Phnom Penh/Siem Reap

After returning to the city, we went to our room to freshen up, and then go out for a walk before meeting up with several others  at the Foreign Correspondence Club (FCC). It was a beautiful evening, although still very warm, along the boardwalk on Sisowath Quay.   Lots of families were out enjoying their time together, and many children running about playing.  There are some beautiful islands across the river, and they are looking extremely modern with their skyscraper hotels going up, eager to welcome the tourists dollars!

The FCC is a beautiful building that has seen a great deal of history, although, not as much as one would think as the building is not that old.  I found a great story here on its short history, and it tells the story much better than what I could.  It was a fun evening, although I think some may have taken advantage of Happy Hour a little more than what they should have, considering we had a 6 – 8 hour bus ride to Siem Reap the next morning!

What a way to bring in March, and our 13th day on the tour. Another hot sunny day ahead but thankfully another bus with air conditioning!   Its hard to believe we left Canada over two weeks ago.  We have seen and done so much, and gained so much information and experiences along the way in these countrys and with their people.  I’m sure it will take time to sort it all out.  Our trip to Siem Reap was broke up with a couple of stops.  Our first stop was at a very large popular market, full of locals and tourists alike.  Baskets, pots, pans, boxes all full of bright, colorful fruits, vegetables, flowers, breads, meat and bugs!   Yes, when in Cambodia do as the Cambodians.  Well some do, I don’t.  I used the “happy room” and came back to find Gary overly eager to try everything our CEO had picked out for a snack, and take his turn at “holding” a critter.  I had to use my zoom, as I wasn’t getting THAT close!

Once the snacks were done, and everyone had visited the “happy room” we were off again down the highway.  We hadn’t gone far when we pulled off for lunch at Tram Dung Chan resort in Kompong Thom Province, Cambodia.  Everything is outdoors, and is not quite the standard that westerners would expect for a resort, but it was great.  The food was delicious and the people most gracious.  The view was pretty nice too.

With our bellies full, we were back on the bus, and we took off again towards Siem Reap.  We had been told that we had a choice to stop at a floating village, but the whole sticky group had to agree, or we would by pass it.  Gary and I had discussed it and decided that we would rather just get to Siem Reap without any delays.  As we were nearing the turn off to the floating village, it was vote time. Gary and I wavered, we were the only two who did not hold up our hands!  We did finally succumb to peer pressure, put our hands up and we turned off the highway and headed down a dirt road to the  village. I’m not sure how far it was on the bumpy dirt road, but before long we were entering a village that lined a canal/river.  The houses were all on stilts, and they were in the middle of drying and smoking fish  caught in the biggest freshwater lake in southeast Asia.

Tonle Sap lake  is a flooded lake, with the attached 120 km Tonle Sap River which connects the lake to the Mekong River.  The size of the lake varies depending on the time of year.  At the end of the dry season the lake is about 2500 sq km (965 sq Mi).  By the time the monsoon season ends, and the Mekong River peaks the lake swells to an area covering up to 16,000 sq km (6178 sq.mi).  You may ask, how does the peaking of the Mekong River affect the lake, if the lake flows into the river?  Its simple… annual fluctuation of the Mekong’s water volume, supplemented by the Asian Monsoon regime allows an unusual  flow  reversal of the Tonle Sap River, and during the wet season, it actually flows into the lake!   The Tonle Sap Lake is in danger of over fishing. The fish from here supplies most of the country.   Governments have set regulations, and laws which if broken can lead to  jail for up to 2 years.  However, many are still overfishing, and  still fish in conservation areas and during spawning times to ensure they have enough fish to meet their quotas.  Some families have been living and fishing on the lake for generations,  but it may come to an end for many.  The floating villages on the lake mainly consist of Vietnamese, who also use the lake, for their income and survival. The fields around the lake are utilized  growing rice, and other crops for further consumption and sale.  It was a pretty enjoyable ride in the boat as well.  Got a massage, whether or not we wanted one, and an ice cold  beer, or soda!  On the way back we did have a bit of a mishap, where I think some weeds may have got tangled in the prop, so we watched as the young masseuse’ went to the back to free it.  Was all good!  The water was so dirty, I couldn’t imagine getting splashed, far less getting into it, but they seem to get into it to work, and play!  Its all good.

And to think that Gary and I initially didn’t want to make this stop.  Am I ever glad our CEO gave us a look of  “come on…it will be fun” look!  Back on the bus, we headed  out towards  the highway, passing through the village again, leaving red dust to settle over the drying fish again. Then I spotted something in front of us and asked our CEO if it was a wedding, and sure enough it was.  She had told us about the traditional Cambodian wedding so it was great to see the procession on the street! You can check out the find out more of the  4 day ritual here.  It was a wonderful place to visit, and as I said, the people were so happy.  On the way back to the highway I was finally able to get a picture of how they dry the rice, and this time of year, it is drying EVERYWHERE!

 

We arrived at the Nagara Angkor Boutique Hotel in Siem Reap, checked in, and then went out to explore, and find something for dinner.  Of course we found a lot to eat, but were a little picky in what we actually ordered!

The food was simply scrumptious, and was enough to last us until we received our boxed breakfast, which we collectively agreed would be better than returning to the hotel, tomorrow from Ankor Wat.  We have a 3 .m. wake up call, so we can get to the Temple before sunrise!  Weather forecast was for high 30’s again for tomorrow,   lights out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Choeung Ek (Killing Fields) & S-21

