Thursday, 15 October 1998
Hanoi, Gia Lam, Vietnam
The last land border we had experienced was that with Hong Kong. This was seamless, in comparison the crossing into Vietnam was very tedious. We got out of China after a ten minute passport inspection and a surprise 10 yuan processing fee. We walked through the no-mans land to the Vietnamese customs. Here everything was so casual that we could have walked straight in if it were not for the fact that we would need to produce an arrival card to get out of the country. We pretty quickly found out that everyone was at lunch and they would not get back for another hour and a half, quite surprising as there was only one train a day and it had just got in. We sat down with only two Vietnamese black market money changers for company to wait.
As the allotted time approached cross-border traffic increased exponentially. It appeared that everyone who had caught the train was well aware of the lunch break and had themselves gone for eats. We finally got our passports stamped and moved on to customs where they threatened to go through our rucksacks but caved in after the first few items came out. Then we walked out onto Vietnamese soil to find ourselves in what looked more like a scrap yard than an international border. It took a while to find some transport to Lang Son and with only one taxi and two motorbikes on offer there was no scope for getting a fair price. In Lang Son the taxi driver spent a long time circling and after a while we realised that rather than taking us to the bus station he was trying to find a private operator so he could take some commission. In the end we did not mind because the minibus he found looked a great deal more comfortable and faster than the ancient monster we later saw trundling along.
The soft option proved to have its problems as well. First we had a good deal of circling around trying to pick up customers. And this meant not only filling the seats but also fitting one extra person into each row. After three-quarters of an hour we finally left, squashed into a corner at the back. The journey was mercifully short, you see we had no idea how long it would take as the train was said to take ten hours (which equates to a speed of 15km/h) and the bus was said to take half this (therefore 30km/h). In the end the fact that we had been placed on a freelance minibus spared us both of these fates and we did the trip in three hours.
As we were approaching Hanoi however there was a bit of a drama. The police pulled the minibus over, chatted with the driver, and flashed their torches through the windows. Then one of the policemen clambered into the bus and gave the driver some instructions. Everyone seemed calm about this with the exception of the woman next to me. The bus drove on and we pulled up to let someone out. As soon as we stopped there was a flurry of activity. My next door neighbour opened the window and leapt out carrying with her a bail of women's underwear that she had stashed under the seat. At the same time a variety of packages were flung out of the windows. The policeman ordered the driver to get going and before long we turned off the main road to head towards a yard. Just before we turned into the yard there was a last flurry of activity with several packages being ejected within yards of what presumably was the police station. Once there we had to wait while the contents of the bus were removed and piled in a small room for inspection. Lots of mumbling from the waiting passengers ensued and the final result that all the boxes were impounded and we were sent o our way. As we pulled out of the yard we were not surprised to see the process reversed as packages flew in back through the windows. It appeared that a fair few of our fellow passengers were smugglers, something which our guide book had told us is endemic to the Vietnam-China border.
Once in Hanoi we again benefited from the somewhat unauthorised nature of our bus. Rather than dropping us at the bus station well outside of town we were deposited right in the centre. This meant that we were checked into our hotel by seven, avoiding the late night rush around town we had expected. We checked in and found such things as being give our own key and getting towels a novelty after our months in China. We went for dinner at one of the listed traveller's cafes and experienced the further novelty of paying in dollars.
Friday, 16 October 1998
Hanoi, Gia Lam, Vietnam
If you ignore the motorcycle situation Hanoi must be one of the most laid back, low key capitals in the world. We were based in the old town, not that there are any bits which looked particularly new so I guess its because the French Quarter briefly supplanted it as the heart of the city during the country's spell as a colony. The buildings here are very narrow, stretch back for miles and not more than four or five stories tall. Our hotel was reached by going through a so called "tube" or passage which burrowed through a shop and a totally separate building (with its own staircase etc.). The streets are always bustling with people and there is not one bit of the pavement that is not crammed with market stalls, people selling stuffed baguettes, motorcycle workshops etc. The shops are very scruffy even by Chinese city centre standards. Each street is home to a different craft, thus you get a street of metalworkers or a street of people producing sacrificial offerings, there was even a corner that sold nothing but musical instruments.
The French Quarter is much less lively. A large number of the colonial building have survived and their neo-classical style together with the wide tree lined boulevards give you the impression of being in Europe, which I guess was the idea. There is the odd open air cafe and a lot of nice restaurants but again what shops there are very scruffy. In fact if its designer label shopping you are after then I would strongly advise against Hanoi. In addition to the lack of un claustrophobic shops there is also a lack of things to do. Sure there's a stack of museums but very few temples and with Ho's body having been sent back to Russia for cleaning you can not even stare at corpse for a morning. But all of these things are what made Hanoi the right place at the right time. The fact is that we did not want to do anything, we badly needed some Western-style R&R, and the few things that we did have to do we mostly put off to the last day.
Anyway that day all we had to do was to check with the British Embassy for the latest in Cambodia and sort out when we would actually go to Ha Long Bay. The first of these items was very interesting. The only embassy we had been in so far was the Greek in Islamabad and this was more than a little on the relaxed side. The British embassy in Hanoi on the other hand had the air of a very efficient police station. It was not some colonial villa such as those occupied by all the Eastern Bloc countries but on the fourth floor of an office block. It had a set of very recent fact sheets for every country in SE Asia each with a very comprehensive list of DOs and DONTs. The Cambodia one detailed the unrest caused by the then current elections and recent Khmer Rouge activity. The two items that were very disappointing were one that advised that the only safe way of getting to Angkor Wat was by plane and another item which said "travellers should be aware of the possibility of kidnappings". We naturally enough decided to demote it to a last resort.
Ha Long Bay was very easy to sort out. Around Hanoi there are a number of travellers' cafes which offer tours of the surrounding attractions at reasonable rates. We knew that there was very little chance of us doing a tour of the bay independently with out spending a lot more money so all we had to do was decide which cafes itinerary suited us. We decided to go with the originally named Lonely Planet cafe but booking the tour I got this big feeling that we were cheating. In China we had to arrange everything ourselves and had never used travel agents. Here we were booking a tour on which I knew we would have to make compromises and do what the group wanted. However as I said it would have been a great expense to hire our own boat so, when in Rome....
The other thing we had to do that day was as a result of another Hanoi novelty, the ability to book rooms. Our hotel was nice enough and at $10 was quite a bargain, however the hotel was completely booked for the seventeenth. So a lot of walking around ensued and, after being amazed at what $10 could get you in the way of rooms plumped for a very up market $23 room which was huge, furnished with heavy wooden furniture and had its own marble clad balcony. In comparison to China it was the height of luxury, not because of facilities but because someone had taken the care to present it - it even had flowers!!
