It would appear I’m a massive fibber.
My claim back in July 2010 that I would write some more about my Southeast Asia journey…well, I guess I didn’t! What can I say? Normal life, studies, a new career, this site being hacked (oh the irony, being an IT professional and all that) – I guess it all stopped me keeping an active blog.
Still, it’s not all been work and sensible stuff. Last year I managed to book a month off work and got myself over to Indonesia – land of volcanoes, Bintang, monkeys, fire dancers, reggae bars, drunken Aussies, horse-drawn carts and insane Swedish women. I’ve enjoyed short visits to Prague, Finland and Berlin, and most recently just returned from an epic voyage across Iceland, where I saw cool stuff like this:
I’m not sure I could dilute that entire Iceland journey into one blog entry without it either being far too vague, or far too ridden with cliched descriptions. So I won’t. It did make me realise however, that I should really get this blog back online – if nothing else it’s my lifeline to the travel world when I can’t be on the road myself.
So here it is. I’ll keep my ramblings minimal, and to that of a travel related nature. With that in mind: I’m off work for a week in November. Let’s see where I end up
My time in this welcoming, criminally underrated country has come to an end, with a flight to Hanoi, a flight to Hong Kong, and finally, a flight to London Heathrow just around the corner.
It’s a country I was told to be fearful of at worse, paranoid about at best. I was warned about the prying, watchful eyes, the beggars, the landmine victims, the poverty and the country’s dark, sinister recent history.
And then I came here myself, and realised none of the above was relevant at all. Not only have I seen so much with my own eyes, but I’ve had the good fortune to get to know the Kampot expat community very well, and between their tales and my own observations I’ve come to realise just how misunderstood this country is.
It’s easy to fear the dark underbelly of other nations, but it’s even easier to forget your own. No major-populated area on Earth has its lack of skeletons in the closet. Los Angeles is infamous for its gang warfare. South Africa is filled with heavy duty security compounds and constant robbery. Salvador is rife with shantytowns. Child prostitution is epidemic in Myanmar. Somalia is wrecked from the results of no government and wide scale looting. And I dare anybody to walk through certain areas of south London without a stab vest and a healthy knowledge of Wing Chun.
So forget about Cambodia’s evil past. Forget your paranoia, whether it’s self inflicted or gained from the words of others, and go visit it yourself. You’ll see the hospitality. The ease of movement around the country. And the sheer unstoppable warmth and friendliness of the people, despite the utter hardship and difficulties they face every day just to survive.
In the whole month I spent within Phnom Penh, Kampot, and Siem Reap, I didn’t feel unsafe for a single moment. And I know without doubt that if ever I got into a bad situation, there would always be a friendly local not far away who would bend over backwards to help me out of it.
And then there is the ancient, grand splendour of Angkor Wat. The otherworldly architecture of Bayon. The amazing interaction between temple and overgrown tree at Ta Prohm and Preah Khan.
That’s it in a nutshell. Go to Cambodia and yes, familiarise yourself with the destruction the Khmer Rouge delivered to so many innocent people. And then see how far the people have come. See their resilience. See their limitless basic human compassion. And then see the true roots of the Khmer story. Suddenly, photos of human skulls and stories of landmines won’t seem so overbearing.
I’m now back at Gecko Hotel in Hanoi, where my journey has sadly come to an end for the time being. Tomorrow begins my long journey home. 15 hours by air, 2 by road, and 6000 years sat around waiting in airport lounges, sipping overpriced bland coffee and breathing icy, dry, processed air, whilst people in their thousands wheel their suitcases past me on their quest to see the world. I’ll have much more to reflect on when I get home, but if you take anything away from my journey, it’s that you should do the same…
I set out for Cambodia amidst a vast collection of tales and rumours. Of genocide and torture. Of brutal totalitarian government. Of armed robbery, unexploded land mines, and exploding cattle.
In other words, I was more or less expecting to be greeted at the border by Hitler, frisked by Freddy Krueger, and locked up in a cell for 48 hours with Hannah Montana. Imagine my surprise when the gentleman operating passport control not only said hello, not only smiled, not only had a friendly chit-chat with me before sending me on my way, but also didn’t violently ram a skewer in to my head. By far the friendliest immigration staff I’ve encountered. Not that I usually get skewered by immigration officials…but you get the idea.
And it’s that friendliness and helpfulness that really strikes you about the people here. It was further demonstrated on the bus by a remarkably pretty Cambodian girl who, within seconds of me sitting down, had engaged me in conversation, told me where she lived and what she did, and had offered me her phone number in case I needed help! I honestly thought I was being accosted by Lady Casanova, until she began speaking about her boyfriend, and I suddenly realised that this was simply a token demonstration of Khmer hospitality and helpfulness.
