Travels in Asia Part 5 – Laos and Vietnam II

When I wrote at the end of Part 1 ‘to be continued…’ I didn’t consider that I’d wait 9 months plus before doing so. They do say that the hardest part of writing is the writing… Do refresh your memories of Part 1 here before reading on. 

From Hanoi, we took an overnight train to misty Sapa, on the Vietnam – China border. We travelled in relative luxury on the way out – cabins, beds, pillows! – and compared to long bus or car journeys, train journeys are great. I love trains (in a ‘look out the window and relax’ kind of way as opposed to a ‘stand on the platform and jot down the engine numbers’ kind of way) as has been documented on this blog several times before.

We arrived in Sapa, a pretty little hill town, and booked a trek into the mountains for the following day. There were tribespeople (or people dressed as tribespeople) everywhere, touting tours and selling souvenirs, and they were extremely pushy. They would come in groups – composed mainly of terrifyingly feisty twelve-year-old girls – ‘Hey you! Where you go?’- and follow you everywhere. Compared to Thailand, where people at least ripped you off with smiles on their faces, or Laos, where people were so unassuming that you had to actively ask if things were for sale, Vietnam was cutthroat.

It soon became clear that we were being continuously ripped off. While the difference between 10000 Dong and 20000 Dong is tiny (and while we’re here, let us take a moment to appreciate that the currency of Vietnam is indeed ‘The Dong’), and while I was the rich white tourist with little right to complain, it gradually got to me. An example: at the train station before returning to Hanoi, at a noodle stand, I ordered a bowl priced at 25000 Dong (around $10HK, or 1 pound) but was charged 50000. When I pointed again to the board hanging right and told the woman that no, I had ordered these noodles, she shrugged. So what, tourist? And that was just the start.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The mountains and rice terraces around Sapa were beautiful. Nine years on I don’t remember much about the trek – we wandered through villages, past buffalo and chickens, and stayed the night in the loft of a barn. And, compared to the rest of our journey in Vietnam, it all passed without incident. I’ll let the pictures do the describing…

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But our return journey from Sapa began with those rip-off noodles and went downhill from there. There were no cabins for us this time, so the trip was made in third-class seats. It’s cold in the mountains at night, and I remember a rattling carriage, wind whipping around us, and a refusal by the train guards to turn off the lights… On top of this, unknown to me at the time, my bare feet were being mercilessly dined upon by some kind of rare Vietnamese train-bug, and would swell up something awful the following day.

One final thing occurred just as we trundled into Hanoi at six in the morning. I blearily placed my wallet in front of me as I reached up to take my rucksack down from the shelf above, and almost immediately saw a skinny arm reach around my waist and pluck my wallet from the seat. With little consideration for my own safety, I spun around and threw a blocking arm across the would-be thief’s chest. So far, so heroic.

The tale becomes somewhat less heroic if I reveal that I then looked up to find that the would-be thief was a scrawny boy of fourteen, who looked terrified, gulped, and promptly dropped the wallet before scurrying off. I like to think that that was his first day on the rob, and that my stern, teacherly look set him back on the straight and narrow, where he is now entering the final semester of a degree in medicine.

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No sooner had we arrived back in Hanoi than we were off again. Out eastward, to the limestone islands and emerald seas of Halong Bay, aboard the ‘Cong Ng Hia’ on a trip that could have been scripted by Wodehouse.

To be fair, we were on a budget and therefore we went for the budget option. But one that sounded pleasant enough: an overnight cruise, sea-view cabins, sun-deck, kayaking… My advice, looking back, would be to pay the 100 dollars extra for a better boat. Just pay it.

