ATM’s in South East Asia

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In Thailand, Laos, Cambodia & Vietnam ATM’s like to charge you a withdrawal fee for you using their services. Not only is this annoying but on a long trip this starts to add up pretty quickly.

We are travelling with a Caxton FX card which is a pre-loaded VISA card. We are charged a 2.75% withdrawal fee each time we use it, this though is cheaper than our bank, especially on smaller withdrawals where our bank levies a minimum fee. The Caxton card also seemed to be one of the better cards for rates of exchange when we looked into it before our trip. It also stops those frustrating situations where your bank blocks your card for “suspicious transactions in Vietnam,” even though you have already told them you are in Vietnam and will be using your card, doh! Our liability on the card only goes as far as what is loaded on it, so if it is stolen or eaten by a cash machine it isn’t too devastating. We also have a Nationwide credit card which offers a very good exchange rate and no fees, anywhere that will take the credit card for point of sale transactions we use it as a first choice. For cash withdrawals though the fees are hefty so we never use it for that.

So when we do have to take out cash we are mindful of the additional fees the ATM’s charge and trying to keep these down. This is what we have discovered in each country:

Thailand

There is no avoiding ATM fees it seems in Thailand. But, some ATM’s have higher fees than others. We found that Bangkok Bank was the best deal charging 150 Baht (c. £3) per withdrawal compared to a lot of other companies which were charging 180 Baht. This is a flat fee per transaction so we would do a maximum withdrawal each time (our card lets us take out £300 per day) even though usually we don’t like to carry so much cash on us. Annoyingly places charged anything from 3-5% for using a credit card so that wasn’t always available to use as often as we would have liked. We had to work it out each time, factoring in the 150 Baht withdrawal fee for cash, to work out if it was better to use cash or credit card in a given situation.

Laos

Again, there seemed to be no avoiding ATM fees in Laos. Like Thailand it was a per transaction fee which was 20,000 Kip or c. £1.60. However, unlike Thailand, the ATM’s restricted what you could take out per withdrawal to 1,000,000 Kip or c. £80 so it was working out way more costly than Thailand. We didn’t find any work arounds or better deals here. We did find that an ANZ cash machine lets you take out 2,000,000 Kip in one go, but it charges you 40,000 for the privilege. Again a lot of places charged for credit cards so we had to weigh up each time which was cheaper, cash or credit card depending on what the percentage levied was.

Cambodia

At last, a country where we found free withdrawals! We found that BIDC let us take money out with no charge. We also discovered Canadia bank had no fees, but had an explicit message that this was just for European issued VISA cards. All other ATM’s we tried levied a withdrawal fee. Again, some places charged for using the credit card so it was a case of weighing it up versus the Caxton charge to work out the best deal for us in each situation.

Vietnam

Hurray, another country with some free ATM’s! BIDV lets us withdraw money with no fee as does ACB, although this is like Canadia in Cambodia, it says it is only for European issued VISA cards. All other ATM’s we have tried levy a withdrawal fee. Credit card charges seem to occur less frequently here, but we have had the occasional place with a charge and this tends to be 3%, so obviously Caxton wins in those scenarios.

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Canyoning (on Friday 13th!)

Dalat: Canyoning teamWhen we arrived at our hostel in Dalat the canyoning poster caught our eye and we decided to sign up for it on the following Friday. The girl who works at the hostel confirmed our booking, “two for canyoning, this Friday, that’s the 13th.” Good job I’m not superstitious!

In my past life pre-travelling I worked in insurance, I had made sure we had good travel insurance for our trip and had gone as far as to bump up our activity cover to make sure we were covered for anything we were likely to do whilst away. As a last-minute thought the night before canyoning I double checked our policy. It didn’t cover canyoning. Rude words came into my head at my stupidity of not checking the policy before booking the canyoning, I really should have known better than to make such a mistake. It was a bit late now to do anything about it, so I told Alan to be extra careful and that we weren’t to do anything the next day that we weren’t comfortable with. I comforted myself with the fact of all the people we had met who had already been, not one had been injured…

Our first challenge of the day was a water slide. Backwards. Down a waterfall. This was a slightly nerve-racking introduction to the day! It actually wasn’t as scary as it looked once I had done it, but I did have a refreshing drink of river water after not anticipating the moment of dunking properly, yummy!

