A Travellerspoint blog


New Year's Eve in Halong Bay

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We rang in the new year in style on a Chinese junk in Halong Bay. Leaving Hoi An and all the Christmas trimmings and trappings we’d acquired there, we flew to Hanoi, arriving in the evening, and set off the very next morning for Halong City to board the boat that would be our home for the next day or two as we cruised and kayaked around spectacular Halong Bay on December 31 and January 1.

I’d read that December was the dry season in northern Vietnam, but it seems there’s no escaping the perpetual mist and fog of the bay, at least not at this time of year. It was dreary and foggy the last time we visited, twelve years ago, and it was dreary and foggy—and cold—this time as well. Still, the mist lends a mysterious, ethereal beauty to the already-stunning scenery, and the cool weather was a welcome change from months of tropical heat.

We were not alone on the boat—it was a large junk with at least 10 cabins, so we were joining a group of some 16 other tourists and four or five staff (no other children, unfortunately). We spent the first afternoon cruising the bay until we’d reached a floating village where the locals make their living farming fish and oysters. Some of the oysters are grown for food, while others are for pearls. We had an interesting time comparing the process by which a pearl is formed with the process by which callouses on Chloe’s feet are formed. Basically, the farmer embeds a grain of sand into each oyster; the oyster responds to grain of sand as though it were a wound—by growing a protective little shell around it. Over time, the response creates a pearl which is eventually harvested.

In the case of Chloe’s feet, tiny grains of dirt or sand that managed to find their way under the skin on the soles of her feet have caused the skin to react by forming tough, painful callouses. We’ve been deliberating for two months now over whether or not to have them treated medically (by having them burnt or frozen off or surgically removed) or persevere with our gradual approach of applying salicylic acid to them. In any event, she got a kick out of understanding that in at least this way, she may be similar to an oyster!

After we’d been rowed around the floating villages in a small wooden boat for an hour or two, it was time to return to the junk and relax before dinner. Since it was New Year’s, we sprang for a bottle of wine (a nearly unheard-of splurge on this trip). Normally, most passengers, including us, would have been asleep by 11 p.m. or so, preparing for an early morning of kayaking around the bay the next day—but this was New Year’s, so the crew cranked up the tunes and got the party started. Our guide, a young guy of maybe 25, had some good moves and tried to get people dancing. Nobody was taking him up on it, though, until Chloe jumped in. The two of them began with the macarena, and moved on from there, dancing up a storm. Ciaran ran down to our cabin to change into his Thai boxing shorts and Tiger beer shirt so he could join in the fun, then ran back up and started shadow-boxing alongside Chloe. Eventually he was tired enough to ask to go to bed, though, so I went down to the cabin to put him to sleep. By the time I re-emerged, Chloe had at least half a dozen people dancing with her, and Mark said she had essentially worked the room while I was gone, getting everyone out on the dance floor, not taking no for an answer. For the next two hours she danced up a storm, showing not the slightest sign of tiring, excited, energetic and determined to be awake at midnight. It took some persuading to get her to leave the party after the champagne had been handed out, but she was asleep by 1 a.m.

We kayaked around the bay the next day for at least two hours, enjoying the emerald water and dramatic limestone outcroppings for which the area is famous. By the end of the afternoon we had cruised to Cat Ba Island, where we spent the night at a beautiful resort with a large pool and private, white-sand beach. Unfortunately, it was so cold and wet outside that none of us were interested in swimming. But we enjoyed getting to know the other people on our cruise a little better at dinner, and the following morning we hiked to a few other beaches along a beautiful trail built into the side of the limestone cliffs.

Back in Hanoi the next evening, we met up with Ken and Jo, friends of ours from Portland who are on a three-week holiday in Cambodia and Vietnam. It was great to catch up; on the first night, Ken and Mark went out drinking around 10 p.m., spending most of the evening sitting on small plastic chairs on the sidewalk near our hotel in the Old Quarter and drinking bia hoi (Vietnamese draft beer), not returning until 3 a.m. The next evening, Ken and Jo treated us to a fabulous dinner at a Vietnamese-French fusion restaurant that trains disadvantaged Vietnamese youth so they can get jobs in hospitality. So our last dinner in Vietnam was certainly a four-star affair—thanks again, Ken and Jo (if you’re reading)!

Hanoi is still the same incredibly photogenic city that I remember from our last visit, but its streets are infinitely more motorbike-choked than they were a decade ago. Negotiating the narrow streets of the Old Quarter as a pedestrian is challenging, especially with kids, since the sidewalks are usually occupied by parked motorbikes, impromptu kitchens and hawkers. It was great to be in the heart of the city for a few days and stroll around the the lake. We took loads of fabulous photos, but I'll have to upload them another time since I'm nearly out of (pricey) wifi at the moment.

One thing we really enjoyed about both the Halong Bay cruise and our time in Hanoi with Ken and Jo was listening to the kids talk about our trip so far. When it’s just the four of us, as it so often is, it’s not always easy to tell what the kids are getting out of this trip—what stays with them, what horrifies them, what pleases them or what they’re likely to remember years from now. But when they get fresh blood, so to speak, they don’t stop talking, and we really get a kick out of hearing them tell other people about everything we’ve seen and done.

Okay, with 3 minutes left of wifi, here are some photos I managed to upload! The first one is a photo of the junk we were on.








Posted by The Rymans 20:34 Archived in Vietnam Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

Merry Christmas from Hoi An

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We arrived in Hoi An on Dec. 20, one day ahead of Ciaran’s birthday. The first order of business was getting things set up for his big day: topping up the cell phone so he could call a few friends, reserving a table at a good restaurant, ordering a chocolate cream cake for dessert, and combing the town for gift wrap. (No luck there; we ended up wrapping his gifts in silk scarves.) We already had the gifts: a Ben 10 movie and a pair of Thai boxing shorts that he’d been begging for all through Thailand. Chloe had bought him a Ben 10 hat in Saigon. We also figured that an hour of cell phone time with his friends would be one of the gifts.

Ciaran spent most of the day doing what he likes best: sitting in the hotel room watching Star Wars movies and eating ice cream. He phoned several friends after breakfast and really got a kick out of talking to them, although he told us later on that it wasn’t really much of a birthday gift, since he “didn’t get to keep it forever.”

