Published: May 1st 2011November 11th 2010
My now pretty much annual autumn trip to escape a cold, dark, wet November London this time took me to Vietnam for a couple of weeks, with an layover in Hong Kong. It also meant being on a proper airline for the first time in a couple of years! Its amazing how being served a meal with alcohol and having plenty of legroom improves your mood!
I only had a day and a half in hong Kong, so just time to get a feel. I was staying in a guesthouse in the (in)famous Chungking Mansions, an enormous building containing literally hundreds of identikit guesthouses. With space at such a premium in Hong Kong, these tiny en-suite rooms offer some of the cheapest accommodation available, especially considering their amazing location right in the heart of Kowloon. However, with the value and location being so good, the quality obviously suffers and although the rooms were decent, the building itself was an experience in its own right!
Arriving in the early evening gave me a chance to head straight down to Kowloon harbour to watch the laser show where many of the skyscrapers on the facing Hong Kong island are fitted with
View of Hong Kong
My meal in the restaurant at the top of Victoria peak offered these great views.
lasers and put on a show to music. Although an impressive sight, it did seem slightly underwhelming as the music wasn't all that loud or distinctive so it gave me the impression of listening to background music while a laser show went on across the harbour rather than the two being well coordinated!!
Wandering around Kowloon I do have one abiding memory and that is of the double decker buses that form the backbone of the public transport. I've never seen buses driven so fast in my life. I didn't think it was possible to achieve the cornering speeds that the locals bus drivers were achieving as a matter of course! If there is ever a double-decker bus grand prix – watch out for the entrant from Hong Kong!!
For my full day in Hong Kong, as a throwback to the travelling days when Steve, Chris and mine's first port of call in a new city was always the botanical gardens, I headed there and was very impressed. The highlight was definitely the magnificent aviary which had all kinds of birds – some of which seemed very tame and photogenic. The gardens were also a stark reminder of
Rex Hotel sundowners...
...after enjoying our beers it was also a lot of fun the watch the traffic in the square below!
the impact the 2003 SARS outbreak had on Hong Kong, with a very poignant memorial to those who lost their lives and bronze casts of the doctors that lost their lives through SARS while treating and saving many other victims.
I also joined the hordes and took the funicular up to the highest point in Hong Kong, Victoria peak. The weather was clear and I was able to enjoy pleasant views as I trotted round one of the walks which circle the peak. The highlight though was probably the meal I had up there. A multi-storied glass fronted viewing complex had been built on the top of the peak, and all of the restaurants had a few tables that were right up against the windows enjoying incredible views down into Hong Kong and across to Kowloon. After being rebuffed from the first restaurant (all tables “reserved” apparently!) I managed to snare myself a place at another (cheaper!), and enjoy a delicious meal with even better views!
My fleeting visit to Hong Kong was over, and it was off to Ho Chi Minh City in the south of Vietnam. I met two other Brits, Cat and Mike in the
Transport - Dalat style!!
My trip with the Easy Riders was on the back of this!
departure lounge and we got chatting. Like me they were travelling from South to North through Vietnam, but this was their first major trip outside Europe. On arrival you could tell it was impressively hot and I managed to convince Cat and Mike that of all the times to throw money at a situation and pay extra for a prepaid cab, arriving into the main airport in the biggest city of a country that you'd never visited before was definitely the time to pay for a little piece of mind. The guidebook had suggest USD 5-7 for a taxi, so when we were offered USD 8 to our destination I jumped at it. It turned out to be a great call as for our USD 8 our diminutive looking, but iron of temperament, 4 ft 10 counter lady led us out to the taxi rank, past what must have been a hundred person strong queue and a cacophany of sound, strode straight out into the middle of the road and pulled over the appropriate taxi for us and sent us on our way in air conditioned bliss. Never has one third of 8 dollars been so well invested!
One of the stops on the tour around Dalat was this waterfall.
Chi Minh City was a great introduction to Vietnam, hot but not sweltering, all hustle and bustle and an incredible history to it. Here I got my first sense of the general friendliness of the Vietnamese people, and the fact that they are so industrious and I guess just want to be seen as a country rather than a war (the conflict is unsurprisingly known throughout Vietnam as the “American War”). Quite a few of the travellers I spoke to found the Vietnamese quite pushy or aggressive, but to me it was nothing of the sort. People are always trying to sell you something, but that is to be fully expected when you're a westerner in South East Asia. I quite liked the fact that if you told someone no thanks, with a smile on your face, then they only needed to hear that from you once. There was no relentless pursuit of Westerners like I experienced in say India. The walk from my guest house to the centre also went through a large park where a lot of students hung out keen to practice their English. Its something I find really endearing whenever I come across it on my
The path on the way up towards the peak got got challenging and exciting.
travels and always try to spend some time having some rather circular conversations with the local students!!
