I tried. I tried hard. But the obligatory urge to imitate Robin Williams’ “Gooooood Moooorning Vietnaaaaaam!” as we crossed the border from Cambodia, was just too difficult to suppress. After all, the amount of visual connections I had with this place were hardly in plentiful supply. Sure, I’d seen the majority of the war movies (and a Top Gear special) but aside from a bunch of yellow-star-on-red-T-shirted backpacker types we’d seen travelling in the opposite direction, Vietnam was one big lesson waiting to be learned, and I was the geek in the front row with my pencil sharpened.
We began in the south, crossing the border into Ha Tien and as quick as we’d arrived in Vietnam, we were leaving again -well leaving the mainland at least- hopping on board a ferry to Phu Quoc island. And yes readers, in case you’re wondering, the pronunciation really is ‘Poo Cock’. Aside from its painfully unfortunate name, Phu Quoc (titter titter) -which is actually closer to the Cambodian coast than to that of its own mainland- is by all accounts, Vietnam’s rather crude attempt at creating their own tropical island tourist trap, following in the footsteps of Thailand’s Phuket and Ko Samui,
seemingly without much care or caution. There was building work going on at every turn, and while some did look tasteful, most lacked any real soul, casting murky concrete shadows over the incredible natural beauty that Phu Quoc has to offer. Our feelings of unease subsided as our family-run beach hut at $6USD per night was an absolute treat, and buoyed by the feeling that we’d got to the island ‘before the boom’ (we saw the building site of the new international airport –the island is only 20miles long) we explored the coasts on a motorbike and were rewarded with scenery straight out of a tropic island tour brochure. We found two totally (and I mean totally) deserted beaches (see pics), and for two days we swam in warm crystal-clear waters and watched the most picturesque sunsets we’d ever seen.
Back on the mainland and we clambered in to a DVT-inducing minibus where my knees were rattling against my cheekbones for a good 10 hours. Perhaps something to do with the cramped conditions was the cigarette smuggling operation that we, some Norwegian lasses and a handful of Vietnamese locals were caught up in, as passengers en route to the
Mekong Delta town of Can Tho. Playing it cool but with secret astonishment, we watched as the cheekily grinning ‘conductor’ stashed hundreds of boxes of Cambodian fags into every conceivable orifice of the bone shaking bus. The air con duct, the side panels, the roof panels and the upholstery were all carefully unscrewed and unpicked to store his secret duty-free ciggies, and save for sticking a pack of twenty in each of our gobs, the bus was packed so full of fags that we now inhabited an all-singing, all-smoking, fire officer’s dream. The journey, that had been advertised as 2 hours long, but ended up being 8, surprisingly turned out to be great craic: With the help of our new mates from Norway we began using our phrasebooks to look up the Vietnamese words for ‘forbidden’, ‘criminal’ and ‘prison’, and proceeded in shouting them across the bus with obvious tones of a wind-up, and with accompanying pointing gestures, towards the sniggering smuggler and his stash. Said with a smile, we got away with it (just as he was about to), much to the delight of the titillated locals and the sheepish nicotine-hoarder himself.
In Can Tho it was time
to do some proper tourism at the sublimely beautiful Mekong Delta; a network of vine-like natural canals leading off the Mekong. While the scenery was spectacular, and the floating market wonderfully interactive, and indeed the riverside family-run noodle factory and fruit farm hugely informative, it was with our long-tail boat driver that we really struck gold. Dressed in leopard-skin silk pajamas (seriously all the Vietnamese women do it) and smiling from ear to ear, twenty seven year old (but looks forty seven year old) Thuy (pronounced Tuwee) won our hearts and charmed our socks off from the moment we met.
With her wonderfully broken English and super-sweet nature she managed to teach us, tease us, make us laugh and as we said goodbye, make us cry, and all of that between sunrise and lunchtime. In the morning we sipped iced coffee from her mum’s floating coffee shop as she carved a pineapple for our breakie; it looked like a work of art in the shape of a flower on a stem. We sailed to the floating market as she paused to make bamboo leaf jewellery for Marta and to teach us about her patch of the Delta. We also
learned that the ladies wear pajamas to keep cool and covered at the same time, but also to avoid tanning; Thuy was quick to scold me for wanting to catch the sun on the boat “No no Mike! White skin very beautiful in Vietnam! No sun! No sun!” Little did she know I’d be more pink than brown by the end of the day.
We wanted to tip her, and so offered to buy her lunch at the riverside café we were moored beside. It cost much less than a pint of beer back home to make someone’s day,and more than we could ever have imagined. Thuy was so touched with our offer that her embarrassment only subsided on the way back to Can Tho, on the quiet canals of the Delta. She tapped me on the shoulder as she steered: “Mike, Mike. You go Can Tho. Thuy sleep. You go. Fish. Fish. Because before before. You go. Thuy sleep. Ok you go please?” We were confused. She sleeps with fish? How do we fit in to this plan? I used all the teaching techniques I had in my locker to desperately try to decipher it, but for a
while it looked as though it was all going to be lost in translation. But then I got it. Here's what my brain did:
Thuy sleep = Her house! She sleeps at her house! She lives in Can Tho!
You go = “Would you like to come?”
Fish fish because before before = “I will cook us some fish to say thank you for before.”
