Friday, May 22, 2009

DALAT- DAY 25 & 26

1. As Dalat (pop 180 000) was located some 300 km away from HCM City, we decided to start early at 9 am (May 21, Day 25) to ensure that we got there before dark. Before we got on to Highway 1, we found an Esso station to top up the tank. As it only had octane 92, we put in a bottle of octane booster before topping up. As we moved ahead, we discovered that octane 95 petrol was fairly widely sold by local petrol stations. By and large, it should not be a problem getting octane 95 petrol in Vietnam, based on what we saw so far. Price was about 13,000+ Dongs, which is about US$0.72

2. We travelled eastwards along Highway 1 for about 50 km before turning left into route 20. Highway 1 was 3 lane either way coastal road that went all the way to Hanoi. As it was the main arterial road coming out of HCM City eastwards, especially for the initial stretch, traffic was heavy and slow. Route 20, on the other hand, was one way either way; generally good driving, very scenic with rolling terrain, except for the challenges of overtaking slow moving vehicles from time to time, and been held up for about 0.5 hr at one point where road widening work was on-going. In the early stretches of route 20, we were surprised by the many churches, almost at an interval of 100-200 m apart.

3. As we approached closer to Dalat, we saw a road leading to the airport. When I was there in 96, I recalled there was only a military airstrip of some sort there and Dalat was not served by commercial flight. Today, Dalat has daily connections to HCM City and Hanoi. As we climbed the hills, we were welcome by straight and tall pine trees which covered the mountains and lined both sides of the road; similar to postcard scenery of the Swiss Alps. Our meter in the car read 1450 m above sea level and the outside temperature 22 degree C (temp ranges between 15 to 25 degree C). We arrived Dalat at close to 5 pm.

4. After checking a couple of hotels, we decided to check into Novotel Dalat, at US$71 a night for a superior twin sharing room, which came with breakfast and internet, for 2 nights. We understand that this was a good rate as it was low season and this year's low season was not as good as last year's low season. Not as many locals were coming for holidays, we were given to understand. The lighted building was where the meals were served. Peak season is year end. With the 2 christmas trees standing tall in front of Novotel, I can imagine a beautiful Christmas in Dalat.

5. Discovered by Prof Yersin (a researcher who worked under Pasteur), Dalat's life as a hill resort only really began when the main road was open to motor vehicles in 1915. A resort would need a lake; so a river was dammed to create the Xuan Huong Lake, which measured about 7 km in circumference. Hill-side developments practically revolved around the lake, modelled after beach resorts in France Atlantic coastal areas. Development of Dalat was greatly intensified during WWII when the French Governor General established its HQ in Dalat. More than 700 villas and 2 palaces were built, mostly of Art-deco design.

6. Today, Dalat continues to charm its many visitors with its nice cool weather all year round (some call it the City of Eternal Spring), its cover of tall straight pine trees (others call it the Land of Thousand Pines), its many beautiful villas, and its captivating hilly landscape dotted with buildings of various colours. I was already a fan when I first visited in 1996. It was a quieter town then, pitched darkness around Xuan Huong Lake as there was no street lights. Now, the area is lighted up, wider road around the lake, more cars, taller hotels with their neon lights, but no less attractive. Dalat Palace Hotel was completing its final touches then before opening for business. Today it is a fully functional 5 star Sofitel hotel; cheapest twin sharing room going for US$280 a room for low season which Sunny and I could not afford for the budget we had set aside.

7. All in, we had 1.5 days at Dalat. One of our highlights was golf at Dalat Palace Golf Course. After checking in, Sunny realised that the hotel had on offer a golf package of US$81 per person for twin sharing room and a game of golf. This worked out to be a better deal if we factored in green fees etc for 2 of us (the US$81 includes green fee, caddy fee and loan of golf set); a very attractive offer. Obviously, they were trying very hard to attract people to their hotels.