Saturday, 17 October 1998
Hanoi, Gia Lam, Vietnam
Having moved over to the new hotel we decided to buy a baguette each and take breakfast on our balcony. This was pretty closely followed up by a visit to a cafe to pick up my email the highlight of which was finding out that Dave & Sandra's baby, Sophie Rutter, was born on the 23rd September - Dave even attached a digitised photo. Then it was a very leisurely lunch at a French Boulangerie - it was just like being in Islington - whilst reading the paper.
In the afternoon we decided that it was all well and good lounging around but if we were going to spend so many days in Hanoi we had better visit some of its sites. So we plumped for the temple of literature and had our one and only cyclo ride (a cyclo is a cycle rickshaw where rather being safely situated behind the driver you sit in a bucket seat in front and get a roller coaster eye view of the oncoming traffic!). We arrived at the temple at the same time as an entire school, dressed in very colourful uniforms, poured kicking and screaming into the temple. This turned out to be quite a good thing because the lesson they were given, sitting cross legged in the temple, added a bit of life to the otherwise lacklustre collection of courtyards and buildings. We stayed on after the children and were treated to a brief performance of Vietnamese classical music.
When we got back we had our first experiences of haggling in Vietnam. We were trying to collect together bits for the following day's breakfast. It was strange they would come up with a wild variety of prices that were clearly to high and rather than their neighbouring traders trying to undercut them they just corroborated. It was if, as someone later speculated, they were overcharging us for the greater good of the country's economy since they knew we had to buy off someone. Suggesting lower prices was no good either they would not budge. So we did not pay too much in our terms but the prices were very inconsistent, two tomatoes cost us more than two baguettes.
For dinner we, in a way, had our first and only non-western dining experience. Hidden in the back of a "tube" there was a restaurant called Bittek which served garlic smothered steaks with chips to a crowd of locals. The standard was pretty good and the surroundings were greasy spoon but I felt as if we were edging back into the traveller scene rather than sticking with our R&R program, we ate in only the best places after this.
Sunday, 18 October 1998
Hanoi, Gia Lam, Vietnam
It gets harder for me to remember what we actually did these days. I have the general impression of spending half the day in our room and having a baguette brunch on the balcony but after this it all gets a bit hazy. I will opt for a dim recollection of ice creams, wandering around in the French Quarter, reading newspapers etc. We had an early dinner at an Australian run restaurant where the portions were so ridiculously big that Anna could not finish her ribs then went to see the Water Puppets. The water puppet theatre in Hanoi is a tradition that has survived because of exposure to the outside world. The format is that the stage is a huge pool of water with a miniature temple set behind it. The actors are wooden puppets on long sticks which are controlled by people half submerged and hidden in the temple. The sticks of the puppets are hidden by the murky water and some of the puppets are fairly complex. They act out a series of short stories and pieces set to music such as Le Loi's defeat of the Chinese or two dragons chasing a ball around. In my opinion it was entertaining for about half an hour and then became a little tedious...
Monday, 19 October 1998
Hanoi, Gia Lam, Vietnam
Again half the day was spent idling in our room. This was followed by yet more relaxing at a cafe. The afternoon was taken up by a trip to the National Library. Anna wanted to do some research into Vietnamese music and a search of the city's bookshops had turned up nothing. It was a last ditch attempt because of course in European National Libraries you cannot simply turn up on spec and start leafing through the books. In Hanoi it appeared that you were more than welcome and all we had to do was leave a passport as security. We turned up one dusty pamphlet on the subject and Anna read this whilst I got going on Conrad's "The Secret Agent" - the selection of Oxford Classics in Vietnam being wider than that in China. During our studies we were interrupted by some Vietnamese girls who had some impossibly difficult English grammar homework. It was rather complicated trying to give them hints without telling them the answers, which was probably what they wanted.
Dinner was at Le Cyclo, a rather swish place with a nice back garden and a section where you ate sitting in cyclos. After dinner, we sat at the bar to down a few more ice cold draught Tiger beers. Here we got chatting to Aiden, an Irish sales consultant for a machinery manufacturer. He was great fun to chat too especially two days after the announcement that Trimble and Hume had been awarded the Nobel Peace prize. His reaction to Hanoi was interesting - he thought that it was a very unique place because of how you actually see the way of life of the people. I guess that this is true, most international capitals are so international that you start to loose a sense of what country they are actually in. Hanoi is so low key that the usual trappings of international capitals are missing and where you would normally see high rise office blocks you see crumbling neo-classical facades and street markets.
Tuesday, 20 October 1998
Hanoi, Gia Lam, Vietnam
My 27th birthday!! I got two cards, one naturally enough from Anna and the other from my parents courtesy of Poste Restante. To celebrate such an occasion we of course spent half the morning in bed and on the balcony then went out. It was also coincidentally our last day in Hanoi and we were presented with a bit of a problem. Since we had been there we had done about half of the things we were meant to do. I desperately needed a haircut and since we were planning to go to a very nice restaurant it really had to be done that day. Anna wanted to buy a bamboo Xylophone and not knowing if we could get one in Saigon we also had to buy this. The haircut was easily solved, the Metropole hotel, of Graham Greene fame, had its own "Salon" and for a small fortune in Vietnamese terms I had my hair cut very well. It is the only place I have ever been where they also wash your hair after it has been cut to get rid of the bits.
The Xylophone was a bit rushed. We went to all the shops and after this Anna started to intensively test every instrument in the shop. We asked if they could post one to us but they seemed confused so we ended up taking it with us. They attempted to charge us $1 for packing it badly but I recovered the position by demanding they give us a free "frog"!! After this we had to go home and get changed before our meal at Club Opera which was very good. We splashed out a bit on some imported wine and a four course meal. Completely stuffed we went back to our hotel and prepared for our Ha Long Bay trip.
Wednesday, 21 October 1998
Cat Ba Island, Quang Ninh, Vietnam
Organised tours have their good points and their bad points. The worst thing is that you are basically a slave to the guide and your hopes of changing his itinerary decrease as the tour group size increases. Our tour of Halong Bay had quite a good bunch of people, a Dutch girl doing a study on the effects of the economic crisis on Vietnam and her visiting parents, a Canadian couple and American couple both doing long term trips, a teetotal German four wheel drive enthusiast and a Swedish traveller. This would have been manageable had it not been for the fact that the tour was done in conjunction with another cafe who had a group of at least thirty. Thus we pretty much had to stick to the straight and narrow. Our situation was not helped by the fact that our guide was very lifeless. The other group's guide was friendly, knowledgeable and quite experienced. Ours was practically silent, prone to walking too fast and was not even able to get us a decent table at lunch.
