2008: The Conclusion

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It’s just about three years to the date I quit my job and trotted off round the region for some major travelling. I’ve come back, snagged a new job, started dating the guy who would be my husband and finally, finally finished blogging about each trip. It’s been a big project: first taking a year and a good chunk of my savings to go travelling, then documenting all of it – some of it before I started work again and most of it while juggling a new and challenging job.

Friends asked if I’d write a book and I seriously considered it for a month or so. After writing a few drafts on gmail, I realised that I had neither the vision nor the perseverance to turn it into a book. I already have another personal blog and figured why not just blog it. After all, I wasn’t out to make money with publishing a book. (Neither did it help that I didn’t want to spend even more of my savings on what I feel is a vanity project – I simply didn’t know what to say, aside from “look at me, look what I did!”) So I started this blog and plonked in the first gmail drafts as a start.

The biggest thing I learned from this project was that I could make things happen. I had the resources and capacity to step right out and do what had been pent up within me for a while. I came from the point of being burnt out and exhausted from my previous job, full of resentment at the system. I needed a time of calm, of being by myself and of doing what I wanted whenever I wanted for a few good months. I needed this break, and I made it happen.

I eased into gradually. Don’t ask me how things came together, but they did. I started off in Laos with the really chill and laidback Siamesecat for two weeks. We sat in neverending bus rides, stumbled into bus stations at ungodly hours in the morning and swung like monkeys from tree to tree. We explored various food options, flirted with other travellers and got really comfortable being on the road together. She was the calm to my uptightness, she stayed awake while I passed out and slept at the Ungodly Hour bus station at 4am. All I needed to do was navigate (running joke between us that she’d never get anywhere without me) and occasionally communicate with sign language, grunts and shy smiles with the locals.

Then I went to the Philippines. I strung several trips into one, starting out diving with a bunch from my usual dive group and going snorkelling with the whalesharks with them, followed by a visit to a community that my church had been sponsoring, some time travelling independently, then more diving with another friend. The stretches of independent travel interspersed with fully planned activities helped me ease further into independent travel.

The next jaunt was to Thailand. I was fortunate to have the lovely and ever hospitable Dee open her home to me as a (very swanky) base in Bangkok. From there, I went to Kanchanaburi and suddenly found myself, for once, truly on my own with no particular aim nor date to return by. Again, the stars aligned and I fell in with Tom. We travelled the rest of my Thailand trip together and again he was the laidback foil to my go-getterness and pretty much went with the flow of whatever caught my fancy.

Vietnam was the rude shock to my system. I was well and truly alone, not having any long-term travel companion. It was there that I toughened up, practised being super assertive and learning to protect myself. I think I matured as a traveller then, doing all sorts out risky things like stand up for myself to an exortionist bully in a dark street at midnight, fend for myself in all sorts of odd situations, and learn to deal with the crap travelling threw at me (like being knocked over – ever so gently – by a motorbike while crossing the street in Ho Chi Minh City and jumping right back up cussing at the hapless, wide-eyed rider).

And that was pretty much the learning curve for me. Following that, China was incredibly, unbelievably smooth sailing and eye-opening. It exceeded my expectations tremendously and delivered none of the negative stuff I thought might come following my Vietnam experience. Then it was Bali and Komodo for some of the best diving I’ve ever done and experiences with incredibly warm people.

All in all, I think I did pretty well: getting through it all in one piece. I watched out for myself and also learned when to let go, relax and trust people. I soaked up little tricks like keeping exact change in hand beforehand so that I could close negotiations quickly, and counting the number of bags I had whenever I left a bus or train or plane. I learned how to assess situations and get out of them, like how I avoided the prophylactic-wielding tour guide or  knowing that having several very strong drinks with a bunch of friendly Canadians on Canada Day is cool, but going to their room to smoke pot for the first time while high on said strong drinks isn’t.

After 200 days of travelling in 8 countries and 3 years of documenting it here, I’ve achieved the goal I set out in the travel section of this blog.

July in Vietnam: A Ho Chi Minh Finale

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Before I knew it, I was back in Ho Chi Minh City. It was unmistakable from the sheer volume of motorcycles that seemed to populate the city.

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I visited the main sights like the Main Post Office, worth a look for its French-style architecture.