Things aren’t all rosy here, of course. The country has an almost inconceivably sinister history. Evidence from the Khmer Rouge exists everywhere, from the ruined buildings and devastated land, to the families on the street, all of them affected in some deep, personal way. Poverty is rife, and there are beggars in every busy area of town. Most of the nation gets by on just a couple of dollars a day. (Which really put that $10 pizza I bought in Phnom Penh into perspective.) And, once you get away from the neatly structured tourist streets of every major town, you see the real Cambodia. It’s a single mass of dirty, dusty, smoggy, chokingly filthy squalour.
But yet again…the people smile.
The tuk-tuk and moto drivers here latch on to you with a greater level of enthusiasm than I’ve seen anywhere yet in Asia – and I thought parts of Vietnam were bad. One guy kerb-crawls next to me for a good 15 minutes, desperate for a few dollars to cover his expenses for that day. Eventually I concede, and for the no doubt over-inflated cost of $6, I get taken to the Killing Fields and back.
It was sad.
Really though. What else can I say?
I recently mocked a dear friend quite mercilessly when he summed up one of the most important monuments of genocide in the whole of Asia in those same three words, but after leaving there I couldn’t find anything more elaborate, or eloquent, that could possibly summarise the place any better. When you find yourself face-to-face with a memorial tower filled with 8000 human skulls staring back at you, all of them brutally murdered, what can you possible say to describe what you think? I felt numb, quite frankly, and despite my greatest efforts, just couldn’t quite fathom what was in front of me.
A few days later I finally felt ready to visit S21, the Khmer Rouge “security center”, an obscenely unfitting name – torture and mass-murder center would be more accurate. It was something I wasn’t looking forward to seeing in the slightest, but never the less somewhere I felt it was important to see in order to understand these people and their (far too) recent history. Probably the most evil place I will ever see. I took no photos. I made no notes. I felt numb. And then I left.
Four days in Phnom Penh was enough for me. History aside – you have to section that side of things off in your mind otherwise you run the risk of living off bad vibes for the whole trip. I found it to be a very cliquey sort of place, the massive expat scene means that most people have their own little network of people already, making it a little tougher to get by. This didn’t however stop me getting wasted on the night of my birthday with a local Frisbee throwing team – there’s always room for a bit of randomness on the road!
So it was on the fifth morning in Cambodia that I made my way south, to a little province by the name of Kampot. And I’m still here some two weeks later.
I’m sure I couldn’t quite put my finger on why this town has managed to make me stick around this long. It’s certainly not the caves, temples, mountains, colonial architecture, or the world famous pepper farms. I’ve not really seen much at all since I arrived.
But for most visitors to this little place, the above list of grand things to do is a matter of irrelevance. It’s all about the towns vibe, its feeling, its atmosphere. It’s the way you can kick back, find yourself a hammock, do nothing, and have a damn good time doing so. It’s the way you can book a late bus to leave at 11am and still fail completely to get there in time, and in doing so feel no guilt about being late, and in turn have no regrets about spending another day here, doing little and enjoying it a lot. It’s the way the town can take a great chilled-out feeling and effortlessly mix it with an equally great crazy party-zone atmosphere, without either mood affecting the other in any way.
So I can finally admit to myself now that I’m a little burnt out from the joys of travel. I’ve seen some amazing things and been to some great places. Majestic temples, incredible caves, colossal waterfalls, bustling cities, isolated jungle villages, amazing local cuisine, warm sandy beaches, spectacular mountain ranges, breathtaking coastal roads, and more museums than I could wave the worlds largest stick at. And of course, with Siam Reap next on my list, with its world famous ancient temples known to almost everybody, (and the temple from the movie “Tomb Raider”to everybody else!) it’s safe to say there’ll be more great sights yet before the not-very-far-away end of my journey. But maybe, just maybe, one more night in Kampot first…
The tourist trail from north to south Vietnam is an easy one to navigate. So easy in fact it’s almost embarrassing. Hanoi, Halong bay, Sapa. Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Da Lat, Mui Ne and finally, Saigon. Each town marked brightly on the ‘open tour’ bus network, on the tourist office maps, and in the Lonely Planet listings. Travelling via each of these towns is so ridiculously easy that you’d almost run in to more trouble navigating the Central line on the tube. You arrive at either Hanoi or Saigon, you stay at hotel X, when you leave, you tell the hotel desk you want to go to the next town, they book your bus, it picks you up from the hotel, you arrive in the next town, you stay at hotel X…you get the idea – the travel infrastructure in Vietnam is so clearly developed and so pre-set that thinking, really, is optional.
And whilst it’s nice to have the hard work taking out of travelling through a country, it does leave you feeling a little bit limited in options, as well as making you think the whole journey is a little too predetermined.
That’s where the Easy Riders come in. Imitated and ripped-off all over the country, the real deal can only be found in Da Lat. If you want to escape the tour-buses, the crowds, and the usual backpacker infestations, head up there and take a ride with one of these guys. Which is what I did.
