Published: August 6th 2010August 5th 2010
On the bus to Dalat
look at those neck cushions!
That's not a fact, it's probably a hell of a lot more than that. It actually feels like there's about that many honing in on you every time you step off the kerb to cross the road. Such a simple procedure back home: press a button, wait for a little green man to flash and beep at you and then happily saunter across safe in the knowledge that law and order in the universe is on your side. Here it is another story completely. I thought we'd had good practice in Cambodia but the traffic there has nothing on Vietnam. The first few days we stood with trepidation, hovering on the edge of the pavement waiting for a break of more than a couple of metres between speeding bikes and honking taxis. Eventually we learned that this would never work and developed the unnerving technique of walking calmly and slowly into the path of mayhem and watch in horror and astonishment as they swerve all around you. Not only is it confusing that they drive on the other side of the road here, it's even more alarming that they actually appear to drive on either side of the road at the
same time. Taxis are overtaking motorbikes, that are swerving past cyclos, that are pedalling in the opposite direction pulling out past pedestrians, who are walking along the road because there is no pavement, and all of these are being run down by a speeding bus with the horn blaring at full volume.
In my first week in Vietnam I have observed just two rules of the road:
No. 1 - Size matters. Small will
give way to all things larger and faster.
No. 2 - The horn is an all round substitute for brakes, indicators, headlights, driving skills and common courtesy.
Despite these rules, being in a big coach does not make you feel any safer travelling the roads of Vietnam. Our first experience of Vietnamese bus travel wasn't actually that bad, only seven hours of bumping, swerving, braking at the last minute and - of course - beeping to endure. We even had a guide and interpretator with us, well an extremely chatty sixteen year old girl with boundless enthusiasm who offerred to buy us fruit at locals rates when the bus stopped for lunch.
The next bus was from Dalat to Nha Trang. The scenery
The road to Dalat
Central Highlands of Vietnam
along this route was nothing short of breathtaking. Rolls of jagged, forested hills unfolded in ever fading shades of green, grey and blue all the way to the coast. Waterfalls plunged over exposed cliffs and tumbled under the road in culverts. Misty tufts of cloud hung in the valleys. The road clung to the edge of cliffs and rollercoastered around the hills. You could almost hear the soundtrack from The Italian Job as our driver careered the bus around another hairpin bend. Well, you could have heard the soundtrack if it wasn't for the sounds of fifty people hacking, spitting, coughing, retching and throwing up for three and a half hours. Even the video player blasting out Vietnamese Cabaret couldn't distract or drown out the travel sickness all around us. It took most of our effort just to hold down our own breakfasts so sadly I never got any photos out the window of the scenery.
But at least that trip was short. Then came the bus trip described as a 'journey from hell' by the Lonely Planet: the sleeper bus from Nha Trang to Hoi An. For once the guidebook was spot on. To our complete suprise the
bus turned up 20 minutes early - that was the only good thing about it. We had been promised a bus with three bunks across but some money-hungry conman had decided to squeeze a few more beds in on the top layer and I was one of the unfortunate buggers who got crammed into these. It took most of my resolve not to cry at this point. It's a good job I was ill again a couple of weeks ago to keep my weight down, there was definitely not much room for manoeuvre in those bunks. With my bum in Jacqui's face, an obnoxious (but thankfully un-smelly) German guy's elbow in my hip and the knees of the girls behind me rocking dangerously close to my nose, we set off into the night at full throttle. The driver appeared to have a pneumatic drill for a right foot, hammering down alternately on the accelerator and the brake while chain smoking and answering his phone. We swerved all over the road, frequently careering into the hard shoulder and stopping with a judder to pick up random people in the middle of nowhere. By the time we stopped for 'dinner' at 2:30am
the aisles looked like a scene from the Blitz with bodies tightly huddled the length of the bus. For a few hours I dozed fitfully, startled awake whenever the driver turned on the lights to allow someone to pick their way through the bodies to the toilet. As the sun weakened the sky to a pale grey the driver took his cue to resume sitting on the horn. Luckily it was only a few miles further to Hoi An and our chance to escape.