So we all piled into a huge coach and endured a four and a half hour journey along some very bad roads. Then we had a terrible lunch and were piled into a cruise boat. The boat was okay with plenty of deck space and an alarming tendency to pitch and roll at even the slightest ripple in the looking glass smooth waters of the bay. We soon learned that with the addition of the other group we nearly had representatives form every EU and G7 country as they included Spanish, French, Belgians, Australians and a Japanese girl. The scenery on the way to Cat Ba Island , where we were to spend the night, was nice but I think with China we had overdosed on weathered limestone formations and what with the raking sunlight I took very few pictures. A halfway stop was made to take a look at one of the caves but there was very little to see.
The tour started to take a turn for the better when we came around into Cat Ba Island's harbour. Here we encountered a floating city, houses, shops and even a bar constructed on platforms on top of floating oil drums. The residents were mainly fishermen who moored their boats next to the platforms whenever they were not at sea. Steering between these platforms we soon found ourselves at the ferry pier where we disembarked and were lead to our hotel. Here we were told what time we were having dinner and then what time we would go to the pub. It was almost too much for Anna who hates such timetables but we saw it out. The local pub was accessed via a coracle as it was indeed floating. Squeezing six people into each bamboo boat seemed a little reckless but we reached the platform safely after a pitch black tour of the bay by night. As we alighted the platform gently rocked up and down. We sat down and ordered some beers and from out of nowhere the owner of the bar retrieved an English karaoke tape, Boney M again, with the words to Rasputin accompanied by videos of scantily clad women. I guess culture clash is the best way to describe it.
Thursday, 22 October 1998
Cat Ba Island, Quang Ninh, Vietnam
We woke up before the time tabled time but this did not stop our guide rapping on our window. That day we were due to spend the morning walking in Cat Ba national park with the afternoon at our leisure (although there were strong hints about the beach). We had breakfast and then piled into a bus along with the people from the other cafe's group. The national park was okay the thing was that the vegetation was not very tropical and the view that we climbed to was not even of the islands as you would expect. So we had a hot sweaty climb accompanied by some very low key drinks sellers and sat at the top looking at more hills.
Now by this point there were certain members of the group - notably one of the Spanish guys - who were unhappy. The guide had not warned them that a walk in a national park would entail some climbing on rocks rather than having a stone flagged path all the way. They had come totally unprepared without boots and some had sandals on. Anyway ten minutes into our descent there was an almighty scream accompanied by swearing and more screaming. The Spanish guy, ironically, had slipped and twisted his ankle in one of the crevices in the rocks. Fortunately one of the members of the group was a doctor and so he calmed the guy down and had a look at his foot. Meanwhile the guide, who looked petrified wrote a note in Vietnamese for us so that a few people could go ahead and notify the park wardens.
The "rescue" was a very amusing job, the first person we came to was a drinks seller and I had the idea that her cold drinks could help relieve some of the guys swelling. Anyway we showed her our note and she looked confused and started walking downhill. So we had to grab her and after two minutes of explanation a very confused old woman went off in the right direction (we were told later that she never arrived). When we finally got down to the park entrance and showed the note to someone concern was minimal. It was true that I had not expected a helicopter rescue of the sort you see in Europe or the states but I expected more of a reaction than just one guy strolling back up the mountain with his hands in his pockets. They did not even think to take some transport to the base of the hill to save the guy at least some walking. The guide, still looking scared, made a big fuss about it and insisted on dropping him off at the hospital on the way back.
The beach was very nice. The fact that the sea was very shallow for miles out to sea did not stop us having a good swim and after this we got a bit of sun. Predictably everyone from our and every other tour group was there and it felt a bit strange to be totally surrounded by westerners. It was as if the beach could have been anywhere. As the shadows got longer everyone retired to the beach bar and then turned for home. That evening we some how avoided our guide and managed to find a Bia Hoi place where we were able to drink some suspiciously un alcoholic beers for 10p a glass.
Friday, 23 October 1998
Hanoi, Gia Lam, Vietnam
Again we woke up before the guide started knocking on our window and after breakfast took the boat back. This time round we stopped for swimming rather than to visit a cave but annoyingly the boat seemed to take pretty much the same route back - despite the fact that we were assured that it would be different. We got back to the shore and after lunch found that our coach was not there. Our pathetic guide lost some sort of argument and rather than our small group being taken in a minibus that he had said was sent by the Lonely Planet cafe it was hijacked by the other guide on the premise that it would be a faster way for him to get the disabled Spaniard to hospital in Hanoi. So we were bundled into a coach with a third tour group for the four and a half hour journey.
Back in Hanoi we had just an hour and a half before we were due to catch the overnight bus to Hue. This was about enough time to grab one last ice cream and have some dinner. The minibus we took was surprisingly too small for all its passengers and luggage and people were left sitting in all sorts of corners. We did not suffer this fate, not that it mattered because we were hardly able to get more than a couple of hours of sleep all night.
Saturday, 24 October 1998
Hoi An, Quang Nam Da Nang, Vietnam
Coming out of a semi-slumber we found ourselves in an amazing dawn light landscape of coconut palms, rice paddies and sand dunes all covered by a wispy mist. To add to the picture the rising sun adopted a very dull orange colour in the first quarter of an hour of its ascent and set against the grey sky it would have made such a good photograph if only the bus had not been travelling so fast.
When we arrived in Hue we were escorted into another travellers cafe and started to realise how the tourist industry in Vietnam worked. The owner of the cafe came in and presented us with a list of options, you could stay in their hotel, you could catch a bus to Hoi An etc. whatever you wanted they could arrange it. Since we had heard good reports of Hoi An we decided to catch the onwards bus and got them to arrange it simply because it would enable us to have more time to look around Hue. However I began to realise that the trip between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh was like a massive conveyor belt which allowed people to get off at several convenient places but was nevertheless very tightly controlled by a small group of companies.
Hue was an amazingly relaxed place and if it was not for the price of entrance tickets to its sights it might have been good to stay. As it was we had time to visit the imperial city - a vestige of the times when Vietnam was ruled from Hue before it was demolished by the French and American wars. Basically the old town of Hue is still enclosed within city walls and within this there is a further walled Imperial City and within this a Forbidden Purple City. The majority of buildings have been destroyed by wars and although there are a few which have been restored the majority of the vast site is still covered by the remains of shattered buildings overgrown by weeds. It was very atmospheric and with its tree lined boulevards, enclosed courtyards and many temples you were able to get a picture of what it was like. This I guess was the thing that was good about it, when it is 100% restored you will no longer have to use your imagination to picture it and all you will see are the shiny facades of reconstructed buildings. Instead it was much nicer to see fragments of the old decorations and the outlines of buildings and fill in the rest with your imagination.
At 1400 we climbed into a small minibus to Hoi An along with a few of the people who had travelled with us from Hanoi. It took about five hours and we passed over a small range of mountains, the first hills of any sort we had seen in Vietnam, and got some glimpses of fishing villages and deserted beaches. We had the usual routine getting off the bus, we were driven to a hotel and before we could get out the hotel owner was inside the bus to greet us and tell us the prices of her rooms. Things were getting a bit more serious however, the minibus driver would not let us take our bags out until we looked at a room. I managed to persuade him that his tactic was unlikely to do more than piss me off and eventually he relented. A quick scout around the town revealed that there was a lot better value to be found elsewhere and pretty soon we were settled in and enjoying a four course seafood meal.
