Vietnam - 4.05.11 – 30.05.11
The flight from Kuching to Hanoi went via KL with a 6 hour wait in the middle of the night, not ideal but the cheapest option. There were no seats for us to curl up on so the cold marble floor was to be our hotel bed for the evening. To my surprise I slept so well and when Adam woke me up for check in I really didn’t want to move. I’d set up my sleeping bag, inflatable pillow and my eye mask and was dead to the world. If you’d told me I’d be doing that a year ago I would have never have believed it. Our hostel in Hanoi provided free breakfast and free beer everyday between 7 and 8pm, you can’t really argue with that at £3 a night but it was certainly a shock to the system when we arrived with the ground temperature at 25 degrees it felt like the middle of winter. Armed with cardigans and leggings, me, not Adam, we set off for a peak around the city for our first taste of Vietnam. It was pretty much what I had imagined of the capital city, perhaps even more intense. The abundance of motorbikes was overwhelming, should you choose to wait for a gap in the traffic to cross the street you would be waiting for a very long time, the best way to go about it was to walk looking straight ahead and to hope that the bikes missed you. For the most part the drivers pay a lot of attention so you are safe but the odd few that have a family of 5 on the moped whilst smoking a cigarette and talking on their mobile phone or those who are ferrying their chickens to market are the ones you need to watch out for. The conical hats we saw in Indonesia and Malaysia were also ever present in the city and it added to the capital’s charm.
The giant Hoan Kiem lake in the centre of the city detracted from the unrelenting noise of traffic and the honking of horns. It is said that there are giant turtles living in the lake and if you happen to see one it is considered to be good luck. More than likely the turtles are put into the lake every now and then to keep the legend alive. At a temple which sits on a small island in the middle of the lake you can see the embalmed body of a 250 kg turtle said to have come from the lake. We took time out for a coffee down a small side street with a menu only in Vietnamese, it was then that we realised that we were going to have some fun with the language. There are 11 vowels in Vietnamese and each vowel has 4 different sounds so I’m sure there were times where was saying something utterly absurd but with the coffee drunk it was back on the sight seeing trail. We wandered down shoe street and onto dress street where I picked up a stunning copy of a Stella McCartney designer dress for £20.
In the hostel that evening we were having the typical travellers conversation with a guy (remember the 4 Ws) and I started telling him about our poor attempt to get into Raffles and my successful attempt a few years before to wander into the Waldorf Astoria in New York, he responds by saying that he knows what I mean as he once ended up getting into a Hilton. I’m not entirely sure how I didn’t laugh in his face, you meet some amazing people while travelling. On our next day of sight seeing we had another of our infamous waste of a day experiences, we practically ran to get to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in time as it is only open till 11am and duly paid our 15,000 dong to enter (of course it’s free if you’re from Vietnam) but I soon found out that the mausoleum was closed and it was only a pagoda and a museum that was open, I marched straight back to security to demand a refund and wanted to leave. On reflection it was rather embarrassing as there are 35,000 dong to the pound so I was arguing over about 45p. Oh well, my principles still stand wherever I am.
Halong Bay is about a 3 hour drive from Hanoi on the east coast of Vietnam and had gained a lot of air time when listening to other peoples must do experiences in Vietnam so I had high hopes. It is basically a sound and was very similar to Milford Sound in New Zealand though Milford is actually a fiord, currently they are trying to get it added to the new list of the 7 wonders of the world. A couple of months before one of the junk boats used to take a group of tourists out onto the water sank in under 1 minute and 16 people died in the middle of the night so a day trip was going to be just fine for me. We had a tour guide who made me laugh every time he spoke without making a single joke, it soon became clear that as much as the Vietnamese language was very difficult for us to pronounce, English is similarly as difficult for them. All the locals who speak English do so with an almost Forrest Gump style accent which made it very difficult to take anyone seriously. We cruised through the sound among limestone cliffs, most of which had been given names of the obscure things they supposedly resembled, the best one was the fighting c*** which looked little more than 2 diamond shapes next to each other. There is a big fishing industry that is managed out of Halong city as well as by those who live on floating villages out in the middle of Halong Bay. We saw the locals going about their everyday life, it was even rubbish day when we visited and a boat with 4 giant wheelie bins floated past the houses as the local hurled their rubbish hoping to hit their target. They have cats and dogs in their homes which are made up of small sheds on platforms of about 10 metres square, a whole new experience for me. Our tour also took us to look at a couple of cave systems which in themselves were probably the best and most interesting caves I had seen with huge stalagmites and stalactites but the hideous coloured lighting and the oversized penguin shaped rubbish bins rather ruined it. All in all I was a bit disappointed with the whole experience but pleased to know what all the fuss was about.