Our cruise started off well enough. We meandered around the karsts and caves – it is an undeniably stunning place – and even got a little look around some of the biggest stalagmites (stalactites?) I’ve ever seen…

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That’s me above – enjoying the afternoon vista, and that’s a picture I took when I realised that one foot was swelling up like nobody’s business following our overnight train from Sapa (the pre-iPhone picture really doesn’t do the bloating justice). And below is one of the most amazing things about Halong Bay: that there are whole floating villages tucked into the little coves. That blue building is a school, and just out of shot there was a floating football pitch, without any kind of barrier between the touchline and the edge. Which meant the kids who played on it must have had a mean first touch. But even if you were a complete plodder, like me, all you had to do upon putting the ball out of play was jump into the idyllic green waters and get it.

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But, as is so often the way, things went awry as night fell. Aboard the good ship ‘Cong Ng Hia’ were 24 souls and 12 cabins. We were a group of 6, there were a couple of couples and two lone travellers: a middle-aged man and a middle-aged woman, an Aussie and a Kiwi who, as it turned out when the guide came to pass our keys out, would have to bunk with one another.

The Aussie lady looked scandalised. “Well, I’m not sharing.” She sat down, arms folded, earrings shaking indignantly.

“I don’t mind,” replied the Kiwi man, eyebrows archly raised, glass in hand.

“No offence, mind,” Sheila continued. “I wouldn’t share with anyone.”

The guide, a permanently frazzled Vietnamese girl, tried to persuade her, but to no avail. We were all still present, listening rather awkwardly, pretending to watch the sunset.

Sheila went to great lengths to explain why she wouldn’t share, why she didn’t think she would have to share, why she never signed up for sharing.

“Like I said, I really don’t mind,” Bruce added every so often.

In the end, I think our guide gave up her room and slept on a bench, as the deadlock couldn’t be broken and had cast a pall on our dinner. But we went to bed with the promise of a better morning to come: we were going kayaking…

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…at, it turned out, 5:55 am. We were woken by a thumping on the cabin doors. “Let’s go! Kayak! Let’s go! Kayak!” Nobody had mentioned that the kayaking would take place this early. Nobody had set an alarm. We stumbled out on deck and were pushed into our kayaks. I must have been two-thirds asleep as I slumped into mine and accepted a paddle that was being held together in the middle by duct-tape.

It started off nicely enough. The water was calm, the weather was cool, and we paddled around the other boats and floating houses. That feeling came over me, the feeling you get when you wake up early (after the agony of forcing yourself awake and out of bed) – the feeling that says I’m awake and glad to be alive on this beautiful morn! And then my paddle snapped.

The duct-tape had given way, exposing a huge crack in the plastic that opened briefly then slammed shut on the palm of my hand, pinching a huge lump of flesh inside. It really, really fucking hurt. I puttered back to our boat using half a paddle and one hand, informed the guide of the shoddy equipment, of the huge purple welt in the middle of my hand, and sat down to wait for breakfast feeling very sorry for myself. But then, just as the others finished their merry hour of paddling fun, the owner of the kayaks stormed out of his floating shack and started to demand that I pay for the paddle.

Now, I’m not normally one for confrontation, but my hand still hurt like hell and I had started to suss out the fact that tourists were walking dollar signs in these parts. I refused. He wanted $25 dollars (US dollars!). I told him the paddle was already broken. He denied it. The paddle was conveniently nowhere to be seen. I showed him my hand. He didn’t care. $25! I told him I didn’t have $25 dollars, which was the truth, but the owner refused to believe that a rich white brat like me would travel with anything less than hundreds of notes crammed into a bulging wallet and falling willy-nilly from my pockets.

Our breakfast came and the angry guy went back into his floating hut for a few minutes. Our guide, who had been translating his rants for me, sighed in relief. But back he came, even angrier than before, shouting in Vietnamese.

“He wants to do you violence,” the guide informed me.

“What?”

“He wants to do violence if you don’t give money.”