After five alcohol-sodden, sunburned, culturally void, but fun days in Nha Trang, the most cosmopolitan town in all Vietnam, I felt it was time to return to the country and see more of Vietnamese life. As I’d written in the previous entry, I’d already been on a one-day ride around Da Lat with Loi, my chosen Easy Rider, and was looking forward to our three day ride to Di Linh, taking in much of the central highlands on the way, the ‘real’ Vietnam.
We set out at 8:30am on the first day, with me exchanging the comfort of an air-conditioned hotel for the back of Loi’s sturdy Honda motorbike, built for the tough roads of the central highlands and pretty much the safest way to travel them. ‘No bullshit fake Easy Rider’ Loi tells me, remarking on the flimsy town bikes used by guides from other towns that we see on the route – a precarious option when riding along the tough mountain highways.
It’s just minutes after leaving Da Lat that we’re driving through some pretty jaw-dropping scenery. The central highlands may not be as green as Ireland, and not quite as vast as the landscapes of Canada, but they certainly combine elements of both to make a real treat for the eyes.
The first stop is a local pagoda set in the forest next to a huge lake. As I walk around taking in Hollywood-standard views over the river, I’m constantly approached by locals, not used to seeing a westerner in their area at all. One guy comes over with a grin like a Cheshire cat. “You from England? Aah! Love England! Manchester…Chelsea, Liverpool!” (football being the primary point of rapport for every Vietnamese man talking to a Brit!) I happily pose for a photo next to him, and then one with his wife, and move on amidst smiles and handshakes of gratitude.
With a lot of miles to go before our destination that night, we hit the road hard after a coffee break, stopping for nothing other than the odd photo-taking opportunity, and with no interaction other than Loi’s stories along the way. He tells me about the unsavoury runnings in government, his own hopes and dreams for his children, and lets loose a lot about the running of the country – things that probably wouldn’t be fit for a public blog. The whole time he keeps a light-hearted element in his tales however – he’s not out for pity or stern reactions, just telling it how it is. Between tales he flips his visor down and settles down into his seat, giving me a friendly slap on the leg and a thumbs-up in the mirror before giving the engine some gusto around the smooth mountain roads.
Later on the weather takes a turn for the worst, and the skies rip open with the sort of torrential downpour that for me has become synonymous with the central highlands. We’re on the outskirts of a small village when it happens, and after a few minutes Loi pulls over in front of a small wooden house, secluded from the road outside by a tall stretch of flowering climber plants.
“We’ll wait here until the rain stops,” Loi tells me, and as we enter the hopelessly humble dwelling, there’s a lady at the entrance who smiles and waves us in. We kick our shoes off and move inwards, Loi taking a seat next to the husband who waves me to an empty spot where I should sit too.
The teapot appears and is poured out for everybody, and as Loi and his friend start chinwagging I get to look around the room. This wooden hut, typical in build of your average UK garden shed and no larger than your average UK garage, appears to be home to a family of at least 5. As well as the husband and wife whom I’ve already met, there are two children in their teens, and a younger boy of maybe 7 or 8. He sits in the corner of the sparsely furnished house, blasting aircraft out of the sky on a ridiculously old video game, itself running on a ridiculously old PC which seems incapable of rendering the arcane graphics at more than a few frames per second. An old TV and karaoke machine complete the ‘entertainment system’ and aside from a few sticks of furniture, and a dog-eared calendar hanging from a nail on the wall, the room is virtually empty.
It’s around an hour later that the rain finally lets up enough for us to continue our journey, and it’s only at this point that I realise we’re strangers in this house. Loi had never met any of these people before, and it was just a simple request for shelter, answered with a simple offering of hospitality, that put us in this kind and friendly household, just a typical house in Vietnam, Loi tells me. As we get back on the bike and head further up the hissing tarmac and away from the house behind us, I chuckle to myself at the reaction your average English household would offer at strangers knocking on their door asking for shelter from the rain.
We press on with our journey, again just stopping for the odd photo. On the odd occasion Loi pulls over and asks if I want to walk along the road for 10 minutes to take in the view. “Get some exercise!” he laughs, and so each time as he speeds away I’m left with just me, my camera, and tourist-free Vietnam all around me.
Most people would quite likely freak at having their only connection with the outback-country riding off into the sunset, but Loi’s already proven himself trustworthy enough for me to be able to take advantage of the scenery like this, and besides which, I still have his employment ID card in my wallet, handed to me by him on our first day in a gesture of trust. “No worry, mate” he would say.
The journey finishes on that first day at Lak Lake village, our destination for the night.
A genuine traditional rural village in every sense of the word. The wooden houses on stilts, the proliferation of farming animals, the fields of rice, the local children who wave and shout “Hello” with endless enthusiasm at all the new white faces in their villages, and the electricity supply allowing us to watch the World Cup game that night. No, really. It’s only the power cables outside and the satellite dishes that give any indication as to what year it is, and as difficult as it may be to imagine these villagers spending all day ploughing the fields by buffalo before going home to their thatched-huts to watch Holland take on Denmark, it’s still a genuine, fully authentic insight in to how these people live.
