Sunday, 16 August 2009

The Easy Way Out

Writing takes ages. Here are some images instead!

1 - Hue. Each evening at dusk the sky is filled with vibrantly colored kites, transported here mostly by men on bicycles.

2 - Silk Worm Factory Workers, Dalat

3 - Downtime. My heart goes out to the cyclo riders. Each day, regardless of the heat they are out on the street plying their trade. And lets face it, in some circumstances sleeping on the job is a necessity!

4 - Hoi An. Market Lady

5 - Nha Trang Nun

6 - Hilltribe Woman, Sapa

7 - Halong Bay

8 - Nha Trang Opera House

9 - Hanoi at Sunset

10 - Part of the Imperial Complex Hue

Vietnam in a nutshell

It is time to stop procrastinating and time to draw a line beneath Vietnam. The time we had there flew past and indeed we were on the move every three days or thereabouts. Three days is not a long time to explore a city, it’s sites and in manycases it’s beaches. It certainly doesnot leave a huge amount of time for writing. So, the low down.

Vietnam was a hugely enjoyable country to travel. In spite of all the horror stories we heard from fellow travellers (muggings, theft, aggressive denizens and psycho bus drivers) we found the country to be mostly safe and the people to be mostly friendly. Douglas Adams might have dubbed it “mostly harmless,“ but there was more to it than that. It was the most diverse and exciting part of our trip thus far. There were a couple of cretins along the way, but that applies to most places around the world in my experience. The biggest cretin I have met so far was undoubtedly in Cambodia and he was “A Rhodesian.” When I explained to him that time moves on and twenty nine years has passed in the interim he became petulant. He prided himself on being a “Colonial,” having been born in Wales (of Indian lineage) and lived in colonies of the British Empire for much of his life. The irony is that under Rhodesian rule he would have been a class two citizen of the country, and as a mixed race citizen would have faced blatant discrimination and segregation. Despite having lived in Rhodesia as it was then, he was incredibly ignorant about the country. “I still drank in all the sports clubs” he boasted. Well, whoopy doo mister. Social Darwinism found its nest in his heart, AIDS was the result of a black government and it went to pot in 1980 apparently. The conversation ebbed and flowed (we were in a large group of people thankfully) but as the local wine flowed he became more surly and aggressive. By the end of the evening, I felt there two options left open to me with the way the evening was going. These were (a) to punch him before he punched me and then end up in the beautiful but squalid Kampot jail for the night or (b) call a spade a spade and head off to bed. I chose the latter which was probably wise in retrospect. So in all my time travelling it seems that the biggest plonker I have met hails, in part, from my very own country.

We spent longer in Saigon than anywhere else in Vietnam, not because we particularly like big cities but rather because there is a lot to see and do. The museums were interesting and it is here that so much of Vietnam’s history took place. We visited the War Museum, the Cu Chi tunnels, the Re-Unification Palace and spent time just exploring the city. We learnt to cross a road in Saigon. Trust me, it takes a while to get used to throwing yourself in front of four lanes of speeding scooters. From Saigon we caught up North to the coastal town that is Mui Ne. It was a Friday afternoon and the traffic out of Saigon was incredibly heavy. Saigon sprawls for mile upon mile and it must have been a couple of hours before we had made it out of the city. Our four hour trip to the coast became a six hour one of brake lights and horns. But it was worth it. Mui Ne is known for it’s waves and it was great to dip into an ocean where there some surf. The current pulls to the left very strongly and we would start at one part of the beach and end up at another. But as the beach with it’s wide sand stretches along for ten kilometres this is not so much of a problem.

It was not just for the beaches that we went to Mui Ne but also the sand dunes that are a few kilometers inland. The dunes are red in one area and white in another and cover a fairly expansive area. We started off at 4.45am with an irritable jeep driver who was not big
on small talk. Then again at that time of the day who can blame him? We did the white dunes first, watching the sun rise from atop the dunes. It was a beautiful dawn and after some time there we moved onto the red dunes. Where there had only been a handful of people at the white dunes the red dunes teamed with people. Local Vietnamese families covered every dune in sight, using hired sleds to shoot down the dunes. Vendors sold food from baskets hanging from their shoulders on bamboo poles. Laughing children, smiling women, men with their jeans rolled up around their ankles and sweat on their foreheads. It was a convivial and friendly atmosphere. One of the great things about Vietnam was seeing local Vietnamese people enjoying the outdoors as opposed to tourist dominated hotspots where the only locals were hawking goods. The trip ended with a visit to the local fishing village where our eyes bulged at the amount of food that was being hauled from the ocean, whilst wicker basket-like boats bobbed about on the waves. The stench of salt water and fish was ferocious and on every side were blankets of fish, crabs, weighing scales and women with heavy poles and baskets slung over their shoulders. Finally we went to the “Fairy Spring,” a shallow creek that runs through a dazzling red clay valley of sand dunes. Wading through the cooling waters was a good end to a very busy, long and hot morning.