The guy was fortyish but slim and wiry. He looked like he could take care of himself. I was gravely injured, remember, and it was still barely half-seven in the morning. My travelling companions were egging me on to not pay, to stick to my guns, and yet I felt sure that none of them would help me if it came to fisticuffs. Bruce was watching on, legs crossed and eyebrows raise. He wouldn’t have minded seeing a fight. A wry smile crossed his face, much like the night before. But whereas he had cut a roguish Roger Moore kind of figure back then; he just looked like a dick now. The guide came up to me and whispered – “Can you just pay? We need to start back…” The ground upon which I had made my stand was shifting beneath my feet. I looked in my wallet and saw that I had a $5 note. It was a moral victory of sorts, getting him down by $20… no?

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Leaving Halong Bay with a bad taste in my mouth, we rattled down to Hoi An – midway along the slender curve of Vietnam’s coast.

It’s a historic town, with French, Chinese and Japanese influences all blended together in a sleepy little cocktail. Again, the two days spent there have melted into a slight blur somewhere at the back of my brain, but two things stand out.

One is that Hoi An is tailoring central, so I got a jacket made (as modelled quite dashingly in the photo below). It lasted me well, that jacket. Not that I have it now or anything. But I had it until fairly recently. Maybe it got lost in the move to Hong Kong. I remember wearing it a few times around 2009. But I loved that jacket. The other thing was – and this is one of those tiny details that stick with you when all manner of other, more significant details have receded into the murk of your mind – when we checked into our hostel the very friendly receptionist took us to our room in person and explained how everything functioned. Here’s the air-con, here’s the fan… She did this without using any English but by smiling sweetly and employing inventive gestures. Here’s the key – one for here and one for the main gate… Here’s the toilet… And I remember thinking that it was strange for this young girl to be explaining how a toilet works. Did she think foreigners didn’t use them? She pointed to the buttons on the cistern, the small one first: “Pee pee.” Her first English word! Then, pointing to the larger button: “Big shit.”

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During these few weeks, we were snaking down the length of Vietnam exclusively on overnight buses (well, apart from the train to Sapa, the ill-fated boat trip and the last-minute flight out of Laos). I think we had a bus-pass of some sorts. It was nine years ago…

Long bus journeys are, sadly, not as good as long train journeys. I don’t know why this is. Both are essentially the same – hours spent in a seat watching the world go by. Maybe it’s because trains move a little more smoothly, especially when compared to buses driven by Vietnamese, or Thai, drivers. Or Hong Kong bus drivers for that matter. I’ve been on some ropey bus journeys in Scotland too. Train drivers don’t really do the driving – the tracks do it for them. That must be it. Plus, train tracks are for the sole use of trains, compared to roads that buses have to share with everyone else, and they can be laid in more remote locations. That’s why listicles of ‘The 27 most scenic train journeys’ are ten-a-penny but the bus equivalents aren’t. On a bus you’re never too far from an industrial estate.

The overnight buses in Vietnam, though, were a step up from those in Thailand. You got actual beds for a start, so sleeping through at least part of the night was a feasible goal. But drivers here were also fans of the unannounced 3 am toilet stop, usually coming just after you’d finally managed to drop off. And of course, some journeys ran over into daylight, allowing us to snap some scenes of the road:

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Anyone who backpacks around this part of the world will hear horror stories about overnight bus journeys. The bus that had gas canisters installed in the air-vents to knock all the passengers out and allow the driver to rob them… The drivers on amphetamines who hadn’t slept in fifteen years… The karaoke videos blaring out all night long (actually that one was very real)… A friend of a friend travelling around Vietnam at the same time did actually get his passport and wallet stolen as he slept on an overnight bus, so there were some dangers. The closest I had come to a mishap on a bus during this trip had been a few weeks before in northern Thailand, when our driver had gone to overtake both a car in our lane and a motorcycle in the oncoming lane, and had had to swerve off-road terrifyingly close to a steep verge. Bags fell, someone went out the back door (they were OK) and a clothes iron flew off the storage bar but thankfully didn’t thump anyone on the back of the head.