We set out at around 10am the next day, later than was planned owing to Loi sleeping through the Benny Hill ringtone alarm on his phone for around 2 hours. It’s a wonder how he managed to really, considering the constant dog barking, pig squealing, child shouting, gecko croaking and other assortment of noise that kept me up most of the night – “Too fucking noisy man!” comes Loi’s muffled voice from underneath his mosquito net as I’m busying myself with packing everything up for the road.
The second day continues much in the same manner as the first. Taking in the sights, stopping at local eatery’s and coffee shops, interacting with the locals – via my personal translator of course, and just enjoying riding through the heart of Vietnam, without a tourist attraction in sight.
Loi randomly pulls over later on next to a big house. “You want to try Dragonfruit? You want to try Durian? You want to see big snake?” He takes me inside and we do all three. He cuts a Dragonfruit off a tree, just growing next to the house, and shares the fruit out between us. It’s sweet and flavoursome, utterly unrecognisable from the bland, boring, tasteless fruit that sells in UK supermarket for anything up to £3.50 each, and Loi is completely stunned when I tell him this. Suddenly the 10,000 VND, or 30p, that he pays for this ‘expensive’ fruit, doesn’t seem so much.
We move over to a huge, padlocked pen, sitting next to the house. Loi points inside and, sure enough, an enormous snake sits curled up beneath the wire. The local children are hopping excitedly around me by now – “Python! Big snake!” they cry, as the owner comes out with the keys for the padlocks on the cage. A few minutes later I find myself with this heavy, muscular, but thankfully completely hunger-less animal being placed on my shoulders…
Fortunately it’s taken back off me faster than my nerve has a chance to escape, along with the contents of my underwear
Before we return to the bike to continue our journey Loi takes me to a stall out front selling Durian, and buys one for us to share.
The fruit has a smell somewhere in between rotten eggs and sour milk, and a texture similar to a subtle blend of chewing gum and freshly pasted wallpaper. I’m pleased to have tried it but don’t think I’ll give it another go in a hurry!
Further stops that day include an enormous waterfall, filled with local tourists seemingly more interested in me than the marvel of nature in front of them, and further down stream where the currents are easier, a great swimming-break.
We arrived at our home-stay that evening next to “Virgin waterfall” where I got taken for a walk by the owners dog along the riverside, before she brought me back again upstream to the start point – stopping every now and then so I could catch up!
The world cup is staggeringly popular in Vietnam, with most people betting on the games amongst themselves, so it was inevitable that the match would be on TV again that night. After 20 minutes of drab, dull-beyond-dull football I decided to call it a night, and I was under my mozzie net and out like a light by 8pm.
It’s just as well I slept early that night, as we’re away by 7am with 200km to cover that day. The ride is pretty relentless, going through some totally unforgiving road surface, and once again I pat myself on the back for going with a Real Easyrider rather than hopping on the back of a moped and blindly assuming such a vehicle would cut it here.
We stop off at a rubber-plantation, where Loi explains how the French brought the trees over from Africa during their days of colonisation.
Later down the road we pull over next to what to all intents looks like your average farmland, before Loi points out several craters in the distance. A very real reminder of the bombings during the American war, still evident in many parts of the country.
Equally so are the American bunker further down the road (later bombed by the Americans themselves on their way out of the war), and the signs everywhere in this area of the highlands, warning locals to keep away due to the risk of unexploded landmines.
Our final big stop for the day before Loi drops me off in Di Linh to catch my bus to Saigon, is in a final rural village, situated along a ridiculously bad bumpy road. I get off the bike and walk through the village for 10 minutes or so, and I received an utterly absurd level of attention from the villagers. Children wave with more vigour than I’ve seen yet, everybody smiles as they pass me, and at times whole families literally come running out of their wooden houses to wave and shout hello down the road at me. I’ve never felt such the rock-star in all my life
We finally pull into Di Linh at around 3:30pm. We’re both visibly shattered, Loi more deservedly so than I after 600km of riding the rocky roads of the highlands. And as I say a fond farewell to my biker friend from Da Lat, the comfort of my air-conditioned bus finally gives me a chance to reflect on my past three days of riding. It’s been a real joy to see Vietnam like this. A side to the country rarely seen other than by those who actively seek it. Three days of real towns, real people, real life. No need for museums, tourist attractions, or information points. Loi has easily, and enjoyably, provided ample replacement for all of the above. With his engaging stories, his easy-going attitude, his genuine compassion for others and his eagerness to help as many people along the road as he can, he has undoubtedly been fantastic company.
So to anybody thinking about using the services of an Easy Rider: don’t think about it. Just do it!
There were four fellow travellers on board as I boarded the otherwise exclusively Vietnamese bus to Da Lat. Two of them were sat at the back and to all intents appeared to be friendly, talkative sort of people. As soon as the engine started up the one in the aisle seat turned glassy-eyed and spent the entire journey staring down the center of the bus in complete silence. Later on I tried to politely spark up a conversation with the second guy. He responded by adopting the sort of quizzical, absent-minded expression you generally only ever see on a baby’s face when they are busy pooping their nappy.
