Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Party In Vietnam

Sitting in the room at Hanoi Backpackers I have a few hours before I depart to Laos to look back on the last four weeks.  It has most definitely not been what I expected, from the country to myself.

Becky & I left Kampot on an overnight bus to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, if you prefer, which I may as it's shorter) via Phnom Penh.  Generally uneventful until the most bizarre of border crossings.  Our passports were taken off us at Phnom Penh so that the exit stamps could be done, but we still had to get them back to go through Cambodian border control.  They were then collected again while we went through no-mans-land (all of 50m) to the Vietnam immigration control for stamping.  Which was done en masse.  And then the passports handed back out by the guards shouting our names out at which point we could then collect them.  This would be acceptable if we could hear and understand the guards pronunciations of our names and get through the throng of people from three buses. This took the best part of an hour.  Why we couldn't just queue like civilized people is beyond me...

The first thing I noticed about Saigon was the scooters and motorbikes.  They are everywhere.  There are 10 million people living in Saigon and there are 6 millions bikes.  And they seem to be on the road at the same time, all the time.  Having experienced Indian traffic I was not as overcome with fear as others we met, probably because the use of the horn is not as constant and 90% of the traffic is the same size.  Saying that, crossing the road is like playing real life Frogger.  You wait for a gap, step into the road and just keep going.  They will usually try to avoid you but a bit of dodging helps, especially as you can never quite tell what speed they're all going at.  As with India though, it's scary how quickly you find this to be completely normal behaviour for how to cross the road.

We quickly got in touch with Niall who had got here a couple of days earlier and after a long catch up headed off to the War Remnants Museum (formally the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression).  We got here a bit late for a full visit but went straight to the top floor where there is a photo exhibition of views from both sides by independent photo journalists.  They show not only actions carried out by both sides during the war, but also the after affects of Agent Orange on the innocent Vietnamese people and how the country has tried to rebuild itself.  While is was interesting to see the story of the war from the Vietnamese side, this was by no means unbiased and did not cover the treatment of the US soldiers by the Viet Cong.  Nor did it really cover the difficulties of the country by having a South Vietnam Army fighting alongside the US Army against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong.  I found the waste of human life, especially that of the innocent bystanders and of the photographers that lost their lives documenting such a pointless war, overwhelming.  I am also amazed that the French, who effectively started the whole thing by refusing to allow Vietnam independence and asking America for assistance, has got out of this unscathed.

I continued my history lesson the next day with a tour of the Cu Chi Village tunnels.  This is a complex of 200km of tunnels where the Viet Cong hid out of sight of the US Army that was practically on top of them.  It is 2 hours away from Saigon and the nearest US base was just a grenades throw away.  Our guide had been in the South Vietnam Army and admitted that it was difficult to fight against his countrymen and women (and in some cases children), a task made even more difficult as the VC did not have a uniform and could have been anyone (an issue which led to the US Army deciding that anyone could be VC and therefore open to interrogation, torture and murder).  The tour took us through part of the old tunnels (very small and dark - I didn't go in - one wrong turn and you may never be seen again), some of the booby traps made to defend the site from attack (very grizzly use of pits and rotating spikes) and a crawl through  revamped section of tunnel, which while wider than it was originally was still claustrophobic, hot and short of air.

Even given the measures taken to guard these tunnels, the entrances were often found and the US forces often had battles underground.  Bodies are apparently still being found when foundations are built for new houses.  What was most grizzly though was at the souvenir shop.  For sale were old bullet casings and worse - Zippo's left behind by the dead GI's and found in the tunnels still with regiment insignia but now with added 'Cu Chi Tunnel' logos.  Yours for just $4!

Evenings in Saigon were spent in the backpacker area, and generally at just a couple of local bars, sat on small plastic stools outside a shop drinking cheap beer (and even cheaper home brew) devouring whatever food was on the nearest stalls, generally meat skewers and Banh Mi - the Vietnamese delicacy of a bread roll filled with pate, sliced meat, salad and sauce.  Delicious.  It was also interesting to see how many people were doing the same route as us (south to north) and who we had met already in Cambodia, while getting tips off the people who were coming from the north.  My biggest shock was running into a South African guy I'd met in Beijing a month earlier!  The world gets ever smaller...

We finally left Saigon to go to Mui Ne, a coastal resort.  This was to be my first experience of a sleeper bus.  They are clearly made for locals as the beds are way to small.  t took 2 hours of a 5 hours of a 5 hour journey to find a comfortable position.  And we were travelling during the day so this wasn't even needed.

