Vietnam Wedge - Kuala Lumpur Plus – November 14-24
After a quick stopover in Ho Chi Minh City to repack and re-store our luggage, we were heading off to Malaysia. This part of the trip was initially planned to be Mike’s relief from weeks of Vietnamese food he was sure he wouldn’t really like. As it turned out, he loved the Vietnamese food and we had loads of opportunity to eat virtually any kind of food during the first half of the stay in VN. However, we were still excited at the prospect of visiting yet another new place with its distinct culture. The budget did not allow a true exploration of Malaysia, but we would be able to experience much of Kuala Lumpur.
We had yet another pleasant flight with Vietnam Airlines. It was early evening on November 14th when we landed at KLIA. The weather was clear and we were thrilled at the prospect of walking amid the lushness that had teased our senses from the sky. Our AirBnb hostess had advised us to take a taxi to her place. After getting some Malaysian currency from the airport ATM, we went out to the taxi stand. When we showed the address to our potential driver, he looked puzzled and then consulted a colleague who laughed very loud. What was in store for us? It was dark by the time we reached the exit to Petaling Jaya, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur. It seem that everyone, locals and ex-pats call the districts by their initials so our new home stay becomes PJ.
We were initially concerned about finding our destination when our driver began calling from his cell phone to someone to get confirmation of his route. The worry increased when he attempted to drop us off at a residence on a very suspect street – run-down houses and no lights anywhere. We insisted that this couldn’t be the right place. We had seen pictures of the house and unless we were victims of fraud, we weren’t where we needed to be. We gave him the phone number of our hostess, but she didn’t answer. He stopped at a business, but the directions he received weren’t right either. We decided to call our hostess one more time, this time from my cell phone. She answered and asked if we had called before. “Yes!” “Oh, sorry. I had left my phone in another room.” I handed my phone to the driver. Ten minutes later, and beaucoup dollars in roaming charges later, we arrived at her house.
She apologized again as she led us indoors. What a beautiful home! But how hot! And humid! Where was the advertised AC? However, she ushered us to our room and explained that she didn’t run the AC in the main part of the house, because the bedrooms cooled down quickly once each unit was turned on – which we did immediately, and then returned to the living room to chat for awhile. We became a little acquainted, agreed on Indian breakfast at a nearby restaurant, and enthusiastically went off to our now frigid bedroom.
M.’s house is amazing and the gardens wonderful. The home is quite modern in style and décor, accented with antiques. The bedroom she rents out is large and has its own large bathroom with shower. We had decided on the suburbs in order to have some respite from the city noise. The location certainly complied on that front; however, one of the first pieces of advice from M. was that we not walk home from the light rail station after dark. “Lots of taxis – take a taxi.” Also, she had failed to mention that there was a large dengue fever outbreak in parts of KL, and PJ in particular. “Don’t worry. There haven’t been any incidents in my neighborhood. Dusk is bad for mosquitoes, but it’s fine the rest of the day.” Never did we slather down with DEET more diligently.
Over breakfast with M. at a local Indian restaurant, we learned that she ate there most mornings, and we were welcome to join her regularly, after which she would drop us at the rail station. Wonderful! Each morning we looked forward to a banquet of roti chennai, dosa, uttapam, vada and sometimes a variety of curries served on a banana leaf. I washed it all down with chai. Yum, yum.
The train ride was cheap and quick. We soon found ourselves in KL. We later realized there is a station in the central business district and then there is “Sentral Station” and they are quite different. We had gotten of at the Sentral Station, which is the interchange hub for the train, light rail and bus. We picked up a very helpful tourist map at the station. As nice as M. was, she was new to the hosting business, and had no maps, no phone numbers, and as a longtime resident, little advice on what and what not to see. It was a beautiful clear day. There are so many interesting sights in a relatively compact area of KL. We decided to start with the huge area designated as the Perdana Botanical Gardens, Parks, and Museums. It was Friday, the Muslim day of worship, and as we walked past the mosque, there were a huge number of vendors selling food. We were still full from breakfast, so I was left wondering whether their food was typical cart food, or better.
