an hour, and I was just about to get worried (nearly an hour had passed!) when I saw him arriving.  Success, I asked?  Of sorts, came the response!  Hmmm….!

Bugsy ate all of her pasta and had an ice cream too (parenting mistake to give a tired child an icecream just before bed time?!), while Ian and I both had good meals again.  I only had pumpkin soup, as my tummy was still quite distended from whatever was making it weird, and Ian had the nasi goreng that I’d enjoyed last night.  Yum.

He was still drinking his beer, so I offered to take Cornelia upstairs and start getting her ready for bed.  Well, she was in bed fast asleep by the time Ian came back upstairs twenty minutes later!  We were also very tired from our 04:00 start, and I was just brushing my teeth, when the doorbell rang.  Quite irritated to be disturbed so late (it was 21:00), I flung the door open with the toothbrush still in my mouth, to find Chun and his colleague standing there with a birthday cake for me, singing Happy Birthday!  I swallowed my toothpaste and invited them in, as they videoed me blowing out my candles and wishing me well.  I was deeply touched.  They asked after Miss Cornelia, so I took them in to her room, so they could see her fast asleep, and they were so thrilled!  Oh, they were just SO sweet.

Once they’d gone, I finished brushing my teeth, and packed up my bags for our flight to our final new country tomorrow morning, but then felt really bad that I wouldn’t have touched their cake, and it might appear very rude.  I rinsed my mouth out as best I could, and asked Ian if he was going to have some too.  Luckily (for my diet!) it didn’t taste as good as it looked, so after a few mouthfuls, I was able to put it back in the fridge, guilt-free, knowing that I wouldn’t have insulted them by not eating any of it.

Finally, finally, I crashed into bed, ready for another early start tomorrow.  We are being collected at 06:00, so the alarm was set for 05:00.  I can’t quite believe this is all coming to an end.  Last new country tomorrow – and it’s also my birthday!

Hair today, gone tomorrow…!

21 January 2019

Ian and I woke up around 07:00 then just lazed in bed on our phones before getting up and showering around 08:30. Cornelia was still sound asleep, so at 09:00 we opened her curtains which was enough to wake her up. She was helpful and got dressed just in time for breakfast which finished at 09:30. I had been expecting a buffet breakfast, but we were handed a menu each and told we could choose either European or American. I went for the former, Ian the latter. Despite the dodgy photos warning us how breakfast would look, we were pleasantly surprised. A plate of fruit that Bugsy and I shared, a banana muffin each (Cornelia had one and a half of those!), muesli and yoghurt for me, eggs, sausage & bacon for Ian, and a mini croissant each. Although were only given tokens for two breakfasts, it was sufficient for the three of us. Cornelia had brought one of her activity books down with her, and she sat with Daddy completing different pages while I enjoyed a cup of tea.

Ian was still determined to shave off his beard, so armed with my nail scissors, I trimmed it down far enough for him to shave the rest off.  He thought that keep the moustache would allow him to fit in to our environment a bit better, but he was banned from doing so!  Twenty minutes later and he was clean-shaven for the first time in months and looked quite different!  Cornelia caught the hairdressing bug, and set up a salon in her bedroom, where she washed, cut and styled our hair… I was a bit nervous that she’d actually use her scissors, but fortunately, she knew that she was just playing!

We had whiled away the morning, not really doing much, but it was time for us to head to the beach.  We had missed the 12:00 shuttle (due to the grooming taking place), so decided to walk down.  It wasn’t far, just hot, and Google Maps showed a short cut off the main road that we could take.  Ian dropped off our two bags of laundry that we had been waiting to have done for a while (it was way too expensive in Vietnam (think £1.50 per pair of pants!) and we weren’t in Cambodia long enough for it to be washed and dried), and when Cornelia and I joined him just outside reception, he said that he’d been told it would take 48 hours to be returned.  We were all down to our final pair of pants, so I went back to reception and said that we needed it back by tomorrow morning, or we would just take it to the same laundry facility ourselves where we would be charged half the price (the hotel has a 100% mark up!).  The bags had already been taken down to the laundromat, but as the guy was getting on the moped to go and get it back for us, another member of staff who had been on the ‘phone (presumably to the laundromat) said not to worry, and that it would be back at 5pm today, for no extra charge.  Brilliant, we said, and thank you, and went on our way.

We enjoyed the ten minute walk down the back streets to Karon Beach.  It’s a 4km beach, and was packed with people!  We had thought we were at the quiet end of the beach, so cannot imagine what the other end must be like!  Anyway, we found a spot, unpacked our towels, and while I changed Bugsy into her swimsuit, Ian wandered off to the shops to buy a bucket and spade for her.

Cornelia and I went straight into the lovely warm sea and splashed around for half an hour, and I was just about to lie down on the towel to dry off when he returned, complete with bucket & spade, and other beach toys.  He then decided that he wanted a cold drink, so set off again in search of the refreshments, while Bugsy started her construction work.  A man passed us selling ice creams, and as Ian and I were about to have cold drinks, it seemed only fair that Cornelia should have something cooling! She was delighted to find out she was getting a chocolate Cornetto without having to do anything!

By this time, Ian was back, and while I relaxed in the sunshine, he was put to work building a sandcastle. I’m never sure who enjoys this more: Ian or Cornelia?!  He was getting very annoyed every time she stepped over the bridge and clipped it with her foot, so I’m guessing he was probably taking more pride in it!