Mui Ne is a nice place, and I could have spent much more than the 2 nights we did, but we knew that we had to see all of the country and some highlights lay in store in the north.  We got to celebrate Becky's birthday with a trip to the sand dunes and an ostrich ride (not a natural animal to ride), finishing off at a Russian pool/techno party.

Then it was another 5 hour journey to Da Lat, the honeymoon centre of Vietnam.  I can understand why.  It is a very picturesque city in the mountains with some stunning scenery.  Apparently.  It was raining most of the time we were there, but thankfully dry for the time we spent canyoning.  This is an amazing sport - use any means necessary to get down a river, preferably one with waterfalls - abseiling, jumping, water slides, trek or just float.  I am not happy with water at the best of times, so abseiling down a waterfall before having to make a 5 metre drop into the pool did test me.  Not as much as slowly descending into the chute of a waterfall, being buffeted by the torrent before it sweeps you through its currents and spits you out the other side.  All I can say is that fears were faced that day and I want to do it again!

By this time our group was starting to swell with people going in the same direction, and by the time we made it to Nha Trang we were 8.  Nha Trang is the Russian Costa Brava.  Built up with hotels for the Russians to stay in, backpacker hotels and bars are kept at the other end of the city.  Russian influence can be seen in the island turned into a theme park by a Russian billionaire - Vinpearl Land!  Complete with the longest over-water cable car in the world being the only way to get there.  A day there was great fun though - they have a water park with everything you would expect, plus an arcade and fun fair.  The highlight was the railed toboggan run down the hillside.

As you would expect from this kind of resort, copious drinking is encouraged at in the evenings.  So we did, and with the bars always offering free shots, half price buckets of stupidly strong but actually quite nice cocktails, and any other offer they can think of to keep you at their place we started to hit a nice tempo for life in Vietnam.  And the best way to recover from the hangover you have the net day is a mud bath with a mineral spa and an afternoon lazing in a gloriously warm pool.

 Almost didn't want to leave, but after a couple of days were off up the road to Hoi An, this time a 14 hour overnight bus ride - the longest so far.  I had the top bunk in the middle aisle and barely got any sleep for fear of falling out onto the unsuspecting people who the bus driver had crammed into the walkways below.

It was strange to arrive in Hoi An at 8:30am with the hole day ahead of us.  Arrival was normally late afternoon at the earliest and just time to have dinner and hit the bar.  But an early arrival gave time for sightseeing and in Hoi An that mianly means getting a suit made.  I didn't as am traveling for a year and needed the money in the bank, and I did not see it likely I would need a 3-piece suit on the road, but looking at some of the guys suits, in any style they liked, any material inside and out I was a bit jealous.  The tailors in Hoi An can replicate anything - form suits and dresses to trainers and shoes.  Just point at what you want in a catalogue, ad your own embellishments and 24 hours later you will have 3 suits for about $300.  I, on the otherhand, got to chill out in a much calmer city, cycle out to the beach and mentally prepare for what was about to happen.

On arriving in Hoi An we found that a lot of people had got there a day before us and met up with others they had met previously.  So this is how our merry band became 19 - me, Becky, Emily, Natalie, Michele, Adrian, Sam (who had all done the canyoning), Niall, Orlagh, Grace, Rachel, Karl, Dave, Gary, Harrison, Sosa, Danielle, Ryan & George.  And just in time for Niall's birthday.  And what did Niall want to do?  Hire scooters and ride the 132km along the coast to Hue through some outstanding scenery.  There were 2 issues for a few of us - we had never ridden a scooter (I don't even drive), so a hasty 1 hour lesson was provided to see if we would be capable.  Some decided to get a local to ride with them as passenger, and Becky and I decided to share a rider so we could both get some time in charge. The second issue was slightly bigger - Typhoon Nari was heading towards the Vietnam coast and was due to make landfall in Hue just as we were expected to get there.  A nervous night lay ahead as we decided whether we would go ahead with this at all, a decision made more difficult when we woke to the early signs of a tropical storm.  But a couple of hours later the sun was coming out and the wind had died down, so Team Nari hit the road.  And it wasn't long until the cross winds started to pick up & the tropical storm started again.  I was happy on the scooter, but the technical issue of my helmet flying backwards forced me to swap with Becky.  Even after getting it fixed Becky stayed on the scooter, a decision which may not have been the best when she got lost in Da Nang.  She kept her head though, found a hotel to call our hostel in Hoi An to get the guides to go and find her.  Sam, however, did not have this idea when he also got lost.  With no call to the guides we had no option other than to ride on into the storm.  On the Hai Van Pass I swapped with Karl who was not comfortable riding in these conditions (a first timer like myself) and so I rode up the pass in convoy in reducing visibilty, having to overtake a tanker when I could only just see the other end of it & only knowing that there were no lights coming towards me.  We made it to the top of the pass, visibility about 20 feet, and had a quick stop.  I thought we would stop until the cloud had cleared but as we had to make it to Hue before the full typhoon hit we only had a short stop - long enough though to see Sam ride through the cloud to rejoin us in a moment of triumph - it would seem that nothing would stop us getting to Hue in one piece.

