Vietnam Part 2
We rented bikes again from our hotel and explored the southern region of Hue, the Royal Arena would be our first stop. The emperors amused themselves at the arena by watching fights between tigers and elephants, tigers representing rebel forces and elephants symbolising the unequalled might of the sovereign. It was apparently, a pretty one sided fight which the elephant was never allowed to lose, and contemporary accounts suggest that in later years the tigers were tied to a stake and their claws removed.
Back on the bikes we visited a couple of the Royal Mausoleums, unlike previous Vietnamese dynasties who buried their kings in the ancestral village, the Nguyen built themselves magnificent Royal Mausoleums in the valley of the Perfume River among low, forested hills to the south of Hue. The Mausoleum of Tu Duc is the most harmonious of all the mausoleums, with elegant pavilions and pines reflected in serene lakes. The walled, twelve hectare park took only three years to complete (1864-67), allowing Tu Duc a full sixteen years for boating and fishing, meditation, drinking tea made from dew collected in lotus blossoms and composing some of the four thousand poems he is said to have written. Somehow he found time for fifty course meals and 104 wives and a whole village of concubines living in the park, but possible due to a bout of small pox fathered no children. The mausoleums were quite impressive but spoilt by the number of tourist and touts around the area, we were going to eat outside the mausoleum of Tu Duc but the prices were inflated by fifty percent so we headed east to Thuan An Beach.
The road to the beach was quite busy but a lot more enjoyable than the highways, we were all cruising in formation until Nicks bike started to fall apart. I was immediately behind him dodging his left suspension as it broke into pieces, I could have stopped to retrieve the parts but my immediate response was to get Nick off the road. Once I'd flagged Nick over we all travelled back up the road searching for the components with no joy; a local mechanic temporarily fixed the bike but it looked as though Nick was now riding on a giant marshmallow and needed a new spring pretty urgently. We visited the beach but the temperature had dropped a little and the weather was slightly overcast so we decided to head back to the hotel, on our way back to the hotel we pulled over at a local Vietnamese mans house to watch a c*** fight. c*** fighting is now banned through most of the United States, and most of Europe however it was obviously still legal here because there was no attempt to hide the blood sport from the police or the number of children watching the spectacle on the road edge.
The four of us stopped off at the 'Stop and Go Cafe' for a bite to eat before returning to the Phong Nha Hotel for a few drinks the room.
After a lazy morning Nick set off on his bike ride to Da Nang which could be problematic as the weather had taken a turn for the worst and his suspension was still broken. Lloyd, Martin and I had booked a bus to Da Nang at 1.30, our plan was to meet Nick at the Minh Travel Hotel located in central Da Nang. The sleeper bus took about two hours it would have been quicker but we stopped off for a bite to eat (seafood soup), we hadn't heard from Nick for a few hours and we were pretty worried about him because the roads were wet and windy. We arrived at the hotel but soon realised that it'd been sold and converted into shop, we directed the driver to the Prince hotel and checked into the spacious four bed room and logged onto facebook to see if Nick had tried to contact me. Below is a copy of Nicks original facebook message ........
'Alright Gaz if you are reading this you will prob already know that the hotel i was supposed to meet you at has closed down. I've had an absolute nightmare. Cut a long story short my bag has fallen off the back of my bike and I've lost my passport so i can't check in anywhere. And my phone so i can't call you. Just log onto skype and I'll try and contact you guys that way'
We located Nick and spent the next few hours contacting the embassy and looking into how to resolve this pretty major problem.
I told the hotel owner that we'd like to rent three bikes for a couple of days, we left our room to view the bikes thinking they'd be the standard Honda Waves which everyone rides over here; we couldn't believe it when four large hogs stood before our eyes. Large leather seats, chrome fittings and eagle decals, Nick immediately forgot about his passport problems as we negotiated a price for the shiny machines (£15 per day). We nervously started the monsters up and before we knew it we were roaring down the boulevard with big grins on our faces; James, Nick, Martin, David a 65 year old retired adventure seeker and his guide 'Tien' rode pillion, 'High' and another bike owner plus myself rode in formation along the wide stretch with the sea on one side and Da Nang on the other.