The other two people were from Wales.
I returned to my seat and made quick assumptions that Da Lat probably wouldn’t be the sort of bustling hub of travel where I could drink beer, hang out, and ‘shoot the shit’ with the cool kids.
To do so, however, would be missing the point of this town. If you want to drink beer and have memorable discussions with other travellers, go to Hanoi or Saigon. If you want to get paralytic and have blackout-filled discussions with other travellers, go to Nha Trang. Whereas if you want to escape the cruel coastal sun for a few days and take in some delectable scenic sights with the Easy Riders, make your merry way to Da Lat.
Which pretty much sums up my plans for this charming place. The refuge from the heat is a welcoming one, save the 900 million thousand liters of rain that have already fallen from the sky. None of that matters however when you’ve got a grand 150cc motorbike and a friendly, knowledgeable Easy Rider to whisk you away to the central highlands, the “real” Vietnam.
And if the day I’ve had with my rider today is anything to go by, the upcoming three days are going to be filled with adventure, fun, and great memories. We’ve already seen the local area with its French and Chinese colonial buildings, some impressive waterfall action, a magical factory where they turn silkworm residue into fancy garments, and “The Crazy house”, a part Dr Seuss and part bad mushroom-trip extravaganza built by a local eccentric with far too many Dong burning a hole in her purse.
So with the warm-up ride out of the way, I now look forward to the real action which begins at 8:30 tomorrow morning. I may not be “born to wild”, having my own personal rider and tour guide as I do, but right now I’ll settle for “born to be moderately daring within the confines of a pre-arranged excursion”…
For a town which I went to purely to do nothing at all for a while, I’ve kept myself pretty active here in the coastal town of Nha Trang. I’ve scuba-dived, gone swimming a lot and sunbathed. I’ve sweated muchly, eaten masses of awesome seafood, consumed an offensive amount of cocktails, had a nose bleed, went temporarily deaf in one ear, met the Vietnamese military (and their guns), had some painful run-ins with the locals, and was even rescued at sea in a ‘dramatic’ operation. I almost went parasailing too, but regretfully (most regretfully) failed to.
That being said, it’s not really the kind of town where ‘stuff happens’; the general vibe of the place is that it’s somewhere you come to when you want everything to stop. You swim, lie on the beach, perhaps try out a little scuba, eat out, and in the evenings you go to one of the many bars and cocktail lounges and consume their heinously-strong wares until your brain falls out of your ear.
It’s not the sort of place I need to document in detail. It’s not a cultural center of Vietnam – it’s only the restaurants, hotel staff, and and the hoards of Helloyoubuysomething parading the streets that remind you that you’re actually still in Asia. There’s no temples here to stroll around and admire, no interaction with locals and Vietnamese-life to elaborate upon, no awe-inspiring scenery to photograph. Just a place to go to and enjoy being at.
So that’s it from me on Nha Trang. I’ve enjoyed the beach. I had a little go at the scuba thing. I’ve had one or two wild nights out. And I’ve met some great people – you all know who you are
I’m off to Dalat at 7am. I’ve no doubt I’ll experience more stunning scenery, great food, memorable experiences and plenty o’ good times. So the travel blog thing can continue properly from there. Nha Trang has been my holiday from holiday. And that’s just fine with me.
My skills in translating Vietnamese to English are, I’m afraid, utterly non-existent. I haven’t the slightest idea what any of the noises mean, and after two and a half weeks here my Vietnamese vocabulary, somewhat embarrassingly, only stretches as far as being able to gain a waitresses attention: “Em Oi!” not being the most difficult of things to learn, since “Oi!” is a pretty standard term used in England to get somebody’s attention anyway,
Despite all of this, I’m pretty sure that “Hoi An”, the name of the town I’ve been staying in for the past five days, is a direct translation of the English word “Lazy”. Never before have I felt so lazy. Never before have my energy levels and my desire to rush around and do stuff been so low. Hoi An is the motivational equivalent of a group of stoners attending a comfy-chair sitting competition run and organised by a family of sloths.
That isn’t a bad thing though, as Hoi An is a delightfully pretty place. Of all the sights I’ve seen in Vietnam – and I’ve seen some truly amazing things already, Hoi An stands out as the nicest man-made area so far. The tiny town is filled with glorious, rustic buildings from the old French colonial days, all lovingly restored. The streets are lined with leafy trees, themselves filled with a colourful tapestry of blossom and fruit. A narrow river snakes through the center of town, peppered with little fishing boats and the rippling reflections of dozens of brightly-lit lanterns which hang from every building. The whole thing truly is a wonderful sight, especially at night, and at times you wonder if you really are in Vietnam and not somehow floating around in a scene from Disney’s Fantasia.
