Ph: +61 2 6248 9399 | Email: ross@goddardandhowse.com.au
  • The Ho Chi Minh Trail - Dien Bien Phu to Paso

    We had spent the night here beneath the shadow of A1 Hill, the last strong point of the French to be taken by the Viet Minh with great loss of life. Through the night there were thunder storms as the rainy season in this part of the world sets in however the morning arrived bright enough and we set off for Paso some 160 kilometers to the north of Dien Bien Phu. This is true mountain country. The Truong Song mountain range runs like a spine from the north of Vietnam almost to the Mekong Delta in the south, 1800 kilometers away. In the north there are many ethnic minority groups of White Thai, Black Thai and Hmong. They are immigrants from the Yunnan plateau 500 years before who practice slash and burn agriculture on the mountains growing their gardens of corn and mountain rice on impossibly steep slopes and in the numerous valleys between ranges.

    A new dam will flood a large valley to the north where our road leads and we are aware that some road works are taking place along the journey though our guide and driver are not exactly sure where. This is a very remote part of Vietnam not frequented by foreign travellers. We push on well enough for 30 kilometres without to much trouble. The road is okay but you cannot average much more than 25k an hour due to twists and turns, climbs and descents. We come across a pass and down to the valley that is to be flooded for the new dam. It is a scene of devastation. Houses are being dismantled; makeshift work camps are everywhere as construction workers commence the new road which will sit high on the valley rim above the rising waters. A consequence of the new road construction means that no maintenance has been done on the old road (the road we are travelling on). As we enter the valley our road quickly disappears into slush, grey mud and pools of water from the overnight storm. Our 24 seat bus edges along at a snails pace, finding traction where we can and bouncing through pot holes and across water courses that have made there own way down from the mountain and across the road. The weather is closing in and the drizzle starts. We are soon bogged, the wheels spinning. There is mud everywhere. As luck would have it an excavator is coming towards us so we see an opportunity for help but inexplicably he tries to continue past us on a narrow piece of mud with water seeping from below. We wave frantically and he realizes our plight so in the drizzle he backs up, attaches a cable to the big shovel and gently squeezes us through the slush. We all cheer and reward our saviour with cigarettes and a few dong. Our celebrations are brief however as we continue along what is left of the road the rain spitting, the sky darkening. We stop for lunch at a former guest house that now lies in the middle of the valley that is to be flooded. The guest house is being deconstructed. There is rubble and refuse everywhere, baths, fridges, piles of slate and wires, boxes of light fittings, doors and handles. Only a restaurant remains that has been patched up to cater for the odd guest that may stumble through. From our table we look across the chaos to half a house, the jagged brickwork exposed where the cut was made and some laundry hanging on a broken balcony – a face and arm reach out to drag the clothes in as the rain becomes more persistent. Beyond the broken house spanning the valley floor are giant concrete pillars that will hold the new bridge across the valley. It is like a scene from Mad Max.

    Refreshed after lunch with 100 kilometres to Paso the road works apparently will continue for just another 15k beyond this. We board our bus as the the gathering storm breaks, lumbering up the valley with torrential rain, lightening and thunder. We are just 5k advanced and the road is mud along the edge of the valley. Ahead a small truck has become bogged in the pouring rain on a culvert where a small waterfall caused by the downpour is tumbling from four meters above washing brown water and mud across the road. The driver of the truck signals us and we attach a cable to our front bumper in an attempt to drag him backwards out of the mud. The gap is just three meters between us and the other vehicle but it is not working – we spin our wheels and fish tail slightly and the truck does not budge. At that moment the small waterfall caused by the torrential rain becomes twice its size with a rush and flurry of mud and debris, we all gasp and there is a mad rush to disconnect us from the truck. We have to move forward a meter to reduce the tension on the line, at this point I thought half the mountain was about to come down on us. The cable is broken and we back up. I glance at the mountain side – it is rock and I feel relatively safe. The torrential rain has eased and we get out to survey the scene, mud thick the truck not going anywhere blocking our way. Thanks to mobile phones and the plethora of earth moving machinery in this area a bulldozer rumbles along about 30 minutes later and tries to pull the truck out. A couple of attempts and no result – stuck fast – during one attempt the cable snaps and goes catapulting into the clearing sky. The dozer driver and his offsider see that the quick way will not work so they start to clear the area of dirt, mud and debris slowly reducing the blockage around the truck and at the same time making the culvert safe to pass. After an hour or so the way is clear and we move on, the sun now shining.

