Hoi An to Hué

Yet another early rise to finish packing and grab some breakfast before our bus pulled up at 7:30. It was a fairly hefty not-quite-double-decker from the Sinh Cafe company who have a good reputation in Vietnam.

Instead of seats, each passenger gets a berth, either on the floor or up small ladders. There’s very little space to store baggage if the bus is full, so be prepared to put almost everything into the under-bus hold. The seats recline almost fully with legroom seemingly designed for someone around 5’6″ (1.67m) in height. Any taller and it can get a little crampy, especially in some of the berths which have little footwells. These will force your feet to the side unless you lie sideways for the journey, rather than on your back.

So if you’re first on the bus, I recommend getting right to the back of the bus (if you don’t mind being a little snuggly with your neighbour) or grab the one just further back than the loo as it has a tall footwell. Footwear isn’t allowed on board, and you get a little bag to keep your shoes in while you’re onboard. Overall, a pretty good way to travel.

The journey from Hoi An to Hu̩ took around 4 hours including a 30-minute toilet/food stop somewhere along the way. At the stopoff I met a young Vietnamese lad who was collecting foreign currency Рnotes in particular. As luck had it, I still had two Estonian notes in my wallet: a 2Kr and a 5Kr. I gave him the choic and he picked the 2Kr for his collection. The 5 Kr is mine, now!

As expected, our bus arrived in Hué to be greeted by a thronging crowd of:

“Come see my hotel!”

“No, mine.”

“Ours is in Lonely Planet – number 49!”

“Ours is near the lake, very quiet.”

“Lake is noisy, ours is better.”

I pointed at one young lady and said, “She was the first, so we will look there first. If we don’t like it, we will try the next person. That’s fair.” Only to hear one other person grumble “No, not fair.” Dissenter.

Anyway, as it happened we did like the first place. A nice room, spacious, fridge, aircon, tons of English channels on the telly, right by the bus dropoff and $10 a night between us. The only thing missing was a hot water tank, so the shower waslukewarm but given the temperatures outside, that was hardly an issue.

We did the usual scattering of luggage and then went for a quick walk. First stop was to organise a lift to the airport for Monday morning. The hotel had suggested a taxi at $11, claiming that the bus would be too early and would cost the same for two tickets as one taxi. Hum. Lonely Planet gives the address of the Vietnam Airlines office for the minibus stop, but has it wrong or the stop has moved.

For reference, the bus leaves from the Vietnam Airlines office at number 20 D Hanoi (20 Hanoi Street). It’s a very short walk from the office listed in the current Lonely Planet. Cost is 40,000d (roughly $2.40) per person and they’ll even pick you up from your hotel for free beforehand. Definitely worth the quick stroll to their office.

We then headed over to the other side of the Perfume River, along past some shops and into KFC for a late lunch / early dinner. Then some quick shopping in the nearby supermarket and a gawp at the traditional Dong Ba market by the riverside – the usual smattering of regional vegetation and dead animals. And as bustling and entertaining as any market I’ve seen in Vietnam. I paid over the odds for a large green thing that looks like some kind of huge orange inside that I’ve been wanting to try for some time (turns out it’s a pomello). It’ll do for breakfast in the morning.

And that was really it for the day. The wi-fi at the hotel’s fine, but I can’t access my own web pages at all – everything else is fine but I can’t get any of my three blogs to download, or the web page of the company that’s hosting them. I’ve had several other people check and they’ve had no problems. Most annoying! But no worries as I could still type stuff up for upload later (2 weeks later in the case of this post…)

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Mountains and beaches

Our last full day in Hoi An and we decided to do something a little different. I’d been to the Marble Mountains before, and they’re a site worth seeing. But rather than take a trip or get a xe om we opted to hire a couple of mopeds and make the 15km journey ourselves.

Now, Leah had a play on one of these in New Zealand a couple of years ago. I, on the other hand, have never been in control of any 2-wheeled vehicle with a motor on it. Ever. Thankfully, the requirements to hire and drive a moped or motorcyle in Vietnam consist of a handful of cash ($5 per day seems the going rate for a manual) and a blithe disregard for your own personal safety.