I can honestly say that if you want peace and quiet, and would enjoy spending your day doing absolutely nothing except eating great food and looking over a mesmerising range of colours and scenery, you could do a lot worse than come here.
Unfortunately, I’m clearly not the only one with that idea. Such is the charm of Hoi An that it seems to have taken on a Honeymooners feel without even trying to, meaning that it’s not only an incredibly romantic location, but at times a rather lonely one too. Sure, there’s plenty of other westerners here, but you soon realise after just a day or so that most of them are in couples. And whilst there’s still a good number of visitors left-over who aren’t here just to reenact the ‘bowl of spaghetti’ scene from Lady and the Tramp, they’re all as spoilt for choice here as I am when it comes to restaurants. With there being so many places here to eat, most of them fantastic, and so few people to go around, finding an eatery with more than three or four people is a real challenge. Add to that the matter of it being low-season and therefore much quieter, the complete absence of night-life beyond a good meal and a stroll along the river, and the continuous rain that has dropped from the sky by the gallon for half of the time I’ve been here, and you’re left with a town which feels just a little too desolate at times.
I really have loved it here in Hoi An. The food, stunning views, and serenity of the location are all great things I’ll remember. And I’ve equally enjoyed the essence of pure, limitless laziness, which seems to float through the air and permeate every living thing in this town. After five days of all that however, I’m ready for just a tiny bit of partying. Throw in some scuba diving, a bit of beach fun, and perhaps a few more 15p glasses of beer from the nearest Bia Hoi, and you have my next destination in mind. Next stop – Nha Trang!
There is a certain television show made by the BBC, based very loosely on cars, and featuring a massively outspoken Journalist, a vertically-challenged Brummie with an unsavoury fetish for shopping at Morrisons, and a man who says the word “cock” a lot. You may have seen the show before, and if so, may be aware of the time they rode motorbikes across Vietnam, and the delightful time they had doing so.
Bearing all of that in mind, it didn’t take a lot of persuasion to get me on the back of a motorbike in this glorious country. I may not have taken their epic route all the way from Saigon to Ha Long city, but the 130km I did do is enough to know that everything they said about how brilliant it is to bike across Vietnam, is true. And then some.
I left the smog of Hanoi several nights ago bound for Hue. Being a last minute kind of guy with travel plans, I was too late to book a soft-sleeper carriage on a train, and so had to make do with a sleeper seat on a bus instead. I wasn’t looking forward to this, especially after the monstrosity of a journey I endured on a shitty Khaosan Road coach all the way to Surat Thani.
I was pleasantly surprised however. The bus was comfortable, moderately roomy, and with good aircon. Not only this but it was barely 1/4 full, which, although did little in terms of allowing me to stretch out, did mean that it was a peaceful, quiet trip. No Christian Bale films or Mexicans shouting at each other across the bus.
Bleary eyed at the other end, I got off at Hue, and immediately was pounced on left right and center by hawkers. Hotels, motorbikes, tours…I shook them off and stumbled into a coffee place, where I had a much needed caffeine fix and some sublime fried eggs and bread. It was only after a few minutes however, that another local came and introduced himself and asked if he could sit with me.
He began explaining his job as a motorcycle tour-guide, who often did the route to Hoi An and much further beyond. I was about to send him off with the other product-pushers when he showed me two notebooks, filled with handwritten testimonials from previous customers, in all different languages (including English of course!) and then showed me a photo album of the route, the places, and of many of the travellers he had previously taken. I just had a feeling it was something I should definitely do, so agreed to meet him later on for a day tour just around Hue, and we’d see how things went.
An hour or so later we left my hotel and began riding around the town. After just a few minutes we were off the main roads and onto the narrow, twisty ‘local’ streets, the places you simply can’t drive down unless you’re on a motorbike. And with the motorbike being Vietnam’s chief vehicle of choice, there were a lot of roads like this!
We started off with a quick stop at a nearby temple where a full Buddhist prayer session was taking place. I was allowed to enter, shoes off first of course, and watch the monks as they chanted and played strange percussive instruments whilst kneeling in front of their large elaborate shrine. The chanting had quite a powerful effect, there was something very primal and energising about the sounds they made.
I left after a few minutes and after walking around the grounds and seeing where the monks ate and slept, we headed back onto the road outside. My guide pointed to a small pagoda-like building and said it was a place people take their broken Buddhas to – being an object of sacred imagery I imagine to throw one in the bin, even when broken, would be akin to deliberately smashing it in the first place, so having a ‘graveyard’ area for such damaged items seemed a logical idea, as well as a very respectful one.
We took in more sights that day including several temples, a huge palace complex, and a market where I saw incense and traditional conical hats being made. There are photos of all of these in the gallery – to write about them all here would take too long!
