Flashbacks from 'Nam
Trip Start Feb 18, 2004
80Trip End Dec 05, 2005
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As soon as you get to the border between Cambodia and Vietnam you notice a distinct difference. The roads around the Cambodia side are all mud and the immigration offices are just little makeshift buildings (with little security to make sure people really did stamp in/out). The roads in Vietnam are paved and the immigration office is a big building with a monument in front, Vietnam flag flying proudly. Security for crossing still seemed a bit lax though. As you may recall I joined up with a trio of English at the Thai/Cambodia border. That group consisted of Jon, Becky and Laura. Jon and Becky had been traveling for a while (South America, NZ & Oz) and Laura, Becky's twin sister, met up with them in Thailand. Jon is football (soccer) mad, particularly for Southampton, and could be found kicking a ball around most any time we were at a beach. The twins aren't identical so no problem telling them apart (and they have quite different personalities) - same same, but different. All were nice and fun to joke around with. We were pretty much on the same schedule so I stuck with them the whole way in Vietnam. From the border we caught a bus to Ho Chi Minh City (aka, Saigon).
Tom, Jon, Becky and Laura
Saigon is overrun with mopeds! There are millions of them (literally)! Crossing the street is definately a challenge with that many mopeds zig-zagging around. Since the embargo on Vietnam was lifted, the western world has moved in. There are Pepsi ads, KFCs and various western companies and products all over. Vietnam is still communist and there are propaganda posters up around the city (e.g., posters promoting only having two children). The government is much more tolerant and open these days so Vietnam seems as free as any other country I've been in. Anyway, we stayed in District 1 of the city in the backpacker area. There are plenty of guesthouses, restaurants and tour operators in that area. One of the first things we went and did was check out the War Remnants Museum. There was an exhibition of photographs from the Vietnam War that was enlightening. It was interesting to see the Vietnamese perspective on the war (very different than the American). At this museum you can read information and see pictures of all the atrocities of the American military during the war (of course they leave out the bad things the VietCong did). The American government just didn't wage war with the VietCong, they tried to wipe out the environment itself (e.g., napalm, pesticides) forcing people to flee the farms for the city (to be more easily controlled). And, of course, in the process thousands of innocents were killed. One of the quotes I thought fit the war mentality was that of a general after wiping out a village saying something like "we had to destroy them in order to save them". I fail to see how killing the population and destroying their land is in the best interest of the local people. Unfortunately, the affects of this campaign still impact some of the Vietnamese with birth defects, cancer and other ailments. We also went out to see the Ca Chi Tunnels. These were tunnels used by the VietCong to hide and travel around the area undetected. They're really narrow and cramped...hard to imagine living in there for a long period. Some of the traps the VietCong used looked nasty for anyone caught in them. No, I didn't get to spend time in a tiger trap with bamboo shoots under my fingernails. :( The tour guide we had to the tunnels fought alongside Americans but he seemed to spit out the word "America" with great distaste (though I think he was refering more to the government policies than the people themselves). For the most part, I never felt any animosity from the Vietnamese people for what the U.S. did. We went out for an exciting, action-packed night of bowling one of the evenings in Saigon. That was fun, though the beer was way overpriced.
While in Saigon I went to an opthamologist to have my eye checked out since it was recently having problems. The left eye is misaligned vertically with the right and vision is blurry when looking up or to the side. The opth thinks there may be a crack/fissure in my skull below the eye from when [big] Simon punched me in Jo'burg. She suggested I get a CT scan to verify and thought it best that I return to the U.S. for surgery, which she said would be "difficult". D'oh! :(
The Brits and I did an overnight tour to the Mekong Delta, southwest of Saigon. The tour started with a couple hour bus ride (we were stuck in back on uncomfortable seats with the sun beating down on us and virtually non-existent A/C) getting us to the river where we'd start our boat tour. The boat took us out to Vinh Long island where we had a blah lunch. We got to bike ride around the island for a while where kids would pop out of nowhere to say "hello!" to us. We continued on the boat and got to see a bit of daily life on the river, which was cool. Our final stop for the day was Can Tho where we checked into a hotel and got to stroll around town checking it out. In the morning, we went to the Cai Rang floating market - not as neat as any of us were expecting. There were boats scattered on the river mostly selling fruits and vegetables. Nothing too colorful and exciting though. We continued our boat ride all morning with a stop for lunch then another couple hours in the boat to get us to the bus for a long journey back to the craziness of Saigon.