8. The Golf Course began life it the 1930s but only became a 18 hole championship course in the 1990s. Its a beautiful course, flanked by pine trees, with scenic view of the hilly landscape in the distance, and well maintained. A Tasmanian, Graham, who was on holiday in Dalat joined our flight. We had the course practically to ourselves until around noon, when players participating in some tournament turned up. I was happy with my round of 94, as this was my 2nd game after a lapse of 6 years.

9. After dinner, we took a walk to see the night market near the lake. Very buzzy, many locals with some tourists. Many local families just strolling, laughing and enjoying themselves. Some on rental tandem bicycles. It was basically like our pasar malan, with stalls selling food, warm clothes, soaks, decorative plants, etc. Interesting to see that there were people selling paper bags. In Singapore, we would mostly dispose them, as there would always be more the next day. There were many people selling dried cuttle fish, with a charchoal stove nearby to BBQ them. Dalat people sure like cuttle fish.

10. The next day, before we left Dalat for Nha Trang, we did some sight-seeing. THE highlight of my trip to Dalat was the visit to Hang Nga Crazy House. It is a visitor attraction and a hotel. Need an admission fee of 8000 dongs to see it. Design was very Gaudi like, big concrete trees with staircases inside leading to rooms, sitting or resting areas, Hang Nga's family areas. Very excited, we were like kids exploring the tree houses. The twists and turns were full of surprises, never knowing what to expect next. Each room was uniquely designed called Tiger Room, Bear Room, Bamboo Room etc.
Hang Nga was the architect (her pictures below), Russian trained, and was told that she stayed there. Her
father was at one time the Secretary General of the Communist Party of Vietnam, a very senior position. This work clearly shows that creativity in Vietnam is well and alive. I would definitely like to stay there the next time I am in Dalat.

11. We next visit the Bao Dai Palace; a functional palace, nothing lavish. Bao Dai was the 13th and last ruler of the Nguyen Dynasty. From 1926 to 1945, he served as the king of Annam, which comprised the Northern 2/3 of current Vietnam, which was under French rule. The visit reminded me of the film, "The Last Emperor".

12. Our next visit was the Flower Garden, nothing spectacular, just beds planted with various flowers, reasonably well maintained. Entrance fee less than US$1. Spent about 15 mins there and move on. In my last visit to Dalat, I recall visiting a flower market, that it was a buzzy place, very colourful with many flowers for sale. Would have been more interesting if the garden is combined with the flower market.

13. After lunch and car wash, we set off for Nga Trang, a break point before we head for Hoi An the next day; from Nga Trang Hoi An is still a good 500 km away. We took route 20, followed by a new route, route 27, before joining Highway 1 northwards to Nga Trang. Route 27 was largely laterite, most part still under construction, tough going. Was told by Thuan that route 27 was much worse last year as there have been some progress since then. Positive side was that the scenery was fantastic all the way. We were driving into the mountains, or looking down into the great plains.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

HO CHI MINH CITY- DAY 22, 23 & 24

1. May 18, Day 22, we checked out of Paragon and had an early breakfast (I had porridge) in a nearby coffee shop. Interestingly it was halal and run by a woman with head covered with scarf. After she heard Sunny mentioned Nasi Goreng in her menu spoke to Sunny in Malay, probably guessing that we were Malaysian or Singaporean. She looked Malay to me.

2. At 8.30 am, we were on the road travelling along Highway 1 towards the Bovet/Moc Bai border crossing, about 160 km away. The first 20-30 km was not so easy driving, as the road was under repair and been widened on some stretches, otherwise it was a good driving all the way to the border. Along the way, we had to take a ferry across the Mekong. This was the 2nd time we crossed the Mekong by ferry; first time was when we visited Wat Phu Champasak near Pakse in Southern Laos.

3. We were to meet our Vietnamese tour guide, Nguyen The Thuan from Eviva Tours at Moc Bai on the Vietnamese side of the border crossing. As I explained in my earlier posting, under Vietnamese regulation, we were required to have a tour guide followed us throughout our tour in Vietnam. Also, after the trip was approved by the government, we were told that dates and points of entry and departure could not be changed, meaning we had to enter Vietnam on 18 May at the Bovet/Moc Bai crossing, and depart Vietnam at Tay Trang on 6 June. The night before, at Paragon Hotel, we had to reshuffle our "cargo" and made space for Thuan to join us in the car.