We stayed on the beach for a couple of hours, alternating between cooling swims and sweaty sunbathing!  Both Cornelia and I felt as if we were being slightly stung in the water at one point, and we thought that maybe there were some tiny jellyfish in the water.  That was enough to put her off wanting to go in again, but Ian thought that the stings were probably “water lice” which, frankly, sound worse than jellyfish to me!  Back at the hotel, we rinsed off in the poolside shower, and spent another half an hour in the water there, playing catch with one of her Christmas presents (a “Vortex” rocket thing).  Two little Russian boys joined in, and the three of them just threw the Vortex to each other in turn until Cornelia said she was getting a bit cold and decided to get out of the pool.  We dried off, then headed back up to our apartment for a good old game of UNO!  We have hardly played it since we’ve been on holiday, so we had a couple of refresher rounds, playing an open hand, before things got serious.  And Ian and I got beaten TWICE by a four year old, who had no help whatsoever.  Oh, the shame!!! ;o)

Once she’d established her position as Queen of UNO, she wanted to do some drawing, and as I found a whole pad of paper that I’d been carting around with me since New Zealand, she set to work.  She drew two pictures of a happy Mummy in the woods, and two very funny pictures of Daddy – complete with grumpy face! Luckily he saw the funny side…I think!

Hoping to go out for dinner again tonight, we showered quickly and were on time to catch the 18:00 shuttle to Karon Beach.  Just before we got on the shuttle, I asked if our laundry had come back.  We were told it was ready and one of the men was just about to go get it for us, when I said not to bother, that we would collect it first thing in the morning.  They said this was fine, and we were thrilled that they’d managed to get our laundry done in time for us.

We were dropped off at Island View Hotel, and we retraced our steps along the main road up to Golden Paradise Restaurant which scored highly on Trip Advisor (#25 out of 2,959 restaurants in Phuket) despite its appearance as a kebab shop!  Ian did not look very sure at all, but in the absence of a better suggestion, we agreed to give it a go.  Cornelia was very happy to have fish fingers and chips again; Ian tried the chicken & cashew nuts; and I had sweet & sour chicken (something that I haven’t had for years) and it was all delicious!  Once again, we had a great spot right by the edge of the road (although the restaurant is higher up than the road, so you’re not close to the traffic and people walking past!), and had a fun evening people-watching again, and playing “eye spy”.  For some crazy reason, I said Cornelia could have a chocolate ice cream for dessert, before I remembered that she’d already had one earlier.  Obviously the sunshine had gone to my head!  Once she’d eaten it, we had about ten minutes to stroll back down to the shuttle stop, where we waited patiently, looking at the beautiful big moon that was shining brightly behind the hotel.  The photos don’t do it justice, of course, but it was quite magnificent.

We made it onto the 19:30 shuttle bus back up the hill, and Cornelia was in bed by 20:15.  But the chocolate ice cream kicked in, and it was gone 21:00 by the time she actually fell asleep, having eventually stopped calling out for me and Daddy!  I stayed up for a bit, blogging (of course!), and before we knew it, it was 23:00 – way past my bedtime!

So long, Halong!

18 January 2019

I was woken up rudely by next door’s alarm clock going off at 04:00. Unfortunately, it didn’t wake THEM up! At 04:45, as Ian was now awake, I rang their room phone and waited until I heard them stumble about before hanging up. The alarm sounded for a moment longer, until they’d fumbled around, found it and switched it off at long last! The good part of me hoped that they wouldn’t miss whatever it was that required them to be up at 04:00, whereas the not-so-kind part of me hoped that they’d absolutely screwed up their day!

The repetitive melody had driven me quite bonkers and it took me a while to go back to sleep, and then all too soon, Ian’s 07:00 alarm went off, and we grumbled a bit before getting up to shower. Cornelia was helpful and got herself dressed without any delaying tactics and we went to breakfast to be greeted by the manager there, who adores Cornelia so much. She scooped Cornelia up for a cuddle, and then showed her the photos she’d taken of her the other day. She had photoshopped them to include funny ears and a nose etc and was clearly delighted with the results! She was lovely, but probably just a bit too “in your face” for Bugsy’s liking. Anyway, she smiled her way through, whilst giving me the “Mummy, what is going on?!” look! We were seated in the “outdoor” area again, and I went off straightaway to get watermelon and a chocolate croissant for Cornelia, who wanted to come with me. Once I’d returned her to the table with her two plates of food, I whizzed off for my scrambled eggs, and Ian has his usual muesli and banana. We quickly become creatures of habit in each country, when it comes to breakfast time!

With final goodbyes and cuddles with the manager, we left for the slow walk back to our room – it was only slow because Cornelia was saying “cam on” and “tam biet” to all the staff and explaining that we were leaving today (thank you and goodbye).

Ian rang up for someone to help with the luggage and he arrived almost immediately. I was still brushing my teeth when he turned up and had to quickly shove the bathroom bag into my suitcase before it was all whisked away to the mainland for us. We checked out, signing off our bill for nearly 10,000,000 Dong, and saying our goodbyes to the friendly staff. We had a short wait for the boat, and on the other side, we found the same driver who’d picked us up from Hanoi airport, Cuong (not Gunz as I had previously spelled his name!), waiting for us.

We had contacted the company which arranged the driver to request that our return journey took the expressway, which should reduce our journey time from five hours to about two and a half, which was agreed for the princely sum of $13. Apparently it’s not used much yet, as the drivers receive a kickback from the shops where they stop (like the huge craft store with restaurant, where we stopped on the way up to Halong), despite it taking so much longer!

The expressway only opened four months again and the aim is to open it all the way to China. It was in perfect condition, and running alongside the brand new expressway were signs of centuries old ways of life: rice paddies, fishing boats and little huts. We crossed over the Bach Dang River, famous because 1,000 years ago in the China v Vietnam war, the Vietnamese King beat them here in the river. The bridge across the river is huge and rises up steeply to a peak before dropping back down again. Apparently, in the typhoon season, it can be pretty scary crossing it!