    The road works continue and we have advanced no more than ten kilometres from the bogged truck when we round a corner to see trucks backed up for a few hundred meters. There has been a major mud slide though we cannot see anything from where we have come to a stop. The slide was caused by the construction of the new road which sits above us higher on the mountain side. They have pushed the soil from the construction to the side and failed to secure the excavation with concrete or some retarding system. It is incredibly unstable and it is right above us. This is a major slide and I am suddenly glad we were held up earlier by the bogged truck. There are about ten trucks ahead of us and there is small cafe selling beer and tea that is taking advantage of the sudden increase in trade. There are local buses (same as ours) that ply the route between Dien Bien Phu and Paso. We have 9 people in our 24 seater – they have about 39! There are some traffic police there and army people trying to manage the situation. I clamber past the waiting trucks to try and see what’s going on my feet and shoes sinking into the mud. There are two dozers and an excavator clearing the soil and I can see the whole slide very clearly. They work well and efficiently but it is three hours (5.30pm) before we can scramble through the mess following the tracks of the big trucks in front of us, mud up to the axle.

    We break through and there is some relief as all of a sudden the road becomes bearable, sealed with mud to the side and we think we are over the worst, 90 minutes before sunset.  Once again our relief is tempered by the continuation of road works and to add to the considerable tension we are now climbing up the valley wall on a road that is narrow and slippery. To one side the valley starts to loom below, no barriers just sheer drops of maybe 500 meters and we are still climbing ever so slowly. We reach a particularly steep section and the bus stalls, the driver tries to restart and we slip slightly. I have had enough, the situation is seriously dangerous and I tell everyone to get out and we walk a hundred metres or so to the ridge and let the bus driver do his thing. Our driver is highly skilled and a jovial chap, if he was worried he did not show it and we board again.

    The promised 15k has turned into 30k and the road continues down the ridge and follows a raging river in the fading light. There is excavation everywhere, rocks, gravel and soil piled high and to our left a slippery slope into the raging torrent below – we are all on the edge of our seats and doing our best to be calm. Finally we break into another valley just as the sun sinks, a beautiful orange fills the sky, the silhouette of mountains either side. The road works have abated slightly, the new road moved away from our route and the way is sealed. It has been over 60k of hair raising travel that has taken us 6 hours to complete. We are counting down the kilometres to our guest house in Paso, the road better but still punctuated with the odd detour and bridge construction but mercifully on the valley floor so the risk of slipping into the ravine has abated. We reach our guest house at Paso by 9pm and the rain has begun once again. A collective feeling of relief sweeps over us, the adrenalin had been surging all day. We eat fried rice with chicken, drink a few beers then sleep. Ross Goddard in Sapa 2 June 2010

  • Two nights in Dak Lak- Featuring Lak Tented Camp

    ‘They say you come to Vietnam and understand a lot in a few minutes. The rest has got to be lived’ – Graham Greene 1954.

    I was invited by a good friend to visit the highland province of Dak Lak in central Vietnam. Tourism is relatively new in this area that borders Cambodia to the west, and is also the home of indigenous hill tribe groups Ede and M’nong. These hill tribe people have a rich culture and live simply in long houses with short foundations, small windows, a hearth inside and as usual no chimney. They wear attractive clothes, heavily embroidered black and red cotton jackets, and grow crops of rice and more recently ca cao (for making chocolate). It is probably not very well-known that Vietnam produces some of the best chocolate in the world.

    You can drive to Dak Lak (about seven hours from Saigon), or you can fly (just one hour) to reach the provincial capital of Buon Me Thuot. I took the shorter route and then drove another 45 minutes to Lak tented camp, situated on Lak Lake in a wonderful wilderness environment. Here you will find 15 lakeview tented lodges and four lakefront wooden bungalows spread over almost five hectares. You reach Lak tented camp by a short boat ride across the lake which adds to the excitement. Here the staff are keen to help you ashore; all local people taking their opportunities in the tourism industry. The permanent tents are canvas, with entry flaps and flyscreens built over solid timber floorboards, and balconies with great views across the lake. They are very well-appointed with crisp linen and all the amenities you would expect, including private bathroom and toilet. There is a long house modelled in the style of the Ede tribe that has been thoughtfully designed into a restaurant and bar. The restaurant serves local food inspired by the region; it is fresh and delicious. In the evenings there is a performance by the local people of traditional songs and dancing accompanied by gongs and bamboo wind instruments. The sounds are rhythmic and almost hypnotic.