We told him he could have anything he wanted for dinner, so he went for the seafood pizza—a cheese pizza topped with shrimp, squid and white fish. The cake was delivered to our table after dinner with seven lit candles. Ciaran was impressed that the servers had dimmed the lights just for him, and most of the nearby tables sang happy birthday along with us. All in all, it was really the best we could have done for him here, but I think he was still a bit dejected by the lack of fanfare compared to what normally happens at home: he really would have liked to be surrounded by more family and all of his friends. Oh well, there’s always next year…


We woke up on Dec. 22 with Ciaran’s birthday behind us, and that gave us two days to get Christmas together. First things first: I set out with Chloe in search of a Christmas tree.

I’d been optimistic about our chances of finding a small (artificial) tree ever since we’d arrived in the Mekong Delta, because it seems a good number of Vietnamese celebrate Christmas—at least, compared to neighbouring countries—and there had been several shops in Can Tho stocking decorations. In Saigon, the possibilities would have been endless. Hoi An, on the other hand, is a very small place. Formerly a tiny fishing village, it has expanded slowly over the years into a major tourist destination. Now a UNESCO world heritage site whose quaint old city evokes Paris in its own uniquely Asian (decaying) sort of way, it does draw thousands of tourists and is a beautiful place to spend Christmas. But modern, it is not. Not a single convenience store or Western-looking shop in sight despite the seemingly hundreds of tailor shops and souvenir places selling paper lanterns and Buddha figures. I had already combed most of the entire old city in search of Christmas trimmings during my unsuccessful search for wrapping paper for Ciaran’s birthday, and had come up empty-handed.

So before I set out with Chloe, I decided to recruit our hotel manager in my search. There is a huge artificial Christmas tree in the lobby here, and a small one on the front desk, so I figured he must know where I could get a tree of my own. No luck, though; he wasn’t the one who’d shopped for them and he was pretty sure they’d come from Danang, a much bigger city (with an ex-pat community) about an hour away. Then a solution dawned on him: one of the hotel’s drivers was scheduled to bring some guests to the airport in Danang later that day, and could bring a tree back with him if I knew exactly what I wanted.

I did know exactly what I wanted, but had no idea what it should cost: five dollars? Twenty-five? Who knew? Having been ripped off numerous times here in Vietnam so far, I wasn’t prepared to be tricked into paying double the actual amount for my tree, regardless of how small that amount might be. So I asked the manager what one should cost. Again, he had no idea. While Chloe and I milled around the reception area, he made more phone calls, trying to find out. When he finally came back, he had a better solution for me: he’d managed to contact the person who had bought the trees for the hotel, and so now he could tell me where to buy them myself here in Hoi An. They were available at a Vietnamese bookstore just outside the old city.

So we called a taxi, and I asked the hotel manager to explain to the driver in Vietnamese that first I needed to stop at an ATM, and then I wanted to go to this Vietnamese bookstore.

When we pulled up, we found ourselves in front of not just one, but two little shops hawking Christmas trees and decorations. So Chloe and I got to work, rounding up tinsel, Christmas stickers, craft supplies and gift wrap at the bookstore. With that done, we went up the street to the next store for the tree.

There were at least six sizes available—they were all on display, fully decorated with lights on—and the little one I had my eye on, about two and a half feet tall, had a price tag on it: just $8. The shop itself was tiny (maybe 8 x 8), crowded, busy and noisy, so it wasn’t easy getting anyone’s attention. Finally, after waiting near the cash for a while, I was able to communicate by pointing and gesturing that I’d like to buy that little tree.

The shop owner made his way out from behind the cash and walked over to the tree, touched the strand of lights woven into its branches, and looked at me expectantly. Glad to have been understood, I nodded and smiled. He rifled through a shelf beneath the tree and came out with a package of lights, and handed them to me, then started making his way back to the cash. I realized that he thought I wanted to buy the lights, not the tree.

So I tried again, getting his attention and then shaking my head and pointing once more to the tree, this time actually touching its branches. “Ah,” he said, and led me outside, to where dozens of strands of tinsel hung on display. He pointed to a strand and said, “Hah? Color?” He thought I wanted to buy the tinsel.

Obviously, I was going to have to get a bit more dramatic. I shook my head to say no, then went back into the store to the little tree, checking that he was still following, and moved my arms around over the entire length of it, up and down, to show that I wanted the WHOLE TREE. After a few moments, he understood exactly what I wanted. I was just about to ask whether or not he still had the box for it when he unplugged the tree and picked it up whole, decorations and all, and plunked it down on the middle of the sidewalk outside for me.

I was a bit amazed: for $8, I was buying not just the tree, but all of the lights and decorations as well. It was pouring rain outside, so we flagged down a cab and got in with our tree, then headed back to the hotel room. Chloe wanted to “undecorate” it first and then re-decorate it herself, which I thought was a great plan. The kids spent most of the rest of that day making home-made Christmas decorations with the supplies we’d bought, and by the end of the day, the tree was fully decorated again with all of the original trinkets and a host of new, home-made ones as well.


Now we had another problem to solve: Christmas stockings. Mark’s mom had brought two for us when she came to Thailand. I had asked for just two, thinking mainly of the kids. But now we realized that the kids would expect us to have stockings as well. That was when Mark got a brilliant idea: since Hoi An is legendary as a destination where people go to have things custom-made out of silk, why not have a set of stockings made—for all four of us? And the piece de resistance: we would make a fifth, for the dog we’ve been thinking of getting, and give it to the kids on Christmas morning as a promise that this hypothetical dog will actually become real once we get home.

As it happened, later that day I stumbled upon a fair-trade shop in the old city near the water, where after some discussion, they said it would be no problem to make five stockings for us in just a day or two. I picked out five different colours of silk. They turned out beautifully.

We just needed a few more pieces to make the traditional Christmas picture complete. Back at the hotel, I was able to find free downloads of all our favourite Christmas cartoons—Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. For gifts, we had picked up some Lego back in Bangkok, so Santa was able to surprise the kids with something they really, really wanted (and desperately needed, in my opinion). We supplemented that with books, movies, edibles and promises, including one “get out of homeschool free” pass each.

