Saturday, May 30, 2009


1. Some of you may be wondering why Sunny and I frequently appeared in our blogs near a bottle of beer or holding a glass of beer. Wouldn't it be dangerous mixing beer and driving? Thought I should explain this so that you do not go away thinking that we are alcoholics or that we are frequently engaging in drink driving.

2. The pictures do not tell a lie. We did have our beer each day at the end of our hard day drive. It is now part of our routine, to have a beer immediately after we check into a hotel before we wash up and go out for dinner.

3. We would normally wake up between 6-7 am each day, log on the computers to clear some emails and try to finish the blogs we started while we take turn to use the toilet, have breakfast at about 8 and start the day's programme at about 9. On day we are driving, we would finish packing our bags after breakfast and then set off at about 9.

4. As Sunny is the "bank" of the partnership, he would do the checking out of the hotel while I get the car ready for the trip - putting in the GPS, iPod, and dusting and vacuuming the interior of the car. When that's done, we would put our bags in, set the GPS to the next location and we are all set to go.

5. Over the days, we have developed an SOP to manage our bags, adopting practices like backpackers. We will have the usual no of bags when we check into a hotel each day. For me, I have 2 bags - the computer bag (with my lap top, charges, cables, documents etc) and a small backpack (with my day's change, toiletries, daily medication, slippers, and odds and ends). Used clothings are also packed into the bag so that they could be washed at the end of the day when I carry the backpack up to the hotel room. The car is like the mobile home, and from time to time, I picked up things or swapped things from the "house".

6. So far, for whatever reason, I would normally take the first shift, driving up to around lunch time and then have Sunny taking over. Must admit that its tough on Sunny, as it is not easy to stay awake after lunch. Other than sour plum, we have the Axe Oil (coincidentally, we are both addict of this oil) to help keep us awake.

7. For Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, both of us have to stay awake and alert as we drive. The co-driver has to advise the driver if it is possible to overtake, as the Pajero is a right hand drive car, in a keep right traffic.

8. If we have not already located possible hotels to check, the co-driver will check the GPS for possible hotels and have them checked against the list in Lonely Planet, as we get nearer the destination. We would normally shortlist 2-3 hotels to check. We would normally go for mid-range hotel and it must be clean, has internet (preferably free), and located in good location with amenities near it.

9. When we arrive at the destination, we will check the hotels. If the first one is good and meet our requirements, we would often just settle for it. If not, we go on to check the next one. When the hotel is decided, Sunny would check in while I pack things up at the car end- GPS and iPod to be kept, car locked with steering wheel lock. Individually, we ensure that we have the day's change in the backpack and off with our computer bag and backpack to our twin-sharing room. After we have settled in, we will be off to have our usual beer. By then, we would be thirsty like hell. There is nothing better than a cold beer.

10. When we get back to our room, we would typically log into our computers to see that the wifi is working and check for mails and news etc, while the other party washes up and washes the clothes and have them hung up for drying. Dinner is normally 7 to 7.30.

11. After dinner, we may go for a massage depending on how badly we need one and very often our back and muscles do call for one. After that, it is more work on the computers before we fall asleep 11-12. There were times when wifi was bad and there was no cable. We were not sure whether we should be sad or happy.

Friday, May 29, 2009


1. It was an easy 2+ hours drive from Da Nang to Hue. Reaching there at about 5 pm, we checked into Century Riverside Hotel for US$70 a night after passing it and seeing that it looked good with a great view over the Song Huong (Perfume River). On the right is one picture of the hotel from the river and a sunrise view of Hue from the balcony of our 4th floor hotel room.

2. After checking in, we walked across the street to DMZ Cafe and Bar for a beer. A popular joint at the corner of a junction facing the hotel, for tourists and locals like, we took a table upstairs so that we could see the world go by while we had our usual beer after a long drive. After many days of Vietnamese food, we decided to go for a Japanese dinner for a change, in a restaurant that was simply called "Japanese Restaurant" next to Imperial Hotel.

3. Between 1802 and 1945, Hue was the capital of the Nguyen Dynasty which ruled the whole of Vietnam, at least in name in the later part when Vietnam was under French control. As such, it is well known for its monuments and architecture. Over the years, the city had been subjected to much damage through war and conflicts. In 1885, the palace was ransacked by French forces. During the Vietnam War, Hue was under the control of the South Vietnamese forces. With its location very much in the front line, Hue was the site of some of the bloodiest battles and suffered considerable damage during the war. Today, it is the capital city of Hue province, with a population of about 340,000 people. Best known for its historic monuments, Hue was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1993.