February 28th, being day 12 of our tour, was going to be what I believe, an unnerving experience for everyone in our group. I’m not sure about others, but  Gary and I had done some research into the time period that Pol Pot was in control of Cambodia, we knew of some of the atrocities that had been committed, but it was still emotional to be standing at Choeung Ek (Phenom Pehn Killing fields) and in the  S-21 prison.  Our guide, also spoke personally about the regime.  Whether or not these stories were his own personal stories, we’ll never know, they were true for someone.   Between 1975 and 1979, 2 million Cambodians, almost half the population, lost their lives during the Khmer Rouge regime.  Thousands were  tortured and murdered while others lost their lives to malnutrition, exhaustion and diseases such as malaria.    Of the over 14,000 men, women and children which entered into S-21, only 7 survived.  It’s very hard to explain everything that went on between 1975 – 1979, but I did find a 4 part series of videos  (10 minutes each)  here .  The first photo below is of a tree which they hung speakers. Loud music played during the torturous executions, so as not to provoke suspicion from people working in near by fields. Choeung Ek Genocidal Center has built a Memorial Stupa at  Choeung Ek  which houses thousands of skulls, and other bones that have been exhumed from the mass graves at this site.  Below the level of skulls and bones are several exhibits of tools, or weapons that were used to murder these  people. Bullets were too expensive to use so they resorted to using poles, sharpened bamboo or any other tool they could find to bludgeon the victims to death.   During the rainy season  bones, and teeth still surface and are collected in glass boxes throughout the area. This site was originally a Chinese cemetery, of which there are still remnants on the grounds. The field has fenced areas, and built walkways so people do not walk on the mass graves. I  was amazed at how many people we actually saw leave the walks to stroll   through the obvious exhumed mass grave sites.

As if that wasn’t disturbing enough, we loaded back onto the bus and headed the 8.5 km back into Phenom Pehn to visit Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide (S-21 Prison).  When Pol Pot gained power he took over a school on the outskirts of Phnom Pehn and created a interrogation centre in which they tortured and executed the prisoners.  The Vietnamese invaded Phnom Pehn early in 1979, and as the s-21 staff bolted they left behind thousands of documents, including over 6500 photographs of prisoners, men, woman and children, with numbers, and dates. An aspiring photographer, 16 at the time was scared for his life, and did the job he was asked, which was to photograph every person brought into the prison.  He had to do it, or be killed himself. Former Khmer Rouge prison staff have speculated over 30,000 people had been incarcerated, and only a handful left alive. As Pot Pol’s regime continued, paranoia had set in, and as new prison officials came, older ones were also killed, they knew too much.   Walking through the prison,  hearing the stories, seeing the thousands of  photos that line the walls is very disheartening.   And to think, this was only one of numerous areas that this was occurring.  Realizing this was taking place while I was in my early teens was extremely disturbing to me.  I  heard nothing about this genocide until researching this trip to Asia.Some of the below photos are photographs which the Vietnamese took when they walked into the Prison.  The Khemer Rouge had killed the 14 prisoners that were left before fleeing.  These photos were hung on the walls in the interrogation rooms where they victims were found. Those 14 victims were buried in the yard of the Prison.

Not only did Pol Pot destroyed and reduce the population by 1/3 to 1/4  he also destroyed it’s legal and educational systems, the music and arts sectors, trading, business, and everything else was simply gone.  Its only been 48 years since the Vietnamese invaded and put a stop to Pol Pot’s insanity.  The surviving population still remember, they remember the famish, loosing loved ones either to killings, starvation or sickness. They remember the terror and the darkest days and hours of their lives. The children born after 1979, are not free from the trauma that swept the country.  They were and are being raised by parents that are suffering post traumatic stress disorders, in a country where there are no diagnoses.  Rebuilding the country will take generations.  Yet, as we travel around this city, I am astonished with how happy these people are. They are very cheery, and genuinely friendly.  Chum Mey, a survivor was at the prison signing his book as we were leaving, so we did get a copy, and through an interpreter, he did tell a short version of his story of survival, although sadly he lost his wife and baby daughter. (Chum Mey  also speaks in the short videos I mentioned above).

I  considered writing a very short piece about this thought provoking day, and not include any photos. Or just omit it all together.  After all, it is not the happy  day in the park that one associates with a vacation. However, it was important to me to share this experience with you.   Yes, trials have occurred, and  many of the Khmer Rouge members are in prison for life, but there are many still out there, living their lives freely, living next door to victims families, some have remained in government. Corruption is everywhere.  Its hard for me to fathom why so many countries did nothing!  That these murders, and the torture continued for over 3 years – was it because there were no natural resources in Cambodia that anyone wanted, was it because the Americans had just left Vietnam, which to this day is still a question unanswered as to why they were there in the first place, and what about the UN?  I have many questions, and over time may find some persons views on why.  But somehow, I don’t believe there are any  answers that will support why these people were not supported by the rest of the world, when their world was dying a slow and such an inhumane death.

“If the human race ignore atrocities such as genocide, we must surely be joined in guilt”.

 

 

 

 

 

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Good-bye Vietnam, Hello Cambodia

None of us were  looking forward to an 8 hour “public” bus trip to Phnom Pehn, Cambodia, but there is always something new to see, and besides, we are on an adventure. The public bus was not so bad, there were only an additional 3 people, other than our group, not the crowd we had expected.  Approximately 4 hours later we reached Moc Bai, the boarder crossing, and then things started to go sideways. To fast track the group, the CEO takes all our passports so we are not going through individually.  We file off the bus, as we have to cross the boarder on foot. Now we stand in line with a hundred other people and wait. Next thing we know,  Gary gets called to the front. I was too far back so  couldn’t hear what was being said, only that he turned, pointing to me, and said ” hers will be the same”.  Apparently they didn’t understand, or didn’t care, and took him off to the side, disappearing  behind a wall.  So there I stood waiting to get called up, but they just started calling the group up individually and one by one they got their passports and went through  towards the bus- as did I.  The CEO explained at that point that  Gary’s passport was not stamped when we entered Vietnam!  I remembered back to the fellow that went through the Hanoi airport ahead of us, and no sooner had he got done and started walking away, that he turned on his heels to come back… a guard turned him around and sent him on his way. In hindsight, I wonder  if he was a seasoned traveler, and realized his passport was not stamped.  The immigration fellow at the airport had been trying to get someone else to come and relieve him for at least 10 people before us, and he was visibly tired so –  was it an honest slip up, or was this their way to get some money from travelers trying to leave Vietnam?  We shall never know. I had our itinerary with me so Gary was not able to give them accurate information regarding our arrival flight, times etc. It was after all over 10 days earlier that we had arrived in Hanoi!  But they wouldn’t allow him to get  the information from me anyways.   It was approximately 45 minutes later when he finally climbed onto the bus…and No it did not cost him a dong!  He didn’t arrive in Vietnam, but he did get out.  The sticky group, and the 3 extras were now ready to cary on to Phnom Pehn.

