Last night flew from Vientiane to Hanoi without any problems (and only a
service charge' this time). It's a bit of a shock despite the fact that they are 2 capital
cities in adjoining countries, but Vientiane (population 120,000) and Hanoi (population 3.5
million) couldn't be more different. As soon as we got through customs, the taxi touts were
on to us. The difference between here and Laos became apparent immediately, as we had to
tell one driver "No" at least half a dozen times and he still kept following us around. Got
the airport minibus that we had been given a tip about (one fifth the price of a taxi ride)
and arrived in the Old Quarter part of Hanoi. As soon as the bus pulled up outside the
hotel, the touts were on to us again, and once again would just not leave us alone. Looked
at a couple of grotty places before finding somewhere decent - $8 for a room that would cost
several hundred in the UK or USA; all nice furniture, spacious, minibar, air conditioning,
etc. The glut of hotels that have been built over the past few years far outweighs the
number of tourists, so competition is fierce. Settled into the hotel and came to problem
number one: Crossing the road.
Blimey! There is a large lake in Hanoi with a 4-lane road going around it.
There must be
people who have crossed the road towards the lake and never made it back again. They
probably live in a big community on the edge of the lake, planning for the big day when they
will pluck up the courage to try crossing it again (of course that day will never come -
escaping from Alcatraz is considerably more likely!). There are only a few cars around, but
it's the motorbikes that are the problem. 2.5 million of them in the city alone. Although
it's only (if that is the right word) a 4-lane road, that is plenty of room for 20+ bikes
lined up and coming towards you in a constant stream. It's even more fun at night - you see
what you think is a gap, then only realise just in time that it's a motorbike without it's
lights on. Crossing the road isn't a problem for the locals because they're all riding
motorbikes - they're not stupid!
Wandered the streets for a while, and experienced an instant rainstorm. Usually
you feel a
few drops before a deluge starts, but the sky went from dry to wet instantly - quite a
spectacle! Sheltered under cover for a while and talked to a couple of locals - one of whom
called me David Beckham. And then his friend chimed in that Sharon must be Posh Spice. I
don't know which one of us was more offended!
Another day, another country, another ridiculous currency. This one is called
the 'dong' and
there are around 15,500 to the dollar - unfortunately too many digits for our pocket
currency converter to deal with so I had better brush up on my 15,500 times-table! Inflation
ran at around 800% during the 1980s, making the currency virtually worthless but at least
they have a 100,000 dong note (around $6 - woo hoo!), so the wad remains fairly manageable.
And they also restrict you at ATMs to taking out a mere 2 million dong per day - obviously
they haven't heard how much we spend on tourist tat on a daily basis!
Went on a walking tour of the Old Quarter, in probably the busiest place
on earth. Not
really too much to see apart from a few small temples (after Thailand, Laos and Cambodia we
hardly gave them a second glance), and the main purpose of the city seems to be shopping.
All the pavements are filled with stuff from the shops, the people running them, and parked
motorbikes - thousands of them. So to get around you have to walk in the road, leaving
yourself as an easy target for the moving motorbikes. Another strange thing is that all the
shops on each street sell exactly the same thing, and the roads are named after the stuff
that is sold. So there are streets selling beer, cigarettes, buddha statues, metal boxes,
mirrors, etc. Our hotel is in the middle of 'Paint & Glue Street', which might come in
useful if I need to nip out for a bottle of meths in the middle of the night!
Wandered down to the 'Hanoi Hilton', a prison built in the late 19th century
Vietnamese revolutionaries when the French were still in charge here, but made more famous
during the Vietnam War (or the 'American War' as they call it over here) as it was used to
house U.S. airmen shot down during bombing raids on Hanoi. Much of the museum illustrates
the 'barbaric' conditions and punishment that the French handed out to the 'glorious'
Vietnamese, and there is also a display showing that despite the 'hideous war crimes' of the
U.S. airmen, they were all treated impeccably. It looks like they spent all their time
baking cakes and playing volleyball, occasionally taking time off doing this to open
presents sent by their friends and relatives! Saying that it is a bit one-sided would be an
understatement, but it's an interesting place nonetheless.
Also took a trip to the Museum of Ethnology, where on the way we were robbed
by the taxi
driver, whose meter was running twice as fast as it should have. This wasn't helped by him
taking the most indirect route possible and we begrudgingly handed over the cash. The museum
had some interesting stuff inside it, plus a woman who wanted to take pictures of us looking
around. So fame and fortune may be just around the corner as a top international supermodel
(as long as she didn't think we were David Beckham and Posh Spice!).
Tried 'Bia Ha Noi', which apparently comes from a 'unique water source'.
I reckon it's the
lake in the centre of Hanoi that they use! Must find a place that imports Beer Lao, and
Decided to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and spent a cultural
evening at the
theatre. Who said I was a philistine??? The world-famous water puppets are a few feet high
and perform in a small pool that acts as a stage. Attached to poles and manipulated by the
puppeteers who are hidden by a curtain, it's quite a cool show. They're accompanied by a
traditional Vietnamese orchestra playing weird-and-wonderful instruments, and you also get a
free cassette tape of the music (if anyone feels they can't do without a copy of this, just
let me know!), The puppets perform a series of short stories about Vietnamese life (fishing,
agriculture), dances, animals, dragons, and also a folk tale that rivals that Lao one for
it's poor storyline. A king goes off and defeats the enemy, and when he gets back he goes
onto the lake in a boat and has his magical sword taken away from him by a turtle. So, he
has no problem defeating an army of soldiers, but gets a beating from a turtle? Fine!
Day Eighty Seven - Hanoi
Took a tour group trip to a place called the 'Perfume Pagoda' about 40 miles
Took a minibus to a small town, and after refusing to pay 15,000 dong for a bottle of water
(this was the first asking price, at which we laughed in amazement then walked off before
they started lowering it), took a boat trip for an hour. No motorboats here - the boat was
rowed by a toothless old crone, who sat at the back and rowed facing forwards by pushing the
oars rather than pulling them. By the time we got off the boat and had refused offers of
bottles of water for increasingly ridiculous prices, the temperature was into the hundreds
and the humidity was horrible. I don't think I have ever been so sweaty, and the hour-long
hike up a steep hill to the cave didn't help much. There was some religious festival going
on and it was packed with Vietnamese, a lot of them from the countryside who clearly hadn't
seen non-Vietnamese people before. Our tour group became quite a spectacle as locals would
come up to touch the sweaty pale-skinned aliens. Apart from the instant celebrity status,
the cave was pretty disappointing and not a patch on Laos. The pagoda was similarly plain,
and we probably spent half an hour looking at the two of them.
Hiked back and got the return boat trip to the minibus. Throughout the day we had got the
feeling that everybody involved with the tourist industry in Vietnam is out to screw you out
of every penny they possibly can, and there is nothing they won't try. So it came as no
surprise when the toothless old crone boat-rower started prodding and following us and
demanding a tip. Not the best way to go about getting a tip, so she got nothing. Lucky she
wasn't pushed into the river, really!
And talking about being ripped off, things got considerably worse when we
got back to the
hotel. They decided to overcharge us for water, add 10% to our agreed room rate (a
'government tax' that they had neglected to mention before), and they had also charged us
more for the trip to the Perfume Pagoda than anyone else who took part. All of which paled
into insignificance next to their final stunt - the train ticket fiasco...
There were three trains going to the hill tribe region of Sapa where we were
overnight, and each train has different seats, sleeping carriage classes, optional extras,
etc. So we spent a long time last night going through them and getting prices before
deciding what to take. As soon as we chose a train, the bloke said "Oh sorry, I give wrong
price, that one costs more" immediately. Suspicious! Anyway we picked a train and sleeping
class and gave him the details (and the money - oh what fools we are!) last night so we
could pick up the tickets tonight and get on the train. Picked up the tickets and ... he had
booked the wrong train. It was going to the correct place but at a different time and was a
slow train that stopped at every station on the way. Not quite what you need if you're
trying to sleep! So we explained this to another bloke at reception whose English was fine
when he was persuading us to stay in the hotel but suddenly became non-existent. He did
manage to communicate that because the other bloke was the one we dealt with he would have
to sort it out. And guess what? He wasn't here right now! He was due to turn up at 9pm
though, which would hopefully give us just enough time to sort things out and get our later
train (the original one was full so we had already abandoned the idea of getting on that
one). The biggest issue was that the option he had booked us onto was considerably cheaper
than the one we had paid for. I wonder if the later train had been more expensive, would the
same mistake have happened? In fact I don't wonder about that at all, because there would be
no way it would have happened - we were being conned and backed into a corner. So this
thieving little toerag turns up and we explain to him that he has got it completely wrong.