Sunday, 25 October 1998
Hoi An, Quang Nam Da Nang, Vietnam
The night before we had booked a bus to My Son , a half ruined Champa burial complex not too far away. I dozed off several times due to a late night session at the "Peace Bar" the night before. As we travelled south things were becoming hotter and hotter and even at 1000 it was unpleasant. The Cham kings constructed some seventy tombs at My Son between the fourth and thirteenth centuries however during the American war some of the more impressive buildings were leveled by bombing. The thing that was very interesting about the tombs was that they were covered in carvings which were very reminiscent of European work especially some of the soldiers who looked like they had just returned from the crusades. This combined with the fact that it was brick built gave the place the appearance of a Victorian folly. We walked around for a couple of hours exploring the main group before following paths through the undergrowth and bomb craters to less well-tended tombs dotted around the hills.
When we got back we were so exhausted that we decided to sleep for a while. Finally at 1600 we emerged to see what Hoi An had to offer. We soon realised that we liked the place a lot more than we thought we would. Despite the large number of western tourists the place was very quiet and at sunset the river, perfectly still apart from the ripples of the occasional passing boat, provided a perfect place to sit in a cafe and chat. One of the temptations of the town is an endless series of tailors shops able to make clothes up in hours for very little money. My lightweight cotton trousers were by now looking very pathetic and Anna had been hankering after a sleeveless top ever since China. So we decided to extend our stay by another day and after sunset marched in the direction of the nearest establishment.
I am not sure how many people come to Hoi An with the intention of making clothes but its true that nearly everyone leaves at least one garment better off. The long-term travellers replacing threadbare items and the three weekers ordering suits and even winter coats. A simple top costs around $4, trousers $10 and a guy who had a wool suit made to a Gucci pattern had to fork out a not too unreasonable $25. All we had to do was go along with our defunct items, point at some cloth and say copy. In fact we were so confident that my black silk and cotton mix trousers would turn out okay that we got them to make the waist-band and trim the pockets with some purple material. We picked them up the next day and with the exception of a not sewed up pocket that was soon fixed everything was perfect right down to the very important double stitched seams.
Monday, 26 October 1998
Hoi An, Quang Nam Da Nang, Vietnam
We had great plans for this day the night before having set the town's beach firmly in our sights. Sadly it was not to be as the temperature at breakfast made me wince with the thought of having to cycle the 4km there. Instead we opted to explore the town itself. This took up about an hour of our time - the only tourist attractions were the Chinese assembly halls, a couple of houses and a bridge and they were covered under a combined $5 ticket. However we got to the bridge and realised that the whole thing was a tourist trap because we managed to see all of the bridge from the street without a ticket. It became clear that the tourist attractions were a rather motley assortment thrown together to make sure tourists who were not at the beach or My Son did pay some money.
The thing we did find however was an excellent wood carvers. They were in the process of carving some amazing coffee tables whilst we were there and the depth and complexity of the work was top quality. However a two metre square table only cost $350 + $100 shipping and from traipsing around London furniture shops we knew that it would easily set you back $1000 if not more. The trouble was that with our sights set on moving when we got back to London we had no idea if such furniture would fit in.
That night was the third in a row spent in the next door Peace Bar and surprisingly they had a free beer party. Well not entirely free because after 10 you had to start paying again but with the mass of people that were drawn to the place we guessed that he would make some profit on the night. It seemed a bit altruistic because the tourists in Hoi An were so transient but not being one to complain.... After a game of pool we sat down in a quietish corner with the intention of drinking the bar owner into bankruptcy when Don came over and introduced himself. Don was probably one of the more unusual travellers we met. At sixty (we think because a later "guess my age" conversation degenerated into a series of jokes) he had travelled most of the world and had stories from every country you could name. He had been to Greece when Jackie Onassis made it fashionable, he had been to Bali when Kuta beach was little more than straw huts etc. More than this he had a real New Yorker's dry sense of humour and he was as much out of love with Vietnam as we were. He introduced us to an English couple who were following a not too dissimilar route and who were also a little disillusioned and we chatted to them until the free beer ran out and then some.
Tuesday, 27 October 1998
Nha Trang, Khanh Hoa, Vietnam
The thing with Vietnam is that it is very long. Hanoi to Saigon is in truth a monster 40hr journey and with the train weighing in at three times as expensive as the bus the later is quite popular. This means that the majority of people break their trip into at least three chunks. However there is only a limited range of places that the tour operators guidebooks consider worthy and so everyone ends up at the same places. Thus it came as little surprise that we were sharing the same bus to Nha Trang as Don and a couple of other people we recognised from the peace bar. The bus trip, although ruthlessly designed to get the most money out of us at affiliated restaurant stops, rated as one of the best because we got to spend a quarter of an hour on two perfect beaches and had a nice lunch at a restaurant on stilts above a fishery. Also with Don on a much tighter budget than us we were able to have a good gripe about tour company practices.
When we finally got to Nha Trang we were faced with one of the worst practices that of trying to put you in one of "their" hotels. Except it did not work in quite the same way because they offered to take us to wherever we wanted. The majority of the bus, excluding Don, a Danish girl and us stayed at the first stop hotel. We however insisted on being taken to the places we had decided upon and after no amount of hanging around the bus departed. Of course all that happened was that they took us to another affiliated hotel and when we turned this down we were returned to the first hotel. After this they were at a bit of a loss as to what they should do, after all they had made us a promise, so after more bickering and another circuit of the block we ended up where we wanted. Sadly the hotel we had been heading for turned out to be a dump and we in fact had to pay a cyclo driver (who also tried to sell us on a hotel) to take us back across town and we ended up staying opposite where we had first been dropped.
Wednesday, 28 October 1998
Nha Trang, Khanh Hoa, Vietnam
Okay, worse than ending up in the same places you actually end up doing the same things. We had booked the night before to go on a boat trip of four islands around Nha Trang some of which had some snorkeling. We knew that included in the very modest $7 was all the seafood you could possibly eat and a mention of free wine. We also were entitled to a free breakfast and of course at breakfast we met everyone who had travelled with us in the bus from Hoi An. Don was also there and had struck up a conversation with another Brit (one of his most excellent traits was that he would continually introduce himself to everyone and anyone). We sat down with them and found out that Diamond, as we were later informed was his name, lived a life of leisure (or should that be pleasure) in Thailand with the odd side trip to other sexually liberated countries in SE Asia. Don informed us that the previous evening he had gone for a stroll along the beach and witnessed a prostitute and her "john" in the act. Apparently as soon as she spotted him, a potential customer who would be paying in dollars and not dong, she de-coupled and ran towards him.........