I ticked both those boxes, so the young girl next to our hotel happily handed over her new-ish Honda then rang her mate up to see if he could lend her another bike for the other foreigner to buzz about on. Helmets were provided as it’s now law for them to be worn, even by passengers (except small children who I assume are made of rubber in Vietnam) and about a litre of fuel floated in the small tanks. I asked how much we might need to get to the Mountains and back and I was told “three litre, there and back”.

Now fuel’s not too expensive here compared to home (20,000d or roughly 65p per litre) but it’s still money you want to save. On the other hand, you don’t want to be pushing a dry moped back home after a day out. So we got information on the nearest fuel station (one with pumps, not old Coke and Johnny Walker bottles full of unleaded) and boarded our safe transportation devices (that bit’s for my mum). “Slower! Slower! Gently!” The cries of the girl worried about her moped vanished into the distance as I zipped down the street and around the corner, somewhat in control once I’d got the thing going.

Mopeds are dead easy to control once you have them up to speed, but the whole accelerating from a stop bit takes some getting used to. Still, we both made it to the fuel stop and added 2 litres each to the tanks. This filled mine close to the top – I guess I had more in to start than I thought – and we headed left/north in the direction of Da Nang.

We’d decided to take the “local road” up and come back via the newer highway. This was fun, though we were the slowest motor vehicles on the road for most of it. Almost every single other moped zipped past us with a quick beep of the horn. My only disappointment was not getting any pictures on or from the moped as the sights were pretty cool. Top has to be the bike that overtook us laden with two people and three baskets containing around 30 ducks who sat there as if they did this every day.

At some point we had to learn how to overtake and this we did, hanging behind and then nipping past two dumper trucks. We were starting to realise we were near the mountains but looking for the right turning when another moped levelled up with Leah to compliment her on her overtaking, and then offered to take us there. “Follow us!” so we did. It’s simple – keep heading up the local road until you get to the truck spraying water at knee-height then turn right. Although I can’t guarantee the truck will be there next time.

We parked up and got talking to our new guides, one of whom (surprise) turned out to be one of Mr Hoa’s nieces. For those not in the know, Hoa has run a guest house on nearby China Beach for 14 years and is well-known to backpackers and locals alike. Mention his name and you can guarantee that you’ll be told “oh, he is my uncle!” or similar. If this was true of everyone who said it, Hoa would have the biggest extended family outside of the Bible Belt.

Regardless, they were friendly and helpful and offered to look after our bikes in their shop(obviously, we kept the keys) while we walked around the Mountains. Now, I’ve written about these Mountains before in some details, so I’ll just refer you to that entry than repeat myself here. Needless to say, I contended with the heat far better than Leah, as she will readily admit. As a result we didn’t see every single cavern as I did last time, but she still reckoned it was worth it.

Another point of note is that I believe the price has dropped since last time, from 40,000d to 15,000d. Essentially, they’re charging foreigners the same as they charge Vietnamese. For a couple of hours’ wander, clamber and explore it’s well worth it. Lonely Planet does wax lyrical about the mountains while other publications reckon they’re crap – I’d say they’re somewhere in between, more towards the LP end of the scale. They’re certainly interesting and kids will love being able to clamber over everything. Well, I said I wouldn’t go on so there you have it.

We returned to the town and walked back to the shop where we’d left our bikes. Now for the fun bit as we did want to pick up a couple of souvenirs. Of course, we were obligated to get them from this shop. The haggle game began. Leah ended up with one piece for just over $32 while they tried to sell me a larger, similar piece for $75. I asked if they had it in a smaller size, but no – only the large one.

Hmm. Far too much to spend. No, not interested. So the price dropped. Then we “realised” that I didn’t actually have enough on me to pay 800,000d for anything anyway. And no, Leah couldn’t lend me money. Then they offered to let me pay at their other branch in Hoi An. Some now, rest later and I could take the gift with me. Nope, sorry – I decided my bank account was empty and I didn’t get paid for another week.

Then, suddenly, a smaller version appeared. Just what I’d asked about before. And the price dropped to $30/500,000d. Still too much as suddenly, we remembered that we hadn’t paid for our hotel yet. D’oh! Ah well, we couldn’t buy it. Then the price dropped to 400,000d/$23.50. More like it. Looking pained, I accepted. Of course, I don’t believe the “we make no profit from this – is a gift!” but things are definitely slow this time of year and I’d got them down a fair bit so I felt happy enough.