After passing by the Butterfly Park and the Bird Park, we entered the Orchid and Hibiscus Gardens. While certainly a new diversion, it was hardly a stellar exhibit. We stopped for a drink, and continued on our way. We noted the National Museum and the Museum of Islamic Arts – must do’s for another day. We wandered back to the station and headed off to find Brickfields, the Indian district in KL. Surely the few rather sleazy buildings couldn’t be the sum total of the vaunted Brickfields. After a hot, wet and disappointing walk through the back streets from the central station, we had given up expectation of a wonderful dinner. We found a beer store and stocked up for a few evenings back at M’s. It had been an interesting day, but by the time we made it back to the station again, the heat and disappointments had left us rather deflated. We had a coffee at a station café, bought some snacks for dinner and headed home.
The bright part of the day came once we were on the train. It was crowded as usual, so we were standing rather than sitting. Mike had just reminded me that I should make sure to hold on through the curves, when I was thrown headlong into the lap an unsuspecting young woman. I apologized profusely, and laughed as one does so often in tight situations. Mike made it worse when he joked to another young woman that she had better watch out, as she might be the next. Many around us laughed, but that young woman moved as quickly as she could.
When we got off at the PJ station, we soon realized we couldn’t remember from which side we had entered. We agreed on a choice, and started on our walk back to M.’s house. Nothing looked very familiar. It was late afternoon, but still hot and we were getting stickier by the minute. We stopped a couple of times at shops, showed them the address and got directions. Each time, we were led further astray. I finally stopped at a residence and asked the rather elderly man if he knew where we were in relation to our destination. He said it was difficult to explain, but that he would take us there. After several blocks and many apologies, he stopped another man just exiting his car. The second fellow looked the address up on his GPS phone, and said he had better drive us there as it was rather far. So, in we clambered, drenched and stinky as we now were, to the back seat of his nice shiny car. It was in fact quite a ways, and we thanked him profusely for his kindness. We never did try to walk home from the station again.
Freshly showered, I joined Mike on the patio for a cold beer, or was it 2? We had the first of many pleasant evenings sitting in the garden, listening to the evening call to prayer from a local mosque and having a quiet time toasting our daily activity and planning the next day. We enjoyed the songs of the birds and the creatures in the garden – among them a tiny black shrew, and little frogs. The next day’s highlight for me would be visiting the Petronas Towers. Mike had said he was not going to pay the high entrance fee. I was determined not to miss out on a building which had interested me since I had spent time in an academic architecture program. He said he would find some way to amuse himself while I took the tour.
After another breakfast with M, she dropped us at a train station and we made our way to the Towers. The early tours were all booked, but it was pleasant surprise to find that the 80 MYR ($25) entrance fee for foreign visitors was half-price for seniors. Effectively we could have a 2 for 1 treat. Mike would come along after all. So, with tickets in hand for an afternoon tour, we went off to explore the area around the Towers.
We went shopping at H&M (the Swedish department store) where I ended up buying shirts for myself and for my daughters. I looked for goodies for the grandkids, but didn’t find anything appealing. A search for handkerchiefs for Mike also came up empty. We also went to the tourist information center nearby to see if there was another day trip we could take easily. We had already decided we would see FRIM, and M had offered to take us for a day out. However, the organized day tours were expensive and not too appealing. We wandered back through the park near the towers, which is quite large, filled with trees and plants, and artificial pools, streams and fountains. It is quite a lovely refuge from the heat and traffic and seems to be well used by locals as well as tourists.
Finally, it was time to visit the Towers. What an amazing set of structures they are! While they are no longer the tallest buildings in the world, they are still the tallest twinned/connected buildings, and will never lose their stunning architectural quality. The tour begins with a clever holographic presentation, as you wait to enter the elevators. The first stop is the sky bridge 170 meters above the ground. You are allowed about ½ hour to take pictures and experience the views. Then it’s up to the observation deck 360 meters up, where you can look at the architectural models and play with some rather clever interactive exhibits, not to mention take more pictures! I knew I would like it, but it was a pleasant surprise for Mike that he enjoyed it as well.
There’s a video on their website - http://www.petronastwintowers.com.my/
After we were done, Mike wanted to try and find a used bookstore he had read about. There were also supposed to be several Indian restaurants in the area. We spent much time lost, and by the time we found the disappointing bookshop, we were spent with the heat of the day and of our arguments. And to top it all off, we had missed the window of opportunity for having a tasty lunch. The buffets trays were either empty or unappetizing. Grumph….Back in PJ, we went out for a good, but not excellent dinner with M. at another local restaurant.