    There are plenty of activities at Lak tented camp, including bike riding, hiking and kayaking on the lake. There are visits to the local village where clay pots are made, but not in a conventional manner. I watched a demonstration of a water vessel being made from scratch. Interestingly, the sculptor did not use a wheel as you might expect, instead she simply walked around the lump of clay, working with hands until it took shape.

    Lak tented camp is a great experience that opens new paths and ideas for travelling in Vietnam. From this central highland vantage point you may continue to other regions like Kontum and Pleiku, then head down to the more familiar coastal areas of Nha Trang or Danang, along the way sharing traditional life and viewing spectacular countryside.

    For more information about Lak tented camp contact Goddard & Howse (ross@goddardandhowse.com.au)

  • Back Roads of Vietnam and Laos (on the Duong Mon Ho Chi Minh)

    We left Hoi An in pouring rain and the deluge stayed with us for the next four days. Our spirits were not dampened as we crossed the 17th parallel, the old border between south and North Vietnam and visited the birth place of Ho Chi Minh. There were floods here. The water was above the rice crop and farmers looked on, nothing they could do. By the time we crossed into Laos the weather had lifted and the Plain of Jars lay before us, mysterious stone structures from 2000 years before. We visited MAG (Mine advisory group) who are clearing some of the 3 million tonnes of ordinance that US planes dropped here from 1965 to 1972, 30% did not explode. Good then, bad now.

    Following the fabled Ho Chi Minh Trail we travelled north on winding roads through slash and burn territory of Hmong and Khmu people. They are curious and friendly. The girls have babys when they are young, sometimes only 13 years old, they carry them on their backs while they cook, clean and gather firewood. Just north of Xam Nua we visit the Vang Xai caves and the birthplace of the Phatet Lao who have ruled this country since 1975. Here we find an amazing collection of caves where revolutionaries hid from bombs and gas to pursue the ideology of raising the Lao conscience to support socialism and march to independence. The whole idea seems quite reasonable these days however at the time this type of thinking sparked war on all fronts in Indochina.

    We are back in Vietnam on a road to Mai Chau in the far North West. It was not really a road though; the recent rains had reduced the trail to a muddy and rutted way that thankfully was dry enough for us to pass in our pink bus. But only just, we managed to smash up the front, rising from potholes and dodging partly excavated landslides. The view was memorable. In Mai Chau we sought some relief at the splendid Mai Chau lodge and chatted with the White Thai minority people who will sell you something then sit down and drink tea with you as if to say thanks. They dance and sing traditional songs that talk about love, weather and the harvest.

    In the 1950s the French still held sway in Vietnam. The Vietnamese resistance had become organised under the leadership of Vo Nguyen Giap and an increasingly frustrated French command decided to garrison 15,000 of their best soldiers in a valley in the far north west called Dien Bien Phu. A battle raged for two months and the Vietnamese emerged triumphant. It was the end of colonialism in Vietnam but the beginning of the cold war. Here in Dien Bien Phu we spend the night in the shadow of A1 Hill, the last stronghold of the French. The trenches remain, sandbags turned to concrete by the authorities to preserve this monument to victory.

    Up here the country is mountainous, stretching into distant green hills then giving way to blue grey forested peaks. There are colourfully dressed Red Zhou people in their striking costumes and headdresses. They go about their business living in stilted houses, wood framed and neat with their animals nearby. We enter the town of Son La nestled amongst limestone Cast Mountains where rice fields intersperse with housing and a bustling market street offering cheap haircuts, mechanical workshops and Thit Cho restaurants (dog meat). During the 1920`s the French constructed a prison in Son La to hold dissidents against their regime. The ruins remain of crumbling walls and rusted barbwire. We ate heartily that evening in a Lau Restaurant (Hot Pot) with fresh chicken and vegetables simmering in a delicious broth. Being the only foreigners in town we were treated like celebrities and it wasn’t long before the rice wine found its way to our table and a raucous round of ‘Ro’ or cheers sounded out.

    We drive on though heaven’s gate, literally the highest point in Vietnam. Mt Fansipan at 14,000 feet looms. Often shrouded in cloud today our view is uninterrupted as we stop for some Pho (noodle soup) on top of the pass and look down a valley that stretches for miles. There is a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction as our pink bus rounds the bend into the old French Hill Station of Sapa. Here the Hmong locals can speak Italian English, Spanish English and even Russian if it means they can sell you a trinket.