We stopped off to use the loo at one of the two service stations on the way, and they were immaculate. It looks as if there will be a big shop development here in a couple of years, but for now, all the brand new buildings are empty. Continuing our journey, we passed a huge new development which will become Vin City (same owner as our Vin Pearl Hotel). Cuong told us that you can buy an apartment for 20% and then spread the payments of the remaining 80% over the next 35 years. It will massively increase the already vast sprawl of Hanoi.

Hanoi Airport was delightfully quiet by contrast to the city bustle, and despite expecting to pay for our extra luggage (we could only get 20kgs each when the tickets were bought), we weren’t charged for the additional five kilos. We couldn’t believe it! We had a discussion with the check in woman about our car seat – she wouldn’t take it and said it would count as hand luggage and we would have to leave it at the gate, but her supervisor arrived with impeccable timing and agreed that it should go with the rest of our checked bags and there wasn’t an extra charge. Blimey! We still thought that we’d probably have to pay for our overweight hand luggage but decided not to say anything at that moment in time.

At security, we needed to remove our shoes and all electronic devices, as well as watches, keys etc, something we haven’t had to do anywhere else so far. But we weren’t held up at all, and were soon in the departure lounge where Cornelia was delighted by a) the travelators and b) a little play area. Ian supervised her there, while I went off to source lunch: a chicken burger combo for Ian, and a ham & cheese sandwich for Cornelia. I ordered Ian an iced tea to go with his combo, but hadn’t appreciated that the only drink we could have was a Pepsi. Bleurgh, never mind! At least there were water fountains available so we could top up our bottles. We had nearly three hours before our flight left for Siem Reap, which was just as well, because it took nearly that long to fill the bottles, with the slow trickle of water!

We had realised that we needed US$ for our visa entry into Cambodia and I went to the Currency Exchange at Hanoi to purchase some, but it was a cash only desk. Ian went on a hunt for an ATM, so he could withdraw some Dong, then make the exchange, but was unsuccessful. There are no ATMs on this side of security. D’oh! On the plus side, we boarded without having our hand luggage weighed. Simple things, but we couldn’t believe our luck!

On arrival in Siem Reap, just under two hours later, we found an ATM as soon as we entered the arrivals hall. Having completed our immigration forms on the flight, we then had to fill in visa application forms, and wait in a line to be seen by the visa officer. It was all very quick and efficient. It cost $US90 plus and extra $6 because we didn’t have a passport photo for each application. As it happened, he knocked off $1 as the ATM had only given me a $100 bill, and he didn’t have any smaller than a fiver by way of change. Then we waited at the end of the desk, where the other visa officials passed down the passports and forms, before calling out our names, and collecting our visas.

Our driver was waiting for us once we had collected our bags, and drove us quickly to the wonderful Koulen Hotel. The traffic is crazy, as we’d expected, but it seems to have a method to it, and there were no “white knuckle” moments! It is a sign of the hugely increased development that there is a Starbucks and Dominos pizza next to our hotel, but you would never know it from the terrific haven that was our hotel. We were greeted by Chun, would could not have been kinder, more interested in us and our well-being, and more helpful if he tried. We sipped our lemongrass welcome drinks while he sat with us, describing everything in the hotel in great detail, before bringing out a local map and showing us the best places to walk, eat, shop and explore. We were then shown to our room. To call it a room would be an understatement. Good old had given us a free upgrade and we had a magnificent and huge two bed apartment. The living space was enormous, and there were two bathrooms as well. Such luxury! We couldn’t believe the good fortune we’ve enjoyed today.

It was already nearly 18:30, and we went straight down to the hotel restaurant for supper. We were the only guests there, and once we’d browsed the menu, we ordered our food. Informing us that it would take about 25 minutes to arrive, we relaxed with our beers, explaining fashion, modelling and advertising to Bugsy, who was watching the TV screen in fascination, which was showing the making of a Mercedes Benz advert! It’s harder than it sounds to describe fashion and models to a four year old, especially when I’m trying to reinforce that it’s not what you look like that matters, but who you are on the inside that counts.

Ian and I were both tired from being woken up early by THAT alarm, and as we had a very early start tomorrow, I was keen to get Cornelia to bed as quickly as possible. We wolfed down our nasi goreng (me) and beef lok lak (Ian) and got our little girlie into bed. She was in a bit of a Mummy mood, so Daddy was dismissed once he’d read her a chapter of her Hot Dog book, and I cuddled her for the ten minutes it took her to fall asleep.

Alarm set for the morning (and hoping that we wouldn’t sleep through it like our neighbours in Vietnam this morning), I was in bed by 22:00. Result!

Ginger Cookery and SunWorld

17 January 2019

I had, of course, completely forgotten to wake Cornelia using her magic spell, and I tried unsuccessfully to rouse her by turning on the lights and stroking her gently. It was Ian who reminded me, and I duly followed her spell and she woke up as if by magic, in a delightful mood and very excited for the day ahead! We were dressed, breakfasted and at the main lobby bang on 09:00, at which moment, a smiley, friendly-looking lady walked through the hotel. She immediately guessed that I was Mel, but I think the four year old with me may have given me away…! I immediately took to Thuy, who spoke perfect English and was, as she looked, incredibly warm and friendly.