Ideally we would have tried to get all our money back and leave him with the useless
tickets, but keeping the incorrect tickets and going on the later train was our only way of getting
to Sapa - and he knew it! So what we tried to get from him was the difference between the tickets
he was giving us and the tickets we had paid for, which was around $10. Seemed more than fair to
us, and we stood there and wrote down the numbers for him. By this point, his command of English
(perfect when explaining the tour to us and saying he understood which train we wanted to
catch when taking our money) had deserted him, and he offered us a couple of dollars
'discount'. We couldn't believe it, and for 15 minutes we stood there pointing out the
simple numbers to him in black and white. We got nowhere. He then increased his offer, at
which point we explained that we weren't bargaining over something - he had taken our cash
and we wanted it back! Finally we got to the heart of the matter - he wouldn't give us all
our money back because he was still claiming his commission. Again, completely unbelievable
- he thought we should still pay him for cocking everything up! By this time we had no
choice - we had to leave to get our train (another fact that he was fully aware of) so we
took the $6 he was offering and left. It also saved Sharon having to drag me off his
soon-to-be dismembered corpse! Throughout the entire episode he couldn't bring himself to
look either of us in the eye, instead the snivelling weasel stood there hanging his head
muttering to himself. We got in the taxi, who initially asked for 30,000 dong to take us to
the train station. When we told him the hotel said it should be half that amount, he threw a
fairly good tantrum (7/10!) by slamming his hands on the steering wheel and shouting in
anguish, and turned the meter on. It started at 10,000 dong, and after a couple of minutes
clicked over to 11,000 dong. And then we pulled up outside the railway station. No wonder he
was unhappy - he had not only failed to rip us off for three times and twice the price, he
had turned down our offer of 15,000 and only ended up getting 11,000. Which, I hasten to
add, is the fair price for the trip! From what we have seen of Vietnam so far, this appears
to be the mindset of the people here as far as tourism is concerned - if you're not ripping
people off then you're a failure. Sharon, being more tolerant than I am (if you can imagine
that???) is willing to carry on in Vietnam because there are so many interesting things to
see. Personally, after 2 days of looking over my shoulder all the time to make sure we're
not being conned/lied to/ripped off (which for most of the time we were), and despite the
'victory' over the latest taxi-driver-cum-Dick-Turpin-wannabe, I am reluctant to give one
more penny to anything connected with Vietnam and if I was on my own I would be heading for
Thailand using the means of transport (bus, train, plane, Starship Enterprise transporter
room) that got me out of Vietnam the fastest. Beam me up, Scotty!!!
Day Eighty Eight - Sapa
Update from last night ... shared the train sleeper compartment with a couple
who had spent 3
weeks in Vietnam. We shared tales of tourist misery here, and they are getting out of Vietnam
early. They are so sick of the way they have been treated at every turn that they are going to
China instead. Now China isn't exactly reknowned for it's record on treating people particularly
well, and for somebody to choose China over Vietnam is saying a lot! When we arrived in Vietnam we
wrote down all the things we wanted to do and how long they would take us, and had 45 days worth
of stuff but only a 30 day visa. After listening to reports and witnessing what goes on here, we
are currently busily crossing off entire towns, and it is extremely unlikely we will be here for
the full 30 days.
6am and it's early. But not too early for the first con of the day. Rudely
awoken by some women
who had obviously missed their English lesson when the phrase "bugger off" was explained, they
were selling coffee by telling everyone that we would reach our destination in 20 minutes. "Cool",
we thought, "we're going to arrive an hour early". Errrrr, nope! They were only telling people
that we would reach our destination in 20 minutes because THEY were getting off at THEIR stop in
20 minutes. We were still 2 hours away from Sapa, but their reasoning was that they could wake
people up 2 hours before they needed to, charge them ridiculous prices for crappy coffee, and be
done in time to get off at their stop without having to inconvenience themselves. Although we
didn't go for the coffee, when the train stopped 20 minutes later and a bunch of people including
the coffee hawkers got off, the corridor of the train was filled with tourists thinking that we
had arrived in Sapa. The announcements in Vietnamese didn't help much, and because our stop was
the end of the line, we figured it was best to stay on the train - if we were still there in 10
minutes we could be fairly sure that we had arrived in Sapa. Sure enough, a couple of minutes
after we had stopped, the train started up again, and it was only with hindsight that we found out
we were still a long way from Sapa. It would have been very east for a hundred backpackers to be
left stuck at this station miles from anywhere just because the coffee girls couldn't be bothered
to make a return journey. I know it's difficult to express total frustration in words, but
And then, just as we were about to get off the train, another toothless old
crone (where do they
find them all?) came round collecting garbage. We passed it to her and she kept pointing at our
table where our unopened water and cake (provided free!) was sitting. Just because I hadn't felt
like eating cake at 4 in the morning, she was expecting me to give it up. Surprisingly, my
naturally happy and compassionate demeanour was somewhat tainted at stupid-o-clock after being
repeatedly robbed over the past couple of days, but telling her to "bugger off" along with the act
of sticking the water and cake down the front of my trousers (no I WASN'T pleased to see her!)
sent her scuttling off to the next carriage.
That's it! I have had enough! I have decided to punish Vietnam in the severest
way possible by not
awarding them a score out of 100 at the end of the (hopefully short) visit here. Instead I will be
creating a Vietnamese "Hall of Shame" giving details of each con/lie/daylight robbery/etc. that
happens here. So far, after a mere 2 days, they have 12 entries. Not good for Vietnam, and
certainly not good for the amount of time I'm going to have to spent typing in all this whining
Back to the trip! Got a minibus from the train station to the part of Sapa
we were headed for
(about 30km away), and after 45 minutes driving we found ourselves ... back at the railway
station! The driver was determined not to go until the minibus was full, and as it became clearer
that there were no more tourists around, he ran into a family of three on their moped and threw
them into the back of the bus! Talking to the other tourist filth on the bus, it turns out they
were all lied to/robbed/ripped off for the train journey here, and one couple even paid more than
we did - which made me feel a bit better, but not much to be honest! And while we were on the bus
another rip-off took place in front of our eyes. A woman asked for the tickets so we gave them to
her. They had "PRICE: 15,000 DONG" written across them in large letters. The people behind us
hadn't got prepaid tickets so they paid cash, and she demanded 25,000 dong each off them. Chivalry
then took a back seat and we kept quiet in case she wanted us to pay 25,000 dong instead of the
15,000 dong we had already paid. Although this didn't happen to us and it therefore ineligible for
the "Hall of Shame", I felt it worthy of mention - if only so I can keep going on and on and on
about how much this place is getting on my nerves.
The countryside around Sapa is really beautiful - mountains, rivers, greenery,
and the temperature
is perfect - not like the sweat-box that is Hanoi. It's a very isolated part of the world where
there are a lot of hill tribes working the land, wearing traditional costumes, weaving,
embroidering, etc., although it seems that tourism is now the number one industry here so it's
difficult to tell the difference between what is natural and what is posed. Found a nice hotel
(although I have just interrupted this entry into the 'Voice of Reason' to stamp on a large
cockroach!) and wandered down to the local Hmong village. Strolling down a winding mountain road
and taking in the great views, we hear "Ticket". Now used to ignoring people shouting at us
because they're usually after something, we carried on. "Ticket. Ticket. TICKET" came the squawk.
So politely we turned around to see what this woman was trying to sell us, to tell her "No thank
you" and carry on our way. "TEEEEEEEE-KETTTTTTT", she screamed. Turns out that she is selling us a
ticket that allows us to carry on along the road we were walking along towards this village. I
could understand it if there was a gate to the village or something like that, but she had just
set up a toll booth for pedestrians in the middle of nowhere. If you've ever seen 'Blazing
Saddles', it's just like where they set up a toll booth in the middle of the desert to delay the
pursuers, who all stop and ask each other for the correct change. So we went ahead and paid our
5,000 dong and added it to the 'Hall of Shame'. She was upset when we made her give us a ticket -
that meant she couldn't just pocket the case. Ha! The village itself was fascinating and the
surrounding landscapes meant we took another thousand photos, and while it was well worth paying
30 cents to see, somehow you couldn't help but feel cheated.
