Thursday, 22 March 2012


15th - 21st Mar 2012

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum
The train left smack on time from Saigon Central Station ( the only station ) at 2300hrs for the 31 hour ( 2 night ) journey to Hanoi. I was in a 4 berth air-con 'soft' sleeper compartment. It was clean and reasonably comfortable, and I was to share the initial part of the journey with a Vietnamese lady and two English backpackers. Unusually for this part of the world, the train had a PA system and they proceeded to prattle on about various safety precautions in both Vietnamese and English; you know, all the essential rubbish like not sticking your head and legs out of the windows and refraining from weeing on the floor in the lavatories. The great advantage of this Vietnamese system, however, is that it has an OFF SWITCH. If left on it would subsequently play Vietnamese music. If you listen to Vietnamese music it is almost more irritating and tuneless than the bloody safety announcements. Ours was firmly switched OFF for the duration. I put some parcel tape over the switch to make sure it stayed that way.
We arrived at Nha Trang at 0600hrs the next morning. The train staff went up and down the carriage to wake up those due to disembark. They seemed to know who to shake. I stayed in bed and all the others left. I was alone in the compartment. We then continued on to stop at Da Nang at 1500hrs after which the train had to retrace it's route back south before doing a U turn and again headed north up to Hue. A Japanese lady and two more hairy backpackers ( one a girl ) came into the compartment here. Food and drink was sold from a passing trolley. Another night on board and we arrived at Hanoi at 0600hrs. An efficient and comfortable trip.
I then did something rather silly. I must have still been a bit sleepy. Against all experience and common sense I allowed myself to be persuaded to take the first taxi ( of a no-name company ) offered. I asked the driver how much it would cost to get me to my hotel. He said VND 100,000 ( $5 ). I knew this was too much. I said I wanted a taxi with a meter in it. Stupid! I was shown that his taxi had a meter. Of course the meter was rigged. Before we had got half way to the hotel ( I knew where it was ), the meter was clicking up past VND 100,000. I complained loudly and leant over to make a note of the driver's name and taxi registration. He stopped and told me to get out. Of course I refused; my suitcase was in the boot and I know what would have happened if I did get out. I sat there and he was getting stroppy. I was getting angry too and was fully prepared to whack the cheating little bastard over the head with my trusty Burmese walking stick if he tried anything funny. It was then that I realised I didn't have my trusty walking stick. I had left it on the train. Damn! and Damn again!! So we sat there in a sort of silent hostile stalemate, but eventually he had to move on. The final 'metered' bill came to VND 250,000 ( $13 ). I gave the bolshy sod VND 200,000 ( and some verbal abuse to boot ) to avert a violent scene and possible loss of my luggage. I had failed to follow my own basic rules. I should have waited and looked for a reputable taxi company. For your information, should you ever need a taxi in Hanoi, the three main trusted companies ( that I know of ) are MaiLinh Taxis, ABC Taxis, and CB. There are many cowboy robbers about!
The weather in Hanoi was damp, misty and overcast. It is a foggy time of year up here. As you may know, the climate in the South is very different. Down there they have a wet ( June to December ) season and the rest is dry with the temperature remaining between 30º to 35ºC. Up North there are four seasons including a cold winter and a blazing hot summer. March marks the transition from winter to spring. Albeit damp and  grey, it was not cold. Bother; it looks like I will still just be ferrying my bulky cold weather clothes for a bit yet.

Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, is a low rise city with many old rather dilapidated, mildewed and peeling stucco buildings and some newer hotels, embassies and offices in the north-western district, together with smarter yellow coloured 'grand' government offices and residences with wide avenues for parades. Left: This is the Presidential Palace in the Government buildings area ( near Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum on Hung Voung Road ).
The city is situated on the vast Red River and has several lakes dotted around the place, the biggest being the West Lake up in the NW area. It was into this that several American airmen were dunked on the end of their parachutes when shot down by the N.Vietnamese in the war, and subsequently imprisoned in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. I believe one of the previous recent US Presidential candidates was a case in point ( I've forgotten his name ). It reminds me of the sewage farm, with Benny Hill and his fire engine, in the film 'Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines'.

Right: Hoan Kiem lake, one of the smaller ones, which provides a 'water feature' in the centre of the Old Town, the popular touristy Vietnamese 'traditional' shopping and cafe area with lots of persistent hawkers selling overpriced tat to gullible tourists. Good on them! They are not unpleasant, as per India. It has a couple islands on it. The one in the foreground has a decorated bridge across to it and contains a water-puppet theatre. I've never seen a water-puppet performance but speaking to others who have it is, apparently, an acquired taste and with indecipherable story lines. I suspect it might be rather dull. There is another island with a small temple on it further down.

Left: Two shop assistants wearing the traditional 'ao day' ( pronounced ow yai ).  These are commonly worn as a sort of Vietnamese uniform in many walks of life, as is the very practical conical hat, the 'non' which serves to protect the wearer from both rain and sun.

