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Published: September 12th 2011
It was a fantastic journey across the border from Laos to Vietnam. Leisurely, calm and composed, we ambled our way through the lush green hills towards our new country enjoying... oh wait, actually, no it wasn't. That was just a dream, so I will rewind.
We were to board a sleeper bus set for Vietnam in the late afternoon. We were first picked up by a tuk tuk made for 12 people and proceeded to add a further 12 people plus all their baggage, yep like a bad joke, how many tourists can you pick up in a
tuk tuk? Well it ended up being 25 including the drivers and all their baggage. We were stopped twice by the police on the 15 minute journey to the bus station who couldn't believe how many of us there were. When we reached the sleeper bus we were
the unlucky ones to get the 'cave', a 3 by 2 metre box at the back of the sleep bus right by the toilet. So three of us were jammed into this hole covered in graffiti by other poor sods who had had to endure the 12 hour journey. "Welcome to hell!" "12 hours
in the death cave Facebook group - join if you did it!" were some of the remarks we read. So yes, it was horrible and painful, and smelly and was ended by a 3 hour hellish wait at the Vietnamese border - it was a total blast.
So as you can imagine it wasn't really the best start to Vietnam but hey, it's all part of the travelling fun isn't it? Our first stop was near the border in a city called Vinh, we waved fondly to the sleeper bus and felt sorry for the poor miserable people on board who were continuing on for another 8 hours to Hanoi. Vinh. Miss it if you can, can't really say there was anything worth stopping for.
We left early the next day for Hanoi, and again endured a horrible 8 hour trip in a cramped mini bus being messed around by the driver who kept stopping for unknown reasons. Yep, travel in Vietnam seems to be cramped, horrible and you are stuffed in like sardines. But none the less we entered Hanoi ready to tackle the mish mash of back streets of the old town.
Hanoi was busy
and manic but had a mystical charm to it. The winding backstreets played home to thousands of shops and street vendors all ready to sell you anything from fried chicken feet to a Ho Chi Minh tshirt. What they say about Vietnam is true -
if you want something, someone somewhere will get it for you. We spent our days in Hanoi being as cultural as we could be, visiting the remains of what was the Hanoi Hilton prison, a fantastic Women's Museum and a Buddhist restaurant that served
all their vegetarian food to look and taste like meat (apparently an ancient tradition so that Buddhists can welcome carnivores into their homes.)
Unfortunately it came time to catch another sleeper bus for Hue set smack bang in the middle of Vietnam next to the coast. This time we thought it won't be as bad - we will take a bottle of red wine, some snacks and possibly a valium, because really,
could it have been as bad as the first one? Well, it was. It was worse. We were shoved in the back on top this time, five us sharing skinny beds next to each other with little air
conditioning. The bonus was there was no toilet on board so at least there were no 'unique' smells but the downside was the grumpy driver who we forced to stop as we hadn't had a pee stop for five hours. We especially loved it when he pulled over at 2am, switched all the lights on a proceeded to have his noodle dinner on the side of the road. Ah, sleeper buses, you will now take pride of place in my nightmares. Please note: the red wine and drugs had no effect at all.
So we arrived in Hue refreshed and happy as you can imagine. Starting to see a pattern here? But despite the 'interesting' travel Hue was a pleasant surprise. A smaller, sleepier town surrounding an ancient citadel and divided by the Perfume River - it made a nice change from the hustle of Hanoi. We spent our two days there wandering the streets, visiting the absolutely crazy market and doing something really naughty, having KFC. Oops.
Hue was also our chance to take in a bit of history. Located right next to the former De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) of the Vietnam War, we spent a day with
a fantastic tour guide, seeing all those landmarks places you hear about in movies and books - Hamburger Hill, the Ho Chi Minh trail, Keh Sahn Airbase and not to mention the Vinh Moc Tunnels. They were fascinating but a very sad reminder of
what was essentially a pointless war fought by boys who didn't want to be there.
Next on the list was a place all of us had been looking forward to, Hoi An, many a friend had told me how it was different to the rest of Vietnam, and how right they were. More like being back in China, this old city with its small streets and ancient buildings it definitely felt like old world. Hoi An was a real a highlight as we seemed to spend our days there either eating, learning how to cook and then eating and then buying tailor made clothes. Who said this holiday life was easy? We were very busy you know! And we are proud to say we can now show you how to make Vietnamese pancakes whilst wearing some rather spiffing new threads. I also
managed to find time to do a small photography tour/workshop where I was
taken at the crack of dawn out to see a bit more of the rural side of Vietnam, and it did make a nice change seeing happy faces and not being told to buy a pair of sunglasses.
On that note, maybe that's why we didn't warm to Vietnam like we thought we would. Out of all the places so far we have felt like we are looked down upon. It's a sad sign of modern day tourism, and I guess mainly our fault for creating this new Vietnam. Everywhere we went we mostly felt like walking wallets and were treated as such. At one point we decided to count how many people approached us selling bits and pieces whilst having a beer - 23 people in about 40 minutes. And they wonder why we get grumpy and don't buy things?
There's only so many glasses/hammocks/books/dvds/zippo lights/bracelts I can own lady! It's just sad as we were expecting so much from this
country. Progress huh?
Anyway enough of a rant and back to the travelling. We followed down the heavily trodden tourist trail towards Ho Chi Minh City (although us and all the locals seem to still call
it Saigon - a much more sexier name) but not without spending three nights on a tiny, secluded little beach resort called Jungle Beach. It's a place you go to get away from everything including facilities! We spent the days and nights on the beach, eating, sleeping, skinny dipping at night amongst the phosphorescence and enjoying our very basic hut in the jungle. Just what we needed after all that eating and buying in Hoi An!
Our final destination, Saigon, was a twelve hour bus journey away but was worth the travel. A city which has had such a unique background and has become one of the fastest growing metropolitan hubs of South East Asia.
Ho Chi Minh was everything we thought it would be. Fast, frantic and fantastic. The streets were alive with tourists and locals, the streets were hot and constantly smelt of something that died but we had a blast. We spent our days wandering the streets and getting lost amongst the street vendors.
Perhaps at times I have been a bit unfair to Vietnam, but our last city summed up the country - it's huge, busy, had a rough past which it is
slowly getting over. But if you delve deep enough all you find is smiles.
See, not one mention of Good Morning Vietnam, I'm proud of myself.
P.s Morning Glory - a delicious weed/flower that takes over everything. Saute with garlic, oil and soya sauce and it is absolutely delicious.
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