We’ve been carrying a small flip-album with 25 photos of friends and family, so we took all the photos up and hung them on a wall over the beds along a strand of green tinsel. The kids made paper snowflakes and other crafts, which we either hung up or put on the tree. With the fast, mostly reliable wifi connection at our current hotel, we were able to visit the NORAD website to track Santa’s progress on Christmas Eve (we hustled the kids into bed when we noticed that he was already over Indonesia).

The weather here has been beautiful and sunny, so we spent Christmas Eve at the beach during the afternoon: sand castles instead of snow forts, body surfing instead of sledding. Late in the afternoon we returned to watch Rudolph, then set out for dinner—we had reservations back at Cargo, the same restaurant where we’d gone for Ciaran’s birthday. The set Christmas menu there had attracted us, with its French onion soup, turkey with cranberry sauce, and complimentary wine—but when we finally got around to ordering, Mark was more in the mood for stir-fried prawns, and I ordered the seafood set menu (which included smoked salmon, oyster with spinach gratin, and a salmon steak). Ciaran went for the lasagne, and Chloe ate two quesadillas. It was exactly the opposite of traditional, but fabulous nonetheless.


As we walked away from the restaurant, we noticed a crowd gathering in an open square by the river. There were children dressed in little Santa suits and we could hear drumming and singing. As we got closer, it seemed to be a type of Vietnamese family-friendly bingo. For 5,000 dong (about 25 cents), you could buy a paddle that had three Vietnamese words (and corresponding images) on it. Most of the words were for animals. Each paddle had different word combinations. The two MCs running the game would sing a song—they had microphones—and then a third person would come out with a paddle. The song would change to include whatever word was on the paddle, and then the paddle would be hung from a wire running across the square. If the word chosen was on your paddle, you were given a flag. The first person to get three flags would be the winner.

The kids wanted in, so we bought them each a paddle and sat down to watch the game. There were probably about 30-40 people playing, and many more watching. The singing was surprisingly catchy, considering that it was all in Vietnamese and without music. After about 15 minutes and as many words, we had a winner: Chloe! The prize was a red paper lantern with a dark wood frame. (Great: More heavy things to carry! But we couldn’t have asked her to give it up.)



Back at the hotel, we watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas, then let the kids unwrap their new stockings, which they hung from knobs on the writing-desk drawers. They were asleep by 10 p.m., and had us up by 6:30 to tear open the gifts. Both of them were pleased with their haul, although Ciaran was marginally disappointed that Santa had not brought him the only thing he had asked for: a real Ben 10 omnitrix that would let him change into one of 10 possible alients at the touch of a button. (We did manage to get him the toy replica, which seemed to soften the blow.)


Although the weather was sunny and beautiful again on Christmas Day, we’d had enough of the beach and were in the mood for more traditional activities, so we mainly whiled away the day watching more movies, reading our new books and eating our way through all the chocolate—pretty much what we would have done in Ottawa. Nobody seemed to mind that we weren’t going to be attending a traditional Christmas Day turkey feast in the evening, so we ended the day with Indian food.

All in all, I think we pulled off a pretty enjoyable Christmas despite the challenges. It will be a while, though, before I forget what it was like to have to wrap all those gifts in the same room as the sleeping children (freaking out the entire time about the possibility of them waking up while all the loot was still scattered across the floor), while cutting the wrapping paper with tiny cuticle scissors, making our own gift tags out of plain white paper, and eventually running out of both wrapping paper and tape altogether. Whew.

We’re here in Hoi An for another four days, and plan to spend them seeing more of the town now that we don’t have so many holiday-driven errands to run. One of Chloe’s gifts was the promise of a silk dress that she could choose or design herself and have sewn by a local tailor, so a visit to a silk shop is on the agenda.

We head all the way up to Hanoi on Dec. 30, and will spend New Year’s Eve overnight in Halong Bay, cruising on a Chinese junk. Then off to India on Jan. 5.

Posted by The Rymans 21:01 Archived in Vietnam Tagged family_travel Comments (5)

Wild about soccer in Saigon

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We’d expected to be at least slightly freaked out by the legendary Saigon traffic, where the motorbikes are so numerous that throngs of them roaring across intersections eight or 10 abreast give the impression of a horizontal waterfall of bikes. But we found Saigon to be pleasant and easy to navigate, and far less traffic-choked than Bangkok. I guess after four months of Asia, we’re old hands now when it comes to negotiating motorbike-clogged streets. We didn’t see as much of Saigon as we might have liked, since we had only allowed ourselves a few days there (we had decided we wanted to be in Hoi An for both Christmas and Ciaran’s birthday, which meant reaching it by Dec. 20). We spent one entire day visiting the Cu Chi tunnels, the 280-kilometre network of underground tunnels where the Viet Cong lived and hid during the Vietnam War. Mark and I had been to the tunnels 12 years ago, but thought the kids might enjoy crawling around in them. They learned a bit about the war in a hands-on way, and were fascinated by the examples of vicious Viet Cong booby traps.

Part of our time in Saigon was also occupied by seeking out dental and medical care for the kids. Chloe is still having problems with some warts/callouses on the bottoms of her feet (these have been plaguing her for a couple of months now), so we were hoping to have them seen to. Ciaran had chipped away part of one of his front teeth on a tiled floor in Cambodia after being tackled by a friendly dog he was playing with. The dentist visit was a success story: an examination and x-ray showed no lasting damage to the tooth, other than cosmetic, and the total cost to find that out was just $20. In Chloe’s case, the clinics we’d picked out to visit were both closed on the day we showed up—except for one where the cost was going to be $185. So we bailed. You might be wondering: Don’t you guys have medical insurance?? Yes, but we hadn’t yet bought a new SIM card for our cell phone and hadn’t phoned the insurance company beforehand, which we’re supposed to do, and $185 just seemed a bit outrageous to look at some warts. We already know what the problem is—we had taken her to two different doctors in Thailand—so we were looking for a solution, not a $185 assessment. We decided to continue treating them ourselves for now.

