The Lola Boy’s Blog

The Last Word From A Lost World!

A Final Blog!

We leave Hanoi, the frenetic Vietnamese capital, with heavy hearts and even weightier rucksacks due to the ridiculous oriental trinketry I have unwisely failed to resist! imageThe shopping is amazing here, each twisting lane presenting a cornucopia of merchandise to lighten one’s purse and darken one’s load. I envisage some lively conversations between Mr Kennedy and I as we hit the open road with a few extra bronze Buddhas as travelling companions. Not to mention the deceptively heavy, lacquered ‘Tintin In Vietnam’ picture, which I’ve managed to secrete into a secret section of one of the backpacks. I don’t think he’s noticed it yet !!!

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imageAt the moment we are enjoying a brief honeymoon period, after having spent a week many miles apart. Reunification in North Vietnam has been a marvellous exercise. Absence doesn’t just make the heart grow fonder!

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But enough of that, the Vietnamese frown on open displays of affection, even though they are an extremely tolerant society. And why not? It certainly shows more decorum. There are some things that should stay well and truly behind the iron curtain that undoubtedly still exists here.

I do not, however, believe this includes the pastime of blogging. This literary hobby surely constitutes a freedom of speech, a privilege, we in The West, take absolutely for granted. To have one’s voice silenced through the actions of Vietnam’s communist government is insidious, and, if I may say, a little rude! Now we are safely out of range of the ruling party’s heavy-handed iron fist I am able, without fear of recrimination, to say what I truly feel.

This is a great nation. It’s people are resilient, hard-working and proud. They possess a sharp intelligence and a sometimes ferocious wit. They are entrepreneurial and yet keenly socially conscious as well. The family and it’s inherently decent values are paramount to them. They can be deadly serious and then collapse into fits of genuine laughter at the drop of a chopstick. Their national character, contrary to much of what I have read on the internet, is imbued with an incandescent array of colour. It is nothing short of tragic that these fine and decent people have been saddled with a colourless and humourless ‘parliament’, with all the attraction of Ho Chi Minh’s lifeless, embalmed corpse.

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It is true that many still revere their mummified former leader. But going by most of the lively conversations in which I have engaged with the local population, this deference seems mainly due to the miracle he performed by kicking out the French colonialists, and not in any part an admiration of his Soviet style policies. Plus, a little whitewashing of historical fact and a lot of brainwashing, a despicable act, that is compulsorily carried out in schools nationwide ! It seems the government doesn’t think this bright and erudite country has the brains to think for itself. Or have a say in how it is governed.

A leadership which governs in this arbitrary and undemocratic manner certainly doesn’t get my vote !

The manipulation of the country’s media, which is entirely run by the state, is a parlous state of affairs. These so-called Socialists should be red-faced with embarrassment and shame. It is a credit to the population that this wonderful land is awash with smiling optimism despite not having the right to put a cross in a box. Those brave souls who have the courage to speak out against such political tyranny and end up with enforced room service at the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ get my endorsement. These are the real politicians. The genuine heroes. Not the tin-pot generals and ‘yes men’ who are unelected to such elevated seats of power. Who are so paranoid about maintaining absolute control that they think it necessary to block a silly Western cabaret artiste from making a few wry comments online. They make me gag!

I believe the situation is calm here now as the economic conditions within Vietnam are equally as placid. But there is a definite underlying political tension here, and not a definite underlying pension! If the currency of the ‘Dong’ starts going for a song, the populace may start to sing an altogether different tune. A revolutionary ditty which will have those ruling generals running for cover to the Viet Cong’s many wartime tunnels, holding on to their tin pot hats as they go. I, for one, will be cheering from the sidelines, if this beautiful nation takes hold of her own reigns, and canters gracefully towards the winning post. After spending an utterly incredible month getting to know the good folk of Vietnam, I believe the odds are more than even, and the going, exceptionally good. I can’t wait for the starting pistol to begin the grand nation.

And so we say farewell to this exotic part of the world, happy in the knowledge that this country has won our hearts and leaving her makes us sad, so it is good mourning Vietnam.