Dalat: Canyoning Dalat: Canyoning

Next up was a dry abseil. This didn’t faze me too much as I have done a few charity abseils in London before so it was a nice warm up for the rest of the day.

Dalat: Canyoning

Then it was time for another water slide, this time feet first. I went first in the group and when I came up at the bottom I was caught in a current which made it hard to get to the side. Fortunately I had a life jacket and I am a strong swimmer so I made it to a vine quite easily at the edge where I could work my way to the exit point. Whilst doing all this I rescued a Japanese girl from the group before, who clearly couldn’t swim and was stuck in the current and had been abandoned by her tour leader. Poor thing seemed quite terrified.

Dalat: Canyoning Dalat: Canyoning

After this things got a bit more extreme. It was time to abseil down a waterfall. Our instructions were to go down slowly, if we fell we were to flip ourselves over so our backs were facing the cliff until the mid way point. There it would be possible to stand and then we could abseil again. Then, with 4 metres still to go to the bottom, we were to let go off the rope and push-off from the cliff with our legs and fall the last 4 metres into the water. Eek! Alan went before me, he was amazing at this and didn’t fall at all. He set the bar quite high for me to live up to! Come my turn I also didn’t fall and when they shouted jump I just did it knowing that pausing and thinking about it would make it worse.

Dalat: Canyoning Dalat: Canyoning Dalat: Canyoning Dalat: Canyoning Dalat: Canyoning Dalat: Canyoning

The penultimate stop was the scariest thing. Jumping off a cliff. At 11 metres you would have to run and jump to clear the ledge beneath. Way too scary for me, I like my adrenaline rushes to involve safety equipment! Alan was tempted but I reminded him of our lack of insurance and how I would rather he stayed in one piece. Call me a kill joy, but I like him the way he is intact. He did however do the jump at 7 metres which was a straight forward jump with no ground beneath to clear. I still didn’t do it, much too scary and I had spent too long thinking about it!

Last stop was the “washing machine” which was another waterfall abseil. The first three metres were dry and then the cliff disappears from beneath your feet as you enter the water and just lower yourself down on a rope. As the water hit me, the surprise made me pause, this set me spinning on the rope a bit like in a washing machine. In turn this spinning made me hurry up getting down the rope! At the bottom you are dumped into a rapid and bounced along a narrow channel, again much like being in a washing machine. I lost one of the shoes I had borrowed for the day in the process but managed to grab it back again. Then it was Alan’s turn. He didn’t seem to realise with all the splashing water that he wasn’t at the bottom when he let go of the rope with a metre or two to go. All of us watching gasped in horror, but he came up a moment or two later completely oblivious as to the temporary panic he had caused.

Dalat: Canyoning Dalat: Canyoning Dalat: Canyoning Dalat: Canyoning Dalat: Canyoning Dalat: Canyoning

All in all it was a great fun day out. The worst injury we sustained was by me (surprise, surprise) when I bashed my knee and elbow in the washing machine giving me some new lovely bruises to admire. But it was just bruising and I don’t really mind getting bruised if I’ve had fun doing it.

Our company seemed a lot better than some of the other ones we saw. The company with the Japanese girl, for example, had less guides and seemed less attentive of their guests. Canyoning in Dalat certainly wouldn’t match European safety standards, the instruction for abseiling was minimal and our life jackets when unadjusted were way too big and no one showed us how to adjust them. Once Alan had figured it out he was chief adjuster for anyone who needed it. As well as this, the space left between abseilers was minimal to pretty much non-existent. When another company set off someone too close above me and I didn’t feel comfortable I would hit the brakes until they were off the bottom. I think this might of annoyed our guides slightly, but I didn’t care, my safety was my priority. Having said all this, I was well within my comfort zone having abseiled before, I didn’t do anything that I wasn’t happy with. Just be aware that standards are different in Vietnam! This was a fun day out in Dalat and I do, on the whole, recommend it.