We realised the full extent of what we had let ourselves in for when we met Mama Hanh. Vietnamese and of an indeterminable age she was swathed in a turquoise Nike shell suit topped with a green hat covered in badges one of which I noted had travelled all the way from Richer Sounds. Mama Hanh introduced herself and then said "today you have free party, free wine, free food, free f***ed up, even Mama free - you must not be lazy baby!". It all started off well with the snorkeling making up for reduced visibility with a lot of coral and some shocked looking fish. Then, at about 1100, the day started to degenerate. The rubber rings came out, Heineken's were retrieved from the depths of the ice box and the chilling out started to commence. After the first session the ship moved on to the next island and it was back into the sea along with a floating bar from which we were served a rather dubious wine and huge slices of pineapple. The "free fucked up" explained itself when a cigarette packet stuffed with joints was passed around. We separated from the group and found Don, also abstaining, and chatted whilst the raft of orange rubber ring encased people holding beakers of wine in one hand and a J in the other drifted off, mentally as well as physically, ably led by Mama Hanh with five bottles of wine tucked into the top of her shell suit. As someone put it, it was just like a party with the added advantage that you could take a leak wherever you wanted.
Back on board spirits were high when the tables were set for lunch, there really was more seafood than we could eat followed by more fruits than it was safe to eat. On top of the wacky backy, Heineken and wine it all proved a bit too much for one girl who blew chunks into the conveniently placed sea. We arrived pretty quickly at the next destination, a beach, and were told that it would cost us three thousand to get on to it. Now I do not wish to portray ourselves and our fellow travellers as tight but when it came to a choice between paying 15p or staying on board the verdict was almost unanimous (although I suspect the location of the ice cold beers played some part in this). So we just sunbathed and swam and drank whilst Mama poured scorn at a less lively rival tour boat using a loud hailer which I swear had last seen action strapped to the side of a helicopter playing Ride of the Valkyrie's. The sad thing was that the other tour had exactly the same programme it was just that they left fifteen minutes earlier.
The fourth Island was barely noticed by most people so we never did find out what was the purpose of the bizarre Disney world concrete pirate's ship erected on its coast. After this we returned to shore, a shower and a steak supper. The party was meant to continue at a club on Nha Trang's beach but attendance was very limited and the not so happy happy hour turned out to be exactly an hour long. We gave up and sat on the beach listening to the waves and watching a far away thunder storm, thankfully we were not treated to the same display as Don was the night before.
Thursday, 29 October 1998
Ho Chi Minh City, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
We were surprised to not see Don the next morning but maybe this was because he was going to Da Lat, an experience we had decided to skip. However we still had not escaped the conveyor belt because there were two Australians who we had first seen in Hoi An accompanying us. I call it a conveyor belt because at a later date we were told that for the Vietnamese Vietnam could be symbolised as two rice bowls with a stick in between; for the tourist Vietnam can be seen as two week long tours with a conveyor belt in between. The trip was not as good as the previous one, apart from a stop at Ca Na Beach (which actually tempted us to stay) our lunch stop was in the middle of a town at a very over priced cafe. When we decided it was not really worth it and walked out and went to a very basic place across the road the waitress from the expensive joint ran ahead of us, what she said we will never know but we got a fair price in the end.
In Saigon we had the usual problems getting out of the bus, however we had been deposited in tourist central and knew that we were within a very short walk of hundreds of mini-hotels. We in fact went about as far away as we could and found a place where we paid a bit more than we should but got a vast room. We then found a restaurant with a 100% western clientele and settled down for some very cheap beers.
Friday, 30 October 1998
Ho Chi Minh City, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
On our first day in Saigon we woke up face to face with the southern monsoon. This turned out to be pretty easy to cope with, basically it rains very heavily for an hour then stops. So you end up stuck in a cafe or stuck in the hotel or stuck under a tree and then you can go on with your day. So carrying on with our day we tidied a few odds and ends up.
We had basically been getting so hacked off with the pedestrian nature of Vietnam that we thought that Cambodia would be a welcome relief. In our hotel we found the Cambodia Lonely Planet and read it enough to start putting us off - we could get to Angkor easily but to then get to Thailand seemed to be out of the question. Reading it in the lobby we also found that we were sharing our hotel with someone who had helped to write the second edition of the Rough Guide to Vietnam. I was a bit surprised because I thought he would be one of those hardened know it all travellers who we would think we were wimps for being worried about it. In fact he seemed more concerned that we would take him to task about incorrect information in the guide book. The Cambodian saga basically came to an end at the Cambodian consulate where they were so relaxed about the situation, "oh just get a taxi from Angkor to Thailand" (over 100km through Khmer Rouge territory), that we thought they were more eager to get our $30 than give us travel advice. So adding this uncertainty to the fact that travelling overland would cost us more than flying we decided to put Angkor off for a later date.
The other task which dominated our day was to post Anna's bamboo Xylophone back to England. If you want to see evidence that Vietnam is still a communist country the post office is definitely the place to go. There is a list of instructions in English outlining the nine steps at the entrance of the post office and at first you think that it is a relic of a past era but it is sadly current. The steps are:
1) Buy your box and packing at a roadside stall outside the post office because the post office only does a small range of sizes of shoe box made out of cardboard that would last two seconds.
2) Go to the information desk and have them weigh your parcel and tell you how much they think it will cost but not officially because of course it cannot be weighed without the string on.
3) Pay 3000 Dong for a form in Vietnamese you cannot understand and which has no apparent purpose other than to act as a record that a parcel was sent.
4) Pay 4000 Dong for another form which you can barely understand (it is in French this time) and have an argument about whether you should pay another 4000 for another piece of paper which is basically a label with "To" written in one corner.
5) Have the contents of your parcel inspected by customs officials and then sealed with a "If this seal is broken..." label.
6) Have your parcel taped up. If you paid for the "To" piece of paper you would at this point get your shoe box wrapped in white paper and string - we did not and had ours taped up and had to write "To" ourselves. It was at this point that we had the usual argument about not having a "From" address and having to write the same address twice.
7) Pay 2000 Dong for a small piece of paper connected with the non-delivery of the parcel and to have another piece of paper stamped.
8) Finally have the parcel weighed, pay over 300,000 Dong to post the thing and get charged 8,000 more for sticky tape and plastic bindings.
Fortunately we missed a couple of steps because we were not posting anything that would have to be approved by the ministry of culture representative or the health inspectors but you get the picture. All in all it cost us $25 dollars to post a $12 Xylophone and the task of posting it involved dealing with no less than eight people. The charges for forms etc. were surprising especially in the light of the fact that the postage cost almost twenty times that of the forms but I guess it would be too easy to include everything in the one price.