The big highlight in Saigon was something we stumbled onto serendipitously. We were heading back to our hotel after dinner one night when we heard what sounded like an incredible cacophony of traffic and honking, even by Saigon standards. We noticed people driving by on motorbikes—often three or four to a bike—waving Vietnamese flags and red ribbons, whooping and hollering. The further we walked, the thicker and more clamorous the crowd became. We were wondering if we’d wandered into a night-time political rally of some kind, but it definitely looked more like a celebration. After asking around, we discovered it was indeed a celebration—of Vietnam’s soccer victory over Singapore in the Southeast Asia Games that were happening in Vientiane at the time. I had read that soccer is a big deal in Vietnam, but even so, the truly massive crowd and frenzied partying were an incredible sight to behold. The festive mood was contagious, so we bought the kids red satin bands to wrap around their heads like everyone else, which netted us some big smiles and appreciative looks from partying Vietnamese as we made our way up the sidewalk. (We took some fabulous photos of the mega street party, and I would have liked to upload them here, but unfortunately we accidentally lost them all while reformatting the SD card in the camera.)

We were back at our hotel to put the kids to bed long before the party ended; the noise and clamour went on until the wee hours of the morning.

So you can imagine my surprise when I went online to look for more information about the tournament, and discovered that Vietnam had actually not won the final game, but had merely won the semi-final. The final game would be played three days later. (Can you imagine the streets after that victory? But we were in Mui Ne by then, a small town on the coast, and apparently Vietnam lost the game.)

Posted by The Rymans 20:58 Archived in Vietnam Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Homestay in the Mekong Delta

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We’ve been in Vietnam more than two weeks now and all I’ve done here so far is write a five-page rant about our border-crossing experience, so I guess it’s time for an update.

Needless to say, Vietnam became more enjoyable in the days after we arrived. From our upgraded hotel in Can Tho, the epicentre of the Mekong Delta, we arranged a homestay which became the highlight of our time in the delta. The homestay involved an overnight stay with a local family whose home is located along one of the many canals that extend like a network of branches throughout the delta. We were not more than a 10-minute walk from where the taxi dropped us off, yet it was a world away from the hustle and bustle of Can Tho. Along the canals, the paths are too narrow for cars, so the only ground transportation is by foot, motorbike or bicycle. Goods and people are also transported by boat down the canals—in fact, this is how most people get their goods to the floating market, which is also nearby.

We had a guide with us for the homestay. Although he had a Vietnamese name, he insisted we call him Jimmy because his name, he said, would be too difficult for us to pronounce properly. It wasn’t all that difficult, actually, but after thinking of him as Jimmy for a couple of days (and then not thinking of him at all for two weeks after that), I can’t remember what it is anymore. In any event, Jimmy led us into the family home and introduced us to the couple who lived there, and then showed us to our sleeping area. All things considered, it was generously sized and clean. Our room was essentially a bamboo cabin located near the back of the property with three double beds—more like thin rolls of foam on frames, but fine—covered by mosquito nets. Along a hallway by the room was a series of toilets and cold-water showers, and adjacent to that was our open-air eating area with bamboo table and chairs. A series of paths led away from our quarters through extensive gardens and ponds back to the family’s main living area.


After we’d dropped off our baggage and met the caged resident crocodile (!), we set off for a two-hour bicycle tour of the delta. Riding along the narrow trail by the waterways as the sun went down, watching people working on boats or go about their business at their homes alongside the paths, was a fabulous antidote to the border scam business. As I rode along, I kept thinking, “Now THIS is what I came here for.” About two-thirds of the way through the trip, we stopped for a break near a tropical fruit orchard, where Jimmy walked us through an assortment of trees, pointing out what was growing on them. We ate mangoes, papaya, bananas, pineapple, jackfruit and lotus seeds.


Jimmy timed the bike ride so that we could catch the sun setting over the Mekong before we cycled the last few minutes back to the homestay in the dusk. After returning and washing up, we were invited into the family kitchen to help prepare our own dinner. A lot of the prep work had been done for us, so this was not quite the same as a full-scale cooking class, but we stuffed, rolled, and fried our own spring rolls—the kids loved that—and cooked a vegetable stir-fry and pumpkin soup. After that, we were sent back to relax at our table while the family finished the preparations. There was a big cooler stocked with beer, water and soft drinks in our room, so we treated ourselves to some beer and the kids to some soft drinks while we waited for dinner to arrive. When it did, it was excellent. Along with the spring rolls, stir-fry, soup and some rice, there was pork cooked in the traditional clay pot and a whole boiled elephant-ear fish as well as all the fixings needed to make our own fresh rice-paper rolls.


I would say the most interesting part of the whole homestay experience was talking to Jimmy after dinner, when we quizzed him about life and politics in Vietnam. Jimmy was about 26, with an English degree and a passion for photography, yet he makes very little in his job as a tour guide. His view was that elections don’t matter a whit because their outcomes are rarely fair, and never seem to change anything. (In Vietnam, the government is communist in name, but in practice, capitalism seems to be in full swing. All the same, my impression is that even if market forces are operating freely, the government still holds on to its control of the people—for example, according to Jimmy, Vietnamese are not allowed to leave their country unless they can show proof of sufficient funds to return.) Any political party can call itself whatever it likes, and do whatever it wishes, he said, but people his age don’t really care. “We just want to live the good life,” is how he put it. Unfortunately, that’s often not possible here if you don’t have the right connections.

After breakfast the next morning, we hopped into a boat that took us directly from the homestay to the Can Tho floating market, the biggest in the delta. We spent nearly an hour motoring slowly around the market, watching people in boats of every size and shape exchange fruits, vegetables and other goods. Because of the noise and crowding, most boats display their wares by hanging samples of them high up on bamboo poles. Aside from all the trading, it was interesting to get a close-up glimpse of how people live along the river—most of them in weathered-looking, crooked wooden shacks on stilts over the water. Jimmy told us that most of these people will be moved by the government within the next three years because they’re living in unsanitary conditions, using the river as a toilet and getting by without running water. I wondered if the people were being moved forcibly and might resist the plan, but he said actually they’re looking forward to it.


Returning to Can Tho by about 10 a.m., we had just enough time to enjoy some fruit shakes at a riverside restaurant before boarding our bus to Saigon—a smooth, easy, five-hour ride in a clean, mechanically sound bus (the second antidote to entering the delta).

Posted by The Rymans 20:55 Archived in Vietnam Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

Welcome to my country, now step aside while I fleece you

Falling for the "man with the hairy neck" scam at the Vietnam border

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Leaving Cambodia...