4. We started our day tour with a visit to Thien Mu Pagoda, 4 km to the Southwest of Hue. Its history could be traced as far back as 1601 when the first pagoda was built here. The existing 7 storeys pagoda was built in 1844 dedicated to Buddha. Today, the pagoda was considered the icon of the city.

5. Though its low season for tourism, there were many tourists visiting the pagoda, many of them arriving by boats along the Perfume River. Overall, the complex looked well maintained. However, to bring back the old glory of the beautiful pagoda complex, more restoration work would be necessary. Whats left of the paintings on some of the walls gave an inkling of how beautiful the complex was when it was new. Picture on the right shows what I mean.

6. Through Thuan we were able to chit chat with a number of the monks there, 3 of them through the window of their study room. They were cheerful, cheeky, quick to laugh, like normal children. We were told that there were 70 monks living in the pagoda complex, including 3 adult monks. One of them we spoke to was 18 and he joined the pagoda when he was 11. Unlike the Thai monks, he said that he was likely to remain a monk for the rest of his life. The 3 of them at the window were in their teens, 10-15 probably. Unlike other Vietnamese children, they read and write Chinese in traditional Chinese (i.e the full form). They showed us a book that they read (it was a religious script), as well as a jotter book which they used to practise writing. When asked to converse, they said they were too shy to speak as they did not have the chance to practise. Sunny read a passage in Mandarin to them. Whats interesting was the crop of hair that the very young monk kept. It seemed that they would have to pass some exams before they can cut the crop of hair away. As they were, they actually looked quite fashionable, like some punks.

7. In the afternoon, we visited the Citadel and the palace complex. The Citadel was a 2 m thick, 10 km long wall (a smaller version of the great wall. Reminded me of the wall in Nanjing built during the Ming Dynasty) where the king (and his +++) lived. Today, part of the population lives within this wall. Within this complex, some had been restored but many parts were still been restored, or still in ruins. After paying for the ticket, we walked through Ngo Mon Gate towards the Thai Hoa Palace, which was where the Emperor met his officials bi-monthly.
The smaller picture on the right is the rear view of the Thai Hoa Palace. With beautiful wooden floors, columns and carvings, it was the smaller version of the Hall of Supreme Harmony (by the same name) of the Forbidden City in China.

8. Walking further, I rested at the Halls of the Mandarins, place when the officials rested and prepared themselves before audience with Emperor. The 2 halls at both sides of the courtyard had been restored. In the middle of the court-yard were 2 cauldrons, which Thuan highlighted to us they were for boiling officials in oil who were disloyal to the Emperor. Walking further back we came to the Forbidden Purple City, the personal space of the Emperor where his concubines lived and where only eunuchs were allowed entry. This area was still in a state of ruins with a couple of buildings under restoration.

9. On the way back to the front gate, we visited the To Mieu Temple complex. After entering the ornate temple gate, we came to Hien Lam Pavilion, which housed the urns of 9 emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty, with Emperor Gia Long's in the centre.

10. After the palaces, we took a drive to the outskirt of Hue to visit the tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh. Khai Dinh ruled from 1916 to 1925. His son, Bao Dai, was the last king of the Nguyen Dynasty. Work on the tomb began in 1920 and completed in 1930. Considered by some to be the most beautiful of the royal tombs, the interior walls were designed with a mix of Vietnamese and European styles. Sunny and I thought it was odd that the interior walls were embellished with pieces of ceramic and glass, in what looked like broken pieces of ceramic and glass to us. Surely this was not good omen, by traditional feng shui. Anyway, this is history.

11. In the evening, we chartered a boat to for a boat ride along the Perfume River. It was a peaceful ride up and down the river, watching sunset, seeing many couples seated with their bikes behind them (and at the same time block the view of people travelling along the road behind them) along the river bank trying to find some quiet time away from the busy city, families boating in "swans", and a few people swimming in the river. In the pictures below, you see the boat we chartered and Sunny and Thuan relaxing on the boat.

12. Overall, it was an enjoyable day in Hue. Through Hue, we learned something about the history of Vietnam and the forces that shaped what Vietnam is today.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


1. Yesterday (26 May) was a milestone in our Asean on Wheels journey. We have been on the road for exactly 1 mth, having began the journey in Singapore on 27 Apr. Over a mug of beer at Tam Tam Cafe in Hoi An, we were in a reflective mood. What do we think of the trip so far, is it within our expectations, how have things been working out?