    We have passed through the countryside and met the people who shaped a nation, along the Duong Mon Ho Chi Minh.

  • The Hoi An Flood

    Every year the flood comes to Hoi An, central Vietnam. The rainy season starts here around October, continuing through until December. Thousands of millimeters fall and the odd Hurricane blows through for good measure having worked itself into frenzy in the warm waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Hoi An is an ancient town , now recognized as a World Cultural heritage site and located on the banks of the Tubon River . The river rises in the hills to the west near the Lao border, enormous catchments with no mitigation, the flow gathering during the rain and tumbling into the South China Sea (or the East Sea as the Vietnamese call it).

    Hoi An was established as a trading port some 500 years ago to service travellers and merchants from China, Japan and Indonesia. The town developed a unique architectural style as visitors from foreign parts set down roots and built houses reminiscent of their origins as they sometimes waited six months for favourable winds to blow them back to their own country. It was an important trading port in central Vietnam until the river silted up about 150 years ago and business moved north to the expansive harbour at Danang. These days when the flood comes the streets of the old town play host to the swollen waters, sometimes rising two meters into the old houses, the water reaching its high water mark quickly and staying for three days.

    When the water is high the locals move upstairs. Furniture, clothing, the dog and cat and all the family wait it out. Access to and from the house at these times is by boat, paddling along the swamped streets, people standing, chatting to their neighbours. Shops are still open; the only holiday for most people in Vietnam is during the TET New Year celebration when everyone has a rest.

    There are over 360 tailors in Hoi An, they tout their goods and services with pretty girls dressed in the flattering Au Dai ( traditional Vietnamese dress ) who stand invitingly outside shops, flashing smiles, gossiping to each other as you walk or paddle by. Travellers come from all corners to Hoi An, flood or not, to indulge in a rustic and rural environment. One thing is for sure if you take the bait and enter a tailor shop to browse or maybe buy just one shirt it is almost guaranteed that you will walk out with five shirts, two pairs of pants and a jacket!

    Flood or not, business continues. It seems to be a Vietnamese constant. The local cafes adjust their menus according to the slow down in supply and invoke ‘The Flood menu’ as it is known at this time. In fact it is generally hard for the restaurants and locals to get fresh food. The market, a life source of Hoi An and most rural Vietnamese towns is closed or at least very limited in its available produce.

    During the flood, people who live on the river or by its banks suffer terribly. Their impoverished lives placed under even more strain with water rising on all sides. Some people live on their small boats or sampans, perhaps just six meters long with a rounded bamboo roof across half of the boat, modest protection for families of sometimes five people. During the day, old women in tattered conical hats and tunics will press for business along the river front offering tourists a ride in their sampan for a dollar. They smile broadly showing off black teeth and a face full of wrinkles that could probably tell a thousand stories of French occupation, the bloodshed of the American war and the hardship of the ‘subsidised times’ when a coupon was all you could use to get food. If you lost this coupon you went hungry. During the flood these old women still look for business, even though the river has burst its banks and filled the streets. They stand on the edge of their boats, moored to a clothing or souvenir shop pleading with you to join them. In the background you can see the swollen Tubon River raging just 50 meters away.

    After the flood it is remarkable how quickly the town restores itself. Where streets were flooded, debris scattered, buildings damaged by hurricane winds and trees uprooted, the town will return to its peaceful calm in the blink of an eye. Hoi An is a Vietnam oasis, away from the insensitivities of Hanoi and its sunny cousin Saigon, the people here are simple and uncomplicated. They eat the same food everyday. They plant two crops of rice every year and watch it grow green and tall until it husks and browns to golden straw that sweeps across the paddy field. The pace is unchanged, despite the changes that tourism brings. In the rice field the farmers will gather to bring in the harvest, the villages helping and chatting with each other, sharing the good times and forever enduring the hard times.

  • The Lost Bunker – Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel in Hanoi

    “Forgotten for decades until its rediscovery in 2011, the bomb shelter has been preserved in its original condition, with the unobtrusive addition of new mechanical and electrical installations to allow the space to be accessible and safe for public viewing. Through its sensitive approach and thoughtful interpretation, the project provides a rare glimpse into an important chapter of Vietnamese contemporary history.” From 2013 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation.