We boarded our bikes and, weaving wildly (me, anyway) popped along the road and over the highway to Hoa’s Place for lunch. Hoa is written about in so many places and he loves getting magazine clippings and so forth. He’s got 22 guest books going back 14 years filled with notes, stories and photos of his guests and people genuinely come back time and time again. Frankly, it’s easy to see why though I wonder for how much longer – I’ll get to that, but it’s nothing to do with Hoa himself who was as wonderful as I remembered him being from my last visit.

We dug through the old guest books trying to find my old entry, but I just couldn’t locate it. Probably as I’m not sure when I was there, exactly. Without my blog I am lost for travel history! So we enjoyed the lovely “roll your own” spring rolls, and a couple of drinks before unpacking our beach stuff. Hoa, typically, offered us towels. And to look after out bags. And a pair of sandals for me as the sand was hot. And a shower when we got back. Remember we weren’t even staying there, just popping by for lunch. This is what makes Hoa so great. He’s possibly the greatest living host.

It’s thirty seconds onto the beach from Hoa’s and we strolled down and got charged 30,000d for two deckchairs and a shade. Worth it for the full day, but we were only there for a couple of hours. I’d recommend shade if you go, though, as the skies are clear and the sun fierce. The water is warm and clean, the sand beautiful and near-white. And the beach just noticeably busier than it was two years ago.

Looking down the coastline I could see one resort that seems to be open now. Others are being constructed as I write and some are creating their own little artificial beaches. This will change the whole face of China Beach and – dreadfully – perhaps spell the end of Hoa’s and all the things that make this stretch so damn special. Sadly, that’s the cost of expansion and to be expected once the first tourists started to arrive all those years ago. If you are going to visit, do it soon. And if you stay along the beach, please stay with Hoa or one of the other small places. Soapbox away.

We splashed and chilled and read and pretended to sleep when the man with the sunglasses tried to sell us stuff. An Irish guy came over and asked if anyone wanted to play volleyball so I stepped up. Leah stayed behind to chat to a Scots group sat next to us. The volleyball was fun and our team won best two out of three with only one casualty – one of the girls came over all heat-strokey and had to go and lie down. Oh, and one of the Irish guys lost a gold bracelet. Bummer. All good fun and nice to throw myself around for half an hour on the beach!

I washed off in the warm water and we decided it was time to head homeward. Only a short day out, but certainly a good one. We towelled off, changed and said our thanks and good-bye’s to Hoa. We’d hoped to come back later on for one of his famed beach bonfires, but sadly we weren’t to be able.

As decided, we buzzed back along the highway on our petrol-powered egg whisks. Close to Hoi An a minibus overtook us, beeping away. Nothing unusual until I recognised the Irish girls I’d been playing volleyball with waving out of the rear window!

Once in town I wanted to look up CHIA – Children’s Hope In Action. Another Vietnamese charity formed by foreigners to help children out. In this case, specifically those with medical needs. They try to use volunteer staff where possible to save on costs and, as the recent past shows, I’m not averse to spending a few weeks in Vietnam to help out. We got there just as they were closing down for the evening, but I spoke briefly to John Tobin who reckons they could definitely use some IT assistance. We exchanged cards and I’m hoping to hear from one of their other staff soon. Looks like I may be back in Hoi An again before the year ends.

Back at the hotel we returned our bikes. I’d hoped to use them to go somewhere different for dinner, but one of the girls needed hers to get home! We freshened up, showered, changed and a while later left to go into town. Leah picked up her shoes on the way and seemed very happy with them. Hand-made in a day for $14 – not bad.

The town was closed off to mopeds again which made it much more pleasant to walk around and we selected a small restaurant for dinner – Cafe Phone, I think but I didn’t get a card from this one. Like Pub Street in Siem Reap or the beach front in Palolem, though, I don’t think anyone can afford to have a bad restaurant in Hoi An. If you do, it’ll die. Quickly. And true to form we had a good meal in this one, too. The fresh beer at 4000d was as close to the bia hoi I remember from Hanoi as I’ve encountered so far and the service was superb.

