Goodnight Saigon

Ho Chi Minh was the last stop on our whirlwind north to south adventure with Mum and Dad.  Ho Chi Minh felt like a sprawling jungle of a place compared to the other stops on our trip and we were all a bit unsure of where to start when we arrived.  Thankfully, our hotel had a beautiful rooftop deck with a pool and a bar where we could spend a bit of time (aka the best part of the afternoon and evening) while we came up with a plan of attack.  In the end, our first night was very low key.  I found us a good place for dinner on Tripadvisor, and then we ended up eating at the place next door to it – we’d had a few drinks by then and the signage was all a bit confusing, so we ended up walking into the wrong restaurant.  It was a bit of a fail, but meant we already had a restaurant lined up for dinner on our second night, so no harm done.

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The highlight of this portion of the trip came on day 2 when we hit the water for a trip up the Saigon River to the Cu Chi Tunnels.  It’d be fair to say that the Saigon River isn’t all that beautiful.  Like a lot of the waterways we have seen in our Asian travels, pollution is a real issue and there is a huge amount of rubbish and debris bobbing along.  Despite that, watching the barges go back and forth alongside traditional fishes boats, and seeing the small villages on the banks of the river was pretty interesting.  It also beat a 2 hour bus ride to the Tunnels, which was the other option for getting there.  Dad cringed as he listened to the boat motor skip and whine for the entire hour journey, but didn’t get very far with his offer to take over driving duties.

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The Tunnels themselves are part of an incredible network of underground tunnels, bunkers and living areas used by the Viet Cong for protection and fighting during the war.  You only get to see a small section of this during the visit, but it’s enough to give you the general impression.  There are also replicas of the various traps created by the Viet Cong to trap and kill American soldiers.  Certain aspects of the tunnels have been widened for western heavy weights, so that you can try your luck squeezing into a trapdoor hiding hole, or wandering along a section of the underground network.  We all had a go in the underground tunnels, but it was way too claustrophobic and hot for my liking.  I bailed out after about 20 metres.  Campbell carried on for the longest and came back to the surface smiling more than he does when we do actual fun things.  Go figure.

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The lowlight of our day at the Tunnels would have to be this monstrosity of a photo.  Our guide, Tan, suggested that we participate in a “naughty” photoshoot, and before we had time to protest or ask what he really meant, he decided we should do a staged photoshoot with a tank and Campbell pointing his big “gun” at me.  As you can imagine, the parentals thought this would be hilarious, as did the other tourists in the vicinity, and there was no getting out of it.  Role playing and voluntarily making a dick of myself top the list of my least favourite things, meaning this was the ultimate cringe moment.  I shudder jut looking at it now.  Moving right along . . .

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We carried on our education about the Vietnam War the following day at the War Remnants Museum.  We’d been warned that the Museum displays were graphic and very much presented from a Vietnamese point of view.  It’s true that there was a strong element of propaganda to some of the commentary (American soldiers are referred to as “US henchmen” throughout), but I personally don’t think this detracted too much from the underlying message of the exhibits.  By far the most interesting section was the photographs taken by various international war correspondents and photographers during the conflict.  The images were candid and the back story to each of them made them that much more real.  A number of the photos came from the last roll of film from photographers who were shortly afterwards killed in the battle.

Mum and Dad left us on Sunday night, which was a real downer.  We had really enjoyed having some company for a couple of weeks, and indulging in some lovely hotels, restaurants and activities.  We spent the evening they left eating instant noodles and ice-cream from the tub in bed – how the mighty had fallen.  The following day it was back on track and back to budget.  We shifted from the centre of the city to an apartment on the outskirts to hunker down for a few days and sort out our plan for the next few weeks, get haircuts, see a doctor for some more vaccines (because nothing says ‘the holiday’s over’ like a cheeky bout of Japanese Encephalitis) and hit the shops to replace some very old and tatty clothes.

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Campbell also spent yesterday afternoon catching up with his mate, Steve, who lives in Ho Chi Minh.  Unfortunately for Campbell, the heavens opened just as he was trying to get home.  According to the news reports, 17 cms of rain fell over the course of a few hours in the afternoon and early evening.  The whole city descended into chaos, and it ended up taking him an hour to get home, rather than the normal 15 minutes.  There were flooded buildings, heaps of accidents, broken down cars and scooters all over the road (some of which got swept away with all of the water), and people were forced to abandon their vehicles and walk home instead.  The same thing happened tonight, only this time we were both in our apartment, which promptly flooded.  We thought we’d seen heavy rain in Hanoi and Nha Trang, but the rain over the past couple of days has been something also entirely!