The day began pleasantly enough in Kampot, with coffee and fresh baguettes. The taxi we had arranged to drive us to the border showed up fifteen minutes late, but that was fine—we were in no rush. We were anticipating a 90-minute drive to the border, after which there would be the usual paperwork rigmarole and then a 10-minute motorbike ride to the Vietnamese border town of Ha Tien. From there, a five-hour express bus to our Mekong Delta destination, Can Tho. An easy enough day, all things considered.

We had already obtained our visas for Vietnam in Battambang, Cambodia, so we expected no wheeling and dealing by dishonest immigration officials. Still, we were prepared for a few challenges: there would probably be an illegitimate charge of $1 each for the health forms that are now ubiquitous at borders due to H1N1; strangely, our baggage might be x-rayed on the Vietnam side; the four of us would each have to set off on our own motorbikes, with drivers, to Ha Tien (an unfortunate risk that we could find no way around). As well, after some time spent online, I had a vague memory of a border scam being operated by what someone had described as a “thin man with a hairy neck.” The scam had something to do with sending travellers to Chau Doc by bus from Ha Tien. But we weren’t going to Chau Doc, so I hadn’t paid much attention to the details. Other than these well-documented minor hurdles, we expected smooth sailing.

Mistake number one: Never expect an Asian land border crossing to be hassle-free under any circumstances.

The problems began about 10 minutes shy of the border, when our taxi driver pulled off to the side of the remote dirt road we’d been travelling on for some time and four guys carrying bike helmets surrounded the car. “You get out now, they take you to border,” our driver said. “Border just one kilometre more.”

But I had a distant memory flash of something I’d read about a border scam related to travellers being asked to get out of their taxi ahead of the border. So we declined the moto drivers’ offers and politely insisted that our driver take us all the way there.

He got back in the car and apologized, explaining that it would be better to use these moto drivers because otherwise, we’d be swarmed by Vietnamese motos on the other side of the border and they would be grabbing for our bags in a competitive attempt to get our business. I was sceptical. We drove on.

It wasn’t just one kilometre—it was a good five-minute drive. And when we got to the first border checkpoint, guess who met us? The very same motorbike mafia. Since we had refused their services further down the road, they had driven alongside our taxi to offer them again. They struck me as a confusing combination of repugnantly pushy and potentially helpful, so that it was hard to decide whether or not they were legitimate. We try to travel with bullshit detectors activated, but sometimes in these extremely poor places, people are just so desperate for work that they’ll persist and persist, and we’ve experienced times when it has actually been helpful to take advantage of their services. We wondered if maybe now was one of them.

As we were mulling it over, another Western couple approached the passport control shack without any bags at all. “Travelling light?” I joked, and they said they’d given their bags to some motorbike guys who were taking them across the border.

It wasn't hard to spot these guys, because our family and this couple were the only people crossing the border at the time. In fact, this little-used border itself was just a dusty little outpost with a couple of wooden shacks and a handful of staff--a striking contrast to the Thai-Cambodia border at Poipet or the Thai-Laos border at Chiang Khong, which had been scenes of jam-packed chaos, with long line-ups, shops, restaurants and hawkers.

I don’t know about Mark, but for some inexplicable reason the other travellers’ decision to trust these moto drivers tipped the balance for me; I relinquished some of my misgivings and we decided to go ahead with them. We let them pile our backpacks on the fronts of their bikes. When we were through with the paperwork and absurd health form surcharge, each of the four of us got on a motorbike, bags and all, and we set off for Ha Tien.

I hated the idea of sending my kids off on motorbikes separately from us, but there didn’t seem to be any other way of going about it. (In Vietnam, there is a maximum of two people per motorbike; and there were no taxis or tuk-tuks to be had here.) I just kept figuring that as long as we all made it to the bus station alive, it would all be fine. Still, as we flew along, every minute seemed to stretch out for eons. Any time a truck flew past us or we hit a patch of sand or gravel, I thought about the tiny slip it would take to send any of the four of us skidding across the pavement, and I wondered what on earth I would do with a gravely injured child in the dusty backwaters of Vietnam.

I had memorized the name of the bus station—Ben Xe Ha Tien—and I was relieved to recognize it as we pulled to a stop ten minutes later. The kids were upbeat and unharmed. The other two travellers, an Australian couple, arrived right behind us. We had only been standing there for half a minute when a man in a blue shirt appeared carrying a glossy printed bus schedule. He was friendly, spoke good English, and asked where we were going. We said Can Tho. The Australians said Saigon. He regretfully informed all of us that there were no more buses to any of these places from Ha Tien that day.

“All buses from here leave early morning,” he said. “But you can catch bus to Can Tho and Saigon from next town, Ban Ho.”

I thought I remembered reading something online about certain buses leaving only in the morning, so this seemed like a possibility. On the other hand, the friendly guy in the blue shirt was thin and had about a dozen incredibly unsightly, sparse, kinky black hairs growing on his throat. Could this be the legendary thin man with the neck hairs? As we deliberated, Chloe said to me in a stage whisper, “MOM! This might be the man with the neck hairs!” But I shushed her. Our taxi driver had also had a slightly hairy throat. I didn’t want to be rude. Who knows, maybe half the men in this town have hairy necks!

I had read that a bus company called Mai Linh, which runs express minibuses around the Mekong Delta, had set up an office in Ha Tien last year. So I asked Hairy Throat Man where that was. He said it had closed recently due to lack of business. We asked him then where the ticket counters were. He said that the station was only served by local buses, and you buy the tickets directly from the driver on board. This last bit seemed plausible; local buses do operate that way, and Ha Tien is a remote border town with a tiny population. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that very few big, express buses arrive here.

We stood around mulling this over. There were no buses in the bus station, no ticket counters, no sign of Mai Linh. No clues. No one else who spoke any English. Just Hairy Throat Man, the moto drivers, and us. Ha Tien, which we’d had ample time to view on the moto ride in, looked like a dusty, untouristed, uninteresting place to spend the night. I didn’t relish the thought of being stranded there. Mark said, “Where is this Ban Ho? Is it in the book?”

It turns out that what he really meant was: “Is there a write-up about Ban Ho in the Lonely Planet book?” What I thought he meant was: “Where is Ban Ho, can you find it on the map?” I found it on the map. It looked about the same size as Ha Tien. It looked nearby. So I said, “Sure, here it is,” and showed him. He took this to imply my tacit approval of the plan to ride motorbikes there.