Afterwards we walked back to the Blue Dragon restaurant for pancakes again. Leah had overdone herself and had to leave some of hers but I managed to squish mine down. One other person I’ve not mentioned yet is a woman who we saw every day we were there, trying to sell us peanuts and ginger. What set her apart from the others were her permanent smile, sense of humour and realisation when to leave us alone. After three nights of turning down her snacks I’d already decided I’d buy something from her simply as she was so nice and polite and made us smile. I probably got overcharged for the ginger (20,000d) but I like the stuff and in my opinion she deserved the cash just for the entertainment value.

So that was it. Our short stay in Hoi An was almost at an end. Back at the hotel we packed for our early bus and watched The Rock (with the bad language removed – no fun), then crashed out.

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My Son and more of Hoi An

Up early for that trip, which proved to be quite interesting. The bus was comfy and the tour guide (“Spider”) was a very energetic and knowledgeable chap with decent English, but the weirdest accent ever. Amazingly, the bus was stopped by the police (twice in a week!) and the driver fined for something or other.

It was only an hour or so’s drive to the My Son site where our guide purchased our tickets for us (60,000d each) and we then jumped into minibuses and jeeps for the 2km shuttle to the structures themselves. My Son is an old Cham religious site from the 4th century. It’s smaller than the likes of Angkor Wat, but over 1000 years older. The structures themselves are also completely different, made of brick instead of stone apart from one exception. Experts – and even modern Cham – have no idea how the bricks were cemented together. But it worked.

The majority of damage to the sites has been as a result of wars of one kind or another. At one time there were around 70 major structures there. Now there are 20. The biggest loss of structures was during the “American War” as the Vietnamese call it. Due to its sheltered nature in the jungle, the Viet Cong picked it as an ideal location to hide out. As the Americans couldn’t see exactly where they were, they blanketed the whole area with bombs destroying a horrendous amount of these historical structures. I’m not pointing fingers of blame – war is war, no matter what the politics behind it – but it’s a hell of a shame.

Weatherwise it was “stinking hot” and Leah was suffering as I pranced around the ruins, snapping photos as and when I could around the tourist throngs. There are “sunrise” tours, and Lonely Planet recommends getting there for 6:30am if you can to dodge the crowds. However, that means leaving Hoi An at 5:30. Stuff that. It’s not the busy season so it wasn’t so bad anyway.

After around two hours at the site, we headed back to Hoi An with around half our bus getting off partway home to get a boat the rest of the way. We were back in town, right near our hotel, by 1pm. A quick shower to freshen up and we popped out for lunch, doing part of the LP “guided walk”.

We didn’t bother with the city ticket as we could see plenty of the structures from outside (to get into most of the buildings, you have to buy a ticket which allows access to some combination or other of the better structures – you can’t pay individually for any of them), though we did find two places that didn’t need this ticket.

The Hainan Temple on Ð Tran Phu is small, but lovely and they only ask for a small (voluntary) donation for its upkeep as payment for a look around. I dropped a couple of thousand into the box. A street away on Ð Phan Boi Chau is the Tran Duong House which has been in the family for 4 generations according to the sign on the wall outside. Chatting to the wonderful Mr Duong inside, he says it is now six. He points to a picture on the wall of his son (“five…”) and to his 3 year-old, chatty grandson (“… and six!”).

The look around their house was brief, but enlightening. Mr Duong sleeps on the bed downstairs with his grandson while the rest of the family spread around the house. The “bed” is a beautiful mahogany table – they use no mattress. Other furniture is over a hundred years old. Upstairs is fairly bare with just a shrine to Mr Duong’s father, also a teacher as was his father and his father before him, a lovely table and some heavy chairs.

We sat there as the current head of the household showed us pictures of his father’s funeral – an impressive procession with over 20 pallbearers as well as followers and hangers-on. A popular man by all accounts. Although entry is free, a small donation is requested per visitor and a sign asks for 20,000d per visitor. Simply because his company was so enthralling, and his grandson so cute, we left 50,000d from the two of us as well as filling in a page in the guestbook. If you visit – please do – spend a while digging through the library of these tomes that Mr Duong has!