It was another 4 hours before we arrived in Phenom Phen.   The city was much larger than I had anticipated, and was surprised at the new freeway leading into the city.  We checked into  the Diamond Hotel, and it was not quite what we were expecting. It was good enough, don’t get me wrong, I would stay here again, it was beautiful.  But there are several Diamond Hotels in the city, so make sure you check the address to ensure no disappointments, we were expecting a  pool.   Once again, it was in a great location for easy access to many attractions that we were able to go to on our free time.  But after settling in, and checking the weather forecast,  it was time to meet up with the group for another Cyclo tour to familiarize ourselves with the area.  Cambodia’s population so far in 2017 is just over 16 million, with just about 2 million 10 thousand living in Phenom Pehn.  So again, another city full of people, and everyone seeming to be going somewhere.  It was another successful cylco tour though. I wasn’t sure having an EMT was a good sign or not, but we didn’t need his services, so all was good.   I enjoyed seeing all the school children out and about dressed in their neat uniforms.  Thousands of children are kept home to sell things to tourists, they never get the opportunity to attend school.  We were urged, as are other tourists not to purchase anything from these children  as it only encourages the parents to keep them out of school to continue making money for the family. Cyclos are  a fantastic way to take a lot in very quickly, although there are many more vehicles on the roads here, I felt safe, most of the time.   We were out until darkness fell and the monuments all seem to come alive with the lights shining on them.  Wat Phnom is a beautiful temple of the Buddhist faith. Built in 1372, it sits upon the only hill (man made) in Phenom Pehn.  It is 27 metres tall, and is the tallest pagoda in Phenom Pehn. According to the legend, a 14th-century woman named Penh found 4 sacred Buddhist objects in the nearby Mekong River and placed them on this small hill. A temple was built to house the relics and the city was named for this legend.  The name literally means – Penh’s Hill.  Like most legends there are variations to the story,  but they all follow the same premise.  A short distant away from Wat Phnom there is a statue of Penh to commemorate her, and her find.  As dusk arrived we headed closer to the hotel, and left our Cyclo Drivers near a park. There were people all over,  having picnics with their families and friends.  It was such a beautiful evening. It has amazed me since we arrived in Vietnam that there are no flies! With all this food that is cooked, stored, and sold on the streets and in parks and markets it just astonishes me there are none!  And now our and  CEO  was looking for “something”.  She stopped by a woman who had been cooking, and preparing for some time, and selling her food next to the side walk. She picked up a plate, and an egg and then proceeded to peel it, and offer us all some Balut.  For those that do not know what it is, here is a brief description. It is a fertilized duck egg that has been incubated for 14 to 18 days, its then boiled or steamed, and the contents are  eaten  directly from the shell, by someone other than me!  Probably half of the people in the group tried it, including Gary!

Shortly after the appetizer in the park, we headed to find some supper.  Now we are talking about real food, and yet again, no complaints about this food.  Absolutely love it. We do tend to drink local beer when we are on holidays, so we ordered the local beer here also and it actually has pull tab caps!   This restaurant also sold Rum and coke by the bucket! Life is good again with no “ducks” around!

There is so much to see and learn about this country, and as it just so happens our CEO  Minea was born and raised in Cambodia. I feel very privileged to have had her as our tour guide through this wonderful, country with its tormented past and the struggles for the future. Tomorrow will be an emotional day  as we are scheduled to tour Choeung Ek (Killing Fields) and Tuol Sleng Museum (S-21 Prison).

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Mekong Delta

February 26, day 10 – a about a 3 hour bus trip to the boat pier for a trip on the Mekong Delta.  The region covers an area of 39000 sq. miles, and inhabits over seventeen and a half million people.  It has the largest population of Khemer  outside of Cambodia, and  a large Chinese population, however, most living there are Vietnamese descendent.  The land is very fertile, and is the largest agricultural producing area in Vietnam. It is a enormous area filled with rivers, swamps, and canals that crisscross through the islands like arteries.  It’s not surprising then that the main transportation in this region is by boat, and believe me, their docks aren’t what they are at home.

Each time we disembarked we had new experiences to explore. The reason for sticking our finger into a hive of bees?  To taste the honey of course, and it was so tasty. As for your finger going into the hive, and the bees buzzing wings hitting your fingers? … a little nerve racking to say the least!   And the snake, well he was more calm than some of our group that held him.  I’ve not posted the photos of when he was first put on my shoulders! These are things you just HAVE to try.  Although I tried the snake wine, I did not purchase any – only because I didn’t know if I could get it back into Canada!

We did stop at a village where we were served up with some sort of wonderful tea,  as well as  local fruit.  Everyone always seem to be eating and or snacking in this country.   The dorian is considered by many as the king of fruit because of the size, however, there are signs in hotels all over the country that do not allow dorian in the rooms.  You either really like the smell, or have  intense disgust for it. Some describe the smell as in rotten onions or sewer, others describe it as being sweet,  and the odor can remain long after the fruit has been removed. Most of the fruit we ate was  delicious, although I have to say, was not a fan of the star fruit.  Unfortunately I only took a video, no still shots of several villagers performed  folk songs while we  ate.

Later we did stop for lunch, and great food was once again served.   However, no one went for the Elephant Ear Fish!  Although I know it was not maggots all over it, it looked to be, so I had rice and vegetarian spring rolls!  After traveling about on the waterways, Gary also elected to not have anything from freshwater, and had squid!

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We went on a bit of a tuk tuk ride on an island as well, weaving in and out of the village, and pony drawn wagons.  It was nice to feel the  breeze, as the day was heating up, and with the humidity, and no wind – it was getting hot. We went for a bit of canoe ride up a canal as well.  It was very quiet and relaxing – until a returning canoe came roaring around a corner using an engine!  Obviously, by the height of the tires on the wall, I expect the water is much higher during the rainy season.  The Candy factory was pretty impressive too…and what tedious work. Again, with machines doing most of the work in the modernized countries, here they do it all by hand, right down to fueling the fire with wood to cook the candy.  The candies are cut into bite size pieces and then wrapped by hand once in a rice paper, and then in a plastic colored paper. It was appreciated as all four flavors were very scrumptious. The rice paper doesn’t come off very easily, but its rice paper…eat it!