Ho Chi Minh City also introduced me to the delicate art of crossing the road in Vietnam. I had heard much about it, but Ho Chi Minh City's traffic was impressive. It is literally an unbroken swarm of vehicles, mainly bikes with some cars and then a few buses. The buses clearly rule the roost and generally don't stop for anything expect other buses, motorbikes are so numerous they appear almost like swarms, moving organically, swerving and splitting to avoid obstacles such as cars. The cars seem to rely on moving slowly, but constantly when making a turn and allowing the motorbikes to avoid them, while the poor people on the bicycles seem to have the worst of everything! As a pedestrian, it wasn't a case of waiting for a gap – rather waiting for a slight thinning of the traffic before taking that crucial first step off the payment and into the road before maintaining an even pace (never running, quickening or slowing down!) and trusting all the motorbikes to avoid you!! It was heart pounding at first (especially when laden
with a backpack!), but I'd like to think that by the end of the trip I'd definitely got the hang of it!
Given Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City's pivotal role in the war, it was here that much of the historical relics and information are to be found. My visit to the War Remnants museums (previously called the American War Crimes museum) shows a slightly one-sided, but in equal measures fascinating and distressing account of the suffering imparted upon the Vietnamese people during this conflict, and the overriding feeling when you leave is that all of it was so pointless.
I also visited the Reunification Hall (formerly the Emperor's palace), the location at which the Vietnam War was effectively brought to an end as tanks crashed through the gates of the palace heralding the end of South Vietnam. From a more enjoyable historical perspective Cat, Mike and I also spent a couple of nights enjoying a sundowner in the bar on the top of the Rex Hotel, made famous as the location where western journalists gathered daily to get their debrief of the latest happenings in the war from the US military chiefs – also known as the “5
Me outside one of the buildings in the main complex at My Son
Moving on from HCMC I took a bus into the highlands to Dalat. Travel in Vietnam was surprisingly (almost disappointingly) easy. The geography assists a lot, a long, thin country running north-south with a major city at either end, and one road and one railway track connecting the two, means that everyone is either heading north to Hanoi or south to HCMC. What is leads to is every single guesthouse also acting as a travel agent arranging tickets to the potential destinations north or south of where you are. The surprising thing is that it seems to work pretty well! My bus turned up virtually full less than half an hour after the designated time and was soon heading north. This is where the pattern of other trips to SE Asia started to re-emerge, with a road so full of craters and potholes on each side, that the only part suitable for driving is the bit straight down the middle. This is dominated by the buses, who again rule the road, but unfortunately the buses coming in the oppposite direction have much the same view and also want to use the centre - so there are so
many hairy moments that its best not to look out the front window at any time!!
Being in the highlands, Dalat was both chilly and quite rainy. It was also the absolute home of the motorbike as the only form of transport. I met a dutch girl on the bus, and on arrival we were greeted by the “easy riders”, a group of motorcycle tour guides that take you as the pillion riders on tours of Dalat and the surrounding highlands. They are also quite the silver tongued salesmen and offered us a free lift to the “pink house” hotel with no strings attached if we didn't like it. It turned out to be an amazing guesthouse, so we stayed and also signed up to a tour with Easy Riders for the next day. My driver was only about 5ft tall, which meant that when riding pillion I had a completely unobstructed view over his head and was able to drink in the beautiful Vietnamese countryside without anything so troubling as concentrating on where we were going! Even an absolute downpour couldn't dampen the spirits of Frederique and I, and we arrived home soaked after a very fun day!
Self-immolation Monk's car
In the imperial palace of the former capital Hue remains the car that was used to drive the monk Thich Quang Duc to Saigon where he set himself on fire in protest about the Diem regime in one of the most iconic moments of the conflict.
That evening was to prove surreal as one of the guest house workers was also an amateur kareoke enthusiast known all around town for his renditions of Vietnamese folk music. Hence we spent that evening with him hitting the local bars and listening to some “interesting” versions of western classics and local Vietnamese music. Camden it was not, but it was enjoyable!
My final day in Dalat was spent climbing the Langbian mountain, the highest of the local peaks. As always in Dalat, I arrived at the base of the mountain on the back of a motorbike, and started the climb up. First it was paved road, then it was well made path, then it was less well made path, and then it was scrambling over fallen logs, up muddy banks using roots as handholds and generally having a lot of fun. I was slightly nervous attempting a walk of any sort in SE Asia without Steve or Chris by my side. Previously these trips have ended in me collapsing for one reason or another (heat, cold, general wimpiness!) but this time the cool slightly damp conditions were no issue for me, however they were a big issue
for the views as the mountain was completely overcome in a thick pea-souper with not even a hint of a view. Nevermind, the satisfaction was in the climb not in the views...ahem!