Opposite his house is Nga, a tourist agency and the only one mentioned in Lonely Planet which offers all kinds of travel though there are umpteen scattered around town. We needed to book bus and plane tickets, and we did it all here. Everything was dealt with quickly, efficiently and with a smile. We also found out that if you’re booking Vietnam Airline tickets to do it 3 or more days before you fly. Within 3 days, the prices rise although I notice all the airports have a “standby” counter where you could possibly get a bargain if you’re prepared to wait in hope.

Next up was “pick a random restaurant for lunch” time. After a stroll through the hectic central market we reached the riverside area and settled on Sao Mai (Morning Star). Leah chose a tuna salad sandwich which turned out to be a triple-decker; I had a hamburger which was more a torpedo roll with strips of beef and all the veg you’d expect. Different, and tasty.

We snapped a few more photos of the town and the bridge before feeling the need for another shower and walked back to the hotel. Online time and chilling out followed, and in the late evening the need for food arose. We’d already picked where we wanted to eat. Stopping only briefly to sort out our motorbikes for the next day and for Leah to have her feet measured for some new sandals, we walked directly to a little open air place on Ð Bach Dang.

It’s not in Lonely Planet, I don’t know the name but it’s the only place which isn’t inside a building on the riverside road, right on a corner. There we sampled cao lau – large noodles mixed with pork, bean sprouts, greens and crunchy batter stuff. Very nice.

As we sat there, a little girl – the daughter of the owner, I think – looked at my t-shirt. “Blue Dragon – like restaurant?” Well, yes, but how did… hang on. Is the Blue Dragon Restaurant in Hoi An? For some reason I thought it was in Nha Trang. “You want to know where it is? I will show you!” she shouted, jumping on her bike and cycling along the road.

And there it was, just before the market on the main street by the riverside. We must have walked past it 4 times over the last two days without seeing it. It was still open and we immediately decided that we needed a dessert. A quick look at the menu and we settled on pancakes with chocolate. I had a lengthy chat with the owner (sorry – I’m rubbish with names…) and managed to get a photo with him and the sign.

If you are in Hoi An, do please go for a meal. It’s probably no better than any other of the excellent eateries in the area, but they do send a proportion of their takings to Blue Dragon up in Hanoi. And you know how much time I’ve spent raising money for them! They also do cookery courses running for 2 hours, twice a day. Three courses for only $8, not a bad price. So with pancake and beer swishing round my insides, we walked along to the bridge to get some night-time shots and then back to our rather nice hotel room. Hoi An is really growing on me!

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Plans for the next few days

Today we popped out to My Son and this afternoon we’ll do the Lonely Planet walk around town. More snaps, this time in daylight.

Tomorrow’s plan is to hire two mopeds and head up to China Beach and the Marble Mountains. Time and weather allowing, also possibly Da Nang.

Day after, early train to Hue where we’ll spend one night before getting the bus (or train) back down to Da Nang and hopping on a flight to Hanoi. This bit’s variable – may spend a night in Da Nang, may not.

We do have flights from Hanoi to Bangkok booked for the 1st of August, though. All these details (and changes) will be plotted on the calendar linked to the side of the main page.

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Saigon to Hoi An

A fair bit of travel today, and some reminders that prices do change compared to guide books. We checked out of the hotel around 10:00 aiming to be at the airport for 10:30. The cheapest way in Saigon is to use the local bus. Last time I was here, it was 1000d for a ticket though you routinely got charged for your luggage (one extra ticket) as well.

With the help of our incredibly helpful hotel owner, we easily located the bus stop (the bus is on a different route now – still the number 152 though) and hopped aboard. The tickets are now 3000d each and – again – you need to buy two if you have luggage. So a threefold increase in ticket price in around 2 years. Quite a hike and I’d suspect that one of those hikes is likely recent as Vietnam had a 33% jump in fuel costs this week. Regardless, the bus trip was fairly quick and we got to the airport dot on 10:30.

Check-in was a breeze. One queue feeding down to several check-in desks, all of which were manned. No stupid questions (“Did you pack this all yourself? Has it been anywhere it could have been tampered with since you packed it? Have you got any liquids in your hand luggage? Are you going to blow up the plane? What’s the square root of 1?”), no scrutinizing of luggage weight to the nearest gram. Just checking of our booking, stickers on the baggage and direction to the gate. Security was just as simple. The only thing they questioned me on was the predator light stowed in my carry-on. They let me keep it but I had to put it through the x-ray. No need to remove my belt, cap, shoes, teeth or anything else. Superb.

