Crossing the border

October 26th, 2012 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

This is the border house at the border between Vietnam and Cambodia. We spent around three hours here as they checked all our paperwork.

A few people have asked me for more details of the boat, so here’s a few photos to give you an idea of what it is like on board.

This is the sun deck and pool area. We’re averaged 32 degrees or so, which has been great. Despite it being the end of the wet season, haven’t had a drop of rain yet. Most importantly very little humidity. It is bloody hot, and you wilt in the sun. But it is dry hot. Not like Singapore where you get soaked even crossing the road.

The rather small gym. Nice views though.

This is the main Saigon Lounge. We do briefings in here, and can generally relax in here.

The dining room. The boat can take 92, but we have around 60 – 70, so lots of room.

The interior is lovely, with lots of wood. There are four decks.

The corridor I am in.

My cabin number. Damn. So close!

The bed inside the cabin. A good queen size and very comfortable. Not a lot of sun as I am in the cheaper porthole cabins. But is fine, as I only really sleep or work in there. The upper floors have little balconies.

Has a decent work area. I work offline in the cabin and online in the lounges where I have wireless.

The Library, which also serves as a nice quiet place to blog from.

The RV La Marguerite is very modern, and nice. No complaints at all.

Tan Chau

October 26th, 2012 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

Thursday was in Tan Chau, which was out last stop before we crossed the border. we toured around partly by boat, partly on foot, and partyly by rickshaw!

A lot of fishing in this area. The Mekong is a vital part of the economy to six countries.

Some of the local boats are damn small. Luckily the crocodiles are now all upstream.

Some of the houses actually float on the river..

This is a fish farm. Incredibly they have around 35,000 fish in this 4 metre deep tank. You feel sorry for the fish. It seems to be the fish equivalent of what Auckland will be like under Len’s long-term plan of housing intensification!

The economics behind the fish farming are interesting. You have to pay the Government to fish on the river, but if you grow an farm your own fish, then there is no tax on it. So hence you get fish farms.

The river can rise two metres at different times of year, so they have to build high enough not to flood.

A local out in his boat.

This kid was running beside the boat as we drew up.

And he happily took the tour sign away from our guide, and became our guide for the next half hour!

A local female villager carrying crops.

A local farmer spraying the ground to prepare it.

The kids from the local school. We were visiting a village of around 500 people. Vietnamese kids are incredibly friendly, and chatty. They especially like doing high fives. I may have corrupted them though as they saw me check in on Four Square on my iPhone and were all excited it showed a map of their area. They all had a play with it, and when they got music to play (Bill Haley), they all wanted one!

Instead what we gave them were pens, pads and rulers for their school. They were pretty happy about that.

This woman crossed the river up to her head, carrying some goods across. Shudder.

While this guy bathed in it. You can see the soap.

We then visited a factory where they first dye the weaves.

Then the machine interleaves them.

And this is what gets produced. They manually decide the colours and patterns, so many different designs.

Finally we travelled by Rickshaw. Was an experience but not overly comfortable. But faster than walking!

Fish Markets

October 25th, 2012 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

On Wednesday we went to Sa Dec. It’s another trading port and centre. It was also a base for US swift boats in the war. It has a population of around 100,000.

The market here specialised in seafood. Lots of crabs bundled up.

And a bowl of yummy squid.

You want fresh fish – these are still alive and kicking.

These prawns were also kicking.

Less keen on these though. Yuck.

I could make a joke about Trevor Mallard here 🙂

Some live frogs. Cribbet.

And these frogs are less live.

This is the house the French writer and file director Marguerite Duras lived in.  As a teenager she had an affair with a Vietnamese man, which she later detailed in various books and films.

In the afternoon we just cruised. It’s nice being on a river, as you see land and sights as you travel. This is a shot of some typical greenery.

Vietnam Markets

October 25th, 2012 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

On Tuesday we went around the floating markets of Cai Be in the morning, and looked at the local French Gothic Cathedral. Then in the afternoon e went to the fruit markets of Vinh Long which had some amazing looking and tasting fruits.

Each boat signifies what they are selling by hoisting it up on a stick. There are around 100 of these boats in total floating on the river, buying and selling and bartering.

You even have a soft drink dispenser!

They took us to a rice paper and candy manufacturer where they make amazing products from rice. This is of sand being mixed with brown rice, to make white rice products.

They then chop it up.

And package it. The staff get paid around $2 an hour, which is pretty reasonable for Vietnam.

This mother hen was picking at rice paper and feeding it to her chicks. Then they got noticed and chased off by stick wielding women!