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Our next stop, just a little further down the coast, was Nha Trang. It had some nice beaches which, if we hadn’t already seen the best beaches that Thailand had to offer, we might have thought were gorgeous. The city itself was full of ugly, 1960’s hotel-blocks which gave it the air of a Vietnamese Benidorm. Travel fatigue was setting in around this point – we had been on the go for around five months by then – and could have done with a prolonged stay somewhere. In the end we only stayed a couple of nights, I think, what with budgets and time-frames that needed to be stuck to, but the highlight of our stay in Nha Trang was an afternoon’s booze cruise around some nearby islands in the South China Sea.

On the rickety junk – below – were our party and a group of five or six middle-aged, off-duty flight attendants. That’s one of them dancing with the driver of our boat (presumably the titular ‘Hanh’), on the table which until seconds before had held our lunch, to the sounds of the in-house band. This would have been at about 1 pm. It was that kind of cruise. Later in the day we were in floaty tubes (again), being pulled along behind the junk as it mosied around the bay, plastic wine cups in hand. One of the band caught a bunch of sea-urchins and, after we had pulled into a beautiful, crystal-clear cove, gleefully chopped them open, still wriggling, and offered them to us to scoop the flesh from like you would a kiwi fruit. I remember declining, slightly appalled, which seems very cute now I’ve now seen far worse in Hong Kong wet markets (fish de-scaled, or turtles de-shelled, while still alive, anyone?)

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But Nah Trang didn’t detain us for long. We continued our curve along the southern coast of Vietnam, and stopped for a night in Mui Ne for some sand dune surfing. It’s one of the ‘must do’, backpackery experiences in Vietnam: getting a truck into the mini-desert a few miles inland from a little fishing village, and rattling up and down the dunes on a slip of plastic. And you get bonus backpacker points if you get up there for sunrise. Which was something we intended to do, something we set our alarms for, something we restricted our intake of Saigon Beers the night before for… only to be let down by our driver who was very late (and looking very hungover when he did finally pull up outside our hostel).

As you can see from this picture below, it was very much daytime as we began bumping over the sands. I’ve since done a ‘desert safari’ in Qatar – which involved being driven around by a lunatic in a 4×4, whose music of choice for offroading in the desert was the Vengaboys’ Greatest Hits – and climbed one of the biggest sand dunes in Mongolia. But this strange, miniature desert in southern Vietnam still stands out as unique. We’d had, by this point, six months of temples and incense, tuk-tuks and buckets of alcohol so strong they made you hallucinate, but deserts…? This was a first.

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The appeal of sand dune surfing wears off pretty quickly, in truth. You’re pretty much over it the minute you arrive at the bottom and realise you’ll have to scrabble back to the top if you want to do it again. Walking along dry sand on the flat can be a slog; walking up very fine, very dry sand dunes is a Herculean task. One-step-forward-and-five-steps-back about sums it up.

Later in the morning we returned to the coast and watched the fishermen bringing in their catches in little bowl-shaped boats, set against a beautiful purple sky.

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We also, and this is something I had forgotten all about until I found this picture, took a walk up a muddy river. I’m sure it had some geological significance, which has long since escaped me, or perhaps I never actually found it out, as I had the pleasure of being guided up the valley by a young guide (I didn’t ask him to, he offered very aggressively) more interested in asking me about football and my marital status than in explaining why this weird, rusty sediment through which we were squelching was important. That’s us in the picture, the closest of the tiny figures, me on the left. At the end, before I got back into our truck, he demanded lots of US Dollars. Such was Vietnam.

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And so we finally rolled into Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, HCMC to those in the know, in late April 2008. Not quite as picturesque as Hanoi, but every bit as crammed with motorcycles…

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We spent a few days here – more than we probably needed to, but we were really starting to flag from travel fatigue and had to slow down – and started off by visiting the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression, formerly known as the Exhibition House for US Crimes. During all of our previous stops in Vietnam, the war had been in the background. In HCMC it was brought crashing into the foreground. Legend has it that back in the ’90s a visit to this museum was mandatory under the terms of a tourist’s entry visa. We, on the other hand, chose to go, and I don’t think I’ve visited a more disturbing museum. The life-size replicas of torture techniques and photos of Napalm victims were horrifying enough, but by far the worst exhibit were three large glass jars holding preserved foetuses, grotesquely deformed by Agent Orange.

