Kuching Cat

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Kuching Seasons greetings

24 December 2006
Picture: Laurie picked up some temporary work to help with our expenses!


'Tis the season! We are sitting in Nai Harn Bay on the west coast of Phuket Island contemplating Xmas dinner. Probably lobster again. In the past 15 years between us we seem to have had more lobster than turkey Xmas dinners. We are planning Xmas dinner in our new house with some friends. It's the 20th though and we haven't moved in yet. The furniture arrives on the 23rd and we will move in ready or not. The builder says it will be liveable by then but, for example, we will have metal stairs instead of the wood block ones which will go in at the very end of the build process so they won't be ruined by worker's dirty boots. No worries (as they say in New Zealand), as long as we have a kitchen and an operating swimming pool we are sure the Xmas party will be a success.

Since arriving back in this part of the world we've been busy with the house- finalizing colour schemes, correcting builder's errors, buying furniture. It didn't take up all our time but the demands for consultation were sporadic enough that we couldn't do much else but stay in Nai Harn Bay which is not a tough assignment really. Laurie was also rehabilitating from her fall in Malaysia (now pretty well healed although the sprained ankle needs to be strengthened) so we had a slow month of November. We did manage a week sailing/diving trip to the Similan Islands which is always a pleasure. We never want to leave there and always want to go back. This year the house project is limiting us a bit but next year we have plans for a lot more sailing and a lot less sitting around at anchor.

When our Thai visa ran out we took a two week trip to Vietnam which is a place We have always been keen to visit. We enjoyed the visit despite the fact that Typhoon Durian (with a name like that it was bound to be a 'smelly' one!) decided to pay a visit and we had three rather windy and wet days in the middle of our trip. We were lucky in that David had met the British Ambassador 4 years earlier and had taught him to scuba dive so he invited us to stay at his residence in Hanoi. They were delightful hosts and fed and housed us in a central location. We took a cyclo (like a rickshaw but with a bicycle on the back) tour of the Old Quarter. It hasn't changed much -narrow streets of shops of every description- although now the streets teem with motorcycles instead of bicycles. The sidewalks are used for everything from commerce to dining rooms, beauty salons, restaurants and even outside sleeping areas when its hot.

The central city remains charming with its French colonial buildings and lovely lakes. On one part of our trip we arrived in Hanoi on the overnight train at 5 am, far too early to check into our hotel, so we walked around the central lake and were delighted to see Tai Chi(old people) and calisthenic groups (younger people), traditional dance groups practicing, badminton games and joggers. It was a very active place at that time of the day. We did the required tourist things -Ho Chi Minh's Museum (we skipped the mausoleum where you can see his embalmed body), the Temple of Literature, the War Museum and the impressive Museum of Ethnology. There was state propaganda which wasn't plastered all over the city but was evident in heroic statues depicting the valiant Viet Cong army and in the texts of the museums where it is clear that the French were evil colonialists and the Americans were just plain evil. In contrast to that it is clear that there is an energetic entrepreneurism which is encouraged by the state. It's clear that Vietnam has moved from communism to socialism and is building a mixed economy which now allows wholly owned foreign companies (WOFIs) to operate in the country. That's more economically advanced (from a western point of view) than Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia. In fact, a huge investment by Intel in a chip-making plant was just placed in Vietnam rather than Malaysia precisely because of the possible of having a WOFI. Which is not to say state control still doesn't exist. People aren't allowed to leave their home towns without permission and they certainly aren't allowed to move to another place to go looking for work. We had to take a taxi from Hoi An to Danang to catch a train (about 12 miles) and the taxi driver had to stop at the police station to pick up his travel document before he could take us.

We traveled by bus and train in the country and found them clean, comfortable and cheap. Plus the trains ran on time. Nothing to complain about there. Our hotels were also very good and well-priced. We weren't staying at the Hilton or the Sofitel though. The full range of options is there from $250 a night to $12 a night. We did splurge during the typhoon though as we thought a good hotel would be worth the money in bad weather. We were right! On our return to Hanoi rather than burden Robert and Pamela again we could not resist staying in the Army hotel (really) - actually in a section called the MOD Palace - how about that for a contradiction in terms. It was really pretty good and yes it was owned by the MOD/Army.

Other than Hanoi, we visted Ha Long Bay on a 3 day boat trip. This is like Phang Nga in Thailand only many times bigger. Beautiful scenery with small high islands and limestone karst pillars spread over 200 square miles of ocean. Fabulous. We also went to Hue which is the ancient capital (one of them anyway) and to Hoi An the Silk City. Hoi An is a UNESCO site and a charming city which has preserved its ancient core. It's also a city entirely devoted to tailoring and accessory manufacture so we had clothes and We had shoes custom made - overnight (well L did - D was told he doesn't wear shoes anymore)! Good quality and incredible value for money. We could have spent a lot more money but who needs clothes on a sailboat! We don't think anyone was making silk bathing suits. We did come across a novel form of bargaining when haggling for a new ruck sack. Having got to within 20,000 dong (about 2 and six!)the sales girl suggested a paper/stone/scissors contest (obviously fancying her oriental inscrutablility vs western scrutability). Unfortunately she lost but to save her face we gave it to her anyway in exchange for a beer!

As you can tell we enjoyed our trip tremendously and are now looking forward to traveling to Laos as well. We'd love to do that this year but with having to get to Canada by mid-March for Laurie's Mom's/Mum's birthday it may not happen.

Now, if you think We have the travel bug We have to tell you that We met an American couple (he was 68 and she was about 55) and they had been traveling for 20 years! No kidding! He retired with a fireman's pension in his 40's, met her in Mexico and they just kept going. They did settle down now and then and lived a year in Bolivia and a year in Hungary but basically just traveled. We didn't ask if there was anywhere they hadn't been but I'm sure it's a short list! Amazing!

Next stop after New Year - Malaysia again with some island sailing en route.

Laurie and David

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