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Asia » Vietnam
May 19th 2010
Published: May 19th 2010EDIT THIS ENTRY

I pick up where I left of on my last blog. On my final night in Cambodia I made the decision, rather than spending a couple of days on an island, I would move on to Saigon. Will, Jamie and I took a bus from our hotel across the border where we would part ways in Ha Tien, Vietnam. The Ha Tien border crossing is relatively new, so the infrastructure isn’t quite up to scratch yet. The road in Cambodia leading up to it was nothing short of a dirt track and I thought the bus was going to bog in the mud. Will came up with the idea of playing bus surfing to pass the time. It was fun trying to remain standing in the middle of the bus isle, but impossible nonetheless! Once through the Cambodian border, we walked across no mans land to a very fancy Vietnam border crossing positioned in the dereliction of the remote Vietnam countryside. After some time we continued on bound for Ha Tien, where we parted ways, no doubt we would bump into each other again somewhere along the line.

My bus from Ha Tien sat idle for a long time as we awaited the owner who needed to grab a few things for the bank in a bigger town on route. It was a long bank holiday weekend so these things have to be done, but it would have been nice if they could have explained that. I had hoped to arrive in Saigon in good time to give me ample opportunity to find accommodation, but one small delay wasn’t the end of the world. The boss lady explained that the route we took would be faster as the local buses didn’t take it and that it was very pretty. As promised it was, I was surrounded by bright green rice fields at the foot of beautiful mountains. It was absolutely beautiful even under the shadow of the thunder storm brewing around us. Interestingly, for a large part of the journey we travelled alongside a river. On one side, there was a tarred road through Vietnam, on the other side, dirt paths of Cambodia. Everything else was the same. They were both lined with houses, fishing boats and many people scraping a living from the mighty Mekong Delta.

The next port of call, was in heaven knows what you called it. There, the journey was temporarily delayed again. I managed to find a local market and had some beautiful pork BBQ and rice. As the only token white person in the hustle and bustle of marketdom Vietnam, I got my fair share of strange looks. I was then transferred by motorbike to another bus company where I waited my next bus, promised to be large and with air-conditioning. But it wasn’t and I finished the long journey in a very small local bus. It was so packed and totally uncomfortable, that one of the locals was sick in the bus, but no-one cared and we motored on to Saigon. In total from 10 am that morning from the hotel, the one bus eventually turned out to be, three buses, one motorbike, one ferry and a million bridges and we pulled in to Saigon at approximately 12pm where I got a motorbike ride in search of accommodation. What was initially advertised to take eight hours became thirteen or so, local transport, you got to love it. On a lighter note, I managed to find a great little guesthouse where I enjoyed five nights.

So what did Saigon have to offer? Before starting into anything I had to try and save my poor wee camera that drowned in Cambodia. I was quite close to a Canon repair centre but when I got there I was told that it couldn’t be fixed until the following Monday, it was Friday! Dam bank holidays again, I’ve been completely plagued by them. There seems to be nothing but bank holidays all the time. In the meantime the lovely hosts in the hotel offered to lend me there cameras so I could still snap away! It was very generous! Over the weekend I went on a great tour to the Cu Chi tunnels. If you have watched any Vietnam War programmes, you’ll know that the Vietcong developed complex tunnels underground to hide and counter-attack during the war. Some of these tunnels extended three levels down, having hospitals, living quarters, weapons factories etc. etc. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and got the chance to burrow through a tunnel. It was very claustrophobic and even though it had been widened to allow fat tourists in, it still felt difficult to move around. I really couldn’t imagine living in the tunnels. Some soldiers had to live there for weeks on end! At the end of the tour I was given the chance to fire an AK47 rifle with live ammo. I normally would shy away from that type of thing, the passivist that I am, but in honour of my wee bro I stepped forward reminiscing on our days spent shooting AK’s on the Xbox. Boy do they pack a punch! I wouldn’t want to be caught at the other end of one of those bad boys but if you read on, a quite bad situation developed up the coast of Vietnam where I almost did! Scary times…

I also visited the Vietnam War Remnants Museum, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city! The Vietnamese don’t hold back when it comes to highlighting the massive damage and destruction the Americans inflicted during the war there. Graphic images portrayed the horrible pain and suffering of the people of Vietnam. Particularly poignant was the immediate and after effects of the use of Agent Orange and other toxic chemical dumped over the forests. To this day forest has still not returned to many of the hills bombed over forty years ago. People also have continued to suffer, many developed Chernobyl-type body malformations and mutations. The museum even displayed deformed foetuses! But if they wanted to hit it home, they did and I left reflecting on the horrors of war!

I got bad news about my camera, it had officially died and I therefore had to go and buy another! New camera in hand I set of on an open tour bus to Mui Ne, a small beach resort up the coast. Mui Ne was very quiet but that was very welcome having spent quite a while with the 10 million people in Saigon. There I stayed in an English run establishment which was cheap and cheerful. I rented a motorbike driver to take me on a tour to the sand dunes quite a distance from the main town. It turned out to be a great idea, as I was pretty blew away by the beauty of the dunes. It felt like being in the desert and the heat was mad. The dunes had beautiful lakes surrounding them and thousands of lilies grew in the waters there. A movie crew where on site filming a lady running through the sand. I offered to be an extra, like a big tree or something but they refused. My only chance of movie stardom, gone forever.

I left Mui Ne and headed to the mountains to see a little Vietnamese culture. De Lat itself was a total tourist trap and I quickly exited. I did however take a ride on one of the easyrider motorbike tours through the mountains. Motor biking is a great way to see and to get a true feel of the countryside. Chung the driver showed me coffee plantations, flower farms; silk factories where moths produce silk cocoons that are used to spin silk and finally a local rice wine factory that blew the head of me. The effects of the war were everywhere and Chung being a veteran of the South Vietnam army showed me a rundown American army base. That was eerie to say the least.