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In a day we say ‘goodbye’ to Ho Chi Minh and head north again for a few days in Sapa, where we will be trekking through the rice paddies and meeting some of the local hill tribes in homestay accommodation.  Turns out the tour we’ve signed up for is less of a casual frolic in the countryside, and more hard slog than we might have imagined.  We will be covering 40 km over 2.5 days.  This is not a bad thing though – our 2 weeks of eating and boozing with Mum and Dad have left me looking and feeling a little like mini-Buddha.

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Born to be Wild: Hoi An and Nha Trang

On our first full day in Hoi An Mich and I took to the shops.  The Old City here is just one great cluster of tailors, cheap market-type stalls, jewellery shops and quirky homeware and design stores.  It’s a lovely pedestrian-only grid of streets that runs alongside the river, and is a lot more peaceful than Hanoi Old City.  In saying that, the street vendors are even more persistent than the ones in Hanoi, so perusing the shops can still feel a bit like running the gauntlet.  Mich was keen to burn some plastic, so we spent a good few hours picking up clothes, souvenirs, earrings and some sunglasses to replace the pair she left sitting at the bottom of Ha Long Bay.  Mum also took a gamble and opted to get some leather shoes made at one of the many cobblers in town.  After a bit of a false start with some misplaced buckles, she picked up the finished product 2 days later, and they were really good.

While we were hitting the shops, Dad and Campbell picked up some scooters and took to the streets to go exploring.  I’m not entirely sure what they did, or where they went, but they obviously went a pretty long way since both were complaining of scooter bum when they got back.  It sounds like they met a few characters as well, including one lovely lady who even gave them a glimpse of her head to toe eczema (which they probably could have gone without) and an old man who offered Campbell a lady.  They also came back with purchases from the beach vendors, including some cure-all herbal medicine (you may see us on Border Patrol when we try to get that home), beer coolers and some other bits and pieces (read: junk).  Thankfully that’s all they brought home – no gravel rash, or insurance claims in sight.  They kept their scooters for a second day and went even further afield (all the way back past Da Nang) while Mum and I spent the day at a cooking school (thanks to Kylie, Loz and Rob for a very thoughtful early Birthday present xo).

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The cooking school started off bright and early with an 8 am meeting at a local cafe.  We met our group (a couple from Singapore, and another from Germany) and our guide and head chef, Mimi, and hopped straight into the van for the trip to Tra Que Organic Village.  The Village is an incredible market garden where farmers grow organic herbs and vegetables for sale at the local market.  Farming techniques range from high tech irrigation to more simplistic dual watering can system, which we all got to try out.  Next stop was the local wet market where we shopped for the ingredients we needed for the cooking class.  We weren’t sure how Mich was going to cope at the market since she’d been almost dry-wretching when we wandered past the Hoi An market the day earlier, but we all pulled through just fine.  It was busy, and definitely a bit smelly, but incredibly interesting watching the locals at work.  The woman who could kill and gut an eel in about 30 seconds was a particular highlight.

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The rest of the afternoon was spent cooking (and eating) 4 amazing dishes at the Red Bridge Cooking School.  It was a fantastic, hands-on lesson, with free booze and great company.  We left the class about 2.30 pm and boarded our boat for the river trip back to Hoi An.  It was apparent once we got within about 10m of our boat’s captain that he had been called away from a liquid lunch to deliver us back to Hoi An; he absolutely reeked of booze.  As we pulled away from the dock the man from the cooking school waved us off, and then proceeded to make the universal ‘glug, ‘glug, glug, he’s been drinking’ gesture, and then piss himself laughing while he mimicked the fact that we could well end up swimming home given the state of the captain.  We made it back to Hoi An safe and sound and met the boys at a local sports bar to watch the All Blacks thrash South Africa.