Right: A 'non' wearing fruit seller. You will seldom see Vietnamese girls wearing short sleeves outdoors, especially in sunny weather. It is considered unattractive to have sun tanned or darker skin ( the colour Western girls yearn for ), the lighter the skin tone the more fashionable, beautiful and upmarket the appearance ( wasn't that the case in Europe centuries ago?). They will do anything to keep their skin pale including wearing long full arm length gloves and covering their faces with masks or shady hats. They also go in for heavily advertised skin whitening creams and soaps in a big way which probably doesn't do them much good, but are big money spinners for the ever greedy and unscrupulous cosmetics industry.
Whenever two or more ex-pats get together one unavoidable and lively topic of conversation is analysing the fascinating Vietnamese people and their behaviour, which is sometimes charming but often infuriating. It is certainly at odds with western culture. The same is about to occur here as I find myself waiting for a train with time to spare, so warning! I am about to bang on selfishly! There is no doubt that the Hanoi ( northern ) Viets are of different character to the HCMC ( southern ) variety. The northerners have been brought up on a strict Marxist/Leninist one party communist diet, whereas the southerners are slightly more French/American/Western influenced. Even though the country became 'unified' in 1975, there is still a noticeable difference, but the North is Boss! The more relaxed southern way of life, and even their dialect, is still somewhat disparaged by the politically correct northerners. One notices this particularly when dealing with minor Hanoi officials, as I had to do when booking railway tickets, or even when saying a cheery hello to the many ( scruffy ) military guards on Government buildings. They have perfected the ultimate sullen unsmiling look. The lady selling me railway tickets in the main station was as dour and unhelpful as they come and had the demeanour of a concentration camp guard. She was busy eating sunflower seeds when I approached her and was not keen to stop merely to deal with a customer, especially a foreign one.  Silly woman became argumentative and highly unpleasant when I asked for an explanation of various prices. I was saved by a charming young student who spoke good English, who was on my side, and translated for me. We both tried, and failed dismally, to get the miserable bitch to smile. Many northerners seem to have had their 'sense of humour and good manners' surgically removed. I have experienced many examples of this over several years. One begins to feel sorry for those American airmen who were imprisoned by these sort of people!
One must remember that this nation has emerged from a relatively poor and primitive 'tribal' agricultural background, with little knowledge of the outside world, to embracing all the hi-tech gadgetry and first world luxuries in a very short time which has included much struggle and hardship. As someone put it, they ( meaning the Viet hierarchy ) have gone from deprivation to decadence without passing through an intervening period of civilisation.
Actually the 'normal', i.e. not an apparatchik, Vietnamese, especially in the south, are delightful, sweet natured, honest and good humoured. The political and commercial hierarchy can be arrogant, greedy and humourless as described ( and often corrupt ) and they love to show off their wealth. The Party Officials are the original lizard-faced communist 'wax-dummy' autocrats who demand, and receive, total loyalty to The Party. The problem, as I see it, is in this society there is no opportunity to criticise or even 'suggest' from below. If you show any dissent, or even lack of total agreement, you just don't get promoted. Grovelling and nepotism are the routes to success. The Boss knows best; end of argument. The lowly Vietnamese, i.e. about 95% of them, accept this situation and smile and get on with their lives. Nothing they can do about it. They are inherently bright people and literate and good with figures, but they are not so much educated at school, as programmed. They are not encouraged to show imagination or think 'outside the box'. What they are taught is 'correct' and anything else is 'wrong'. Indeed the people are brainwashed into thinking that everything that is done in Vietnam, whether its their airline or their system of government, is the best, and those in charge will certainly not ( openly ) entertain any criticism or even advice from pesky foreigners. Your Government, or boss, or teacher knows what is best they are told. It leads to a society which is in many ways content but somewhat complacent, and it will take a long time for them to catch up with the first world in any inventive or free-thinking fashion. Any clever people down the pecking order with good ideas are not free to express them ( their boss would 'lose face' ), let alone get them implemented; the ideas have to come from up top. Most Vietnamese have no real experience or knowledge or even interest in what goes on far from their home or workplace, and certainly not outside the country. They are singularly incurious. I remember flying with presumably well 'programmed' Vietnamese F/Os who showed no interest whatsoever in what they were flying over. They put newspaper over their windows to keep out the sunlight. When asked by a naturally curious me things like "what's that river, or town down there?" they never even looked up and grunted "don't know" as if to say "I don't know, I don't care and why do you want to know?" Most western pilots take a healthy interest in where they are and a pride in identifying the sights and surroundings. Not so the Vietnamese. They are good with maths, technical subjects and writing ( right or wrong), hopeless with more arty or less defined ( shades of grey ) subjects and seriously naive about foreign countries, even geography. They learn entirely by rote, and it shows.
There are many examples of this. I met an English teacher who told me she had asked her teenage Vietnamese pupils to give their opinions on a particular subject. There was a long silence, and when pressed to reply the reaction was "Sorry Miss, you have not taught us what the answer is"!  There is also a total lack of understanding when confronted with inexact questions demanding a minor ( for us ) shift of imagination. One of many ( I could give you several ) infuriating examples from my own experience was when I wanted to buy a corkscrew in a local supermarket. I knew the word for 'bottle'. I knew the word for 'open'. I could say "I want to open my bottle". The shop assistant understood. I did not know the word for 'corkscrew', so I did a mime. I placed an imaginary bottle between my knees, screwed an imaginary corkscrew into the imaginary cork, and in a grand theatrical flourish pulled it out with a marvellous sounding 'kerplop' and waited for the reaction. Nil! I did it again and again, pointing to my imaginary corkscrew and getting more and more frantic in an over-the-top Basil Fawlty style performance. The girl just looked at me like I was deranged. I must admit I was getting a little red in the face and slightly apoplectic. How could she not understand, or even seem to make the effort to. I had to go to find someone who knew, and then write down, the correct word in Vietnamese and go back to the same shop assistant with the note. She immediately went and got me the corkscrew. I did a repeat of my manic act and she then said "Oh, now I understand, ha ha". They are not being obtuse. I experienced the same thing too often ( I won't even go into my degrading performance on the floor of an electrics shop when I wanted to buy an extension lead and which attracted a sizeable crowd, but not any understanding ), and thought originally that they were just trying, successfully, to wind me up. It is because of the way they are programmed that they just have no sense of lateral thinking or logic and need to be told 'exactly' what you want. The Vietnamese would not excel at the game of charades ( indeed they would not even understand the concept of charades "why you no just ask and he tell?" ). Neither do they really understand the question "why?", possibly the most difficult question to ask many Vietnamese. I gave up asking Vietnamese F/0s "why do we do this?" concerning flying matters. The answer was always the same, "SOP" ( Standard Operating Procedures ). I said "Yes, I understand it is SOP, but what is the reason for doing this?". Again, "Because it is SOP". Or eventually, maybe, when really pressed "Because Captain Tranh ( a training Captain ) says to do this". They do not question the logic of doing something told to them by their superiors, they just do it, always, no argument and without thought! Everything is black or white and no explanation is sought concerning the background or purpose of anything that is done. To question some action might be showing dissent! Also, one must be careful not to criticise or show up self-important Vietnamese, often the spoilt off-spring of important aparatchiks, especially in the company of their friends. This would cause 'loss of face' and result in an enormous sulk. I called it the Saigon Sulk, or Hanoi Hump.  The inimitable plus side of these traits is the extraordinary Vietnamese ability to get things done quickly and effectively without question. The end always justifies the means. I give you two examples. First; early one morning the domestic terminal at Ho Chi Minh ( Tan Son Nhat) International Airport burnt down. I was waiting at another airport to take over a plane due to arrive later that morning and return to Tan Son Nhat. It was delayed by 30 mins and I thought little about it, and no Vietnamese airport or flight-crew personal said anything special. We got back to Tan Son Nhat where I then found out about the previous night's fire. I mentioned this to my ( Vietnamese ) F/O who said he, and even the cabin crew, knew all about it but didn't think it was of sufficient importance to warrant my attention. I gathered that the airport authorities, having extinguished the fire, had simply taped off the domestic terminal and channelled domestic passengers through the international terminal to waiting domestic aircraft. Maximum delay to any flight was 30 minutes, no hassle, no drama and the next day's newspaper carried a four line inner page remark to the effect of "Fire at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in early morning. No casualties and normal service has been resumed". Can you imagine the hysteria and disruption if this happened at any British airport? The place would be closed for weeks, passengers would be sent home or accommodated at great expense, the Government, police and security services would go ballistic, as would all the 'elf 'n' safety bureaucrats, the press would have a field-day and, of course, Al Qaeda would have to be involved somewhere. Second;  the battle of Dien Bien Phu ( 1954/55 ). For those who don't know the story already, it demonstrates the amazing ability of the Vietnamese to get things done against all odds if the situation demands it. I won't bore you with the details, but the French didn't reckon on this insuperable Vietnamese trait and paid a heavy penalty. If you are interested, read the excellent book 'The Last Valley' by Martin Windrow. It is equally amazing that the Americans didn't appreciate this Vietnamese ability before subjecting themselves to an unwinnable situation supporting the South Vietnamese following directly on from the French debacle. Having said that, they still think they can sort out Afghanistan! Nothing changes. Imbeciles.
The Viets are Buddhists, in a fairly relaxed fashion. They do not so much worship Buddha and his toenails, teeth and strands of hair like Burmese, or Sri Lankans. They worship, if anything, their family ancestors and strongly believe that the ghosts of their ancestors are still around. The Vietnamese family is a close knit unit with all property and wealth tending to be shared. It is one of their strengths born out of previous hardships.
There are many other characteristics, and indeed many appealing ones too, concerning the Vietnamese lifestyle. I suppose it comes from their somewhat complicated and harsh recent history. There is another type of Vietnamese, the 'Viet Kieu'. These are the Viets whose parents had to clear out 'rapido' post 1975 and having been educated abroad are now able, and wish, to return. They are a different kettle of fish. As I said, it was a constant topic of conversation for some reason. We probably had nothing else in common to bang on about.