    During the American war in Vietnam (1965-1975) 7.6 million tonnes of ordinance were dropped on what was then North Vietnam in the largest air campaign in military history. In March 1965 then Chief of Staff of the American Air force Curtis Lemay stated that “we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age”. In two campaigns from 1965 to 1968 then again in 1972 the bombing campaign was intended to force North Vietnam to cease its support for the NLF (National Liberation Front) by threatening to destroy North Vietnam’s air defences and industrial infrastructure. As well, it was aimed at bolstering the morale of the South Vietnamese.

    In Hanoi bomb shelters were hastily constructed. At The Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel in central Hanoi a bunker was built that now lies beneath the bamboo bar in the hotels courtyard. Originally called The Metropole, the hotel was built during the French time opening its doors in 1903. Amongst many illustrious guests were Charlie Chaplin, Graeme Greene, Somerset Maugham and a host of political leaders including Bill Clinton. The first shots of the French/Vietnamese Indochina war were fired across the road from the Metropole foyer. For the last ten years Goddard & Howse guests have enjoyed the services of this classic hotel on our Vietnam small world journeys.

    At the end of the Vietnam War the hotel was closed to visitors and used alternatively as a diplomatic guest house and office for government. In 1996 with some extensive restoration work the hotel was returned to its former glory and opened its doors once again. Mysteriously the bunker that had existed since the 1960’s was not noticed.nIt was not until 2011 that further renovations revealed the underground shelter and the stories that it held.

    You enter the shelter from the bamboo bar and descend into two narrow corridors that are constructed with reinforced concrete. Taller visitors need to stoop, a meter of sand then more concrete lies above to absorb the impact of high explosive. Water runs along the floor and steel doors with air filters seal the two compartments. There would be not much room for more than 20 people.

    There is a curious inscription on the inside wall. The name of an Australian diplomat, Mr Bob Deveraux dated 1976.

    Australia had established diplomatic relations with Vietnam before 1975 and had taken rooms at the government run Metropole as the embassy. Bob was a consular official who used the bunker to store wine that was sent through the diplomatic bag from Canberra. The wine was by Kaiser Stuhl. He recalled Hanoi as a peaceful city where everyone, including the Ambassador, rode a pushbike.

    During the so called Christmas bombings of 1972 American folk singer Joan Baez was visiting Hanoi promoting peace and delivering food parcels to American POW’s .By day she travelled around Hanoi and in the evenings  took refuge in the bunker. She described the experience as ‘confronting her mortality’. Bombs rained down for 11 consecutive nights. Her experience in the bunker inspired the song ‘Where are you now my son?’ a spoken narrative over piano and recorded air raid sirens, the mournful call of a Vietnamese mother for her missing son in the background.

    The Bunker tour is available to guests of the Sofitel legend Metropole and is included in all Goddard & Howse small world journeys to Vietnam.

  • The Hoi An Flood

    Every year the flood comes to Hoi An, central Vietnam. The rainy season starts here around October, continuing through until December. Thousands of millimeters fall and the odd Hurricane blows through for good measure having worked itself into frenzy in the warm waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Hoi An is an ancient town , now recognized as a World Cultural heritage site and located on the banks of the Tubon River . The river rises in the hills to the west near the Lao border, enormous catchments with no mitigation, the flow gathering during the rain and tumbling into the South China Sea (or the East Sea as the Vietnamese call it).

    Hoi An was established as a trading port some 500 years ago to service travellers and merchants from China, Japan and Indonesia. The town developed a unique architectural style as visitors from foreign parts set down roots and built houses reminiscent of their origins as they sometimes waited six months for favourable winds to blow them back to their own country. It was an important trading port in central Vietnam until the river silted up about 150 years ago and business moved north to the expansive harbour at Danang .These days when the flood comes the streets of the old town play host to the swollen waters, sometimes rising two meters into the old houses, the water reaching its high water mark quickly and staying for three days.

    When the water is high the locals move upstairs. Furniture, clothing, the dog and cat and all the family wait it out. Access to and from the house at these times is by boat, paddling along the swamped streets, people standing, chatting to their neighbors. Shops are still open; the only holiday for most people in Vietnam is during the TET New Year celebration when everyone has a rest.

    There are over 360 tailors in Hoi An , they tout their goods & services with pretty girls dressed in the flattering Au Dai ( traditional Vietnamese dress ) who stand invitingly outside shops , flashing smiles, gossiping to each other as you walk or paddle by. Travellers come from all corners to Hoi An, flood or not, to indulge in a rustic and rural environment. One thing is for sure if you take the bait and enter a tailor shop to browse or maybe buy just one shirt it is almost guaranteed that you will walk out with five shirts, two pairs of pants and a jacket!