At this point my newly found flashpacking instincts had a decision to make. For about £8 I could take an 18 hour bus through the night to my next destination Hoi An, or for £40 I could fly to the nearest airport and take a taxi.........so........arriving at Danang airport I bumped into three middle aged Ozzie ladies who were travelling together and were more than happy for me to jump in their cab with them hence quartering my fare to Hoi An!
I'd had a recommendation from Pink House, and it was a majestic guesthouse with incredibly friendly staff that were permanently dressed in traditional clothing and couldn't do enough to help. It may have been a little twee, but I absolutely loved in.
Hoi An is where people tend to go for a day or two and stay for a week. China Beach, the American troops R&R location of choice was a 20 minute cycle, and the town is famous for its tailors, offering
The beach of the private island
bespoke garments for very reasonable prices, although usually from a 1999 version of the Next directory. It was always fun trying to explain to them the reason you couldn't find anything you like was because these things had all been out of fashion for over a decade!
Call me a cynic, but I think people get “snowblinded” by the offer of these cheap tailored clothes. We paid not very much for some rubbish suits in Thailand, and once again I decided to invest this time in a tailored jacket. It seemed great at the time, but getting it back to England it doesn't seem to fit that well and the quality seems pretty poor. I guess that;s why you are made to try it on in the back where the lights are the dimmest!
One of the main historic sights outside Hoi An are the Cham temples of My Son. We had a glorious day of sunshine for the trip and luckily, as my guest house was on the western edge of town, I was the last to be picked up so I didn't have to swelter in the bus with very dicey air con for any longer
than was necessary. As a big tourist site there were a lot of guided tours being led around, which I always find disappointing, but luckily (or because it was a cheap tour!) only half of my tour was guided and the remainder you were free to wander as you pleased. It reminded me of a mini Ankor Temples, as if you made an effort to get away from the main temples it was no problem to find yourself in blissful isolation. I also bumped into a kindred spirit who was coming towards the end of a 20 month trip and had spent a lot of it in South America, so it was great to reminisce with him!
Hoi An also had some terrific eating to do be done, here the local speciality “Cao Lao” a noodle soup with pork and croutons and traditionally made with water from a single well was absolutely superb. The cheapness of Vietnam for eating out really showed itself, with a giant portion of Cao Lao and a 660ml Tiger beer for 35,000 dong – less than £2!!
However, despite the cultural opportunities on offer, because I was there on a Saturday and Sunday this meant one thing – Premiership football – and it was being shown in spades, with every game back to back. Here it was also evident that among the travelling community football is universal as a great ice breaker, and I spent my Saturday rocking up on my own at 8.30p.m to grab some food and watch the early kick off, before finally stumbling out at 4 a.m after the evening kick off had finished having met plenty of fellow travellers.
It also became obvious just how popular and easy to travel Vietnam had become, and how there remains a distinct hierarchy of respect for where people have travelled! In the top tier is definitely Africa, you meet very few people that have travelled that continent, along with the more “unusual” countries say Tibet, Mongolia, Myanmar e.t.c - places that really are an undertaking to get to. In the second tier is South America, with people still by and large viewing it as a very daunting and challenging place to go. In the bottom tier is definitely the “holiday” travelling destinations – the likes of Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, where things are very accessible and easy to take on. The slightly snobby side of me was still pleased that South America is still held in that regard and is unlikely to be inundated by the “Brits Abroad” set anytime too soon!
I also found it was obvious there were a huge amount of Brits on their way to Aus or NZ to work, who had arranged stopovers in South East Asia to holiday and generally blow the last of their money before having to work. The Thailand, Laos, Vietnam loop seemed to be incredibly well travelled, and virtually everyone I met had been or was planning to go to Laos, a fact that I'm sure wasn't true when I was in the area as part of my travels in 2005. It also saddened me a little to see just how easy Vietnam was to travel and how “anyone” could do it, all you needed to do was buy one hop on hop off bus ticket from any travel agent and you were pretty much set for travelling the whole country. Without sounding arrogant, I had hoped that Vietnam would be more challenging and unruly than my brief taste had turned out to be, but I guess like anywhere you need to get off the tourist trail to really experience that, and on a 2 week holiday that simply wasn't going to happen.