I jumped back on to a bus up the coast to the next resort called Na Trang. Famous for its beach I unfortunately was feeling quite ill and as it was yet another public holiday, the beaches were completely packed. I decided to give it a miss and booked the last seat on a sleeper bus out of Na Trang that night. So I had 6 or 7 hours to kill, boy did I do it in style. Enjoy reading on as I try and explain how I became embroiled in the scam of all scams.

I was strolling along a street on my way to take a few pictures of the nice beaches. I was approached by a friendly “Malaysian” lady and her “niece” both on holiday visiting her brother who was living in Vietnam. We got chatting and she explained how her daughter was moving to Europe to work as a nurse. As I worked in the NHS she was keen for me to have a chat with her daughter about working there. I had previously visited locals in their houses and as this lady spoke perfect English, and apparently an English teacher, I agreed to go back to their house. So we arrived at the house and inside I was given a cup of tea as we waited for her daughter. The owner and “brother” arrived on the scene, he too a very nice man. He explained that he worked in a casino. Immediately my ears popped up as I enjoy a game of poker. He proceeded to demonstrate how it’s possible to cheat in Blackjack in a casino. So I was brought into a bedroom and explained the rules along with the two ladies who apparently seemed intrigued as well. The brother he suggested that I should visit his casino up in Hanoi to partake in a little illegal cheating. I was like yeah, whatever, but obviously had no intentions.

Things then got extremely crazy very fast, and to be honest I don’t know what came over me. A situation that had began as a bit of craic soon became a massive problem. Within seconds my host explained that he was going with a big card player that evening to a game. We could test out on him. Even before I got the chance to even contemplate what was happening, I was handed $200 and this guy appeared out of nowhere in seconds with real money for a real money blackjack game. Now I would pride myself on being fairly sensible and quite a good decision maker. But whatever came over me, the situation just took on a life of its own and I just got totally hoodwinked. So the first hand was dealt and I had 21 the best hand, so I doubled the money I was given and immediately felt very uncomfortable. The next game started and again I won. At this stage I was really worried and should have had the sense to just get away. After a third consecutive win I decided I had had enough and needed to leave. I didn’t know the ethics of leaving a game and I was worried that things would kick of if I decided to leave. My hands were shaking I was a bit of a mess. So the other guy agreed to play just one last game to give him the chance to win his money back. I was delighted but unfortunately that’s when it got really hairy. I had the best hand again and moved in my chips. The other guy then proceeded to open his little bag he was carrying and produced $60,000 in cash onto the table! Oh my God!!! The rules were, if someone raise’s you have to call the bet or loose. How bloody stupid was I thinking that such a rule could exist.

I suppose this was the crunch of the exercise I was asked to provide evidence of funds. My host asked me to show what money I had. I had just been to an ATM earlier that morning so I had roughly $300 or $400 dollars between the different currencies. To implicate me even more my host provided $5000 as a gesture. Why oh why oh why did I not just catch on to what was happening. To cut a very long story short the game was postponed and the other card player got the key to the money that was kept in a case. They wanted passports, cards the works, all just to bleed me dry and to visit the local mafia for a loan. By this point I was past myself, I just up and ran away and for a few hours I hid. The scary thing was that they new that I was getting a bus tonight out of the town from our earlier trivial discussions. I was really nervous when I got the bus but did and got the hell out of Na Trang. I later found out using the internet that I was another fool caught in an elaborate scam. Thank God I got out of it alive but I’ll know for again.

My next destination turned out to be the beautiful world heritage site of Hoi An, where I spent three days relaxing, coming to terms with what had happened down the coast and getting myself a couple of suites as this was the capital tailoring spot in Vietnam. I got quite sick again for a few days, but in the beautiful surroundings I found myself in, I didn’t care. I met some really nice people there and enjoyed the best meal ever in a restaurant called Mango Rooms. The food in Vietnam to be honest never really blew me away. I much preferred Thai and Cambodian cuisine. But I really felt that I had at last found an untouched part of Vietnam not destroyed by the concrete jungle syndrome affecting most other towns in the country. As a world heritage site they aren’t allowed.

I then moved on to the capital Hanoi, via the town of Hue which just didn’t do anything for me. Hanoi is a quieter version of Saigon and had quite a pleasant feel to it. I stayed in the main backpackers hostel there called Hanoi Backpackers hostel which offered excellent accommodation and access to dozens of other travellers like me. They also provide trips to Halong Bay the most famous natural landmark in Vietnam and one of the main reasons I visited Vietnam. I was expecting to go on something a little more reserved given the nature of the Bay but I was delighted to take part on a booze cruise as such. I met many people and had a great time. The first night was spent on a beautiful boat and the second on an idyllic deserted island in very basic huts. It was an experience sleeping in a building with no walls and only a mosquito net being the only form of defence against the outside world. We went swimming at night and enjoyed the phosphorescence illuminating from the algae in the water. Definitely something I will never forget!

When I returned from a great trip, I was delighted just to chill out around the city. Unbelievably, when I returned to the hostel, I introduced myself to a group of South African travellers. We compared travel routes, and to my disbelief they had heard about my scam story. I was already becoming a backpacker legend and had a great night with those lads, a Kerry man and an exhausted English girl just arrived from a 3 month trip in India. Crowds gathered around as I re-lived my travel scam story and finished with the award as ‘Eoin McGuigan - The Black Jack Legend’. So its time to move on, leave the past where it belongs and look forward to many more interesting travel stories, hopefully not just as expensive. My next port of call will be Laos. Don’t know what to expect but I spend a week there, I’ll let you know how I get on there in good time.


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