Published: July 27th 2008July 27th 2008
It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma
Winston Churchill said that about Russia, but in my mind the same could easily be applied to Vietnam. It has the capacity to inspire such mixed emotions, it can frustrate the life out of you, make you ram your head into your hands and cry out in exasperation, then at other times impress the pants off you, or otherwise make you nod your head and marvel at the ingenuity of the people. I've spoken to people who have hated the country, and others who cant get enough of it, its that kind of place, I think I land somewhere in the middle, definetly a rather large fan of the place but its not my favourite Asian country thus far. Hanoi
The 24 hour bus ride from Laos was fairly uneventful, and was about as much fun as you would imagine 24hours non stop on a bus to be. The border crossing was slightly stressful and a good insight into the nature of Vietnam: stretching the process out longer than it needed, fighting with Vietnamese in order to be processed, overcharging despite the fact we already payed in advance and hugely unfriendly people who always favour their own
and make life hard for Westeners, this was pretty much the theme through the country. One good aspect of it was that a large bunch of Westeners formed a mighty scrum together to blitz the process, which speeded things up and also allowed a large bunch of us to get chatting, the end result being meeting some class people who I would then travel with and bump into all the way through Vietnam.
It is a bit of a crude generalistaion and stereotype, but basically the people in the Communist North weren't as nice or easy going as those in the South. Of course there are exceptions, but in the North they all seem to have an edge to them, possibly even verging on nasty, especially when haggling with them or trying to get anything done, its just a feeling of a hardness about them. I realise there could now be a lengthy discussion on why they are like this and who is to blame etc but I don't have the energy (raging hangover-25p a pint here in Cambodia, ouch) to start one. Hanoi itself was crazy, it was Bangkok on speed, an assault to the senses even though
Jade in the Chu Chi tunnels
and these had been enlarged for tourists!
I've seen a lot of Asia. Noises, people, smells, chaos and more motorbikes than I ever thought possible, crossing the road was a liability every time. It involved standing on the kerb, crossing yourself, taking a deep breath, closing your eyes, stepping off and walking at a regular pace, not looking either way-as there was no point-uttering some curse words, perhaps yelping a few times, and somehow the bikes would then weave around and you would make the other side in one piece, hopefully without soiling yourself.
I spent a week here in all, far too long really, but we were with a good bunch of people from the bus/hostel, there was some decent stuff to do, and if I'm honest there was lots of cheap alcohol,well when in Rome. A couple of highlights stand out, the first being the prison visit, which was interesting, educational and also downright barbaric. It had aspects of both its old school mission, i.e. the imprisonment of those who rebelled against the French rule in the early part of the century, and also the more recent use of imprisoning U.S soldiers during the Vietnam War. The conditions within which they kept the Vietnamese
in the early days was horrific, tiny cramped conditions, meager if any food or water, torture and interrogation, no medical help etc, but to be fair they did let some of them go easy-by killing them using the guillotine, if they were lucky. By contrast the conditions which the U.S had to put up with-including the possible next president John McCain-was more of a holiday camp. If you believe the propaganda. This was laughable at times, its claimed that McCain himself was tortured so badly for years that he can no longer lift either arm above shoulder height, but if you saw the pictures we did he had the time of his life, thumbs up whilst being treated by a doctor, smiling away with the lads opening Christmas cards from back home and living a life of bliss sunbathing or playing volleyball outside. I suspect I know which story to believe.
My strongest and favourite memory is that which may offend some, so apologies to any animal lovers out there..It was my trip to the snake restaurant. I had met up again with Minty-she being pretty much the only Western person I met through Java, catching up was a
bonus and we had a great 5 days together in Hanoi doing random things, one of our ideas was this. It basically involved being taken to a fairly fancy restaurant, where a live snake was promptly brought to our table to be eyed up. It looked the typical menacing type that nobody but its mother could love (I'm trying to justify it here) so we went ahead and gave the nod for the chop. What this actually meant I wasn't fully prepared for, they then brought out the instruments of death and proceeded to cut up the thing there and then, whilst it was alive! It gets gory here people, look away if you're squeamish. The thing was trying with all is might to be freed, tongue flicking away with a passion, while one guy held its body straight and the other cut into its chest, just enough for the heart to pop through..they then cut out the heart of the still alive snake and placed it on a plate. So this snake is writhing around, its heart beating independently on the plate, and the guys drain its pumping blood from the de-hearted veins straight into a glass bottle. My
face should have been a treat. Once they had drained all the blood out one guy took off the squirming snake to our relief, but this 'joy' was short lived. He then added the blood to a half bottle of vodka and gave it all a good shake, whilst doing this he popped Mr.Beating Heart into..a shot glass..then he poured in the vodka/blood. Thus he presented me with a glass of vodka, fresh snakes blood and beating heart and offered me to drink it down: Ummm you what pal? "Yes you drink, is good luck and aphrodisiac" Oh well in that case give me a double.. Bloody hell (no puns intended)how do I get in these situations. Anyway, being a manly man and all, and after about 39minutes of hesitation, I downed the thing, which was, ah, interesting. I was feeling slightly Hannibal Lector like as I felt the heart slip down my throat, I trust my acting skills that it was no problem and an everyday occurrence deserved a similar Oscar. But the fun wasn't over, hell no, why waste some good snake liquid eh? Next he brought us some green vodka/something in a bottle: Whats that old chap,
some vinegar per chance? "The acid and stomach bile of the snake sir." Ah jolly good, not had any since we skinned that giraffe last week. Down the throat that went too, my only memory of that was it being ridiculously strong. Finally some purple stuff, which the guy couldn't explain in English what it was, and frankly, I'd rather not know.Purple?? What the hell could that be, the drained pancreas?!squeezed appendix??melted ear wax?! Down it went regardless, why stop now I thought, I'm just a step away from being a coyote. Eventually the snake itself was brought out and had been made into about 6 different dishes, all surprisingly tasty and very filling. Minty even did all girls proud and had some heartless shots as well (I don't mean she's cruel, I mean there was only one heart). We noticed that on the menu was also included porcupine, bird and cat. I contemplated this for a while but the thought of seeing old Fluffy the cat have its heart cut out in front of me a touch too much. It would have been too loud if anything, put you right off your snake that will. So that was pretty
Red=snakes blood and vodka, Green=stomach bile and vodka, Purple=we never fond out, Lord knows!
