Sunday, 29 January 2012

Back in 'Nam

I left Cambodia on a boat headed for Vietnam on what was to be a three day Mekong Tour. I would call this tour distinctly average. Maybe I was spoilt with tours in Cambodia, or I am all rivered out. My main complaint was that all the activities ended at around 2pm, and we were then left to our own devices in rather small dull towns. My second complaint was that there were plenty of hidden costs; "oh your alone, the room will be $3 more then" "Dinner Isn't included" etc. However the tour was fairly interesting at times, floating markets etc, the mosques in Cham and seeing rice noodles be made. The Market in Can Tho does deserve particular mention though; normally when I talk about a market I do exaggerate a little, this market however really did have everything from the usual fakes to marble sculptures, a proper garden centre even including Bonsai trees and so much more.
My FLoating Hotel

Yes... that is previous chickens on the back of a bike

Floating Markets

I made it to Saigon. I almost titled this post 'Lonely in Saigon' but after only four days in to Vietnam that felt unfair. Besides its been my own fault I've been 'lonely' here as I haven't spread myself around, have focused on touring and planning so as to make the most of my time. In fact I haven't been lonely, I've been immensely productive. Another possible title was "Guys guys guys" but out of context this just sounded gay. (More on this later)
Before I talk about Saigon proper, I will mention how one can tell Vietnam is more developed than Cambodia pretty much from arrival. This is easily spotted in three ways, all traffic related:
1. There are proper roads that aren't potholed to buggery and they actually have something that resembles a motorway.
2. There is more than one type of car. In Cambodia the only cars are new black 4x4s. In Vietnam they have a variety from new to old.
3. People obey traffic lights. I only once saw anyone really obey a traffic light in Cambodia and that was only because to not would have meant instant death.
This isn't to imply that driving in Vietnam would be advisable, it is not. It is nightmarish with the million of motorbikes that swarm you.
Rise of the Bikes
So Saigon then. I had a whirlwind city tour which was excellent. I took in the War Remnants museum; biased in places, but also informative and once again harrowing to see all the damage napalm/bombing/mines/agent orange has caused. Also took in the chinese wholesale market and the chinese temple for the goddess of the sea. We also visited a tea shop and the copy of Notre Dame before a rainstorm sent us packing back to the bus. For dinner I had an amazing stir fry at a place recommended on Wiki Travel. On the last day I visited the Cu Chi Caves where the Viet Cong hid from American bombing during the war. This again was informative but slightly biased, it was fun crawling through a tunnel though.
I quite like Saigon, for all its noise and brashness it has a certain charm to it. The replica of Notre Dame is also quite amusing. However I did not have enough time to linger any longer as I have too many places I would rather see.


Presidential building

Notre Dame

Cu Chi Tunnel
I decided to fly to Hanoi as it is almost a 24 hour bus to the middle area of Vietnam where a few of my 'must see' sights were located and thus a even longer bus to Hanoi. So in the interests of speed the flight was a necessary evil. I arrived rather late and was welcomed to my dorm with a beer and a bit of a ruckus, one of the more interesting arrivals. I settled in for what was actual one of the best nights sleep in all of SE Asia, this is mainly due to it not being hot nor humind, the weather is in fact cold (20'c) and wet. I woke up early enough and set off straight to visit Ho Chi Minh. I have now completed the 3 dead embalmed communist leaders, Lenin, Mao and Ho Chi Minh. I spent the rest of the morning visiting the surrounding museums before returning home to walk around the old quarter/centre. In the evening I met Camilla & Luke for some Bia Hoi (cheap fresh beer) and vietnamese food. It is always a relief to meet people I know from home, if just for a familiar face. With all involved parties having early starts we parted ways before I spent some time looking for rum and trying to remember my spanish when talking to some Argentinians. The rum was for the Halong Bay cruise and the spanish well, just being sociable.

I awoke nice and early to depart for Halong Bay. One of the iconic areas of Vietnam, stunning scenery of karst islands set in the South China Sea. However it was far too wet and misty to truly appreciate this scenery, besides I have seen much of this before (Yangshuo, Rai Leh etc) so I was not too bothered. The tour however was fantastic, this was largely due to the people, the food and the mutual dislike of our scouse tour guide (in fairness he brought us all together) with his constant shouts of " Guys guys guys, I Will destroy you" before he drank himself in to sleep. I acquired my 'back in nam' flashback stories and took a grand total of five photos. I then returned to Hanoi to recover and decide what to do for the 3 days I had left and was stuck due to Tet.
Hanoi Lake

Transporting a tree

New Year decorations

Bridge over the Lake
Me and Kevin rocking Halong Bay
In those 3 days back in Hanoi I eventually decided to walk around and avoid the rain. I celebrated Tet New year with some Vietnamese drinking whiskey and dancing around before I re-found the rest of the backpackers and met basically the entire population of Nigeria in Vietnam. 3 days of waiting around done I headed on a night bus to Hue.