4. At about 11 am, we reached Bovet. We were surprised to see many casinos there on both sides of the road, in what looked like "The Strip" of Bovet. There was a Winn with font similar to Wynn and a Sund that looked like Sand. Saw a number of cars that ferried Vietnamese from across the border to Bovet carrying th word Caesar. At the border crossing point itself, we saw a stretched limo much like those in Las Vegas.
All in, I counted 9 casinos that could be seen from the main road. It is clearly big business attracting Vietnamese to Bovet for gambling. I was surprised by its scale.

5. The exit from Cambodia was a great deal more difficult than our entry at Don Krolor from Laos. We were sent from pillar to post and causing our passage to be much longer than necessary.

6. After clearing immigration, the Immigration officer directed us to the nearby customs office to clear my car. After staring at the document for some time and discussing with his colleague, they asked me to follow them to a customs counter on the entry side where he consulted a young customs officer who was probably their superior there. The officer told us that we must first see his superior at the customs office 1 km away. We promptly back tracked and went looking for the customs office. After missing it a couple of times, we eventually located it but we were told that it was lunch time and were to go back at 2 pm. With 1.5 hr to spare, we decided to see Winn and hopefully have a free lunch there. After we entered, I unthinkingly took a picture of the casino floor and was immediately told off by a staff there that camera was not allowed. In front of him, I deleted the picture taken and left the camera in the car. We did have a free lunch. It caused quite a bit of staff discussion when I asked for a beer. Beer came after 15 mins later. Just for fun, we played a game called Small Big, and between Sunny and I lost US$ 10+ (free lunch?).

7. We were back in the customs office by 2 pm and the place was warming up for work. The staff, after consulting with the Head there, told us to return to the customs counter at the border crossing to have the document endorsed and vehicle checked before returning to the customs office again for the Head to sign off. We did just that and by the time it was all done at the Cambodian side it was about 3 pm.

8. We were met by Thuan at the Vietnamese side. The checks and procedures at by the Vietnamese authorities were the most thorough that we had experienced so far in the trip. Following Thuan, we first went to the Police post at the border crossing to have the document endorsed. We then proceeded to the customs where Thuan had to present and fill up some document. A customs officer then followed us to the car outside and asked us to open up the bonnet for him to check the chassis and engine numbers. He actually looked for the numbers. We were then told to unload all the luggages in the car, carried them into the building to put through the X-ray machine for checking. When this was done, we were told to put back all the luggage back into the car and close the car for biological tests. Thuan explained that this was administered because of the spread of swine flu and every car passing through was subjected to similar checks. Concurrently, we joined the queue to clear immigration. With a very very sigh, we were through by about 4 pm, some 5 hrs after we began the process on the Cambodian side.

9. Highway 22 was a very good road, leading us all the way to HCM City, some 60-70 km away. With the delay, we were unfortunately running into the evening traffic jam. We were stuck at some stretches in the city for a long time. Contrary to our normal practice, we followed Thuan's suggestion to look for a couple of specific hotels in District 1 where parking the car would not be a problem. After circling around, we found the first one but we found out that the hotel did not have car park. By then, it was 9 pm, and we decided to have dinner instead. It was a good "steamboat" dinner at a Chinese restaurant not far away. After a few phone calls, with help from this colleague in HCM, we checked into Tan My Dinh 2 Hotel, at US$60 a night.

10. Though I had been to HCM City a number of times, the last time was August last year, I had never been struck by the number of motorcycles on the road. As the person driving the

car into HCM City, the impact was strong and instantaneous, initially at loss on how to manoeuvre the car through the mass of motorcycles and then recognised that motorcycles here were really kings of the road. There were so many of them. Lonely Planet put it at 3 m, but Thuan said that there were much more. Soon, I learnt how to float the car with the currents. I took a video of a junction while Thuan was asking for direction. I called it Motorcycle Rhapsody, and would have been great if I could put a suitable music to go with it.