We have now pushed on even further from home.

Our plan was to visit China, but the thought of being gagged and monitored for another extended period, by another paranoid and ultra bureaucratic totalitarian regime, seems little more than a voluntary prison sentence, rather than an exotic adventure. So we have decided to avoid the risk of getting caught in the censorious jaws of the giant red dragon and have instead headed south for our first ever visit to Indonesia.

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We have arrived in Bali for ‘Nyepi’ – the fantastic Balinese festival of spirits, where titanic, garish monsters are paraded through the streets in order to scare off any real demons who may be contemplating a Vietnamese style takeover.

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It was a vibrant and noisy start to our exploration of the south seas. The tribal drumming and rhythmic chants have certainly helped us to shake of the constraints of any residual authoritarianism.

Although, ironically, we have been silenced once again on this trip, but by an altogether different authority. Today is known here as ‘The Day Of Silence.’ Not a human being on this exotic isle is allowed to stir or take to the streets. This is to fool the angry gods into thinking the place is uninhabited, so that they go on their demonic ways and leave Bali in peace.

We have been forbidden to leave our home stay by the charming family with whom we share it. We can eat only what we are provided with and must keep noise to a minimum. Andrew is thrilled as he doesn’t have to contend with my constant chatter for at least a day. Surprisingly, being such a keen exponent of the art of conversation, I am not finding this a hardship, especially as we are currently residing in a true paradise, south of the equator.

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Home

And so to comply with local tradition, I have decided to remain silent for the rest of the day, in fact, for the rest of this trip, which means it is time to bring this blog to a close.

Our trip so far has been everything we could have wished for and more. Asia continues to enthrall and fascinate. The sophistication and sheer beauty of Thailand, with it’s arcane rituals and brilliant cuisine. Stunning Cambodia, where the people are as warm as the land they inhabit. And, of course, unforgettable Vietnam. A country of such unique culture and timelessness, that has resisted all attempts to be reshaped by the aggressive chiselling of foreign and domestic sculptors. Defiantly and proudly retaining her ancient form, fecund with spirituality and mysticism. We have been most fortunate and are more than grateful to have been welcomed into these gerontogeous climes with so much sincere hospitality.

We now plan to venture into deepest, darkest Indonesia. Traversing that evocatively invisible borderline we call the world’s equator.

And for once, I’m not gonna shoot my mouth off !

What happens south of the border – stays south of the border!

That is, until I release my first book of our adventures ….

The Lola Boys Out East !

Unavailable in all good bookstores.

But it should be ready for the dodgy ones early next year!

Categories: The Lola Boy's Blog, The Lola Boys | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Solo Adventures Of A Forty-Something Teenage Detective!

Dong Hoi

imageI set out from my ‘bijoux’ guest house in the small, provincial, untouristic town of Dong Hoi and headed for the incongruously psychedelic bridge which crossed the Nhat Li river.

There was not a lot to see here, the town once being the main staging post for the Viet Cong during the war, it’s environs had been completely razed to the ground. image

The main sights being the bombed out church, preserved as yet another reminder of yet another U.S. war crime, and the bridge, an excellent example of a Vietnamese architect’s draw crime!

The only other vaguely historical point of interest was the remains of an ancient gate which had once been the entrance to an impressive citadel.

Sadly this was unmaintained and littered with rubbish, including a few used syringes.

Apparently this unassuming little conurbation lies on the main heroin smuggling route. The locals say the brown stuff arrives on boats and is then transported overland into Laos, just twenty miles west of here. This would explain the small underbelly of the populace which I have noticed on my meanderings – wandering aimlessly, dazed and confused. I mean them, as well as me. I had assumed there was a small underfunded, psychiatric unit nearby, I now knew better.

imageI crossed the funky bridge, grey and wan in it’s daytime attire and headed for the sandy spit which I’d espied from attic room days earlier. From there it had appeared close by – just a cough and a spit on a bicylce. However, as it transpired, the journey was more akin to. A case of full blown pnuemonia!