There are plenty of traditional Hmong women on the streets trying to sell
you stuff, but nobody
seems to be between the ages of 10 and 90. Definitely oriented towards yanking on the heartstrings
and pursestrings of tourists, they will chat to you for ages. Their hawking is far more subtle
than the regular street vendors because they know you're here for a few days at least. So they ask
your name, age, where you're from, etc. until they hit you with "how long you stay?". Which seems
innocent enough at the time, right? Then they will say they see you tomorrow, and you should
remember to buy stuff from them and nobody else. So they haven't given you the hard sell (in fact
today we didn't even find out what they are selling!), and you go away thinking they're very sweet
and that you'll buy some stuff off them before you leave. I know that they know that I leave in 2
days and that the selling technique will become harder before the bus sets off on Saturday night,
but I have to give them credit for not demanding that I buy all their stuff immediately. The Hmong
people have a distinctive look, with dark features and high foreheads, and an insensitive person
might remark that they look like Klingons. I think that they look like Klingons! And the dental
work is something to behold - a lot of the younger ones have one or two gold teeth, while most of
the older ones have one or two teeth - full stop! At least you know that any cash you give them
isn't going to be frittered away on toothpaste or toffee!
Went to a tour operator, and after confirming that he was nothing at all
to do with the hotel in
Hanoi we booked our return trip. The bloke there was amazed at how thorough we were when we
checked the time, date, train number, seat number, carriage number, cost, bus date, bus time, bus
drivers inside leg measurement, and number of thieving, lying, scum-sucking tour operators in the
immediate vicinity (fortunately none this time) in triplicate before handing over our cash. Also
booked a day trip for tomorrow to hike around some more villages (after checking that we didn't
have to pay any additional charges for walking between any of them, much to the
amusement/amazement of the girl taking the booking) and went out for some food.
And beer! Discovered a local brew called 'Bia Lao Cai', which tastes good,
comes in 2-pint
bottles, and costs 40 cents. And although it's not enough to get Vietnam a score out of 100 at the
end of this, at least it made the thought of being here for another day bearable. As long as I can
squash the cockroach that is scuttling across the bedroom floor at the moment!
Day Eighty Nine - Sapa
Booked a day trip through the local hotel to go and visit some of the local
Acting on another tip, the reasoning behind booking through the hotel is that the cost of the trip
gets added to your bill, giving you much more leverage if you're unhappy with anything. But
everything turned out fine, so I imagine we will do the decent thing and pay for it!
There were only four of us plus a guide on the tour, which was nice because
we weren't herded
around like cattle and could pretty much set our own pace. The 15km of hiking throughout the day
was mainly done through the countryside on dirt tracks and grassland, and the fog and intermittent
rain showers left a lot of the trail pretty treacherous. Especially when your shoes are caked with
mud and you're trying to cross streams using slippery rocks on steep hills. The scenery was
spectacular though, and I occasionally got flashbacks to the Himalayas. Fortunately I was able to
snap back to reality by checking that I wasn't dirty, hairy, cold, tired, fed-up and feeling sick!
If you think of the steretypical Vietnamese farmer, you would probably visualise
a man in a
conical hat, knee-deep in a paddy field walking behind a water buffalo ploughing by hand. Well,
there's a reason why that particular stereotype exists, and it is because that is exactly what
Vietnamese farming is like. No tractors, combine harvesters, or other mechanical farm machinery
here, and even the water for the rice fields is diverted to them using an ingenious network of
bamboo guttering and gravity. It's the same idea as when poncey restaurants stack champagne
glasses on top of each other and pour into the one on top - eventually they will fill up. At the
moment they are tarmaccing the dirt roads here, and while they are using dynamite for some
blasting, teams of people armed with sledgehammers are breaking up rocks manually by the side of
While the men and middle-aged women are working in the fields, the very young
and very old women
wander around the countryside armed with tourist tat to sell you. The big thing up here is woven
handicrafts, so they take their designs and hand make bracelets, wall hangings, shirts, trousers,
hats, cushion covers, etc. Despite only having three days here, I will probably still end up
spending a (relative) fortune on this stuff. There were sellers at every turn, all wearing the
traditional costume (not for the tourists benefit - they are the only clothes they know and the
only ones they have!), so we didn't mind them talking to us because we were the people that we are
here to see. And it's so much nicer spending a few days interacting with them and taking the
occasional picture than 50 people turning up in a bus, taking pictures while they pose
uncomfortably, then moving on to the next village. Just as we stopped for lunch, one tourist
bought something from them while he was sitting down to eat. That left us free to eat in peace
while he was surrounded for the entire lunchtime!
The villages and villagers were all interesting, and hiking through the mud
was interspersed with
our guide telling us a number of ridiculous stories. The only one I vaguely understood was about
how a tiger got it's stripes and why buffalo don't have upper teeth. Don't ask! The jeep ride back
along the unfinished dirt/mud roads was pretty interesting as well. And by 'interesting' I really
mean 'scary'! Regularly hitting pot holes, while it did mean bouncing your head off the roof of
the jeep, did mean that you were still on the road and hadn't slid several hundred feet down the
cliff to your death below. And it was definitely better than walking another 15km.
So to summarise, we spent a whole day seeing lots of cool stuff, and didn't
get lied to once. And
our guide didn't even expect a tip, never mind hanging around expectantly or demanding one. It's
like being back in Laos! Spent a few hours wandering around the town buying bits and pieces off
all the people I have promised "yes, I will buy something off you" to over the past couple of
days, and also provided some cabaret entertainment for the locals. The people selling stuff often
try to put things on you as part of their sales pitch, so they will grab your hand and try to put
a bracelet on or try to stick a hat on your head. So far I have avoided the hats - being at least
a foot taller than the tallest Vietnamese certainly helps - but one woman was persistent. So the
only way I could be sure of not having a hat put onto my head was to stand on my toes and jump!
And the only way to avoid having bracelets put onto your wrists is to put your hands above your
head. So I am in a market, surrounded by 90-year-old ethnic minority women, with my arms above my
head jumping up and down. And for some reason the locals found this amusing!
Day Ninety - Sapa
Got up late, wandered around town and bought another bundle of handicraft
tourist tat. Hate to
think how much we would have spent if the 'no-thank-you-o-meter' hadn't clicked over the million
mark. That was pretty much it for the day, then got the sleeper train back to Hanoi.
Day Ninety One - Hanoi
Arrived back in Hanoi at 5am (despite hoping it would be delayed for a few
hours to allow more
time for sleeping) and within 5 seconds of getting off the train there was a fresh entry into the
'Hall of Shame'. Sapa had been very relaxing (only 2 entries in 3 days, and both minor offences),
but as soon as my feet hit the ground in Hanoi my resolve to get out of this awful place as
quickly as possible was hardened. A rob-dog taxi driver wanted 60,000 dong to take us to the hotel
- the same 11,000 dong trip we took a few days ago. When I told him that I know it's only 1km away
and only costs 11,00 dong, he replied "okay, 20,000 dong". 5am is not the best time in the morning
to ask me to pay twice the proper price for a taxi ride - he actually believed he was doing me a
favour by only charging double! So good old stubborn bloody-mindedness popped up and we walked,
despite the heavy backpacks. Avoided a bunch of hotel touts, who were everywhere even at that hour
of the day, and found a reasonable place to spend the night.
First tour trip of the day was to see the tomb of Ho Chi Minh. He was the
Vietnamese leader for
years and everybody here loves him, and his dying wish was to be cremated. So what do the 'powers
that be' do? Stuff him and stick him in a glass case for people to look at! In keeping with the
newly-sworn oath not to give a penny more than absolutely necessary to this country (especially
taxi drivers!) we walked the mile down there, to witness literally tens of thousands of people
queueing up in the streets surrounding the mausoleum. Didn't even consider waiting in line to see
Uncle Ho, and a failure to navigate the bizarre pedestrian one-way system around the grounds meant
that we didn't get to see his museum or his 'house on stilts' either. So the idea was abandoned
and we walked back to the hotel without spending any money at all - an excellent start to the new
Cheered ourselves up in the afternoon by planning our escape from Hanoi,
and booked a 3-day trip
on an island off the coast and a bus heading south after that. Also kept up the good work not
being robbed or fleeced, helped in part by a rainstorm that washed a lot of the overcharging rats
into the sewer where they belong! While we were booking the 2 trips, they tried to charge us $6
for a $4 bus ticket, and yet again we had to point this out. As soon as we did they said "Okay,
$4": their ready acceptance of our offer means that the real ticket price is probably somewhere
nearer $2. Keeps the 'Hall of Shame' ticking over nicely though!