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On our last day in Hoi An we decided to take a couple of scooters out as a group.  Dad and Campbell had a fair idea of where they were going by that stage, so they navigated us to a lovely beach that they’d visited the day before.  They’d obviously made quite the impression, we pulled into the carpark to “kia ora, bro” and “hey boss, you came back!”.  We parked up for a super relaxing afternoon of swimming, beers, pizzas (sometimes you just can’t stomach spring rolls) and fending off the beach sellers.  Dad and Campbell had been such soft touches the day before that Mum and I didn’t really stand a chance of getting through the afternoon without buying something, so we both ended up with something that we didn’t really need while Dad and Campbell laughed at our expense (clearly forgetting they’d been swindled only a day before).

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Hoi An was also where we developed/remembered our love of foot massages.  One evening when we were all feeling a bit buggered we decided to have big ‘ol family foot massage session at one of the local spas.  Campbell described this as a bit of an awkward/weird family moment and, to be fair, if you had a taken a photo of us sitting side by side in our armchairs, drinking beer and getting our feet rubbed it probably would have been a contender for one of those ‘awkward family photo’ websites.  Still, there are definitely worse activities you could be asked to participate in with your in-laws.  The foot rub was awesome, but the highlight for me was getting to tell Campbell (after the massage) that the lovely lady who had rubbed his feet was actually a lovely man.

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After 4 great nights in Hoi An we jetted to Nha Trang for some proper beach time.  Nha Trang is a fairly blingy beach resort, probably most comparable to somewhere like the Gold Coast.  It is known for its seafood, and everywhere you go there are tanks of live animals, or plastic buckets full of crabs and other creepy crawlies that you can pick for your dinner. Nha Trang is particularly popular with Russian tourists who can fly here direct, so the dynamic can be a little unusual – it’s a little weird to go into a restaurant in Vietnam and be given a menu in Russian.

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Overall, it was a very quiet, and relaxing couple of days.  Our hotel had a designated area on the beach, so we spent our first full day there – reading, relaxing, swimming and trying to remember to flip over occasionally.  We hit the main strip and a few bars in the evening, but struggled to put up with the horrendous Eurotrash music they were all blasting – especially since it was only 6 pm.  We got caught in an incredible storm on the way home, and ended up like this (Mum protected her hair with a bags so her attempts with the straightener wouldn’t be wasted, and Dad is pretty much water repellent, hence why Campbell and I look like we’ve suffered the worst of it!)

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On our last full day in Nha Trang we decided to grab scooters again and try to see some of the sights away from the tourist centre.  Unfortunately for us, we hired our scooters from some el cheapo outfit and 15 kms out of town Dad’s back tyre blew out.  Luckily enough, we were in the middle of a small fishing village at the time and were quickly pointed in the direction of a local man who could do the repair.  It started off promisingly enough (especially when he whipped out his Mighty Morphin Power Ranger tool bag), but it quickly became apparent that he was totally incompetent (so much so that half the village came to point and laugh while he attempted to fix the puncture) and also the angriest man in Vietnam.  When he finally conceded defeat, he started yelling at Dad in Vietnamese, waving his arms around like a maniac and telling us to take our broken bike elsewhere.  There was a moment there when “Happy Buddha” looked like he could become “Very Unhappy Buddha”, but Dad kept his cool remarkably well.

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We finally got the bike fixed and headed straight back to Nha Trang as fast as Dad’s bald tyres could go.  We swapped out the bike and decided to head south towards Long Beach.  I’d read about a good beach bar for lunch, but it was a whole lot easier said than done to find it.  It just turned out to be one of those days where everything was a little bit frustrating, even though we got there in the end!  We had burgers and beers on the beach and then got the bikes back to town before the rain set in.  We demolished the equivalent of an entire pig for dinner at a BBQ place on the outskirts of town, and that pretty much wrapped up Nha Trang.

Last stop on our tour with Mum and Dad is Ho Chi Minh, where we’re planning to get amongst a bit of history with a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum.

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We Are Family – Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Da Nang

Mum and Dad joined us in Hanoi 5 days ago in typical Sandilands fashion – Dad walked into our hotel and, after a welcome hug and a quick catch-up, announced that he was “over it [long haul travel]” and ” could he have a beer please”.  I don’t blame him; travelling is tough.  Still, he and Mum were absolute troopers and once they were settled into their room we took to the streets of Hanoi to show them around.  Like us, they were overwhelmed by the traffic and the noise, but also loved the chaos and all the things to see and do.  The afternoon went something like this – walk around Hoan Kiem lake, stop for a beer, walk around the Old Quarter, stop for beer and lunch, walk around the wet market, stop for more beers and people watching, walk around the Old Quarter some more, stop for Banh Mi and more beer, go to bed and pass out.

