Vietnam- The CuChi Tunnels

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The Cu Chi tunnel system is about 75 kms south west of Ho Chi Minh City, 1 – 2 hours driving, depending on the notorious Saigon traffic. There are 2 main access points, at Ben Duoc and Ben Binh. Ben Duoc is the better known in that it has been adapted to suit tourism with slightly widened tunnels and other attractions, while Ben Binh is where most Vietnamese go and is probably more authentic. I visited Ben Binh on a very wet day, when the experience of being in the jungle was very real. There are some 200 kms of tunnels at varying levels covering a huge area. The area is pock marked with bomb craters since the area became the most bombed in the whole Vietnam war, with bombs napalm and agent orange being used.

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The thought that has gone into disguising the tunnels their entrances and exits and facilities is extraordinary. You approach the tunnels down a path and despite being invited to search for an entrance in a small indicated area its is almost impossible to find. Enter the tunnels hatch, drop down and pull the hatch behind you into the ground and it is immediately invisible. Ventilation shafts come to the surface in cracks in rocks, lookout openings are also like that and almost completely invisible.

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Underground are passages, rooms, where the smoke from cooking was disbursed above ground far from the kitchen itself to protect the area. It is extraordinary to be inside and feel that people lived there for years surfacing fighting returning throughout the war. Some 420 square kms of land was hammered by bombing in an effort to dislodge the fighters in the tunnels, but without success leaving the area a wasteland although now the vegetation has largely been restored. The tunnels were so well hidden that at one stage an American base was established on top of them.

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The site at Ben Binh includes a magnificent Pagoda and memorial to those who fought and died in the war and particularly in the tunnels. Some 50000 names are inscribed on the walls of the memorial and one thing that strikes you very hard is how young many of the men and women who died there were. The building includes a large statue of Ho Chi Minh and is an important memorial in Vietnam.

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Many of us read about the war every day, and were aware of the tunnels, but seeing them and experiencing them adds a dimension to understanding the war and its outcome. It is a very moving memorial all the more so because it is set in the countryside and not in a city, and simply to experience the tunnels for a sort time gives an idea about how hard life must have been for its occupants, living there, fighting there and being bombed incessantly.Vietnam

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London – Kew Gardens

 

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Kew Gardens, also known as The Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, is set in 300 acres on the southwest edge of London. It is an area of London replete with history of British Kings, from Richmond Palace, the home of King Henry V11th through Tudor times to the reign of George 111 who owned what is now Kew Palace, as a nursery for his children. It is one of the most visited places in London but its big and the ticketing systems efficient so its an easy visit.

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There was a Palace at Kew from the early 16th century but the Palace that you see now dates back to late 18th century and is a microcosm of 18th and 19th century life including the Royal kitchens that have not been touched since 1818.

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The gardens are beautifully landscaped with large open areas filled with trees shrubs flowers and endless walks. The river Thames runs through the gardens and you can take time to walk its banks.

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Inside the gardens is the Great Pagoda build in 1762 and the Japanese gateway, and 4/5ths replica of the entrance to a Japanese temple. There are a number of other amazing buildings including the Palm House in which there is a walkway high up enabling you to look down on the trees and the Orangery.

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As well as being incredible gardens, Kew is a serious research establishment containing the world’s largest collection of living plants and a huge seed bank, there for conservation purposes as well as research in conjunction with over 80 international organisations. It also has the largest herbarium in the world.

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In the park itself there is a treetop walkway and endless places to sit talk relax picnic, eat, and just be enclosed by nature close to the centre of one of the largest cities in the world. Definitely a place for a day out if you are in London and you want to get away from the crowds noise and stresses of big city life

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Noordhoek Beach – Cape Town

 

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I have been to many beaches in many countries, but the one that stands out most, my favourite of all, is Noordhoek Beach In Cape Town. The word Noorhoek means literally North Corner. It sits on the edge of the city, a 20 minute beautiful drive from the centre along the cliff road called Chapman’s Peak. noordhoek_beachThe beach is 8 kms long bounded at one end by the cliffs of Chapman’s Peak and at the other end by the Hamlet of Kommetjie with its famous lighthouse. It faces the Atlantic Ocean, being on the west side of the Peninsular and the back of the beach is made up of protected wetlands so that this is not a beach with bars and clubs and crowds, it is just the beach.