The flora and fauna on these islands were just spectacular.  Birds were everywhere, either in cages, or wild, and they seem to sing out to each other continually. From what we saw it is a much more relaxed lifestyle here than in the metropolitan city of Saigon.

Back onto the bus, we head back into Saigon and run into a torrential down pour, and thankfully it didn’t occur while we were on the river, or in the villages of Mekong Delta. You could  see a half km in the rain.  It was brutal.  A couple of blocks were totally flooding, but the cars/bikes/scooters keep going!   Once back in Saigon, things were wet, but the rain had quit. We went for a walk in the park, and then headed back to the hotel.

The next morning, after my newly favorite breakfast which includes noodles,  we board a bus and head out for the Cambodia boarder. Although we have to walk across the boarder, they said it would be easy!

 

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The Cu Chi Tunnels are approximately 50 Km away from Saigon, and travel time, taking traffic into consideration is about one and a half hours. The scenery is great, and the highways/roads are in good shape, so as long as you have air conditioning, its a wonderful trip, well worth the time.  Again, this tour seems to be a little one sided about the ruthless Americans, however they fought back with what they had, and seemed to take great pride in the ingenuity of their people. The tunnels were originally started in the 1940’s during the war with the French. However, as the Americans moved in quickly during the 1960’s they expanded the tunnels to be used as not only shelters, but as army command posts, hospitals, kitchens, sleeping etc. The tunnels are tens of thousands miles long strung out between Saigon and the Cambodian boarder.  Life in the tunnels was miserable, sharing the tunnels with poisonous insects, snakes, rats and bats. Disease was rapid to spread with malaria being a major challenge.   During heavy bombing missions the Viet Cong would stay in the tunnels for extended periods of time.  They would only leave the tunnels under the darkness of night, to gather food and supplies and for active battles, then would  disappear beneath the jungle floor to evade the enemy, disappearing without any trace. Once the Americans discovered the tunnels they tried countless ways to destroy them, and their occupants, to no avail. The VC used  numerous types of traps in, and out of the tunnels.  Many of the traps were not designed to kill, but to injure or maim the soldiers.  I can only imagine finding a comrades in such traps would only infuriate the young soldiers, and add to the hate and animosity they felt towards the  VC  as the war continued.

Walking through the area where the tunnels are, you saw signs of the war, the termite hills which were easy to dig through, and often were places for trap doors into the tunnels and great places to have smoke dispersed into the jungle  from the underground kitchens. There are many articles regarding the making, and the history of the tunnels on the web.  The Americans, and Australians were many months discovering the tunnels, and only then it was by chance.  As the story goes, an  Australian Sargent sat down, and thought he had been stung by a scorpion, only to find he sat on the edge of a  trap at the entrance to a tunnel!

It was a great experience to go through the tunnel, although not recommended for anyone that might be even a little claustrophobic!   Unfortunately Gary’s old knee just wouldn’t let him do the whole length, but he did about 1/4 of the way.   I was looking for an excuse as well, and almost had regrets after going past each exit. There are  tunnels that appear to go off to the left and right as well.  The main tunnel does have lights, but they are extremely dim, and if they are around a corner or someone leaned up against one, you found yourself in total darkness!  I know the photo shows it looking relatively big, and bright (flash on camera of course) however as you move through the tunnel it does get a  tighter, and past the second to last exit, it got to the point where I was on bent hands and knees and barely fit, then found there was about a meter drop, and getting maneuvered to ascend  was impossible as I couldn’t get my feet around to the front of me to get down, so slithered down on my belly, hands first and continued to the end!  Yup….even though it was the tunnel made for big westerners, it was tough, and the size is  relevant to the VC using the original tunnels!   Yes the VC were tough, they were tricky and they were fighting for their lives, and duped the enemy in more ways than one with these tunnels. I found a very interesting article written by Tibor Krausz  in the  Washington Post of his visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels,  gives a great description here.

On our return to Ho Chi Minh, we had time to go visit the Reunification Palace/ Presidential Palace. There were three presidents that served in this building between 1966 and 1975, with the likes of Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and other persons of importance visited during the short lived history of South Vietnam. It had extensive damage done to it during he war, and the building is basically used as a tourist attraction now.   I have included some old photos from this website.     It shows the similarities with the then, when the North Vietnamese troops seize the presidential palace in Saigon April 30, 1985 – ending the war, and now, 2017.

We went down into the palace bunkers and saw the war rooms, complete with maps on the wall, radio rooms, presidential residence etc.  The architecture was stunning everywhere in he building, it was so grand. The wood work throughout was just stunning and all the carpets, colors and décor was straight out of the 70’s, a vintage decorators dream! There was always a Hue helicopter sitting waiting for the president, the heliport had been repaired several times due to bombings.   The Palace was complete with its own theater as well, and the projector was definitely from that era.  The kitchen was huge, as were the pots, pans and woks!   On the very  top of the building there was a room which the first president had designed as a “thinking” room, where he could meditate, however, another President moved in, thought it would be used better for entertaining.  Had the floor redone in hardwood, a bar, a piano and lounging seats added.  After going  up and down all those stairs, getting lost a couple times we were hot and tired, we decided to have a beer break!

Its been a long, hot day. It was time to head back to the hotel and meet up with the rest of the group to have a  s’long dinner for two of our travel partners leaving the tour.  Victor was heading back to Toronto, and Daniel was going back home to Ireland. It was also a Welcome dinner for Dirk,  joining us from Germany, and Frederica from Italy (living in London).  Once again our CEO Minea’s choice of a restaurant was spectacular, yet again with the stairs to the dining floor I wasn’t sure!

Mekong Delta in the morning…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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(I’ll likely refer to it again, but I’ve written a great deal and have not complimented yet who was responsible for this wonderful experience we’ve been having.  Hats off to G-Adventures  for not only making arrangements for our travel guide (CEO) Minea but also, local guides in each of the places we visited. Our CEO went out of her way to make our trip very memorable.  Impressed beyond words with the whole experience).