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And the stately People’s Committee Building or Hotel de Ville. Sadly, it didn’t take visitors, leaving me to take (very bad) pictures from across the street.

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Right in the front of the Hotel de Ville was a statue of Uncle Ho, the city’s namesake, comforting a child.

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Then there was the Notre Dame Cathedral that lost all its stained glass in the War. Its facade wasn’t very inspiring…

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… but inside there were rather unique statues of Vietnamese saints at one of the niches.

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There were also amusing Fun With English admonishing tourists to let the mass be.

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I also wandered out into the Cholon district, where the Chinatown of Saigon lay. Some of the temples here outshone those in Hoi An by far with their ornate yet somehow tasteful decor. I greatly enjoyed the contrast between black and gold here, complemented by the red background.

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The light that day was just perfect for this lovely shot of celestial light streaming past the conical joss sticks to reflect wildly off the ceremonial urn.

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There were other bits of detail that I really enjoyed, like this eave guard standing with his fan or some such ready to do… what? Battle with unseen miniature dragons? Beat back the wind?

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And there was this deliciously child-like panorama of a manor house and its out buildings.

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I’ve somehow lost the pictures I took when eating with Delightt, of banh mi so yummy I had to take some on the plane with me, and mushroom pizzas so addictive I had to have one for brunch despite already having had breakfast and plans for lunch. But I managed to take a picture of a very unusual breakfast of banh cuon, the Viet take on chee cheong fun. I must say that the Vietnamese can outcook the Cantonese for chee cheong fun. (The Singaporean hawker version served with that nasty sweet sauce is irredeemable.) Their version was much thinner and finer, so good that it was even better eaten cold. Mine was stuffed with minced pork and mushroom then sprinkled with nuoc mam and accompanied by spamsticks and basil. It was incredibly yummy.

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And then there was Fanny. Delightt and I spent a good afternoon there trying flavour after flavour. They had strange ones like custard apple, peanut and ginger flavours. Most were really yummy, like passionfruit and mango and the usual vanilla flavours. The waitress was incredibly patient with us as we chose to order each scoop separately (they gave one wafer and one grape garnish for each ice cream cup), especially considering that each scoop only cost 11,000 dong (USD0.65). Excellent stuff.

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And last of all was one of the best bits of being in Vietnam – having ca phe sua da (ice coffee with condensed milk). Trung Nguyen was everywhere and I dropped in often to get my coffee fix. It was here that I had the most expensive cup of coffee in my life – civet cat coffee, which was strong, intense and cost me a pretty USD7. It would otherwise have bought me a whole day of gluttonous eating. A pity that the coffee was so strong it started giving me palpitations and I couldn’t finish it.

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Perhaps a fitting metaphor for my experience in Vietnam. Goodbye Vietnam of the bittersweet memories.

July in Vietnam: Boats on the Mekong

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A tour of the Delta was incomplete without a look at the boats populating the Mekong. There were lots of boats filled with junk (rather than real junks like the tourist ones up-country at Ha Long Bay.

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But a far cry from the North, here the inhabitants were incredibly friendly, waving warmly at the tourists passing by.

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Seeing as the river was so full of traffic, there were plenty of signs governing boat movements.

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Good luck in trying to decipher them all though!

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Here, there were bona fide floating markets that were there for true commerce rather than purely tourist commerce as in other more famous floating markets. Here, goods seemed to be traded in bulk as heavily laden boats plied up and down the river. How to figure out what each boat sold? Easy, just look at what was displayed on the poles.

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This boat was selling all sorts of vegetables and fruit.

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Another sold yet another mind boggling array of local produce.

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And here the boat sold an assortment of melons and pumpkins. I wonder what would happen if a boat wanted to sell pork or beef though.

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To make a sale, the boat owner had to catch the attention of the derelict little sampans and row the produce out to the buyer, whether on shore or on another boat.

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Some of the more enterprising boats sold banh mi (baguette sandwiches) from their floating stalls. Life here, it seemed, could be lived exclusively on the water.

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Even colourful wardrobes of clothes were brought onto the boat. The owner was never too far from a clean change of clothes.

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And of course, they lazed in their hammocks in the setting sun, exactly the way to end a long day on the river.