much Hanoi done, although I did also visit Halong Bay which was a cool little trip, some stunning sights and caves etc and a good time had. Hue & Hoi An
The next two places I shall link together, hangovers and PC's dont mix and its going to be a big blog anyway. So I left Hanoi and went to Hue, a pretty unremarkable little place but I did manage to sneak in a little river trip which included some nice temples and wats. Hue was mainly notable for the continance of the super group, which at this stage included 4 Irish, 4 English, a Zimbabwean, Frenchie and a short snaked eating Welshie (me, for those not in the know). I am sensing a theme developing here but we did have a few great days and night, in one bar i particular called DMZ, and we have seen most of these same people all the way along the coast and also some into Cambodia so it was cool times. The place was also the start of the travelling buddy mantle to be passed on, it had been left vacant by my Thailand mucker Nick, and although I
The cave at Halong Bay
Some geeks (SJ) will ooh at that
met loads of people and moved around with them, nobody picked up the torch until Jade. She had been part of the bigger group in Hanoi and so I'd known her a while, but after a few days in Hue I was ready to move on, some of the rest had already gone, and some wanted to stay. Thus it was that myself and Jade decided to team up and travel on, which we have now been doing for 3 weeks and counting, and will do so until I leave Asia in a couple of weeks time. Therefore all future mentions of 'we' refer to 'the Jade' (she has lots of nicknames now, I coin a new one most days) so say Hello and give her all a warm welcome please, shes a 19 year old (makes me feel about 57) from near Leeds (yup dodgy Yorkshire accent still intact) a great easy going girl and we have a ball, laugh too much, get on like a married couple and she has made the trip immensly more enjoyable. Hoi An was a nice little coastal town, with a great beach which we used to top up the tan and also
hired a bike to cruise around on. Once again drink was a theme, a large section of the group had reunited again so we hit the main bar, King Kong, which involved free drinks for an hour(truly messy)dancing on pool tables(I didn't kill myself surprisingly), drinking games and even a new job. For 2 nights I was employed for an hour a night to PR and recruit some people in for the free hour of drinking (not a hard sell I'll grant you) and my rewards were free drinks all night, its a thankless task I swear. Nha Trang & Dalat
Next up was further down the coast and another beach resort Nha Trang, the tan is working people, oh yes. Lots of chillaxing, lazy days, card games, good food and times were abound. The main trip here was a 4 islands cruise, a lovely day of snorkelling, beaches, drinking, floating bars, onboard entertainment and even a trip to an aquarium, all in all a pretty tough day as you can imagine. This led to the meeting of yet more people, another night out and hangover. Interestingly in the morning Jade had to remind me-only something like
this could slip MY mind-that I was nearly robbed by prostitutes! Apparently as we walked home 2 ran to me and enveloped me (I imagine I didn't fight too hard) with lots of promises to love me long time, provide me with a happy ending and generally rock my world. I imagine I was delighted with this until I noticed they had their hand on my wallet and were removing it, apparently I noticed and ending up chasing them down the street cursing wildly, before attempting to take out my anger on two innocent dogs nearby (maybe I was hungry again)must have made quite a sight though. Jade has not stopped mocking me since.