Sapa is known as the city in the clouds and is situated north west of Hanoi, extremely close to the Chinese border and approximately a 10 hour train ride for us. We took the posh cabin for our sleeper train trip and we got duvets and water with our 3 inch thick mattress bunk bed all the way to Sapa. 2 weeks before we arrived it had been snowing up in the mountains but with the amazing weather we had experienced it seemed impossible to conceive. The Hmong tribe’s people took us on a tour of their village and through the rice terraces among the most breathtaking scenery. The journey was muddy and fortunately I had been warned and borrowed some wellies (travellers talk is useful sometimes) but others not so fortunate included Adam who spent half of the trip sliding around on his bum. The local people told us about their life and explained that the huge earrings they wear are their version of a wedding ring though the younger generations are breaking away from the traditions and wearing smaller earrings instead. We stayed in a home stay in the middle of the rice fields and enjoyed home cooked food, I ate far too many spring rolls and wanted to sleep, however with the mice scurrying around our mattresses, which were on the floor, it made for a restless night sleep. Not to mention the huge storm and the sound of all manner of animals making their respective noises. The views and the experience more than made up for all of the hassles and wandering through a huge bamboo forest was something I’d not done before. When we returned to Sapa town I was ready for a shower before catching the sleeper train back to Hanoi and fortunately we had arranged with a hotel that we could do just that. When getting into the hotel room we found a man sleeping in the bed, we went to question the front desk about and it and their response was “Oh, it’s ok, he’s our staff” Oh dear, I wasn’t sure how well I would fair in Vietnam after all.
Buying an open bus ticket to make our journey from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City seemed to be the way to go so our first trip was a 9 hour overnight trip to Hue on a sleeper bus. I was in the middle of my 4 W conversation with a guy called Rob who we ended up spending the rest of our trip in Vietnam travelling with, when I noticed something crawling over my bag. I jumped back in time to realise that it was a cockroach and in the process of trying to find it I also discovered my bed aka a padded cushion, is lying on top of a lot of old food and a fair few ants. I can’t say I slept too well but did arrive in one piece. As we stepped off the bus we were faced with the Google hotel. The letter was the exact copy as that on the website and at $10 per night I’m sure they must be affiliated. Hue is a beautiful ancient city and was home to the emperor’s of the Nguyen Dynasty. Since the massive and devastating bombings of Hue during the Tet offensive in 1968 and the following communist takeover this ancient town has been left to go to ruin, a World Heritage site it remains and the buildings are still wonderful. A wander around the ancient citadel and onto the Thien Mu pagoda, one of the most iconic structures in Vietnam founded in 1601 provided us with stunning views over the Purfume river and surrounding countryside and lasting memories. It was here that I discovered Martijn’s (travelling with Rob) insatiable need for iced coffee and ice cream. We headed up to a roof top bar to take in the view of the night sky but when we realised the price of a beer was triple the price of the bar downstairs we took our photos and made a speedy exit.
We took the second bus using our open ticket and fortunately it was only 3 hours and there were no cockroaches. The bus made a brief stop in the town of Danang where, in 1965 US soldiers first landed in Vietnam to local girls bearing and sharing flower garlands and singing and dancing for their heroes. I picked up a book on the history of the Vietnam war, ironically it is now most commonly referred to as the American war and it was clear that the ideals that the Vietnamese had in 1965 wouldn’t take long to change. The book was a difficult read and it was impossible to take everything on board but one thing that is clear is that it was not just the Americans who made mistakes and did terrible things during this devastating war but unfortunately in Vietnam the locals certainly paint it in that light.