That night as I walked around Hue I stopped at a restaurant called Mandarin Cafe. The owner, a Mr Cu, is a photographer, and a pretty damn good one at that. The restaurant was filled with canvas prints of all his own work. It was an impressive collection, and as I left I bought a set of his photos in postcard form. Those of you whose addresses I have will be getting one in the post soon – I thought it was a nice personal touch to be able to send some great postcards home put together by a guy I actually met on the road.
I walked around for an hour or two later to take in the parts of Hue I didn’t see on the motorbike tour itself. I have to confess I wasn’t blown away by the town itself – there is a lot of history in the Citadel / old Imperial City, but much of it is just decaying walls and buildings, riddled with bullets from the American war. If you were travelling around on foot with a knowledgeable guide I’m sure they could breathe life into the area, but as my guide (sadly) didn’t take me around this part of town in any detail, it was all a little lost on me.
That isn’t to say it wasn’t an interesting walk. Being the only foreigner strolling around, I was the constant center of attention. Old people frowned at me. Adults stared. Children smiled and giggled, constantly running past crying “Hello!” at me. It seems strange that the people in much of Vietnam are still so unfamiliar with westerners, and that we are still such a great source of interest. I’ve truly lost count of the number of times I’ve said ‘hello’ back to local kids running around me, and they never seem to get bored of it!
On the second day we set out early, on the first part of the 130km journey to Hoi An. We stopped quite soon after for the first sight – another huge temple complex. To be honest, I was getting a bit temple-blind by this point – there’s only so many you can see before they get just a little bit samey! I take nothing away from their majesty of course, every place I went to had incredible architecture.
Back on the bike later and we carried on until reaching a fishing village further down the road. There was nothing much going on here, as the locals were hiding from the fierce midday sun, so I took some photos of the very picturesque area and we moved on again.
‘Elephant Waterfall’ was the next big stop, and it was a sight to remember. The locals had basically converted a fantastic river / waterfall / pool area into a public swimming center, by way of adding a few bridges and sun-shelters and charging entry! It felt great to jump in the fresh water and sit underneath the waterfall, and although it was quite peaceful, the locals took even more interest in me – a white face, not only in their neighbourhood but swimming there too!
We stopped there for dinner – I was told I could pick the chicken I wanted for dinner, which at the time was still clucking in a pen with its friends. I didn’t like the idea of playing god over the animals and choosing which one would be killed and prepared for me, but fortunately the cook had already selected the unlucky bird and was starting work on it as we spoke. Totally and utterly hypocritical of me, of course, much like most meat eaters – it’s easy to forget where your dinner originally came from when it’s bought from the frozen-food section of a supermarket with no discernible body parts still attached. Anyway, that’s another debate…
Elephant Waterfall was the last stop for us that day, and we finally arrived in Lang Co town for the night.
I rested up for a few hours and performed my daily chore of washing my clothes in the hotel sink. It was just after I’d put them outside to dry that the sky lit up and the most colossal thunderstorm began. Within minutes the road outside the hotel flooded, leaving local traffic to drive through a good 18 inches of rainwater. I was told by the hotel staff that my guide was unable to take me out to a good local restaurant that night as planned, owing to the rain. I was then told that he’d gone out on his own anyway, which seemed a bit rich really, but soon after he came sloshing back down the road with his poncho on, and explained that he was just checking the ride ahead was ok for us. After handing me a similar rain-garment of equal sexiness, we made our way to the local restaurant he had planned.
I arrived to a feast set up for me – king prawns, fried rice with mixed seafood, a huge pot of mussels, and half a dozen beers next to my chair. I grinned a happy grin and tucked into my delicious dinner.
An hour or two later, when I felt able to move again, my guide took me back to my hotel and, clearly on a promise from a woman at the restaurant who’d been at our table all night, went straight back there!
I went to the reception to pick up my room key and one of the young guys working there was behind the desk. We began talking about travel in-and-around Vietnam, him giving me some good pointers and advice for the rest of my journey. He then began talking about some of the hardships Vietnamese people face on a daily basis, things like not having the freedom to travel their own country like westerners can. “Foreigners are very lucky”, he explained, “as they can come here and travel anywhere they want to go. We aren’t allowed to do that”. He didn’t go into too much detail, just mentioning the Police, but it all sounded at bit odd. He went on to say how Casinos are built purely with westerners in mind, and that if you are a Vietnamese citizen, you aren’t allowed to use them!?
I didn’t probe too much into this side of things as it didn’t feel right to do so, but from the sound of it they don’t exactly have it easy, living in their own country.
As I was about to head up to my room he said he and his cousins and friends (all hotel staff and local workers) were going next door for drinks, and they’d like me to join them. I was happy to agree, and followed them to a table next door, filled with more delicious local food and beer!
I wasn’t hungry at all after my recent feast, but these guys were so friendly, and so generous in their hospitality, that I forced more tasty food down me. They seemed delighted to have a westerner sitting down for dinner with them, and they all laughed heartily at my silly drunken humour, excitedly told me about local life and asked about my own, and took immense pleasure in hearing me join them in their drinking toast of “Alo quat!”. I didn’t have a clue what it meant at the time but it tickled them all greatly to hear me say it with them. (I learned from somebody else the next day that it is “something young people say when drinking, and something a gentleman would never say when raising a glass”! No wonder they thought it hilarious when I said it with them!)