The French influence in Hanoi is still occasionally apparent, although not so much as in Saigon. This old French built water tower, and there are two of them in the city, is still standing and preserved although no longer containing water. It is on the north side of the Old Town and called Chateau d'Eau Hang Dau and was construit in 1894.
The French language is not now spoken by anyone educated after the 1950s, or very few. Russian used to be taught as their second language but now by force of circumstance, as everywhere, English is the preferred option. Lots of commercial English colleges do well here.

Right: The plaque above the door to the water tower. The present Vietnamese language is relatively new. It is the only language in this part of the world to be written in Roman script because it was invented in the late 17th century by a French priest, Alexandre de Rhodes, working at the court at Hue. It is basically a very simple language incorporating little words phonetically similar to Chinese and some French (  ga = rail station, va li = suitcase, bur = butter ), but it is 'tonal', involving 6 tones which change the same spelt word into something completely different depending on how you pronounce it. The words have tonal and vowel symbols to cater for this. It is, therefore , extremely difficult to make yourself understood if you don't say the word exactly right. As previously explained the Viets do not/cannot use imagination to think what you might mean. For example, the word ga, as well as meaning 'railway station' also means 'chicken' and 'to marry off'. You go into a supermarket asking for a chicken and they will be just as likely to direct you to the station or report you to the manager for sexual harassment. Don't even think of doing a chicken imitation!

Decoration, or should I say redecoration, of buildings is not considered top priority. I first visited Hanoi in 1995 and I can honestly say that not many places standing then have received a fresh coat of paint since. This stairwell ( left ) leads up to a series of smart(ish) touristy restaurants in the Old City; the chips in the flooring and scuff marks on the walls are, I am convinced, just larger versions of what they were then. If it works then that is good enough; paint-work...pah!

The same is true of their museums. The only changes to old museums are, perhaps, the occasional dustings the exhibits receive. The layout and exhibits themselves certainly don't alter.

Right: This T54/55? tank is still standing outside the War Museum on Dien Bien Phu Street, which is rather dull inside with lots of photos of famous military commanders, some old and tatty military relics and an ancient son et lumiere display of the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The tone of the museum is to denigrate the actions of the decadent, cruel, imperialist colonialists and show off the glorious, brave and brilliant Vietnamese leadership and fighters. Fair enough, I suppose. They won.

I went this time to see inside the Ho Chi Minh museum, adjacent to the mausoleum. Again, although quite modern in parts, it is not exactly a riveting experience. Lots of photos and letters from the glorious days of the formulation and advance of Ho's revolution and subsequent leaders with fixed smiles receiving or giving awards for further 'glorious' achievements. You can only look at so many photos of bridges and buildings being declared open, and framed documents from the days gone past. One of the fascinating displays was this one ( left ) a reconstruction with purportedly original furniture ( bedside table and cheap wardrobe ) from Ho's unremarkable apartment in a dour area of Paris when he was there, hatching plots, between 1919 - 1923. He was called Nguyen Ai Quoc then. In fact he was born Nguyen Sinh Cung, so changed his moniker a few times. I was interested to note that he lived in London ( as Nguyen Ai Quoc ) between 1913 and 1919, in a grotty bedsit in Crouch End. While boning-up on revolutions there he did various restaurant jobs including working as a waiter at the Connaught Hotel. I will be taking more notice of my waiter in future if dining in such smart establishments and perhaps ask for their autographs on spec. He also worked in an Italian restaurant, somewhere ( forgotten ). He must have been able to improve the local cuisine on return to Vietnam.

Right: This is a statue of him at the museum. He has just dropped the tray behind him when serving at one of his many restaurants. That could be a 1920s Connaught Hotel uniform he is wearing.
"...and make mine a double, Ho!"

Left: This is the sort of notice put in front of any other 'non-reolutionary' exhibits i.e. a few old colonial uniforms and ancient Emperor's accoutrements.

There is considerable respect, worship even, amongst the Vietnamese for 'Uncle' Ho, the Great Leader. He is 'deified' almost to the same degree as the Lord Buddha elsewhere and his embalmed body lies in state in the mausoleum which, when open, is a place of pilgrimage for Vietnamese from old war veterans to young schoolchildren, as well as attracting loads of foreign tourists. I went to have a look. It involves getting to the back of a very long queue, and shuffling forward for about 45 minutes towards the mausoleum. Bags have to be handed in at the start and, further on down the route, you go through a security scanner, then you come to a place where your camera,  if you have one, is put into a little canvas bag, further on these bags are taken away and you are given a plastic coupon to reclaim it later ( at a different place ). The queue is kept shuffling forward by rather strict unsmiling officials and you are permanently being given the 'once over' by white uniformed soldiers. Eventually you shuffle into the building and around three sides of the glass coffin containing 'himself' lying in state. The room is gloomy, but the late Uncle Ho is lit up by bright spotlights and his face looks ghostly white. If he was on telly they would say he needs more make-up. To be honest, you could be looking at a waxwork. Who knows.