She drove us through the streets of Halong, parked up and hey presto, as if by magic, we were suddenly in an indoor market that you wouldn’t know was there, unless you were a local. It was sensational, in all interpretations of the word, alive with people hurrying on their way, or simply browsing the vast number of stalls selling their fruit, vegetables, meats, eggs and seafood. Thuy talked us through all sorts of things, showing me and taking foods to sample. Our first stop was to check out bunches of bananas, some of which were green for offerings to please Buddha, and other more yellow, ripe ones. Apparently, you don’t want to buy bananas which are yellow with green stems; you should instead choose ones that are yellow from the top down. Also, in Vietnam, bananas aren’t peeled by opening them at one end. They are broken in half, then peeled. Thuy demonstrated and Cornelia and I each enjoyed half a banana! The next fruit we tried was a perfect mango. To me, they can sometimes taste a bit soapy, but this one was magnificent. It reminded me of when I used to pick my own papaya for breakfast in the morning, when I was in Hawaii for a couple of months working as a nanny, many years ago!

Cornelia impressed Thuy by identifying some unusual fruits, such as the jack fruit, dragonfruit and lychee (hurrah for Tropical Fruit World!) but she didn’t really want to eat anything too unusual, nibbling cautiously at the edge of a logan, then screwing up her face as politely as she could! I tried the logan and some fresh tamarind, before we bought the ingredients for our recipes today: red beetroot leaves, green bananas, eggplant (aubergine), carrots and other things that I didn’t see, as I was too busy gazing around at everything! In fact, I was so busy looking around, that I failed to spot the open drain separating various stalls and fell into it, whilst carrying Cornelia on my hip. Amazingly, I have retained all my ninja-like reactions (😂) and managed to stay upright without breaking my ankle. I just cut the side of my ankle, and actually, it was more of a graze than a cut. A lucky escape indeed!

I was carrying Bugsy because she was a bit overwhelmed by all the people who were fascinated by her blonde hair and kept approaching her, wanting to touch it. She took it with good grace and a cheery “xin chao” but when it was too much for her, I picked her up and carried her for a bit.

However, when we got to the seafood section, Cornelia was happy to get back down and investigate all the different bowls and tubs of animals: crabs; enormous fish; tiny clams; baby octopi; and squid. The squid were really interesting to look at, as there was a bowl of dead ones, and a bowl of live ones next it. The dead ones looked dead – dull eyes and brown mottled skin. But the ones that were still alive had almost luminescent eyes, and their translucent skin had mottled patches of brown that moved around as they breathed. It was quite hypnotic watching them! Finally, we passed the poor old ducks and chickens… there were several awaiting their fate, as per their plucked friends, which were now being sold on the tables… I have always ensured that Cornelia knows where meat comes from, but I was surprised that she wasn’t completely horrified by seeing it so brutally in front of her. She just said how tasty chickens are! 👍🏻

The market is open from 04:00-19:00 every day of the year, apart from the two holidays over Chinese New Year. Thuy told me that it a social place, as well as a shopping facility, where people meet to dawdle, chat and go for coffee. It would be the world’s best people-watching place! It was very funny dodging the mopeds as they drove through the market, filling huge boxes with food stuffs ready to take to the hotels!

Back in the car again, we headed to Thuy’s home and place of work: Ginger Cookery. The kitchen workplace was immaculate and most of the food prep had already been done for us. After our welcome drinks (a wonderful lemongrass potion) Cornelia and I were given aprons and we set to work. First up, the mango and tapioca pudding, which needed to chill in the fridge while we cooked the rest of the food. We got the caramelised pork in coconut water on the go, as well as the green banana and eggplant pork dish. Finally, we created my favourite dish of the day: pomelo and shrimp salad. I learned a brand new trick for using onions in salads (my pet hate, usually) – slice them really thinly, then put them in a bowl of iced water, with some sugar mixed in. This keeps them crunchy whilst reducing the pungency considerably. Cornelia was brilliant and totally engaged – stirring, adding ingredients, mixing and watching everything that was going on. Whilst she wasn’t being very adventurous in respect of eating the foods, she had a little nibble on most things, before Thuy produced a packet of Oreo’s and offered her a couple. Thuy would have happily given her the whole lot, but I insisted that two was plenty! She had the option of eating lunch with us, but had turned it down, so she wasn’t having the alternative being a packet of cookies!! She had also gone off to explore the garden (Thuy has a star fruit tree and a coconut tree, amongst others – makes our apple trees and pear trees at home seem rather dull!!) and in doing so had lost two of the three logans she’d been carrying around all day in her pocket, which she wanted to give to Ian later. I only knew she’d lost two, when I found the third one rolling around on the kitchen floor! Thankfully, Cornelia decided that Daddy would be quite happy with just one!

Once all of the food was cooked, Chi and Xhun (I’m not sure how to spell her name 🥴) dished everything up and Thuy put the final touches to it, making it look fabulous. I can’t really take any credit for it tasting even better than it looked, because it all just happened around us!

As we sat down to eat, Thuy and I discovered we shared the same birthday, so she dashed off to retrieve a couple of cold beers to celebrate. I rather wished we were staying a few more days so we could have joined her for her birthday celebrations on Saturday! How lovely that would have been! Once again, I was so happy to have made a new friend and we both hope to stay in touch. I am hoping I can persuade her over for a visit to the U.K. at some point. How amazing would that be?!

We were way over our allotted time by the end of our meal, and after photos and cuddles goodbye, Thuy drove us back to VinPearl. On the way, she stopped off at the market and came back with a bag of logans for Ian and a whole packet of Oreo’s for Cornelia. Bless her for such kindness. Cornelia couldn’t believe her luck!

Final hugs given and promises to stay in touch, Cornelia and I met Ian in the hotel lobby where he had been waiting for us for some time.