The descent was precarious with still limited visibility and the rain lashing down like needles in the face.  Even with glasses on I could barely see the bike ahead, let alone the road.  And then, with about 60km to go, having made it through the worst of the ride, if not yet the weather, the inevitable happened.  Baring in mind that Vietnamese drivers only think bout themselves when their driving, I was faced with a 4x4 overtaking a tanker, fully on my side of the road.  I had riders to my right so could not move back into line, my only course of action to slow as much as possible and aim for the gap between the car and my friends.  An emergency stop was still needed.  I missed the car but the back end fishtailed and went over.  I took the full brunt of the impact of the handlebars in my stomach but somehow managed to roll clear with just a couple of knocks to my knees.  My stomach felt like I'd been stabbed but I daren't look to see what had happened.  The looks of my friends said it wasn't pretty but no visible cuts.  As I had nothing broken we had no option but to continue - we had to make it to Hue.  My scooter wasn't going anywhere though, with the wheel rubbing on something, so I went on the back of Harrison's scooter for the rest of the ride.  And it was scary, with buses and lorrys speeding past trying to get home safe themselves.  I was kind of glad I wasn't riding myself t this time, but not being in control is kind of worse.  But the shouts of joy and relief when we finally made it through the streets of Hue to the hostel brought home to each and everyone one of us the magnitude of what we had accomplished as a team, of what we had gone through together.  The drinking session that went on into the early hours, with the typhoon blowing safely outside, was one of deep friendships being forged.

When we did wake the next day it appeared that I had a large bulge in my abdomen.  Michele, a nurse, calmed me and said it was just swelling and it would go down .  This did help my nerve a lot, but when I finally got to a hospital in Hanoi over a week later (I had some partying to do - don't judge me!) it was confirmed that I had a haemetoma which would take around 2 months to go.  It could have been a lot worse though.  This was nothing, however, compared to the devastation that Hue had suffered - trees were down and the river had flooded its banks.  In this state there was nothing to keep us here as anywhere worth seeing was closed, so all 19 of were out on the next overnight bus to Hanoi and closing in on the end of our journey together.

Hanoi, or at least the old French quarter we spent most of our time in, was not as heavy with traffic, but as the roads were narrower and the pavements were full of parked mopeds you had to walk in the street, where the rest of the mopeds were, and which drove wherever they felt like it.  Alongside the colonial French architecture, tree lined roads, food stalls and colourful shops selling almost anything including bamboo for every conceivable need, I found this a very interesting place to walk around and get lost in.  Some of the street food was fantastic  - in particular Nom Du Du, a green papaya salad with beef and peanuts (I think part 2 of the Asian Kitchen will have to be done soon!).

It was decided to spend our last days as Team Nari in Ha Long Bay.  We managed to hire a boat for just ourselves including an overnight stay on an island and another on the boat.  Our first day was raining so we could not grasp the full impact of what lay around us.  We could see the cliffs of the closest islands looming above us as we sailed past, and the shapes of others as they appeared out of the mists, but we got to see all the beauty when we awoke on the island the next day.  The water was calm, as the islands tend to create their own harbours in a way, so we went kayaking in the sea, exploring other beaches and caves.  But only now could we start to see many of the 1969 islands that make up Ha Long bay.

It really is as if you had found a totally different planet,  an unexplored world.  Every time the boat sailed past an island a whole new and amazing vista would present itself.  That night on the boat was to be the last we would all spend together, and needless to say it was absolute carnage.

Farewells were made on our return to Hanoi as people started going their own way, following their own journeys.  For Becky and I it was not yet over, and we headed to Sapa with Emily.  Sapa is a mountain town and reminded me lot of an Alpine town.  Alas, we had rain and mist again so could not enjoy the full scale of the views over the rice paddy terraces (one of things that stopped it feeling too Alpine...) but this did not stop us enjoying a few days trekking through the muddy countryside.