On exit you reclaim your camera ( most efficient) and then are directed with no chance to avoid it, around the Palace gardens where other features of Uncle Ho's life are on display, such as this car of his ( right ), a modest Peugeot. I asked someone if he drove it himself but they didn't seem to know. "Maybe sometimes" was the reply.
I never did discover if there ever was a Mrs Ho. If so, she kept a remarkably low profile.

Left: A girl posing. It wasn't for me; some admirer was taking her photograph so I just joined in.

By the by; I have not noticed any Oirish bears in Hanoi. There are several wild ones in Saigon. Perhaps there are, but maybe they are considered too irreverent for this city, the centre-piece of the Vietnamese revolution.

Off next on a few trips to some outlying areas which I haven't visited before. The weather is still a bit grisly up here, so hopefully it will improve.

In the meanwhile, its "Farewell from Him". I think Uncle Ho deserves the last word.

( ...and from Ho Chi Matt )

Wednesday, 14 March 2012


1st - 14th March 2012

Uncle Ho
Bus from Phnom Penh to Saigon ( Ho Chi Minh City ) was comfortable and took about 6 hours. There was not much hassle at the Bavet border crossing where a lot of rather flashy looking casinos have sprung up. These are on the Cambodian side and cater for the gambling mad Vietnamese because gambling establishments are prohibited ( for the Vietnamese ) in Vietnam. Arrived at what is known as the 'back-packers' area in downtown Saigon at about 1500hrs. Actually, I had meant to get out on the north-west side of the city where I was to be staying, but was sound asleep as we passed.
I spent the next few days visiting old haunts and meeting up with some ex-colleagues who are still slaving away on the end of interminable rosters for Vietnam Airlines, so no touristing.
The name Saigon is still used by locals to describe the central city districts. Ho Chi Minh City, the more politically correct, and indeed official, name describes the whole conurbation which is vast and growing. It is actually difficult to tell where the city begins or ends nowadays. The whole city area is thought to contain a population of about 9 to 12 million, but nobody seems sure. The French designed Saigon and riverside districts which they developed in the 18th and 19th centuries were built to accommodate a projected population of 250,000. So you can appreciate that it is a bit of an uphill struggle to provide the infrastructure to meet present day needs. The traffic still predominantly consists of small motorcycles and scooters ( motos ), although the number of cars is increasing and will, sooner or later, lead to total gridlock. I rode a moto around here for a few years and found it tremendous fun.

It is utterly anarchic, and proves my theory that the more dangerous the situation appears, people take more care, 'prenez garde', and as a result survive quite happily. Right: Waiting at traffic lights ( yes they have them and occasionally, if a policeman is standing nearby, riders stop at the red lights ), reminded me of the start of the Grand National but with about 500 horses and riders jockeying for position. I take pride in the fact that my precious moto did not receive a single scratch during the 4 years I rode it here and nor did I.
The secret is to keep your eyes scanning in front, expect someone to whizz out of a side road unexpectedly and don't drive when you are too pissed. Indeed, forgive me if I side-track myself a bit here, having spoken to a lot of 'travellers' over the past year or so it is apparent that roughly 90% of the people who meet with misfortune during their travels, you know, muggings, robberies, fights, losing things, accidents, missed transport, getting arrested, tripping over kerb stones and losing teeth, being conned, falling off things, drowning etc. etc. do so as a result of unwise quantities of alcoholic intake. Stay alert and you tend to stay safe. Also, abide by the philosophy ( utterly alien to 'western' culture ) that any accident that befalls you, whether you are technically in the right, or not, is your fault and don't go looking to blame anyone else. Wealthy lawyers and insurance companies would all go bust in USA and Europe if  people there did this. Where was I? Oh yes, Saigon city........

Left: The City Hall. Some of the better built and more iconic French colonial buildings, like this, are still standing and well kept. Many less famous have been allowed to fall into dilapidation and pulled down to make way for profitable new high rise glass and concrete monstrosities.

Right: The Opera House on the right and Continental Hotel, with the red roof, to the left ( built 1880 ) in Lam Son Square in upmarket District 1. I remember a famous film scene from The Quiet American, starring Michael Cain, where lots of explosions were going off around here. Graham Greene wrote the book The Quiet American and had a long term room in the Continental. The old bar is still there at an inside courtyard where, reputedly, he sipped his dry martinis. The area behind the Continental used to be a pleasant little park with grass, trees and fountains but is now built on by that obnoxious blue coloured high-rise shopping centre and apartment block, the Vincom Centre Monstrosity, which is still mostly empty. In Vietnam money making enterprises triumph hand over fist above architectural aesthetics or cultural merit. In fact that is the case in most post-colonial Asia. Sad, but inevitable. Back-handers, bribes and personal gain play a large part in development projects, i.e. corruption.

A notable building in District 1 is the 19th century Notre Dame cathedral ( left ). I have never been inside, but the outside gives the area a more elegant appearance. The walls and grounds of this building are popular with Vietnamese for pre-wedding photo venues. There are always couples dressed-up to the nines in their exotic wedding outfits, weeks before the big occasion, doing 'romantic' poses for photographers here. Comprehensive, vast, and probably expensive wedding photo albums, and elaborate videos, ( some unkind people might think them rather tasteless ) form a vital part of Vietnamese nuptials.
To the right of this cathedral is..............

.....the French built central Post Office ( right ) which is another work of art. It is also very functional and efficiently run. The service provided is second to none. There are 20 different desks, all manned, and I mean all, by elegantly dressed ladies in yellow and silver traditional Au Dais ( pronounced 'Ow Yies', the loose fitting silk trousers covered by a long figure hugging dress split at the sides from the waist down ) and men in smart yellow shirts and black trousers. They all tend to speak reasonable English. It is open from 0800 - 1900hrs daily, including Sundays. Each of the desks serves a particular function i.e. selling stamps, or dealing with international mail for example. In my case I went in to post some books and documents which they carefully boxed and wrapped for me at one desk, and then weighed, documented and posted at another. It is a busy place, but entails very little queuing and provides a slick service. It is a system entirely alien to the endless queues at the half-manned and often scruffy British post-offices.

It provides an information service, a currency exchange service, and has international telephones in smart old fashioned wooden kiosks, as well as kiosks with computers and places to buy lots of postal commodities, sheets of collectors' stamps and memorabilia. The vast, spacious interior ( left ) is decorated with extraordinary murals, maps and portraits. It is a popular venue on the tourist trail with lots of guided tours being shown around.

Right: On the other side of the Opera House in Lan Son Square is the Caravelle Hotel. This smart art deco building was the watering hole of choice for reporters and journalists during the Vietnam war. The 'semi' roof bar on the 9th floor ( called Saigon Saigon ) is an amusing and popular venue for expats as well as the better heeled Vietnamese.