floating market in Mekong Delta
Driving in Vietnam is an interesting experience. Most of the cities are overrun with mopeds zig-zagging amongst the traffic. It seems right of way is determined by size (i.e., truck beats car, car beats moped, moped beats pedestrian). Yes, according to that logic pedestrians are the lowest on the chain and you have to watch out crossing streets. Cars and mopeds also tend to cut corners making it even more difficult when crossing 'cuz you think they're going to go on the correct side of the street but come right for you! Honking is an obsession of all drivers. The cities are even more noisy than normal 'cuz of all the honking. Drivers honk at any corner, intersection, passing, if someone is going slow, etc... Some of the bus trips were irritating because the bus drivers would be constantly honking - an intersection might be 1/2km away and they'd start honking, people would be walking on the opposite side of the street totally out of the way and the driver would honk. Arrrggghhh! Peace and quiet, please!!!
From Saigon we had a long bus ride to Dalat (things on the map look close but take an awful long time to get to). Our lunch stop on the bus was a place that had monkeys in little cages. There were various places like this throughout Vietnam that didn't have animals under good conditions. The Brits are all vegetarians so took extra offence to this, and would get to experience much displeasure in the days to come from the treatment of animals. Anyway, Dalat is a town in the hills that is a vacation spot for many people in Saigon because of its cooler temperatures (it was only a few degrees cooler). It poured rain on us our first evening there. We took a tour around the area with a group of motorcycle riders called the Hell's Angels (just kidding, they're the 'Easy Riders'). For $10 they take you around all day to the various sites and scenery. We went to a cool pagoda, into the mountains (nice pine smell), saw some terraced farms, a coffee plantation, the Chicken Village, a waterfall and a lake. One of the temples we went to had mostly Vietnamese there so we were getting stared at a lot. Some of the ladies were very excited to get their picture with Laura (she has pale skin). Back in town we checked out the market but it was mostly stuff for locals. I never could find a magnet throughout Vietnam. There was a popcorn seller roaming the streets and his cart would play various Christmas songs (I thought this a little odd since it was June and it's a Buddhist country). We had received a flyer for V-Cafe saying they were having a complimentary evening. We figured maybe one free drink or a snack, but it was various food and drinks. We ordered all kinds of food and just kept the beers coming...it was great! I kept joking with the Brits that we should go karaoke. There were heaps of karaoke joints around Dalat. We later learned that many karaoke places are just a front for brothels. Oy! No, we never did make it to "sing" karaoke.
Tom on moto with Easy Rider
The typical tourist path took us to the beach town of Nha Trang next. For Vietnam, Nha Trang would be considered touristy though not too bad when compared to places like Koh Samui. Soon after we arrived, the clouds came in but we went to the beach anyways. Jon and I went for a swim then played football (soccer) with some local kids. It's quite cool how football is a universal thing throughout the world (no language needed). Forty-five minutes of playing on sand proved we were out of shape. Nha Trang is supposed to be Vietnam's premiere diving locale so we went out on a boat for some snorkelling and diving. I can't say it was overly impressive but we did see some nice coral and played with a clownfish. By this time I was becoming very disappointed in the number of attractive foreign traveling ladies. Traveling companions excluded, it was like zero! Where have all the pretty girls gone!?! This trend continued throughout the rest of Vietnam. :( Getting fruit shakes in the various places was a popular pasttime of ours. Mango ones were usually good. Deciding on a restaurant could sometimes be a chore...each person would usually not care so someone had to make a decision. I could eat most anywhere but vegetarian options and vegan (for Laura) were sometimes hard to come by. The girls and I went out for a drink and ended up at a bar with free beer (I had to ask a few times about happy hour). We played some Jenga and enjoyed the free beer. Figuring out transport out of Nha Trang proved a frustrating experience. I was trying to get an overnight train ticket north and was told there were no soft sleepers available for that evening. I went back the next morning to check and had to talk to a few travel agents to find out that particular train only has hard sleepers (no wonder there weren't any soft sleepers). They made us come back a few times throughout the day to check on the train and it turned out there weren't any sleepers available. We ended up just getting bus tickets from another company. That last day in Nha Trang was spent just hanging out until it was time to catch the bus. We got stuck in the seats over the wheels so there was little leg room. Not fun for a long, overnight ride.