What did. for me anyway, was the local women who tagged along as some sort of guide, helping people when the route was steep and slippy.  While they were being helpful, they also did  great job of getting in the way.  Our guide would allow the women on the first day to join us as they were from his village and as we were expected to buy trinkets as a thank you this meant money was going into his village.  Any other women who tried to help would be shooed away.  But the overiding feeling I had was that the trekking business had changed the villages we wanted to see into something else.  Yes, we got to see local houses with little yards of animals and crops growing, and water buffalo meandering in the rice paddies, but at the same time the houses would be staged, and many were just souvenir shops selling the local crafts.  I understand that the only income these local tribes get is from their rice crop and the sale of local arts and crafts is a necessity, when every other house is a shop it starts to ruin the experience.

The homestay we stayed at for one night was not a real homestay experience but a low grade 14 bed dorm with matresses on a mezzanine level above the main family room.  We did not eat with the family, sleep with the family or have any major interaction beyond paying for a beer from the fridge.  The worst case was one the last day when we had a hike (it barely deserves that name, it most definitely was not a trek) to Cat Cat Village.  While this may once have been a proper tribal village, it appears to have been taken over by tourism - the paths are fully paved unlike anywhere else, the souvenir shops are continuous, all the way down to the little theatre where local youths presented traditional song and dance which seemed for the benefit of the Chinese tourists who rarely want the full experience, even in their own country.

And then that was that.  Becky departed to the Philippines and our travels of 5 weeks were at an end.  The farewell was brief and without tears.  We had intended to travel Vietnam together and we had.  It had been the most wonderful time, at times the most insane.  It had not been what we had expected, but then when do you expect to be travelling as a group of 19?  I had intended to do a cooking course along the way, but got caught up in the group mentality of doing everything together.  Do I regret missing out on not doing other things?  On not seeing the Marble Mountains?  The Phong Nha Caves?  Maybe...  But at the same time I had experiences which I would never have dreamed of considering had I not been with this group of people, and they are the times I will treasure forever.  Sometimes being in a group that large did get to me, to everyone I think, but then we would splinter and spend a day as a smaller group.  You can't make everyone happy, but as long as you are happy in what you have done and in your own choices you can't ask for anything else.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Holiday In Cambodia

I find it weird to realise that I have been on the road for over three months.  That's a quarter of my intended trip. It already feels like I don't have enough time left and so much that I would like to do in that time, but it's still a long time before I have to think about what I want to do with the next stage of my life.  For now I can just enjoy the ride.  And that's pretty much what it feels like I'm on at the moment.

After leaving China I had my usual re-grouping in Hong Kong & considered my next move.  This time I was to start the real travelling in South East Asia.  I had originally thought about heading straight to Bangkok on the usual route and do Thailand first as I want to go to a festival there in November.  However, I had forgotten about October so found I had a bit more time than I had thought.  So I bought a last minute flight to Phonm Penh, Cambodia.

I had been to Phonm Penh last year and done the main attractions, the Killing Fields and the S21 Genocide Museum, so I was able to to spend more time exploring the city and trying out new things.  Which is good as those sites, which while culturally important to see, are not exactly the most uplifting of experiences and are emotionally draining.  So instead I got to walk around the city, soak in the atmosphere, find interesting places to eat, and just enjoy myself.

I had decided to stay in dorm rooms so as to meet people quickly, and found this was amazingly easy at Mad Monkey.  In fact, I was greeted by a full dorm so got into the swing of things straight away and along with their bar found new friendships in no short supply.  But as most people were here for the first time and would be going to the Killing Field I still had most of the days to myself.

I had not really seen the city last time and what appeared to be very bleak was in fact very colourful and vibrant.  Cambodian people are very friendly, although the ubiquitous tuk-tuk and moto drivers can be overly pushy.  How on earth they think that someone who doesn't need a ride is clearly looking for drugs and is not just having a peaceful walk is beyond me.

My favourite of the days was spent on a cooking class.  I love Asian food.  Cambodian is a lot like Thai but less spicy, letting the flavours do the talking.  I did a full day course (actually 9-3) which included a trip to the market to see the raw ingredients we would be using and immerse ourselves in the cuisine, followed by a lesson preparing and cooking four dishes - spring rolls, fish amok, banana blossom & chicken salad, and sticky mango rice.

It was a very varied group of 14, which meant that we all got to assist in making the sauces we would be using. The food was amazing, but it was very difficult to go wrong.  My only criticism would be that we didn't really do much cooking.  All the cooking required things to be one en masse, such as the rice, steaming the amok, deep frying the spring rolls, or was decided that it could go badly wrong, as with making caramel.  I would like to do courses in other countries and will be looking out for ones which are a bit more hands on.