As you, dear reader, already know, the currency here is the dong. So if you
use an ATM or change
your dollar travellers cheques you get a bunch of dong (as you would expect). Of course you will
get a crappy exchange rate from the bank, but you expect that as well. What you don't expect is
for the tour operators and hotels in Vietnam to have all their prices in dollars. They do this
solely so they can give you a crappy exchange rate - just one more way they try to squeeze every
cent out of you. So if you have one dollar, at the current exchange rate it is worth 15,500 dong.
But when the bank changes it, they say there are only 15,300 dong to the dollar. And then when you
pay for something at the hotel (priced in dollars) using your dong, they claim there are 15,900
dong to the dollar. So that costs you the 15,300 you got from the bank plus an extra 600 dong that
are supposed to magically appear. Robbery!
Day Ninety Two - Halong Bay / Cat Ba Island
Checked out of the hotel after paying the dollar-rate bill in dong (15,900
exchange rate, which
the receptionist dropped to 15,800 when we complained - what sort of a country is this where you
can bargain with the value of their currency???), and after finally getting the correct change.
The bill was 181,000 and we paid 200,000, so that's 19,000 change - right? So she gave us 4,000!
After pointing at the money and saying "nineteen" a few times, she put another 10,000 on the
counter. So there was another round of pointing and saying "nineteen", at which point she grabbed
a calculator and did the subtraction and pointed to 19,000 on the calculator. So we pointed to the
14,000 on the counter, and begrudgingly she added another 5,000. Was it two honest mistakes and a
coincidence that they were both in her favour? Errrr, no! It was so blatant it was laughable, and
indeed I was still laughing as we left the place.
Decided to take a 10,000 dong taxi ride instead of walking with our bags
to get the tour minibus.
And the price of a 10,000 dong taxi ride today is ... 30,000 dong. He wouldn't even accept 15,000
- we actually offered more than we know it is worth out of laziness, but a mere 50% ripoff appears
to be below the going rate over here!
Stopped for a 'rest' during the minibus trip, despite the fact that we had
been going for only an
hour or so. So it wasn't really a 'rest' stop, more a 'drive up to a shop and try to fleece the
tourists' stop. This place had a new angle - display a load of kids making embroidered pictures
underneath a big sign saying "Please help these disabled child victims of Agent Orange" (the last
Agent Orange I heard of being dropped on Vietnam was over 30 years ago, but that's just a minor
technicality!), then employ salespeople to follow you around the shop trying to guilt-trip you
into buying something. The stuff they were making looked nice and the cash may have been going to
a good cause, and I would probably have bought something if this woman hadn't been such a complete
pain in the arse! In the same shop, a 'Hall of Shame' record was broken in sensational style. The
new record for ridiculous ripoff markup is held by a silver necklace, bought by me in Sapa for $2
and being sold here for $18. That's NINE times the going rate. Apparently Halong Bay is geared
towards tourism, so this new record may not last long.
Spent the rest of the day taking a wonderful boat trip around Halong Bay.
Lovely and peaceful,
perfect weather, and great scenery cruising around thousands of tiny, uninhabited rocky islands in
the bay. Saw traditional fishermen at work, huge jellyfish, and the result of the combination of
the two when jellyfish get shredded by boat propellers - cool! All food was provided and we shared
a table with a peculiar little menage-a-trois - a couple who were on honeymoon along with his
friend from college. Obviously a VERY good friend from college for her to be invited along on his
honeymoon! They hardly ate any of the food on the table, and mostly sat there while the two lardy
westerner pig-dogs opposite them devoured everything within grabbing distance, seemingly without
pausing to draw breath! Saw another cave (like the one in Laos) and another floating village (like
the one in Cambodia), blah blah blah, my life is so dull, I never do anything different or
Day Ninety Three - Halong Bay / Cat Ba Island
Another excellent day. By far the best thing to do in Vietnam is to go on
an organized tour. All
food, transport, accommodation and entrance fees are included, which means that you don't have to
deal with any thieving locals at all. The only chance they have to rob you is when you book the
trip, so once that is out of the way you get peace for a few days - nice!
Today we cruised around the bay, hiked to a village, clambered up a very
steep hill for a view of
the surrounding area, slid back down the hill on my backside, then went swimming and kayaking
amongst the jellyfish and coral in the afternoon. Had a look at Cat Ba town in the evening (mainly
popular with Vietnamese holdaymakers, and comprising only hotels, restaurants and dodgy massage
parlours), and went to sleep celebrating an entire day without adding to the 'Hall of Shame'.
Day Ninety Four - Halong Bay
Cruised around the bay for a few more hours taking it easy, got a minibus
back to Hanoi, then got
a bus 100km south to Ninh Binh. The bus was pre-booked and left from the same place that the
minibus dropped us off at, so dealing with the locals was kept to a bare minimum and we weren't
fleeced. Taxi drivers and hotel touts looked on helplessly as we got off one bus then sat there
until we got onto the next one without giving them a chance to rip us off.
These relaxing cruises mean that there isn't much going on in the land of
the living, so let's
have a look at what happens when the Vietnamese shuffle off this mortal coil. They are buried and
have a funeral service, but that's where similarities with the civilized world end. As you're
driving through the countryside here, you see rice paddies filled with water, and many of them
have what appear to be headstones in them. And that's what they are - they bury people in soggy
rice fields. When we asked our guide why they do this, she explained that it helps the
decomposition process. This is important because after you have been resting in peace for three
years they dig you up again! If there is any flesh left on you, then you're not quite 'done' yet
so they stick you back underground for another 3 years. But if you're rattling away happily like a
walking xylophone then they clean you up, stick your bones into another box, and bury you
somewhere else. If they don't get all your bones reburied then when you come back in your next
life, you will be missing the part of your anatomy that was left behind (or washed away into the
rice field). And only if you've behaved yourself do you get to come back as a person, otherwise
you're reincarnated as an animal. So, next time you see a three-legged dog limping along the
street, you can impress your friends by telling them that in a previous life the dog was a very
naughty man who had careless relatives!
Day Ninety Five - Ninh Binh
Arived in Ninh Binh at 9pm last night, and the bus dropped us, scared and
shaking after the
hair-raising trip with a mad driver, right outside the hotel, allowing us to avoid the touts at
the bus station. Decided to see what the town had to offer, a plan that was quickly abandoned when
we discovered that the place was closed for the night. Despite there being nothing to do or see,
it was infinitely better than being in Hanoi.
The area is know for its limestone cliffs, rice paddies, caves, boat trips,
temples, pagodas and
floating villages, and because we are already experts in each of these we booked a tour that did
everything in one day. So, first up was a boat trip to some caves through the rice paddies next to
the limestone cliffs - that's four attractions for the price of one! The limestone cliffs are
exactly the same as at Halong Bay, but instead of being surrounded by the ocean they are
surrounded by rice fields. And the caves were interesting as well - you're rowed along the river by
yet another toothless old crone (who sometimes lay back, gripped the oars with her toes, and rowed
with her feet - interesting!), and instead of stopping and walking arouhd the caves, you row
Once we were through the caves and at the end of the river, there were not
one, not two, but three
new entries into the 'Hall of Shame'. Picture the scene - you're trapped in a boat at the end of
the river, with no control over it because your crone controls the paddles, so basically you're a
sitting duck for anyone who comes along. First 'customer' was a woman who had been following us in
another boat since we set off. Fortunately we had been warned! Their ploy is to try to sell you
drinks, and when you refuse that they try to force you to buy drinks for the person rowing the
boat. What usually happens then is that the person rowing the boat resells the drink to the person
you bought it from later in the day. It must have taken between 20 and 30 "No" replies before this
woman finally muttered something in Vietnamese and went away. Number 2 explained why the crone had
brought her son along on the trip with us when she was perfectly capable of rowing the boat
herself. He was there to row the boat on the way back, so she could spend the entire time
concentrating on trying to sell us embroidery. She took out a picture of a couple of girls doing
embroidery, claimed them as her own children, then proceeded to go through piles of embroidered
souvenirs that she kept in a large box on the boat. Once again she had a captive audience, and
once again only a million repetitions of "No" was all she got. We did get some peace, but only a
couple of seconds while she put her stuff back into it's box before she started with "Tip tip tip
tip tip", coupled with regular prodding. She started as we were about 5 minutes from the end of
the trip so we told her we would sort her out when we were done. She understood this, then
proceeded to spend the entire 5 minutes going "Tip tip tip tip tiptiptiptip", along with more
prodding. If she hadn't said anything then she would have got 10,000 dong, but the constant
demanding meant that she got half that amount, and in the end she was lucky to get anything at
all. So when we handed over the cash, she started complaining that it wasn't enough! And that
there were two of them rowing the boat so they should get two tips. By this time we had reached
land, so rather than trying to explain (in Vietnamese) that they each only rowed the boat for half
the time, that her son was only there so she could pester us, and that the more you demand a tip
the less likely it is you will get one, we were free to leg it to the car.