February 24/ day 8 of our tour, we flew from Da Nang to Saigon. The City of Saigon  officially had its name changed to Ho Chi Minh City in 1975, and was named the capital at that time, taking that honor away from Hanoi.   It was named after the North Vietnamese Leader, and most citizens still refer to the city as Saigon. We flew via  Thai Air…and although it was only an hour long flight, it was clean, and great service . As we arrived  relatively early in the day, we checked into our room at the Hong Hac Botique hotel, freshened up and met the group in the lobby for 15 minute walk to the War Remnants Museum.  We only had about an 1.5 hours at the museum before we would meet up with our Cyclos  and as it turned out, it was not enough time to see all that we wanted.  We made tentative plans to return  to see the rest.  The Museum is definitely worth seeing.  This is one of the most popular museums in Vietnam, with well over 1/2 a million people visiting each year.  The yard is filled with military equipment, tanks, planes, and unexploded bombs, which have been defused and or charges removed.   There are several buildings within the walled compound that house all the exhibits.  One has to take much with a grain of salt, as it is very one sided, and the authenticity of some photos (and there are thousands) have been questioned.  There are hundreds of Anti-American propaganda posters and newspaper clippings, and many more articles regarding protests against the Vietnam War from around the world. There was a great deal of reading to be done. Each and every photo had a caption, some long, some short.  One photo, and caption we read were the exact words Gary  had heard back in the late 70’s.  We were in the Yukon at the time, and a pilot had come up to do a job, and was talking about some of the things he saw while in Vietnam.  It was impossible to believe at the time.  But there was a photo, and a caption telling the exact same story Gary had heard. Possibly the reason we were not able to see the whole Museum , there was just so much to take in.  One building called the Tiger Cage was a replica of the prison where the South Vietnamese kept political prisoners. The cells were dark, they were small, and the prisoners were shackled to cement beds. They were tortured, dismembered, beaten and at times kept in cages lined with barbed wire.  It was very gruesome, and again a vivid reminder that war is devastating and that the aftermath follows us for centuries. As I said earlier, what we saw was very one sided, and unfortunately as close as it was to our hotel, we didn’t get back to see the 3rd floor.  Although I feel I saw enough to last a life time, I think it would have been important to see the “American” floor, and how it was portrayed.  It is a very somber place to go, and one can not help but think about the photos and the exhibits in the days to come.  We did not take many photos here, and none of any photographs that are displayed, however, there are literally thousands posted on the web.

As scheduled, we met our CEO  at the gate to the museum and she escorted us across the street where we met up with our Cyclos.   I wasn’t sure what a Cyclo tour was, but got a quick education. You ride in front of the bike, on a nice comfy seat, while the driver peddles you around the city.  Again, the traffic was my main concern, and it was getting to be late afternoon, so the traffic was a bit chaotic, but…out we went to see the sights.  All the vehicles seem to be cautious when traveling close to the Cyclo’s, and make way for them to maneuver through the busy streets, although I did seem to get a guy that liked to be in he lead weaving unnecessarily though the mass of vehicles and people! Each time we went passed a landmark, he would tap me on the shoulder, explain what the significance of the landmark was.  I would acknowledge him, but that wasn’t good enough! He would slow down, and keep pointing, and explaining until I took my camera out and snapped a picture, then he would race up to the beginning of the line again!  I learned quick to just keep my camera out, and snap a picture when he started talking to me!  Made things much smoother!

Saigon is a very large city with over 8.4 million people. It continues to grow each year with new highways, beautiful buildings, sky scrappers, parks  and of course people.  But in the midst of it all,  there are reminders of the wars, the suffering and how it effected the people of not only this city and country; but the world.  Photographed by Hubert van Es,  the black and white photo below was in newspapers around the world showing the helicopter evacuation of 22 Gia Long Street April 29th , 1975.  The color photograph, a little different angle, but of the same building Photographed by Gary on February 24, 2017. 

One other stop we made at the Cyclo tour was the Post office.  It looks as though it were a train station, or something much “larger” than a post office, but what a spectacular building to have always been just a post office.   A Catholic church was also reason for my driver to prompt me for yet another photo as well as the Opera House.  A woman on the same tour ahead of us went to the Opera, and explained it was not as we see operas, but more or like a cirque du solei performance!  Maybe next time we’ll partake in that as an activity outside the included ones.

The next stop on the Cyclo tour  was at the corner of Cach Mang Thang Tam Blvd & Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street in central Saigon. There a beautiful monument sits surrounded by greenery, flowers and lights. It is here to honor the Monk, Thich Quang Duc who, on June 11th, 1963 burned himself to death at this intersection. For those who remember the 60’s, this is just one more reminder of sacrifices that were made in order to make a change in a troubled country. It was his way to  protest  the South Vietnamese Diem regime’s discriminating against the Buddhist Religion. The car that took the monk to that intersection, is now in Hanoi, and we did view it there.  Malcolm Brown, the photographer that captured this iconic event on film did an interview with the Times.  You can see this interview  here .

The Cyclo tour was just about over for the evening.   This city loves their lights, and as dusk approached the streets are light up with brilliant lights of all shapes and sizes, some moving, some stationary, but all spectacular, unfortunately my camera would not focus well at night.  Still very busy on the streets, which of course added to the light shows.

We had a few blocks to go before saying good bye to the cyclo drivers, and head into dinner at the Street Food Market. Here we likely would not have gone on our own, but with our CEO, we found another wonderful place to eat.  Was good ’till the last drop!

Cu Chi Tunnels tomorrow – I think I can do it!

 

 

 

 

 

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Hoi An

Every day is pretty exciting on this trip, and although memorable, it is hard to establish what we did where, so I have to refer to the order of photos, and our tour itinerary to complete the blog! The weather has been absolutely wonderful since we arrived, and day 5 was no exception as we boarded our private, air conditioned bus for the trip to Hoi An. The route took us up and over Hai Van Pass “Ocean Cloud Pass”. It was so named for the mist that rises up off the Sea. We didn’t see any mist this day, it was way too warm, and sunny blue skies, but we did have   beautiful opportunities to view the sea traveling towards the top and then when we stopped at the summit (496 M/1627 Ft)  for a “happy room” break. This was a war station, and still had bunkers surrounding the hill side, and we had time to do a little exploring.