It would be $3 each to continue on to Ban Ho by moto, we were told. (We had paid $5 each to get to Ha Tien from the border, which was already highway robbery, no pun intended.)

What we should have done: Sat down, ignored Hairy Throat Man and the drivers, and left one of us in charge of the baggage while the other went off in search of ticket windows and more information.

What we actually did: Believed the buses had all gone for the day, and agreed to go to Ban Ho by moto. It was a 10-minute drive, the gang insisted. No further than coming to Ha Tien from the border.

We piled our bags back on, donned our helmets again, and set off. We had decided I would ride in front, Mark would ride in back, and the kids would ride in between. I would insist that my driver go slowly, which would force all the others to drive slowly as well.

We had only been driving about 45 seconds when my driver slowed to a stop to ask if I’d like to change money and get some Vietnam dong. We could stop at a shop he knew of, and buy it on the black market. Now, it’s common knowledge that the black market rates are never as good as the bank rates here. So I said no, I would go to a bank machine at the next town. “Oh, no bank there, no ATM, very small place,” he said.

Immediately, I started to second-guess our decision. What kind of bus station receives more buses than Ha Tien, yet is so small as not to have a bank or an ATM?

But just in case he was right, and more so because by now we were at their mercy and out of options, we decided to change $40 into dong. The shop owner gave us 16,000 dong to the dollar. (Turns out the current rate is 18,500.)

Then we were off again, with me in the lead. Every couple of minutes I would gesture to my driver to slow down, and he would, but then the speed would start to creep up again. Then I would slow him down again, and then he would speed up again. Meanwhile, all manner of traffic was blowing by us in both directions—mostly roaring delivery trucks and other motorbikes—and we ourselves were passing bicycles and ox-carts. A couple of, yes, BUSES passed us as well, coming from the opposite direction (going toward Ha Tien), cementing my feeling that something was wrong with this picture.

Ten minutes on the motorbikes turned into fifteen, and then twenty, and we were still tearing down the highway with no town in site. Every so often, Ciaran’s driver would pull up from behind alongside mine and talk to him in Vietnamese. I couldn’t understand what they were saying. Then after a while, Ciaran’s driver pulled ahead of mine, contrary to the agreement we’d made to keep the kids in between us. He picked up some speed, and my driver kept up.

Now I was in a quandary: make my driver slow down again, as I’d been doing all along, or ask him to pass Ciaran’s driver, which would have the effect of causing all of us to drive even faster? I decided just to hope for the best, since (looking on the bright side) at least the drivers seemed capable and experienced, and surely, surely, I thought, we must almost be there.

About two minutes after I’d made this lame decision to leave Ciaran in the lead, I saw Mark on my left, riding along with an enraged look on his face. “You’re going to the back,” he told me, so I gestured again to my driver to slow down while Mark continued to urge his to speed up. I watched as he then tried to pass Ciaran’s driver, but now we had confused all the drivers by asking some of them to slow down and others to speed up, so it ended up being a neck-and-neck affair with Ciaran and Mark at the front.

Just as I was thinking that the moto gang might be trying to take us all the way to Can Tho like this, or down some remote lane where they would rob us blind, they turned left off the highway into what looked like a roadside snack stop with a few plastic chairs and tables.

“Bus station?” I shouted to my driver over the roar of the engine. “Bus stop!” he replied.

And yes, there is a difference. A bus station would be the sort of thing we had begun at in Ha Tien. A bus stop would be this shop in the middle of nowhere from which you could maybe, possibly flag down a local bus if you tried.

Once we were all seated and feeling lucky to be alive and with limbs intact, we ordered some drinks and it began to sink in that we had been thoroughly, dazzlingly tricked. It turned out that Hairy Throat Man was one of the moto drivers himself, and he showed up just after we did with a member of the Australian couple in tow. Mark went over and asked him where the buses here would come from (since, having gone down the highway from Ha Tien, it now seemed obvious to us that Ha Tien is exactly where they would originate). Hairy Throat Man said, somewhat sheepishly, “Oh, come from just around corner.”

Muttering and grumbling and cursing our own idiocy, we both sat in our little plastic chairs simmering with rage and resentment. The extra money for the moto drivers was one thing (and we did get royally ripped off), but what really irked us was having put the kids at considerable extra risk for no good reason. We were annoyed with ourselves and even more so at Hairy Throat.

I was just thinking that even so, the main thing was that we had survived and would soon be on our way to Can Tho, leaving all this unpleasantness behind us, when the bus pulled in. A man appeared out of the blue, presumably from the bus, to tell us how much the tickets would cost. Our guidebook had said 100,000 dong each to Can Tho. (That’s about $5.) The man said, “500,000 dong one person.”

The Australians were travelling without a guidebook, just for the fun of it. They thought that was a bit steep, but were ready to pay it. But that, for me, was the last straw. My eyes fairly bugged out of my head at the thought of giving these crooks any more undeserved cash. I’m not much of a one for making a scene, but I shouted at him, almost more in genuine shock and outrage than anger. “You have to be kidding,” I said. “That’s FIVE TIMES the regular price!”

I told Mark and the Australians what the regular price was supposed to be. Yes, it’s customary for foreigners to be over-charged on local buses; but five times the going rate is absurd. I might have considered paying it anyway if I wasn’t already so thoroughly enraged at the whole crew of rip-off artists who had just caused me to put my children on motorcycles and send them off for a 20-minute ride down an insane Vietnamese highway on their own. Under the circumstances, no way was I paying that extortionate price for the bus tickets. I told him to forget about it. I said we would sooner walk all the way to Can Tho than pay that much.

A long negotiation ensued, much of it via body language, gestures and pen & paper. At one point when it seemed the bus driver would give us no discount at all, I went over to Hairy Throat and shouted at him: “Why did you take us here?” It was a rhetorical question, of course; I was just hoping he would own up to something, or feel even a small smidge of guilt. I was fervently wishing I had enough command of Vietnamese to call him a liar, a thief and a disgrace to his country while his posse was standing there listening. I’m sure this would not have been news to him, but it certainly would have been satisfying for me.

Instead, I wrote “200,000 dong, 1” on a piece of paper and gave it back to the bus driver. Double the price, fair enough for both of us, I hoped. He agreed; we had a deal. Then, digging around in my bag, I realized that actually, we didn’t have 800,000 dong. We had only changed that small amount on the black market back in Ha Tien, and we’d bought snacks and drinks with it. I only had 540,000 left. I showed him the 500,000 and said, “500,000. No more. I have no more than that,” hoping he would understand.