Moving on from Hoi An I took “the world's most scenic railway” up to Hue, which turned out to be disappointingly un-scenic, before booking myself onto a full day's tour of the De Militarised Zone which stretched out towards the north. It involved an awful long time on a coach, but it was good to see some of the actual sites from the conflict, even if them were simply a “pilgrimage”, today's site being unrecognisable from its wartime counterpart. Examples being the Ho Chi Minh trail used to sneak supplies around the country, and a bridge over the Ben Hai, the body of water marking the division between North and South. We also saw the Vinh Moc tunnels, a subterranean village which remained undetected by the Americans and so remains in very good condition today. I had expected the tunnels to be tiny, but they were much taller than I had envisaged and we were informed that they hadn't been artificially enlarged for the benefit of tourists. Another site on the trip was the Khe San airbase, a US airbase that was completely surrounded by the Vietcong meaning absolutely everything had to be airlifted in. It was the scene of some of the heavier fighting of the war and from my layman's perspective seemed to involve the US carpet-bombing the mountains surrounding the airstrip where the Vietcong were positioned, while the Vietcong rained their firepower down on the airfield from all sides. Basically not a nice place to be!
A final flight took me up to Hanoi, the capital. I had been enjoying myself so much that my timetable had slipped and I only had one day to explore the city, but I did get to visit the Mausoleum complex of Ho Chi Minh and have one of the best meals of my entire trip at a restaurant that took troubled kids off the streets and trained them as chefs to work in the restaurant. It was absolutely delicious!
I had so little time in Hanoi as I knew I wanted three full days in what I fully expected to be the highlight of my trip, Ha Long bay. It is a UNESCO world heritage site, an area of thousands of karst outcroppings jutting skywards from the ocean and is absolutely stunning. The only way to see it is by boat, and I had decided to make my last trip an enjoyable one, so I had deliberately joined a boat that did the full three day trip, including the middle day on a beach on a private island. It also had a reputation for being a bit of a party boat, so it would be the final fling before the long journey home!
There was a lively mixtures of nationalities on the boat, including lots of Aussies which meant that the smaller Brit contingent had to match them in the banter stakes – especially with the first (drawn) test of the Ashes being fiercely contested while we were out there! The first day on the boat the weather was pretty overcast, so the sea was by no means the incredible azure colours that you see in the postcards, but it was still an incredible seascape to be travelling through. After mooring up in the afternoon we got to go kayaking and caving which was a lot of fun, although for a lot of people flimsy flipflops and caving were not a very sensible or safe combination!
At dinnertime the drinking games began, with the old classic “ring of fire” being brought out! As always it lead to some fast drinking and some serious partying until the early hours!
Next morning we were roused far too early to take a transfer on another boat to the private island. Here we could chill, play table tennis, volley ball, football and swim, and also take advantage of one water activity, for instance tubing, banana boating or wakeboarding. In the end only 4 of us decided to do the wakeboarding, one of which, Bryan – also a male model! - was a seasoned pro who showed us how it should be done, and was even landing backflips which was quite incredible to see.
I was relatively confident that my snowboarding and skiing balance would transfer pretty well across to the wakeboarding, and I was delighted when I managed to stand up first time, and everytime thereafter. I progressed to weaving about behind the boat but found I could only do it on the left hand side, cutting in towards the wake on my toe before a big heel turn whipped me off the edge of the wake and back out to the left. However, I couldn't summon the technique to successfully cross the wake! Maybe next time! It was an absolute hoot to try wakeboarding, despite the grimacing expression in all the photographs I really enjoyed it – though my arms and upper body absolutely paid for it the next few days!
The curtain was brought down on my holiday with the final party on the island. This time another card based drinking game was introduced, this one involved drinking fingers and downing drinks, or nominating people to do so dependent on how the cards fell. Possibly flushed with success from the wakeboarding I decided to engage in some Aussie bashing about the Ashes. It was going well until I realised that I was surrounded by Aussies and I had made myself the distinct target for any drinks nominations. Needless to say I drank more rum and coke than I had ever looked at in my life, and even though I'd come to the island a Dong millionaire, I ran out of money to keep up with the drinking game!!
When the breakfast gong went off the next morning I knew my holiday had come to an end. I had a jackhammer hangover and two days of travelling ahead of me to take me from a private island in Ha Long bay back to London. Not a pleasant thought!
My trip to Vietnam had been enormous fun. I'd seen some great sights, met some great people and been able to witness a country with a people that are so friendly and industrious, you can really see that Vietnam is moving forward at pace, without being overshadowed by looking back. The snobbish traveller in me was disappointed at just how open and easy Vietnam had become for anyone to visit and travel through, but the irony is patently obvious to me when I was there for a short holiday and taking internal flights and taxis to cut down on any hassle factor!! I guess like any country, when you stay on the tourist trail you only scratch the surface, to truly experience it you need to have the time and the desire to get off the well trodden path and into the hinterlands.