We arrived in Hoi An early enough to freshen up at the hotel before venturing out for a bicycle ride, this time we had to use our own power. It’s very flat in this city, so it was easy to cruise around – after we got off the main roads full of motorcycles, cars, trucks, and tuk tuks.  Soon we were out riding among the  rice fields, passing the odd water buffalo and people working the fields. We did stop at a village that the government is in the process of modernizing having just recently installed automatic sprinkler systems recently. We had an elderly couple from the village show us the technique used to water the gardens before modern technology arrived.  By the troubles some were having, it isn’t as easy to do as it looks!  . We were also treated to some rice, and snake wine…pretty dark, and dirty looking in the building they made it in, but heck, the alcohol content was so high in both wines I don’t expect anything would survive!

Our next stop was at a palm farm, where we had a bit of a rest in the shade, a cold bottle of water and of course fresh fruit. With that done, we were then offered a ride in the traditional  round boats. The water was extremely dirty, and was glad  our paddler knew his way a-round his boat!
Of course we had a comedian for our paddler, and he would lure another boat into the palms, then distract them, then he would proceed to tie their boat to a palm, and quickly challenge them to a race. Too much fun. Lots of the other guys on the tour were helping to paddle, and our guy finally gave Gus a paddle to use, then immediately splashed one of our girls in the other boat, and proceeded to point to Gus when she turned around!  She was already wise to him, and I don’t think appreciated getting splashed with the dirty water, although took it all in good stride!  After our little boat ride we biked to the river, where we met up with a boat, loaded the bikes onto the back, and headed back down the river to town. What a great day of culture and fun in this  vibrant city.

Before the end of the day we did go into a tailors, and I was measured for a dress,  and Gary a shirt – what the heck…price was right, and after one alteration, it was ready the following day. Our second day in Hoi An was just as great. We had a great deal of time on our own, and used that time to relax and enjoy the old city and water way.  We did go to Oodles of Noodles for lunch one day.  It is run by Planeterra Foundation partners, STREETS International.  The class, developed exclusively for G Adventures help former street youths learn the basics  in tourism, and allows them to practice  English, and increase the skills they will need in the tourism industry. We had a lot of fun there, and were able to make our own appetizer, which was basically a big round noodle, that we then pulled apart and ate with rice cakes/crackers!  So good. I will have to find some recipes when we arrive home.

The last day in Hoi An we elected to go tour My Son Sanctuary. Yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Again, just driving to the Sanctuary was a tour in itself, seeing the  countryside that we would not normally get to see if we had stayed in the city.  My Son Sanctuary dates from the 4th to the 13th centuries and is located in  central Viet Nam, it is of the Hindu religion of India and is the largest in Indochina. It sits within a basin, surrounded  by mountains which made it less vulnerable while under attack.  It took over 10 centuries to complete. There are over 70 temples and tombs located in this 2.5 mile wide basin.  It was the place for religious ceremonies for the kings of the ruling dynasties.  During the wars, the complex was damaged extensively, However there is ongoing work being done to restore, and to save all the structures from encroaching forests, which is very thick,  and water run off which swells during the rainy season. They are still actively sweeping the area for land mines, although paths have been created for tourists to walk around the area safely.

We found ourselves a nice little pub/restaurant overlooking the Thu Bon River for our last evening in Hoi An.  Once again, we saw people sitting on the second story balcony, so went in search of stairs, and once up there, it was beautiful…its just getting to these places that look sketchy to westerners!  We sat and watched the sun set, and watched as people placed lit lanterns into the river to let them float away.  We struck up a conversation with  a couple from the U.S.A. and got many tips for the remainder of our trip. Was great views and conversation.

Tomorrow…bus to DaNang Airport, and a 1 hour flight to  Siagon!  (Ho Chi Minh City)

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Overnight Train & Hue

Photo a little blurry, but shows I was not the only one looking forward to this wonderful train trip to Hue!

Of course with all our luggage in the berth with us, it was a little claustrophobic.  I picked the lower bunk before we left Canada! With bangs. rattles and a few good shakes, we started  our 11 hour trek south to Hue. It was maybe 2 minutes after getting into the berth that I spotted the first cockroach!  Only spotted 3 the entire trip, although I’m sure there were more.  The German and Irish Girls who were also in our group, and occupied the berth next door seemed to get many more creepy crawlies than we did.   Not sure if it had anything to do with the trail of crumbs we put outside our berth to theirs, but many squeals and scrambling went on for a several hours – personally I think they got some bad bottles of wine. So, first thing our CEO did was turn off the load speaker in the berth, we couldn’t understand them anyways, and no reason to wake every time we pulled into a station.  Then we cracked a beer for a night cap. For anyone that knows me, even a little, its hard to believe that I only had one beer!   I made a trip to the facilities and decided I didn’t ever want to go back, so refrained from drinking any more anything!   I couldn’t believe the people that walked past our berth in bare feet heading for the bathroom – I washed my flip flops shortly after arriving in Hue. Putting it all into perspective, it was not a bad trip at all.  Was able to get several hours of sleep, which is not what I anticipated at all, and it was all part of the adventure. 

We thought Hanoi was a busy place, but I think Hue takes the cake.  There is so much to learn about this country, and on every corner you learn a little more.  First thing we did after checking in to our hotel and cleaning up, which was fantastic after our wonderful train ride, which was a short orientation of the city and visited the Tien Mu Pagoda, which at 7 stories high, is one of the tallest in Vietnam, the Imperial Citadel, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site which was significantly damaged during the Vietnam war. and a Royal Tomb.  The building details are impossible to capture, unless of course you are an advanced photographer, which obviously, we are not.

Then it was on to the motorbikes for a tour!  Having watched them navigate the busy streets in Hanoi, it was a little intimidating.  A surprise awaited us,  it’s one of the best ways to travel about and see the country side. We took, what I thought was back alleys, but they are just  narrow roads.  Bicycles, pedestrians, people selling the wares all use them, and seem to know what they are doing while navigating through them. We went past shops and shops of incense makers. The smell on the streets were overwhelming. We made a stop to watch a demonstration on how they make the incense sticks, primitive,  yet so simple. They burn them all over Vietnam day in and day out, for different reasons, but the mixed smells are always in the air.  Also, in the same shop they made the traditional Vietnamese hats, non-la (leaf hat)  So much work.