The weather hadn’t cheered up at all, and it was still cold and breezy, but it was really our last chance to go and check out SunWorld, whose bright lights had been twinkling at us for the last few nights. We took a taxi over there, and found the park entrance. There were several ticket options, and we thought we would have a couple of hours at Dragon Park before taking the gondola over to the SunWorld’s Ferris wheel. The gondolas are massive double-deckers, and the biggest (highest capacity) ones in the world. And apparently the pylons that hold them up are the tallest of any cable car in the world. So, there you go!

First off, I had to buy new trousers as it was bloody cold and I finally gave in to the goosebumps. Usefully and unexpectedly, the souvenir shop sold loose trousers so I kitted up and we headed out into the cold. Dragon Park was so empty, it was like having a whole theme park all to ourselves! Quite a few rides were closed, but Cornelia was able to go on most of the others either by herself or with company. No queues meant that she could on any ride she wanted as many times as she wanted. They were all brightly-coloured and obviously, she loved them. She is just the perfect age to make the most of them: old enough to want to go on her own, and young enough to find the absolute joy in choo-chooing your way around a track in a little vehicle!

There was a roller coaster ride that I was quite surprised she was allowed to go on (with me), but all credit to her… she got off saying “That ride was terrifying!” then insisted that Daddy have a go. Even he thought it was a bit hardcore (for a child…(so he says…))!

The park covers a large area, so we spent quite a long time walking around admiring the garden features. There were lots of people working there, despite the emptiness of the place, and we could imagine how busy it gets in the summer. Despite the cold, Bugsy was angling for an ice cream, and we found a little cafe on site which sold them. We sat shivering away until she’d polished it off, and we set off for the last few rides, which included the dodgems, a boat ride and a train ride before leaving. Our final new ride was a petit train around a track, that chugged very, very slowly indeed. We are convinced that it was on its last legs, as it barely seemed to move without moaning and creaking! On the way out, we passed “Paris” again, and Cornelia was keen for one more go on that, so she pootled around, this time in the little ambulance, and finally, via the gift shop (for our fridge magnet), we left Dragon Park.

It was starting to get dark, so we decided to skip the gondolas in favour of an early supper, which we took at the hotel again. The restaurant was packed out, full of the visiting GSK conference guests who had taken over the hotel. But we managed to bag our usual table, and Cornelia had her predictable spaghetti bolognese. She was getting quite tired, and couldn’t even bring herself to do her nightly dance to the music of our now-familiar trio. In fairness, she had had a very busy day, so was ready for a quick bath and bed, as was I!


16 January 2019

We had a thoroughly lazy day again today, not getting up until about 08:45. We had a leisurely breakfast: scrambled eggs for me; Rice Krispies and a chocolate croissant for Bugsy; muesli and fruit for Ian, accompanied by a big fry up!

We had been intending to go onto the mainland today, and head up to SunWorld, the nearby theme park. We have seen the enormous gondolas and Ferris wheel every day from the balcony, and have been meaning to go. But it was so very cold today – the coldest we have experienced for a long time – and very windy, that none of us fancied the boat ride on such choppy waters, nor the experience of theme park rides in the high winds.

Cornelia was thrilled that this meant a morning at kids’ club again, and she happily dashed on in, waving goodbye and dismissing us without a second thought! Ian and I sat in the lobby with the laptop and booked me and Cornelia onto a cookery class that our driver from the other day had recommended – we are going to do the “Countryside” menu and have a private class for just me and Bugsy in the morning at 09:00. I can’t wait! Another Mummy / daughter date doing something really original and useful. 😬😬

We also did a bit of research into cycling to Angkor Wat when we are in Cambodia later this week, and have booked onto a sunrise tour that starts with pick up at 04:15. Gulp… but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip and we want to make the most of it, so have agreed that we can cope with Cornelia being tired for one day! Famous last words, no doubt… we have rented a child seat for her, so she can sleep on the back of Ian’s bike if she needs to. That looks terrific too – 35kms around the temples. Wonderful. 🤗

We collected Cornelia around 13:30 with the intention of going for lunch, but actually neither Ian nor I were hungry, so we ordered room service for Cornelia – fishfingers and chips – which she ate in her Paw Patrol camping chair that has been in my suitcase since Africa, whilst watching TV. We asked her if she’d rather go back to kids’ club in the afternoon or for a swim, and she said she’d prefer to go for a swim. So the three of us piled up to the third floor, and had the whole pool to ourselves! It was the first time I’ve been in the pool since we’ve been here, and we had a brilliant time. She must just use up so much energy. She was on the go for the whole hour we were in the water, clambering in and out of the inflatable ring, and then “surfing” on my back while I swam underwater.

Ian and I were still hoping to go to the gym, and as she was thrilled with the idea of kids’ club yet again, we dropped her off again and went to the gym. This time, we were joined by four very noisy men in their early twenties who could not talk at normal indoor voice level and just yelled at each other. 🙄 I was lucky enough to have brought my headphones, so plugged into an episode of Suits, turned up the volume and did my run, but poor Ian was stuck listening to them, and worse still, they were right behind his bike, just standing there chatting loudly to each other! Haha, we are so used to having the hotel to ourselves, that suddenly having company feels a bit strange!

When we went to collect Cornelia, we saw a hundred or so new guests arriving, and the hotel lobby was alive and buzzing for a change! We had decided to eat out this evening, and Avocado had the best reviews on Trip Advisor, so once we’d showered/bathed we headed across on the boat to the main lobby, from where we hoped into a taxi that had fortuitously just arrived. The restaurant is a bit hidden away behind the main road, but thanks to good old Google Maps, I managed to get our driver to drop us off nearby and we walked the last 200 or so metres to Avocado.