More rapid-fire Vietnamese from bad guy to bad guy (and I’m including the bus driver in that category since he seemed to be part of the border mafia). Mark pointed out that Ciaran was small and could be given a discount or a free ride. When it became obvious that there was really no choice since we just plain didn’t have more than 500,000 dong, we reached a disgruntled agreement.

Still simmering with hostility, I picked up my bag, and we all headed over to the bus—a filthy, crowded, rattletrap thing. I sent the kids in to find seats. Mark was just making sure our bags made it onto the roof when I noticed the sign in the front window: Chau Doc. This bus was not going to Can Tho. It was going to Chau Doc.

Chau Doc is three hours from Ha Tien and three more from Can Tho. Not totally in the wrong direction, but certainly a detour.

Although I’d understood that we’d been scammed since halfway through the second moto ride, this is where it all came together for me—the story I’d read online, but had not paid much attention to, about travellers who got scammed by the thin man with the hairy neck and ended up in Chau Doc. I had been skimming the story and thought they wanted to go to Chau Doc. Not bloody likely, I now realized.

So we kicked up another fuss. We wanted to go to Can Tho, we insisted, getting more incensed every minute, not Chau Doc. We got the kids out of the bus. We got the bags down from the roof. Mark asked the driver for our money back. But now, suddenly, the driver was not the same guy who’d taken our money in the first place. Where was that guy? Mark demanded. Gone—vanished.

Mark started stalking around the minibus, demanding to know where the guy had gone who had taken our money, threatening to call the police. At one point, he waved our Lonely Planet guide in Hairy Throat’s face and told him that I write for the series and would be sure to make his little scheme public. Meanwhile, the kids were thoroughly confused, not understanding why they’d been asked to get back out of the minibus or where we were actually going, or perhaps whether or not we were going anywhere at all. The Australians were standing by looking bemused—their fate would be the same as ours, so it seemed they were okay with having us sort it out.

Somewhere in the midst of all of this, it was explained to us that we would be able to transfer to the Can Tho bus in Chau Doc. For free? I wondered. We had no idea who to trust at this point, but the answer seemed to be probably nobody. There were at least five people in the discussion now—me, Mark, and three men associated in one way or another with the bus or the restaurant. (It was impossible to tell which player was involved in which part of the grand swindle.) The passengers already on the bus were starting to look mildly disgruntled. You expect a local bus to stop frequently, but not for 15 minutes while a batch of foreigners yell and make unintelligible demands and get on and off and can’t seem to decide what to do about their bags.

I thought maybe the best thing to do would be to get on this bus to Chau Doc and continue on to Can Tho—after all, what other choice did we have?—but I wasn’t willing to do that without a ticket. Who knew if we could trust anyone to transfer us to the next bus without more charges? Who knew if there was even actually a bus to Can Tho? I tried to insist on tickets. “No tickets!” one of the bus attendants fairly shouted at me, exasperated. “LOCAL BUS!”

Finally, the four of us and the Australian couple got on.

It was difficult, for the first hour or two, to look at my fellow bus passengers with anything but hostility. Although they’d had nothing to do with the scam and in fact had been quite inconvenienced by it themselves, I was not feeling kindly disposed towards the Vietnamese just yet. Frosty and hostile would be better descriptors.

I thawed somewhat when Ciaran fell asleep leaning on my shoulder. I moved his head down to my lap, and the man beside me smiled and picked up Ciaran’s feet and stretched them across his own lap. He seemed to do it just as a matter of course, the sort of kind thing anyone in his place would do for a sleeping child. Then a woman holding a toddler boarded the bus and sat in front of me, and smiled repeatedly at me, nodding towards the sleeping Ciaran and her own sleeping child. Mark used the phrasebook to find the words to ask how many children she had. Looking out the window, a very scenic Mekong Delta was flying by, all brilliant green rice fields, canals, noodle stalls and water buffalo. The bus jounced and rattled all the way, windows shaking and banging, suspension sounding like it could fall apart at any moment. It stopped repeatedly and briefly as people got on and off. At one stop (after Ciaran had woken up), the man to my left jumped nimbly out the window to buy a snack. We were sitting in the very back row, so it was easier than climbing over everyone to leave by the side door.

Dusty, thirsty and still on high alert for trickery, we arrived at Chau Doc around 4 p.m., seven hours after leaving Cambodia. We were duly transferred onto a much nicer minibus (after another round of heated discussion between the drivers as to the price we’d paid), clean and newish, bound for Can Tho. It was a bus that could accommodate perhaps 15-20 people, but there were only eight of us on it. Finally, I thought—luxury. Leg room. It was going to be speedy and fabulous.

Well, wrong again, as usual. Despite its flashy outward appearance, this was nonetheless another local bus. It would leave when full, and stop about 189 times on the way to Can Tho. It finally left around 5 p.m., an hour after we’d sat down on it. It careened down the highway honking nearly continuously at everything in its path, swerving and dodging madly and passing bigger vehicles around blind corners while the man who worked the door shouted a never-ending stream of instructions to the driver. We got to Can Tho shortly before 8 p.m. after 11 hours of travelling. None of us had eaten anything since breakfast, except for the drinks we’d had at the Scam Stop and some pieces of leftover baguette with peanut butter.

Disembarking, we were immediately surrounded by a posse of moto drivers vying for our business. But we do learn; we slowly but doggedly walked through the swarm, ignoring all of them, and sat down on a bench to decide what to do, rather than letting anyone give us any more deliberate misinformation. We were a kilometre or two from the centre of town and main hotel strip. Right about then, I saw a taxi going by. Mark leapt up and flagged it down. From there, life got a little easier: it was an ordinary metered taxi. I picked a centrally located hotel from the guidebook and we were on its doorstep about five minutes later.

You’d think the story would end there, but sadly, it does not.

We were looking for a room with two double beds—oh so scarce all over Asia—and I’d picked this hotel because it was reported to have such rooms. The front desk clerk had confirmed that it did. Mark went upstairs to view the available room while we waited in the lobby. He came down and said it wasn’t perfect, but it would do. While we were signing in, the clerk, a pudgy middle-aged man, started trying to make conversation, asking where we were from, how long we were staying and so on.

