Ah Vietnam, yet another country to bear the brunt of US and European interference at some point in their history. Yet, this is a welcoming nation with some seriously beautiful spots, a fact that is somewhat surprising to you and me when we consider that much of our pre-conception of the place has been formed watching the likes of Apocalypse Now and Forest Gump. The place is certainly as tropically verdant as those films suggest, but when you take out Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper et al and a well meaning half wit from Green Bo, Alabama you are left with a remarkably developed country, the 16th most populous in the world. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is a buzzing metropolis that clearly shows the influence of French occupation in its architecture (another double edged sword...well not really even double edged if you consider the pain that resulted from this passage of time). The buzz is a result of the 24/7 moped grand prix that appears to be taking place on the streets. In fact all it needs is Murray Walker and a guy waving a chequered flag at every set of traffic lights to set the whole thing in motions. Moped drivers don't take any crap from anyone, let alone the police,and having to dive out the way of a procession riding up the pavement so they could cheat a one way sign is a regular occurrence. The feat of crossing a road successfully is something to be celebrated but general consensus appears to be if you can keep moving then things will tend to avoid you or if you are a big girl like me, then wait till a local crosses and run behind him.
Both Cambodia and Vietnam accommodation is generally pretty good, and on more than one occasion it has been quite a bonus to find cable TV complete with sports channels in our room. Although, Kirsty has yet to spot the startling regularity that this amenity coincides with every time the British Lions have been playing. Pure luck I tells ya! Whether this is a good thing, I'm not so sure after the 2nd Test despair. Just one thought on this recent history....Ronan O'Gara misses the one tackle he needs to make and makes the one tackle he needs to miss. D'oh.
From Saigon we moved to the South China Sea Coast and the beach side hang out of Mui Ne. For the paltry sum of $10 we had a lovely place on the beach complete with swimming pool over looking the murky waters. Our intention to do nothing but 'vege' by the pool was curtailed by the arrival at our little hideaway by the local constabulary and their cronies. Yes, the Vietnamese police turned up for what can only be described as 'a mid-afternoon session'. And out of all the guests they could have picked, they decided to invite me and the wife over to join them. Not really wanting to go, but not wanting to offend, lest we have to telephone the consulate with our one permitted phone call, we reluctantly joined them, their crate of Heineken and table full of freshly caught squid, crab and prawns. Oh did I mention that they didn't speak a world of English. So unable to converse, our hosts took it upon them, much to their obvious amusement, to make me try and down as many cans of beer with each of them in turn whilst force feeding us squid with chopsticks. To the observer it appeared to be a gross violation of human rights and abuse of police power and to me....well what the hell....I was drunk after a beer and half. Now through the haze there was a moment's pause for some clear thinking...the police are getting us drunk....they have our names...they know where we are staying....the best we could come up with was they were about to kidnap Kirsty....well every cloud. Much ramming of glasses together and pigeon English later they departed as quickly as they had arrived and we were left to reflect on what had just taken place and were we about to end up in a Vietnamese cell for the next 25 years and a breaking news item scrolling across the bottom of BBC News. We reasoned that at least the last supper had not been bad and that maybe, just maybe, as the chief fo Police kept telling us in broken English, ' Vietnamese Poleez, vewy, vewy fwendly!'.
And so the next day on to Nha Trang, with one eye on the bus door in case we were suddenly pulled over by a chasing cop car. Described to us as 'the Ibiza of Vietnam' a little unjustly, Nha trang is another sea side town with a monstrous sandy beach as popular with the locals as it is with the travellers. Yes, it does have its fair share of neon lit bars and a number of beach side places, but it's a pretty laid backplace to indulge in more fresh seafood, or if you feel so inclined, hedgehog, soft shell turtle or civet cat. Our main excursion here was up to see the seated Buddha (well it wasn't like he was going to be playing tennis) who sits high up on a hill overlooking the town. The view is surprisingly reminiscent of the south of France, with the sea and multi coloured houses catching the eye - it's only when you glance inland to the dense jungle do you jolt back to Vietnam.