Ok you go please? = “Please come.”
We were absolutely elated to have understood, and with a few confirmation gestures for ‘cooking’, ‘house’ and some basic pointing (Drama degree coming in handy for once) we were chuffed to bits and so touched to be heading to Thuy’s place, and what a great couple of hours we had.
We went to the local market and bought the ingredients, then we helped her wash, prep and cook the food, then the three of us sat on the floor of her humble one-room house and ate a home-cooked meal of sweet chilli pork and rice and a local speciality –fish noodle soup. A meal fit for a king and queen, never mind a couple of scruffy mochileros; we’d eaten well and had
a great day, but best of all we’d made an amazing friend. Here was a young lady who we had simply ‘clicked’ with instantly, with no real common language, and without the need for anything more than smiles and gestures to communicate. As we said goodbye, we gave her a hug and it was all quite emotional (we gathered that she didn’t often invite her customers to her house for dinner). We asked for her address and a week later we posted her some printed copies of the photos we’d taken that day (see copies below) with a translated message enclosed: ‘Thank you once again Thuy. Whenever we think of Vietnam, we’ll think of you.”
From the tranquility of the Delta we hit the big city which meant, amongst other things, parting with some cash –by far our most expensive accommodation so far at $18USD per night. At least money in Vietnam was entertaining though; it is literally plastic -and brilliantly waterproof- proper novelty bank notes, and they are each adorned of course, with the portrait of national Communist hero Ho Chi Min. ‘Uncle Ho’, as he is affectionately referred to by the Vietnamese, is everywhere here (not just
in your wallet); there are statues, busts, shops named after him, kids named after him, hell, even Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Min City (HCMC) to honour the former leader of North Vietnam. Carrying more kudos than all of this however, he has, for me anyway, a little look of Mr. Miagi from the Karate Kid films. Just me then?
So we hit Saigon, (or HCMC) and with the constant revving of schools and schools of motorbikes in addition to enough horn-honking to put the Cambodians to shame, the decibels levels were, I thought, almost loud enough to wake Uncle Ho himself. The sheer amount of bikes really has to be seen (and heard) to be believed. And each successful crossing of every road in this city had us counting our blessings that we were still alive at the other side.
Having topped up our history (albeit through slightly propaganda-fied tones) at the American War Museum we headed north through the Vietnamese highland town of Dalat leaving sprawling tea and coffee plantations in our wake, and then spent a couple of days waiting for sunshine that never came in the hugely underwhelming Benidorm-esque beach resort of Na Trang.
After a rainy two-day stop at the pretty tailor-town of Hoi An (a kind of Vietnamese York plus a few suit makers) we were starting to wonder where the sun had gone. We had barely seen it since Phu Quoc. Stop sniggering at the back boys.
Nor did we find the sun in Hanoi; the archetypal hustling-bustling capital. What we did find however was lots of chaos in the endearingly atmospheric old town, our first sighting of dog on a café menu and lots of teenage girls wanting their photo with me. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. You don’t know what’s more surprising –the fact that humans eat dogs in a café, or that females with the gift of sight actually WANT to be seen next to me. It happened in the Temple of Literature (of all places) and a gang of four giggling girls approached me with the kind of smiles that might suggest they were about to tell me that I had a ‘KICK ME’ sign stuck to my back. “Hello?” I tentatively asked, smiling. Big mistake to smile. BIG. They squealed, they grabbed their cameras, they told me I was ‘very handsome’ and they ran,
yes ran to my side and caught me like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights. I went red. Marta cried with laughter and clicked away with her camera, and the local lasses scooted off, leaving an embarrassed and very confused Westerner to have the mickey taken out of him by his girlfriend. “I´m going out with a superstar!” said Marta with ultra-irony, as she began pissing herself laughing again. This was not to be the first time. Stay tuned for more in China.
Before leaving Vietnam we had been recommended to take a two day tour of the national park of Halong Bay –an almost unworldly formation of limestone rocks rising out of the water in the South China Sea. The scenery is like nothing we’d ever seen (apart from in the odd James Bond movie) and we cruised around the bay on our Dragon ‘junk’ boat, kayaked at sunset and then ate seafood and drank beer with our new boat-mates under a star-filled sky.
Next stop on M and M´s Round the World Tour was going to be China. ‘How did you cross the border?’ I hear you cry. Maybe we got a boat from Halong Bay?
A bus? Maybe a special visa-run minibus? A flight? Train? Taxi? Nope. In the Vietnam border town of Lao Cai close to Sapa, we sat having some lunch and discussing our options for transport. “Maybe we could walk” suggested Marta. That would be cool, we thought and asked the waiter how far it was. And then, sure enough, with our backpacks on, we set off for China. After about 1 kilometre I just had to do something. There was a fork in the road; left and right and to the left was a local guy stood outside his grocery shop, watching the world go by. I approached him and asked “Excuse me mate, erm, is this the way to China?” Easily the best directions I’d ever asked for in my life. He nodded and smiled “Yes, yes! China that way” and a few hundred metres later we WALKED across the border and we were in China.
And since December 14th 2011, it’s in China where our adventure has become more bizarre, challenging and diverse than we could ever have imagined. More about that next time…
Until then, dear readers,
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