Anyone fancy pickled snake for lunch?

Deshelling. She (and her mother) get paid 25c a kg and are pretty fast at it. The kids all go to school, but are expected to help earn money when not at school.

The exterior of the Gothic Cathedral. The rest of the town is pretty basic, so this sticks out somewhat.

And the interior.

This is from the afternoon at the fruit markets. These are in fact a type of apple.

I’m not sure if you eat the fruit on the right or use it as a weapon!

No plain packaging in Vietnam!

Yum, fish. The markets were fascinating – both from an economic perspective, but just to see the variety of fruit, and trying them out. We have such little variety in NZ.




RV La Marguerite

October 24th, 2012 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

For the next seven days I’m on board the RV La Marguerite as we go up the massive Mekong Delta eventually crossing into Cambodia.

It’s a great wee boat, at 72 metres in length. It can take up to 90 people, but we have only 60 to 70 on board. The bedrooms are reasonably large (for a boat) at 21 square metres.

The 1st floor has the dining room, the second floor the lounge and the library and the top floor the pool and the gym. The wifi is in the lounge so I am there a fair bit – now 9.40 pm at night and only one still up! The free drinks (including spirits) on board helps!

They’ve done the pool area quite nicely with shades all around the pool, plus a bar on the pool level also – and yes they serve you in the pool – none of this nonsense about no glassware.

You can’t really do laps in the pool, but it;s still bloody relaxing. My routine each day is:

  • NZ afternoon blogging 6 am – 7.30 am
  • Breakfast 7.30 am – 8.30 am
  • Morning tour 8.30 am – 11.30 am
  • Read 11.30 am – 12.30 pm
  • Lunch 12.30 pm – 1.30 pm
  • Read 1.30 pm – 3.00 pm
  • Afternoon tour 3.00 pm – 5.00 pm
  • Swim and sun bathe 5 pm – 6.30 pm
  • Briefing  6.30 pm – 7.00 pm
  • Dinner 7.00 pm – 8.00 pm
  • Morning blogging 8.00 pm – 10.00 pm

We passed under this bridge while I was in the swimming pool. It was a somewhat unusual sensation having people on a bridge waving at you as you have a drink in the pool.

One of the three boats we would go ashore in. Had to laugh that the Vietnamese captain assured us the lifejackets were not Made in China. Even in Vietnam, that signifies crappy and unreliable quality 🙂

I’m not a fan of cruises where you spend days and days at sea with nothing to do. But cruises where it is basically a floating hotel, and you’re in a new location every half-day or day is pretty good. And being a smaller boat makes a big difference too.


Cao Dai Temple

October 23rd, 2012 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

Cao Dai is a funny little religion. It is basically endemic to Vietnam and has two to three million adherents. A sort of mixture of Buddhism and Catholicism!

This is the main temple of the Cao Dai. Pretty impressive. As you may surmise, one has to leave your shoes outside to enter it.

One of their regular prayer services.

A close up of the roof decoration. It is a beautiful structure. We visited it on the way back from the tunnels.

The Cu Chi tunnels

October 23rd, 2012 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

Imagine a complex of tunnels that could house up to 11,000 people. Well that is what the Viet Cong built during the Vietnam War. You get to understand how very different tactics are needed in a classic war, and a guerilla war.

Making the tunnels would have been gruelling work, and living in them not much better. They were often just 1.2 metres high if that, and infested with critters.

This is how they got air to the tunnels below. They would use termite mounds as cover for air holes. Bear in mind in some areas there were three layers of tunnels, and the third layer could be 10 metres below the ground.

There are 121 kms of tunnels in total. regardless of your views on the Viet Cong, that is an incredible achievement – and one that many say was reasonably influential in their ability to remain potent.

A solider showing one of the entrances into the tunnels. Pretty damn narrow hole, and under the leaves could easily be undetected.

You can see how narrow it is. Imagine walking through the bush and having armed soldiers spring out of the ground.

This is half of a pit trip. The grass covers swings when you step on it, and the bamboo spikes below would be lethal. Nasty.

One of the tunnels wen went through. You don’t spend much time underground, which is a relief as you are crouched over the whole time.

The VC made rubber sandals out of the discarded tyres left  by the US forces.

The tour through the area takes around 90 minutes and is absolutely fascinating. Regardless of your political opinions on the war, it is a fascinating example of how to fight a guerrilla war.

Saigon Zoo

October 22nd, 2012 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

The Saigon Zoo is actually in their botanical gardens, which makes a nice setting for the visistors to walk around in.