It was a lovely restaurant and Wendy, our hostess, spoke near-perfect English. She gave us both the Vietnamese and European menus. Ian and I both chose from the Vietnamese menu: I had “beef in coconut” and Ian had the marinated duck with purple sweet potato. Thankfully, they had good old reliable spaghetti in tomato sauce for Cornelia. I still haven’t managed to persuade her to eat rice or noodles! 🙄

I have to say, my beef was one of the nicest meals I’ve eaten since we’ve been travelling. It was quite a simple stir fry served in a coconut shell, but the beef was tender and not at all chewy, the stir fry was crunchy and the sauce was subtly flavoured by the warmed coconut. With high hopes for dessert, I ordered avocado chocolate mousse and Ian the coconut soufflé. Sadly, they were both a bit disappointing. The texture of my chocolate mousse was a bit too unusual for me and the avocado tasted watery instead of creamy, and that diluted the chocolate taste. Ian’s soufflé tasted yummy with the ice cream, but had failed to rise, so was more gooey than fluffy! We had ordered a second round of drinks but they’d forgotten about them. This meant that we had nothing to drink while we waited for our dessert to arrive, and then had to neck them once we’d finally managed to catch Wendy’s eye. It was quite a busy evening for them and I think they were just too rushed to remember everything. But they remained cheerful and friendly throughout, which left us overall with a positive memory.

The restaurant called a taxi for us and we were soon back in our room. Cornelia was exhausted, but in good spirits and went to bed quite happily. She had given me a code to wake her up in the morning: three knocks on her body, a flick with my fingers, then the words “cookery school, cookery school”, and I promised to rouse her with this magic spell!

Brutal bliss!

15 January 2019

Another night, another series of bizarre dreams. Last night’s included me being attacked by Good John and Bad John, twin brother wearing identical red jumpers, swimming in murky rivers and losing my tooth. The latter is obviously related to my ongoing toothache, and the murky rivers must have something to do with the waters around us and our trip yesterday, but as for the rest of them.. well, who knows?! 🤷🏼‍♀️ Ian also had a bunch of weird dreams. There must be something in the food!

Cornelia slept on until 09:00, after which we headed down for breakfast. I wasn’t terribly hungry so settled for scrambled eggs and a slice of toast, while Bugsy had some Rice Krispies in between reading her Hot Dog book that she’d brought to breakfast with her. She also had her daily chocolate fix (I have come to the conclusion that it’s best to get this out of the way first thing!) and then I excused myself, as it was time for me to get ready for my massage.

When I had booked yesterday, they had suggested I arrive half an hour early, in order to warm my body up in the sauna/ jacuzzi / steam room. I duly arrived at 10:30, ready to be heated! The locker room containing the sauna etc was completely empty, so I had the whole place to myself, once someone came in to switch it all on! I was handed a robe and an electronic wristband to unlock a locker, in which I found a jewellery box, pair of flip flops (size 42 – completely useless on my child sized feet), a towel and a shower cap.

I enjoyed ten minutes in the jacuzzi followed by ten minutes in the sauna (which had yet to warm up properly) and I did some yoga routines just to prepare my body for the anticipated brutality of the imminent Thai massage! Once I was in the pyjama suit I’d been given to wear, I was shown to the treatment room.

Tuan was my masseuse and she has been trained in Thai massage for fourteen years, so I was in good hands. And feet. And elbows! I was a bit anxious beforehand, that my various niggles and aches would prevent me from “enjoying” being pulled and twisted, but I was lulled into a false sense of security by a delightful foot and leg massage in a bowl of warm water slices of lemon and lime. Once that was over, I was invited to lie face down on the table. I stared a bowl containing thirteen floating pink lotus flowers while the massage began in earnest. First, I was stretched in opposing directions, with one of her strong hands on my backside and the other on my shoulder. She worked up to kneading my entire body with her feet, elbows and fists in a systematic way, and then twisting my legs and arms and stretching me into heavenly yoga poses. She found all of my tender spots and it was what I’d call blissful agony! I would absolutely have another one of these, and my only wish was that I’d opted for the 90 minute session rather than the 60 minutes.

As I dressed, I realised that I didn’t have any cash with me to tip Tuan and hope that I haven’t insulted her by not doing so.

Once I’d changed back into my normal clothes, I joined Ian and Bugsy in the pool area, where they were concluding an hour long game of dolphin and mermaid rescuing. 😂 I managed to sit on the only wet lounger while I dressed Bugsy, so had a very soggy bottom when I stood up. 🤦‍♀️😉

We decided to have snacks in our room for lunch, as none of us was particularly hungry and Cornelia was keen to get herself off to kids’ club again. Cornelia had an oat bar and a box of raisins, and Ian also had an oat bar. I was surprisingly unhungry, and decided to wait until this evening to eat, and take advantage of the buffet menu tonight instead 🐷

While Cornelia was at kids’ club, Ian and I managed to do a bit of life admin, including my tax return at long last, and I can finally cross that off my list of things to do! I have also booked myself into a cookery class for Thursday, so that will be good fun, especially as Bugsy is going to come with me!

The sun almost shone today, so Ian and I took advantage of the brighter skies and took a walk around our small island. It was completely deserted still, although it looked as if they were setting up for a big event in one of the conference buildings. There are a few more people here today, but we still feel very lucky to be able to enjoy the relative solitude and subsequent luxury an empty hotel brings!

We checked on Cornelia, who was building a tower block whilst watching TV, and she said she was very happy there and would see us when we had finished at the gym. Consent for another child-free hour granted, we visited the gym again, where I returned to the treadmill for a slightly longer run (5 miles) while watching an episode of Suits on my iPhone. It definitely takes the tedium of the treadmill away! From the sign in sheet, I could see that we were the only people to have been to the gym today. That’s how quiet this place is!