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Looking for fairies in Mui Ne

Mui Ne

Our next stop after Ho Chi Minh City was Mui Ne, here we wanted to see the Fairy Stream and sand dunes as well as have a bit of seaside relaxation time. We had booked ourselves into a seaside bungalow and I was looking forward to being greeted each morning with the view of the sea on our doorstep.

My first impression when we drove through on the bus was that we had somehow accidentally ended up back in Russia, only a warmer version, given all the Cyrillic script on the signs. Mui Ne evidentially is big with the Russian crowd!

We decided to go on a Jeep ride to the dunes and the Fairy Stream. First stop was the stream. Disappointingly where you first enter the stream near the coast to walk inland is also where it seems the locals like to dump their rubbish. In the hot weather it stank. I was also concerned about getting an infection in my leg which was still healing from the “splat” incident on Phou Quoc so we hurriedly made our way through the rancid smelling area. Thankfully the rubbish didn’t last for too long and soon we were strolling through the water working our way upstream.

On our way we saw a sign advertising ostrich riding. We gave it a miss. The ostrich had a mean look in his eyes which said “if you even think about riding on my back I will peck your eyes out” which didn’t seem too unreasonable of the ostrich. Crazy stuff!

Mui Ne: Ostrich riding

Further upstream we were treated to a wall of red sand lining the route. It was pretty spectacular looking.

Fairy Stream

Even further on the water became waist height. Not wanting to soak my manky leg for too long in water we opted for the overland route round the edge which involved scrambling over the edges of the compacted sand whilst skilfully dodging the children who “wanted to show you the way,” presumably for a fee. Although it sounds mean, we don’t agree with giving children money in such circumstances, it only encourages them not to go to school in favour of making a quick buck off of tourists.

Once at the end there was a waterfall, it was pretty unimpressive, but still it had been an adventure getting there. We retraced our steps back to the Jeep and carried onto the sand dunes.

Fairy Stream Waterfall

The first dunes were the “white” dunes. At this point I realised why they use a Jeep to take you here. It’s not because the Jeep is cool and fun to ride in as I had first suspected, but because the access road is very bumpy and rough. We bumped along the road laughing as we were tossed side to side in the back.

At the white dunes you could hire a sand buggy and terrorise other tourists drive around at high-speed over the dunes. We hadn’t brought enough money with us so we opted to explore on foot, chuckling at the very many sand buggy driving tourists who were getting stuck in the sand and then digging themselves in deeper by continuing to accelerate causing the back wheel to sink further.

The best bit of the white sand dunes was being able to act like a big kid and run down the dunes. It had to be done of course!

White Dunes White Dunes

Last stop was the red dunes. They didn’t look especially red when compared to the sand of the Fairy Stream earlier that day, but it was pleasant enough. We dodged the children selling rides down the dunes on thin bits of plastic sheeting and chose a spot for watching the sunset.

Red Dunes

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Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)

Post office HCMC

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is a city which was clearly influenced by the French when they ruled Vietnam for about a century. There are still lots of examples of lovely colonial architecture including a Cathedral and the post offices.

HCMC is the largest city in Vietnam with 8m residents. It however feels much larger with the main roads packed with a constant steam of mopeds flowing along each of the main roads.

Getting Around

The mopeds flow along main roads like a stream with each moped going different speeds, overtaking and undertaking each other with less than a foot between them. As a pedestrian you watch this dance with both amazement and dread; to even go short distances you will need to cross similar roads as there are few pedestrian crossing.

The old reliable green cross code can not be used here. The idea of waiting for a gap in the traffic is pointless; you have 3 choices: use a taxi, ride pillion on a moto-taxi, or cross like a local.

Traffic HCMC

The locals take the simple approach; wait for traffic to ease for a second; then walk slowly, confidently through the swarm of mopeds. The mopeds move slightly to either side of you leaving just a few inches as they pass.

As a foreigner, you know walking slowly at a constant speed works but it terrifies you. When you do reach a busy road you find yourself waiting minutes to cross. As you cross, your reaction to seeing the next moped approaching makes you want to pause and not take the next step further into the path of the moped. If you pause and don’t take the step your movement will be unpredictable. The moped passing behind you will have predicted your movement and will use the space you should have left. Telling yourself this you cross the road and are only partly relieved at reaching the other side as you know there will be another similar experience in a few minutes.