After the day’s experience, we decided to go to bed early. M. gave me a warning that she was going to dye some clothes in the washer, so to run a rinse through before using it myself. The item she was dyeing was a beautiful linen dress. Of course, I forgot that, and Mike ended up with indigo blue socks. It turned out she is an excellent seamstress. She buys high quality fabric and makes almost all her own clothes and when she tires of the color, she simply dyes them. She also has two kilns and produces quite interesting pots. No TV in this lady’s house – no time for it!
Each evening and morning at breakfast we learned a little more about our hostess. She is a German ex-pat, who met her ex-husband in England. He is Muslim, so she converted, following the requirement that one must be a Muslim in order to marry a Muslim. The married lasted for over 30 years ago, but ended in divorce. Afterwards, she decided to pursue a biology degree and a career, which seems to be what keeps her in KL. She’s an odd person who is neither Malaysian nor German, but rather an amalgam of both cultures, yet happy in neither. She said when she goes “home” to Germany, she feels an outsider. In the days we spent with her, she spent a lot of time complaining about the habits of Malaysians, not recognizing she herself has adopted much of their behavior. She remains a Muslim, even after divorce, as she worries that if she were to give up her imposed religion, it would jeopardize her residency status. She has a long-distance relationship with a German, and feels she would have to return to Germany should they decide to marry, as she would never compel someone to convert. Her situation seemed to me to be quite sad – a woman without a country.
Sunday, M. made good on her offer to take us on a drive. We were heading south to Malacca, an historic town. The entire drive, M. pointed out the various trees, and plants, often stopping to show Mike something up close. The tourism website states that no one can agree on Malacca’s founding date, however, it settles on 1390 as the state celebrated their 600th anniversary in 1990. First ruled by a Sumatran, it retains a multi-cultural feeling from the Dutch, Portuguese, as well as from the many Javanese, Indian, Arab and Chinese sea-merchants, during its time as a prominent port. We found it rather too touristy for our tastes, but I did find some lovely little items in some of the shops. And Mike found two places with durian treats - in one they took pictures of this strange western man with his passion for durian cream-filled crepes. We thoroughly enjoyed a visit to a traditional home, where we met the owner and took many pictures, including ones of us on the “wedding throne”.
Had we been freewheeling, we would probably have investigated what seem to be many places of interest and food.
We took the long way home, arriving back well after dark. M. had asked us a couple of times if we wanted to go to her friend’s for dinner. However, the friend was having problems, so it seemed an inopportune time to tag along. We begged off, only to find that in doing so we were to be left without a way to have dinner. We had already learned that PJ was a confusing place, so there was no way would we rely on a taxi to find us. After some pleading, M agreed to order a Pizza Hut pizza for delivery. It was fairly awful food, and the fact that it cost more than the same meal in the U.S. only added insult to our perceived injury. And I don’t think M. will ever understand how we felt. It was simply such a shock to be left stranded after all the general kindness she showed us.
However, up with the sun and ready for another adventure. If you’ve been reading this from the beginning, you will remember that Mike had continuing VN visa issues. Although we had our “invitation” letter that we were to present at the HCMC airport upon our return, Mike wanted to see if was unconvinced that it would work, and wanted to see if he could secure the entry visa in advance. I looked up the immigration office address online, and it seemed a simple enough matter to find. It was in the central business neighborhood, so we took the train to near the Petronas Towers, and started walking. Of course we became lost, but this was once again due to poor advice on the ground. Thinking back, it reminds me of our “directional” mishaps in India. Addresses just seem to confuse residents – at least those without GPS. After several changes in route, we eventually found the office, where we then waited for a very long time, only to be told that the invitation document we had was fine. If we wanted to purchase one in advance, it would be very expensive and not necessarily prompt. We opted to stick with the invitation. The task was now to turn the “wasted” time into an advantage.