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July in Vietnam: Out on the Mekong Delta

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My next short jaunt out of Ho Chi Minh City was a tour of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong flows through much of Southeast Asia and is of utmost importance to the livelihood of those who live along its banks. When it reaches the sea, the mighty river breaks into many distributories flowing over the vast expanse of the Mekong  Delta, stretching at least a 100km along the coast of Vietnam. Even its distributories are vast, taking some effort to cross.

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At some places, the river was narrow enough to build a bridge across.

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At others, the opposite bank was a bit too far away for a bridge.

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We had to crowd with the motobikes in the ferries to get across. Aside from the usual chickens, ducks and vegetables, one even carried live fish in a makeshift waxed canvas tank.

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The river was their livelihood and people lived along the river even if it meant building their houses on stilts. No matter if there wasn’t land in the front, a hanging garden did the trick.

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Others grew their garden on the balconies, like this house with its dragonfruit cacti creeping down towards the water.

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Further away from the river were places of worship, like this Khmer temple that looked like it had been transplanted from Cambodia.

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This area being close to Cambodia, there was a significant Khmer minority here. Some of the Buddhist temples I saw in this area were of quite a different style from the other Mahayana temples I’d seen in Vietnam. This was definitely closer to the Thai and Lao style temples…

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… even down to the saffron-robed monks running the temple.

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There was also a scattering of other places of worship, like this church here. It looked a little incongruous rising elegantly from the rather scruffy stilt huts along the river.

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As part of the tour, we were taken to see some of the cottage industries. One of them was food manufacture. Here, ladies patiently worked over wood fires making rice paper by hand.

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Others tempered melted coconut sugar to make rich caramelly coconut candy.

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And men did the grunt work of pressing popped rice into blocks which would then be coated in syrup and cut into crispy-crunchy sugary snacks.

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It was lovely wandering through the little hamlets in the area, passing under gardens and other topiary.

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And also chancing on a wedding banquet, where the happy couple was happy to let tourists take pictures of them on their big day.

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There were also some quiet backwaters…

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… which weren’t so quiet when children popped out of nowhere screaming “hello hello!” at passing tourist boats.

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It was lovely to wave back at them…

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… their smiles were such a lovely lift to river experience.

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July in Vietnam: The Infamous Cu Chi Tunnels AKA Where I Shot an AK-47

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A trip to Vietnam somehow didn’t quite seem complete without a look at some sights to do with the War. Much as I dislike seeing signs of war and suffering (a previous trip to Auschwitz had me depressed for days), I thought I’d educate myself by at least going to see the Cu Chi Tunnels. This was where the Viet Cong resistance dug out a complex series of narrow tunnels in which they hid during the day and from which they carried out guerrilla attacks on the Americans.

Unsurprisingly, it was in the middle of some nondescript secondary forest.

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Even more unsurprisingly, this forest housed some bad ass mosquitoes that attacked in no time, giving me huge bites even on my hand.

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We filed past the usual war relics like this abandoned tank that was later infested by tourists hanging off every inch of the bedraggled scrap, trying for a good angle for a photo.

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We then got to the tunnels proper, where our guide demonstrated how he managed to get down into entrance of this tiny tunnel.

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Slim as he was, he had to do some good wriggling before he managed to squirm free of the tunnel.

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And then it was our turn to go in. Here, the tunnels were already enlarged for tourists and I was a little spooked by the close darkness even in that short length.

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We were also shown some nasty booby traps where a false floor swung away to reveal wooden spikes. We were told that these spikes were often smeared with excrement, causing wounds to fester and the victim to eventually suffer a prolonged and painful death. It was a way of inflicting as much fear and dread as possible on the enemy.

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I was glad to finish up on the info gathering and whizzed quickly round the mock up of living conditions of the Viet Cong resistance. It was time for some experiential learning and I got that by shooting an AK-47. For about US$7, I bought myself five rounds. I held them gingerly, fearing that they would explode if I squeezed too hard.

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The nice man in combat fatigues showed me how to hold the gun and plopped the ear muffs on my head. (Don’t laugh, I know it’s all wrong.) And then I fired off the rounds one by one, not knowing whether they hit the target or not. The nice man just smiled and gave me the thumbs up sign when I asked how I did. He was obviously lying. At least he was nice enough not to hurt my pride.