As the essential early morning Vietnamese coffee kicked in violently, I found myself pedalling furiously through the narrow lanes. The bike had ten gears apparently, although the other nine I had tried were refusing to co-operate. The bike and I were most definitely not in tandem.

After what seemed like a very short time, I found myself alongside an extremely quiet stretch of beach. Sand dunes rolled out for as far as the eye could see, and all I could hear was the noisy roar of the implacid South China Sea, crashing ferociously sounding like an oriental timpani section as it met the beach.

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The sea itself was unswimmable, the current quite unmanageable, even for a cross channel veteran such as David Walliams. I had been warned to venture in by Vanh, my lovely guest house owner. Had she not been so forthcoming with her coastguardly advice, I would still not have been remotely tempted. Though impressive, majestic even, this remote stretch of ocean is terribly uninviting. The South China Sea can be incredibly agressive at times. Perhaps this great part of the Western Pacific is rebelling in response to China’s recent agression in this maritime region. That great nation seems intent on claiming most of these waters for herself, even those far from it’s shores, much to the chagrin of Vietnam and the other numerous countries who share the it’s coastline. It seems the sea is not the only part of this region with a disturbingl and dangerous undercurrent!

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Greedy,greedy!

I was interrupted from my high-brow geo-political reverie by four young lads, who were visiting the beautiful, if deadly beach on a day trip. Do, Hi, Cok and Wi, who on mass sounded suspiciously like Donald Duck’s nephews, were having a quacking time. (Apologies!) despite the weather. And of course they went quackers when the chance of having a snap with an odd looking westerner materialised. They wanted nothing more than to beach bond with the bleach blonde who had washed up on their tumultuous shoreline. I was more than happy to oblige, they were such sweet and gentle guys, as they always seem to be in this country.

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If the youth are anything to go by, surely only good things can happen here in the future.
I left the beach and cycled onto a road that was under construction. I went for some time at considerable speed, now having re-discovered the art of changing gears on a bicycle. The wind in my hair, the sun attempting to light up my face, it felt great. I was out alone, rucksacked and rebellious, ignoring the boringly dry guidebook and heading for adventure. I’d found at least half of my inner TinTin for which I’d been searching. Now for the remainder.

Then, from what seemed like no-where, two angry hounds from hell, sprung up from the side of the deserted highway and gave chase. I stood on the pedals in an attempt to accelerate away, but neither the bike nor my quadriceps responded quite as quickly as they had once done. image

One of the vicious looking curs, a mean yellow thing, who looked as if he’d swallowed a box of washing powder, made bold!

It went directly for my right ankle. For a moment he caught the bottom of my jeans between his sizeable jaws and I wobbled unsteadily. Physically and mentally! I kicked out hard, there was a yelp, I did not look back as the bike suddenly kicked itself into gear and I was free. My heart was pounding, my thoughts racing faster than the guy in the yellow jersey on the Tour De France. ‘What ifs’ abounded. Not least, what if I’d been bitten?!

Especially as Andrew and I had declined the offer of a series of Rabies shots prior to setting off for eastern climes. The jabs were so expensive and the risks seemingly so distant then, as we sat comfortably ensconced in the tropical nurse’s spotless, Gibraltar surgery.

She had kindly warned us of a recent outbreak in Saigon, but we’d not been swayed. I was now busy wondering if we’d been barking mad to make such a decision when I heard loud voices coming from behind. My initial thought was that I’d raised the heckles of the mean, yellow dog’s owner and he was chastising me, even giving chase! I didn’t wait to find out, but moved up through the gears as fast as I could and turned down a sandy path just beyond some camouflaging scrub, hoping I would lose any possible pursuants.

I could hear more angry shouts, now growing more urgent, I turned to look over my shoulder. To my surprise, instead of an oriental peasant with a shovel and a pissed off mutt, there stood behind me two very serious looking men in army green uniform, with two very serious looking guns by their sides. There was not a dog or serf in sight! I slammed on the brakes, and shot them an apologetic and confused touristy look. I knew I’d obviously made a transgression somehow, perhaps they’d read the blog! I was not in such adventurous mood as to try and outride two Viet army personel who appeared highly concerned and highly armed! I did want to trigger a Viet wrong!