Dad also got his first lesson in the art of haggling and ended up in something of a love triangle with 2 local women both desperate to sell him a t.shirt.  To his credit, he was intent on buying from the first woman who approached him, but the other lady dropped her lip like a toddler and tugged at the heart strings with a “why you no buy from me?!”.  The 15 minutes that followed was better than any soap opera, as Dad tried to keep everybody happy without ending up with a wardrobe full of t.shirts guaranteed to shrink after the first wash.  His negotiating strategy has improved dramatically over the last few days due, in some part, to his (apparent) resemblance to Baba Buddha.  Street vendors have started referring to him as “Baba Buddha” and rubbing his stomach for good luck, which seems to have improved his bargaining leverage a little bit.

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We only had the one night in Hanoi and were picked up bright and early the next day to head to Ha Long Bay.  Our tour guide, Tommy, was such a hard case and spent the majority of the 4 hour drive to Ha Long City telling us about life in Vietnam, including why Vietnamese eat cats and dogs (to ward off bad luck/attract good luck) and various anecdotes about Vietnamese religion and superstition.  Perhaps his most interesting story was about the fact that, in Vietnam, men believe that it is good luck to have a wife with a lot of pubic hair.  In particular, it is supposed to bring good luck to a husband’s business and commercial endeavours.  Some men actually divorce their wives for failing to sufficiently embrace the 70s and grow an afro.

Our boat in Ha Long was really lovely and the food was unreal – every day we had a 10 course lunch and dinner of Vietnamese classics with a few Western fusion dishes thrown in.  Both afternoons on the boat were spent kayaking to caves and then on to beaches for swimming.  Unfortunately Mich managed to knock her sunglasses off her head and into the water within a minute of stepping into her kayak but, other than that, we got through the trip unscathed.  Ha Long is such a beautiful area made up of hundreds of bays and 3000 limestone islands that jut out of the ocean.  The only downside to the entire trip was seeing the amount of rubbish on the beaches and in the water left behind by tourists – it was absolutely everywhere!

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Our second day on the boat kicked off early with a spot of Tai Chi on the poop deck (Dad and Campbell sat that one out), before we ventured to one of the 4 remaining floating fishing villages in the Ha Long area.  It was an interesting insight into life in Ha Long, although the people in the village have actually abandoned fishing for a living, opting instead to row tourists about to see the village.  We followed that with a quick spin to an oyster farm where we learned all about how they cultivate oysters and then had the mandatory walk through the jewellery factory in case we felt like shopping.  In the evenings Tommy would attempt to keep us amused (so that he could eat his dinner) by giving us insanely difficult Vietnamese puzzles to work through.  Effectively you got a a wooden frame containing about 7 different shaped pieces.  From there, Tommy would select a figure – a dragon or whatever – that you had to make using all of the pieces.  It was stupidly hard (it was so hard we actually couldn’t even figure out how to put the puzzle pieces back into their box!) and we were always the first to give up and slope off to the top deck for a drink.

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On Wednesday we flew to Da Nang en route to Hoi An.  We only spent one night in Da Nang, but it turned out to be pretty awesome.  We have managed to time our trip with the mid-Autumn children festival here in Vietnam.  Every night there have been loads of little kids out and about all dressed up in their best gears, and local groups performing the traditional Lion Dance.  We found ourselves in the middle of a massive performance when we popped out for dinner in Da Nang with at least half a dozen different groups doing the Lion Dance, and then the best of the best performing the same dance routine atop a variety of different pedestals.  It was really awesome to watch, and we were well in truly immersed in the local culture – we had locals standing on our table, on our chairs, snuggled into our armpits etc etc.  It was incredibly hot and sweaty, but an unplanned and unexpected highlight.

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We left Da Nang on Thursday and arranged for a driver to take us to Hoi An via Ba Na Hills.  Ba Na Hills is a cross between a very upmarket resort and a theme park.  It sits atop a massive hill, meaning you reach it via a 5 km gondola ride over beautiful bush and waterfalls.  Once you arrive at the top there are a variety of temples, pagodas, beautiful gardens, an amusement park and a village modelled on a French town.  It was recommended by my Aunty and Uncle and was well worth the trip (thanks Phil and Leo!).  We had a great time, especially at the arcade where we gave each other (and everybody else) whiplash on the bumper cars where we upped the ante on the aggression front, shot bad guys and rode mechanical horses in the 5D theatre, and pretended we weren’t bricking it on the vertical bungy.