Spent the rest of the day doing combinations of the local attractions. Visited
next to paddy fields, pagodas next to limestone cliffs next to paddy fields, caves, pagodas next
to caves, pagodas inside caves, then took a boat trip to a floating village - a floating village
next to paddy fields and limestone cliffs, naturally! The most interesting part of the trip to the
floating village was when we got to see what can only be described as 'duck herding'. Along the
riverbank there are large pens each holding a few hundred ducks, and at certain times of the day
the duck farmer (?) takes them out for a swim. A bit like taking the dog for a walk, I suppose.
Anyway, he is kneeling in a tiny boat that looks like a large soup bowl, propelling himself along
with oars that are the size of table tennis bats, and trying to keep control of these ducks that
are swimming around manically thinking they've got their freedom. His wife is on the riverbank
throwing clumps of mud into the water to help him direct them, and the whole thing is quite a
spectacle! Exhausted from the thrill of watching duck herding, we took it easy for a few hours
back at the hotel then caught the overnight sleeper train to Hue.
Day Ninety Six - Hue
Hue. Not quite sure how to pronounce the name of this place (like everywhere
else over here), but
the locals seem to adopt a fake French accent and make a sound like they are throwing up. Got off
to a good start with an uneventful train journey ('uneventful' meaning that our bags weren't
stolen while we were asleep!), and even got a free taxi to the hotel. Free - in Vietnam!!! I'm
still recovering from the shock. We had been recommended a place to stay, and spotted it among the
fifty or so business cards being held in our face by all the drivers for the various hotels. Of
course there will be some commission system going on, but the hotel is fine and it certainly beats
haggling with the taxi drivers over the price of a one mile trip.
Spent the afternoon wandering around 'The Citadel', a walled city within
a city from a couple of
centuries ago where the emperors and their families lived. Some really cool buildings, temples,
pagodas, lakes, etc., and although there has been a lot of restoration work going on, just as
interesting are the remains of the buildings that were destroyed during the Vietnam/American war.
Only recently has the area been designated as a national heritage site, so they haven't yet had
the time to restore everything. So in some places you will have ornately carved stone gates, and
parts of the wall next to it have been blown away by artillery. We are about halfway down Vietnam,
and this place bore the brunt of conflict during the Tet Offensive, wiping out a lot of the area.
Walked back (still avoiding taxi drivers!) and were hassled by a million (at least!) motorbike and
cyclo drivers wanting to take us for a ride - both literally and figuratively. The guide book says
that a common sight in Hue is to be trailing a tourist who is saying "No thank you". I expect the
updated edition to change the wording to "Sod off"!
Day Ninety Seven - Hue
Booked onto a mass tour cruise boat trip for the day. As well as having a
look around the Perfume
River, the boat stops at a few places along the way so you can look at local temples, pagodas and
royal tombs. And the cost of the 8 hour boat trip? One dollar! This didn't include entrance fees
to the tombs but did include lunch, so they could barely be covering their costs. And we all know
what that means - hawking stuff to the tourists all day long. As soon as we were on the boat and
far enough away from land that we couldn't jump off, out came a bag full of postcards, embroidery,
figurines, etc. And the woman made sure that she asked everyone individually if they would like to
buy each item. Next came the lunch menu, and everything had a price next to it despite lunch being
included. Well, a basic lunch was included (rice, noodles and vegetables), but if you wanted you
could buy proper food as well. To my delight we had a wise tour group and nobody was suckered into
paying for anything extra. When lunch was put out, the tour people also left cans of drink
everywhere. Usually they tell you how much the drinks cost beforehand, but here they were hoping
people would assume they were free, open them, then pay the price later (if you accept anything
over here without agreeing a price first, you are in big trouble!). Once again, our tour group
The first pagoda we went to was undergoing major reconstruction, so you couldn't
really see much.
Even without all the scaffolding it would have been difficult to see much through all the stalls
selling souvenirs and drinks! Got off the boat to go to the first tomb, which our guide had told
us was a 15,000 dong motorbike ride from where the boat stops. Immediately surrounded by
motorbikes all shouting "20,000 dong". Ching! 'Hall of Shame' getting fuller! Walking away soon
got them down to 15,000 dong though, giving us the oportunity to pay 55,000 dong (around $4) to
see the tomb. It seems like everything here costs 55,000 dong to get into, no matter what it is.
The tomb was in a really nice setting - all landscaping, trees, lakes, etc., but only took half an
hour to look around and definitely wasn't worth the $4. Robbed by the government! And the emperor
isn't even buried in his own tomb - he is buried in a secret location along with all his 'great
treasure', and they kept the location secret by beheading the 200 people responsible for burying
him. Seems a bit severe to me - couldn't they have just asked them to not mention it??? Arrived at
the second tomb, and everybody in the boat just sat where they were. Everyone had decided that
they would prefer to see the third one instead and didn't want to hand over cash when it wasn't
worth it. So we set off again straight away, leaving a collection of bemused motorbike riders
wondering what was going on. The third tomb was nice as well, but again not really worth the
entrance fee, and later on we didn't fancy paying to go into a temple (one person did, and when
they came out 2 minutes later after not seeing anything remotely interesting, they wished they
There is a reason why our tour group had considerably more wisdom than we
have seen (and shown!)
in Vietnam so far, and it has to do with the layout of the country. It is very long and thin
(oo-err, missus!) which means that people either start in Hanoi and work their way south, or start
in Saigon and work their way north. Which means that by the time they get to places in the middle
like Hue, they are already wise to all the tricks of the trade. It also explains the prices here -
hotels are cheap, tours are cheap, transport is really cheap (barely covering the cost of petrol
in the case of our $2 day trip tomorrow), and even the locals selling stuff only start off by
asking for twice the going rate rather than the standard 5 times the going rate we experienced in
Hanoi. So although things have got noticeable better the further from Hanoi we get, now we're
halfway down they will get steadily worse as we get closer to Saigon. Still, life wouldn't be the
same if I didn't have anytthing to complain about, would it?
Planned on seeing a few more pagodas during the afternoon, but after sweating
our way to the first
one and finding it incredibly dull, the tour was abandoned in favour of the air-conditioned hotel.
Wandered the streets for a while and watched a cool colour-changing bridge until the motorbike
riders touting for business got to be too much, and returned to the sanctuary of the hotel to try
to stuff all the tourist tat back into the rucksack. When we leave in the morning I don't expect
any help with it from one of the people working at the hotel. When he got it off the bus as we
arrived he grimaced with pain (it must weight at least as much as he does) and he just about
managed to stagger up the hotel steps with it. Then as he squatted down to take it off his back,
there was a ripping sound. His trousers had split all the way up the back. As he hopped around the
hotel lobby trying to retain his modesty, I sympathetically stopped laughing to offer to take his
picture, but for some reason he refused!
Got on the super-cheap bus, which stopped at a few sightseeing places
along the way (30 seconds each to take a photo, 20 minutes each with
people thrusting drinks and souvenirs into your face). The bus trip
from Hanoi wasn't too bad, as despite the fact that it was driven by a
maniac we were sitting right at the back in the dark, so we couldn't
see what was going on. This trip was in the daytime, and the only empty
seats available when we got on were right at the front. Although it was
a different bus driver, he seemed to possess the same mysterious force
compelling him to overtake on blind corners that the other driver had.
