Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City 3rd - 7th December 2010
My journey to Vietnam was pretty interesting and started with an overnight bus journey from Siem Reap, Cambodia at 2am. It wasn't a sleeper coach, so got as much shut eye as I could whilst sitting up straight, which wasn't a lot but at least it was something. One thing I've learnt whilst travelling is how to sleep absolutely anywhere! Lol. We got to the Cambodia / Thailand border at 7am and all had to get off, walk over a huge bridge, through 3 sets of immigration control, wait at a bike store for an hour for a connecting bus where we were told there wasn't enough room for us all. After much protesting we all managed to squeeze into this tiny mini bus with 18 peoples luggage crammed into 2 of the seats (I wish I'd got a picture now, but was so sleep deprived it didn't even cross my mind at the time), and set off for Bangkok. 3 of us were dropped off at the side of a motorway where we had to flag down a taxi, argue that we wanted the rate on the meter (the first cab refused and wanted to charge us well over even the tourist price, the second cab finally agreed) and we eventually made it to the airport. I can tell you now I can't wait for an all inclusive package holiday! :)
The flight was fine and I even got chatting to a guy next to me who turned out to be a US Diplomatic Messenger, who gets paid to take Diplomatic mail to embassies and consulates in SE Asia. He had 4 passports, all with extra pages and you should have seen the amount of stamps in them. Puts my passport to shame! I did laugh when he said Thai immigration always get the right hump with him as they have to find the last stamp and he had 100's!
Getting the visa on arrival was very entertaining too. And I just couldn't believe how stupid some people can be. There were these 2 obnoxious American guys who hadn't even bothered to look at the entry requirements (something I would have thought an American would have done especially when entering Vietnam!) You have to have a letter of approval, 1 passport photo and $25 cash, of which they had none. There's no ATM inside the terminal building so they had to talk someone into lending them the cash, and then when they both needed their passport pics taken had the audacity to moan they were being charged US$5 for them! Seriously dudes, they could charge you $100 if they wanted or you could just get back on the plane you flew in on. Idiots!
Anyway, I have digressed. Linda's little brother was waiting for me at the airport to greet me and we set off to the hotel in a taxi. When we got there another 2 members of Linda's family were waiting for me, they took all my bags and carried them upstairs to my room. I wasn't even allowed to open the door. :) I figured I could just go straight to sleep as had barely slept in 2 days but instead I was asked if I wanted to go to the toilet - errrm, no I'm ok thanks, I was then told we were going out and was ushered out of the room. We went to pick up another member of her family (I later found out this was her little brother, and her big brother, his wife and their daughter) it was at this point I was given a motorbike helmet to put on! OMFGG - these people obviously have no idea just how accident prone I am, and seriously have they seen the traffic out there?! The traffic in Saigon cannot be described in words. There are 4 million motorbikes in the capital (and Saigon is probably a quater the size of London), no road rules other than 'go, go, go' apply and at all times you are surrounded tyre to tyre by at least 300 other bikes. There are hardly any cars on the road, just bikes.
We amazingly got to the restaurant in one piece and I would have kissed the ground to celebrate that I wasn't sprawled across the road somewhere, but then saw the state of it and thought better of it.
We had a really nice meal and I sat there asking what every dish was and how to eat it. My chopstick skills are gradually improving but at one point I gave up. I mean seriously how can you pick up a prawn on a rice cracker, dip them in sauces and eat it gradually? So I stabbed it with a fork. Linda's little neice thought this was hilarious, and I can only presume was taking the piss, until she went and got a fork and did exactly the same - whoops, may have started something there!
I was actually dreading the end of the meal as it meant I had to get back on the magical motorbike, this is what it shall be referred to from now as I still have no idea how we survived any of the journeys! I also frequently told her icle bro whilst holding on for dear life that I was closing my eyes. He joked and said he might try that too! Arrrghhhhhh - noooooo. I really did feel sorry for him, and I'm sure he must have thought he'd gotten the short straw - he was so tiny and to me have on the back squeezing the life out of him couldn't have been fun!