    Flood or not, business continues. It seems to be a Vietnamese constant. The local cafes adjust their menus according to the slow down in supply and invoke ‘The Flood menu’ as it is known at this time. In fact it is generally hard for the restaurants and locals to get fresh food. The market, a life source of Hoi An and most rural Vietnamese towns is closed or at least very limited in its available produce.

    During the flood, people who live on the river or by its banks suffer terribly. Their impoverished lives placed under even more strain with water rising on all sides. Some people live on their small boats or sampans, perhaps just six meters long with a rounded bamboo roof across half of the boat, modest protection for families of sometimes five people. During the day, old women in tattered conical hats and tunics will press for business along the river front offering tourists a ride in their sampan for a dollar. They smile broadly showing off black teeth and a face full of wrinkles that could probably tell a thousand stories of French occupation, the bloodshed of the American war and the hardship of the “subsidised times” when a coupon was all you could use to get food. If you lost this coupon you went hungry. During the flood these old women still look for business, even though the river has burst its banks and filled the streets. They stand on the edge of their boats, moored to a clothing or souvenir shop pleading with you to join them. In the background you can see the swollen Tubon River raging just 50 meters away.

    After the flood it is remarkable how quickly the town restores itself. Where streets were flooded, debris scattered, buildings damaged by Hurricane winds and trees uprooted, the town will return to its peaceful calm in the blink of an eye. Hoi An is a Vietnam oasis, away from the insensitivities of Hanoi and its sunny cousin Saigon, the people here are simple and uncomplicated. They eat the same food everyday. They plant two crops of rice every year and watch it grow green and tall until it husks and browns to golden straw that sweeps across the paddy field. The pace is unchanged, despite the changes that tourism brings. In the rice field the farmers will gather to bring in the harvest, the villages helping and chatting with each other, sharing the good times and forever enduring the hard times.

  • Lost in Laos

    During the American War in Vietnam it is estimated that more bombs were dropped on northern Vietnam than in the whole of the Second World War. What is less well known is that in northern Laos, in Zieng Khoung province (also known as the Plain of Jars), there was a bomb dropped every six minutes for two years from 1968 to 1970 in a vain attempt to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It became known as the ‘Secret War’ and this is the story of one of its survivors, Mr Pet, our guide at the Plain of Jars.

    Mr Pet has our attention and tells us his story of growing up in Zieng Khuong; he is 39 years old now. In 1970 when Pet was just three years old and the youngest of seven children, his village came under bombardment. The bombing was severe and it happened all too quickly. As the bombs rained down his father grabbed three of the children and ran from the back door of the house. His mother in panic and fear grabbed three other children and ran through the front door, clutching Pet and two of his other siblings. They were separated as a family and remained separated for eight years. Pet’s father found his way to the Lao government soldiers who were attacking the area. His mother found herself with the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) which was also active in the area. Pet was to spend the next five years living hand-to-mouth in caves and jungle until the hostilities finished. He describes this time in great detail; no food – they would eat anything that came by: grasshoppers, lizards, tree roots and cockroaches. He found his way to these caves with eight other families and by the end of this horrific journey only four families had survived – the others dead from illness, bombing, chemical sprays and starvation. It was to be eight years before this father and three other siblings were re-united with him, his mother and two other siblings. It was only then, eight years later, that both parents realised that one child was missing. In the confusion of that night a child had been lost, each parent thinking the other had the child. They had no way of establishing the fate of their lost child – a boy who was ten years old at the time.

    Almost 24 years later in 1994, Pet was working at a local hotel in Phonsavan. One morning an American guest who had checked into the hotel the night before contacted Pet and asked him to come to her room later that morning; she gave no explanation. Being a shy boy from northern Laos, Pet was unsure but nevertheless made the rendezvous with this American guest who presented him with a letter. He opened the envelope, assured by the American that it brought good news, but he never expected that this letter was to have such an impact on him and his family. It was from his lost brother, thought dead 24 years ago; but actually living in the United States and working as a doctor.