Miraculously we arrived intact, and only once did we have to come to a
complete stop on the wrong side of the road when attempting to overtake
(our driver lost his nerve when confronted with a fully-laden cement
truck!).The places we stopped at on the way down were nice - a beach, a
mountain pass,and the 'Marble Mountains'- some mountains made of ...
marble - and resisted the urge to buy anything. The urge did overcome
us in the afternoon though, and once the floodgates opened there was no
stopping us. Snake and scorpion wine (apparently drunk as some kind of
medicine and there is a real snake or scorpion inside the bottle - I
will be sticking mine on top of the TV and not drinking any if I manage
to get it through customs!), t-shirts, poncey ornate chopsticks, trinket
boxes, etc. In fact pretty much everything that was on sale we bought!
Oh, apart from the baby hammerhead sharks that they were selling in the
market - didn't even see any of those in the crazy fish market in Tokyo.
The reason that a lot of tourists come to Hoi An is for the tailors.
You can buy a fitted suit for around $30, although I will be giving
that a miss - the only time I have worn a suit in the last 5 years was
when I dressed up as 'Pimp Daddy' for Halloween! And because there are
literally hundreds of these shops around, the people on the streets
take no prisoners when they are trying to get you to buy from them.
Their approach is always the same. They will say "Hello" and you reply
"Hello". Then they will ask you "What your name?", then "When you
arrive in Hoi An?", then" How long you here", and finally "You want to
look in my clothes shop?". We put up with this for about an hour (at
least 50 identical conversations) before formulating a plan. Now as
soon as somebody says "Hello" I reply with "Hello my name is Bill I
come from England I arrive today I stay three days I not go to your
clothes shop"! So far it has worked with everybody! Got away from the
clothes shop hawkers for a while and wandered along the river watching
thousands of lanterns float along it (pretty cool!),and a strange game
where you're blindfolded with a mask, you stagger towards a plant pot
suspended on a piece of string,and attempt to hit it with a stick. And
if you do then you win a handbag. Strangely, the game seemed to be
played mainly by male tourists!
Day Ninety Nine - Hoi An
Did some more wandering around town (only a tiny place) and looked at
some old houses, pagodas, temples, blah blah blah. After yesterday
afternoon's shopping blitzkrieg there wasn't much left to buy, so only
a couple of offences to add to the 'Hall of Shame'. Everywhere else we
have been you look forward to lunch and dinner time because you're in
the haven of a restaurant and won't be pestered by urchins trying to
sell you stuff. Not in Hoi An though! Last night we were sitting at a
table outside the cafe and a couple of kids came along with their
postcards, bracelets, etc. And the restaurant did absolutely nothing to
deter them (mild maiming, castration,or a simple beheading spring
immediately to mind, so it's probably a good thing that I'm not running
a restaurant here!).It's not as though they were encouraged by the
restaurant or even employed by them, but if it was my place and
customers were being preyed upon then I would certainly do something
The second popular activity around here is the 'Great Coin Caper'. When
somebody asks you if you want to buy something and you refuse, they
will ask you where you're from. If you tell them then they will ask you
to give them a coin from there, as if they are collecting them. If you
tell them that you have no coins from your home country then they dig
into their pocket, pull out a handful of the appropriate currency then
try to get you to give them the equivalent amount of dong for the
coins. Some of them even try to convince you that somebody paid them
for something with the coins and please could you change it for them.
They even know the correct exchange rate for each currency down to the
nearest penny! So from now on we are modifying the answer to "Hello" to
say we are from Greenland instead of England and that we don't have
coins, we trade only in fish and penguins!
Day One Hundred - Hoi An
A hundred days out here - blimey! I didn't think I would last more than
ten, so maybe I've got more staying power than I thought! Went on an
organized tour today to visit the My Son monuments. Similar to Angkor
in Cambodia, but on a much smaller scale, they were built some time
between the 8th and 14th centuries, and similar to Angkor they suffered
from constant warfare and abandonment. But where My Son really suffered
was in the Vietnam/American war. The Viet Cong army had a large base
there, and as a result the vast majority of the remaining buildings
were completely destroyed by American bombing. While you could spend
weeks looking around all the buildings at Angkor, we spent roughly an
hour here and saw everything that was left. There were a handful of
buildings that were still vaguely recognizable as buildings, a few
large piles of bricks, and there was no trace at all of anything else
apart from deforestation and bomb craters. Although it was worth seeing
the scale of the destruction, if you actually want to see any buildings
from that era, this isn't the place to come to. The command of English
of our 'guide' was also probably the same as my command of Vietnamese,
so we didn't really learn anything about the history of the place as we
couldn't understand what he was saying. Took a boat ride back and
stopped at a traditional pottery village (that they had the cheek to
charge us $1 to get into) and a traditional woodcarving village (free -
hurrah!) and waited for the heat of the day to relent by slobbing
around inside the hotel instead of shopping.
There was certainly (well certain enough for it to make it into the
'Hall of Shame' anyway) something dodgy going on with the tickets to
get into My Son monuments. The admission price isn't included with the
tour, so usually you buy a ticket when you get there. We were on a full
50-seater bus, so our guide said that it would take too long for us to
buy our tickets individually when we arrived. Out of the kindness of
his heart he offered to take our money and buy all the tickets
together. He was very insistent about it, so I whipped out my dong and
slapped it into his hot, sweaty palm (I wonder if that sentence will
make it past the censors?). Everybody got off the bus and wandered
through the entrance (nobody there counted the number of people or
checked for tickets) while our chap went to the ticket office. I asked
him for our ticket and he said that we didn't need it right now. But we
were inside the gate so that sounded fine. After his first
unintelligible spiel about the monuments, I once again asked him for
our ticket so I could keep it as a souvenir, but he said "Later, later,
on the bus", and scuttled off. This was starting to get suspicious - if
he had bought a ticket for everybody then why not just hand them out?
Nothing was given out later on the bus either, and it wasn't until we
got off the boat right at the end of the trip (after a lot of people
had left) that I asked him again and he finally pulled the tickets out
of his pocket and gave me a couple. He had around 20 tickets, maybe 30,
but certainly not fifty. Maybe he had already given some away
(unlikely). Maybe he had another stack of tickets in his other pocket
(errr, nope!). Maybe he's onto a nice little earning scam along with
the people at the ticket office (could be !!!).
I thought I was done wittering for today, but the most optimistic piece
of hawking in Vietnam so far seems worthy of mention. We're sitting
down outside a restaurant, and after being here for a couple of minutes
we had already disposed of a kid selling postcards, bracelets, tiger
balm, etc. And then, unbelievably, a woman comes up off the street and
asks us if we would like to buy any food off her. What? We're sitting
in a restaurant eating, you stupid woman! She had some kind of pancake
with peanuts on it and kept trying to persuade us to try some and then
buy it. I haven't laughed so hard for a long time!
Day One Hundred And One - Nha Trang
Spent the entire day on the train between Hoi An and Nha Trang, a touristy
seaside town with a
nice beach and plenty of seaside activities. And not seaside activities like you get in England
such as sitting in a tent waiting for the rain to stop, trying to swim for more than ten feet
without coming face to face with Mr. Ploppy, and running away from the owner of the crazy golf
course because you just hit the ball through the window of his hut. You get proper stuff here like
snorkelling and scuba diving amongst the coral reefs, parascending, paragliding (which is probably
the same as parascending but I'm not really sure), water skiing, big-game fishing, etc. And
because it's in Vietnam, it's all cheap as chips!
There is only one train route in Vietnam, running north to south (good job
it's such a scrawny
looking country), and in most places it is single track - making it difficult to coordinate when
trains coming in opposite directions should pass each other and leading to inevitable delays. The
trains themselves are comfortable enough, but in most cases the view of the countryside is
obscured somewhat by the metal grilles on the windows that protect passengers from kids throwing
rocks at the trains - charming! And they are unbelievably slow - the trip from Hanoi to Saigon
takes around 40 hours averaging a mere 50km per hour. And after being on a few of these trains and
experiencing the 'jumping' sensation that you get when they go over a particularly badly-laid
piece of track, I reckon they are going faster than they should! And if you're ever on one and
need to go to the toilet - hold it in, it's not pleasant! One problem that the typical Vietnamese
passenger doesn't have is where to put their luggage. They can easily slide their briefcase /
small box / chickens under their seat or in the luggage rack above them. Big fat westerner pig-dog
backpacks are a different matter though. It wouldn't fit underneath the seat, above me, anywhere,
so eventually I just stuck it in the aisle. This was fine for a while as people could edge around
it, but each time a trolley came through serving coffee, snacks, etc. I had to heave the backpack
up off the floor and hold it while they went past. After a while I got completely fed up of this
and just left it on my knees. At one point I even managed to fall asleep with it propped on top of
me, but after 9 hours sitting down with a 70 pound pack on my lap, my bottom felt like ... [Note:
the rest of this sentence has been censored in an attempt to preserve common decency!]. At least
the railway provided free food, some of which was okay and some of which (plants marinated in
rancid vinegar masquerading as soup) was vile. The locals were already watching my
backpack-heaving exploits with close scrutiny and great amusement, and the food provided them with
additional entertainment. With a food tray on my knee I couldn't lift the pack out of the aisle
for the trolleys to get past, so I improvised and put the pack on the seat, shuffled in front of
it, and used it to lean against. And ate my food standing up! After a while I became aware that
the 30 or so locals facing me had all stopped eating and were staring open-mouthed at 'Old Round
Eyes' standing up butchering his food with a pair of chopsticks. With me scoffing away directly
above the person in the seat in front of me (who regularly checked his hair for evidence of stray
pieces of rice), it was a performance to be proud of!