Shortly after those demonstrations we left the paved roads for a little dirt path through the trees.  I was  surprised how well the bikes navigated the worn, and packed trails which took us to Bunker Hill.  This area was just recently cleared of land mines allowing tourists and locals alike to enjoy the beauty this hill has to offer. Such a beautiful, tranquil place, with a view of the Perfume River below which was simply gorgeous.  It was hard to stand there,  and imagine the chaos that was experienced by so many young soldiers only 40 some years ago. Needless to say, we stayed on the well treaded paths, and didn’t wander around too much, just in case.

Our lunch break was spent at a convent where the  Nuns prepared a wonderful vegetarian lunch for us all. I would liked to have toured the facility, such a fascinating old building, but it is their home, so I understand. We were not able to speak to anybody there, so I wasn’t happy about not thanking someone for the great meal, and of course the use of their facilities – which were of course Asian style, not sure I’m going to be able to master them!   One other stop we made was at a rice farm where an elder woman showed the traditional methods of separating rice from the husks and different stages between brown and white rice.  She also ground the rice to demonstrate how they make the flour, which of course makes wonderful rice noodles!  For one of her demonstrations she needed a “volunteer”, thankfully it wasn’t me, as she showed us how she would harness a water buffalo, and then yell and use a stick to get him moving to plow  fields!  I couldn’t have imagined that she could yell so loudly. Hats off to Blair who was a great volunteer! 🙂

Another stop on this tour was to  Ho Quyen.  Built in 1830, this was an arena where fights between tigers and elephants were arranged as entertainment for the Emperor, his family and the commoners.  This was a no win situation for the tigers as they were drugged  so they could be declawed, and defanged  prior to the fight, sometimes they were actually tethered.   If an elephant could not kill the tiger alone, they would send in another elephant to assist.  The tiger is a symbol of evil, while the elephant is a symbol of strength, the Elephant must always win!

Had such wonderful company, and beautiful scenery throughout the day.  The weather was just gorgeous and a driver that knew what he was doing made for a perfect day in Hue! Excited to see what else this country has to offer us as we move on to Hoi An for Day 5.

 

 

 

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Halong Bay

On the 18th. We  boarded our bus in the morning for a 4 hour ride to Halong Bay. Roads were great, and lots beautiful countryside to see along the way. We made a short stop for a tour of a Pearl Farm.  So many long drawn out hours go into preparing the oysters to produce such beautiful pieces, so teadeus.   Halong Bay means “Descending Dragon”. Legends say that when Vietnam was being invaded a dragon came down from the sky and spit pearls from her mouth, creating all the islands. The ships would crash into the limestone islands and break apart. It is now a UNESCO World heritage site. On our arrival at the pier we boarded a tender, and headed out to our traditional junk boat for the rest of the day and night. We were pleasantly surprised with our accommodations this time.  Nice room, with basically a wall of windows which made up for no windows in the first hotel.

Halong bay consists of approximately 1600 islands, all rock, with lush vegetation topping each one.  Over 989 Islands have been given names, so still a few more to go. Once we got out into the bay, orientated and settled we went kayaking. Surprisingly we were able to get into the same kayak without tipping it…although the weather was very warm, and the water seemed nice, I was happy we managed to load ourselves  somewhat gracefully. There was an opening in a rock wall that we all kayaked through and were greeted on the other side by hoards of monkeys scattering about on the shore and in trees catching fruit that tourists were throwing to them.  As far as our guide knows, it’s the only island that is inhabited by monkeys. With as many kayaks that were in the bay, I was surprised with how quiet and peaceful it was paddling, with the exception of the  birds chipping and the occasional squeal from a monkey!  I was happy to lay back and let Gus do the paddling as I took photos in the sun.  Back through the hole in the wall, and out into open waters to cross over to another island, which also had a path through to the other side.  It was a very interesting trip across the waters, but alas, it was time to head back to our boat, and head over to Titop Island.

Titop Island was named by Ho Chi Minh for a Russian Astronaut who first visited the island in 1962.  Once at the dock we had a climb of 472 (I think it was 492) steps to the top of the island. Once there,  we were rewarded with a spectacular view of the bay, and the setting sun, while we got our breath back from the climb. The trail was well made, with steps of stone, hand rails etc. so it was not a difficult climb, but it was a climb, and of course coming back down can be even harder.

There is a beautiful beach on the island as well, and some of the group had decided to have a quick swim before returning to the boat.  The beach was beautiful, all white sand dropping off into the deep blue of the bay.  Those that swam said it was beautiful, and very refreshing.  We elected to not take a dip in the salty waters of Halong Bay.  On our return to the boat, we  sat down to a spectacular dinner. Not only was the fresh seafood dinner prepared to perfection, but it was presented to us perfectly as well.

It was a beautiful evening, and we all went on deck to watch the beautiful sunset, and enjoy a cocktail and conversations before turning in for the night.

The next morning we woke and went on deck to view the beautiful sunrise. Its at that moment that I thought, life doesn’t get much better, and was so thankful for the opportunity to share in another countries culture and beauty.  Back downstairs for breakfast to give us the strength to go caving, the chefs did not disappoint.   We traveled a short distant before embarking on another island that housed the Thien Cung Caves.  Again it was a hike up to the mouth of the cave, but once again the beauty took over as soon as one entered into the cave.  The lights made the  stalactites and stalagmites stand out and glow like magic. For the most part these caves are not living.  They do see many tourists, and there were ash trays strewn about in the cave.  I didn’t see anyone smoking, but thought it strange that they would allow such a thing, especially after being in the Kartchner Caverns near Tucson Az where they spritzed water on you before entering so lint would not fall off your cloths once in the cave. In any case, was so happy to have seen these beautiful caves.  M  There are a large number of lakes that have formed on these limestone islands as well, although we didn’t see any of them.  It is said that sink holes were the cause, meaning, there were likely many more caves on these islands, that have collapsed, created freshwater lakes

Back on the boat, we headed back into port, to jump on our bus and start our 4 hour journey back to Hanoi.  We didn’t have any stops along the way, and arrived back in time to enjoy a street dinner tour in which our local guide took us through the dimly lit  alleyways of the old quarter in Hanoi.  What wonderful  food it was. We did not eat very much at any one place, but stopped at so many, and had so much to try we were all very full in the end.  Although, we did have room to appreciate a cold beer during our last stop of the evening.  We would never have gone down those streets/alleys on our own, far less attempted to order, or eat the food they cook on the street side.  But it was so delicious, and so interesting to watch them prepare the food for us, food that we have grown to enjoy, and will seek out in other communities in the future.