So I finally got to sleep at 2am, and was up again at 8am - was absolutely knackered, but no rest for the wicked as they say.
Linda arrived the next day and we went out for some lunch (more noodle soup), did some shopping and then got ready to go out that evening. I went out for dinner with Linda and her sister-in-law to a restaurant that still baffles me. They didn't have any menus everything was just discussed with the waitress, the order weren't written down (actually thinking about it I couldn't say if we even got the right food as it was obviously all ordered in Vietnamese). I was also offered pig brains - seriously what kind of girl do you take me for?! Yuck, yuck, yuck. Also, and this is something that I'm just getting use to in Asia, but the floor was absolutely disgusting. If it was in England Environmental health would have shut it down, but no-one even bats an eyelid at all the food, tissues, dirt and general mess on the floor. Having said that, again, the food was spectacular.
Once we were finished I was whisked back to her Aunts place where I was once again given a motorbike helmet by her little brother and off the four of us went on a motorbike sightseeing tour of the city. :) My god, this guy is a glutton for punishment! Lol. We drove around for ages and they took me to some big landmarks in Ho Chi Minh, and we then stopped off at a coffee shop and watched the world go by for an hour or so, before going back to the hotel.
A Vietnamese style family day trip to the Beach
OMG it's so blimin early! I was absolutely knackered last night but didn't get to sleep until midnight and had to get up at 5.30am this morning to go to the Beach!
In true Vietnamese style a day trip to the beach is no small fete. They have hired a mini bus with a driver for the day to drive all 16 of us to the beach, roughly a couple of hours away.
It was a really knackering day but very insightful too. I'm so grateful to have been in Vietnam such a short time, yet have had such an insight into family life is, which really couldn't get much further away from an English set up.
So Linda came and got me at 6am, and on the way out she asked if I had a top to come back to the hotel in. I said yeah the one I'm wearing, and she asked what I was planning on wearing when I went swimming. Erm ... my bikini! Oh no, apparently that is not the done thing in Vietnam. I could do if I really wanted to however, she pointed out with the size of my boobs, don't be surprised if every man on the beach is staring at me. Apparently my tie side bikini bottoms are also classed as very sexy beach attire! Well I did want cultural immersion, and I certainly got it, even if it did come in the form of sunbathing in shorts and t-shirt! Lol.
So whilst we were waiting for the van Linda was looking around for some pre-breakfast. I would like to point out here that I simply do not understand how they can non-stop eat yet be so small! So we're looking for pre breakfast and the most westernised thing I could see was a chicken satay baguette - think I'll pass thanks. On the bus they were passing around beef jerky and deep fried wontons (seriously it's not even 6.30am!) After about half an hour we then stopped for breakfast where I was asked did I want egg or rice noodles in my soup. I nearly threw up at the thought. I managed to join in with the locals in Chiang Mai and eat chicken satay skewers for breakfast one morning, but noodle soup before 7am is just not happening. They all had their noodle soup and Linda ordered me 2 'fried' eggs, which I was going to eat with one of the baguettes. Anyone who has ever been with me when ordering breakfast knows I absolutely cannot stand 'snotty eggs'. Now do I believe the eggs did in fact see a frying pan, but it could only have been for a few seconds. They can't even be described as snotty, because snotty would mean almost cooked. I ate the baguette and the miniscule amount of cooked bits (that was after I scraped off all the yucky snotty stuff, oh god I feel sick yet again!)
The road was appalling as they were resurfacing it, but hadn't thought to close it during the process so we continuously went from flatish road to rubble where the van was violently shaking and I thought the tyres would burst at any moment. When we got there unfortunately it was so windy that no-one was allowed to set up on the beach, so we ended up in a VIP thatched shelter. We went for a walk along the beach, played in the surf, and saw a women get arrested on the beach for driving a motorbike and wrestle to security guards until she was handcuffed to the back of her motorbike - highly entertaining! We left after a few hours as there wasn't much else to do, and in true Vietnamese style we all went for dinner. :) I would however like to point out that they brought enough snacks with them to feed an army, and we'd all been snacking on them all afternoon (I was absolutely stuffed!) and then we were going to eat more food! I seriously don't know where they put it all!