The moto-taxis are available on the corner of most roads in the city centre. These offer an exciting experience to be part of the stream of motorbikes flowing through the streets. From the back of the bike, with an experienced driver, you feel safer than on foot. The steam seems to flow more naturally from within it and the bikes go with the current which feels safer than fighting the current as a pedestrian.

The final method and most comfortable option is a taxi. There are frequent taxis on the roads and can be flagged down easily; these have meters but rates vary between taxi size and company; so you may want to wait a minute or two for your favourite company. Our favourite is a distinctive green cab which cost about 50p per km.

Activities

Our time here was spent going to museums, visiting the Cu Chi tunnels and enjoying relaxing in restaurants. In this heat you don’t want to do anything too strenuous.

The Cu Chi tunnels were used during the Vietnam war by the Viet Cong. They are an example of the 250km of tunnels used against the American (actually American and South Vietnam) forces. These tunnel networks were used to move weapons from Cambodia to resupply Viet Cong forces and used to launch hit and run attacks. The Viet Cong would use the tunnels to move unseen through the jungle; then attack unexpectedly from any direction and then disappear just as quickly.

The half day trip to the Cu Chi allows you enter and craw though the tunnels. The main tunnel for tourists has been widened but still required me to get down in my hands and knees. There was also an original hatch to the tunnels which had not been widened where you could drop down inside; I just fitted but once inside I would have struggled as they were deliberately small to prevent enemy solders following them into the maze of tunnels.

Cu Chi Tunnels Cu Chi Tunnels Cu Chi Tunnels

We also visited the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants museum which are well worth a visit. The Reunification Palace is a beautiful 1960s building. It was used by the American’s puppet government (South Vietnamese) until Saigon fell in 1975.

Reunification Palace

The War Remnants museum covers the history of the Vietnam War. Outside the building there are examples of tanks, helicopters, planes and guns used during the conflict. Inside the museum, the displays explain the war, war crimes during the war, the effect of use of chemical weapons (especially Agent Orange) and worldwide protests against the war.

War Remnants Museum

These displays are moving and well presented but have a very selective history; I remember only seeing one information board with information mentioning that their were 1m South Vietnam troops, the rest classifies all opposition as American.

The Agent Orange display is the most moving; Agent Orange was the defoliant used to strip trees of their leaves and kill forests. This was done to stop the devastating attacks from the Viet Cong forces from within the forested areas. However it is impossible justify its use when you look at the effects (and side effects) on the people and countryside. Agent orange kills not just trees but crops, animals and people. The herbicide will stays present in the soil for years and this exposure has led to wide-spread miscarriages, birth defects, cancers and make the area unusable for food production.

War Remnants Museum: Agent Orange War Remnants Museum: Agent Orange War Remnants Museum: Agent Orange

Eating and drinking

HCMC has loads of places to eat from lots of stalls on street corners to posh restaurants.

The stalls with tables on the street corners normally only specialise in one dish but they are experts at producing this one meal. These have so far turned out to be the best tasting option but are also cheap. Some also offer ‘Ca phe sua da’ a type of ice coffee made with condensed milk which is lovely. However hot teas and coffees here are quite poor here due to the wide-spread use of condensed milk instead of fresh milk! We chose a good area to stay in north of the backpacker district. Our accomodation was Ms Yang’s Homestay and she was fantastic taking us to her favourite food stalls and eateries nearby, it meant we got to try some excellent local food. We were really glad we stayed there.

One evening we went to the Chill sky bar. This was great sitting watching the sunset from a roof terrace on the 27th floor with a few glasses of wine. However be warned it’s not cheap; about £10 for 2 glasses of wine, which is about the same as one nights accommodation. It was worth it though for the views.

Chill Sky Bar Chill Sky Bar

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The Mekong Delta

Can Tho waterfront

The Mekong was starting to feel like an old friend having followed us since we crossed the Thai-Laos border. It was only right that we said goodbye to it properly by having a good explore in the delta region where it finally meets the sea.