All these horrendous journeys thankfully become a distant memory though when you rock up somewhere nice and get to stay there and relax for a few days.
Having escaped the fumes and drizzle of Ho Chi Minh City, the cool mountain air of Dalat was extremely welcome. The traffic was still fairly horrendous but at least the town was compact and easy to venture out of. It was so refreshing to walk down the street and not be dripping with sweat. I certainly never thought I'd be quite as excited as I was to be able to wear a cardigan!
The main reason we'd come to Dalat, other than for some
being fattened up at the Cricket Farm
typical British weather, was to do a countryside tour that we'd been recommended. Unfortunately the guy that usually runs it was busy but his cousin still gave us an interesting and enthusiastic tour (when she wasn't being car sick - the Vietnamese really don't like travelling in confined vehicles). We got a good overview of all the local industries, including visits to coffee plantations, a mushroom farm, silk weaving factories and local independent weavers. Our first stop was to a cricket farm where we sampled the delights of eating deep fried crickets. As you can see from my face it was an interesting experience! Actually they weren't all that bad, basically very crunchy, a bit like eating bits of batter from the chip shop. We also visited the local market, always a highlight for me, and saw some more Vietnamese delicacies such as eyeballs, snouts, skin, crabs, frogs, eels and kittens! Apparently the skin of pigs is boiled and then chopped up and rolled up in rice paper as a snack to eat with beer, very popular with students, I guess it's their equivalent of pork scratchings. I didn't ask how the kittens would be prepared.
Possibly the most interesting
Waterfall near Dalat
I got soaked by the spray even at this distance, it is definitely the monsoon season out here!
part of our tour was sitting around chatting after lunch. Our guide, Sun, educated us in Vietnamese courtesies and we discussed the cultural differences between the East and West. It turns out everything we say and do could potentially be a massive insult to the local people, and vice versa. I'm petrified to even attempt to speak Vietnamese now and am convinced that every gesture I make will get me lynched! For example, just the tone of your voice can turn a simple “I'd like a papaya, please” into “f**k you”. Accidently lisp when thanking someone for your dinner and you could find yourself declaring that the food was only fit for pigs! In contrast, out here the one finger salute and v-signs just mean “I'd like one” or “hi”, nothing like what we infer with them! We did learn a very useful gesture for getting touts and peddlers to leave you alone though: twisting your open hand by your ear is far more effective than spending 10 minutes repeating no thank you.
While we were in Dalat we also visited the Crazy House, the realisation of a woman with a very, very vivid imagination. Part guest house, part
private home, part set for Alice in Wonderland or some similar dark and wonderful film, and a maze of staircases and bridges and nooks and crannies and tree houses to get lost in. The place has rooms themed around bears, kangaroos, eagles, termites and bamboo, amongst others. There are giant giraffes holding up the staircases and spiders webs bedecked in fairy lights crisscrossing the gardens. It was like being a kid again exploring this place.
After rushing through Cambodia I was well in need of some beach time and a few days relaxing and reading so after Dalat we headed to Nha Trang. We were soon happily laid back on sun loungers at the yacht club, contemplating what cocktail to have that evening, We had our favourite restaurant, we knew where to go for the best ice cream, and which was the cheapest place to buy water in town. In other words life was good. Just a shame about our hotel which was run by the surliest, rudest receptionists I have ever met. Our air con dripped on the TV, the shower took an hour to drain, the place stank of damp, and then one day some thieving
cleaner got through the combination lock on my rucksack and skimmed $250 worth of currency from me. After that I couldn't afford cocktails and the clouds blotted out the sun - it was time to move on again.