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We arrived in Hoi An last night and it is already shaping up to be a great 4 nights.  We hit the night market where the mid-Autumn festival was still in full swing.  The whole town was in carnival mode and the streets were heaving with people.  We bought lanterns to send down the river for good luck and had a few laughs haggling for souvenirs at the night market, where Baba Buddha came out on top.  We finished up the evening with an awesome meal at Streets- a restaurants that puts street kids through intensive culinary and hospitality training in the hope of providing them with a means to escape their life of poverty.  The food was great and warm fuzzies were just the cherry on top.  Hoi An is shaping up to be a shopping highlight for me and Mich, and the boys are already eyeing up the scooter hire to keep themselves amused – should be interesting.  . . !

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Taking Care of Business

We’re now roughly at the half-way stage of our trip, so it seems fitting that we have spent the past 5 days in Hanoi taking a breather and tending to some life admin – dental check-ups, washing, shopping for new clothes and jandals (sadly shopping in Asia is just as I remember it; guaranteed to make you feel like an obese yeti with flipper feet) and giving some thought to what the next 5 months might look like.  The plan is to work our way through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand but, other than our upcoming trip through Vietnam with Mum and Dad and some trekking in Sapa, our specific plans are still largely up in the air.  It’s quite a nice change after spending the first half of our trip following a carefully mapped out itinerary.

Hanoi has been the perfect place to start our SE Asia journey.  We have a great little Air BnB apartment in the centre of the Old City, so all the shops, restaurants, cafes and tourist facilities are right on our doorstep.  We’ve done a few of the tourist spots – Hoan Kiem Lake, the Old City Gate and the Old City Night Market – but mainly we’ve just mooched about and wandered around the Old City.  It is a frantic little hive of activity and there’s always something to see, even if it is just other tourists almost getting run over by scooters.  There’s also been the mandatory spa visit (for me) and trip to the driving range (for Campbell), which isn’t so much an activity as it is an essential sanity saver.

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It is the tail end of the wet season here, so outings have to be scheduled around torrential downpours and epic electrical storms (Mum and Dad – you’ll want to pack clothes that will look great with a rain poncho).  As has become customary, they also tend to be scheduled around our appetites and a carefully crafted list of dishes/restaurants to try out.  It is very nice to have a change of scene from curry and we’re loving the lighter and fresher food on offer here.  We’ve tackled pho, bun bo nam bo, banh mi, banh xeo, bun cha, and lots of the other staples – spring rolls, cashew chicken, shaking beef and potent Vietnamese coffee.  So far, so delicious, and so much still to try!

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The Old City has also been the perfect location for us to try out our negotiating skills.  We did a bit of haggling in the markets in India, but we actually didn’t do that much shopping so our technique still needs a bit of work.  I was feeling very pleased with myself the other night, having scored two awesome old Vietnam war propaganda posters for almost half price.  Campbell burst my bubble a little bit when he mentioned that he though the reason I got such a good deal was not because I am a master negotiator, but because I had already taken up half an hour of the shop keeper’s time ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’ over the different prints and repeatedly asking her to take them in and out of their plastic sleeves, and that she was actually so worn down by my indecisiveness that she would accept any amount just to get me out of her shop.  I’m not so sure about that but, whatever the reason, I’m chalking it up as a win.

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We’ve also encountered our first Vietnam scam – the charming pineapple and banana ladies.  I got snared when I was wandering around Truc Bach Lake while Campbell was at the dentist.  I was totally engrossed in taking photos of the lake when, before I knew it, a pineapple lady had crept up on me like a ninja, put her conical hat on my head and started unloading her carrying pole and fruit baskets onto my shoulders.  After that I had no choice really but to go through with the mandatory photo shoot, followed by the mandatory fruit purchase and mandatory haggle on price.  It was a bit of a laugh and I kinda felt like some fresh fruit, so no harm done.  The street hustlers are a lot more jovial (and less confronting) here than in other places and you find yourself laughing and smiling along even though you know you’re in the process of being ripped off.