Hoi An had been recommended online and by people we met along the way. It's a smaller town with friendly people. The architecture reminded me of what I'd expect to find in a small town in China. The hotel we stayed at was a bit posh by our normal standards...it even had a nice swimming pool. The girls and my first stop was the tailor shop to see about having some suits made. The tailor was recommended by the diving instructor in Nha Trang. I picked out a charcoal gray pinstripe material and had the girls help with an appropriate color for the shirt (they chose orchid). Then I pulled out my good friend, Spanky, and asked for a matching suit for him. The woman running the shop laughed and gave Spanky lots of hugs and kisses. Her daughter then got a hold of the monkey and was playing with him for a while.
The family running the shop were very friendly - they fed us and gave us drinks. There was an older man (the dad?) who kept giving us shots of rice wine (blecgh!). We went back to the next day for fittings and they had a big lunch for us. Back again for the final fittings and they had dinner for us!
We did a couple daytrips while in Hoi An too. We had a 1/2 day tour to the My Son ruins. Our tour guide was dorky and had a dumb sense of humor. The ruins were alright - many were destroyed by American bombing. It's hard to be impressed after seeing Angkor. Also did a trip out to Marble Mountain and China Beach. Marble Mt had some cool caves with Buddha statues inside. Neat pagoda there too. China Beach is a beautiful, long stretch of beach without much of any commercialization.
Unfortunately, we were only there about an hour (had to catch bus back). We found a few places in town for decent food (and fruit shakes). Did some shopping around too (Jon wanted paintings and the girls more clothes).
While in Hoi An my i-Pod stopped working. It sounds like the hard drive can't be accessed. The Apple logo comes up but then it just dies. Not sure why as it was working fine on the bus ride, I charged it in the hotel then it was just sitting. This means I'd lose all my photos and music. I was smart and backed up most all my photos...I'd just lose my Cambodia ones. I'd lose lots of new music though. This also means no more music player. :( Good thing I have quite a good jukebox in my head. (I had the i-Pod looked at in Bangkok and they said I should send it in to Apple for service.)
We had an afternoon bus ride from Hoi An to Hue. We arrived early evening so just took a wander to the backpacker area for dinner (found a good Italian place). Hue used to be the capital of Vietnam. The next morning we were out around 9:30am to check out the Citadel (the old government hq). It was already really hot and humid. There were a few cool buildings still intact but, again, most of it was destroyed by American bombs. We were dying from the heat so had to make an early exit and try to find some shade and relief. Had some lunch at a crappy place with the worst french fries ever. A bit later we took a taxi out to Thien Mu Pagoda. Wandered around there a short while before heading back to the hotel to wait for our bus.
Another overnight bus ride, this time to Hanoi. We had better seats so wasn't quite so bad. The buses always drop you off at a hotel of their choice (commission) so we checked that out and a few others in the area. Becky found one on Hostelworld that turned out to be nice so we stayed there. Had a brief rest then went to see the city. Unfortunately, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was already closed (only open M-Th 8-11am) so we missed getting to see Uncle Ho. Got some breakfast then wandered out to the Temple of Literature and by the lake. It was hot and humid here too so we didn't spend too much time outside during the afternoon. In the evening, we went and saw a water puppet show. That was unique and cool. The lady running our guesthouse was a great help at organizing our tours, train and plane tickets. Most people would try to pressure you into buying stuff, but she even suggested we not do a tour to the mountains and just get a train and hike around ourselves.
One of the tours we did choose was a 3 day / 2 night trip to Halong Bay. Halong Bay has limestone rock spires sticking out of the water all over. 'Halong' means 'dragon descending' so it's supposed to look like a serpent dragon sticking out of the water in various places. We were picked up at the hotel early in the morning and transported down to Halong City where we caught a boat out to Halong Bay. Onboard with us were quite a few French-Canadians, a kiwi and a guy from Spain. The boat took us to some cool limestone caves then stopped and anchored around 4pm for us to swim before dinner.
We had been told we'd be with the same group for the three days, but it turns out the others were all doing a two day tour. The Brits and I ended up switching boats the second morning and joined with a Vietnamese family from England. We went to an island where we did a steep hike up to Navy Peak which had views out over Halong Bay. Once again, drenched in sweat and gross. Back down to a village below the peak for lunch. Got motos back to the boat then cruised to a spot where we went kayaking. The tour guide came with us though and wouldn't let us go off wherever we wanted. We did get to go to a beach and ended up swimming around there for quite a while. The boat took us to Cat Ba island and we checked into a hotel before going to the main part of the city for dinner. We walked around the waterfront there and Jon and I got some "cool" Marlboro cowboy hats (Becky and Laura threatened not to be seen with us if we wore the hats). I think all the locals recognized how cool we were when we had our hats on.