It used to host a fantastic Cuban salsa band, 'Warapo',  including two spectacularly agile and skilled girl singers and dancers with contra-rotating bums ( left: photo from two years ago ). I made a point of revisiting for old times' sake. Bugger it; they have been replaced by another band not nearly so good, if much louder. I'm told Warapo still perform in several different venues around town. I aim to find them again before I leave.
Skilled 'western' entertainment is hard to find in Saigon. The Vietnamese, unlike the Philippinos, Thais and other Asian countries do not seem to produce many quality acts.

Right: The Reunification Hall is at the end of Le Duan ( pronounced Lay Wun ), a large central boulevard in District 1, and surrounded by a pleasant park with tanks as ornaments. This was originally the site of the Presidential Palace which was bombed by renegade Air Force pilots in 1962 in an unsuccessful assassination attempt on the then President. It was so badly damaged that it was pulled down and completely rebuilt, designed by a Vietnamese architect,  and completed in it's present form in 1966. What an ugly building. It was again attacked and bombed ( for aesthetic reasons? ) by another renegade South Vietnamese pilot in his Phantom jet on 8th April 1975, sadly without much damage being done this time. This pilot then flew on in his jet to land up at Hanoi and became a national hero of the North Vietnamese. His name is Nguyen Thanh Trung who, after 'unification' of North and South, subsequently flew B767s for Vietnam Airlines. He is affectionately known as 'Bomber Trung' and although now retired from the airline still flys as a corporate pilot. I have met him; he is a charming and amusing man, as is his son who is an F/O on the Vietnam Airlines ATR fleet and with whom I flew while working here.
There is a well publicised photo of a North Vietnamese T52 tank crashing through the gates here on 30th April 1975 which signified the final victory of North over South. The South Vietnamese flag was unceremoniously hauled down and the red one with yellow star hoisted in it's place. Subsequently lots of South Vietnamese had to do a 'runner'.

Left: The Bitexo Financial Tower. This is new; only recently completed down by the riverside. It is the first 'skyscraper' in Saigon and they charge $10 to go up it which, of course, I did. Good enough views from the viewing floor directly underneath the heli-pad. Not sure what goes on in the pointy bit above which is a very skinny addition to the more substantial lower floors.

Right: View from the skydeck, or whatever its called, looking north-west towards the airport. The City Hall is mid-picture at the top of Nguyen Hue street.

Left: It features a bar and restaurant with good views but extortionately priced food and drink......

.....unlike places such as this ( right ), Restaurant 63 in Pham Van Hai street which supplies plentiful and delicious Vietnamese cuisine including at least 5 bottles of Tiger, or San Miguel, beer all for about £5 per head. Plus excellent service by some very pretty waitresses. There are lots of marvellous Vietnamese restaurants even if they are a little noisy at times. The Vietnamese enjoy noise. "Mot, hai, ba Yo!"

Left: Another social gathering. Dietmar, ATR Capt ( German ), Susan, English teacher ( Northern Irish ), Claudia, another teacher ( Swiss ) and Michael, Airbus Capt ( German ). Dietmar wanted his ugly mug to feature in this blog, so here it is. " Ein, zwei, drei, Klop!"

 I have been spending all my time in the city being well entertained and calling on 'unsuspecting' old friends.

At the moment I am recovering from a mega-party thrown by a group of Polish ATR pilots ( left ) some of whom who are leaving to return to fly in Poland. By crikey they are a generous bunch! I now own a smart Polish football scarf as well as a monumental hangover. Thanks boys!

However, this blog gives me the opportunity here to dig out a few old photos for reminiscence sake. There are many things to do and places to visit around the south and centre of the country which indeed I did in earlier years.

Such as trips around the Mekong Delta area ( right ) by boat. This area appears, from the air, as a vast lattice-work of interconnecting canals running between rivers and their tributaries for endless miles. It must be the biggest rice producing area in Asia. I may stand corrected on this. It also produces a lot of fish.
Interestingly, most Vietnamese are scared stiff of water and relatively few learn to swim. They regard water as a medium for travel, obtaining fish, cultivating crops and drinking. It is certainly not for swimming in. As a result many lives are lost by children ( and adults ) falling into canals and fishermen falling out of their boats at sea. I remember some of us trying to persuade ( with honourable intentions ) some Vietnamese girls to join us in a swimming pool and teach them to swim. It was like trying to stuff cats into a bucket of water! If they did get into the water they could not be persuaded to let go of the side. It was a similar experience when doing water 'emergency' drills with cabin crew in a local pool. Even with life-jackets on many were terrified of getting into the water.

Left: A typical bit of Mekong river tributary. Boat trips up the rivers and canals feature floating markets, restaurant stops and local village entertainment. As well as the small motorboats on day trips, there are smart boats with upmarket accommodation for trips lasting a few days along the wider stretches.

There are also the old Viet Cong tunnels near the town of Cu Chi in Tay Ninh district, about 70 miles north-west of Ho Chi Minh City. This is an area, amongst others, where in the Vietnam war of the 60s/70s an entire Vietnamese community lived below ground, both civilians and Viet Cong guerrillas. The underground town consisted of three levels of accommodation, hospitals, armouries, workshops, kitchens etc. all interlinked by hundreds of miles of tunnels from which their fighters emerged, did their stuff, and retreated back into. It was an incredible feat of engineering and perseverance. The Americans and South Vietnamese forces tried to destroy this system by any and every means possible; bombing, flooding, gas, dogs, using the infamous 'tunnel rats', you think of it, they tried it all and failed. The Viets had devised many clever means of protection using water sumps, ventilation systems, reinforcement and booby traps to deter invasion of their underground system. A small section of this warren has been preserved and some mock-ups of accommodation and life underground reconstructed.

Right: The original tunnel entrances could just be squeezed into by a Vietnamese sized person. No 'Big Macs' on sale to them in those days, or even nowadays for that matter ( MacDonalds do not have outlets in Vietnam ). There were U bends and even parts where occupants had to dive underwater to enter or get from one place to another.  This is an example of a camouflaged trap-door into a tunnel.

Left: Of course some entrances have been sufficiently modified to allow access for 'normally' built westerners. This one is sweating a bit.

Right: The present 'original' tunnel area has been reinforced with concrete and somewhat enlarged. There is a length of about 50 yards of tunnel down which tourists can crawl with a couple of escape holes for those who get a bit panicky. Even though it is obviously wider and higher than the real original, it is still a squeeze and somewhat claustrophobic. I wondered what happens in the event of a slightly larger than average tourist actually getting stuck solid in here. Perhaps they just wait until he/she has lost sufficient weight to become unstuck?