2. Overall, we both agreed that the trip had so far exceeded our expectations. Why?

(a) We are both enjoying our journey, seeing and experiencing the places we visited and learning new things each day. We are comfortable with each other's attitude towards the trip. We want to run our routines efficiently and improve them over time, but we are flexible and never overly serious what we decided earlier. At the end of the day, we recognise that we are on holiday, not work.

(b) Sunny and I are getting along well. Even though we know each other for 20 years, the intensity of the partnership during the trip, of sleeping, eating, and travelling together 24 hrs a day (I don't follow him into the toilet though) can still result in problems. We don't always agree with everything but give and take a little we have managed our partnership remarkably well.

(c) Except for some difficulties at the Bovet/Moc Bai, Cambodia-Vietnam, border crossing, border crossings had generally been smooth. We went into each border crossing with the right mindset- that there will be some waiting, some toing and froing, and telling ourselves that we have to be patient. We know that each country have its procedures and reasons for doing what they did.

(d) We are getting better and more efficient at blogging, even though it is still taking up a fair bit of our sleeping hours. We try to be as disciplined as we can in blogging what we see and record our experiences. We know this is a good way to share our experiences with our friends and others who may be interested, that there are many interesting things to see and do in the Asean countries; many hidden gems that need to be discovered.

(e) We are generally on track with our overall schedule, though except for the start and end dates, and the entry and departure dates for Vietnam, we try to be as flexible as we can. Given the length of Vietnam and and the many places to visit, we had been a little overly ambitious with the 19 days alloted. We had just decided to skip Ha Long Bay.

(f) We are happy with how we are managing costs. Our average hotel bill per day over the 30 days works out to be about S$50 a night. On a twin sharing basis, this amounts to S$25 per person. Our initial budget was S$50 a night.

(g) Not including the pre-trip expenses, we had spent a total of about US$3300 for the 30 days, which covers hotels, fuel, food, massages, tours, tickets, toll charges etc. About 1/3 of the cost goes not petrol. Overall, this works out to be about S$2500 per person for the 30 days period. We had estimated this at $5000-6000 for the whole trip of 66 days.

3. At the personal level, I am happy that I am the adjustments of being on my own, of doing things myself - washing clothes, packing things, drawing money from ATM, filling immigration forms, lining up at various counters, or just not losing things along the way (which I notoriously had the bad habit of leaving things behind, like my sun glasses). For years, when I travelled, I had always have people around to help, staff officer when I was on official trips, or Li Hoon when I was holidays. This trip has helped me to be more be independent. So far so good.

4. For the next 36 days, we still have North Vietnam (particularly Ha Noi), Luang Prabuang in Laos, and North Thailand of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai to go, before heading back for Singapore. Our wives are planning to join us at Phuket and travel back to Singapore with us.


1. We had set aside the first half of 26 May to see My Son (pronounced Mee Sen) and the remainder of the day to do the walking tour of Hoi An. This could spill into 27 May if necessary. As Hue was only about 150 km away, we decided to do only a day visit to Da Nang, to have lunch there and see the Museum of Cham Sculpture, before heading for Hue and spending 27 May night there. This would save us one day.

2. The ruins of My Son is located about 50 km to the Southwest of Hoi An. My Son was the spiritual centre of the Champa Empire while Tra Kieu (then known as Simhapura, Lion City. Singapura is not the first Lion City) was the political centre. Over a period stretching from the 4th to the 13th Centuries, some 78 kings built 70 temples here. My Son was abandoned after it lost ground to the Viet forces from North in the 15th century and over time fell into disuse and forgotten. It was discovered in 1898 by Frenchman, M C Paris. Unfortunately, the area was subjected to bombing by US forces during the Vietnam War as it was suspected to be staging areas of the Viet Cong forces. Although there are only 20 temples/towers are left, largely located in 3 clusters, it is still worth the visit. It was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1999.

3. To get there, we travelled South along Highway 1 and then made a right turn, for another 30 km+. Signage was clear along Highway 1, but less clear along the 30 km + leading to My Son. GPS was not helpful as it did not have information on this road and we got lost a couple of times. Eventually, we got there at about 11 pm.

4. The temples at My Son were dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. What were left showed a fairly advanced civilisation, not far behind the Angkor in Cambodia. Structures were mostly made of bricks, with the bricks first laid and bas relief intricately carved into them. The space between the bricks was so thin, no sign of mortar, that until today it remained a mystery how the bricks were put together (see picture of a wall on the right). Each cluster was scattered with Linga, symbolising the God Shiva. In religious ceremonies, priests would gather water from the nearby Cat's Tooth Mountain and ceremonially pour over the head of the linga to produce the sacred water. Remember the river of the thousand linga in Siem Reap?