We took a trip out along the Mekong Delta, to see the bases that the Viet Cong used during the war, where I got to fire an AK47 (it really, really hurt my shoulder and provided conclusive proof, not that I ever needed it, that I would make the world’s worst soldier).

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We were also given the chance to crawl along some of the Viet Cong’s infamous tunnels. You may have worked out that the person in the picture below, slipping into one of the said tunnels, demonstrating exactly why it was so difficult for the US soldiers to find and defeat their enemy, is not me. Well done. It is actually double Olympic gold medal winner Dame Kelly Holmes, who just happened to be on the same tour as us.

When it was my turn to get into a tunnel – head first this time – I couldn’t do it. It was horrendously tight. Even on your hands and knees the walls would have been wrapped around you, brushing oppressively against your back and shoulders. I’d done a bit of caving back in Scouts, and had survived without massively enjoying the experience, but this was something else. (Incidentally, I was also one of the world’s worst Scouts, and managed to collect about three badges in three years, one of which was for using a computer). I had never thought of myself as particularly claustrophobic – I mean, nobody enjoys being confined in small spaces, do they? But I was the only one in our group of twenty or so not to make the thirty-metre crawl along the tunnel. Dame Kelly looked at me with a mixture of pity and disgust (mainly disgust) before she entered.

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I’m not sure if I enjoyed HCMC, in much the same way that I’m not sure if I enjoyed Vietnam. On one level I loved the place – the hugely varied scenery, the French-Asian fusion cuisine – but at the same time, I was never more than two steps away from an argument, usually concerning how many US Dollars I would or wouldn’t be parted from that day.

We were also, by the end, really suffering from travel weariness, perhaps even a touch of sleep deprivation. We wanted to do everything – stretching the days longer and longer – and the combination of this with sweaty hotels and bumpy night-buses was a killer. I remember one incident that neatly sums up the weird, jet-laggy feeling that hit me. Our hostel was buried inside a dense grid of tiny shops, guesthouses and laundries and, after three days of staying there, going in and out several times a day with no issue, I suddenly got lost. I spent about twenty minutes entering and exiting this grid at different places but never finding the door to our hostel. And I remember thinking how strange it was that I had forgotten, but not really getting worried. I was more mildly frustrated, like when you can’t pick a playing card up off a flat surface. Then all of a sudden this brain-freeze ended, I remembered which entrance led to our hostel, and was back in the room within thirty seconds.

We booked a cheap, early morning flight to Singapore and, as we bundled our bags down to the hotel lobby at 4am, the receptionist tried to charge us double the price we had agreed upon checking in. He was tiny, this guy, with – and I’m not sure how to put this nicely – deformed little legs which meant he shuffled everywhere on his backside. And when we pointed out that he was being ridiculous he started yelling and threatening to call the police. If it had been three weeks earlier we might have given in, felt sorry for him, perhaps even wondered if it was us in the wrong, if we’d misunderstood the room rate. But by this point – after the taxis taking us to over-priced, middle of nowhere hotels, after the attempted robberies on the train, after the crazy kayak incident, after all the brazenly inflated tourist prices – we had had it. We told him where to go and walked out into the dawn light, with him yelling and shuffling after us. It sounds awful – you may think it is awful, you may be right – but it felt so good. It was as if we were saying, not just to this man but to the country as a whole: you’ve been fun, you’ve been unique, you’ve been breathtakingly beautiful, but you’ve been a massive pain in the arse.

And we were off. To Singapore. A fair place where everything was expensive, for everyone. Where we could all get ripped off together.

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