I turned the bike around and made my way towards them.
“No! No!” They were shrieking. Holding up their arms, and thankfully not their arms, in a crossed position in the air.
“No! No! Not allow!”
As I reached the two guys there urgency did not diminish. The taller of the two was making strange noises and waving his arms in an expansive gesture. For a moment he looked as though he was doing the dance that accompanied the Y.M.C.A., I could have giggled with nerves, I was scared enough, instead I maintained composure. He continued on with his Village People  routine and with the noises, which I could now discern as ‘Boom’, ‘Bersh’, ‘Boc Boc’, etc.
It was then I twigged!

There was obviously unexploded ordinance here. I nad been warned by Vanh, and am usually very sensible under such circumstances, but ‘The Hounds Of The Baskervilles’ had put me off my pace and I’d obviously gone further off road than I had realised.
“I’m sorry, so sorry” I apologised, smiling manically. Teeth usually make a difference here.
“Thankyou, thankyou. Cam Un. Cam un.” A little bit of the local lingo goes a long way too.

At once their stern attitude changed. They were not angry with me, only concerned for my physical welfare. They smiled broadly and laughed hard. The three of us shared a moment of nervous hilarity as we shook hands and giggled energetically at the thought of me being blown to smithereens!

They were so nice, they even directed me on an alternative route, avoiding the brutish canines and the U.X.B. I was most grateful.

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After another ten minutes of riding, my crotch and I needed a break. I stopped on the deserted road and took some water.

I marvelled at the construction of all the infrastructure surrounding me, and wondered at the lack of people.

Just who exactly were they putting all this structure ‘infra’!

There was nobody here!

Other than a guy on a black moped who nad been putting along very slowly ahead of me for the last ten minutes or so. Every now and then he would come to a halt, and glance, rather too conspicuously, in his rear view mirrors, seemingly to check my position.

I passed him a couple of times as he remained inexplicably stationary at the side of the deserted highway, giving him a wide berth and attempting to look confident and butch, as my late father had always dispondantly encouraged. Each time, the shrouded rider would start up again and accelerate further down the road, stopping a couple of hundred yards in front of me, looking once more to his mirrors. After about quarter of an hour of this strange duel, I began to grow a little apprehensive. What with the the mad dogs, the leftover bombs and now this mysterious biker, everything was becoming a little too ‘Herge’ – even for my liking!

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My ‘Tin’ was definitely rattled.

I was alone, at least five miles from anywhere, and it felt like five hundred. There was nothing for it but too stand my ground. Dig deep and mine the other half of my Tintin spirit – discover my true metal.

I took out the mobile phone I’d had the foresight to pocket prior to venturing out and held it very obviously in my hand. I then pretended to make a phone call, shouting ridiculously loudly to ensure the masked motorcyclist could hear me. I then clicked the phone into camera mode, stood tall on the bike, and pedalled directly towards the suspected highwayman. I stopped abruptly, about twenty feet from him, lifted the camera high into the air, and took a photograph. I then put the phone back into my pocket and continued to ride past the guy, smiling confidently as I did so. As he was masked I could not tell if he reciprocated, although I had my doubts!

I cycled on, I did not look back for fear of appearing insecure. I kept my pace slow and measured – for once dad would have been proud.

After a couple of minutes, I stopped. Climbed out of the saddle and kicked on my bike-stand in the manner I imagine John Wayne would have done in a similar showdown. As I did so I clumsily bashed my ankle bone into the bike frame in a style more akin to ‘Blazing Saddles’! I tried hard not to react, but it bloody hurt. I then opened my rucksack, took out my water, and nonchalantly took a swig, missing my mouth entirely, and throwing most of the H2O into my left eye! I glanced over, as surreptitiously as I could with the one that could still focus, in the biker’s direction. He had begun to move towards me again – I held my nerve. I could hear the soundtrack of ‘The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly’ reverberating around my head at great speed.

“Duddle Uddle Urr – Durr Durr Durr”!!!