Saturday, 31 October 1998
Ho Chi Minh City, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Taking the easy option for what we swore would be (and was) the last time we took a tour bus to the Cao Dai Holy See and the Cu Chi tunnels. The first of these is hard to explain, but basically Cao Daism is a very unique Vietnamese religion with 2 million followers in Vietnam. The religion attempts to unify all other religions by saying that there is one god and that Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism etc. are all just different sides of the same coin. Okay, this sounds sane enough but after this things start to get a bit strange. The design of their churches, for example, attempts to unify all other church designs with a two towered catholic front, a Muslim minaret in the middle and a Buddhist pagoda at the back. Everyone dresses in white at the novice level but as you progress through the hierarchy you follow a particular religion and wear a robe of a colour which denotes that religion. The most peculiar thing, something our guide did not mention, is that Victor Hugo, Sun Yatsen and a Vietnamese poets are the three "saints" and a picture of the unlikely trio dominates the entrance to the church.
One of the best things is that Cao Daism is a very colourful religion and with the inside of the temples splashed liberally in pink and every column encircled by dragons it is very photogenic. Thus at the 1200 ceremony at the main temple near Tay Ninh hordes of tourists ascend to the gods to watch the proceedings. And very interesting it was too. Everyone filed in taking a position in the church according to their rank. Then they chanted for about an hour accompanied by mono chord music and then I guess they must have stopped but we never witnessed this because our "Programme" said that it was time for lunch at the predesignated restaurant.
At Cu Chi the VC dug an extensive series of tunnels which mainly protected them from intensive bombing - returning American planes used to dump unused bombs here before landing at Saigon - but also helped them defend the area from land based attacks. I was resolved to not bother with too many war related sights but since all tours combined the two sights we thought that we may as well see at least one. It was a bit useless the highlight being bundled in to a 100m long corridor, which actually was built on three levels and having to get to the other end. It was tough work since the tunnel was about a metre tall along its length even though it had apparently been enlarged for western frames. It was slightly thought provoking in that you saw why the Americans eventually lost against such determination.
That night we went to the "Apocalypse Now" club. Coincidentally it was Halloween night and quite a few of the ex-pat community came dressed up for the occasion. The club was as tacky as the guidebook describe, ceiling fans had pictures of helicopter roofs painted above them the wall lights were covered in blood etc. The other noteworthy thing was that there was quite a high density of prostitutes and elderly western men desperately trying to cling to an air of respectability as call girls a third of their age dragged them on to the dance floor to dance to Boney M. One would not necessarily think of Saigon as a destination for the sex tourist but overhearing the conversation the next day of an elderly guy doing a crawl of Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines it is certainly on the map.
Sunday, 1 November 1998
Ho Chi Minh City, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Well we had planned to go to the Mekong Delta but "the best laid plans of mice and men.." as they say. In this case rescheduling was due to monster hangovers, waking up very late and a certain confusion about how we would get there. So instead we decided to have a look around Cholon (literally the "Big market" that is the Chinese quarter). It has a reputation for being a busy place with hundreds of people running around selling everything and anything. It is also rumoured to be romantic in a kind of sleazy way having been used as the backdrop for the art-porn classic "The Lover". It failed in the first instance because everyone was asleep when we walked into its central market and we were unable to buy a bar of washing soap. It also failed in the second instance because as soon as we got there it started to pour down with rain making the place look about as romantic as Skegness. We dived between the stalls, failed to bargain the price of a beer down to reasonable amount and found out about the buses. And that's really all we did that day...
Monday, 2 November 1998
Can Tho, Vietnam
Our first day back in independent traveller mode. We did pretty well catching first a bus to the ferry at My Thuan then finding a bus to Can Tho in the ferry and jumping aboard that. We desperately needed to change dollars into dong and so at Can Tho decided to go to the bank in case our eventual destination, Cau Mau had no such facilities. In the end we sort of lost momentum after the bank and decided to stop in Can Tho for the night. This turned out to be not so bad a decision after a bit of wandering about we found a cheap hotel and a restaurant with cheap beers on the banks of the Mekong. One minor annoyance was a woman that continually pestered us to take a trip on he boat to visit the local floating markets. Unfortunately I read some of the comments in her guest book and when they mentioned cruising on the Mekong at five thirty in the morning I was instantly hooked. We bargained the woman down from fifteen dollars to twelve for a one way trip to a floating market on the way to Cau Mau and she went away happy.
In fact we were so enamoured with the price of BGI beer at the Mekong restaurant that we stayed all afternoon and a good part of the evening there. The sunset was particularly tranquil and we had plenty of entertainment. First off was a Vietnamese girl who had been written a letter in french by the mother of her boyfriend that she wanted us to translate into English. We had a lot of difficulty with it and in the course of trying to clarify a few things withe girl started to realise that it was a delicate situation. It seemed that the french guy had met her a couple of years ago and lived with her for sometime but she had not seen him for a while. Then all of a sudden she gets this letter from the guy's mother saying how glad she was to here of their coming wedding and its a pity that she's would not be able to come herself.
In the end we thought that it was a bit too delicate a situation to risk to our schoolboy french and fortunately the people sitting on the next table were French so we passed the hot potato to them. The second act was this red haired westerner who, having come to the restaurant to dine alone had subsequently attracted a small entourage of children. In Vietnam children constantly come up to you either begging or trying to sell you something. We had got into the habit of ignoring them but this guy loved them and soon had three sitting at his table and one climbing on his shoulders. We cruelly speculated that he was a pedophile but this speculation was temporarily discounted when we found out that he was responsible for helping schools in the delta with their teaching of french. Our initial beliefs however were restored when we found out that he was also Belgian...
Tuesday, 3 November 1998
Can Tho, Vietnam
Getting up at five in the morning is hard enough but when you are supposed to be on holiday it is a killer. However we were rewarded by a classic sunrise as we chugged through the delta. For some reason the annoying woman had not come to act as guide herself but had delegated to a friend who strangely enough did not speak any English. So we sat in silence as we chugged through the backwaters of the Delta observing life on the river. This is the way to see the Delta, from the road you see little but the big towns, from a boat you see the hundreds of small communities only connected by the river who make their life from fishing, growing coconuts etc. After two and a half hours of watching the world go by we finally arrived at Phung Hiep floating market and realised why it was not important that our guide spoke English, there was little to say. Where our guidebook had said we would see thousands of boats piled with everything from coffins to coconuts we found in the order of twenty boats seemingly not selling anything. I think our mistake had been to trust our guidebook and try to find an original market. We knew that the tour groups visited the markets at Can Tho but rather than go to one that had been kept alive for the sake of tourism we decided to go our own way. The annoying woman could have been a bit more vocal and as our mute guide dropped us off at the dockside I cursed myself for not having held out for ten dollars.