We only had a short wait back at the hotel before leaving to catch an overnight train to Hue (pronounced  Whey).  This was part of the trip I was not looking forward to. In fact I was trying to think of any way to avoid the train!  But alas, I couldn’t think of a way to escape the evening that I was convinced would be a long night of fending off flying bugs, and cockroaches. So I put my big girl panties on, made sure the left over beer were in the suitcases,  and headed for the train station with the rest of them.

 

 

 

 

 

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Second time around  with a post!

Trip started out with Kendal delivering us to the GP airport  and a 20 minute delay for our flight!   Good old Air Canada!  Thankfully that was not the norm for the rest of the trip. Stayed at  The Clique Hotel in Calgary, highly  recommend for an over nighter. Very modern, classy and most importantly, clean.  It is a little remote and out of the way for the city – but great for a sleep over, with a free shuttle to and from the airport, we booked there for our return trip.  During our short wait in Vancouver I did go up to the ANA counter and requested a seat change as we were in the centre row, middle and isle seat .  Wasn’t a problem , moved to an emerg exit- with ample leg room  as we were right by the galley,  with no wall or seats in front of us. The down side was no storage on the floor – but I would take the leg room, and ease of getting up and down without disturbing people ( or being disturbed) again in a heartbeat!  Shortly after take off the crew started playing with the windows and lights!   The windows all faded out to very dark purple and the cabin lights went from a bright white , to soft and finally to a purple hue.  Then as we approached Tokyo it went in reverse, and before we knew it the sun was shining in the window! I suppose it is to stimulate your body into thinking you went through the night as you fly across the date line. The flight and service on the plane was nothing less than perfect. Meals served with REAL utensils, and glassware!  I opted for the North American meal, hot hamburger while Gary went with the Japanese cuisine, salmon and rice.  Had a few beers, and watched a couple movies and had a nap!  The flight of 9.5 – 10 hours was completed in just under nine!  Bonus!  So we opted to spend our 14 hour layover at the Royal park transit hotel!   It is a small room with everything you need, from toothbrushes, tv and PJ’s to a totally automated toilet – which I was very  “careful” around!  I could not believe how quiet it was with all the traffic – 492000 cabs and buses just outside our window , and jets all night long  we  could not hear a thing, TOTAL silence! Aside from twin beds – it was perfect.  As the hotel is situated in the secure area of the airport, the next morning it was a relaxing stroll to our gate to board our flight to Hanoi.  But not before opening the blinds to snap a photo of Mount Fugi.

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Unfortunately we were not able to sit together on this flight, we attempted to change seats but the flight was full, so we both ended up in the middle seat in the middle isle – in the last two rows of the plane!  It was a long six hour flight, and the most turbulent.  A driver picked us up at the airport, bringing us into the Old Quarter which is said to have a history of 1000 years old – or hotel being part of that history!   The hotel is old, but quaint. The whole building is maybe 10 – 12 feet wide.  With that said, there are 3 elevators, going to the 8 floor, those on the 9 and 10th floor have to continue  on the stairs! When you get out of the elevators there are only 2 rooms, one to the right and one to the left!    I was happy to be on the 8th floor and at the back of the building for the quietness of it, but the lack of Windows was not pleasent. One  looks out onto a brick wall, and the other window is about 7 feet up the wall and is about 6 inches by  24 inches.  Mines advised this may be one of the best accommodations on the trip, yikes the , two single beds, but we’ll survive and headed out to explore.

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We wandered around for a few hours before settling in at a second story bar over looking the busy streets.  Navigating these streets is a challenge. And I say “streets” because for the most part you can not walk on the sidewalks as they have become, or maybe always were, a place to park the millions of scooters/motorbikes,  So you walk on the street hoping they can all drive better than I could, and you do not make sudden moves left or right and you don’t come to a sudden stop.  There  doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason as to how they drive,  it reminds me of synchronized skating,  intersecting each other almost like an art.

 

 

We arrived back at our hotel and sat down for a couple beer and were soon joined by several other people that were also on a G-Adventure tour.  Got some awesome advice for touring this old quarter the next day, then  headed upstairs for an early bed time!  We were both feeling pretty exhausted.   The next morning, downstairs and opted for a traditional Vietnamese breakfast!  I love noodles! First stop of the day was the Hoa Lo Prison. Built by the French in 1896, most of it was demolished in 1990 to make room for a hotel, and office complex.  They did save a wing of the prison which now depicts the life that was behind these walls. American senator, John McCain spent 6 years there. Although the Americans were treated well, the Vietnamese were not.


Some very graphic senes throughout the prison. We left the prison and headed towards Hoan Kiem Lake.  Ngoc Son Temple, which is really a small pagoda that sits on a tiny island in the middle of the lake

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Such a beautiful, and peaceful park.  We strolled around the lake before heading back into the old quarter  and wandering more streets.  All the streets in the old quarter begins with ” Hang”, which  means  merchandise.  The second word on the street name refers to what is sold on the street.  As you make your way down “Hang Chi”  street, as an example, you notice it is dedicated souly to threads, both sides and for several blocks!  Very interesting concept, dating back hundreds of years.   It was soon time to head back to our Hotel to meet with our G-Adventure tour guide, and our travel companions for the next couple of weeks, although some are not on the complete tour.  After the meeting we ventured back out for a couple of hours.  Although still crazy busy with bikes and cars , a couple streets were pedestrian only as they have festivals every Friday,Saturday, and Sunday night , traditional dancing and music and many food stalls moved out into the streets to add to the chaos.  It was great fun, but alas an early rise for the next leg of our trip…Hang Long Bay, and our promised hiking, kayaking and caving ending our day with a night on a traditional Junk boat!

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