img_2584It is a beach for surfers and kite surfers and swimmers, but best of all it’s a beach that is so big, that no matter how many people come you can enjoy the feeling of a beach to yourself. You want to escape the pressures of city life then there is nothing like walking in the early morning sun here, to commune with nature, be on a white sanded blue watered beach surrounded by nothing but nature itself, perfect to take you out of yourself and get some perspective on life. img_2491-1The water is not warm since the beach is brushed by the Benguela current that rises on that side of the peninsula, which includes sub Antarctic water that surfaces there due to prevailing winds, but in summer its warm enough. The beach has its very own shipwreck at one end, a ship than sank when driven aground by storms, a reminder of how this tranquil place can erupt when huge storms come

img_2500It’s a perfect place to relax, swim, think, walk, take time, have a picnic, and generally escape. The evenings bring sunsets that on a clear day are intense and can be watched until the last edge of the sun disappears below the horizon. In October the Southern Right whale coms to this part of the world with its young and the sunset can be made even more special by the sight of these beautiful creatures in the water, not far off shore, with their young learning to breach. img_3325

Magical

 

 

Travelling The Townships of Cape Town

 

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When democracy came to South Africa in 1994 townships had developed on the borders of the city, some created, some the results of migration, ignored and sometimes not even on maps and they became part of the city itself.

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The contrasts between the Mediterranean cosmopolitan Cape Town of the brochures and the harsh realities of township life are stark. But while the areas can seem intimidating to many people, they are in fact fascinating worlds of culture, an economy, a society of their own, and the strongest community links.

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Having worked in those areas extensively before leaving business and not having been there for a while I went back the other day to see an old friend. As I came into the area I was reminded of what vibrant places there are. There is a true unique vibe, one that the residents recognise. There is an energy and drive.

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The townships have endless activity, music, family life, and economic and political structures. It’s alive and passionate and progressing. The days of seas of shacks now changing into formal housing, spaza shops, shops in shacks, now starting to include small malls, the township economies starting to grow and trade outside themselves.

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There is an irony there you can see in the names of businesses, my favourite on this day the Miracle Driving School. !! People are friendly welcoming and really enjoy visitors preferring the individual approach rather than coach tours that can make residents sometimes feel as if they are in a zoo.

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There is a famous township restaurant called Mzoli’s on the edge of Gugulethu where many visitors go to sample township food and township fun. Well worth a visit.

Whilst to go there is a great cultural experience and fun, its important not to forget that these are places of hardship, poverty, crime and sometimes destitution, but the positive is that there is so much talent and energy there, that there is a definite future of possibilities

If you go to Cape Town, don’t ignore the townships while enjoying the Europe in Africa of the city. Give it a visit, its great!

The Hippie Trail

 

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I am soon setting out on another journey and while I sit and think of where I am going, what I want to do, who I want to meet and what I want from the trip, I always end up reminiscing about old trips I have made what they were to me and most of all think of the anecdotes that so often make the story of a journey.

In 1967 I left school and took a “gap year” before university and with a couple of friend bought a land rover and set out on what had become known as the hippie trail, the overland route to India from London. Sadly the globalised world has given rise to seemingly globalised war so it’s not possible, but an amazing adventure for a 17 year old.

Three and half months of living with 3 others under, inside or on top of a vehicle is a real “learning to live with other people experience”, not helped by the fact the only place you could get water was from an open tap somewhere, and if you wanted to wash you needed to find a hotel and persuade them to let you have a shower. No email, sms, or phones meant a post restante somewhere obscure every week or so, to write to say you were still alive and receive any news from home.

Having arrived we went our separate ways and I stayed in India for a while travelling around. What do I remember? Goa being just a huge stretch of sand with a few huts and some hippies playing guitar. Spending a week in an ashram with many others, under the guidance of a guru where in return for teaching in meditation we had to carry large amounts of earth to make a huge mound, the reason being that in a recent India/Pakistan war the guru had stood on a mound of earth with his arms in the air and as a result the Pakistani air force bombs had failed to demolish a nearby bridge, the bombs being diverted by his incantations. Being approached one day in Mumbai, Bombay then, and being offered a large amount of hashish at a discount price and when I declined being offered and western girl for the night in exchange for the shirt I was wearing. Declined both. Buying a sitar in old Delhi simply because it was beautiful and when I stood there confused not knowing what was bad or good, being helped by a western man who came over to me and turned out to be George Harrison from the Beatles, Lying on my bed in a cheap guest house under a fan, avoiding the pre monsoon heat and 90% humidity, listening to news of the death of Robert Kennedy and the on-going carnage of Vietnam. Registering with the authorities as an alcoholic so that I could buy a beer in a city that was dry using my alcoholic’s allowance. Sitting on Juhu beach watching the sunset. Travelling on the roof of a train since it was full and having a long stop at one station cause some had died of heat stroke. Seeing a Tiger in the wild. Having to ask all the time for gallons of water since the food was so spicy I could hardly eat. Sitting on the banks of the Ganges at Benares and watching cremations. Drinking water that was green and filled with chlorine pills since there wasn’t anything else. Learning the beauties of Indian music and dipping my toe into the extraordinary world of Indian spirituality. The endless crowds of people everywhere and the friendliness and curiosity of Indian people. And so it goes on.