I brought up the fact that the immigration building was near the Eco-Forest Park, which had great tourist reviews. Mike reminded me that we had passed the park on the opposite side on a prior day and that it was closed for renovations. After a fairly sweaty hike to the entrance, we confirmed Mike’s warning. I do hate it when he’s right. The morning was not going well. We decided to head back towards the Botanic Gardens to visit the Bird Park. Initially, Mike wasn’t too excited, but his legs and feet were weary from all the standing, and we both welcomed a place to stop and sit for a bit. We decided on the Hornbill Restaurant, which was accessible without paying the entrance fee. Mike had a drink, and I had a fairly substantial lunch. But it was the lunchtime entertainment that convinced us the bird park would be worth the price of admission. A white heron landed on the railing next to our table, and while we didn’t disobey the “do not feed the birds” sign, we didn’t discourage him from helping himself. In return, he offered us a solid half hour of amusement.
An afternoon monsoon storm was threatening by the time we left the restaurant. However, with umbrellas in hand, we bravely made our start. Bird Lunch had just been served in several places, so we were treated to the sight of hundreds of pelicans, flamingoes, and assorted exotic birds feasting just a few feet away from us.
When the rain came, we were well away from any large shelter, but we did find a small gazebo situated under the trees. There we sat in the pelting rain accompanied only by a few birds who surely wondered why we had invaded their privacy. It was a thoroughly magical time.
With our spirits restored, we decided to make another attempt to find Brickfields and have a decent dinner. Somehow the second effort was easily successful. With its massive gateway and decorated streets, it’s still a puzzlement why we couldn’t find the district the first time around. We decided on a small place for dinner – not bad, not great – and then headed home to PJ secure in knowledge of how to source our remaining dinners.
Tuesday, M. had another free day, so she offered to take us to Fraser’s Hill, a forested area with a huge amount of bio-diversity, about a two-hour drive from KL. Along the route, we stopped for a short hike. M. spent a lot of time discussing the plant life with Mike. We stopped for a splash in the cold stream. It was the first time in weeks that we could enjoy clear sunny weather without the oppressive heat and humidity. What a delightful change!
Fraser’s Hill is named after a Scottish pioneer who in the 1890’s started several operations on the mountain: he began mining tin and then built a gambling and opium den to profit again from the labors of his Chinese workers. This lasted for about 25 years until Fraser’s disappearance. When a British bishop from Singapore subsequently investigated the area, he felt it would be a good location for a hill station retreat from the heat. Since then it has gone through several phases of use and development.
Today it is a rather under-serviced tourist area. There are unfinished buildings from prior stalled construction, and a freeze on new construction due to environmental concerns. However, the drive and the scenery are fantastic. It doesn’t seem to be expensive to stay, but with the sparse accommodation, one wants to book well ahead during peak travel time.
We spent most of the day driving, which was rather a shame. It turns out M. is afraid of heights, and didn’t want to walk where she had a view down. Hmmm….that would have been my first choice. We managed a pleasant cold drink and then headed back down.
After a quick stop at the house, we ended the day with dinner at a Chinese noodle house. We arrived to find mobs of people, some of them still waiting to be seated. M. found us a table outside in a remote location and hailed a waiter. She’s fairly fluent in Malay, which helped a lot. We were told it would be a very long wait for a meal. She explained that we didn’t need to order from the menu. All we wanted was a plate of noodles in their special sauce. Her banter was a combination of scolding and teasing, but it was not long before a large platter heaped with noodles in some kind of black sauce appeared. We gasped at the thought of eating all that food. Our appetites had been limited by the hot weather. Needless-to-say that platter was emptied within minutes. The dish was absolutely scrumptious, but its name remains a mystery. So bad tour advisor that I am, I can tell you neither the name of the place nor what to order.
The next day, it was back to the city to visit the Islamic Arts Museum. En route was the National Museum, which we decided to visit first. I can recommend that ordering, as it paled in comparison to the Islamic Arts museum. We are still glad to have seen the National museum, even though it offers a somewhat slanted view of history. There are two floors of exhibits, and a thorough exploration took about 2 hours.
The Islamic Arts Museum was quite another matter. We spent the rest of the day there, with a break for tea in the lovely restaurant. We didn’t have a meal, but there is a set lunch and set tea each day. This museum remains a highlight of the entire trip. It has such a wealth of art exhibits that it took us two trips to do it justice. I must have taken 200 photos as a reminder of the incredible collection the museum houses. Every type of art is represented – woodworking, clothing, pottery, jewelry, paintings, etching, calligraphy, and furniture to name only some of the categories. On the first visit the architectural models overwhelmed me and site plans of the mosques, which differ not just by geographic location, but also by culture. While most followed a more standard form, with grand entry gates, interior courtyards, and traditional prayer rooms, there were also Malaysian and Thai mosques, which look more like large traditional wooden homes on stilts. We were both absorbed by the stunning collection of calligraphy. I had only seen Japanese calligraphy on display before, and knew a little about that type of art, I had no idea of the complexity of Islamic calligraphy. Each type of Islamic calligraphy has its own style and history. Some of it the script is so tiny that I could only see the detail by taking a picture and then zooming in. One man’s summary history of Islamic calligraphy may be found in this link.