Sweaty and hot, we collected Cornelia and returned to our room for showers. Unfortunately, our room hadn’t been made up, so we decided to leave the “Please make up our room” sign on the door handle, and hoped that they wouldn’t turn up while we were showering!

Thankfully, they didn’t, and we all washed and dressed without being disturbed. While I was getting dressed, I could see Cornelia playing with her pens and mumbling to herself. Bless her, she’d sorted the pens out into “boy” and “girl” groups (they were the parents) and had sent the children pens off: “I’ve taken the kids to a place on their own while the parents hang out.” She had made a web out of her stickers and had stuck the child pens in the web, on the cupboard door. I see her brain is being affected by the food, or whatever it is, too!! 😂😂

Off to the buffet we went, earlier than usual, and hungrier than usual! Cornelia was content to have her usual bolognese, and we had no objection. She did some dancing to the little trio that play and sing every evening, while we nosied around the buffet. Ian loves the sushi so much, he went back for seconds, while I filled up on salads and vegetables, which I have been missing once again! The buffet had loads of variety, but I just don’t think we eat enough to warrant the £25pp price tag.

Anyway, pudding was a welcome treat, having abstained all week so far! Mini lemon meringue, mini tiramisu and a mini crepe brûlée (that I shared with Bugsy who has discovered a new food that she likes!) for me, along with a choux bun dipped in the chocolate fountain (and I got one for Cornelia too, naturally). Thankfully the desserts were “fine” as opposed to being so scrumptious that I had to go back for more, and we left feeling full but not stuffed, and not like the five mile run had been wasted!

The band was still playing at the front of the bar when we left, so Cornelia and I did a bit of dancing together before we dragged her off to bed. I nipped to reception quickly, to ask that dry towels and bottled water was brought to our room, as housekeeping had not made it today (due to our being in the room at the times they would usually visit). No problem, he said, they’d sort that straightaway.

Of course, our room had been made up by the time we had finished supper, so I had to call reception to let them know that we didn’t need housekeeping anymore. It took two phone calls for us to be able to communicate that successfully! 😳

Cornelia didn’t settle at all tonight – she was being a pain in the ass to Ian, who was trying to brush her teeth, and then she kept calling out to me for cuddles until well after 21:00. Anyway, she did of course fall asleep eventually, and while Ian went outside to chat to Matthew (who has now moved to London for work!) I spent some time catching up with friends back home and making arrangements to see them. I am so thankful to have these wonderful people in my life – it will make the fact that this trip of a lifetime has ended so much easier to bear!😘

A day in the bay

14 January 2019

I woke up at 03:00 and checked on Bugsy, only to find she wasn’t in her bed. I almost had a middle-of-the-night panic until I saw that she was sprawled out at the other end of her bed! Satisfied once I’d replaced her in her usual position, I fell back to sleep, only to experience the craziest of dreams, most of which I can’t quite remember, but one involving a plane crash, which left me feeling slightly anxious when I finally woke up! Ian also has lots of weird dreams, so we wondered if it was either something we’d eaten or the lack of oxygen in our room that made our brains go a bit mad!

We didn’t actually get up until nearly 09:00, but were at breakfast half an hour later, where Cornelia was given a hot chocolate by the restaurant manager, and scoffed two pieces of toast with jam, followed by a plate of scrambled eggs that she asked for, having seen my plateful. We are being recognised by all the staff now, who are being very attentive! While I was waiting for my eggs to be made, another manager came over and took my plate and said he’d bring them over when they were ready. At one point, we had three memberships staff cooing over Cornelia and I knew it was all too much for her when she buried her face in her hands and refused to speak to any of them!

After breakfast, we sorted out some laundry that needs to be done. The prices here are way too high, but we don’t really have a choice, and only have a week’s worth of undies etc. I managed to persuade Ian to have a couple of t-shirts washed too, so he wouldn’t keep sniffing the armpits to work out which was the least smelly to put on today… 😂😳

We had half an hour in the play park while we waited for our tour guide to collect us for our boat trip. Cornelia had fun whizzing round on the merry go round, quickly recognising “her swan” by checking that the bird behind had a splat of peanut butter on it.  We waited in reception to be collected, but she came to let us know that she was still waiting for the other couple who were booked on the trip to arrive.  Ten minutes later, she returned to say that they’d decided to go on a private excursion later instead.  Four year olds are brilliant at reducing numbers on organised trips!!

Off we went, on our little boat across to the mainland, where our tour guide introduced us to our driver, Le Van Dung, who took us to Tuan Ghau Marina, where there were literally hundreds of tourist junks moored.  Many of these boats appeared to live up to the name “Junk”, and looked as if they’d seen a storm or two over the years! We were handed over to our guide for the day, Lisa, who was a warm and enthusiastic young woman.

We had been told that the boat (which could accommodate 40 people) was unlikely to be anywhere near full.  Apparently, ten in total had travelled on it yesterday.  Initially, we were seated with a Chinese family and were rather squished on to the table together, but they quickly noticed the unnecessary squashing of us all together, when there were several spare tables available, and another table was laid for us.  Again, we were delayed by about fifteen minutes by two passengers who had not arrived.  These latecomers joined our table, and the couple from Singapore were very pleasant company for the day.