The beach was made famous during the American war as an advance guard of two battalions of marines waded ashore at Red Beach in Da Nang Bay, providing the press with a photo opportunity that included amphibious landing craft, helicopters and young Vietnamese women handing out garlands.
We climbed our way up the Hai Van Pass stopping off for photographs of Monkey Island and an island which use to be the home to leprosy sufferers. The wind got a little strong as we approached the top; at the top we stopped for coffee and to take a look at an American bunker before dropping over the other side and descending. All of us were searching for Nicks bag and passport but it was long gone by now, we pulled in for breakfast / lunch, we hadn't eaten that morning because we were so excited to ride the bikes. The pork and rice was delicious washed down with couple of beers; we all waited for Nick in the restaurant as he'd been taken to the police station for a 'lost passport reference number'. Apparently the chief police man was a complete pain and Nick ended up having to pay for this service.
After lunch we headed back to the hotel via the pass, this time we were riding at speed dropping the bikes into second gear for the tight hair pin turns; I had my headphones on and could still hear the rumble from the gang of bikes.
Back at the hotel we met up with a few other Vietnamese chaps who were involved with the bike rental, they had taken Nicks Minsk to the mechanics to be fixed and told us we could have the bikes for another day - we jumped at the proposition and spent the rest of the night cruising around Da Nang. Later in the evening David joined us for some food; we all ate outside just round the corner of the hotel. The squid and beef noodle was pretty tasty; the only downside of the meal was the number of rats we spotted running up a nearby alley.
9.00 We met the rest of the motley crew in the hotel lobby and set off for another days riding on our hogs. Our first stop was Marble Mountain; a large limestone rock which pokes out of the ground next to a diminutive village where you can buy handmade marble artefacts of all sizes. After breakfast we carried on our drive to Hoi An and stopped off at the beach where we witnessed a young British girl falling off her scooter, the young girl was only travelling at about five miles per hour through sand but slammed on her front brake - big mistake. Hoi An was definitely a tourist destination with people cycling alongmeandering paths and riding on Sampons down the Bon River and drinking in the array of original wooden buildings.
Hoi An was particularly quaint with the historic core consisting only of three short streets running parallel to the river, everything was quiet until we entered town on our five noisy bikes which you could probably hear from anywhere in Hoi An. Everyone was looking at us; I'm not going to lie and say I don't like attention, I absolutely loved it, ACDC blasting down my headphones surrounded by my pals; we all felt on top of the world and even when we stopped for lunch people would cross the road to check out our bikes.
After terrifying the streets of Hoi An we rode home blasting down the three lane highway honking my bespoke truckers' horn at anything that got in our way.
In the evening we stumbled upon a Thai restaurant and celebrated our two days of 'hog riding' there.
Nick and Martin rode the repaired Minsk to the train station and managed to load it onto a train to Na Trang, it would get there on the morning of the 14th. The four of us were catching an overnight bus at 16.30 so killed time playing cards and eating multiple burgers at 'hamburger' which is a fast food chain that sells a selection of burgers and baguettes for less than 50p. We watched the Top Gear Vietnam special in the lobby of the hotel, this particular episode had inspired us all the first time we watched it at home. The group of presenters' road on some of the roads which we rode on and Jeremy Clarkson commented that the Hai Van Pass was one of the best roads in the world.
16.30 It was raining hard as we scurried onto the sleeper bus, the four of us had to share a seat until Hoi An where half the passengers would disembark. In Hoi An we raced to get the back seats, five fully reclining seats which when reclined formed a reasonable card playing surface.After watching The Deer Hunter and the Fog Of War I tried to sleep but the roads surface was terrible. We stopped off for supper and a drink before travelling through the rest of the night, none of us had a good night sleep because of the treacherous roads.