Hope this trip will bring as many memories although since I am older and marginally wiser they will be different.

Travel – Architecture and Cities

 

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I love it that every city I visit is different. Sometimes people ask me what is my favourite city out of all those that I have visited, and of course that’s an impossible question, but I sometimes try to work it out.

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There is a big difference between cities that were built as cities and those that simply evolved over centuries, from settlements beside rivers or the sea, into those that exist today. There are the great cities of the world, London New York Paris etc, and then there are cities, none the less great to those who live there, but not one of the places that everyone feels they must go to.

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London is a city that has evolved over centuries from a small settlement in Roman times to the metropolis of today. The City of London is formalised architecture the result of the great fire in the 17th century which led to the city being laid out but for the rest it has grown and evolved over centuries resulting a whole mixture of styles uses and inhabitants, some would say a whole series of villages strung together.

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As a contrast the centre of St Petersburg was planned and built and preserved, despite wars and changes, such that even today you can get the feeling of being just a step from the world of Tolstoy and the characters of War and Peace. Sometimes that purity has an almost big chocolate box feel about it, almost too good to be true, but such a pleasure to explore, and a living cultural museum.

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Eastern cities reflect the rises and falls of their history and culture and have become a world of enormous contrasts, where ancient powerful histories have faded and been replaced by new modern recoveries of prosperity, interlaced with the growth of informal settlements resulting from the migration of poorer inhabitants from the countryside to the city in search of a better life.

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Some cities are defined by nature, the physical environment dictating the shape and limits of the city, and nature itself being the limiter of its expression. Then there are the new, purpose built, modern cities of the 21st century, pragmatic, functional but none the less appealing for the imagination of their design.

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Which are your favourites, well you pay your money and you take your choice but for me, despite my efforts to analyse, I don’t know, I still love them all because what ever they look like, however planned organised or random and chaotic they are, it’s the inhabitants that define them

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Dubai – Another World

 

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Dubai is a city where time has a number of dimensions. On the one hand a city of the future, on another an ancient part of the world where the old world can still be seen; it’s a great intersection for world travellers from different time zones and it is a world of migrant workers.

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The airport, which I often use as a hub on my travels, is fascinating in that you can sit in a café at what is 1 am my time having a midnight snack and talk to someone having breakfast and another having dinner, all passing through at that moment. It is like a self-contained timeless place.

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Best known in Dubai are obviously the modern parts, the world of tall buildings modern condo developments, the marina and the commercial area. The Burj Khalifa always reminds on of an “about to depart” rocket when seen from the ground.

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My favourite part to stay is Bur Dubai at the western side of the Creek. This is old Dubai, a world where the Creek still has boats that transport all over the Arab world and the East, a world with the Souks, old buildings and mosques. A trip up the Creek in a small boat is great to be able to see both the old and new Dubai.

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The souks are modernised but nonetheless places to bargain and haggle and although many have stalls which sell the same as the one next door there are some gems to be found there.

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Dubai is a world of migrant workers, many living in Bur Dubai who work hard to support themselves and their families back home. I met a Manager of a coffee house, an Afghan, who shared 2 rooms with four other people, rotating the beds between those who worked day shifts and those night shifts, sent all his money home to his family but did not know honestly how long he would be there nor when he would see that family again.

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You like shopping, you like Dubai, the malls ranging from those with lots of shops that have no prices, fronted by men in dark suits white shirts and an earpiece guarding the door, to the more familiar shops we see in other places. It’s a world where for some money is no object. A Italian man was so grateful for directions to the airport to catch a plane he was in danger of missing, that he rewarded me with a cashmere suit before racing off to the plane. He would not take no for an answer.

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It’s fascinating, it’s a place you can live the western beach life or if you dig around you find the old world and the extraordinary cosmopolitan culture that Dubai has become.