Luckily we moved onwards and upwards to Hoi An and my faith in Vietnam and humankind was restored. Things had not been going amazingly well the past few weeks. Having met far too many grumpy or down right rude people between Saigon and Nha Trang, together with parting company with my original travel buddy, being ill, and loosing a significant portion of my travel budget, I was not feeling particularly happy or enthusiastic about this country. From the start though Hoi An welcomed me with open arms. After the disastrous hotel in Nha Trang we decided to splash out on a nice hotel and it has been so worth it. We were welcomed on arrival with tea, cakes and huge smiles and promised our room would be ready for us in a few minutes, despite it being 7 o'clock in the morning. It actually took 20 minutes but we didn't mind at all because our room was spotless and even had
Hoang Trinh Hotel, Hoi An - I love this place!!
towel swans and flowers on the beds - I couldn't stop beaming with delight, this place was paradise! The receptionists go out of their way to be helpful, are always cheerful and even bring us complimentary yogurts when we get back from town in the afternoon.
After a nap on the extremely comfortable beds we dragged ourselves out to explore Hoi An. The town is beautiful, very quaint, laid back and picturesque. For the next few days we wandered up and down the streets of the old town, stopping for fruit shakes on the riverfront as a break in between the hard task of getting clothes made. Hoi An is famous on the backpacker trail for being the
place to get a bespoke outfit whipped up. The streets are lined with tailors shops, too many to chose from, and they can rustle up a dress or a jacket overnight for you. I decided the time had finally come to throw out my trusty linen trousers that have travelled the world with me, but not before getting them cloned into a spanking new pair with purple buttons. I was convinced I had no money, space or need for anything else
but somehow found myself with a gorgeous ¾ sleeve jacket to traipse around Asia and Australia with, not exactly practical but most definitely an essential buy!
The one disappointment in Hoi An was the food. Supposedly famous for several specialities including Cau Lau (noodles) and White Rose (dumplings) we found these bland and nothing special. After such good food elsewhere it was a real shame to find fried rice came with diced frozen veges, especially when there is so much fresh produce 200m down the road in the market. There were two exceptions to this lack of decent chow: firstly we discovered the Cargo Cafe that do amazing cheesecakes, brownies and ice cream; secondly I did another cookery class, with a girl called Chau, and found my own culinary creations beat the stuff in the restaurants hands down!
If you hadn't already guessed, I'm trying to do a cookery class in every country I visit out here! I'm really enjoying them, every course is different and I'm learning lots about the culture and people as well as the food. This cookery class was probably the least professional and hygienic so far, but also the most interesting. I met up
Look at all the yummy food I learnt to make!
Banana Flower Salad, Fresh Spring Rolls, Vietnamese Pancakes, Shrimp Hot Pot
with Chau in the morning and she showed me round the market, pointing out local delicacies such as pickled vegetables and explaining how they prepare some of the choicer cuts of meat such as skin and snouts. We then met up with her mum for a drink at a riverside stall and then her mum drove us both back to her house on the back of her motorbike. I say house, it was basically a lean-to with a couple of rooms partitioned with chipboard and some plastic sheeting for a roof. Chau's two younger brothers helped to prep the food that her Mum had bought in the market and then they all watched and giggled as I tried to copy as Chau taught me to thinly skin a tomato with a blunt knife and flip pancakes with chopsticks. We made four dishes that morning: Banana flower salad with pork (really tasty, not sure I'll be able to find banana flowers back home though to recreate this one!), Fresh spring rolls (much healthier and tastier than the deep fried ones you get in the takeaway back home), Vietnamese pancakes (very tasty, wrapped up like a spring roll), and Shrimp hot pot
(a kind of sweet and sour soup served with noodles).
Having stuffed my face with the fruits of my labour I decided I really had to get out and do some exercise. The traffic is surprisingly calm in Hoi An compared with the rest of Vietnam so I braved hiring a bicycle and pedalled off into the countryside through emerald rice paddies and out to the local beach. Admittedly I only cycled about 12km in total and spent more time lying on a sunbed reading my book, but it was exhilarating to get back on a bike after so long and quite exciting weaving amongst the mopeds and mayhem of Hoi An at rush hour!
Feeling refreshed and ready to face the rest of Vietnam now after four days in Hoi An we will be racing up to Hanoi on another horrendous overnight bus and then getting out on the water for a three day cruise around Halong Bay to hopefully finish off Vietnam on a high.
There are more photos below