Our first stop was in Rach Gia. From what we can tell most tourists get off the ferry from Phou Quoc and then get on a bus straight away back to Ho Chi Minh City. We decided to stay the night here just because. Although there was nothing really to see or do here we had a great time just chilling out at the pavement cafés drinking iced coffee and then a few beers later in the evening while watching the world go by. We also discovered here that Alan is a bit, how shall I put this, “special.” It seems his hairy arms are a bit of an oddity in this part of the world so he attracted a bit of attention and arm stroking from various admirers. I found this most amusing of course!

After Rach Gia we caught a bus to Can Tho. This was another well run transport experience with seats and seat numbers for each passengers. Vietnam was starting to suit me very much! In Can Tho we took a boat trip to see the floating market in Cai Rang which was much more interesting than I had expected. Essentially it was a large wholesale market for fruit and veg. Each boat sold a type of fruit or veg and erected a mast at the front where they tied sample produce up high so customers could see what wares they were selling and head towards them.

Cai Rang floating market Cai Rang floating market Cai Rang floating market

After the floating market we were taken to see a rice noodle factory and then a tropical fruit orchard, the highlight of course being getting to feast on the fruit afterwards!

Can Tho rice noodle factory Can Tho tropical fruit farm Can Tho tropical fruit farm

Next stop was Ben Tre. This was a much prettier place than Can Tho and far less touristy. On our first night we were sat in a beer garden just relaxing for the evening when a group of 6 men sat down at the neighbouring table. I could feel their eyes darting over at us and their bubbling curiosity as to why two random foreigners were in their drinking hole. They couldn’t contain their curiosity for very long and soon they were admiring Alan’s hairy arms, offering us beers and forcing food upon us (we were already stuffed full from dinner!). We couldn’t understand each other verbally but we got by with hand signals, smiles and laughter. It was a great experience which really made us feel very welcome in Ben Tre.

The next day we took a boat trip on the Mekong with Lan. We found him loitering near the Nambo pier and actually thought he was with Nambo to begin with. When we got on his boat though we realised he was a lone trader who had placed himself opportunistically next to where the tourist boats depart. However, I believe we had a far better experience with Lan than we would have done with a more mass market guide.

First he took us along the main river to a coconut candy workshop (which looked like it was set up for tourists rather than a genuine workshop producing stuff en-masse). We were shown very quickly the process of making the candy before being shown snake wine (we refused his offer to try it) and the bee hive making the honey for the honey tea we got to try.

Ben Tre: coconut candy workshop Ben Tre: Snake Wine Ben Tre: honey bees

Next stop was a quick walk on coconut island. This was very peaceful and shady in the hot Vietnamese sun. Lan told us how due to a recent Chinese boycott of Vietnamese products prices had plummeted and piles of coconuts were sitting there picked but with no customers to go to.

Coconut Island

Last up was the “small, small canal” that Lan kept mentioning. Each smaller canal we went down had me thinking we had arrived until we went under a tiny bridge where we had to hit the deck (literally) to fit underneath it and then Lan switched off the engine.

Ben Tre river trip

The twists and turns were so tight he had to manually propel us along the river using the water coconut stems to guide us.

Ben Tre river trip

Once we were safely out the other side of the “Small, small canal” Lan switched the engine back on. We puttered slowly forward. Just after we went under a bridge we started puttering backwards! Confused, I glanced over my shoulder to see what was happening. I couldn’t see Lan!! Fearing he had fallen in I alerted Alan, but on closer inspection we realised Lan was still with us, well, kind of…

Lan fixing his boat

Evidentially something had got caught round the propeller. While the propeller was still going he had stripped off his top and submerged his head and upper body in the river, with his legs anchoring him to the boat still, whilst trying to resolve the problem. After a nerve-wracking few minutes where I feared for the well-being of his limbs and marvelled at his amazing capability to hold his breath for so long, he resurfaced with the offending piece of rope which had snared his motor.

Our slow travel through the Mekong on our way to Ho Chi Minh City has been a fairly sedate but very enjoyable few days. Most people we have come across have been curious but very friendly. Acts of generosity such, as the men in Ben Tre, have been lovely to be the recipient of. Others have simply shook our hands, shouted greetings at us or just stroked Alan’s arm… Vietnam so far has been a very friendly place to visit.

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