The best part of the time here, and what made it most like a holiday, was the people I met, in particular Rory and Becky.  I met Rory at the hostel bar after I had just said farewell to another friend.  He wasn't actually staying there but we got on great.  He was one for doing his own thing and had befriended a tuk-tuk driver and arranged to go to the Muay Thai boxing one night, so a coule of us went along.  Not knowing what to expect, possibly a fight in the back room of a bar, we found ourselves in an arena full of locals watching amateur and professional fights, drinking cheap beer with our driver.  I am not a great fan of boxing, but to be in there watching the fights, and watching an enthusiastic crowd, was a highlight of that city.  And to top it off our driver then took us to his mates shop where we sat outside on small plastic chairs drinking beer with his friends and eating the food his wife cooked for us  It was not an experience I imagined myself having, but was really glad I did.  A bit less certain when we remembered we still had to be driven home...

I was heading to Sihanoukville on morning and was getting breakfast before my bus picked me up when we found we were doing the same route so agreed to meet a couple of days later.  This was a decision which got me through the first evening in Sinahoukville.

I had a frosty reception in the dorm at Led Zephyr and the bar was pretty empty except for a group who were heading out the next day and not very approachable.  I was tired from late nights in Phonm Penh and just wanted to crash, but sat in that bar was one of the loneliest moments I had had so far.  Add to that that the first conversation I heard was about thefts from the dorm room lockers that left even the staff baffled as to how it happened (how do you get into the lockers without removing the locks?) and I really did wonder what I was doing there.

Thankfully this only lasted one night.  Rory came down to join me the next day and some more friendly faces were found in the dorm, including Niall, so it was a decent group who partied into the early hours.  Just a word of caution though - if you're ever thinking of playing in the sea at 2:30am in the middle of a storm, take your iPod out of your pocket...

The next day we just needed to relax, so to the beach we went.  This was not a relaxing experience.  Small children constantly hassle you to buy sunglasses and bracelets, woman trying to give you a massage or sell you food (actually, this wasn't too bad - 10 squid for $3 grilled in front of you).  As soon as you got rid of one bunch, another wave would come long.  So the rain was a bit of a blessing when it came.  Here we met Ayelet, John and Robbie, who had met Niall earlier in Siem Reap.  With the arrival of Becky that evening we were now seven.  And this is where I start to get swept into an adventure I had not planned to have.  I have no recollection of who first mentioned going to Koh Rong, but in the early hours and being very impressionable Becky and I decided not to get the bus to Kampot in the morning but instead agreed to get the ferry to a paradise island instead.  The best decision ever.

Our numbers swelled to eight on the voyage with the addition of Hayley, and together we partied, played with plankton, partied, chilled on the beach, partied and philosophised.  Long lasting friendships were made on that island.  It was the perfect place for this group.  It is effectively a backpacker community based around some hostels and bungalows and bars right next to the beach.  There are other activities to do but we had precious little time.  We bonded in a trek through the jungle to a remote beach, and found our group paradise on another secluded beach with calm water where we cold enjoy each others company for our few remaining hours together.

Becky & I were the first to leave, with Ayelet, as we were headed to Kampot (finally...) together and the group slowly parted.  Niall was to join us in Vietnam in a few days, and a few others had decided to head north together, so bonds had been made.  I never did get to say goodbye to Rory that day, which is probably just as well as I don't think I would have handled it well, but in my mind those days had been made possible by our chance meeting and his enthusiasm to jump into anything has rubbed off on me.

Kampot was a big change.  Technically a city, it is very small and can be navigated on foot by knowing which roundabout you are at (Durian roundbout, Year 2000 roundabout or Salt-Miners roundabout - each with its own sculpture).  We stayed at the fantastic Magic Sponge with its $3 a night open air penthouse dorm, 9 hole mini golf course and seven hours of happy hours!  So after a few G&T's and a quick round of golf, we headed out with some Aussie girls to another hostel for some live music.  This was an eventful evening, most notable for walking back to our hostel very late with no street lighting and dogs coming out of the dark trying to attack us.  Only our best dog impressions (well, Becky's...) kept us unmolested.

We managed to get onto a tour to Bokor mountain one day, the site of an old French colony township which is suffering from neglect following the war with Vietnam and subsequent power struggles.  It is now owned  by a Russian company who aim to turn the entire area into a new city with hotels and casinos.

It is running massively over budget, doubtless due to the highly corrupt Cambodian government.  They have started work, with some roads under construction and foundations being prepared for a huge hotel, but some buildings that were previously built look really dated.  They have a model of the proposed city and it looks horrific, a needless destruction of what was a stunning national park with now very little wildlife.

And that was that.  The next day we left for Vietnam.  I had wanted to travel with someone into this country and had found a great friend in Becky.  Little did we realise what the next few weeks would have in store for us...