Since seeing so many animals in the wild in Africa, I haven’t really been able to enjoy zoos – even those as spacious as possible for the animals. And Saigon Zoo is far from that. I felt so sorry for the poor giraffes especially, but also for many of the animals there. I guess there is little alternative as most of the animals in zoos would not survive in the wild, but it did make me want to join the Animal Liberation Front briefly!

The imposing creature is a Burmese Rock Python. They are the largest subspecies of the Indian Python. On average they are 3.7 metres long but can reach 5.7 metres.

A beautiful Iguana.

I can’t recall what species this was – possibly a Gibbon?

The poor elephants.

Luckily there is some glass between us.

Showing off.

A beautiful white Bengal tiger.

One big Orangutan.

Enjoying the water.

Some lazy bears.

That bird is almost taller than me!

A squirrel monkey. Cute,

A beautiful bird.

Also liked the hedge sculpture.

Far from the best zoo around, but if you have a spare couple of hours, you do get to see a few animals you won’t normally see.

The Vietnam War Remnants Museum

October 21st, 2012 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

The War Remnants Museum in Saigon ranges from the interesting to the horrific. It is hard not to be affected by the photos of those deformed by Agent Orange.

They say that winners in war get to write the history books, and that is true here.  The museum naturally highlights the excesses of the South Vietnam forces and the US and French, while not mentioning the 720,000 South Vietnamese civilians who were killed, including at least 100,000 executions.

However let’s not pretend there were not atrocities on all sides. Unlike WWII where there was pretty well defined good and evil, Vietnam was not treated well by its French colonial masters, and both the US and South Vietnam bear some responsibility for reneging on the 1954 Geneva Conference accord to have a national referendum in 1956. To be fair to them, they had never accepted the referendum, but that was the basis on which there was a truce.

Vietnam seems to have been a choice between worse and worst when it comes to the leadership of both South and North Vietnam. Having said that when we look at South Korea, their leadership used to be pretty malignant also, but they have matured into a reasonable democracy  Vietnam remains a one party state – nominally communist – but in the China sense, rather than the USSR sense. The Government may be communist, but from what I have observed very few of the locals are.

The museum courtyard has a number of planes that were used by the US in the war.

You don’t realise how big those choppers were until you see one up close.

If you ever want to be convinced why chemical warfare is wrong, then tour the museum. There is a whole section showing the effects on not just those alive at the time, but future generations. It is heart-breaking.  War is sometimes a necessary evil, but chemicals should not play a part – whether targeted directly against humans, or on the crops.

A chart of combatants by country and year. Note New Zealand down the bottom.

As I said at the beginning, the museum is obviously slanted to reflect the views of the Vietnamese Government. However that doesn’t mean it isn’t a must see if you are in Saigon. If nothing else, a stark reminder of the brutality of war.

Independence Palace

October 20th, 2012 at 5:03 pm by David Farrar

This is Independence Palace, now known as Reunification Palace. It served as the home of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and now is a tourist attraction. It was constructed in 1966, but on the same site was Norodom Palace from 1873 to 1962. The old palace was mainly destroyed by two pilots who rebelled against President Diệm and bombed the palace trying to kill him.

A bust of Ho Chi Minh in the main auditorium.

The Banquet Chamber. Not so sure about that carpet colour!

The Cabinet Room.

I love all the old phones – brings back memories!

This was the South Vietnam President’s Office, mainly occupied by Nguyễn Văn Thiệu.

One of the more decorative rooms.

Every palace needs an escape helicopter on the roof!

A nice view of the lawn area from the roof.

There are two layers of underground rooms, where much of the war was fought from.

Not one of the more spectacular palaces around, but a fascinating piece of history when you consider its role in Vietnam and the Vietnam War.


October 20th, 2012 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

Am in Saigon, on my first visit to Vietnam. While definitely hot here, at 32c, it isn’t as humid as some other Asian countries. Have tried twice to get a sim card for my phone (as it is not working at all here). I walked around half an hour in the heat to then find out they could not sell me one without my passport. Grrrr.

Then the next day did the trek again, and managed to purchase a sim card. However I get home and discover they have sold me one which is too large for the iPhone – this is despite me showing them the phone. Double grrrr. Have decided God doesn’t want me to have 3G coverage in Vietnam, so am not going to try for a third time. This means that I won’t get any phone calls or texts until I am back.

The hotel has free wireless, and so do many stores, so I am getting my data fix that way.

Crossing the roads here reminds me of playing Frogger. No cars or bikes actually stop for you. If you wait for a break in the traffic, you may be there for an hour or so. So instead what you do is just walk slowly into the traffic and hope they are good at swerving around you. So far, they have been. Almost gone run over on the footpath of all place though, as motorcycles ride there also. Saigon has around 4.5 million motorcycles.

