Published: July 23rd 2006July 23rd 2006
We are in Cambodia. After 2 weeks in Vietnam, we took a boat trip along the Mekong, arriving in Phnom Penh yesterday. The last time I wrote we were in Hoi An in central Vietnam. 2 overnight journeys later, we arrived at Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh Cityas it’s been known since reunification of the North & South of the country. The 1st journey took us to a hectic coastal city called Nha Trang - the bus trip was organized by An Phu tourist ‘company’. I use the term ‘tourist company’ loosely, because this is an organisation that overlooks conventional notions of customer service. In Vietnam many organisations offer ‘open bus tickets’ from Hanoi in the North to Saigon in the South - a distance of 1,800 km. From what we’ve experienced first-hand and heard from numerous other travellers, none of these cavalier cowboy outfits do what they say they will.
They say: “you have a guaranteed seat on this bus”
They mean: “although you have purchased a ticket and are entitled to believe you have a seat, whether you will or not is entirely pot luck, as we’ve sold as many tickets as poss.”
say: “the bus will be air-conditioned”
They mean: “we know Vietnam has a tropical climate, and maybe if you sit right at the front of this bus you might feel a cool breeze. But the further back you sit, the hotter it will get. The back of the bus will be like a crowded sweat pit.”
They say: “this bus will arrive tomorrow at 0630”
They mean: “this bus, mechanically speaking, is a pile of shit. It will breakdown at around 2 in the morning, causing the driver to turn off the engine and whatever ‘AC’ you may have been enjoying. After a couple hours procrastinating while all the travellers wearily traipse around a petrol station/layby, a replacement service will arrive. This bus will have no AC, and the distance between seats will have shrunk to microscopic levels. As such, you will arrive cramped, hot and tired. At around 0800ish… ”
After several sleepless nights, with my knees locked behind the reclined seat in front, I devised the following ditty:
If Vietnam is for you
Say no to An Phu! Moving South
Ranting aside, we spent three chilled-out days on Jungle Beach, a secluded coastal
resort in the middle of nowhere. It’s run by a hot-weather-loving Quebecois guy and his Vietnamese wife, and it is famed in traveller circles for its communal atmosphere and ‘homestay’ delights. You sleep in beach huts only metres from the South China Sea, you eat meals with other guests at a long dinner table, and they bring you an endless supply of exotic fruits and juices as you relax on the beach. In a noisy, busy country of 84 million people, Jungle Beach is an oasis of serenity, where we met several other interesting characters, including a young Ozzie lawyer with a good taste in music, and a couple fun-loving sisters from Winnipeg, Canada, who happened to know my 2nd cousins in that city. It’s a small world! Apart from getting to know these people, and others, we jogged along the beach at sunrise, played football with a German family, and both got cut and bruised (now we have wounds from Nam!), trying - in vain - to scale some rocks on the path to a waterfall.
After chilling on Jungle Beach we trained it to Saigon, a sprawling metropolis which has a real energy to it. It was
just as crowded and noisy as Hanoi, but it had a vibrant edge to it, especially at night. We walked and walked, ate Indian food at a mosque and drunk some fantastic mojitos. We also watched some local guys playing a street game of keepy-uppy with what looks like a heavier badminton shuttlecock. These guys - young and old - had so much finesse and technique at this game that we were mesmerised for several minutes, captivated by their flamboyant back heels and overhead flicks.
On our last day in Vietnam we stayed in Chau Doc, a border town on banks of the mighty Mekong River. Hungry and tired after another long bus journey, we searched for somewhere to eat and settled on a streetside family-type place where several locals were digging in to some soup with noodles. I could wax lyrical for ages about the Vietnamese food, but this fish soup we had was revolting. It really was horrible, especially the stench. People began to realise that we didn’t seem to like the soup, and Indie and I started to confer as to how we’d pay and leave the food without being rude to the family. I mean,
we’d hardly eaten anything. We awkwardly explained in basic Vietnamese that Indie was ‘allergic’ to fish and so could eat no more. I made a gesture like Indie would choke and die if he kept eating, and the seemed to get the point. As we paid and departed, a crowd of people eating there smiled and laughed at the foolish Westerners! Travelling with Indie
My travels with Indie are proving to be a fun and eventful experience. Although we are both similar in many ways - we are pretty level-headed, outgoing and organised - we differ in some fundamental ways. For example, I often feel almost guilty for haggling over a dollar here and there, even though in these South-East Asian countries most prices can be ‘negotiated’ - indeed it is commonplace. On the other hand, Indie has no compassion whatsoever. His unscrupulous zeal for haggling leads us to secure good deals on hotel rooms, tours, meals and even bottled water! In many ways we compliment one another, as my embarrassment/guilt over haggling balances off against Indrajit “heart of stone” Shah’s hardcore bargaining tactics.
Before I sign off, some random info on out travels:
some Asian countries people consider it acceptable to smoke on buses, trains, boats etc, even though the windows are closed and there are non-smokers around them. Indie and I have now asked locals to stop smoking in three countries - China, Vietnam and Cambodian. We usually make some ‘choking’ motion whereby we explain that we want them to put the cigarette out. I might try to learn ‘passive smoking kills’ in every language we encounter. Just a thought. To be fair, the smoking locals have always obliged.
In Vietnam, we travelled around 2,200 km.
When you are in unknown cultures in developing countries, you sometimes lower the expectations of what you take for granted. Often to ridiculous levels. For example, Indie and I have asked each other some stupid questions:
*Me, near the China-Vietnam border town of Ping Xiang: “will we be able to get bottled water in Ping Xiang?”
*Indie, asking about printing a Russian invitation letter for a visa: “do you think there are printers in Phnom Penh?” And finally...
Before we set off to explore some more of the relatively quiet, strangely captivating Cambodian capital, I want to remind you that because
I write this blog, you read only my view on our travels. Now it’s time to appreciate Indie’s non-PC, wordly insights. On our travels we have ample time to discuss a range of internationally relevant issues.
This week, Indie on the UN:
“The UN is a bollocks organisation. I mean, it’s meant to be a vessel for solving problems, creating resolutions, increasing international relations, and basically striving for unity. Hence ‘’United’ in United Nations. But if you look at things, they have just sat back in all cases of genocide and war in the last 20 years. Rwanda, Somalia, Kosovo, and more recently, Israel/Lebanon to name but a few. Frankly, the time and money could be better spent elsewhere. I think that is an organisation designed to fool the world into thinking that these countries (especially the superpowers) are up for an end to poverty, and the equality thing… but really they don’t give a rat’s ass. And don’t get me started about that man Annan, or UNESCO….!”
There are more photos below