We had decided to treat ourselves to some luxury in Hoi An and stayed at a guest house costing us £16 per night and it was worth every penny. We were met at the bus station by our own chauffeur rather than the gabble of tuk tuk drivers we usually fall over and were welcomed at the hotel with a cold flannel and a local tea. The room was spotless, the breakfast was practically a la carte and said chauffeur was at our beck and call, which came in handy for my numerous dress fittings over the following days. Hoi An, a UNESCO sight, you saw that coming, was used as an international trading port from the 17th century and the Japanese, Chinese and European influence is plain to see wandering the gorgeous lantern lit narrow lanes and cruising along the Thu Bon river. Tailor-made clothing is Hoi An’s staple trade and the town boasts some 400 tailors who can make anything your crazy mind can dream up. I had a maxi dress, a pair of shoes and a handbag made and the dress is the nicest I have ever owned. I spent some time choosing the material getting my first taste of being a designer and was certainly surprised as to how much difference the colour of the lining made to the overall look of the dress but with 250 (ish) measurements taken I was to leave it in their capable hands. I’m not sure what happened but overnight it appeared I had grown 2 inches around the bust, something I unfortunately knew to be untrue, on top of that I had shrunk 4 inches, that of course was possible but they duly altered the dress for me. When we had left the bus stop for our uber cool hotel we had left Rob and Martijn grappling with the tuk tuk drivers and who should be there in the 1 of the 400 tailors we had chosen but those two clowns, talk about bad luck!
Hoi An had its share of delights, beer at a cost of 12 pence a glass, lanterns for $2 each, a bar where you can write on anything you want, the barmen will even give you the pen and death by motorbike at 2 am through puddles knee deep in the pouring rain, this town was my kind of place. We also took a ride 10 minutes out of town and discovered the marble mountains, to my surprise and Adam’s amusement I found out that they were made out of marble, in my defence the reason why this was not apparent to me at first was that I thought it was probably one of those usual Asian things, they were going to look like marbles! The beach nearby is called China beach and stretches for 30km along the South China sea, it was very relaxing and even the locals seemed to love it as they turned up on Friday afternoon with 2 big boxes of Tiger beer ready for the weekend. It was on this beach that the US army were sent for their R&R.
My final fitting for the dress was still not right and I was determined it would be perfect so they sent me straight to the tailors workshop, I hopped on the back of the motorbike wearing my dress and carrying my clothes to meet the ladies responsible for the creation. They were working 4 women in a room about 2 metres square with 4 sewing machines and remnants of fabric littering the floor, I’m not sure what I expected but I was pleased to be able to thank the lady personally. Time for another night bus, oh joy!
During the war Nha Trang was bombed so heavily that it was practically obliterated and the town had to be built from the ground up as they say. They haven’t done a bad job but I’m afraid it lacked the charm of the towns we had visited up till now. The town, actually it’s probably a city, lies on the coast along a sweeping stretch of beach, looking out to sea, the waters are dotted with little islands in the distance. As semi-professional divers we had to get out there to see if there was anything to see. The waters are pretty much all fished out, we saw a turtle on our dive and were told that in 3 months it was only the second turtle the dive master had seen, unfortunately had the locals seen it they would more than likely had it out. The visibility was pretty good and the coral formations were beautiful something I had not expected, it was nice to just cruise among the islands, it appeared like a slightly more spread out and more beautiful version of Halong Bay. I did have a near death experience during the first dive and perhaps this is only mildly exaggerating the situation but nonetheless, I could have died. Swimming along under the water and minding my own merry business I felt the most acute stinging pain on my top lip, it hurt, a lot, and I instantly screamed, it appeared I had been stung by a jelly fish. Normally screaming is a perfectly normal and acceptable reaction to pain but when your only source of oxygen is coming from a regulator inside your mouth, opening your mouth to scream is not the best idea. I lost my reg and got a mouth full of water but remained calm, retrieved the reg and started to breathe and cry at the same time. I said I wanted to go to the surface but in my panic I had kicked up and was only 1 foot away from the top, thank goodness I was only at 5 metres when I was stung or I could have suffered for it. My lip stung for the rest of the day and I had a good story to tell but all in all no long lasting damage was done.