With our minds saturated for the day, we headed back again to Brickfields. This time we decided on a small restaurant called Aromas, I think mostly because it was air-conditioned. We settled on uttapam, dosa, mango lassis and beer. The owners were quite delightful and the appetizers excellent, however the service was comically lacking. The waiter was rather like an Indian version of Manuel from the Faulty Towers TV series. We returned to PJ to reminisce over more beers about what a satisfying day it had been all round.
We were nearing the end of our trip and had seen no cultural shows at all. There were many appealing that were appealing, but all took place at night, and we decided not to risk missing a taxi ride at the station after dark. So for part of the next day’s activities, we decided to go to one that took place during the day at the Cultural Center. Mike was not enthusiastic about going in the first place, but he insisted that we should secure seats early in case it was heavily booked - that was one of the few poorly made decisions. , Never one to be constrained by Mike’s activities, I soon tired of waiting and deserted him to visit an art exhibit in another part of the building. This turned out to be a very interesting display of batik both traditional and modern. It also offered an opportunity to personally create a section of a large project that would be displayed.
I rejoined Mike with plenty of time to spare. Unfortunately, the pain of the wait was exacerbated by the poor quality of the show. It didn’t help that they didn’t bother to add any staging to the venue. However, the troupe was all young volunteers. Their costumes and their enthusiasm made the show a success in spite of everything. There were quite a few students from the local college, who were thoroughly enjoying the show, which perhaps swayed us from our jaded “experienced tourist” perspective.
Afterwards, we set off to visit Central Market. http://www.centralmarket.com.my/
We had seen it from the train, and so we knew the general location. There are several parts to the area: a two story main hall, an annex building, and the Kasturi Walk nearby. We spent quite a while wandering most of the indoor stalls. There are lots of vendors selling a huge variety of items. We bought some clothing and handicrafts at rather reasonable prices. Bargaining is de rigueur, so have some price points in mind before you begin. However, much of the artwork was disappointing. We were so hot and tired by the time we finished the indoor portion, that we did not investigate the Kasturi Walk, the outdoor covered mall.
Well ready to eat, we followed up our shopping with a second visit to Aroma’s, this time to order a full meal. Unfortunately, dinner was a great disappointment; we should have kept to the initial choice of appetizers and drinks.
Friday had arrived and it was our second to last full day of exploration. We were going to finish seeing the Islamic Museum. And we were determined to have a good dinner on our own in KL. However, we began the day at one of the huge malls that KL has to offer – Big Valley Mega Mall. M had a conference to go to in a building adjoining the mall, so we were deposited there. The spongy, supportive liners to my stalwart Easy Spirit shoes had gone just about flat. While we easily found fresh Dr. Scholl inserts in the drugstore, getting any assistance from the clerks was almost impossible. We had spent all this time in Malaysia, and had not really interacted with the service industry. None of the clerks were remotely interested in helping us. I needed to be able to cut the inserts to fit my shoes. “Could we borrow some scissors?” “No.” “Do you have some we could buy?” “ I don’t know.” “Do you sell manicure sets?” “Yes.” Where are they located?” “Over there somewhere.” Eventually I found small child’s set, of poor quality. It took me quite awhile to snip away at the liners with the tiny scissors, which barely survived the task. We took a small survey of the mall map – an absolutely huge mall, with all sorts of up-market shops, which would probably take a full day to sample. Not our cup of tea, so we headed directly to the museum.
We spent several more hours pouring over every remaining square foot. We wandered our separate ways and when I found Mike again, he was being “interviewed” by three young Muslim girls. They were students who were also new to the museum. I need to mention here that all our encounters with young Muslim women were quite astonishing. They were polite and friendly to a fault. On the crowded trains, they were the only ones to offer us their seats – actually I should say, insist – for we were badgered until we sat down.