The currency here is around 10,000 dong equals 60c NZ. So 100,000 dong is $6, which easily covers many meals here.  The guide books say you don’t need dong, as they take US$ everywhere. This is not true. Many places do not.

Near the Grand Hotel, where I’m staying with my folks is this imposing statue of Tran Hung Dao. He was pretty much the only general to ward off the Khan led Mongols in the 13th century.

The Saigon Opera House is one of several examples of French colonial architecture. Our tour guide happens to also be a trained singer, and she would sing songs for us as the van waited in traffic. She was seriously good. They need a Vietnam Has Talent show.

This is the Notre-Dame Cathedral. No, not the one in Paris.  It was built in 1863. Around six million Vietnamese are Catholic, reflecting the French colonial past.

A simple but elegant interior.

A mass of cables hang over the street. Hopefully Chorus will not use this technique for laying out fibre in New Zealand!

A shot from inside the Ben Thanh markets in Saigon. Quite reasonably priced in the main.

Five degrees of toutedness

October 19th, 2012 at 10:37 pm by David Farrar

I’ve got a five point scale (spot the pollster) for how bad touts are in a particular location. Very pleased to find out that Saigon is only a two on the scale.

My scale is:

  1. They don’t approach you at all. In fact you have to ask them something to get them to offer a sale
  2. They make a not too in your face attempt to engage you, but leave you alone the moment you shake your head or say “No thanks”
  3. They are reasonably persistent  They try and keep engaging you in conversation and will keep trying to be “helpful” to you or asking for a sale or money.
  4. They are quite relentless and will actively follow you for scores, maybe hundreds of metres, time and time again trying to get you to part with some money.
  5. You actually feel unsafe with them. They get aggressive if you try to ignore them, and you consider parting with your money just to forestall anything nasty happening.

A typical 1 is Vanuatu. Lovely lovely people who never hassle you. When they greet you, it isn’t just to try and get money off you.

Saigon has been a 2 so far. I thought it would be a 3 or worse, so pleasantly surprised. Never felt hassled at all.

Thailand is a pretty typical 3. Annoying, but not a huge hassle.

Zimbabwe was a 4. They just keep following you for hundreds of metres. You can never relax. An internal groan every time you sight one.

Egypt was my only 5 to date. One or two yelled abuse at me and crossed the street when I waved them off. Even the local Police “requested” a tip for rescuing me from touts who were doing the same. Sigh!

I suspect in other parts of Vietnam, it rises to a 3 or greater. Time will tell.

The apologies

May 28th, 2008 at 5:46 pm by David Farrar

The apologies and statements started at 2 pm. I have extracts below. First up was the Prime Minister of behalf of the Crown:

The Crown extends to New Zealand Viet Nam Veterans and their families an apology for the manner in which their loyal service in the name of New Zealand was not recognised as it should have been, when it should have been, and for inadequate support extended to them and their families after their return home from the conflict.


On all sides, strong views were held with conviction. My own party, the New Zealand Labour Party opposed New Zealand involvement in the war, and acted immediately to withdraw the troops on election to office in 1972.

Many others also spoke out, often coming under attack from the government and other establishment voices of the time for doing so.

Oh Good God, get over yourself. This is an apology to Veterans, not an apology to protesters that some people disagreed with their protests.

For too long, successive governments ignored concerns being raised by Viet Nam veterans. It was the emergence of Agent Orange as a serious health and veterans’ issue in the United States which began to change the way in which issues surrounding Viet Nam veterans came to be perceived and then treated in New Zealand.

In 2003 the Health Select Committee undertook its own inquiry into the concerns raised by veterans. It investigated whether New Zealand defence personnel had been exposed to Agent Orange. It also assessed the health risks to defence personnel and their families, and the health services available to them. The Committee concluded that New Zealand personnel who had served in Viet Nam had indeed been exposed to Agent Orange, and that this exposure had had adverse health effects not only for the personnel themselves, but also for their children.

It would have been nice to acknowledge what led to that Select Committee inquiry. Certainly not your own Minister suggesting the map was a fraud.

Today the Crown has offered a formal apology to the New Zealand Veterans of the Viet Nam war and their families. The Crown places on record recognition of the service of those personnel; and acknowledges the many consequences of that service, including the physical and mental health effects. The failure of successive governments and their agencies to acknowledge the exposure of veterans to dioxin contaminated herbicides and other chemicals is itself acknowledged, as is the way in which that failure exacerbated the suffering of veterans and families.


