Vinales Valley Cuba


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About 200 kms west from Havana, a two to three-hour drive lays the small town of Vinales, which lies in the Vinales Valley located in the Sierra de los Organos Mountains. It’s a small traditional town where most people work in the cigar industry. The valley is beautiful and a welcome respite from the heat of Havana.


The valley is wide and flat, which enhances the contrasts with the mountains. The town itself has woken to the tourist industry and has myriad casas letting out rooms to visitors. It is a place for cigars, hiking, and riding. It’s beautiful and its potential to entertain visitors is growing as new hotels are built there.


If you want a fun ride to Vinales you can hire an old car, one of the old taxis and drive down. Its good to take some advice as to which car to take since many are on offer, and a good way to choose if to ask the owner of the Casa if you are staying at one. The car that took me to Vinales had been in the same family since the 1950s, was now a family heirloom constantly maintained and used by one family member as a taxi. The old engine had its day and it now sported a Nissan engine and the loudest sound system I ever heard!


Find your way to a small cigar maker and learn how cigars are made, and they can sell them to you since the government permits part of their production to be sold privately. It is fascinating to learn and if you can handle it smoke one at the end. You learn everything from how to grown and dry and cure to the end product.


Another fascinating site is the Stone Age paintings on a small hill outside the town of Vinales. They are coloured and distinctive. Away from the hotels, there are some good local restaurants and if you have a good driver then he or she can point the way.


Vinales is beautiful relaxing and interesting before you head back to the energy of Havana.







This Man in Havana



In my early youth, Cuba was never far from one’s mind. The revolution with Castro Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, the Bay of Pigs, The Cuban Missile Crisis, the Blockade, the decadence and depravity of pre-revolutionary Cuba and Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana made Cuba romantic, scary, and fascinating all at the same time. When the time came to go there a sense that I might be disappointed after all that lurked in the back of my mind but I wasn’t.


Havana is very much open for the business of visitors, and it is a great city to walk in. People are polite helpful hungry to do business well, and its very safe since the authorities are well aware of the consequences of crime on tourism. There are of course the usual hustlers hanging around but they usually take no for an answer. Development means that new and old sit side by side in the Havana of today.


Havana is famous for its old 1950s American cars which have been lovingly cherished and preserved through the blockade and continue to serve the residents as well as being a draw for visitors as taxis. These taxis can vary in quality and price so ask around and the best way is to get a recommendation from a local or the place you are staying. It is not only antique cars but you can also find antique Jukeboxes in bars pumping out Cuban music both traditional and modern.

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It can be wearing to have a dish shoved into your face for a donation when you have had to listen to Guantanamera for the 29th time that day, but look around the live music which is everywhere and there is some great music.


The cult of Earnest Hemingway is prominent and there is a lot to look at. For me a visit to the Ambos Mundos where he stayed was fun, and if the rooftop bar now caters for mass tourism and the odd papa Hemingway look-alike the mojitos are great and will keep you mellow on a hot Havana afternoon.


There is a lot of great architecture much of it being renovated and it is refreshing that these buildings and churches are not just for viewing they are used too. Sit in a café or bar at the end of the day and absorb the atmosphere and be part of the tradition of talking and absorbing the good things in life at which the Cubans are so adept.


Problems? Few, just ATMs which are few and far between and sometimes empty so bring cash or use banks, and wifi. If like me you were born before technology and progressed from “great idea but it will never work” to being a complete addict of gadgets and gizmos which all seem to need Wi-Fi you might freak, but stay somewhere that has it or join the interesting groups hanging outside hotels and places using their Wi-Fi hot spots, its actually quite fun and a relief to the addiction.



Someone wrote that as far as cities go Havana is a festering treasure chest, a primary colour. That is right.



Rural Vietnam


Rural Vietnam offers stark contrasts to the energy, vigour excitement and craziness of Saigon or Hanoi. These communities bring you tradition, contrasts, and even a sense of isolation from the outside world.



I was invited to spend the Vietnamese New Year with a family who lived in a very small town some 3 hours south east of Hanoi in Ninh Binh province on the main road south. The town’s small size is easy enough to digest, until you realise that people are following you as you walk down the street, because they have rarely if ever seen anyone like you in real life. That is a surprise. Coming across a small village one day I found a locked church, which interested me. Someone was able let me in. I wandered around the church and after a few minutes I realised I was not alone in the supposedly empty church; about 20 people had gathered by the door of the church and were simply staring at me, albeit in a very friendly way.