5. Through disuse over the years and damage caused by US forces, many of the towers were now somewhat formless. There were few remnants of the beautiful carvings left. Many of the sculptures had been moved to the Cham Museum in Danang.

6. We paid US$15 for a guide to show us around. Afraid of heat, she carried an umbrella when we were out in the open. We would have done the same too, as it was really hot; probably close to 40 degree C. She told us that on the average 500 tourists visited the site each day. On that day, we didn't see that many. There would probably be much more during the peak season. This works out to be about 150 000 a year.

7. After a quick lunch along the way, we were back in Hoi An at about 3.30 pm. After a very quick wash up, we were on our walking tour of the old town. What I find particularly interesting in the old town was the tapestry of different architectural styles of the buildings that reflected the rich past of Hoi An, the different eras of interaction with people from different part of the world.

8. The influence of the Chinese was obviously very significant, as reflected by the many Chinese buildings, the Chinese words that were still present in buildings and on walls, and the many Huay Kuans. As Sunny and I are Hainanese and Teochew we spent a little more time in the Hainanese and Teochew Huay Kuan. We also saw the Cantonese and Hokkien, as well as the All Chinese Huay Kuan, something like our Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Quality of the architectural finishes was impressive, with beautiful carvings, paintings etc. Buildings have layout of usual courtyard with left and right wing, all still in very good condition. The Teochew Huay Kuan was built in 1752 and had undergone couple of renovations. In the Hainan Huay Kuan, Sunny had the chance to practise his Hainan with a senior gentleman, who was probably a member of the Huay Kuan.

9. Continuing our walk along D Tian Phu, we came to the Japanese Covered Bridge, which was built by the Japanese community in the 1590s, to link them to the Chinese quarters across the stream, still in very good condition.

10. After a day of hard walking, we settled down at Tam Tam Cafe for a beer, which was opposite Mango Rooms, a restaurant recommended by my son, Yiping. We found that it was closed for a week for renovation and would only open on 1 June. In the evening, we had dinner at Cafe Des Amis, a set menu Vietnamese dinner, four dishes at 120 000 Dongs. Very good food and we enjoyed ourselves very much. A fitting way to celebrate our one mth on the road. Yes, we had been on the road for exactly one month.

11. Next day, 27 May, we took another stroll in old town to visit a heritage house (Tan Ky) but was told that our ticket only permitted us to visit ONE heritage house. With the remaining ticket we visited Handicraft Workshop which was located in a 200 years old house belonging to a Chinese merchant, a very beautiful house, well preserved.

12. In Vietnam, most girls would ride their bikes wearing a mask that practically covered their faces. Initially, I thought this was against the dust and dirt. While this was true, Thuan said that the girls wore them because they did not want to get dark. They were practically covered from head to toe, long sleeves etc, all looking like Zorros.

12. At 10.30, we were off on the road to Da Nang, then to Hue for the night. We took the coastal road to Da Nang along Cui Dai Beach (or China Beach) and discovered that this was the best beach that we had seen in Vietnam so far. Thuan said that this was the best beach in Vietnam. Wide span of white beach, with coconut trees, atap shelters to provide some cover. We decided to take a short break to enjoy the beach and a coconut. The beach stretched for kms and kms all the way to Da Nang, with many resorts fronting the beach. We could see that more resorts were under development. Along a stretch we saw a high end residential development. Thuan said that foreigners are not allowed to buy properties in Vietnam.

13. At Da Nang, we had a wonderful Vietnamese lunch at Apsara, which was a stone throw away from the Museum of Cham Sculpture. This museum contained the finest collection of Champ arts in the world, dating back to the 7th to the 15th centuries, many of them taken were discovered at My Son, Dong Duong, Tra Kieu etc. Exhibits comprised lingas, altars, garudas, Ganeshas etc, intricately carved to the finest details. I particularly liked this bronze piece (picture below) which went back a thousand year. The quality of the craftmanship then was really quite amazing.

14. After an hour at the Museum, we departed for Hue to spend the night there.

15. Central Vietnam of Hoi An, Da Nang and Hue is one area that I could easily spend more than a week here without getting bored. They are within easy reach of each other; Da Nang is 120 km from Hue and 30 km from Hoi An. It has beautiful and unspoilt white beaches that stretch from Hoi An to Da Nang. It has World Heritage sites of Hoi An old town, Hue and My Son Champ Towers. Da Nang is Vietnam's 4th largest city and has all the attributes of a buzzy city. I believe that this area will grow into a bigger tourist destination than what it is today.