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Only 2 sleeps until Mum and Dad get here and our whirlwind tour of Vietnam begins.

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Here Comes the Rain Again: Orchha, Agra, Delhi

Orchha:  We left the state of Rajasthan last Thursday and made our way to Madhya Pradesh in central India.  The roads got better and better as we left Rajasthan, but it was still a very long journey.  With just under 2 hours to go, Raju was keen to stop for lunch so we pulled into a pretty dicey looking roadside restaurant.  I decided on sight (when a dog ran out of the kitchen and based on the number of flies on the workbench) that my tum was not up to this particular lunch.  This resulted in a comedic stand-off with Raju, in which he refused to eat lunch unless we were, and we insisted he was being silly and should eat if he was hungry.

In the end we compromised, and he had the house special and the lovely chef  (that’s him, below) whipped us up some vegetable pakora – the logic being that surely you can’t get sick from something that has been cooked in boiling hot oil.  That logic held true for me, but perhaps not so much for Campbell who had to excuse himself midway through the sound and light show at Orchha Fort that evening to begin power-chucking.  Once again though, the sickness was perfectly timed.  We had a day to spare in Orchha, so Campbell could rest up and recover.  It was also bucketing down the entire day, so we both felt less guilty about designating it a ‘duvet day’ and holing ourselves up in our room to watch (power cuts allowing) Blade Runner, Mrs Doubtfire, X-Men and The Gambler.  The movies are heavily censored here and almost all bad language and sex scenes (even kissing) are edited out – not such an issue for Mrs Doubtfire, but when we watched American Pie it ended up being about 20 minutes shorter than the original and with all the best bits removed.

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Agra:  On Saturday morning, we were on the road heading to Agra in Uttar Pradesh.  Agra is the home of the Taj Mahal, and forms part  of the tourism Golden Triangle along with Delhi and Jaipur.  We were both ready to leave Orchha, and pick up the pace after 5 days dominated by downtime and feeling under the weather.  We swung past the Orchha Royal Cenotaphs on our way out of town, but other than that Raju had plotted a direct course to Agra.  Our approach to eating at that stage of the trip is probably best summed up by Peter Griffin, and there was an unspoken agreement from the time we got in the car that we would not be stopping at a roadside restaurant for lunch.

It felt really good to arrive in Agra, a city of over a million people with lots of activity and a bit of a buzz.  First stop was a very nice touristy restaurant for lunch.  As we were finishing up we came across this guy, who we initially thought was just another street busker.  Turns out that he was a snake charmer, so we were straight back out of the car to watch the show.  In the little basket he had a King Cobra that rose up out of the basket when he started to play his Pungi and seemed to sway along with the music.  He also had a “baby” python, which he offered to wrap around our necks and promised was trained not to start squeezing us to death.  Thanks, but no thanks.  Raju said that snake charming is a dying art in India due to a number of laws prohibiting catching, and owning, snakes, and that this man obviously had a deal with the Police, which is why he wasn’t being hassled.

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In the afternoon we visited the Red Fort.  The Fort is an amazing complex, which has the extra advantage of looking across to the Taj from certain points.  It was very busy with Indian tourists since it was a Saturday, and Campbell was in hot demand for photo shoots.  It has slowly become apparent that Campbell is the celebrity of this relationship and I am his B-grade other half.  The people here just love him – they rush up to shake his hand and can’t get enough of having photos with him.  There was one man who followed us for 5 minutes before plucking up the courage to ask for a photo, and then followed us for another 5 so he could tell Campbell how happy he’d made him.  We can’t figure out whether it’s because he is so tall (by Indian standards) and blonde, or if it’s his resemblance to cricketer Brett Lee, who had a fleeting stint as a Bollywood movie star, put out an Indian music video and who remains a low-grade celebrity in India.  Whatever it is, he’s the duck’s nuts over here.

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As you would expect, the absolute highlight of our trip to Agra was our visit to the Taj Mahal.  It is hard to express in words, and even in pictures, just how amazing the Taj really is.  We decided to go along at sunrise which, along with sunset, is when the Taj is apparently at it’s best.  The whole building gives off a sort of pearly glow, and even though there are a lot of tourists, everything is remarkably still and quiet.  People just sit in the grounds of the Palace and marvel at how beautiful it is, while others wander around trying to take in the beauty of the surrounding gardens and buildings.  It really is an absolutely stunning place – highly recommend.