Left: And the booby traps are kept outside on display only. There were many ingenious variations of pits with stakes at the bottom, dangling ropes that hauled you up by your ankles and triggers which when released shot arrows through you. The idea of these traps is to wound not to kill. The well proven theory being that one wounded man takes out several more who have to stay behind to look after him.

There are also a couple of holiday islands to visit. The most developed is called Phu Quoc, which is about 50 minutes domestic flight from HCMC off the south-west coast ( near to the coast of Cambodia ). It has some quiet and unspoilt beaches with good seafood restaurants and pleasant hotels. The other is the island of Con Dao, a rocky island surrounded by other little ones due south of the mainland. Nice beaches and hotels also and, as yet, unspoilt. This was the island on which the French built a prison to house Viet Minh prisoners. The Americans used it to imprison Viet Cong, and after North Vietnam won the war in 1975 they used it to imprison South Vietnamese. The prison facilities are now abandoned and derelict ( I think ).

Right: The approach to the easterly ( 11 ) runway on Con Dao ( the airport is called Con Son ). It is an easy approach unless you get brisk north-easterly winds over the hills, left, which can produce quite violent turbulence and wind-shear on short finals. It caused a few minor anxious moments.

 There is a 'Five Star train' to the resort town of Nga Trang on the coast about 200 miles north-east of Ho Chi Minh City. I did this, there and back, once. Due to there being only a single track railway the journey takes about 8 hours because the train has to keep pulling into a siding to let others pass. A recommended trip nevertheless. Nga Trang has lots of scuba diving schools and rocky islands which provide good( ish ) diving opportunities. There is also an island known as Vinpearland ( left ). This is a sort of theme park place with entertainments and water-slides, amusement arcades and the like. I think it is sponsored by a Russian company. You reach it either by boat or by a very long distance cable car. The cable car trip must be one of the longest in the world. It takes about 20 minutes to cross. I was put into a car by myself and felt quite uncomfortable swaying about up there alone suffering a mild attack of vertigo. I confirmed to myself that I don't like cable cars.
Further on up the coast, just south of the major central coastal city of Da Nang is the popular touristy town of Hoi An. This place has amusing markets, clothes manufacturers and tailors who are famous for running you up a suit in the time it takes you to eat lunch. The trouser leg probably falls off before dinner. It has a lot of Japanese architecture such as this quaint little bridge ( right ).

The old town is built on a river, about 5 miles inland from the sea. Every October, regular as clockwork, this river floods and swamps the town. There are always pictures of streets inundated with water up to the top of signposts and national appeals put out to help those unfortunates who have been affected. I don't understand why they haven't built the riverside houses on stilts as per Burma and Malaysia in flood prone areas. I mean, this annual flooding comes hardly as a surprise! I think if I was a Hoi An resident I would let my house to tourists in October and move out to higher ground with my carpets, paintings and valuables.

There are many attractive junk style boats and other craft which take tourists on tours up and down the river. The old part of the town is indeed a pleasant and amusing place to visit, except maybe during October when, if nothing else, the famed 'water puppet' shows presumably still go on. The coast nearby also has some resort hotels. The Vietnamese are still way behind the rest of the world in terms of recreational amenities, and the east coast sea is always a dirty brown sandy colour, but if you want to get away from it all, then these are places to go. I once asked a local why there are no entertainments such as wind-surfing, yachting and such-like at popular resorts like Phu Quoc, for example. There is room for all this without disturbing the peace of the place. I was told "Vietnamese people don't like". What the Vietnamese do like is gambling. I have a horrid fear that, one day, these places will become meccas of the casino world. I hope not, and maybe they will get there with pleasant and tasteful entertainment eventually. The beach area local to Ho Chi Minh is 30 miles east, and a 1 hour ( amusing ) hydrofoil journey from the city. It is a rather dull place, but with a nice harbour area, called Vung Tau. Does anyone remember Garry Glitter?
There is, however, a beautiful golden sandy beach at Mui Ne, about 50 miles north-east of HCMC which is an internationally renowned spot for the new(ish) activity of kite surfing ( not started up here by a Vietnamese I suspect ). There are boundless possibilities for many terrific sporting and leisure activities in Vietnam ( sport fishing, yachting, hiking, para-gliding, wind surfing and many more ), but they will take a long time to realise them. For all their qualities, the Vietnamese do not show much imagination and they certainly don't like foreigners coming along and telling them what to do, or how to do it better. Their 'education' does not really encourage imaginative thought; it could be dangerous. People might even openly start to criticise their superiors, heaven forbid! They are programmed to do what they are told.

Further on north is the ancient Imperial capital city of Hue. This is where all the old emperors hung out and there was a token 'emperor' in situ until as recently as 1945. The main landmark building is the large fortified 'forbidden' palace area of the Citadel ( left ) on the north side of the Perfume River ( bottled as L'eau de Vieux Poisson, perhaps ). When the communists came to power they regarded this place as being 'feudal' and 'reactionary' and for a long time left it to rot after being much damaged during the 1960s/70s Vietnam war ( the Americans virtually blew it to bits....the normal American legacy of their many futile conflicts ).
The Hanoi government eventually came to their senses and realised the commercial advantage of renovating the place and making it a profitable tourist venue, if for no other altruistic reason. It is now a popular venue with tours around the Citadel and boat trips up the river to visit the many elaborate temples and pagodas where most of the late emperors are entombed. There are also some pleasant hotels such as the one I once used called La Residence. This is a fascinating art deco building on the opposite side of the river to the Citadel. It was formerly the residence of the French Governor. The place is worth a visit for a couple of days max.
I am writing this while my Polish headache is wearing off. I met and enjoyed the hospitality of many old comrades here, such as this chap ( right ). This is Mad Michel from Belgium, an ATR pilot who once flew in the Congo where he had some interesting experiences with crocodiles. He is also a self taught authority on black magic, various forms of meditation and weird and wonderful spiritual cures for all known ailments. He also builds model aeroplanes and rides fast motorbikes. An interesting and amusing character.

I was also generously entertained by Claudio, an Airbus 320/21 Captain, his beautiful Chilean wife Helene and their children. Matteus and dog are missing. Matteus was in trouble because he hadn't phoned in late.
Before I forget I must register my gratitude to another friend, another Airbus driver, Herr Kapitan Doktor ( econ ) Michael, who most generously lent me his palatial apartment for my stay here while he went off on Urlaub in Deutschland. Danke schon serr much.

I have now managed to get various visas organised which was one of the reasons I have spent so long in this city. Next off by train up the length of Vietnam to Hanoi where hopefully it will be a bit chilly. I have been lugging my heavy cold weather clothes around with me everywhere and have not had the opportunity to wear them since New Zealand. In fact, now I think about it, I cannot remember the last time I even experienced any rain. Onwards and upwards.
PS. I finally located the amazing Warapo salsa group. I found them back in the Caravelle where they still perform on Tuesday nights. Some of the cast had changed but they were still fantastic with the girls contra-rotating various body parts with great gusto.