Hiring mopeds is the best way to get around and knowing the price of petrol before some idiot tries to rip you off is also wise. We visited the sights, a wonderful cathedral where a woman asked me for money, instinctively I said no. Unfortunately many people see a westerner and simultaneously see the neon dollar sign that is clearly floating above our heads but when I saw her continue to root through the bin for plastic, cans and glass to get money for recycling I saw the error of my ways and conceded. We visited the Po Nagar Cham towers and marvelled how an inclusion in the Lonely Planet only seems to add to the standard inflationary increases with a 300% increase on entry cost in less than 1 year but the towers built between the 7th and 12th century with views over the city were worth the price. I was tired though and in need of some alcohol so Adam and I along with Martijn and Rob hit the long island iced teas, almost unbearable to drink due to the obscenely high alcohol content and ended up on the beach in time for sunrise, well almost, I couldn’t quite be bothered to wait! The treat for the next day was one serious hangover for which up till now I have never been able to find a cure. The answer was clear, a glass of lemon juice and a day at the mud spa and I was right as rain
Lak Lake and Dalat Easy Riders Tour
I guess I have only myself to blame if I decide it’s a good idea to get on the back of a motorbike and ride alongside 3 other guys whose motto is ‘Easy riders, easy come, easy go; no woman, no cry; no money, no honey; no boom boom, no baby” but that I did and what an experience. Adam, myself, Martijn and Rob road on the back of the motorbikes of 4 locals who took us up through the central highlands for 2 days ending in the highland resort of Dalat. We stopped at a small fishing village and saw the trawlers they use for their journeys to the Phillipines, we stopped at a brick making workshop. Again it was a case of brick street, the whole road was lined with furnaces and rows of bricks which sell for 1000 dong each, aka 3p. As we headed up into the hills we experienced first hand the cool climate and the high rainfall as the skies opened. We pulled into a “service station” no M&S express here, just hammocks and fabulous views of the thunder and lightning rolling in over the countryside as all manner of animals sheltered from the rain, the best were the tiny, fluffy yellow chicks that took cover under a motorbike exhaust. It was on with our wet weather gear to continue up the snaking road on our journey of discovery. They seem to be able to grow everything in Vietnam, we visited a pepper plantation, a coffee plantation, passed tea, banana, rubber and pineapple plantations on our journey. When I asked if they knew why there weren’t any McDonald’s in Vietnam the answer came “We can get everything we want here, why do we need that!” Our last stop was for a spot of coffee overlooking what appeared to be rather inhospitable hills, it was there that the Viet Cong sought refuge during the war and the US army sent many helicopters to try and weed them out, to no avail. It was dark when we finally arrived at Lak Lake but we had been told there was a swimming pool at our hotel and we were determined to swim in it no matter what the time of day, it was still warm from the day’s heat but something didn’t feel right to me, the whole place had an eery feeling about it, like it could have been the scene for a horror movie so I ran down the embankment and promptly got dressed for dinner. It wasn’t until the next day that I discovered there were hundreds of dead frogs floating in the swimming pool. However the new day also brought stunning views of the lake followed by a ride on an elephant who walked through the lake. The experience of riding and elephant was not a comfortable one, the movement meant it was a bumpy ride and in the stinking midday heat it was a bit too much. We were able to feed our elephant sugar cane to say thank you and they, the elephants not the sugar cane, seemed to be very well looked after. As our trip continued on to Dalat we stopped at elephant falls, rather appropriate, and also at a silk factory. Perhaps I am just completely stupid but I had no idea that silk came from the cocoons of worms, I was fascinated by the whole process and as always they don’t let anything go to waste, after they have spun the silk thread from the cocoon the worm inside is boiled then dried and sold as food, the penny dropped, that’s what the street vendor put on Adam’s fried rice on the first day in Hanoi, so pleased I missed out on that one.
Although life in the country didn’t seem too different from the life the Vietnamese lead down in the small towns there are serious differences to the life that I’m used to, the constant wandering of all forms of wildlife, dogs, chickens, pigs, my favourite the piglets, cows and even bulls, the happy smiling, waving children and all the locals who want to say hello to you. One of the most amusing things I saw on this particular adventure was the paving of a new road. The tar was heated in barrels over bonfires at the side of the road, the gravel was evened out with a broom and a spade and then the barrel of tar was carried onto the gravel using a long bamboo pole, 2 people and a piece of string to tip the end of the barrel to pour the tar onto the gravel, TADA, that’s how it’s done!