Within 10 minutes of getting through, we were queuing to board and ended up on a gorgeous big plane borrowed (I guess) from China Air, going by the logo emblazoned down the side. Comfy seats and lovely headrests, cold towels, free drinks, in-flight personal TVs (though not active for our 1-hour jaunt)… a much better plane than the one we ended up with for our long-haul flight from the UK on Royal Thai. Much, much better.

We delved through the Lonely Planet as I tried to decide what route we should take through the cities of the east coast when we arrived and very quickly we were descending into Da Nang. Again, offloading and luggage collection was a breeze.

I’d intended to get a xe om (motorcycle taxi) to the bus station and head down to Hoi An, but the only transport available was taxi. So we got one for $4 (quite expensive, I think) to take us to the bus station. He actually dropped us on the bus *route*, but ensured we were there to catch the next bus which is fair enough. I have a feeling if he’d taken us to the station we’d just have missed one and have had an hour to wait.

Now, Lonely Planet quotes the public bus fare from Da Nang to Hoi An as being 8000d and recommends you get on at the station as travellers who jump on en route are “routinely overcharged”. I can confirm this. Even allowing for inflation and the aforementions jump in fuel prices, I think a quote of “40,000d. Each” is taking the piss. I got him down to 30,000d for the pair of us before I got bored. I’d reckon, given the current prices elsewhere compared to the newest Lonely Planet (currently 9th edition), that the cost should be around 10,000d to 12,000d per person for this journey.

The guy taking the fares turned out to be OK, though – just another guy out to try and make some more money. We had a quick chat and he pointed out some of the scenery on the way down. When we got to Hoi An, he sorted us out a couple of xe om to get us to the town. We’d ended up at the north bus station which is a couple of km’s out of the town rather than the local one. More frequent buses leave from this one, but it’s pot luck when you’re heading towards Hoi An which one you’ll jump on. I guess a local would know.

The moto’s tried to get 30,000d a had off us, eventually “agreeing” on 25,000d though I’d insisted on 20,000d. Given the length of the ride, 20,000d seemed a good price. 25,000d wouldn’t have been a rip-off, in fairness.

Based on Lonely Planet, we chose the Thien Nga due to the phrase “old favourite” in the review which implied it had been around for a long time and also made its way through several editions without being dumped. The only downside was the price – higher than LP listed and they only had top-end rooms left at $30 a night. However, it also had free wi-fi, PCs, a small pool with loungers, a great view from the balconies, breakfast included, cable telly and a fridge with local-priced beverages inside. And they knocked us down to $25. Sold.

So after a quick unpack, shower and plunge in the comparitively icy and refreshing pool we walked into town to pick somewhere for dinner. And gaped in wonderment. Hoi An is truly a beautiful city – or large town. Stunning.

Old, wooden buildings line the streets. History seeps from every tile and shuttered window. Meeting rooms, pagodas, bridges. Gorgeous. And we were seeing it at night. I heartily look forward to taking a stroll around in the daylight. The town cente is also closed most (or some) evenings to anything other than pedestrians and users of “primitive vehicle” (sic). This makes walking around so much more pleasant and peaceful. Piped music even comes from speakers around town – nice, relaxing piano. Ideal regardless of where you decide to eat.

After plodding for almost an hour checking out the prices and menus (all very similar) we settled on the U2 (or U-Hai) restaurant on D Nguyen Thai Hoc. It’s not in Lonely Planet, but it looked nice, had a decent menu and prices were around 10-20,000d cheaper than Hai Scout Cafe which is recommended by them. We started with a couple of nice mocktails. Mine was unusual – 7-Up, orange, lime, tea and grenadine – and absolutely divine. Leah – for once – forewent seafood in favour of spag bol and I had some superb battered chicken slices with a lemon and salt dipping sauce. De-flipping-licious.

A couple of large jugs of locally brewed beer washed them down nicely. Total bill was 141,000d – around £4, give or take. Back at the hotel we booked a tour for two to the ruins at My Son (pronounced “Me Sun”) tomorrow at the newly-inflated price of $4 per person. Not bad for a 5-hour trip.

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