Friday, 2 March 2012


24th Feb - 1st Mar 2012

Welcoming sign to Phnom Penh
The 5 hour mini-bus trip from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh ( PP ) was down what is now a good road through the flat rice growing countryside to the east of the vast Tonle Sap lake. It would have taken a whole day along potholed tarmac and dirt track in 1993. It was a Russian helicopter trip in those days. It is indeed very flat and nowt much to see. We stopped in the unremarkable town of Kampong Thom for a coffee break and arrived in PP at 1400hrs. By gosh the place has changed! Just about the only motor vehicles in 1993 were the white painted UN jeeps and Toyota Land-Cruisers, the streets and boulevards were cracked and potholed with weeds growing in and around them and were fairly deserted apart from pedal powered trishaws and motorbike taxis, the buildings were mostly mildewed and often damaged and electricity and gunfire was sporadic. I remember having some amusing races on the trishaws. Much betting was involved and a good prize ( bribe ) was offered to the driver if we won. It produced some exciting races between about 5 'runners' ( trishaws ) down deserted boulevards where bumping, boring and foul play were the norm. Its amazing the dramatic effect that a stout stick thrust through the spokes of a wheel has on a speeding trishaw.

Now the place is full of cars, mostly enormous gas-guzzling 4X4s plus normal taxis and thousands of motorised 'tuk-tuks' ( same as Siem Reap ) as well as motor-bike taxis, buses and big wagons. The streets are immaculately re-surfaced and clean. There are even modern traffic lights at junctions with sensible count-down cocks, and pedestrian lights which feature lit up animated walking green or static red figures on them ( not that many people pay much attention to them I hasten to add ). All very upmarket street furniture. Left: The Independence Monument on Sihanouk Boulevard. As with all my photos, even though I noticed busy traffic, the place mysteriously clears of cars and pedestrians when I get my camera out!

Right: There are still a few remaining trishaws left from the old days. I didn't see many people using them. The motorised variety hang about in large numbers and drivers have an irritating habit of persistently yelling 'uwantuk-tuk' at every passing tourist and ex-pat ( of which there are many ) even when you have loudly said "no thanks" ( politely initially ) to several others next door, and they persist with "uwan tuk-tuk tomorrow, uwan go see killing fields, uwanmassar......etc. etc. I saw a couple of westerners ( probably working here ) wearing 'T'-shirts with the logo 'I don't want  tuk-tuk!' written on the front and "I don't want tuk-tuk tomorrow" on the back. It must have got to them too.

Left: This innocuous looking place hasn't changed too much, except that the grass has been cut, it has been tidied up a bit and old bloodstained clothes and Khmer Rouge uniforms ( Mao style hats and black pyjamas ) which littered the buildings have been removed. It is an old elementary school, Toul Sleng, in the southern part of the city. This was code-named S61 in the Khmer Rouge days and was a secret prison where suspected 'dissenters and spies' were imprisoned, tortured until they confessed and then, inevitably, killed. It is now 'sort of' maintained as a museum, or more accurately a horror show to remind everyone of the Khmer Rouge atrocities.

Right: The school buildings were converted into cells and torture chambers. Even the playground equipment was used to string prisoners up from and they were either dunked in water barrels, beaten or otherwise mutilated. That beam ( right ) was where prisoners were strung up by their ankles and repeatedly dunked into the barrels full of stinking water below, or by their hands tied behind their backs until they passed out. To the right are the graves of the last remaining 14 mutilated corpses, decomposed and tied to bed frames in the attics, found by the Vietnamese when they liberated the place in 1979.

Left: A part of many boards with ID photos of prisoners on arrival at Toul Sleng. There were between 17,000 and 22,000 prisoners held here between 1975 and 1979. These included a few westerners inadvertently caught up in the nightmare. I remember ( and their photos are displayed on another board ) a couple of Australian yachtsmen who ventured too near the coast, were captured, imprisoned and tortured here, accused of being CIA spies. They were forced to sign confessions and were then executed. The camp authorities, under the command of the notorious 'brother Duch', meticulously photographed the prisoners on their arrival and most of these photo IDs ( a few thousand are missing ) were recovered by the Vietnamese. They are on display in seemingly  endless frames in many rooms around the camp.

Right: They were even photographed, can't think why, when dead after succumbing to torture. The majority were taken out of the camp, often under the pretext that they were being given some cushy work in the fields, and then herded, roped together around their necks, into an orchard at Choeung Ek 15 kms south of the city where they were bludgeoned to death ( men, women and even their children and babies ). It saved valuable bullets. Their corpses were then dumped into waterlogged pits. This place became known as 'the killing fields' and is now another site open for visitors. Some of the pits have been emptied with bones and more than 8000 skulls on display. Other pits, 43 of the 129, are left undisturbed. Some gruesome tourist attractions here!
As an aside, the Cambodian government has, apparently, and much to the disgust of many Cambodians, sold the commercial rights of this tourist attraction to either a Japanese or Korean commercial concern.

Left: Hundreds of skulls and bones are also on display here in Toul Sleng. There are several glass fronted cabinets like this one ( left ) and also about 15 separate glass cases below containing individual skulls of victims who had been shot, with labels attached giving their sex, approximate age, and a description of where the bullet entered and exited. Most of the bullets, it seems, entered through, or near, the top of the head. At busy periods up to 100 prisoners died of torture or were executed in a day.

Right: The individual cells which were constructed inside the buildings were not exactly commodious. The prisoners were also shackled and chained to a wall or floor ring inside these. There was a barbed wire grill surrounding all the buildings. They were not taking too many chances of letting a prisoner escape. There were also some larger multi-occupancy dormitory style rooms into which shackled prisoners were packed, tied together, lying side by side and head to tail like tinned sardines. In comparison, the individual cells must have been de-luxe accommodation. Room service not so good, I fear.

Left: Some of the instruments of torture. The sloping table on the left is for 'water-boarding' victims whose ankles were tied to the upper end. On the right is the tank inside which they were tied up and nearly drowned, again and again. There were many other ghastly 'persuasive' instruments of the electrical and mechanical variety on display elsewhere.