The next day was a ride in the little boat back to the original larger boat which took us through Halong Bay back to Halong City. We had lunch there before returning to Hanoi. We were promised several things on that tour we didn't get and felt a bit ripped off, but it seems that's a common thing with tours in SE Asia.
The same evening we got back from Halong Bay we took an overnight train north to the mountain town of Sapa. We had a compartment to ourselves with soft sleepers and A/C. The A/C was cranked though so we were all freezing during the night. The train finishes in Lao Cai (3km from the border with China) and from there we caught a minibus to Sapa. Sapa is the destination for travellers wanting to do treks in the mountains and to hill tribe villages. We found a hotel, checked in then went and got breakfast. There are hill tribe women all over the town who try to sell you stuff (jewelry, blankets) and they'd follow us around trying to get us to promise to buy from them. Did a short hike past Cat Cat village and a waterfall and back to the main road. There's loads of beautiful scenery - terraced rice fields and farms.
My stomach wasn't feeling so well from the omelette I had for breakfast so I rested most the afternoon. Later we wandered up "tourist mountain" for views over town and the countryside. We had planned to hike to some other villages in the area and learned we had to have "permission" and a local guide. So we hired a guide and he took us on the muddy trails to Lao Chai village. Having the guide proved good as we never would have found our way (we had to cross farms and such) and he told us a lot about the people and land. Partway into the hike, a bunch of local girls spied us tramping along and came to try and sell us stuff. They followed us 'til a break stop then we were followed by a different group of girls. For the most part they just walked with us and made conversation, now and then butting in with "would you like to buy this?"
I had a little girl probably only about 3 following me repeating "buy this from me. buy this from me too" over and over. She was cute but it got annoying. In the evening we found a place with good music to play some darts (I lost bad). The next day we had moto drivers take us out a ways to Silver Falls. My driver's moto got a flat about 1/2 way there and I had to ride with Laura the rest of the way. The waterfall was alright but you were limited where you could hike around it. We continued with our moto drivers (mine had fixed the flat) to the top of the pass before returning back to town. Luckily, my driver stopped for me to get a poncho 'cuz it just poured rain on the way back. The others were rather soaked. Our guide from the previous day invited us to have a drink with him at a bar he works at so we stopped in there. He had a full meal (including pigs ears) for us plus lots of rice wine. I can't say that I like rice wine. He told us more about the hill tribe people and himself. He was mentioning about his mom being a doctor and plants they used in the forest to cure illnesses and such, but now the people just go to the pharmacy or western doctors. It would be a shame for the people to lose that knowledge and part of their culture. We wandered town a bit more and I got some real food before catching the minibus back to Lao Cai.
Getting a couple beers for the train journey proved to be a hassle. People come on the train to sell you stuff so we asked for a couple Tigers. The lady first brought us Hanoi beer (nasty stuff) so we sent her back for Tiger. She brought two Tigers but the seals were dodgy and the expiration showed two years old. Had to follow her demanding our money back. We then tried our luck with a younger kid, but the Tigers he brought were also expired (though only by a month and the seals looked fine). We ended up with just a couple cans of another brand. The A/C wasn't as bad on this journey...maybe 'cuz I stuffed up the vent with my hat. The info we received showed we'd arrive at 4am so we were up then checking each stop 'til we got to Hanoi (5am). Leaving the train through the hordes of people, I lost one of my sandals strapped to my bag. They'd served me well the last year and a half. (sigh) Got a taxi back to the guesthouse where we had about an hour before the Brits had to leave for their flight to Laos. They were a good bunch and made my journey through Cambodia and Vietnam much more fun and memorable. I stayed at the guesthouse a couple hours more and got in some i-net time before a crazy moto ride to a minibus bound for the airport. Fly away back to Bangkok.
I have scheduled an appointment at Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok to have my left eye checked out. I should get a CT scan done to verify if there's a crack/fissure in the skull. Then I'll talk to a surgeon to get more info on how to proceed. Hopefully it all works out ok. Major bummer that my trip was interrupted by this. I would've liked to continue to Laos with the Brits. (For those of you who don't remember the punch in the eye incident or didn't bother reading to the end of the entry (!!!), here's a link back to it - wham!)