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And of course he completed his nice man gig by helping me take some cool pictures of me holding a gun. Woohoo.

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July in Vietnam: The Cao Dai Holy See

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From Mui Ne, I moved on to Ho Chi Minh City and almost immediately found myself on a tour out to the Cao Dai Holy See. Cao Dai is a new religion founded in Tay Ninh province near Ho Chi Minh City in the 20th Century. It’s a fusion of eastern and western religions and, according to Lonely Planet, incorporates elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Confucianism, native Vietnamese spiritualism and Islam. Services are held four times a day at midnight, 6am, noon and 6pm. It was one of these services that my tour took me to see.

The architecture of the temple, just like the religion, had a mishmash of influences. The outlying pagodas had a pastel wedding cake feel so typical of western fairy tale castle architecture yet were unmistakeably shaped like  Chinese pagodas.

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The main temple building was much the same, where a Muslim-inspired dome that sat on Chinese-style tiled roofs was detailed with vaguely Baroque styling and topped with a Chinese qilin (unicorn).

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The oddly disjointed design was somehow unified by the pastel colour scheme.

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Worshippers in long white gowns were starting to stream in, a stark contrast to the colourful temple. Outside, venerated saints looked benevolently down from the pastel blue sky dotted with fuzzy clouds.

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I couldn’t help my amusement at how the real weather was fair more threatening than the one painted on the walls, giving the temple an even more surreal feel.

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And just inside the temple was a large mural with Sun Yat-sen, Victor Hugo and Viet poet Nguyen Binh Khiem writing out God and Humanity, Love and Justice in French and Chinese. My mind boggled trying to figure out the link between them.

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The tourists then herded onto the balconies along the main sanctuaries, gawking at the blue skies and fluffy white clouds on the ceiling and the dragons plastered on the pastel pink pillars.

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To my delight, the priests were dressed in stark primary colours, standing out brightly from the white-garbed laypeople. Each colour represented a different branch of Cao Dai.

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The service commenced with lots of bowing, chanting and singing.

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I very much enjoyed admiring the blocks of different colours and how they contrasted beautifully with the very cool floor tiles.

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Too soon, the signal was given for tourists to leave, and we headed out of the temple past the choir singing dreamily, accompanied by traditional Chinese instruments.

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The time for the surreal was over, now it was time for war tunnels and Cu Chi.

July in Vietnam: Sand Dunes, Canyons and Fairy Springs

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Mui Ne is particularly famous for its sand dunes and there’s little question why. They are smack in the middle of seemingly nowhere, surrounded by scrub and water.

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It’s inexplicable to me how a patch of dry desert sand can rise up behind a lake full of blooming water lilies and lotuses, but such is the micro-climate of the area.

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Fine yellow sand had somehow been deposited in this area. The dunes built up somehow stayed here and only shifted their peaks from day to day in the wind.

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The wind blew ripples in the sand and soon covered up evidence of human presence.

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There were a fair number of other tourists poking around and it was a little tricky to get pictures with no one else inside. Yet, when I took these pictures, it all looked so unspoiled and untouched.

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Only the well-trodden paths showed signs of people around…

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… otherwise I was free to enjoy the company of the early morning dunes in solitude.

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The time of the day was just right to admire the play of light on the sand and against the sky.

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I can’t help but let you scroll through a few more of the pictures yourself, they speak for themselves so well.

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And then it was time to go, the sun was getting high in the sky and the lake was starting to lose its intense blue.

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Before it got too hot, I went to check out the flowers blooming in the lake.

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The lotuses were beautiful but I couldn’t get too close because of the mud and insects.

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Then it was onwards to the red canyon.

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Here, the red sand wasn’t quite as pretty as the yellow/white dunes of earlier in the day, but past rains had cut a canyon of sorts through. It made for an interesting study that I wish I’d seen when I studied physical geography in school so many years ago.

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Last stop of all was another series of dunes, this time cut through by an actual spring.

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The multi-coloured sand and earth it revealed made it quite apt to be called the Fairy Springs.

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It was a bit of a fun walk squelching my way up the fine silt, passing by dried up tributaries.

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But after a while the scenery was a little monotonous and I headed back…

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… to the beach to say my goodbyes before heading to Ho Chi Minh City.

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