And then, suddenly, as quickly as he had appeared, the ghost-rider made a broad u-turn and crossed to the opposite lane. He then rode directly away from me. Calm and deliberate, without so much as a nod of his helmet.

We had, at last, parted company.

Not before time!

I waited a good twenty minutes, or so it seemed. The battery in the phone was exhausted, I had know way of knowing for certain. The photograph I had snapped of my shady biker friend in order to expose him, had been it’s final exposure!

I made my way calmly back towards the town, feeling partially relieved, and, egocentrically, a little proud of myself that I had managed to deter a possible highway robbery, or perhaps something worse! Either that, or my paranoid western sensibilities had got the better of me, and I had scared a poor Vietnamese joyrider witless, with an intriguing game of cat and mouse!

My gut feeling, however, points towards the former.

This country feels, and is, incredibly safe, doubtless due in some part to the fear instilled into the local population by the Vietnamese state should they dare to commit a crime. The gaols here are notoriously unreformed – Elizabeth Fry would have had a field day!

But narcotics can take away one’s fear of reprisal, and with the underlying drugs issue here unresolved, I wonder if I’d just been unlucky enough to encounter one of the few desperate local junkies out on the empty highway.

As I neared the river, a motorcycle pulled up directly alongside me.
‘Blistering Barnacles!’ I nearly jumped out of my skin!
But immediately I was greeted with a benign, smiling hello. It was Linh, one of the student waitresses employed at the small cafe opposite my hotel. She just wanted to ride beside me and chat, practicing her English as we went. I was more than happy to have her with me as we rode back towards civilisation.

“What is you name?” She asked, beaming. Innocent and guileless and with innate charm.
“Tintin” I wanted to answer. But I knew this was unfair. Cruel even, and the joke would have been lost.
“Paul”, I said, returning the smile. “It’s Paul”.
But I knew, that deep down inside, it was Tintin again. If even just for a few exciting moments.

And as the sun broke through the haze for the first time in days, so did my teenage self. I was delighted to know that the boy detective deep inside of me, almost suffocated by the trials and tribulations of adulthood, was most definitely alive and kicking, and it felt utterly brilliant.

Although, I think that may be enough solo adventure for one comic’s trip !

Tomorrow I head for Hanoi to meet up with my old partner in ryhme.
The double act is to be reunited.

But I shall always be grateful for this week I spent alone. Thankful for the hounds, the unexploded ordinance and the angel from hell, which provided me with just enough danger to resuscitate my inner child.

Now he’s been given the kiss of life, I may invite him out to play more often.

“Come on Snowy. Walkies”!

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Two Go To Devil’s Island!

Con Son, also known as Indochina’s Devil’s Island, is the main isle of the remote archipelago of Con Dao, lurking quietly,  far out in the turquoise South China Sea, just off the coast of southern Vietnam. Today, it is mainly visited by northern Vietnamese war veterans, who had once been incarcerated here during the infamous American campaign last century. They come to pay respects to their fallen colleagues and, I imagine, in an attempt to reconcile themselves with the brutality they were forced to endure here.

It was The French who built most of the prisons in this beautiful place, during their colonisation of the country. The lock-ups were used to keep those natives who had the audacity to rebel against France’s colonial ambitions. Almost twenty years after The French were kicked out, the United States put the jails to bad use once more, when they transferred Viet Cong fighters here to be imprisoned in the infamous ‘Tiger Cages’.

This is a ‘Tiger Cage’ !

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A pit with a barred grill as a ceiling, so that the guards, like demented circus trainers, could stab at the inmates below with thick bamboo poles. These torturers also threw lime onto their captives to blind them and scorch their skin.

imageFor those ‘lucky’ enough to avoid these hellish holes, an altogether different abode awaited. Known as solariums, these were stone cells, completely open to the fierce sunlight. Made to share these compounds with hundreds of others, naked and without room to even lay down, these men and women literally baked alive under the punishing, equatorial sun.