The meal was delicious, I lost count of the courses after the 6th or 7th, I tried 50% of it, but I honestly don't know how they can stomach some of it, especially the fish eyes and brains! Oh god, I feel sick yet again!
Cu Chi Tunnels
A trip to Vietnam would not be complete without a trip to the Cu Chi / Viet Cong tunnels and so I did a half day trip here on the day I flew up to Hanoi. However, I still don't know whether to be impressed of mortified at the ways in which the Viet Cong developed to beat the Americans.
Firstly, I would like to say that I didn't realise Vietnam has had only had 35 years peace in over 1,100 years! 1,000 years were spent fighting the Chinese. Can you imagine that? I thought Afghanistan or Iraq were bad enough, but 1,000 years of war. That is literally hundreds of generations of Chinese and Vietnamese people at war with each other. After the Chinese left, along came the French and after the French, along came the Americans, it seems like quite a popular little country we have here.
So with this amount of war it's really not surprising just how inventive these people were. Their biggest issue was that they didn't have the ammunition or machinery like tanks or helicopters to come anywhere near close to beating their enemy. So the ways in which they killed Americans was with thousands of traps in all shapes, size and styles (including one they called the souvenir trap, as once it had almost cut off your leg and you'd been taken to hospital to get it removed, you could then take it home!)
The main part of their resistance was the tunnel system they developed. I thought this was just for them to get around to eavesdrop on enemy conversations, but the whole community actually lived underground. They had hospitals, schools, sleeping quarters, kitchens, the whole community was down there. And the way they developed to cook and dissipate the smoke along a series of tunnels was simply remarkable. They made it come out of the ground in a large flat cloud that would dissipate quickly, rather than rising in a big plume of smoke alerting the enemy as to where they were.
One American General said that they couldn't see the Viet Cong but they were all around and they were constantly under attack. Even when the Americans did find a tiny hole and pump it full of chemical gases, it didn't matter as the Viet Cong had developed a hatch system so just that room on the first level was affected.
During our tour we saw a variety of gruesome traps, how they re-engineered unexploded bombs and used them against their original creators, we crawled through some original Viet Cong tunnels (and they have even made them significantly bigger so tourist could fit in them and they were still tiny!), and I couldn't help myself but they had a firing range (with weapons that looked like they may have actually been from the war, they looked that old), and I fired an M60 machine gun. Quickest 3 seconds of my life, lots of fun and so noisy! :)
I am writing this blog whilst waiting for my flight from Saigon to Hanoi, and unfortunately have had to sit at the gate for 3 hours. I am slowly being driven to insanity by the fecking announcement system. Each announcement is in both Vietnamese and English and as soon as one announcement finishes the next one goes ding, ding, ding. This is no exaggeration, sometimes were lucky and get maybe 10 seconds between announcements, and they are so god damn loud! Thankfully my ipod is fully charged and the ear phones are rammed as far into my ears as I can get them. I just feel sorry for the people who work in this terminal. The management clearly need to pay a visit to Singapore and Bangkok airports which are 'silent airports', no announcements what-so-ever. Ok, Ive actually been counting them whilst writing this paragraph and we're currently on 16! I hope my flight isn't delayed!
Oh and just a boring point to note, I'm still plagued by my cash card misfortune. Even though the Post Office promised my folks it would be in Vietnam at the specified address within 1 week (and I wasn't arriving til the week after that), it unfortunately never showed. I seriously can't believe the agro I'm still having over such a stupid incident!
Next stop is Hanoi and Halong Bay where I'm planning on getting some chill out time as I am absolutely knackered!