    Pet’s first reaction was disbelief; how was it possible after all these years? The letter revealed that on that chaotic night, when Pet’s mother had gone through the front door and his father through the back door, Pet’s 10 year old brother had somehow found himself in a ditch by a rice field along with a Hmong family, sheltering from the ‘yellow rain’ of cluster bombs. After the raid had passed and in the aftermath, Pet’s brother could not locate any family so he stayed with the Hmong family; it was his only chance. The family and Pet’s brother eventually found their way to American territory via refugee camps. The passage was made a little easier by the US government, who having long encouraged the hill tribe dwellers to fight against the communists, were sympathetic to their refugee status and many Hmong families were relocated to the US, and indeed Australia. In the US he was able to complete school and university and become a medical doctor in Pennsylvania; he married a Hmong girl and had two children.

    Pet remained skeptical and showed the letter to his parents. They agreed they could not accept this as the truth so they decided to ask more questions. The American envoy accepted the list of more specific queries about relatives, names and characteristics; questions that would help Pet’s parents clarify his identity. The answer came back; he was familiar with the family history, he could remember many things about his parents, his uncles and aunts and where he used to live, so Pet’s family accepted the story.

    After 24 years their family was together again, and by this time Pet’s parents had raised three more children. Pet’s brother has visited several times from America. His father died four years ago, but lived long enough to see his family together and reunited.

    What a heart-warming story!

    Epilogue

    I lost contact with Pet for 3 years and then purely by chance we met again at a café in the very remote village of Muong Khoa near the Plain of Jars. For those past years Pet had been working for MAG (Mine Advisory Group) helping clear unexploded ordinance, acting as interpreter and training locals to assist with this dangerous work. He still managed some guiding and on this day he was with some American guests. We exchanged email addresses – I remember his was ‘lone buffalo’. I asked if he could help me guide our Ho Chi Minh Trail group which would arrive in May of the following year (2012). He was excited and we confirmed the arrangement a few months later.

    In 2012 our Ho Chi Minh Trail journey travelled from Vinh in central Vietnam to the border with Laos. As we approached I was very much looking forward to seeing Pet, happy for our guests to also meet such an engaging and knowledgeable person. The border area at Muong Seo is rarely frequented by foreigners. Set in the Truong Son Mountain range the countryside is one of limestone cast with deep valleys and jungle covered slopes. There is some distance between the Vietnamese border gate and the Lao arrivals; perhaps 150 metres of ‘no man’s land’ where you must drag your bags and hand luggage across a gravel track. We reached the gate and I could see our bus waiting just 20 metres away, but there was no sign of Pet’s smiling face.

    Once the customs and immigration formalities were completed I met our driver and a Lao gentleman called Sok. ‘Where was Mr. Pet?’ I asked. The Lao people are extremely gracious, quiet and unassuming. Their belief in Buddha permeates every day of their life and gives them an uncommon sereneness. I looked at Sok. ‘Mr. Pet died three days ago’ he said. It was a heart attack; Pet was just 45 years old. He had moved on, leaving this life of equal sadness and happiness.

    Nothing is permanent in life, but I like to think that this ‘lone buffalo’ was reborn into a greater existence.

  • A piece of jar

    The French during their brief occupation of Lao called this place Plateau De Xiangkhoang and it was here they discovered stone jars scattered across hill tops that are believed to be over 2000 years old.

    Little archaeological work has been done on these mysterious objects which  are concentrated into three sites on the Plain of Jars as it has become known .It is also said there are many more carved stone structures scattered through the valleys and forests of this region still undiscovered .

    I first visited the Plain of Jars in 1999 and I have been mesmerized ever since. Who built these carved stone structures? What was their purpose? There are many theories however it seems the most plausible idea is they were used as burial chambers.

    A few years ago I found myself back in Lao on the Plain of Jars with a Goddard & Howse small world journey. We were visiting jar site 3 which is accessed across a rice field over a few styles to the crest of a small hill. Here there are about 90 jars in varying sizes. On the ground I noticed a small piece of jar that had broken off or worn away over those thousands of years and instinctively I picked it up and popped it into my pocket. My inquisitive mind was thinking I’ll take this to the ANU and get someone to analyse its composition and then we will have an idea about how they were made, the material used and perhaps more. An excited flush came over me.