Dalat followed, a world away from the rest of Vietnam really. It was cold for a start, up in the mountains so a touch chilly and sights like waterfalls and lakes and less Westernised or affected by the war than most places I feel. The place wasn't explored as thoroughly as we'd have liked as Jade was ill (she has been ill with something for about 98% of the time I've known her, I'm now a great nurse, although the uniform is a touch small for
Child monks learning English
Hue, Coast of Vietnam I think.
my figure). We did hire a bike though and in my favourite day in Vietnam drove it around all day (manual gears too, I was like Steve McQueen in the Great Escape) seeing mountains, fields, rivers, waterfalls, local people, markets, food stalls etc. I have neglected to mention so far that lots of Vietnam is stunningly beautiful, very green and bright, rice fields, valleys, mountains etc, its a gorgeous place at times. We then topped the day off with a lovely meal on the river for dirt cheap prices and a cup of tea, oh yes. Saigon
So last but certainly not least was Ho Chi Minh city, still Saigon to locals and all travellers too. A hectic little place although slightly less so than Hanoi, and as I mentioned I found the people here and indeed all down the coast generally nicer and more easy going than those in Hanoi. Admittedly, there was another drunken night thrown in here but in general I enjoyed the place for the sights it offered instead. Sadly, or stupidly, I chose to party until 6am at a club called Apocalypse Now (great name!)and then go and see the main site
at 7am so this wonderful tour was marred slightly so naughty me-but in my defence it was the last time I would see about 5 of the boys. The main trip was to the Cu Chi tunnels, a network of underground tunnels which demonstrated the Vietnamese ingenuity. They build long deep tunnels that spread out for across 200kilometres and even had areas designated for sleeping, eating etc. They were only small enough for the Asians to fit through and had loads of exits and holes which they could attack through but not be attacked. We could crawl through them only as they had been widened for tourists, but the conditions were still hot, cramped and insufferable)OK I admit the alcohol didn't help with this) The fact that they lived down there though and built them showed the steel and mettle of these people.
I also learned, for example,that they made themselves special sandals that could be worn backwards, so that when they walked through the jungle the U.S. couldn't track them as they always thought they were going in the opposite direction. We also go to see the vast array and clever booby traps of all kinds that they built
to attack the opposition, most of them supremely clever yet simple. All combined and with repeat throughout the country, as well as their expect jungle knowhow, I found it no surprise that they couldn't beaten and I started to hold them in a lot higher regard.
Another great (term used loosely) was to the War Remnants Museum, a 6 stage collection of artefact's, pictures, images, actual equipment used etc. It was highly absorbing and interesting, although sadly it was hugely one sided and Anti-American(understandably I guess) and lacking in details on why things happened but still fascinating stuff. Some of the things shown were very graphic and gruesome and really brought the pointlessness of war, especially this one, home. You had to have the feelings of a sea slug to be not moved by some of it (apologies to any sea slugs reading, I just imagine you to not be very sensitive) and this added to what I have now witnessed in Cambodia makes me look at things like even Iraq and Afghanistan in a different light, for when the love of power overtakes the power of love, there is war. Mekong Delta
Last up was the
Mekong Dela tour, which involved making a more relaxed approach into Cambodia via the Mekong River,a 2 day trip between Saigon and the capital Phnom Penh. Now this wasn't the best or most organised trip ever, lots of changing boats, ferries, buses etc and some not great accommodation but it did show us some lovely views, lazy days, interesting villages and of course we met some cool people. Immigration was painless and a lot easier than trying to get into Vietnam!
So thats Vietnam done, I have spent longer doing it than planned, 3 weeks in all and the result is that very guttingly I am not going to have enough time to see the Philippines, which I was hugely looking forward to. But I don't think I'd change anything, I had a great time in Vietnam and despite the odd annoyance it was a a rewarding, unique and satisfying experience. The mix of the war and its effects, the sheer Americanisation of some places, hugely French in others, the people, sights, scenery, beaches, trips to places such as prisons, museums and the tunnels, all combined to make it a fascinating place. Throw in the amazing people and times we
I could almost be home!
Cup of tea and a hoody, how happy I am
had travelling it and its managed to beat the other Asian countries-that was until I got to Cambodia, what a place I can't wait to blog it. Me and Jade have just about finished Cambodia now and loved it, in a day or two we will move back into Thailand and I'll waste my last week there on one of the islands, probably Koh Tao as she wants to do her PADI, I'll do a final blog, and then on the 5th August I sadly leave Asia after 3 1/2 months, but pleasingly I fly into Chris's arms in Canada and off we go on more adventures!
Quick bit of other news, thanks to everyone who wished me happy birthday, my phone is still knackered but should work again from this week onwards. Meant a lot and I got loads of messages so its nice to know I'm no forgotten just yet. I am now a depressing 28 and the average age of people I meet is about 21, but I carry on undettered and even more passionate about seeing more of the world and experiencing more of what I am now, before I'm too old, in a home
Chu Chi tunnels
Snug fit even for me
or perhaps shouting it on the bus stop-lecturing to anyone who will listen about the times I had when I was young back in 'Nam and how you should enjoy life whilst you can! Perhaps my first vitcim can be Gaz's baby, because I'm also delighted to announce that my mate Atkins and the other half Toria are pregnant (more her than him to be fair) an are due in January, I shan't end my blog with a bitter rant about yet more of the Barry Massive having huge news while I'm away, thin ice though people, you're trampling on my last nerve!
Love to All (Even the Barry mates, tut) x
Since I left Wales!
There are more photos below