Lunch was served as soon as we had set sail and our table was filled with an assortment of dishes: seafood salad; (not very) crispy chicken; semi-cooked cold chips; enormous prawns in their shells; an unidentifiable fish (Ian thinks it tasted like mackerel); boiled rice; delicious boiled cabbage; salad; stuffed crab shells; and later on, fresh pineapple and watermelon.  It was an interesting feast and, apart from the chicken and chips which were a culinary disaster wherever in the world you may live, it was quite tasty and filled us up enough for the afternoon.  We were glad that their food hygiene standards are up to scratch… Ian found the largest rat trap he’s ever seen, resting outside the kitchen, and baited with a prawn!

After we had eaten, we headed to the outdoor top deck (having donned our coats to protect us from the chilly breeze) and enjoyed the atmospheric surroundings.  Again, hundreds of boats joined us on the waters, and we were glad that there were only sixteen of us on our boat: some were jam-packed with tourists, and I’m not convinced I would have felt terribly safe on them!

The limestone rock islands are reminiscent of those you find in travel brochures, with fascinating shapes, including the “kissing chickens” (which in Vietnam make an entirely different sound, we discovered during our chat with Lisa!!!) While Ian and I were entranced by the views, Cornelia entertained herself by sliding down the “plank” into the pretend water, much to the delight of our fellow guests! One of a group of four teenage boys thought she was so funny, he asked if he could have his photo taken with her and (following a stern word from Mummy in her ear) she obliged, holding his hand and smiling broadly.

Our first stop was at a floating fishing village by Ba Hang Cave.  The village is now apparently abandoned, but the fishermen are shipped in every morning from the mainland.  You could choose whether to kayak around by yourselves, or take a bamboo boat which would be rowed by a villager (exclusively, it seems frail-looking old women who were probably not old and certainly not frail!).  We opted for the latter, and were glad to have done so, as we were treated to a superb voyage through the cliffs into some beautiful lagoons, which would have been serene and peaceful and quite spiritual, had it not been for the several dozen other boats, with passengers all donning their hi-viz life jackets!  We can’t complain – we were amongst them – but it did somewhat detract from the ambience of it all.  Similarly, the volume of floating plastic rubbish was sad to see.  We understand in summer that there are three times as many boats, and were glad to be visiting in winter!

Being delayed by other people became the theme of the day, as we were missing one family for nearly half an hour!  We have no idea where they went, but they did eventually return, seemingly oblivious to the inconvenience they had caused in terms of less time for our subsequent activities. 🙄

We set sail again, this time arriving at Dong Thien Cung, a magnificent cave.  Lisa asked if the group wanted to visit two caves, or just stick to the main touristy one.  Ian and I both shot up our hands at the opportunity to visit both (and hopefully escape the flow of human traffic), and we all trekked slowly up the impressive staircase that had been carved into the rock.  Cornelia was terrific, and walked the whole way.  This was particularly impressive, given the number of adults who needed to stop to catch their breath.  We were quietly very proud of her.

The caves are staggering and have incredible formations, which have been really well-illuminated to maximise the “wow” factor.  The second cave (Hang Dau Go) was even bigger and was not discovered until 1996, by a fisherman who chased a monkey into a hole in the cliff.  The hole is still visible, and we had a real sense of how incredible it must have been to find the enormous cavern which contains a source of fresh water, initially used by the local fishermen.  Apparently, at the time, several thousand fishermen lived in floating villages around the islands.  Lisa told us there were now fewer than 200 people living in the Bay. She pointed out many of the stalagmite/stalactite formations which looked like various objects/things, including a pair of elephants, a turtle, and a breast, which led her to tell us a cultural tale… This was hard to follow, but the moral was that in Vietnam they customarily wee outside, and frown upon public displays of affection.  As Lisa put it: “Pissing for outside, kissing for inside”.  So, that’s a new word for Cornelia’s vocabulary…! 😳

By the time we had completed our circular route through the caves, Cornelia’s heels were starting to rub, and she was very happy to get back to the boat for her plate of pineapple.  Annoyingly, they had cleared away our almost-full bottles of water, and were going to charge us for another bottle.  Ian brought me a cup of black tea instead (which was free) and we stubbornly declined any other drinks.  Which was probably a bit silly of us, really, as they were less than a £ a bottle… And we were thirsty!!!  😂🥴

The crew also showed us various souvenirs and trinkets, but we weren’t buying anything today.  However, Cornelia was very happy to be given a Vietnamese figurine by the boy with whom she had had her photo taken earlier, and she has named the doll “Lisa”.

We spent the rest of our trip up on the top deck again, enjoying the views (complete with very atmospheric late afternoon sunny haze), until Lisa asked us all to go back inside, as we were shortly to dock.  The marina was far less crowded now, and we were soon reunited with our driver.  He spoke good English and gave us a couple of recommendations for our next few days, including a cookery school and a day trip to Hanoi.  (He gave Ian his card, and said that if was interested in a driver to take him to Hanoi, or indeed anywhere else, he should give him a call.)

Back at Vin Pearl, Cornelia (at her request) went straight to kids’ club, while Ian and I killed half an hour at the gym.  I tried out a elliptical machine that I have not come across before, and although I enjoyed it well enough, I am definitely a runner at heart!  We collected Cornelia and after Ian and I had showered (Cornelia had requested a bath after supper), we went back to our usual spot in the restaurant for the usual selection of a la carte items.  We want to try the buffet one night, but we are always too full from lunch to justify the expenditure and the amount of food we might consume!

Cornelia was very tired, and agreed to have her hands, feet and face washed before bedtime.  This ended up being a quick bath for her, and I added some bath salts (courtesy of the hotel) which she enjoyed very much.  She snuggled up on our bed for a story with Daddy, and although she fidgeted for a time, she didn’t demand our attention, and eventually fell asleep.  Ian and I weren’t far behind her – there’s something soporific about sitting quietly in a warm dark room!!

Wearing Mummy’s sparkly heels!