That part of Vietnam is littered with relics of French colonial influence none more obvious that the strong presence of Catholicism. What was really interesting to me was seeing churches constructed in Neo Gothic style, which have been constructed within the last 10 years by the congregation. Catholicism is as influential here as Buddhism.


The contradictions and conflicts between agriculture and industry are seen in peaceful rural scenes set against a backdrop of mountains which have had their whole sides simply ripped out by barely regulated mining.



A new year family gathering involved sitting for a long time on the floor eating good food and consuming large amounts of local rice wine that progressively numbs you in an atmosphere of great harmony as we all struggle to be understood with a mixture of Vietnamese, French English and sign language. People are welcoming friendly and inquisitive. Whilst Vietnamese are proud of their history as victors against foreign influence, resentment and recrimination are very rare. And yes men in one place women in another.


Communism, Buddhism and Catholicism sit side by side in apparent harmony ,the focus of modern life being material wellbeing, which is the common aim, and they work hard, although millions are still dependent on agriculture.. The families are large and and the bonds tight and are the root from which rural life grows. In amongst rice paddies are the graves of family members giving insight into the long connections of families and towns. The young head for the cities to earn a living if they can but always come back on the frequent busses that thunder down the road as the new world passes by the old.


Bohol Island, Philippines


Bohol is justifiably famous for beaches and resorts and boats, but if you suffer from beach ennui, or like to take a more quizzical and enquiring approach to discovering places, there are lots of goodies on Bohol.



It’s fun to cruise down the Loboc river very slowly, have some lunch relax from the slow lazy movement of the water and absorb river life. For me one of the joys of rivers is when they are firmly bounded by nature, the jungle the vegetation so you are se firmly in the middle of nature with only the odd incursion of the world. There is a satisfying relationship between river and vegetation, they know each other and they enclose you. Occasionally humans insert themselves into this timeless relationship and swim or fish or even live on the banks but you are always conscious that humans are welcomes visitors



The Philippine Tarsier is the smallest primate on earth, they fit into the palm of your hand and the species can be traced back 45 million years. Visit the sanctuary where they are protected and encouraged to thrive and view them with great gentleness and respect. They are beautiful creatures with enormous eyes, which are the size of their brain, and those eyes are fixed and never move such that they rotate their heads to view laterally. They are a fascinating discovery


There are some interesting churches on Bohol many of which are now being renovated, which reflect the sometimes-turbulent course of Philippine history and reflect the early Spanish Catholic tradition. The Church of St Nino De Anda is one such containing as it does a great museum tracing its history.



The Chocolate Hills, so named because in summer the grass the covers them turns a chocolate brown, are a particular feature of the island. They are formed of coral that lifted out of the ocean millions of years ago and the erosion of rain and wind has created their conical shape. There are more than 1200 hills. Apart from the geological explanation for their existence, there are local legends: Two just had a fight that went on for days as they hurled rocks boulders and sand at each other. In the end, exhausted, they left the fight became friends and left the area but forgot to clean up and left behind the mess they had made. Or if you prefer a powerful giant Arogo fell in love with a human called Aloya. Aloya died causing Arogo so much grief that he could not stop crying and when his tears dried the chocolate hills were formed. Take your pick



Davao City and Samal Island, Philippines



Davao City, the main city on the Philippines island of Mindanao is the largest city in the Philippines by land area and the most populous city after Metro Manila. It’s not the most visited by any means which is partly due to its distance from Manila and because it is on the island of Mindanao, which has suffered from Islamic terrorist uprisings in recent years. But it is well worth a visit.


For me it is undoubtedly the safest of all the cities that I have visited in the Philippines. Talking to Filipinos the law is respected there and undoubtedly enforced. An army presence securing the city against terrorism is part of that but there is an inherent respect for the law that is striking. Anti-smoking laws are strictly enforced as I experienced having sopped for a quick cigarette in the street before entering a restaurant only to be accosted by two serious looking cops who told me that no smoking is really no smoking and you can be arrested for even smoking in the street! Look at Mount Apo, and if you are lucky to see the Philippines Eagle the largest I the world and now protected.

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Off the coast is the intriguing island of Samal. The easiest way to get there is to go to the ferry port and simply jump on the ferry that runs across from Davao to Samal all the time. It costs just a few pesos and the other end do a deal with a tuk tuk driver to take you round the good places on the island. Not only is it a fun way to travel but the drivers are great travel guides.


Samal has lots of great beaches and resorts to go with them but there are some gems on the island itself. The Hagimat Falls cost is a series of small waterfalls and pools where you can swim. The water is extraordinarily clean and it is set in the jungle, a small hike from the road. Very beautiful particularly given its quite remote setting.