6.00 We arrived in Nha Trang stopping off for a coffee on the outskirts before another ten to fifteen minutes drive into the centre. The bus pulled up in front of a hotel named Phu Quy and for £2.50 a person and a gorgeous rooftop terrace we settled there. Immediately the four of us headed to the rooftop terrace for a big breakfast and in true 'Brits abroad style' a beer, the flowery terrace was huge offering superb views of the sea and mountains. I jumped into a hammock for a few hours to catch up on some sleep.
Later that evening we watched the Bahrain Grand Prix qualifier before heading out to see what the night life was like. We found a really nice bar with an outside garden boasting palm trees and comfy settees to relax on, the place looked like it should have been really expensive but with the drinks costing a mere $1 we soon found ourselves drunk and on the beach where James fell into the sea. The whole night was kind of sketchy Martin and Nick both got lost and then separated, Nicks bike taxi took him to a w**** house and claimed it was his hotel, Martin was locked out of his room and nearly had to sleep outside (again), James was in the shower warming himself up after the fully clothed dip in the sea and I'd passed out in a hammock.
Nick went to collect his bike from the train station only to find it wasn't there, the train attendant claimed it would be there the following morning at 7.00. We were all feeling pretty rough so after a seafood soup breakfast and typing up a few days of the blog on the rooftop terrace we went to the beach for a refreshing dip.
It's the long coastline beach that brings tourists flocking to Nha Trang, boasting the finest municipal beach in Vietnam. It was a good beach to mellow out, with hawkers on hand to supply anything from fresh pineapple, drinks and massages. However I find it pretty difficult to relax and before I knew it was involved in a football match; James, Martin, Nick and myself against what seemed to be the rest of the beach. The other team had about ten young Vietnamese lads to hand and they attacked the ball like ants tackling a crumb, we all fatigued pretty quickly and jumped into the sea to cool down. The sea was turquoise and clean but its visibility was reduced by the large waves which crashed down onto the fine sand. We kicked the football back to our hotel situated only minutes away from beach, and met up on the rooftop terrace for some food. That evening I skyped home and spoke to my mum and Roger, I hadn't spoke to Roge for a while so it was nice to catch up with the little bean head :)
Nick visited the train station again and there was still no sign of his bike, the staff assured him that his beloved Minsk would arrive the following morning. As a result the four of us hired bikes for about £2 per day to explore Nha Trang and its surroundings. Getting onto the Honda Wave was a massive come down after riding the hogs, the riding position was poor, the bike felt unstable but the most disappointing thing was that we now just looked like everyone else on the roads.
Our first stop was the Po Nagar Cham Towers - North of the city centre; we crossed over the Cai River which offered views of Nha Trangs immense fishing fleet before heading west for two minutes pulling up next to the Hindu temples. The baked red brick temples were built by the Hindu Cham people between the seventh and twelve century. We paid the small entrance fee but the guards insisted that James covered his bare chest by buying a t-shirt; he refused but didn't miss much as you could see the majority of the temple from the car park.
Back on the underpowered peds we headed North and around the coast line which gave the best view of the turquoise sea and the fishing boats and villages that hugged the shore line. Eventually we found Thap Ba Hot Springs which was a beautiful spa set in an idyllic location, it was like walking into a five star hotel garden; we were surrounded by tranquil ponds, pools and waterfalls all surrounded by palm trees and blossomy flowers. After lunch on a small islet built on a fish filled pond, the four of us climbed into one of the many mud filled stone made baths before basking in the sun which allowed the mud to dry, a mineral shower then blasted the mud off our baked bodies. Our next treatment was a warm mineral bath followed by a mineral power blast; the four of us had to walk down a brick channel as mineral water blasted us from all directions. We spent the rest of the afternoon under a waterfall and in the hot swimming pool which is the hottest water I've ever swam in.