Having toured the more extensive land based market we then had a bit of a crisis about whether we should go to Cau Mau or double back. The problem was that Cau Mau was another five hours from where we were and in order to see the Cajeput forest there we would have to wait until the day after to get a boat and the town itself did not sound attractive enough to waste half a day in and spend ten hours travelling time getting to. So we decided to turn back and go to a place called Vinh Long, the theory being that in the time it would take us to see Cau Mau we could visit at least three other towns with only a few hours travelling between them.
We reached Vinh Long pretty quickly. By this point our decision to use public buses was starting to get to us. Whereas in China the main problem had been our fellow passengers in Vietnam it was lack of room. There was precious little space to start off with which was further reduced by the fact that sacks of grain would be shoved under every seat so that you had to spend most of the journey with your knees around your ears. Another annoying thing is that all the bus stations are kilometres out of town so you have two sets of squabbles with rickshaw and Honda Om drivers at each end of the journey. The price of bus tickets was also an issue as the conductors made up random figures based on how much they thought they could get away with. At first we paid the prices but towards the end we found that we could argue with them and embarrass them enough to give us a more realistic fare.
Vinh Long was a bit too full of itself. It had a riverfront promenade and nice sunsets and seemed to think that was enough to warrant three hotels with only $20 plus rooms. The only other option, it turned out, was in fact owned by the same group as two of the more expensive hotels and it seemed they were running it down to force budget travellers into paying a bit more in one of their others. We tried our Chinese tactics and told one hotel that we would stay two nights so could they give us a discount on the $20 price tag. The receptionist looked at us as if to say "I am going to help you out" but actually said "I can let you have the room for two nights for $40". Our attempt to point out that this was not a discount prompted her to repeat the phrase again like some automaton and it was only after several attempts that she said something different, "these are the prices the office gives me". During our loop around the hotels we also noticed something that amazed us, a laminated price list for rooms one side in Vietnamese with prices in dong the other side in English and dollars. The dollar prices were at least double and sometimes even five times those in dong and when we paid in dong they actually took the dollar price and converted it into dong. In all our time in China we had never seen such bare faced double pricing, at least there they had the decency to hide the original price from you and if they displayed a price that was the price that everyone paid. Here the message was simple "all foreigners are rich so it is right that they should pay more". In the end we took a very disgusting room for $8 and complained bitterly.
The redeeming feature of Vinh Long is Anh Vinh island. As a counterpoint to the tourist trap on the opposite bank Anh Vinh is a picture of rural life on the delta. It is composed of hundreds of scraps of land joined by bridges and seems permanently in danger of flooding. Getting there the Vinh Long tourist machine had done its best to get us to charter a boat to cross the river by not marking where the ferry leaves from and getting all the town residents to tell tourists that there is no ferry. However we put our faith in the rough guide, went to the general area it had indicated and stood next to a guy standing on the riverside with a suitcase. Eventually it pulled in at a totally unmarked flight of stairs down to the river and we went across. The ticket office and all the signs, rather coincidentally turned out to all be on the other side.
Walking around the island was a delight with everyone saying hello to us, no begging and the only selling being the local boat owners who could be hired for a fraction of the price of the tourist boats. The random monsoon hour pinned us under a tree but when it grew in intensity we invited ourselves into the porch of a neighbouring house and it turned out that the daughter of the house's boyfriend had just graduated in English so we chatted to him. Sadly his ambition was to work for the tourist company in Vinh Long so we sowed the seeds of rebellion in him trying to persuade him that Vinh Long had queered its own pitch and needed to become much more tourist friendly. Not that we had any illusions that this would change things but he was a nice chap and it made me wonder at the power of the tourist dollar that in a couple of years he would become one of the greedy sign-removing sharks that lived over the other side of the water.
Wednesday, 4 November 1998
Tra Vinh, Vinh Long, Vietnam
We had lied to the automaton at the other hotel we were not staying for two nights in town and the next day we went 65km up the road to Tra Vinh. This was a marked improvement, although it had no riverfront promenade it did have a hotel which charged reasonable prices for sparkling clean rooms and a number of local attractions. After a brief lunch and an unsuccessful attempt to hire bicycles we got into a sort of trailer pulled by a motorbike arrangement that constituted a local taxi. First we went to the Ba Om pond, a square pond with some legend associated with it. I guess it would have looked nice had it not been for a large amount of litter strewn around it, supposedly from a Khmer celebration the previous night but I could well believe it was like that most of the year round. We did a circuit, sat in a cafe and had a half-hearted probe around a very kitsch looking Khmer temple.
After this we stopped two motorbike owners on the road and got a pillion ride to the Chua Hung temple. The Honda Om (literally "embrace") is the form of Vietnamese travel I hate the most, I cannot look around because I have the feeling that any movement on my part would topple the bike over and I usual spend the whole trip imagining what would happen if I fell off the back. We got there and found ourselves in for a rare treat - they were re roofing the temple and had erected bamboo scaffolding up the side and a line of saffron robed Khmer monks formed a fireman's chain to transport tiles up to the top. The evening sun set the whole thing off wonderfully and it amazes me to think that I did not take a picture then and there. By the time I had remembered to they had packed up for the day.
We were soon greeted by the English speaking monk who introduced us to his master and took us inside the temple to show up the colossal gold Buddha statue therein. He told us that there were 75 monks at this temple and overall there were 550 Khmer pagodas in the Delta. They were very much part of the local community, in Vietnam education has to be paid for so in the poorer delta the monks have taken on the task of educating children for free. The problem is that they educate them in Khmer (which is also the language of Cambodia) solely so of course they cannot get jobs out of the region.
But the real attraction of the pagoda was not chatting to the monks, who were great fun, or the pagoda itself, which was very imposing, but the storks. Every evening at sunset about 150 storks return to nest in the forest surrounding the pagoda and the sight of them gliding effortlessly around in the late afternoon sun is mesmerising. The only problem was I was not equipped with a telephoto lens so the pictures of it look like white dots in treetops.
Thursday, 5 November 1998
Cao Lanh, Dong Thap, Vietnam
Cao Lanh was our next destination. Having passed up gliding around the cajeput forests around Cau Mau we decided to do the same at the rather off puttingly named Xeo Quyt Tourist Jungle. Sadly our getting there was further complicated by the fact that we had left our disembarkation cards with the receptionist at our hotel in Vinh Long and although we would be passing through it meant shuttling back and forth from the bus station. On top of this Cao Lanh was on a side road off of the Vinh Long-Saigon bus route so we had to change over to a local bus which did not leave for an hour. We eventually got there at around three and by this time there was no question of seeing the jungle that day so we signed up for a boat the next day.