The Americans denied the existence of these killing rooms, much like the waterboading which took place at Guantanamo Bay. But, in 1970, they were forced to admit their cruelty. A journalist, on a controlled congressional visit to the gaol, had in his posession a secret map, drawn by an ex-con, and detailing the whereabouts of the rumoured ‘Tiger Cages’. He managed to break off from the main group, and following a path leading behind a vegetable plot, used as camouflage, he discovered these brutal cells. ‘Life’ magazine then published his photos for the world to see.

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America was shamed and forced to apologise.  Just another example that none of the participants in that fatal conflict conducted themselves with anything near flying colours.  The Geneva Convention was torn up and fed to the big cats.

It was a very eerie visit.  To walk through a gate, leaving paradise feet behind, and to be confronted by a genuine house of horror.  The atmosphere was a heavy as the iron manacles which still lay on the hard stone floors.  It was difficult to remember we were in an exotic heaven when surrounded by such barbaric history.  The imaginative evil to which Man is able to stoop during war is beyond imagination.

We were pleased to leave !

Not before giving one of the guards a disrespectful hand to lighten our mood. A shameful act for a shameful place!

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Thankfully, the rest of the island is a delight. Cobalt blue waters, emerald mountains, abundant wildlife, and best of all, no Starbucks in sight !  It would be very interesting to return in ten years time, to see if Ronald Macdonald has kept his grubby hands of the place.  Perhaps the heavy red glove of the communist government will hold back any of his commercial clowning.  Although, having just spent six days in Saigon, I very much doubt it.  Change maybe at a glacial pace here, but at some point the floodwaters of commerce will surely overrun the islet’s innocent defences.  Paradise, after all, never endures !

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imageWe took a motorbike to see the rest of the island.  It was glorious, the ride, however, was not.  I hadn’t ridden for several years, and saddled with a hungover hunk, by the name of Andrew Kennedy, riding pillion, we must have looked like ‘George And Mildred’ as we wobbled precariously along the precipitous roads.

imageWe stopped for lunch at a local village, or rather, the only other village!  Our hosts were so polite and engaging, that we thought it churlish to refuse their fishy offering.  The ‘head chef’ sat with us and prepared the frightful feast.  He seemed to take a shine to me, and I was therefore offered all the best bits of this marine meal.  First, he fed me a fish eye, which glared at me angrily before he chopsticked it into my gob.  Then, I sampled some gill and something quite unrecognisable that came from the fish’s midrift.  Finally, with a flourish, I was presented with a type of organ, which flapped between the sticks before it slithered down my gullet.  It was most unappealing.

Andrew looked on, with barely suppressed hilarity, as he escaped most of this fishy torture.  He was, however, offered the head of the creature to munch on, as a digestif.  Our cook was taking no prisoners when it came to his selection of menu!

A day later, and I can still taste the overdose of iron in my mouth.  It is like I have had a flagon of fish liver force fed.  A faceful !  I doubt I shall ever be able to contemplate a plate of cod and chips again !

In the evening, still with bass breath, we joined the local game of Bingo.  A manic affair, run by two terribly stern looking drag queens, resembling camp guards from the tv show ‘Tenko’!

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imageThe numbers were sung, at lightning speed, by a flat singer in sequins.  Without the help of the charming ‘Miss Hassan’ lookalike, we would have been lost.  She kindly handed Andrew a white piece of chalk with which to cross off his numbers.  He misunderstood, and much to everyones amusement, he put the chalk into his mouth and began to chew, thinking it was a sweet.  He spat it out once he eventually realised his inedible error, but at least it had got rid of the flavour of fish bonce that was still lingering on his palate.

Needless to say, we didn’t win!

I think something fishy may have been going on here too, as the same man won three cases of Tiger beer in a row.

We had to buy ours!

It was a fun night, and the bottled Tiger and the Bingo cage, helped to erase the memory of our visit to the other ‘Tiger Cages’ the previous day, which was most definitely the pits !

Tomorrow we head for the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

But we shall not forget Con Dao, with it’s beauty and bestiality.  It is a place where nature still roars at her most magnificent.

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Categories: The Lola Boy's Blog, The Lola Boys | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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