After the blistering hot beaches of Mui Ne it seemed wise to head up into the mountains of Dalat. At an altitude of about 1500 metres above sea level Dalat is four precipitous hours from Saigon, heading almost directly North, away from the coast and up into the interior of the country. The winding drive is breathtaking and the sinu
ous route had a few people reaching for their little blue plastic bags. One of the first things that stuck me about being in Dalat was the weather. It was like being back in the UK. The sun, impossible to escape for nearly five months now, was nowhere to be seen. It was grey, wet, cold. Not raining, not dry. Just persistent damp.
And it was refreshing for a change! It felt great to put a fleece on and zip it up. This weather has many implications on the area. The French used to use it as a retreat from the heat, and as such there is an old French Street and the very quaint train station. More recently, Dalat is rumoured to be Vietnam’s number one honey moon spot. It is also where a whole host of Western Vegetables are grown in Vietnam and the fresh produce is diverse and cheap. Flower farms are scattered through the hills as are silk worm factories and a host of other industries including Dalat wine. The wine is not bad either. The best way to see Dalat is to get a couple of motorbike riders (the self styled Easy Riders) who will take you through the region and beyond if money and time are no object. After much debating (can we afford it? Sounds expensive?) we took a day trip and it was without a doubt one of the best things we did in Vietnam
. If I could do the trip again I think I would allow a three or four day Easy Rider trip through Vietnam. Our concerns about the ability of our guides to speak English was quashed when one of the first things he said was “Lovely Jubbly.“ Our day trip started off in Dalat town, firstly looking at the Linh Quang Pagoda and then heading out into the lush countryside. The great thing about being on a motorbike is that you can stop anywhere. We looked at the waterfalls in the area, the silk farms and the local hooch distillery. Sadly the local hooch was not available for sampling. We ended up back in town, overlooking an aerial mast fashioned to replicate the Eiffel Tower and near the train station where the token carriages were painted with a red, white and blue motif.

The next leg of the trip took us from the hills of Dalat along a wildly meandering road back down to sea level and the beaches of Nha Trang. Along the way you find yourself in a Catch 22 like scenario. The scenery is remarkably beautiful, but the road meanders so hideously that if
you look anywhere but straight ahead nausea becomes your new best friend. Immediately around me I could see four people paling rapidly and discreetly disgorging

into plastic bags. Finally the gradient decreases and with the hills behind you, the beaches of Nha Trang stretch away in front. After walking into town and finding accommodation we made our way down to the promenade and were befriended by a Vietnamese couple after pulling faces at their young child. It was the kind of “Oh how cute” faces that struck up the conversation, but whilst in Vietnam we met some really friendly locals which was great. It is nice to be genuinely befriended as opposed to sold to continually, it is one of the things that I notice now. The principle draw of Nha Trang are the miles of glistening beaches, but there is plenty more to do as well. The town itself bustles with life and there is plenty to see if you tear yourself away from the beaches. For us this was not too hard, it was bucketing down with rain most of the time we were there. Among the sights was the gallery of the Vietnamese photographer Long Thanh, a fishing harbour where the fishing boats (similar to those in Mui Ne) look like giant wicker baskets and Long Son Pagoda. Above the Pagoda, set atop a hill, is a giant Buddha, the base of which features bust reliefs of the seven monks who died by self emolliation protesting the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem. Whilst my big toe did not make it into the ocean on account of the weather, Nha Trang was still worthwhile.

