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.

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