In concluding, the Crown thanks the members of the Joint Working Group who provided a way forward for dealing with these troubling issues of New Zealand’s relatively recent past. This has led to the opportunity for the Crown to put on record its thanks for, and its apology to, those brave service personnel who became the veterans of the Viet Nam war, and to pay tribute to those who never came home. We will remember them.

And a good ending. Just a pity about the first half.

John Key was next:

I rise today to support the apology from the Crown and to offer the gratitude and thanks of the National Party to those New Zealanders who served in the then-Republic of Vietnam. I also offer our apologies to them and their families for the failure of the Crown to properly acknowledge or address the results of their service in a toxic environment in Vietnam.

They have had to suffer the indignity of two reports – the Reeves report and the McLeod report, both of which reached conclusions that all veterans knew to be wrong. These reports were factually incorrect, fatally flawed, and deeply offensive to many veterans.

Good to have the explicit condemnation of those reports which were offensive with their incredibly wrong conclusions.

I also wish to acknowledge the role that John Masters played in reaching the point we are at today. John was the last commander of 161 Battery in Vietnam, and it was his perseverance, and finally the map he produced, that proved that New Zealand service personnel had been exposed to defoliants in Phuoc Tuy Province. Without his hard work, the findings of the inquiry would not have happened.

One gets the feeling his sense of duty to his troops did not end with his active service. A real leader.

Vietnam was a war that divided New Zealand, and the period was one of bitter sentiment from some towards those who served. But the New Zealanders who were asked to serve in this war were not responsible for the decisions taken by politicians at the time, and they should not have been treated as though they were.

A point, some may wish to reflect on. People should have directed their protests towards the Ministers and MPs who made the decision, not the returning troops who had no say in where they get posted to.

So, to the members of Victor and Whiskey Companies of the 1st Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment; to 4 Troop New Zealand Special Air Service; to the members of the New Zealand joint services medical team; to 161 Battery Royal New Zealand Artillery Regiment; to the Royal New Zealand Engineers; and to those other New Zealand service personnel who served attached to units of the Australian and United States military, we finally say sorry.

Nice to name the units, as they mean a lot to those who served in them.

New Zealand had a responsibility to these people. They were asked by their country to do a dangerous job, and they did so with honour and dignity.

The treatment they received, both in Vietnam and then in the years after their return to New Zealand, was unfair and unacceptable.

I hope that this apology, and the acceptance finally that New Zealanders were exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, will go some way to making up for our previous failings.

Excellent all round.

Also speeches were made by NZ First, United Future, Maori Party and ACT. Can’t see on Scoop anything from Greens or Progressive but they did speak.

Thanks to Judith and co

May 28th, 2008 at 1:12 pm by David Farrar

Later today we will have an official apology to the Vietnam Veterans for their treatment over the years. It is not just overdue, but is the end of some shabby behaviour from both the former National and current Labour Government.

In 1998 a National government commissioned the Reeves Inquiry (headed by Sir Paul Reeves) to look at the effects of Agent Orange on the children of Vietnam Veterans. The Inquiry Report stated that our troops were not exposed to Agent Orange. That untruth was repeated in the later McLeod Report (authored by Dr Deborah McLeod from the Wellington School of Medicine and Health Sciences) commissioned by Labour in 2001.

In the uproar that followed the release of the McLeod Report John Masters, commander of the last artillery unit to serve in Vietnam, remembered that hidden away at the bottom of an old trunk he had a classified map which detailed the extent to which Phouc Tuy Province had been sprayed. He got  Ross Miller to approach Judith Collins to see if she might be prepared to help. She was (it turns out one of her cousins also served and still has chronic ill health from the experience) and Judith went public with the map.

On the day existence of the map was revealed, the then Minister of Veterans Affairs (Hawkins) went on the 6.00 News and derided the map as a possible forgery. This allowed Judith to persuade the the Health Select Committee to unanimously proceed with an inquiry.

Of particular interest to Vietnam veterans is that the inquiry revealed the existence of a secret file in the New Zealand Defence Force which detailed chapter and verse how NZ servicemen in Phouc Tuy Province were sprayed with just under 2 million litres of Agent Orange. That file was never made available to either of the two Inquiries.

Thanks to John Masters, Ross Miller and Judith Collins, the truth came out. Without them, the Agent Orange story would have never been told.

The ‘Apology’ will go some way to healing the wounds. For then 700 who have died since then, many before their time, it comes too late.  We all owe Judith Collins a debt for taking up a cause no-one else wanted to listen to.