    They day went on and I thought nothing much more about this piece of jar in my pocket until I was back in my hotel room that evening and carefully pulled it from my jeans. Now I never have been very superstitious however after 20 years of living and working in South east Asia where ‘there is a ghost in every house’ I confess to some influence. And so it was that a feeling of anxiety swept across me as I gazed at this piece of jar – more than anxiety it was a compelling feeling of invasion by the spirit of the jar. I was taking something that did not belong to me; it belonged here on the plain of jars. I thought of that English chap Carter who opened the Tomb of Tutankhamen to be cursed some say for the rest of his days. That was enough for me. I tossed the piece into the field behind my hotel muttering apologies to the spirits, the gods, and the lost civilisation who built these jars. Anyone I could think of.

    I know it was an irresponsible and dumb thing to do in the first place and I assure you I have not replicated these thoughts or deeds in any other part of China or Southeast Asia ever again.

    I did tell you however at the start of this story that I was mesmerised by the Plain of Jars.

  • Vietnam Kitchen – Bun Cha Hanoi

    At Goddard & Howse we love food. If you travel on a small world journey with us expect to taste some wonderful dishes. We know that Vietnamese people start thinking about lunch as soon as they finish breakfast and as soon as they finish lunch they think about dinner. Here is a classic northern Vietnamese dish Bun Cha Hanoi – a delicious street food that is essentially grilled pork, fresh herbs, rice noodles (bun) and of course, fish sauce. Enjoy. Serves 6

    1. 500g of pork belly
      3 lemon grass stalks (use white part only)

      3 clove of garlic 3 E- shallots (the small one)
      1 table spoon of fish sauce
      1 teaspoon of sugar
      1 teaspoon of salt
    2. 500g of shoulder pork mince
      3 lemon grass stalk

      3 clove of garlic
      3 E- Shallot (the small one)
      1 table spoon of fish sauce
      1 teaspoon of sugar
      1 teaspoon of salt
      1 teaspoon of ground white pepper
    3. Dipping Sauce
      1 large carrot

      1 small green paw paw (hard part only 1 small bulb of garlic
      5 small red chillis (more if you like)
      Juice of three limes
      1 cup of warm water, one third of a cup of fish sauce and one quarter of a cup of sugar.
    4. Bun (rice noodles)
      1 and a half packets of Bun or Rice Noodles (available from any good Asian food store)

      Fresh herbs: any fresh herbs you like (a bunch each) but the best are coriander, thai basil, vietnamese mint, vietnamese parilla and fresh lettuce 

    Marinade for Pork
    • Combine Lemon grass (white part only), garlic and E shallot – all chopped very finely
    • Pork belly – cut in a 5cm strip then slices again into a thinner piece (1 cm). Add to marinade and refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours
    • Pork Mince – combine the mince and all listed ingredients above then marinate 2 to 3 hours in fridge

    For Dipping Sauce
    • Take Paw Paw(hard part only) and carrot and peel then slice into thin strips about ( about1 cm) add some salt  and leave for 10 to 15 minutes until nice and soft but not soggy. Rinse under cold water to wash off the salt. Then keep in the cold Ice water to help keep the crunchiness
    • Chilli and Garlic, finely chop then add  a little bit of sugar and some lime juice then set aside (this will keep the garlic & chilli nice and fresh).When you add this mixture with the rest of the sauce the garlic and Chilli will float nicely (as it should)
    • Combine warm water and remaining sugar in saucepan until it dissolves then add fish sauce. Over low heat bring the sauce to boil then let it cool before adding the remaining lime juice (to taste). Add Chilli and garlic mixture and the carrot and paw paw.

    Cooking the Pork Belly
    • Best on a charcoal grill if not on grill on BBQ is fine.
    • Grill each side few minute until the meat is cook and have nice colour
    • Cooking the Pork mince – make into a small ball (like a rissole) then grill or BBQ until meat is cooked and has a nice colour

    Bun Noodles
    • Follow instructions on the packet – usually soak in cold water first then boil for 5 minutes.

    Serve
    • Divide dipping sauce in 6 equal desert size dishes (or small bowls). In each small bowl add a quantity of pork belly and pork mince balls.
    • Prepare six large deep bowls and place Bun noodles equally in each.
    • Serve herbs on a large serving plate to add to the Bun as required.
    • Each person should now have a bowl of noodles plus a small bowl of the dipping sauce with pork. Spoon the sauce onto the noodles, garnish with fresh Vietnamese herbs. Mixed it all together and enjoy.
    Note: you don’t need to use all the sauce and pork mixture at once – graze a little by adding bits here and there.
    Then, to be really authentic (and Hanoi style), sit on small blue plastic chairs on the sidewalk and enjoy!

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