I couldn't believe that a couple of days ago we were riding big bikes and drinking beer and now here we where pampering ourselves like four girls but for £4 a session I'd recommend it to anyone visiting Nha Trang.
In the evening we played cards on the roof top terrace and made some plans for our onward travel, we all were hoping that Nicks Minsk would arrive the following morning.
Nick successfully picked up his Minsk but had to pay somebody to put it back together; the train staff had removed the fuel and taken components from the bike to fit in into the wooden travel box. The four of us ate some breakfast before heading back to the hotel, Nick on his Minsk and James, Martin and myself on our Honda Waves. The idea was to visit a couple of waterfalls but we soon forgot about the waterfalls as we were all mesmerised by the beauty of the coastline around Nha Trang. We followed the coast line for miles not really caring about where we were or what direction we were travelling in. Eventually we came to a stop and the four of us couldn't believe the time, it was 16.00 so we decided to take the coastal route back. As we approached a scenic stretch consisting of mountains and views overlooking the Sea, Martin spluttered to a halt, running out of petrol; Nick road back up to a small shop and bought Martin a litre of petrol which 'put him on' until we arrived back in the city centre.
Back in the centre we pulled up outside a seafood restaurant and treated ourselves to a seafood fondue which seemed to be a grandiose way to conclude another successful day on the roads.
12.00, checked out of Phu Quy and spent the rest of the day relaxing on the rooftop terrace sunbathing, playing cards, eating, drinking and using the hotel WIFI; basically just killing time before our 19.30 overnight sleeper bus - hopefully this will be the last sleeper bus for a while.
The bus ride was slightly more comfy than the previous ones but we still struggled to sleep, arriving in Ho Chi Minh city with red eyes.
We walked down Pham Ngu Lao seeking accommodation but struggled to get into a few of the hotels listed in the Rough Guide. We headed down a narrow street dodging bikes, dogs, children and food stalls into Yn Hni hotel; asmall friendly family run hotel with a couple of guest rooms. The only problem was that we only had one room between four of us until 11.00 and it was 7.30 and we were really tired, the lads slept and I went for breakfast on the main road. The road was bustling with action including a Chinese funeral procession which I joined.
Ho Chi Minh is still known as Saigon to its seven million or so inhabitants and is Vietnam's centre of commerce and the country's biggest city by far. The city is divided into eighteen districts we were located in district one which is the centre of what seemed to be chaos.
After a huge sleep we ate Pho Bo in Pho 24 and headed to the Consulate to sort Nicks passport out, we had to speak into a microphone and explain to the guards our predicament, I couldn't resist singing a song to the guards, the guard stood up and looked at me in a sinister manner - I thought I was going to kicked out but the comical guard joined in with the singing before body scanning us and issuing us with security tags. We were at the consulate for quite a while; Nick had to visit another building further down the road to get his pictures taken before filling in a number of lengthy forms.
On the way back to the centre we stopped off at the Notre Dame Cathedral; a late nineteenth - century twin spire edifice which were memorably compared by the Novelist Anthony Grey as the ears of a jack-rabbit.
Later in the evening we headed out and ate on the main street; a five course meal costing a couple of pounds. The street was full of restaurants and bars but we settled in a bar on the corner which had a happy hour lasting all night; you could sit on the road for hours just people watching although some of the sites were slightly depressing - middle age men hitting on young hookers. Billy Joel's Piano Man was playing in the background the lyrics "sharing a drink they call loneliness" seemed quite fitting for a middle aged man stroking the neck of a nearby hooker.
After breakfast we headed to the train station on rented motorbikes carving our way through the manic traffic trying to keep up with motorbike taxi which Nick was riding pillion on. 13.30 we got the Minsk back from the train station and headed North to the Cu Chi tunnels, however about twenty minutes into the journey Martins bike blew up and failed to start up again. James and I had to carry on the journey without them and Nick and Martin headed back to the bike rental shop to sort out the problem. After about an hour on the highway we took a left and spent the last twenty minutes of the journey riding through bomb cratered field and beautiful scenery, eventually we rode into a large complex signposted - Cu Chi Tunnels.
