Nearly three weeks since the first, it is time for the second fascinating instalment in Danny's travels. Given the time since the last one, and depending on how much I can remember and how long I can be arsed to write, this may prove quite lengthy, so get settled.
Having spent our last night in Hanoi back at Bia Hoi corner, we spent a much more enjoyable night's sleep on the train down to Hue, unquestionably brought about by the alcohol. Hue is famous as the former capital of Vietnam and home of the old royal family. The big attraction here therefore is the old citadel and surrounding buildings, where aforementioned royal family once lived. We spent our first day there exploring various tombs, pagodas and buildings in the citadel, although a lot of it (like many things in Vietnam) had been completely destroyed by the Americans, with the process of restoring the place to its former glory only now starting to get off the ground. As interesting as this was- for a few hours at least- it also proved to be the only interesting thing to do in Hue, so we spent the rest of that day and the next doing very little.
On Saturday 21/03 we left Hue to head further south via a four hour or so bus journey to the town of Hoi An. Hoi An was, in retrospect, probably my favourite place in the whole of Vietnam. It has something for everyone; it is renowned as a heritage town full of old buildings and museums, is one of the best places in Asia for buying clothes, it has a fantastic beach a few km down the road, its own special local dishes and a riverside area full of a great mix of local and western restaurants and bars. We spent our first night indulging in the latter, taking in a great meal and some of the cheaper drinking establishments down by the river.
After much deliberation, I had decided that it would be foolish to come all the way to one of the best shopping towns in all of Asia and leave empty-handed, so early on Sunday morning I made my way to a very swanky looking suit shop in the centre of town. After several fittings over the next couple of days I came away with four tailor made suits for $350, including shipping back to the UK. I continue to be filled with dread at how I will react when I return to the UK (London, no less) and am forced to pay English prices again.
We spent the next few days in Hoi An enjoying all that it has to offer from the bars to the beach, and back to the bars again. It was possibly the first place I had been to where I was really sad to be leaving, where I felt I could have spent more time. Nevertheless, we spent most of Tuesday 24/03 on the train heading further south to Nha Trang.
Nha Trang is renowned as a backpacker favourite, and it is not difficult to see why. It is famous for having one of best beaches in the whole world, and the entire town now seems to rely on the tourist industry that the stunning coastline brings. In this respect, it is perhaps a little too touristy for me, and in many ways reminded me a bit of a Vietnamese Magaluf. Despite this, I defy anyone to spend eight hours on a Vietnamese train with only a pair of ignorant Danish lesbians for company and not get off in desperate need of a drink, so we decided to head out on the town.
We soon found ourselves, along with seemingly every other backpacker within a 20 mile radius, at the Sailing Club. Ask anyone you meet in Asia what they did in Nha Trang and they will tell you a couple of things. Firstly, that they went to the Sailing Club. Secondly, that they spent the night drinking what can only be described as jam jars full of what was supposed to be a cocktail but what was actually more like a sickly orange meths. Thirdly, they will tell you that they were subsequently hungover for about three days, and spent most of that night and the next day chucking their guts up. We were no exception, and I for one am not qualified to write any more on the subject as everything that happened after about 12.30pm was a complete blur. I am told by one of my drinking buddies (although how reliable their account can be I do not know) that one point I disappeared for a while, only to turn up on the back of a moto demanding they we all squeeze on to the back and go for a tour around town. I like to operate under the rule that if you can't remember it then it didn't happen and therefore can not be held against you, and this is no different.
The ridiculous state we found ourselves in that night was made all the worse by the fact that we were supposed to be getting up at 9.30am to take a boat trip round some of the islands. We were awoken at 9.45am and, in the most drunken and confused morning state I have ever been in, dragged ourselves down to the bus to take us to the port. This whole episode is hazy as we were all still battered from the night before.
The initial stages of the boat ride were again a blurry mix of trying not to vomit and actually vomiting. I think I slept for a while only to wake up and realise that everyone had got off to go walking around an island or something, I was quite happy lying on the boat being laughed at by the Vietnamese captain.