Dalat was not an overly impressive place, well after that journey it had a lot to live up to, but we felt like we needed to spend a day there before heading on. We were on our way to visit crazy house, an architectural project still in the making of Alice in Wonderland style proportions and realistically a bit of a disappointment, when we stumbled on the best way to spend 50p in Vietnam. Racing around a tiny circuit in go-karts that had lawn mower engines and watching Adam and Rob spin out of control in a high speed crash causing Adam’s steering column to buckle was most definitely the highlight of Dalat.
Bus time again, with a twist as we were on a local bus, that is a mini bus crammed full with no leg room and no air con for our 6 hour journey back down through the hills to the coast. Luckily for us we had our facts wrong and the journey took only 3 hours but we were convinced for the first hour that we were only getting this bus to the posh bus just around the corner, oops. Mui Ne is a beachside town known for being the number 2 spot for kite surfing, I don’t know where number 1 is so don’t ask me, and famous for the stunning red and white sand dunes that loom in the distance. It was one long stretch of beach backed by one long stretch of bars, cafes and hotels, the best was Fanny’s ice cream, not joking.
Thinking he’s a bit of a snowboarder and also a mountain boarder Adam needed a piece of the kite surfing action so enrolled in a 7 hour course, I on the other hand enrolled in 7 hours sitting of the beach in the breeze watching him get dragged around by the wind and the waves and taking the occasional picture. According to Adam it was the best thing he did in Vietnam but I find that hard to believe, it certainly didn’t look like fun to me. He even got seriously stung by what must have been one huge jellyfish yet still he raves about it. On his final hour I decided to give up watching and went on a small outing with Martijn and Rob to the sand dunes. We hired mopeds as per normal and set out following a group of about 20 bikes on a loosely organised tour provided by our hostel. The fact that 1 guy fell off his bike at the first turning should have spelled trouble instantly and made me realise it was going to be a bad day but on we plodded. The dunes were pretty amazing and you could ride an emu or a quad bike, neither of which we did. Instead we posed for goofy shots on the top of the dunes and in the orchid lake. In fact we had spent so long being silly that we thought we ought to go back to collect Adam and go together to the Fairy spring so in tandem with the rest of the group we returned. However, the police must have decided they were a bit short on cash that day so chose to pick on the tourists. Ironic seeing as they travel 5 to a bike but 2 white people on mopeds looks dangerous. After a long discussion they agreed that our driving licenses were valid to ride mopeds up to 150cc but that we needed the registration document for the bikes. The owners of the bikes showed up and admitted to not having the registration documents and we were set free. It appeared it was all the bike owners fault but for some unknown reason they said they would do us a favour and pay half of the fine, I still don’t understand what happened but it was clear that if we didn’t pay them we could be in danger. In fine human spirit though, every person who had been on the tour that day donated £1.50, we paid the idiots and they went away. Adam was rather disappointed that the first time he had let me out of his sight for 6 months I’d ended up at the police station and we never did get to see the Fairy spring.
Ho Chi Minh City aka HCMC aka Saigon
The population of the capital city is 3.5 million whereas the population of HCMC is 7 million and it shows. It is much more spread out over 16 urban and 5 rural districts so the intensity of Hanoi isn’t quite so visible here but the vastness of the place makes for a city of contrasts, busy streets run past ancient temples and pagodas alongside busy markets, the tiny side alleys of shop house buildings lead seamlessly into the rows of malls and skyscrapers. The city had a nice feeling and the locals were more welcoming than we’d seen anywhere else in Vietnam. We spent too much of our time in the Ben Thanh market where we haggled till our hearts were content and sat outside for a breather only to be accosted by more sellers, we realised that we could just sit still and get everything we might need. People were walking past with cigarettes, cold drinks, fans, all kinds of food and Chanel and LV purses, see I told you they had everything you might need. We went back into the market and to make it more fun we set a limit of 40,000 dong to buy the coolest thing we could in 15 minutes. After the allotted time Martijn and I were stood outside with our goods while Rob and Adam were nowhere to be seen, after 30 minutes Adam arrived claiming he couldn’t find anything, it didn’t wash with us and we sent him back inside. Finally after nearly 1 hour out they both came and we sat down to judge the winner though there needed to be a serious penalty for the 45 minute over run. I bought a bowl and plate set for your chicken and rice with a hole in the side to hold chopsticks made out of bamboo, Adam bought a miniature tea set, Martijn bought 40,000 dongs worth of ice in a block about 40 cm long by 20cm square and for his 1 hour of searching Rob bought a plastic egg, banana and apple. We decided Martijn should win for taking the task so literally, the ice was very cool but he ended up carrying it around as he didn’t know what to do with it while Adam kept offering people the banana only to laugh when they found out it was plastic, we must have looked like a right bunch of idiots but we had a really fun day. The guys ate Pho, the traditional Vietnamese dish of noodles and beef in a spring onion broth from Pho 2000, in the exact same restaurant where Bill Clinton himself once ate, he must have been doing budget cuts at the time or something.