When we came back we had a bit of luck, we ran into a Danish couple Anne and Michael who we had first met on the bus to Hoi An over a week beforehand. They had pretty much gotten as hacked off with things as we had but whereas we had stopped short of hiring a motorbike to tour the delta they had. When we met them in the hotel reception this was actually causing them problems since the receptionist was mechanically insisting that she needed two passports, that the disembarkation cards were not enough and that she did not care that they had left the other passport as security for the bike. Anyway in the end Anne said only she would take a room, Michael would sleep elsewhere, and although after taking the room they both went upstairs the receptionist seemed to accept this compromise.
We had dinner with them at a restaurant near the hotel sheltering from the monsoon hour which that day lasted most of the night. We had guessed that they were here to see Xeo Quyt too and naturally they leapt at the chance to share costs with us. We then fell into and out-and-out "Vietnam is too touristy" conversation, comparing notes and congratulating ourselves that we had escaped.
Our conversation however was to be underlined by the bill at the restaurant. Okay we accepted that the bread that we had not asked for but we had eaten would appear on the menu. We were rather cross that they had charged us 2000 dong for wet towels which normally are free. But we blew our top when we noticed that the price of our steaks had increased from what was written on the menu. The waiter had cunningly delivered a copy of the menu with the bill, something that never ever happens, and the price of steak in this matched that on the bill. So realising that something fishy was going on Anna and Michael searched the back of the restaurant and found the original menu we had been given. It was amazing, the prices on one were 10% more than on the other. It was clearly a con since the waiter had taken the unusual step of presenting the second menu with the bill so we rewrote the bill using the correct prices. Funnily enough Anna and I also claimed we had been charged for one more beer than we had and, since in retrospect we realised that the bill had been correct in this one regard, thus managed to claw back the cost of the towels and the bread!
Friday, 6 November 1998
Ben Tre, Vietnam
The trip to Xeo Quyt the next morning kicked off at seven. We took Honda Om's to My Thiep with the others following on their own bike. From here we got a large longtail forty minutes down the river to the jungle and there we transferred to a very shallow rowing boat. We cruise around in the cajeput jungle for about half an hour and with no other tourists to ruin the effect it was quite peaceful. The guide then showed us some less than impressive Vietcong bunkers (Xeo Quyt was the place that the generals ran most of the war from) and then announced that we should give his some money. We did not expect this since at half a dollar each we had already paid three times the entry fee but we gave him what in most cases would be called a tip but in this case had become the guide's right. On the boat back I reflected that we had also paid too much for the two forty minute boat transfers but since we were sharing costs it was not the end of the world.
We said goodbye to Anne and Michael at the roadside and immediately jumped on a bus bound for our next destination My Tho. Here our guidebook had advised us to press through the very touristy My Tho and catch a ferry to a town called Ben Tre where things would be a bit more reasonable. This turned out to be more than true as in comparison Ben Tre was quite poor and all we had to do was to cross the bridge to the more rustic south side of town to be offered a boat at a cost that made our other exploits seem about s independent as a package holiday to Majorca. We were able to hire a boat for three hours for a little over four dollars. Even then we could have bargained a bit harder but we were more than happy to give a bit of money to the community rather than straight to the tourist agencies.
Our second boat trip of the day could not have been more different. We had no fixed agenda - I managed to explain three hours and showed the boat owner a pre-prepared picture that I had drawn which looked like the story boards for Orson Welles' uncompleted film of "Hearts of Darkness". After a nod we got in and chugged off in the direction of nowhere. The river he chose was fantastic, I had drawn water palms hanging over the river and water palms were provided in abundance. Other vessels plied the river some rowed and some super fast long tails. After a while we pulled up beside a bridge. We had no way of communicating with the guy - he spoke no English and our Vietnamese phrase book stretched to little more than "where's the toilet". So we followed him off the boat and into a house.
Things did not get much clearer when we got in the house, we sat down in the main room opposite an old guy with white hair who was fiddling around with the contents of a small plastic bag. After a while it became clear that this was the guy's home, the old guy being his father and the other people running in and out being his brother's family. They produced two coconuts and some bananas and we proceeded to get down to business. The conversational Vietnamese section of the LP SE Asia phrase book is extremely limited (well what would you expect). It runs to "are you single" and the possibly useful "is your husband here". Sadly "so what is it you chaps do in the jungle at nights?" and "are we prisoners here?" do not feature much less their answers (it does in fact not even include yes and no). However we managed to bang out a conversation using the relationships section made all the longer for the fact that there are different words for elder brother and younger brother.
I may be accused of being a bit cynical here but it was tough going, we were in the middle of nowhere conversing with the boatman's brother while the rest of the family looked on. Others would thrive on such a situation, a real experience of everyday delta life. I on the other hand was truck by the similarity of the atmosphere to that in a "Handful of Dust" where the chap, stuck in the middle of the amazon, starts to realise that he is trapped reading to the blind Alec Guinness for the rest of his life. If one of the family's mother-of-pearl ancestor cupboards swung open to reveal the complete works of Dickens I would have been out and swimming to freedom before you could say Pickwick. Anyway it was clear that the reason our boatman had been a bit tense was that his normal hour itinerary was half an hour travelling to and from his house with half an hour drinking coconut with his family. Since we could see that the conversation was not going to stretch to two and a half hours and we were keen to explore we made first subtle hints then got up from the table. Reluctantly our boatman lead us to his boat and we took the problem of where to go out of his hands by indicating that we wanted to go deeper into the jungle.
This was probably the best section of the trip, the river got narrower and narrower until the fronds of the water palms met above us forming a vaulted ceiling. There were no weird animal noises but every so often we would encounter a small slash-and-burn clearing and the locals would stare or wave at us from the bank. We finally reached a point where the boat would go no further, at a clearing where a man stood on the bank staring at us. I quickly decided that he would be our Kurtz but with no intention of returning him to civilisation we turned around and went back. When we finally got back we had only been going for just over two hours we pointed this out to the boatman, who did not have a watch, and he lowered his price only by 60c rather than a third but we had such a great time that we decided he deserved it.
Back in Ben Tre we found an okay hotel but had problems with rampant begging. Anna had a four year old child locked onto her leg for about ten minutes until its father, realising that he was not going to make any money unlocked its grip. We also had problems of voyeurs staring into our room whilst we were changing but we managed to have dinner at a locals' restaurant and get charged a decent price.
Saturday, 7 November 1998
Ho Chi Minh City, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Our two tasks for the day were to get back to Saigon and clear off a small list of things to-do. The trip was mostly okay and we were back in Saigon for twelve. The owner of the hotel we were staying at was predictably over-the-top in terms of being pleased to see us and we picked up our rucksacks and got our old room back. We then dived off into the city sending a couple of postcards, looking for a CD of traditional Vietnamese music and finding that www.amazon.com was a much easier place to get it from than the country itself. We also got trapped by the rain hour in a street cafe and returned to the restaurant where we had eaten for three out of our previous nights in the town to be greeted like regulars. The day provided a relaxing spring board into the delights of the Khao San Road where we were sure we would be spending at least our first night in Bangkok.