Right: I met up with an old French friend, Florent, who is now working here ( I mean Phnom Penh, not Toul Sleng ). Here he is, pointing out with the aid of my trusty Burmese walking stick, one of the Camp Rules. These rules were quite strict, I feel. You may need to click on to enlarge in order to read. For example, Rule No 6, 'While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all', seems a bit unnecessary.
Of the 17 to 22,000 prisoners held here between 1975 and 1979 only seven are known to have survived imprisonment i.e. not tortured, shot, bludgeoned, hanged or otherwise put to death. Those seven were kept alive because they had skills like photography and drawing which the authorities needed within the camp. Of the seven survivors two or three are alive today. One works inside the camp and holds forth to anyone wishing to hear about his harrowing experience.
Even many of the guards and torturers were killed because they might have become a 'security risk'. They were easily replaced by others, who had no choice but to do as they were told.

Left: Florent, looking suitably cowed, trying out one of the cells for size.

Right: For those who were around at the time this photo might bring back memories; the old UNTAC headquarters neat the Wat Phnom. It looks exactly the same now as when staffed by the multi-national and highly paid UN staff.

Left: Even from the outside it looks unchanged with the walls and wire anti-rocket mesh still the same colour. The only differences now being the well surfaced road and a lack of waiting trishaws. These pics will be of limited interest to all but a tiny few. The building is now the home of a government development ministry.

Right: This ordinary looking boulevard is the one which runs from the Hotel le Royale where we used to stay while in PP down to the Phnom Wat and UNTAC HQ, behind camera. It was down this 'track' that we held the notorious trishaw races. It used to be weed strewn and potholed. It is now very normal. The US Embassy is on the left side and the hotel at the far end on the right.
The Hotel Le Royale had obviously been an elegant and luxurious place in French colonial days. In 1992 it was a bit of a wreck. I remember having dragged my cases up an old creaking wooden staircase and walking into my room for the first time in those days and seeing a monkey on the bed. Having chased that out of the room, I opened an ancient wardrobe to find two more cuddling inside. The room also hosted frogs, lizards, geckos and a large variety of spiders and other insects. Each room was a veritable wildlife conservation area. The electricity was off more than on, and even when on the pathetic naked lightbulbs only served to darken the rooms, the plumbing made alarming noises and produced little in the way of water. The swimming pool at the back contained a few inches of stagnant black fluid and many dead frogs and other things. In short it was a quaint and interesting hostelry in a state of elegant and total dilapidation.

Left: Imagine my surprise when I saw it recently! It is now owned by the Raffles Group and is an immaculate 5 star luxury hotel again, and well beyond my means ever to stay there. Smart uniformed  doormen, tasteful decoration and haute cuisine par excellence.

Right: The swimming pool has been somewhat revamped and I didn't spot even a live frog, let alone a dead one. Just lots of affluent looking guests sipping drinks and lounging on deckchairs.

Left: But they have shown remarkable taste and style by keeping the ancient wooden staircase which still creaks when you walk up it. It brought back memories. They now have lifts as well of course.

Right: ...and those long marble chequerboard landings which looked remarkably familiar if much shinier and with no monkeys in sight. In those days you passed more monkeys in the passageways than guests or staff.

At the bottom of the road, near the wat, was a line of the old trishaws ( left ). They too brought back memories. Perhaps some of the drivers were involved in the races 20 years ago having recovered from their injuries. They looked about the right age and still willing and able although probably not so fit and speedy nowadays.

Right: Anyway there were no other riders, but I had to have a ride, even at a very sedate pace.

Other smart luxury hotels have sprung up. Left: This one is the Cambodiana on the riverside where an old ship/restauarant used to be moored. The city is benefitting from a lot of investment in hotels it appears.

Right: The Tonle Sap river is host to many river 'booze' cruise boats.

Left: They queue up for willing takers along the banks and touts patrol the nearby streets looking for customers. They reminded me of the old Royal Navy press gangs ( not that I ever met a Royal Navy press gang ). I thought there were many more boats than there could possibly be passengers to fill them.

Right: Down the riverside promenade, Sisowath Quay, were lines of 'get yourself fit' machines which were in constant use. The lady here was hard at it having hung her handbags on the front. They take their exercise quite seriously.

Left: Of course, in amongst hundreds of well populated bars and restaurants along the riverside is the inevitable Oirish bear. I stopped at this one for supper but they produced a deafening ( Irish ) live group which made your ears ache and conversation impossible. In fact self and Florent ( who is a keen rugby man; he plays for a French ex-pat team in PP and even knows all the modern rules ) found a bar in which we watched live ( 7 hrs ahead of GMT ) both the Ireland/Italy and France/Scotland 6 nations matches. The England/Wales match was way after my bedtime.

Right: The Wat Phnom which is a popular meeting place with a floral clock which actually told the correct time, and another welcome sign, in French.

Left: In the middle of the bar/restaurant riverside street is this shop, selling coffins. I thought it rather an incongruous location; or perhaps they get a lot of trade after chucking out time.

Right: The French built main Post Office which, along with its counterpart in Saigon, is a beautiful spacious building. It does not have endless queues and the service is efficient and polite.

Left: The Throne Room inside the Royal Palace. The palace area is a large walled compound consisting of some formal buildings, shrines and temples open to the general public and other restricted areas for official buildings and the private residence of King Sihamoni. No photos allowed, for whatever reason, inside the Throne Room.

Right: Or, for that matter, inside the Silver Pagoda which is the other main building of interest. It is so called because the floor is covered by solid silver tiles. Most of these are covered, for protection, by a carpet and those  few that you can see are tarnished nearly black. Lots of bejewelled Buddhas and gold objects abound. Another shoes-off experience.

Left: This is inside the Pavilion containing what is advertised as Buddha's footprint. All I can say is that he must have had bloody big feet!
To be honest, I found the Royal Palace visit a bit boring.

Right: A bevy of monks. Anyone know the collective noun for a group of Buddhist monks?

Left: On the way out they had a model of a large white elephant and lots of howdahs on display. Not as impressive as the ones I saw in Inja.

Right: On the final night I spent in PP I was joined by Florent and an amusing Irish girl, Lauren, who is a journalist with the English language daily, the Cambodian News. We took part in a pub quiz at the Willow Hotel, not far from mine. We came a respectable 5th out of about 12 teams, some of which had seven or eight members! I know we would have won if they hadn't had a section on pop music.
Incidently, other than tourists, it is surprising to note how many ex-pats are living and working in Phnom Penh as evidenced at this pub quiz. I saw lots of Australians. I think it is because there are many of these so called 'Non-Governmental Agencies' ( NGOs ) operating in the country which are, effectively, charities and get good tax breaks for the work they do. They started to appear in big numbers in 1992 to fulfil many jobs such as drilling for water, providing food, healthcare, de-mining and many other humanitarian tasks. I think some of them do a good job. I have a feeling some just aim to attract money to pay themselves a decent salary.
Off next to visit old haunts and ex-colleagues in Saigon ( Ho Chi Minh City ). Stand by for further riveting revelations.