Now the journey to Hoi An is a little bit of an epic and involves an overnight bus on what is effectively a mobile dorm, with 3 rows of bunk beds up the bus. Kirsty was particularly taken with this mode of transport and seemed to treat the whole experience as some sort of giant pyjama party. It was way after her normal bed time that I finally managed to put her to bed she was so excited.
A sound night's sleep is not possible on any Vietnamese bus - the driver sees to that. Each bus has been fitted with a horn that produces a sound so excruciating it enters your eardrums, rattles down your spine and sits in your stomach for a few seconds - think Kirsty singing, but worse. The driver feels quite at ease using his horn to pass the time regardless whether it's 2 in the morning or not. Hence arriving in Hoi An we felt like we had just spent a night sleeping rough in a nightclub playing techno music.
There is but one thing to do in Hoi An - get a new wardrobe - it has more tailors per square metre than Brick Lane has curry houses and having spent the year scrimping and saving, it was finally time to splurge....a little. Prompted by by imminent return to work and Kirsty having to hit the employment trail we indulged in having a few tailored suits made for ourselves and even if we do say so ourselves - we look da bomb....it's googd to see the capitalist in us is still alive and kicking. The figure hugging material is divine and was but roll of fabric until we came along. The pieces are stunning and all with 'double chiching' according to Dong our tailor (always wanted to say that), that's stitching to you and me. The only problem was deciding how much growing room we needed to factor into our clothes, so despite the fact that they were significantly cheaper than anything back home, they may just end up the most expensive items in our wardrobe on a cost per wear basis. Oh, and we must tell you about Kirsty's new Vietnamese Mum 'lady one wave', the owner of the cafe opposite or hostel. Her entire marketing strategy to help her stand out from the competition is to bellow 'hello' at every passer by, leaving them befuddled by the force of her welcome and before they know it they are sitting down at the table ordering drinks. No request is too much for 'lady one wave' and the night that she reopened just for us was typical of her generosity. A character we will never forget!
There's a rather nice cultural phenomonen here in Vietnam and in fact throughout S.E Asia, in that people don't appear to take many days off if any. Sounds strange to compliment them on their work ethic, but it is balanced by the fact that many a business is a completely family run thing...run out of the family home...just like 'lady One Wave's' Cafe. it means that the family is constantly together and you may eat your meal literally in part of the living room with kids running round you causing carnage and grandma sitting watching the Asian equivalent of Cornation Street and East Enders in corner on the box...it's rather entertaining and certainly reinforces the family and extended family unit. Work and family social time just seamlessly blend into one rather than the more fractured and calendered existence at home.
The journey up the coast to the cultural centre of Hue is exceptionally scenic with rice fields everywhere as you snake through the mountains and travel by the coast. Hue is one of the most laid back of Vietnam's cities - see the restaurant owners who let you look at their menus in peace without pouncing on you so ferociously as elsewhere. The city is home to a great crumbling Citadel, a former Imperial City bombed by the Yanks during the war. It's an enormous place well worth a stroll around to gain a perspective of the grandeur of this place once upon a time. Following that we sought out the local market for another tasty $1 noodle lady. Now the Dong Ba Market is evidently not normally the domain of the foreigner gathering by the incredulous looks we garnered, but for a real travel experience it couldn't be beaten. Much is lost in translation here and when we ended up with what was to all intent and purpose 'offal noodle soup', one of us at least turned our nose up at it. Surprisingly it was not me, yes the fussy and well brought up child has well and truly gone all street and I eagerly downed the bowl of 35p soup while Kirsty settled for a plate of greenery. Mmmmm noodle soup with bits of animal intestine. It's definitely giving me ideas for Saturday's One Year Wedding Anniversary.
Noodle Lady was delighted the following day when we sought out her tiny plastic chairs and tables in the enormous market for another round of noodles...this time minus the offal. We are pretty sure it's the first time she has had repeat business from some tourists and weren't too suprised when the offer of some sort of reward card was not forthcoming.
And so a 15 hour mobile dorm trip to Hanoi awaits us tonight. I'll have to make sure I get the Calpol ready for Kirsty...