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Delhi:  We arrived in Delhi on Sunday afternoon and were straight off to meet up with Campbell’s old workmates, Preeti and Manish, and their daughter, Ira.  Delhi is by far the most western and metropolitan place we have been in India and, after 2 and a bit weeks in rural Rajasthan, we were ready to embrace the city.  Preeti and Manish took us to an amazing new mall where we had drinks and dinner and a really lovely catch-up.  Things really only took a turn for the worse when we went to leave and realised that none of us had paid any attention to where we had parked the car.  The car park was massive and every level looked the same!  While Preeti and Manish tried to find someone to help track down the car, we waited in the air-conditioned exit lobby looking after Ira.  It hadn’t really occurred to us that we might appear a bit unusual, but we got a lot of funny looks from other shoppers who were trying to figure out how we had come to be looking after an adorable Indian baby, and whether perhaps we’d just pinched her from the family room at the mall.

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Monday was our last day with Raju, so we made the most of it and crammed in a bit of last minute sight-seeing.  We opted to avoid forts and temples (having done a lot of those already), so Raju took us to see Jama Masjid (one of the largest mosques in India), the Mahatma Ghandi memorial (built around the site of his cremation), the India Gate war memorial, the President’s house and Government buildings and arranged a bicycle rickshaw ride for us through a Muslim market.  It was bittersweet saying goodbye to Raju who had taken incredibly good care of us for close to 3 weeks, but we were looking forward to a few days to explore Delhi independently.

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This is what a day of sightseeing without Raju (or sunglasses) looks like

We were originally supposed to be spending our last few days in India in Varanasi, a sacred city and major Hindu pilgrimage site on the banks of the Ganges.  However, the monsoon is in full flight and large parts of Varanasi are currently under water.  This means we wouldn’t have been able to take a trip on the Ganges, or witness any of the cremation ceremonies on the ghats, which were really the point of the visit.  Since cremation activities have been suspended there is also the issue of the increasing number of corpses that are building up waiting for a ritual cremation.  Taking all of that into account, we decided it might be nice to just hang around in Delhi.

We have enjoyed Delhi for reasons that I am almost embarrassed to admit, because they make me feel like a failure as a real ‘traveller’.  I enjoyed that Delhi was comparatively clean, there were roads and footpaths instead of mud tracks, there was great shopping and an amazing array of cafes and bars and, despite the chaos, it was just a whole lot easier to go places and get things done here.   It has been the perfect contrast to our time in Rajasthan, which was amazing, but left us both feeling a bit done in.  That’s not to say that Delhi hasn’t been without its challenges – it is very hot and humid, it has rained every day, it’s incredibly busy and has more than it’s fair share of hustlers.

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We have spent our time lazing about in cafes, planning our SE Asia trip and visiting some of Delhi’s many shopping markets, including Khan Market and Connaught Place.  We’ve done a lot of window shopping, but actual shopping  has been a bit of a non-event for both us.  We just cannot handle the hassle and intensity of the shopkeepers and running the gauntlet of hustlers between shops.  I much prefer some of the snooty, can’t-even-be bothered-looking-at-you-let-alone-saying-‘hi’, shop assistants that we have at home. We also managed to catch-up with Manish one more time who treated us to an incredible lunch of Indian street food from Haldiram – a restaurant set up like a food court that serves regional cuisine from throughout India.  It was a bit overwhelming when we first walked in (if we’d be alone we would have walked straight back out, or resorted to the stereotypical Kiwi order of butter chicken), but Manish took care of all of the ordering and picked all sorts of things that we would have never tried otherwise.  The food was incredible.

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We have one full day left in India before we take to the skies again.  Before we visited a lot of people had warned us that India is a place that you either love, or hate, but I’m not sure it’s that straightforward.  We have had some amazing experiences in India, we have met wonderful people, eaten incredible food and seen both beautiful and heart-wrenching sights, but at times travelling here has felt a bit like an endurance sport.  The heat, the rain, the traffic, the noise, the dirt, the smells and the chaos can really do your head in.  My sense is that we may not fully appreciate this experience until we reflect on it in a few month’s time.

Right now, we are  ready to make a move and embark on the next leg of our journey to Vietnam.  We are especially looking forward to having some very special visitors – Mum and Dad!  We can’t wait to see these two.

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