Happy to meet someone who was more interested in chatting with me than in cheating me, I told him we’d come all the way from Cambodia today and were exhausted after 12 hours of buses. I said we’d be heading out for dinner shortly because it was 9 p.m. and the children still had not had their dinner.

He said, in response, “So you want to see floating markets tomorrow? Must get up early to see, leave by 7 a.m. You want to go, I can sell tickets now for $30.”

I looked at him incredulously.

But I still wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. And it’s so hard to kick this unfailingly Canadian habit I have of always being so bloody polite. I said, most sweetly, “No thank you, no tickets, we are all very tired. We’ll talk later about what we want to do, and we’ll let you know.”

“Yes, but you should buy now. Tomorrow market very busy, very interesting for you. Next day not so busy, not so good.”

It was Wednesday. How different could Thursday and Friday possibly be from each other?

I said again, more curtly this time, “We are not going to decide on anything tonight. We’ll get some sleep and then we’ll talk to you about it.” I turned and went upstairs without waiting for a reply.

I thought I was home free, but I had just enough time to put my backpack down and dream of washing my hands before he reappeared at our door and actually walked right into our room, closing the door behind him.

“So tomorrow you booking trip to floating market?” he persisted. “Just $15 for all, see Cai Rang market. You want see canals, Phon Dien market, take five hours, $30 for all. Leave early. You booking tonight.”

That was when Mark drew on a well of patience that I had heretofore not known existed. He actually engaged this cretin in a five-minute conversation about the joys and possibilities of the nearby floating markets, then graciously showed him the door, promising that we’d get back to him later if we needed his services.

I finally took a good look around me and saw….not a room with two double beds, as expected, but one double and one single. Mark was so rattled and tired from the day’s events when he viewed the room that he hadn’t noticed it was one bed short of adequate. At least it was clean, if basic, except for an unpleasant odour and some stuffiness. It did have air-conditioning, and we figured turning that on would take care of the smell and the temperature. I would share the single bed with Ciaran.

Although the kids were exhausted, all of us were also starving, and after putting our bags down, we marched them back downstairs to find some food. We had just passed the reception desk again and were nearly on the sidewalk when the irritating floating-market man slipped out from behind the desk to give it yet another try. This time I didn’t even try to disguise the irritation in my voice. I told him in a tone ranging somewhere between barely controlled and outraged that we were going out now to feed our family and we were not planning to talk anymore about floating markets.

As I stomped away shaking my head, Mark reminded me that the hotel had actually taken possession of all four of our passports at check-in, so perhaps we should try a little harder not to antagonize the man. I had to concede he had a point there.

After we’d walked maybe six blocks and found the perfect place for a late-night dinner, we realized we were fresh out of dong, and would not be able to eat until we could also find a bank machine. So we set off again, with Chloe complaining that her head was hurting and both kids grumbling (rightfully) about being too tired to walk any further. We came upon a bank machine after about 10 minutes of walking, and I sat down across the street on a bench with the kids to wait while Mark went in to withdraw some money.

He came back five minutes later. “More bad news,” he said. “Communication error. We need to find another ATM.”

More loud groaning from everybody. Sagging spirits. Ten more minutes of walking, then success at the next ATM: And there we were, finally in Can Tho, with our bags safely secured in a hotel room, with local currency in hand, alive and on our way to dinner.

It would have ended well right there except that when we returned to our hotel room, we noticed that not only was the unpleasant odour still there, but it was worse. It had taken on a somewhat fishy aspect. We blamed it on the room—what else can you expect when you get a double room for $16?—and cranked up the air-conditioning and went to bed.

And I slept very well until I was awoken four hours later, around two in the morning, by what sounded like a chainsaw cutting through metal. The noise would swell and fade and almost disappear, then start up again. I kept my eyes closed and ascribed it to street noise—even in this mid-size city, the streets are teeming with activity at all hours. It gradually went away, confirming my initial diagnosis. I went back to sleep. But then it came back, pushing insistently through the fog in my head. I was determinedly trying to ignore it when I felt something wet splash one of my legs. There was no ignoring that—wide awake now, I bolted out of bed to find out what was wrong.

That was when I noticed the temperature in the room. It was probably at least 30 degrees, there was no breeze from the air-con unit at all, and it was clear that the unpleasant fishy smell had made some advances on the room while we’d been sleeping. It turned out that the loud grinding sound was coming from the air conditioner, which had ceased functioning at some point in the night. After it conked out, it began to drip all over the bed. Closer inspection revealed that the splash I had felt on my leg was really just the proverbial drop in the bucket. The bedding and half the mattress were soaked. Ciaran was still snoring away on top of the sodden mess. I dragged the bed across the floor, away from the dripping unit, and changed the bedding out from under him. Mark got out of bed and tried to fiddle with the air-con remote to keep some vestige of it working, but to no avail. We both went back to bed and lay there sweating in the airless, fishy-smelling room. There was no fan, and no screen on the window, so opening it wasn’t an option either. I was wide awake until morning.

We were up, packed and ready to move on by 7 a.m.; we were in a newer, marginally nicer place within the hour. The air-con here seems feeble to the point of uselessness, but at least it emits a gentle breeze and isn’t dumping a cascade of water on anyone (yet). The city seems friendlier by day—a few meals and large Tiger beers didn’t hurt either—and today we arranged a homestay in the delta that begins tomorrow. Then straight on to Saigon and, hopefully, easier times.

I guess the moral of this story is that when you knowingly set out to do something the hard way….you often end up doing it the hard way. That was the final land border crossing of this trip—we fly to India from Vietnam—and I think I’ve finally had my fill of them.

The story will live on for a while, though, in the fishy smell. Turns out it wasn’t coming from our first hotel room, but from Mark’s backpack, which must have accidentally come in contact with some of the delta’s famous fermented fish sauce somewhere during one of yesterday’s bus rides. Or maybe it was just the revenge of the bus driver…

It can only get better from here, right? We’ve resolved to take as many trains as we can from here on, avoiding buses as much as possible and motorbikes at all costs. As Mark put it, “We drew pretty heavily on our travel karma yesterday."

Posted by The Rymans 17:35 Archived in Vietnam Tagged family_travel Comments (9)

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