The Montfort Bat Sanctuary contains 2.4 million Philippine fruit bats that live in caves set into the hill, a series of holes that you can peer into and see the massed ranks of bats hanging together on the walls. The story of the bats are fascinating, their lives and the order of their lives ending in a cave reserved for “retired “ bats to end their days.


A great way to complete the trip to Samal is to experience the Giant Clam Sanctuary. Take a boat out to a floating platform and then snorkel a view these extraordinary protected features of nature, which grow up to 1.5 meters in diameter. The pure clear water makes it an extraordinary experience that you can simply view or get very close to.

Independence Palace Saigon – The Prism of History



What is commonly called The Independence Palace, or Reunification Palace was built in the centre of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, in 1962. This followed an air raid by two renegade pilots of the then Vietnam Air Force on behalf of the Viet Cong, seeking to assassinate the then President Diem, which destroyed a wing of the then Norodam Palace. The President, who escaped the air raid, instructed that a new Palace to be built on the site, to the design of a Vietnamese architect who won one of the world’s foremost architectural prizes for his design.



President Diem never saw the finished work since he and his family were assassinated, but it became the seat of power of the subsequent Presidents of South Vietnam, or the Republic of Vietnam as it was known. That era ended in 1975 when North Vietnamese forces took the Palace, a scene reflected in a famous photo of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through the Palace gates.


For me this is not an inspiring building despite its Architectural awards, but looking at it, and inside it, lets us look at history through a prism and reflect on some of what it means historically. The Palace has subsequently been used for State occasions but it is essentially a destination for tourists exploring Vietnam. The balcony from which Presidents looked down on crowds, is not a convenient vantage point for people to take photos down a wide boulevard lined by a park, the play ground of the French Colonials of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


What strikes you first and foremost about the interior is how grandiose an pompous it is. Throne rooms, extravagant 800 seater meetings rooms ,where the great and the good of that tiny, no longer existing Republic and their visitors assembled to chart the course of the country and to play its important part in the Geopoliticis of the era of the “domino effect”. Today it all seems pointless and irrelevant, with the then famous people who occupied those rooms gone and largely forgotten. But then how many countries do we see in the world with poor people who have been ruled by people where display has far outweighed substance in importance.


In the basement is a bunker to be used by the President in time of war or emergency. It has offices bedrooms and the then latest communication technology still in place. Despite the fact that it is only 41 years since that country’s demise, the equipment looks stone age. You realise that in the era in which we exist, history is defined not just by time, but also by technological progress, things and people become objects of history much earlier than they used to. History is foreshortened.



And individuals see this building according to their lives at the time. A woman I met in Saigon who had been in her 30s when the tank crashed through the gates, told me that I should not take too much notice of the incident with the tank, “to be honest” she said, “don’t take too much notice of this drama about tanks smashing gates. In fact we just opened the gates and let them in”. Such is the joy of the prism effect on history.


Ha Long Bay – Vietnam




Ha Long Bay is situated on the north east coast of Vietnam, a ride of about 160 kms from Hanoi. It is an area of about 1500 square kilometres comprising some 2000 islets and Karsts, which has been designated a UNESCO Heritage Site. Ha Long Bay means the bay of descending dragons. It has its own micro ecology and bio diversity and a huge variety of islets.



You can access the bay from a number of places but the most obvious are Halong town and Bai Chai a small town about 15 minutes away. Travel around the islands is by boat, either old junks which cruise slowly around and on which you can stay overnight or by smaller boats on day trips. One of the delights of this trip is the Vietnamese food that is made locally especially the sea food. On the boats you can order food and have a great meal as you cruise around. The nice thing is that you can order so you get something special.



There are lots of people selling tours to Ha Long in Hanoi and the local area, many acting only as agents and selling tickets and those tickets can have various prices for the same tour or trip, so it is important to look around. The price differences can be big. For myself I negotiated the various elements of the visit independently so got amazing deals on transport boats and food, but tat is easier if you are a solo traveller than if in a group. Also I stayed in the town of Bai Chai rather than Halong itself , although very close by and that town is very good value. It is being developed for the mass market, so as with many places in Vietnam it is going to change quickly.



The islets Karsts and the seas around them are a visual delight, something quite unique, but 2000 islets is a lot so its good to be selective and visit the ones you want. Each has a name, the elephant, chicken, he and she, etc so you can be specific. There are many caves and grottos on the islets, some can only be visited at low tide and others any time so find out about those. Some, unfortunately in my view, have lighting that can give them a slightly Disneyworld feel, but they are amazing for all that.



Halong is a joy, and an indispensible part of any tour of the variety and wonders of North East Vietnam.