What we shortly discovered is that the best cure for a hangover, even one as violent as this, is to jump from the top of a boat (a la Majorca) into crystal clear turqoise waters and to spend an hour or two snorkelling. This was my first sight of coral and actual tropical fish that were not in a tank, and although we were only snorkelling it seriously whetted my appetite for the diving I hope to do later on in the trip. We spent the rest of what was ultimately a fantastic day chilling on the boat and sitting on a beach on one of the islands.
Unfortunately, apart from a very small amount of time exploring what is indeed an unbelievably good looking beach, the next day (our last in Nha Trang) was ruined for me by sunstroke/delayed hangover/food posioning, and I spent most of the day in the hotel room trying to recover. Feeling a little better by the evening time, we left Nha Trang for our last night train heading to our final destination, Ho Chi Minh City.
Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as nearly everyone actually calls it, is the biggest city in Vietnam. If I thought there were a lot of motorbikes in Hanoi, then this was just ridiculous. I have heard estimates ranging from 4 million to 10 million bikes in the city, what is clear is that there are a lot. A hell of a lot.
Our first stop around Saigon was the Cu Chi tunnels, a couple hours of drive outside the city. Cu Chi is a 200km square network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the American War, where they lived, slept, schooled and fought for 20 odd years. Basically what would happen would be that an American soldier would see a VC, chase after him then stand around like an idiot when he disappeared. The VC would jump down a tunnel, run a few metres, pop out a different hole and kill whole groups of soldiers from behind. As brutal as the war was, it was impossible not to admire the ingenuity of it all, especially when being shown some of the booby traps the VC used in and around the tunnels. It was fascinating stuff, until the point came for us to crawl down the tunnels ourselves. Although parts of the tunnels have now been widened to allow fat Westerners through, it is still a pretty tight squeeze, and when you have someone behind you in the pitch black grabbing your heels and telling you to hurry up (thanks, Matthew), clasutrophobic panic soon sets in. I managed 20 metres or so before being very happy to emerge back into daylight.
Having passed on the opportunity to fire an AK-47 (something which I am considering doing in Cambodia anyway, with or without a cow or chicken as a target), we headed back to Saigon. That night we headed out to a few bars, bumping into the Welsh guys we had previously met in Hanoi. They're attempt to motorbike down from Hanoi had ended prematurely when they realised after two days that they had vastly underestimated the size of the country, and had taken the dreaded sleeper bus instead. There is a very definite backpacker area in Saigon, and we spent the night sampling a few of the bars in and around this part of town.
The tour we had been on was now pretty much at an end, and on Sunday 29/03 I headed out back on my own, finding a little guesthouse with a double room and en suite for $10 a night. I had enjoyed being part of a group but was very ready to spent some time on my own. The next few days I spent seeing the sighs of Saigon, from the brilliant War Remnants Museum, the Reunification Palace (where the North Vietnamese tank crashing through the gates brought an end to the American War) and a few of the famed local markets.
One of the reasons that the local Vietnamese markets are such a must for tourists is that these are probably the best places to hone your bartering skills. For a Westerner who has never bartered before, negotiating over the price of everyday items from bottled water and bread to clothes and transport takes a lot of getting used to. Many places display no fixed price for goods, and where this is the case, bartering is the expected course of action. With the right opponent, it can actually be great fun, and you can get some great bargains if you know what you're doing; my personal favourite is the 'walking away' tactic, which usually works a treat. I do however often find myself facing a moral dilemma in such situations. A few times I have realised that I'm arguing over about 10p. In poorer countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia it is fair to say that the locals need this money a lot more than you do, and on a few occasions I have bartered a price way down and ended up giving them more money anyway out of guilt. People tell me that to pay more money only serves to rock the boat and will eventually have a negative impact on the local economy, but it is very difficult to bear this in mind when faced with poverty in such close quarters. I recently read somewhere that bartering is not about getting the lowest price, but about reaching a compromise and finding a price that is acceptable to both parties. I think if you stick to this philosophy you can't go far wrong, and it makes for great banter with the locals.
By Wednesday 01/04 I had just about exhausted all the sights and delights that Saigon had to offer, so set off on a three day trip into Cambodia. I had decided to do this by way of a tour down through the Mekong Delta, and then by boat all the way up the Mekong straight through to Phnom Penh.