After feeling like we had absorbed as much of the museum as we could, we made a brief stop at its excellent gift shop. Having had two less-than-great experiences in Brickfields, we decided to try the “other” Indian area one last time. There was a sandwich-type sign on the street advertising “Betel Leaf” restaurant. http://www.betel-leaf.com/
Finally, we had success. This is a wonderfully calm escape, with beautiful décor, excellent service and deliciously interesting food. All this said, my strongest memory is of the beverage I ordered. If you go, you must try the Triveni drink composed of grape, pineapple and ginger. Fully satisfied, we headed home.
Saturday morning came and on our last full day, we were finally headed to FRIM – the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia. We took the advice from the Cultural Center and took the light rail to Sentral and then the train to the nearest station to FRIM. From there it was supposed to be a $1-$2 taxi ride. There was only one taxi near the station. We declined his offer of $8. Another man, dressed for hiking every nook and cranny of some place like FRIM, strode off with purpose in his step. We should have followed. Instead we waited and paced. Eventually we decided to try and find a main road. Making a story short about the long and tiresome tale, we ended up finding another driver, settled on a fee and then were charged double that when we reached the park. We had out-smarted ourselves.
While we had adopted a to “walk ‘til we drop” plan, our main purpose was to take the canopy walk.
Should you decide to go on this walk, arrive early and book the walk before you do anything else at the park, as there are limited spaces each day. Check the website or call for possible closures too.
The canopy walk is a rope bridge 30 meters up in the jungle canopy. The hike to get to the starting point was to be about 1.5 km. What had sounded easy turned out to be quite taxing. It was all uphill and with the recent rains, extremely slippery. Mike and I with our “one brain” technology were each wondering how we were to get down the path again. However, there were loads of fellow sufferers: locals who made the trek regularly; and tourists enjoying this unique conservation tract so close to KL. When we finally reached the walkway the relief gave way to trepidation. It is after all a fairly long rope walkway, spanning about 150’ and suspended almost 100’ above the ground. It didn’t help my psyche much to find that only two people are allowed on at once. What if we weighed too much? Or moved out of sync? When you step onto the walkway it sways rather noticeably. I ended up asking Mike not to step on until I was near the other end. Needless to say the view wiped out all that discomfort. How wonderful! What great pictures these are going to be! Or not…I had forgotten to charge my camera battery. This had the upside of forcing me to focus my brain rather than a lens.
There were two choices as we left the walkway – back the way we came, or off in the other direction. The person at the ticket counter had said that there was a refreshment if we took the loop rather than return the way we came, but to be cautious with our footing. I didn’t mention that warning to Mike as we headed in the direction that we thought might have a cold drink en route. There were no mishaps on the way down, but there was no cold drink either. Once safely on terra firma, we relaxed, which proved my downfall – pardon the pun. I was no longer paying attention to every step and managed to hit a piece of tarmac wrong, which sent me tumbling. Two fellows from the park immediately descended concerned that I had truly hurt myself. I insisted I would be fine, and actually thought I was. I managed to walk the rest of the way back to the central part of the park. Mike looked in the bookstore, and I bought a few things in the gift shop, but that was the end of our trekking, and we not visit any of the other indoor offerings either. Instead, we took to the road again in search of the main park gate and a taxi back to the train. Another long tale to tell, but suffice it to say that Mike finally managed to hail a taxi. We invited another poor soul in the same predicament to share the cab, for which he was truly grateful. He was British man on contract work who knew even less than we about how to find a taxi. We had a good discussion about his field, natural versus synthetic rubber.
Back in at Sentral Station, I stopped to ice my ankle, while Mike got some drinks to take home. By the time we reached M’s I could hardly walk. I think the ice had actually made it worse, because when I retired to the comfortable bed, and applied my trusty hot water bottle to my ankle, it felt much better. Worried that I had ruined the rest of the trip, it was a tearful route to sleep.
My worries were for naught. Next morning I was just fine. M had booked us a taxi. The driver arrived on time, and charged the price he had quoted. After a good look around KLIA and some down time in the Traveler’s Lounge, we were on our way back to HCMC. Our final adventure would be in the Mekong Delta.
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Vietnam Wedge - Kuala Lumpur Plus – November 14-24