During the American War the villages around the district of Cu Chi supported a substantial Viet Cong presence. Faced with American attempts to neutralise them, they quite literally dug themselves out of harm's way, and the legendary Cu Chi tunnels were the result. James and I experienced the tunnels first hand; the tunnels were dark, sweaty and a claustrophobic experience. It was hard to imagine how people could live in such conditions; apparently it became so hot in the afternoon that inhabitants had to lie on the floor to get enough oxygen to breath. The darkness was absolute and some long term dwellers suffered temporary blindness when they emerged into the light. At times it was necessary to stay below ground for weeks on end, alongside bats, rats, snakes, scorpions, centipedes and fire ants. We were quite lucky not to run into any snakes however we had to crouch particularly low in areas to duck the sleeping bats.
We road back to Saigonand eventually found our hotel, the traffic was the worst yet and we were tyre to tyre with bikes, the road was so busy at one point we had to mount the pavement and use it as another lane. Martin and Nick had a nightmare with the other bike and the dispute between them and the rental guys nearly ended in a fight.
In the evening we ate at a rooftop bar, the bbq was built into the centre of the table; the wild pig costing £3 was delicious. It was our last night out with Nick and Martin so we celebrated our travelling experience together with numerous shots of Sambuca and reminisced on our time here in Vietnam.
We eventually lifted our weary hung-over heads out of bed at around 1pm and quickly threw some cloths on and road our rented bikes around the corner to the rental shop. After breakfast we woke Martin and Nick up, they had been woken up at 9.00 with smoke in the room, at first they thought it was from outside but a still lit cigarette had fallen down the side of their bed and set fire to one of Martins t-shirt. The hotel owner came to the rescue but instead of using an extinguisher he grabbed the flaming ball of fire from under the bed and stamped the fire out.
We were all too hung-over to do any sightseeing so decided to visit Ben Thanh market in the evening. James and I bought a few watches and I was on the lookout for a Ho Chi Minh statue to join the rest of my worldly artefacts collected on my travels. However my attention was drawn towards a hog bike made from wire, the four of us loved the quirky little gifts and as Vietnam was the start of our hog bike adventures it seemed quite appropriate to buy four of them.
After a final beer with Nick and Martin we headed Yn Hni for our last night sleep in what has been one of my favourite countries so far. Not so long ago the Americans bombed the hell out of this small strip of land, today Vietnam is one of the world's fastest growing economies and is home to some of the friendliest people I've ever met; a country the west could learn a lot from.
Favourite area - Cat Ba Island
Favourite accommodation - Phu Quy in Nha Trang purely because of the roof top terrace
Favourite person - The Halong Bay b******s (the lads)
Favourite food - Snake supper
Favourite drink - Beer Saigon
Favourite moment - Riding on the hogs
Worst area - Ninh Binh
Worst accommodation - Sleeper bus
Worst person - Fat captain on the boat to Cat Ba
Worst food - Sticky rice in Nha Trang
Worst drink - Tap water at Halong Bay
Worst moment - Skidding my bike on highway 5
Favourite area - Cat Ba Island
Favourite accommodation - Phu Quy in Nah Trang
Favourite person - The guy in Da Nang who let me rent his hog
Favourite food - Snake sautéed with garlic and lemon
Favourite drink - Beer saigon
Favourite moment - Riding the hai van pass on the hogs
Worst area - Ninh binh's dusty boring streets
Worst accommodation - All of the overnight sleeper buses
Worst person - Captain Dick on the boat from Ha Long city to Cat Ba
Worst food - Mantis Shrimp grill in Cat Ba city
Worst drink - Snake blood shots
Worst moment - Losing my phone on the bus to Nah Trang