Hey everybody.... apologies for the delay in blog updates. I know I said I would tell you all about Vietnam back in December, but time has escaped me and I've been far too lazy with this whole blog thing. Anyway, I'll get typing and hopefully I'll be able to round up some of the things I've experienced over the last few months.
After a bit of a struggle with trying to get a Vietnamese visa, Liam and I (the Irish guy I had met back in Siem Reap) decided to catch the bus across the border to Vietnam. As soon as we crossed the border and hit Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon) it felt like we were in a different world. HCMC was so much more developed than anywhere I'd been in Cambodia and Laos... they had flushing toilets, they had pharmacies, and they had KFC!!!! When the bus finally arrived we were herded off into a gang of taxi drivers, all fighting to take us to our destination. As I got off the bus I was pushed and managed to slice open my wrist, bleeding everywhere amongst the chaos. "Welcome to Vietnam," Liam said.
Although Saigon was much more Western than I had anticipated, it was still very chaotic in a way that only Asia could be. The motorbike traffic in the big cities was the craziest thing I've ever seen. Officially 6 or 7 million people live in Saigon, and about half of them own a motorbike. During rush hour, the streets and avenues in the centre are flooded with these small motorbikes, causing ridiculous traffic jams and turning an attempt to cross the road into a near death experience! The only way to cross is to walk VERY SLOWLY, looking both ways and not to stop. The bikes swerve around you... so if you stop walking or hesitate then you get hit. The first few times I seriously thought I was going to die, but it's amazing how quickly you adapt. Fearing for our lives on our first night in Saigon, a group of us decided to go on a cyclo tour of the city. A cyclo is like a man-powered rickshaw (it's basically a pushbike with seat on the front for the passenger). The driver does all the hard work pedalling whilst the passenger (me) sits and takes in the view. I felt really guilty after he started to peddle up a huge hill - maybe I shouldn't have eaten that extra bowl of pho for lunch - but I did enjoy leisurely taking in the sights. I've uploaded a video for you to see the bikes and a cyclo... this was well after rush hour, but you get the idea.
I had to do a bit of a whistle-stop tour through Nam as I'd spent too long in Laos and Cambodia, which is a shame because I really enjoyed it there and would definitely like to go back. I found it extremely interesting as a historian, particularly as a lot of the tourist things to do there are based around the Vietnam War. Whilst in Saigon for example, I visited the Cu Chi Tunnels. The Cu Chi tunnels are a network of underground tunnels (in the Cu Chi district of HCMC), that were used by the Viet Cong guerrillas as hiding spots during combat in the Vietnam war. The tunnels were so extensive and cleverly designed that they rendered American efforts to destroy them useless. They were rigged with deadly booby traps to kill and maim, and played an important part in the war. The whole site has been preserved by the government and you can go down into the tunnel, and crawl along it like you're 'back in Nam!' (That's for you Al, Vik, Bec and Parsons, lol). The most interesting part of the whole thing however wasn't the tunnel system itself, but the film they showed 'explaining' the tunnels before you went in. It was blatant propaganda, yet it was being presented to tourists as fact. Yes, I was visiting my first Communist country.
After staying in Saigon for a couple of days, I caught a flight up to Da Nang, and then got the bus to Hoi An. Hoi An is very different to Saigon... gone were the hoards of traffic and the neon signs, here was a slice of traditional Vietnam (with a lot of tourism thrown in). The old town of Hoi An is a world heritage site, and it has been well preserved as an example of a Southeast Asian trading port of the 15th to 19th centuries. You can certainly tell that it has been influenced by many different cultures. It felt to me like I was in some kind of Chinese-Japanese melting pot. Buddhist pagoda's lined the streets alongside Chinese dragons on covered bridges. The scenery, looking out over the South China Sea, was beautiful... as were the Vietnamese people I got talking to over dinner. Hoi An is well established on the backpacker trail as it is THE place to get cheap made-to-measure clothes and shoes. I spent a whole day shopping for unique items, and ended up getting a pair of fake Birkenstocks made (you can take the girl out of Essex...). That night myself, Michelle and Jan, two Aussies that I had met a few days earlier, decided to try our hand at a Vietnamese cooking class. We whipped up a load of spring rolls with shrimp, beef with sesame seeds and chicken with onion and ginger, and had a bit of a feast. Gordon Ramsey, eat your heart out.
After a long drive on Highway 1 (the only paved road between north and south Vietnam) we arrived at the regal city of Hue. Hue was the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty (it was the capital of Vietnam until 1945), and as such, it is well known for its monuments and architecture. We spent the afternoon exploring the Citadel (a forbidden city where only the concubines, emperors, and those close enough to them were granted access). I got talking to a Vietnamese man who explained a lot of the troubled history of the country to me. It's amazing that 1975 - present day is the longest period of peace in the country's history. We took a boat trip on the Perfume River to visit the Emperors Tomb and Thein Mu Pagoda, but unfortunately it started to rain heavily so my planned motorbike trip around the countryside had to be called off. We spent the afternoon eating pizza and drinking coffee instead (ok, so it's not very Vietnamese.... but it had been a VERY long time since I'd had pizza and a decent coffee).
That evening we headed for the train station and caught the overnight train to Hanoi. We'd paid for the best sleeper-bunks available... I thought they were alright by SE Asian standards, a hell of a lot better than my experience of Thai trains anyway... but the Aussies were highly unimpressed. No private shower, fancy that. The train journey itself was quite interesting. To pass the time I introduced the Aussie girls to 'speed' (the card game, not the drug), and we had quite a crowd of locals watching. After a few hours we were getting desperate so we got Dave, a kiwi guy we had met, to teach us the Haka... it proved slightly more entertaining for the locals than our card game anyway.
Finally, after 14 hours on the sleeper train, we arrived at Hanoi. Hanoi reminded me of HCMC - busy, bustling, and convenient. Our first stop was a visit to the Ho Chi Minh complex - a mausoleum containing the man himself. The security around the place was the strictest I've ever seen - bags x-rayed, body searches, the lot. We were marched up to the mausoleum two-by-two, and accompanied inside by an armed guard. Once inside, the body was surrounded by 4 other heavily armed guards. You weren't allowed to stop, speak, or photograph, in fact you hardly got a chance to see anything at all. I made the mistake of putting my hand in my pocket and got a gun pointed in my face... God knows what they thought I was going to do with a tissue. It didn't help however that Michelle was giggling the whole time we were walking up to the building. Afterwards I said that I was surprised they even let her in... She explained that she didn't realise that it was the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh... she thought it was a heavily guarded paper-mache model. Bloody Aussies!
After a few days in Hanoi, we decided to go on an overnight boat trip in Halong Bay. We slept on a traditional Vietnamese junk, ate sea-food caught fresh from the bay, and went swimming in the clear blue waters whilst the sun-set. Beautiful.
I've rushed through Vietnam and missed out so much stuff... but out of all of the places in SE Asia that I visited; it was definitely one of my favourites. I wanted to try and follow up Vietnam with posts about Singapore and of course Perth (my home for the last 4 months, lol) but I'm just not going to have the time. I'm leaving Perth in 2 days and won't have internet access again for a while, so I'll just continue to post pictures of my travels and if I get a chance, I'll try to catch up with the blog.
Hope all is well in England... 4 months and a lot of travelling and I'll be home...
Keep in touch.