Arrived in Nha Trang and had the usual collection of thieving taxi drivers
waiting for us. One of
the best things about having a guide book is that you've got a map of the town you're arriving in,
and so you know how far away you are from the hotel you're planning to go to. This place was less
than one kilometre from the train station, but that didn't deter thieving taxi weasel #1 from
demanding "five dollar". Just out of interest (he had already blown his chance of getting our
business due to his ridiculously high starting price) I asked him how far it was, and he replied
"4 or 5 kilometre". All the hotels are in the same part of town so he knew exactly where it was,
and the entire place is only a couple of kilometres across in any case. So all of this makes him a
lying thieving taxi weasel! Found somebody willing to take us for 2 dollars, who then seemed a bit
surprised when the two of us got in and were followed by another couple we had met on the train
and we had agreed to share the taxi ride with. I'm sure he would have tried to charge more for 4
people than 2 (even though it's still only one taxi - I don't quite see their reasoning). He was
even more surprised when the first taxi driver came over and started shouting, screaming and
gesturing at him for taking us for 2 dollars instead of 5. We drove off and at the end of a very
short trip his meter was around a dollar. So we only got charged double, but as we had split it
between four of us we didn't mind.
Went out for some food and found a place where it was still happy hour (some
places here have
happy hour all day!). Ordered a full English breakfast (which got some funny looks as it was
10pm), then a few minutes later ordered another one after catapulting the first all down my front
when it slipped off the tiny table it was balanced on as I was cutting up my first piece of bacon.
Nothing like a groin full of hot beans to get you hopping around! Sampled another local tipple,
Bier BGI, which tasted exactly the same as all the other Vietnamese beers I have tried (pretty
good), and of course it is in large bottles and is very cheap - always a winner!
Day One Hundred and Two - Nha Trang
Got up late (I blame Bier BGI!) and spent the day wandering around a few
local attractions. Saw
the cathedral (closed, so didn't see that much of it), a pagoda (pretty average as pagodas go, but
it did have an enormous white stone Buddha on a hill behind it), and some Cham towers. These Cham
towers were built around the same time as My Son monuments, cost a tenth of the price to see, and
are a hundred times better. They have the distinct advantage that they are still standing, and
although there has been some reconstruction work (for example the top of one tower that is
reported missing in the guide book published a couple of years ago has mysteriously reappeared!),
they look pretty much as they would have done in the 8th century. Amazing what you can see when
things don't have hundreds of tons of bombs dropped on them!
Finished off the day at a poncey spa natural mineral water mudbath resort
type of place. Still
only $3, despite it's ponceyness. The weather was sweltering so we hoped the water would cool us
down a bit. First up you have a quick shower, which was very quick because the water was hot - not
quite what I expected! Next you sit in a tub while they pump several hundred gallons of lukewarm
mud in there and you sit there for 20 minutes. Apparently this mud contains minerals that cleanse
and purify your body. I hope it works for eyes, nose and mouth as well then, because that's where
quite a lot of it ended up! After you're done wallowing, you squelch out for another shower - this
one takes a lot longer than the first shower because the mud gets everywhere (and I do mean
EVERYWHERE!). Then you're supposed to do half an hour in a hot tub to aid the cleansing process (I
managed 10 minutes before I felt I was being poached), then a few minutes in the high-power water
jets. I'm not sure what they are supposed to do, but they are clearly made for smaller people. So
while the locals are getting a nice chest and back massage, my nether regions are getting a bit of
a bruising! I limped away from that particular instrument of torture and sat under a waterfall for
a couple of minutes until a headache started, then headed to the pool to finally cool down without
further pain. Slight problem with the pool though - it is difficult to cool down when the water is
heated to 100 degrees. The people who go to these places are mad! The best part of the trip was
taking a motorbike back to the hotel - lovely cool breeze and no hot water or high-pressure jets!
Thought I would try Bia Saigon tonight (couldn't wait until getting to Saigon),
and it tastes
okay, comes in a big bottle, and is really cheap. What did you expect me to say?
Day One Hundred And Three - Nha Trang
Booked onto a boat trip for the day to do some snorkelling around the coral
reefs. There are
two very different types of snorkelling trip available here. The first is to go out on a
boat that is on a scuba diving trip, which stops at a couple of the best reef spots and you
spend hours snorkelling around to your hearts content while other people do their dive. The
second type of trip is also known as the 'party boat' and has lots of things going on.
Starting at 7am you tuck into bottles of really cheap red wine, get on to a boat blasting
out Abba or Bob Marley at 100 decibels, and make several 5-minute stops where everybody
jumps off the top of the boat. This, apparently, is the 'snorkelling' part of the
'snorkelling trip'. We spoke to a couple whose sister had been on a party boat a couple of
years ago, but she couldn't remember actually doing any snorkelling. Of course that doesn't
mean that she didn't do any, she just couldn't remember! Optional extras on the party boat
include vomiting, sunburn and drowning. Maybe I'm getting past it, but I've been violently
ill hundreds of times during my lifetime already, so we decided to go on the diving boat
where we would get to do some snorkelling on our snorkelling trip! The boat stopped and we
spent hours swimming around looking at the world beneath the surface. Hundreds of different
species of fish and coral (the moray eels are definitely the coolest), and the water was the
perfect temperature and crystal clear. And because you're completely surrounded by what is
going on it's an experience that can't be imitated by even the most fancy aquarium. The
whole trip was well worth it, and if by some miracle we survive a few days in Saigon and
make it to the beaches in Thailand, it is definitely something worth doing a lot more.
As the evening wore on I discovered that I didn't entirely escape from the
after effects of
the snorkelling trip, and some of the party boat rubbed off on me after all. No vomiting or
drowning, but definintely some signs of sunburn. Opinion is currently divided as to my
current appearance - my description would be 'bronzed Adonis', while everybody else is
saying 'Neapolitan ice-cream'!
Tonight the record for people hawking stuff while we were eating was broken.
I am claiming
that the new record is ten interruptions, but the judges are still conferring because it's
possible that one old crone actually came in twice, so does she count as one or two? It's
bizarrre that someone selling postcards will come in and be sent packing, and as soon as
they are done the person waiting outside will come in and try to sell you exactly the same
stuff. As if you're going to change your mind in the time it takes to say "sod off"???
Day One Hundred And Four - Mui Ne
Halfway between Nha Trang and Saigon is a small coastal resort called Mui
Ne. Rather than
exposing ourselves to the horrors of the big city straight away, we decided to spend a
couple of days here for some R&R before going into combat in the metropolis. Shell-covered
white sand beaches, crystal-clear warm sea, a few peasants fishing in their strange round
woven boats - all very idyllic. No snorkelling here, but did see some marine wildlife on the
beach (washed-up dead jellyfish, washed-up dead crabs, washed-up dead fish, etc.). It's more
a place to lie in a hammock reading a book and drinking a beer - lovely. And if you get
bored with that you can always play the latest game - 'crab taunting'. There are armies of
ghost crabs who burrow holes in the sand and occasionally pop their heads up to see what's
going on. There was one particularly inquisitive/fearless/stupid crab that, every time a
shell was thrown near it's hole, would scuttle over and pounce on it, hoping it was food.