After travelling together through Vietnam it was time for Rob to head home so we had a farewell do for him. We started with sitting on plastic chairs and drinking with the locals in the street, we knew how to spoil him, but the evening took a bit of a twist. As we sat there all manner of weird and wonderful people accosted us, initially it was a man who spoke not a word of English but insisted on chatting away and laughing at his jokes, then a deaf lady sat down and as it so happened, Martijn knew sign language and had a full on conversation with her about the people walking past who were on drugs and were trying to rip off tourists. The last straw came when a man who was only 2 foot tall with a severe disability came to sell mentos, it was too much and we decided the only way to cheer ourselves up was with some good old fashioned karaoke. I’d never been to one like this before, we had our own booth and our own waiters who served us all night, Rob treated us to some drinks and we wailed away, it was sad to see Rob go but he was just looking forward to the good cheese he was going to have when he got back, everyone has their achilles heel.
We took a day trip to the Cu Chi district to visit the home of the Cu Chi tunnels. During the war with France in the 50s the Viet Minh started to construct an underground tunnel system for eluding the opposition but with the victory over France came the rule of anti-communist leader Diem. It was his eventual downfall that started the whirlwind of events culminating in the American war. Luckily for the Vietnamese though they had been constructing the tunnel system over time and when the Viet Minh, renamed the Viet Cong, were ready to fight, the tunnels were their best weapon. I read a book about the tunnels so I don’t intend to bore you with all the facts I learnt but it could be said that had these tunnels not existed, the Americans might have won. At one point the tunnels reached as far as Cambodia and also inside a US army barracks, the disappearance of artillery and food and the sporadic attacks was a puzzle and an embarrassment to the US who were sure their base perimeter was secure. At one point the Viet Cong even stole a US tank, dismantled it and hid it in the tunnel system, it took 3 months before the US discovered where it was. The tunnels were relatively well protected from bombings but eventually the US obliterated the area causing many of the tunnels to collapse during the Tet offensive. The tunnels we visited had been reconstructed and in some sections widened but were still exceedingly claustrophobic and stupidly hot. I enjoyed being able to see the tunnels and some of the traps they used after having read so much about them, in fact I ended being a bit of a guide on the trip as people were asking questions and tour paid guide was giving the wrong answers, oh, I’m such a bloody annoying know it all.
The source of the Mekong River is in Tibet and as it snakes its way south it finally makes its way to the ocean off Vietnam’s south eastern tip. As it tries to reach it’s destination it filters out causing the delta-plain to form a world of lush rice paddies, fish farms, floating villages and even floating markets. I was really looking forward to making the 2 day trip from HCMC but I was unfortunately disappointed, this was not the Mekong of my dreams. The landscape itself was lovely but we were ferried from one tourist trap to another with a bee farm, a coconut sweet factory and a vermicelli factory though this was interesting at least. We spent one night in the largest city on the Mekong and chuckled as a traveller huffed and puffed about life being such a “challenge” because they didn’t speak any English. The next day we visited a village on stilts and watched as the locals carrying their wares did business in the floating market.
Vietnam appears as a country that has more than it’s fair share of trouble in recent times but the fighting spirit of its people has caused the country to flourish not flounder in the wake of the atrocities. The trip on the Mekong was not a fitting end to our time in Vietnam but it was the end and Cambodia was calling.