Heading North by sleeper bus our next pit stop, eight hours up country, was rustic Hoi An. Hoi An is famed for its tailors.
Figuring that if the locals are good with scissors then this would be a good place for a haircut is a fatal mistake. I can testify to this, they cut cloth better than hair. Promise. But Hoi An is all charm. It is graceful and at night the evening comes alive with lanterns and street markets where the food fantastic and the restaurants advertise “Fresh Beer.” The beer is cheap, the food good and the town’s vibe is vibrant and yet laid back. The market at dawn is worth the 5am wake up call and a Vietnamese coffee a couple of hours later braces you for the rest of the day. As if Hoi An did not have enough to see and do with i
t’s ubiquitous art galleries, tailors and riverside walks the Marble Mountains are a bus ride away and a good way to spend the day. Carved out of - you’ve got it -marble, the mountain features numerous pagodas, temples and caves that house more temples. Edentate women with red mouths from chewing beet peddle incense sticks, rewarding the lucky by showing them some of the more clandestine sights of the complex. Hoi An is another place that I would like to make it back to, particularly in the wet season when the whole town becomes flooded and the streets are best mooched by boat.

By now the clock was seriously ticking for us and in spite of having wanted to spend time in Danang, we ended up taking the
bus straight through to Hue, the old imperial capital of Vietnam. Hue is home to the Forbidden City and is bisected by the Perfume River. The town itself ranges from the beautiful promenade to the sprawling mass of motorbikes and narrow streets. It is a rewarding place to spend some time though. It was thirty eight degrees when we were there which was a bit too hot to do much, but I still managed to spend a day roaming the Imperial Citadel. I ate three over priced ice creams and drank who knows how many litres of water. And shot 4 gig of photographs. It is beautiful and so rich in culture. As the sun sets the area in front of the citadel comes alive with kite fliers and colour, whilst in the background, blustered from the 37 metre high flagpole (the highest in Vietnam) a giant Vietnamese flag billows out in the warmth of the last light of the day. We ate Japanese food at a charitable restaurant supporting street kids called JASS, only to find out that the name had been copied by a nefarious business mind set on capitalising on JASS’s good name. We ate at a different JASS the next evening, so hopefully one of them was the real deal.

Hue was soon behind us and we found ourselves on board a sleeper bus with real-ish beds. The comfort was short lived, we were at the back of the bus above the engine. I woke up half way through the night with my back feeling like I had passed out with the electric blanket still on, whilst above the air conditioning unit chucked out huge volumes of freezing air. It is quite a bizarre sensation to feel like your back is in a wok and your front in an icebox. At a roadstop along the way I got out with a couple of other travellers from the back section to chew the fat. We watched some locals eating one of the Vietnamese delicacies, a semi-incubated egg that has been boiled. Once the shell is off the egg is traced by a network of veins and arteries. It should be the best of two worlds really, I love eggs and eat silly amounts of chicken. But put the two together like that and erm, I’m gonna pass this one thanks.

We arrived in Hanoi at six the next morning, I promptly got lost whilst looking for accommodation and found an unimpressed Nipun two hours later, dutifully watching our bags and patiently waiting for me.
The alleys for which the city is famous, do kind of look the same on the first day in town. Hanoi sprawls and motorbike drivers patrol each and every street trying to get you to take a ride across town with them. Vendors try and trick you into picking up their bamboo poles with fruit laden baskets for a photo opportunity, and then charge you for the privilege. Cyclo riders bombard you and ask you to take a trip through the old Latin quarter with them. It is a busy city, and one that can leave you feeling harassed pretty quickly. We were already pretty exhausted by the time we made it this far North and so it was not too long before we had booked our onward travel into the mountains of Sapa. And if the rain was bad in Nha Trang, then in Sapa it was a deluge. For three days spent there, it rained for over two and half. But having said this Sapa was stunning. We did manage to get out for a couple of hours on motorbikes and the country side was magnificent. Terraced rice fields stretched away beneath mountains and verdant fields stretched away as far as you could see. Which was not that far because of the fog. But you get the picture. Less appealing than even the rain were the local hawkers who tried to sell anyone and everyone no end of trinkets. “No” does not mean no in Sapa, it means “Challenge.” The Hill Tribe ladies and girls are really sweet at first, but make for very aggressive and determined sales ladies.

But then such is the beauty of Sapa that I would return there immediately with no qualms. My only disappointment is that the weather conspired against us with hellfire and brimstome. And then before we knew it we were back in Hanoi, headed for the airport and soon to be in Bangkok.