10. We had 2 full days in HCM to enjoy our time as normal tourists, carrying our cameras and I carrying a small pack. Thuan joined us for most part of our jalan jalan and visits to museum. Over the 2 days, we visited the Reunification Palace (former Presidential Palace), the Ho Chi Minh City Museum and the War Remnants Museum. By and large, they were largely about the struggles of the Vietnamese people against foreign occupiers (which they called oppressors), how they had suffered and overcome great odds to emerge victorious. I can understand why such education was necessary for the younger Vietnamese. Here, you see Sunny and I at the front gate of the Reunification Palace. The tank (a T59 Soviet tank) you see here was one of the 2 tanks that crashed through the gate on 30 Apr 75 when the Vietcong forces captured Saigon. We took a picture on the roof top. Our tour guide, Thuan, stood in the middle. In the war room, Sunny suggested that I showed him what a commander do in a war room (for fun of course).

11. At the HCM City Museum, it was more about Vietnamese struggles against the regime in South Vietnam and the US forces, especially the roles played by people in South Vietnam. The Museum also displayed various ancient artifacts. We found this rather interesting.

12. The War Remnants Museum was specifically dedicated to Vietnam War and had been in existence since 1975. The space outside showed various US equipment captured, eg. M48 tank, F5 aircraft etc. The explanation boards were well written; good English, no spelling mistakes. This is the picture of General Vo Nguyen Giap (pronounced as Zhap) in 1971 who commanded the Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War. Thuan said that he is 95, alive and live in Hanoi. He also commanded the forces that achieved victory over the French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1953. After Ho Chi Minh, he was probably the next Hero.

13. I found one of the charts particularly interesting. It showed the size of US forces and allies in Vietnam during the war. At its peak, US had about half a million troops in Vietnam. By 1970, after Nixon came to power, the level of forces started to decline, especially after 71, when the US was under pressure from increasing casualty count began a process which they called "Vietnamisation of the war" and shifted its operations to Strategic Bombings of North Vietnam and the HCM Trails. It sort of reminded me of what's going on in Iraq right now.

14. Outside, along the roads, there were pink banners of HCM. We figured it was about the celebration of HCM's birthday, which falls on 19 May (hey, another Taurus). Its his 119th birthday.

15. We visited a couple of places which we found interesting. One was Ben Thanh market, selling all kinds of thing, well patronised by tourists, supposedly a must see destination for tourists. Here, we replenished our stock of sour plums and between Sunny and I finished a durian.

16. We also dropped in to visit the Notre Dame Cathedral Post Office, built between 1886 and 1891. With its beautiful structure of glass canopy and iron frame, this building was worth the visit.
In there, they have the most beautiful telephone booths I have ever seen.
As we walked the street, we passed by many beautiful colonial buildings, some still very impressive, some somewhat run down. This one impressed me, and it turned out that it was used by the Police force. Like our Central Police Station (now MICA building), this could be turned into a world class hotel, especially with its excellent location.

17. Along the streets, as we walked, we could see that Vietnamese are hardworking and enterprising people. At the corner, there were people providing service to repair electrical parts. Another one provided motorcycle repair services and pump for inflating the tyres.
It was not surprising that Vietnam, with the hard driving people it has, has achieved impressive economic growth over the last decade.

18. On the right is the hotel we stayed in for 3 nights, Tan My Dinh 2 Hotel. Here you could see Thuan and I relaxing over beer after a day of hard walking. Sunny took the picture. Will be off to Dalat today, a hill resort, known for its good weather, popular with the French when they were here and now with local honeymooners. I was last there in 96, when JTC with Natsteel and LKN were exploring the prospects of developing a resort there. The idea fizzled out after the 97 financial crisis. Sunny and I hope to play a round of golf there.