I woke up for breakfast early the next day, having had little sleep due to there being a power-cut in the night and so the room being boiling hot from a lack of aircon. After a much needed coffee and some fried eggs I got back on the motorbike and said a fond farewell to my new Vietnamese friends from the night before, all smiling and laughing as they waved and shouted “ALO QUAT!” down the road behind me.
The first part of our journey that morning was the famous Hai Van pass – the amazing coastal road the Top Gear presenters were so utterly gobsmacked by. I was particularly looking forward to seeing this. My guide explained to me that recently a tunnel had been built that bypassed the mountain road completely, and buses and other public transport took that nowadays rather than taking the slower, but far more impressive, coastal road. This alone made it worth going by bike!
We stopped off several times on the route, including the exact spot where Clarkson and co did…
…to say it was an impressive ride would be a grand understatement.
Later on the pass we pulled over at a quiet stop with just a few market stalls set up. My guide pointed up the hill where there were two American bunkers and a French bunker still standing. Completely untouched by tourism, travellers, or renovation, they stood exactly as they did when they were originally built and used. I took a stroll in and around them, the only person on the hill save for a few local children who sat playing amongst the structures, no doubt oblivious as to their history or significance.
It was eerie to stand inside the American bunker and see things as the soldiers themselves did, but it was a massive treat to do so. It’s things like this that impress me the most when it comes to history – it’s all well and good visiting a museum where every thing has been gathered and neatly displayed behind glass in an air-conditioned building, but to see the original artifacts and buildings themselves, untainted, in their original location, is something else entirely.
We finished our ride down the amazing pass and entered Da Nang which, in all honesty, didn’t blow me away at all. I may as well have been in Spain, and although we pulled over for a few photos on the way I wasn’t overly keen to stick around and observe the high rise hotels, tourist-attracting casinos, and the soulless beach. We moved on.
The final stop that day before Hoi An was the famous marble mountain. A massive hunk of, well, marble…a network of caves and temples carved into the rock itself. After starting off at ground level there, which was home to dozens and dozens of statue and statuette shops (remember James May’s dear Darcy?) I took the steps up to the caves themselves. There were lots of steps, and after my trekking in Sapa I was in no rush to climb anywhere fast!
Inside the caves it was refreshingly cool, and the Buddhas and other carvings made into the rock were a real spectacle.
I took in the caves, before heading around to the other side and the way back down, which was located amongst more temples (all of them pretty, but my temple-o-meter was running on red by now!) and headed back to my guide so we could continue our journey.
The road from marble mountain to Hoi An was fairly dull, and I was looking forward to just chilling out at my hotel and taking a swim. We stopped off at a Tailors in the town which my guide recommended and the sales pitch began. They were very friendly in there and gave some good clothing and suit advice but as of now I remain unsure where I’ll go to get my clothes made. I can’t help but think that there was just a bit of a commission-grabbing thing going on with my guide – in the later part of my journey I felt like every time he opened his mouth it was just to promote himself more, constantly trying to regale me with further stories of past customers and how much fun they had. (Apparently one guy went with him for 11 days, and was ‘desperate’ to do more, but my guide couldn’t as it was Christmas and he had to go back to see his family in Hue…!) It would have been nice for him to spend a little less time selling his product, and just talk openly instead, and so I’m left undecided whether or not to use the Tailors he took me to.
Before I’d even got to my hotel here my guide was talking about the next part of the journey. “I think you should go to My Son next. We stay here tonight and set out tomorrow, OK?” I had to tell him no. Biking it across the country is a fun thing to do, but there was a definite clash between his financial interest in getting me as far across the country as possible in a short space of time, and my desire to take things slowly and actually see certain places for more than a few hours. So after shaking hands with him and thanking him for the adventure up to here, we parted ways.
I’ve now been in Hoi An for three days and so far I’m loving it. There’s news to tell from here but that can wait until my next blog entry. I’m feeling really ridiculously lazy at the moment, today especially, and finding it hard to muster up the energy to do anything more exerting than swimming in the pool, writing up my adventures to-date in my hotel, talking little walks around the beautiful picturesque town, and sitting by the riverside in the evening with good food and a few glasses of whisky. The whole thing is making me feel a little bit guilty, truth be told, as if I should be out there 24/7 packing as much “stuff” as possible into my remaining 7 weeks, but I have to remind myself that this is my trip, and I have nobody to please but myself. I might choose to spend a whole week here, doing nothing, seeing little, and eating everything. That’s not exactly a bad thing though…is it?
P.S. On my last day in Hanoi I visited the Army Museum – I haven’t had time to write about it (nor would I have too much to say) but those of you who have an interest in that sort of thing can see the pics I took on the photo albums page!