Hue is the old imperial city back when Vietnam still had something resembling an Imperial family. The weather was still wet and cold. I arrived fresh from the 'great nights sleep' on the bus and booked a tour for the next day, had breakfast/lunch and set off on a moped to visit some sites that were not on the tour. It was kind of wet, but I had fun visiting 'Elephant Arena' and Tu Duocs tomb before deciding to try and get lost in the countryside. Considering Tu Duoc (and most of the emperors) had no power and were under French rule, his tomb was quite grand, but that is actually wherein lies the cause, they had nothing to do except build huge tombs. I awoke early for the next day for the City tour which included some trips to more Tombs, and to my surprise Tu Duc's tomb again, which I skipped before we headed for lunch and a trip to the citadel/forbidden city. Largely bombed out by the French/Americans during the war it houses vast empty fields and weirdly a tennis court. It also has an Elephant that looked decidedly depressed when chained up. The tour was rounded up with a trip to a Pagoda to touch a statue of a Turtle for good luck. I went back to the Hostel for happy hour and to figure out how to move on to Hoi An the next day..... Hippy van tour wasn't running unless i paid for all five spaces ($17 x 5 =  $85) so I decided to do the Motorbike option! Hue may not have been the most exciting of places, but the hostel is a good base to meet pretty much everyone I met in Hanoi and then some more people, with the tombs and citadel it kept me busy, even if it was far too cold. The hostel staff are very pretty girls who are very friendly, you should all come visit and marry one. (This is that they told me to write, the marriage part)
Tomb at Tu Duoc

Pond in the Tomb complex
Dragon with Green eyes

Tomb Fort

The Citadel
So motorbiking to Hoi An. Top Gear describe a stretch on this trip as one of the "greatest coastal roads in the world" (Hai Van Pass). The Vietnam special is quite worth the watch if you are interested in that trip and travel in Vietnam. Despite being apprehensive about doing the trip alone the hostel staff assured me nobody had ever gotten lost in the two years it has been running. With this in mind I thought it might be fun to be the first, but I am actually pretty good at map reading. I set off after a breakfast bowl of noodles and bumped in to two Dutch girls I knew from Hanoi, heard another Vietnamese scam story and learn't they were so sick of Vietnam they had decided to go to Laos earlier than planned. On to the road with better weather I set off through the morning hustle of Hue and found my road out into the countryside. This took me along to the coast and then to a rather large lagoon surrounded by rice paddies, complete with water buffalo and farmers working the field wearing those iconic coned hats. Eventually I came to the beginning of the pass, after a rather rude attendant made it clear I almost went the wrong way I started my climb up the pass stopping briefly for a photo moment before the winding roads took me higher in to clouds and fog. Visibility was reduced to only a couple of metres at times and bikes/trucks lights would slowly emerge out of this fog. Suddenly as if out of nowhere I emerged out of the fog in to glorious bright sunlight and warmth. I had reached the top of the pass and was rewarded with stunning views south of Vietnam and a stark contrast of fog and sun. After photographing a group of Vietnamese (at their request) I got one of them with Kevin and explored the bunker complex before a chocolate snack and I continued onwards towards..... Da Nannnnnnggggggggggggg, (according to South Park during the war this was where the theme parks were). In reality it is where 'China Beach' is, which almost true to South Park is where American troops were sent for R n R. Da Nang it self is obviously rather wealthy however it is still developing, in a few years the beach front will be full of 5 Star Resorts(there were already at least two golf courses, a rarity in South East Asia). I headed off to visit Marble Mountain, a giant mountain with a weird fusion of futuristic style elevator and ancient pagoda set atop a giant slab of rock that jets out of the ground. I stopped for a squid lunch before making the final stretch to Hoi An, found my drop off point and hotel. The ride had been easier than expected but also totally awesome and rewarding.
Rice Collecting

My Steed, with lucky Buddha symbol too
Boats on the River

Fog and Sunshine

Marble Mountain
Hoi An is the place to go to make suits, however I have no interest (nor money) in lugging around a suit for a month. Hoi An however is a Unesco World Heritage site and this is due to its historical old town vibe. Similar but more authentic than Dali/Lijiang it is at night when it really shows off with many coloured lanterns adorning the quaint streets and riverside. On my walk around town I randomly bumped in too people I knew from Hue (actually a recurring theme in Hoi An) and had dinner before a relaxing evening discussing everything from books, films and politics. After a much needed lie in (I got up at 9am) I did my admin thing, uploading photos from SD Card number five to my laptop, once again randomly bumped in to people I knew for lunch before doing the touristy thing; temples, houses and museums which took all of an hour. I bought my iPho t-shirt (because I love Pho[noodle soup] and hate iPhones, ironic you see) and booked my allegedly (according to my hotel) fully booked trip to Laos. I spent the remainder of the afternoon relaxing by the pool in a fancy hotel that my friend was staying in. In the evening I did my good deed of the week by meeting a girl who had messaged me on Lonely Planet to see if I was about in Hoi An(randomly I was). I had previously answered a forum message about travel companions in Vietnam. Knowing full well how even the most awesome town can be boring and lonely if you don't know anyone and there are no hostels, I did my 'heroic' part. Ironically in this bar practically every single person I had met in Hue/Hanoi happened to rock up, giving the appearance that I have lots of friends.
Chinese Assembly hall garden

Japanese Tourist

Japanese Bridge

Hoi An river at sunset
I left Hoi An to go back to Hue in order to catch the bus to Laos. That rounds up Vietnam. It has been an interesting couple of weeks, Vietnam hasn't been as amazing as Cambodia but it has a little charm too, if also a bit too much touristy related scams. It is however a stunning country too with an energy that most SE Asian countries share. I would consider returning to the 'Nam but it wouldn't be first on the list. 

No comments:

Post a Comment