As part of the tour, we spent our first day making several stops including a local cafe with its own bee hive, a little cafe where we could try some tropical fruit, and a few other stops that were so exciting I can't even remember what they were. The highlight of this was a little rowing boat through some of the quieter back canals of the Mekong, one of the things that I pictured about Vietnam before actually coming. We spent the night in a crappy little hotel in Can Tho, the biggest city in the Meking Delta and I think the 5th biggest in the country. I had the good fortune of sharing a twin room with a weird little Vietnamese chap who spoke a very random array of English words and who snored like a complete b******. Despite the fact I had drank about 10 beers, the foghorn sleeping 3 feet away from me kept me up until 2am when I watched the England-Ukraine match, eventually managing about 2 hours sleep prior to our 7am departure.
The second day of the tour was much the same as the first; a long list of generally dull and pointless stops that included a place where they made coconut candy, a crocodile farm and a place where they made rice paper. We also took a boat ride around the famous floating markets. The highlight of day 2 was undoubtedly a hill top pagoda that overlooked the Vietnamese-Cambodia border. Exhausted, bored and very very hot, we eventually arrived in our hotel for the night in the border town of Chau Doc, a town that would be entirely nondescript if it wasn't for the unprecedented number of may flys that had invaded the place. My roommate for tonight would be a French guy called Ben, a far more agreeable bloke with excellent English who had been living in Amsterdam for the last five years. He also didn't snore, which is always a great bonus.
Friday 03/04 was day 3 of the tour, and the day which we would spend making our way by boat into Cambodia. I had spent 4 incredible weeks in Vietnam, and although part of me was sad to be leaving, I was also very excited to be heading somewhere new for the first time in a while, especially having heard rave reviews about Cambodia from people I had met. The journey took most of the day, interspersed with various stops at a floating fish farm (it was as boring as it sounds), a Cham tribal village where Islam was the main religion (much more interesting) and of course the border where we got our visas. We arrived in Phnom Penh around early evening, finding the excellent hostel that had been recommended to me (Top Banana if anyone is going to Phnom Penh any time soon) and spending the rest of the night doing a bar crawl around the local area. The four of us (myself, Ben, Matthew who I had done Vietnam with and who we had bumped into again, and another English girl called Lorna) eventually ended up in something akin to a lock in in a bar just round the corner from the hotel, staying until the early hours and retiring to bed more than a little tipsy.
Phnom Penh is, in many ways, as bustling as its Vietnamese equivalents, but there is somehow a much more relaxed vibe about the place. The people are much friendlier than their Vietnamese neighbours, with a much better sense of humour. Whereas the Vietnamese more often than not stopped talking to you once they realised they were not going to get any cash out of you, you can actually have a laugh with the locals here. I have spent the last few days exploring what the city has to offer, both alone and with some of the guys I have met here. There are very much two sides to this city. There is the traditional history of the place, encapsulated by the pretty stunning Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, the National Museum and unbelievable architecture scattered throughout the city. In stark contrast to this, there is the much more recent and much darker shadow that hangs over the city that is the legacy of Pol Pot and his genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.
I must confess to knowing little about the history of the Khmer Rouge before coming here, it is something which perhaps doesn't receive as much attention as it should back home. In short, the Khmer Rouge between 1975-1979, executed hundreds of thousands (probably millions) of people for a variety of reasons, and tried to destroy urban living by emptying Phnom Penh, turning it into a ghost town and sending all the people to work in the rice fields. This is demonstrated here at two spots, the S21 prison (where people were detained) and the infamous Killing Fields (where people were taken for mass executions). Although they are both undoubtedly depressing to visit, I think it is both worthwhile and important that people continue to do so.
On a much lighter note, Phnom Penh is awash with great little bars and restaurants. As I write I should be here for another day or two, before heading west to Siem Reap and the world famous Angkor Wat temples nearby. If anyone has actually made it to the end of this ridiculously long entry, you should probably get a hobby or something, or find a better way to spend your time. Next time I write I will most likely be on the southern coast of Cambodia in a town called Sihanoukville, where from 18 April I am doing 4 weeks volunteering teaching snotty nosed Cambodian kids all the best English swear words and how to say "I hate Nottingham Forest, Notts County are probably the greatest football team in the world". That should be fun.