And it fell for it every time, so with some careful aim you have got this crab dancing
around the sand for you! At this point we realized the crab was driven by stupidity, so we
tried another approach - 'The Stick'! Just take a stick and put one end on the sand next to
the crab. Then drag the stick away from the crab and watch it chase after the end, trying to
grab the stick repeatedly with it's claws. By the end of the day tomorrow I fully expect to
have this crab trained to walk on it's back legs whilst balancing a marble on it's nose (if
anyone out there knows for sure whether crabs have noses or not then you seriously need to
get out more!) and jumping through rings of fire!
Tried a couple more beers from the large selection available here. First
up was the staple
diet of every English yobbo on holiday in Majorca and Ibiza - San Miguel. Doesn't quite
taste the same as when you're on your 15th bottle in a Mediterranean trance techno club with
some bird from Manchester being sick over your shoes (not that I've ever been to one of
those, I hasten to add!), so I moved on to another local brew. It's called '333', which in
Vietnamese is pronounced 'baah baah baah'. Last time I heard that it was part of a Welsh
mating ritual, and I'm pleased to announce that the happy couple are now engaged! Anyway, '
333' tastes exactly the same as all the other stuff, but for the same (cheap) price only
comes in small bottles, so I had to wash it down with a litre of Bier BGI.
Day One Hundred And Five - Mui Ne
Decided to really splash out today and paid a couple of motorbike locals
almost $3 each (!)
to show us around the sights of Mui Ne. Looked at a fishing village first at around 8am. The
men go out all night on the boats and return at dawn, and then the women prepare the catch
during the day (which explains why we saw the women doing all the work while the men were
sitting drinking beer and watching TV). It was interesting to watch groups of women opening
cockles and scallops - half a dozen of them would sit around a pile of tens of thousands of
shellfish, open one with a knife, scrape the contents into a bowl, and throw the empty shell
onto a pile. The day I left college I got a temporary job in a cosmetics factory pushing a
button on the production line every few seconds. I lasted there half a day before I felt the
job seriously damaging my I.Q., it is a complete nightmare to do. And these women do the
same thing all day every day for decades. They all appeared to be in their 60s, but maybe
the tedious work has left it's mark on them and they're only teenagers! I did provide them
with some amusement though. As we walked past they pointed at me and shouted and gestured
for me to take my hat off. So I revealed my follically-challenged cranium only for them to
burst out into hysterical laughter as soon as I did. At least none of them called me
'Ronaldo'! As well as the cackling shellfish posse there were octopus, squid, cuttlefish,
crab, fish, and also a dodgy place with a bunch of seahorses (a protected species,but here
in Vietnam it's a case of 'eat first and ask questions later'). The tour also included some
sand dunes (where everybody tried to get you to pay them so you could slide down on a piece
of plastic), a canyon (not quite a 'grand' canyon as it only took 15 minutes to walk round
it), and a waterfall (but being the end of the dry season, it was more a 'waterdribble').
Went to a seafood place for lunch and paid next-to-nothing for platefulls
of lovely grub,
then swayed in a hammock in time to the coconut trees for the afternoon. The evening stroll
along the beach was fascinating. Nets had been strung out from the beach to the sea in a
horseshoe shape, and there were groups of 20-30 people pulling on the ends to draw in the
catch. They pointed at the nets and pointed at us a few times, so we had a go at hauling.
That soon stopped after a few minutes when we were both knackered! The catch brought in
thousands of small fish, and a few crabs, squid, long thin pointy fish (probably not the
correct latin name for them!), and even some puffer fish. They just leave these on the beach
to die as they're inedible, so we picked one up and gave it it's freedom. If it is stupid
enough to swim into the net again tomorrow then it is on it's own!
Sitting eating yet more seafood tonight, we were watching a young boy playing
near his dad's
motorbike. All of a sudden he grabs the dad's hat off the bike, pees into it, then puts it
bck on the bike. The locals hadn't seen this and were wondering why we were howling with
laughter. We decided that explaining to them what had happened was not something that could
get around the language barrier and describing it with actions might be misconstrued as
rudeness, so we kept quiet figuring that the dad would find out for himself soon enough!
Tried some 'Tiger Beer', apparently the most popular in Vietnam (especially with all the
Vietnamese fishermen who put it on their cornflakes at 8am).Nothing special, but still
better than San Miguel!
Day One Hundred And Six - Mui Ne to Saigon
Infortunately, the ghost crabs from yesterday had wised up this morning,
so there was no repeat of
the 'crab taunting'. Fortunately, there are tons of hermit crabs washed up on the beach here, so
yet another potential olympic sport was born - 'Hermit Crab Gladiators'. The rules are simple -
grab a couple of helpless hermit crabs, put them onto a smooth surface, then watch as they go in
and out of their shells nipping at each other. The initial idea was to declare the first crab to
drag the other one out if it's shell as the winner. After a few minutes it became clear that this
was never going to happen as they are anchored in there much too firmly. The next idea to
determine a winner was to see which one managed to push the other one out of the 'arena' first -
sumo style. This didn't work either because as soon as both crabs got onto their feet they tended
to scuttle off in opposite directions, surrendering meekly and crying for their mummy. Italian
Hermit Crabs, obviously! After some searching we managed to find a pair that would at least grab
onto each other, but they just stayed like that rocking from side to side gently. In the absence
of any in-depth knowledge on the subject, I reckon they were mating instead of fighting.
Got a bus from Mui Ne to Saigon, just as a massive thunderstorm hit. The
day after North Vietnam
won the war in 1975 against the South, Saigon was renamed 'Ho Chi Minh City', but almost everyone
here still refers to it as 'Saigon', thirty years later. Maybe they should have picked a name that
rolls off the tongue better than 'Ho Chi Minh City'? Even those people and places that don't still
call it Saigon, mainly involved with the government, just call it 'HCMC'. After the grief we
experienced in Hanoi and after the peace and quiet of the last couple of beach resorts (no 'Hall
of Shame' entries for almost 4 days!), it was with fear and trepidation that we entered a city
with 6 million people and almost as many motorbikes! Fortunately the bus dropped us off right
outside a decent hotel in the backpacker haven part of town, so we only had a 10 yard journey with
the tat-laden packs. Right next door is a nice bar/restaurant with a large selection of food (and
beer!), next to that is an internet cafe, and the rest of the street is filled with tour shops and
tat shops. So we don't even need to cross the street to get anything done, never mind having to
deal with any peasants. And although that maybe won't allow us to absorb the true essence and
atmosphere of Saigon, that's fine with me!
Nothing much happened during the evening, except a minor incident to be added
to the 'Hall of
Shame'. We were sitting in the restaurant having ordered food and being pestered by people coming
off the street flogging stuff. One urchin was proudly displaying the typical stack of photocopied
books (taller than they were!) and had some of them laid out on the table. Then the waitress
arrived with our food, stood behind the urchin for a while, then apologetically asked them to
"Excuse me". Not the expected "Oi!, get out of my way you peasant, let me do my job and stop being
a pain in the arse to my customers", but a meek "excuse me". The urchin begrudgingly took a step
to one side, clearly unhappy that the henious crime of somebody serving food in a restaurant (of
all places!) had interrupted his attempts to sell us stuff, and our food was squeezed into any
space on the table not taken up by dodgy merchandise.
Day One Hundred And Seven - Saigon
Decided to test the theory that it is possible to survive here without having
to risk crossing the
street, and the theory held up well. Managed to get food, use the internet, book a 4-day Mekong
Delta trip (details to come in the next 4 days as I have no idea what it involves!), check out the
prices in the local tat shops, and most importantly of all book the flights from here to the
beaches in Thailand - seven days and counting!
Got way more adventurous in the afternoon and took a cyclo ride to the 'War
Remnants Museum'. A
cyclo, for those of you that haven't yet had the pleasure, is basically an old bike with a
glorified shopping cart on the front of it. If you can imagine a butcher pedalling his bike along
and a dog sitting in the basket on the front with a string of sausages in it's mouth (and if you
can't, just do an internet search on either 'Victorian England' or 'Present-day Wales'), then
you're the dog in the basket! They are actually fairly comfortable as the local huffs and puffs to
try to shift your lardy white behind, but the experience itself can have it's problems. As
mentioned before, right-of-way and driving ability have no meaning over here - the biggest and
heaviest vehicles rule the road, which means that a cyclo (especially one with a tourist sitting
in the front) is the lowest form of life. So you would expect the cyclo drivers to accept their
lowly position in the general scheme of things and drive extra-carefully? Nope! Their thinking is
that any collision they might have is likely to be head-on, especially as they tend to drive on
the wrong side of the road most of the time, so they reckon you will absorb the majority of the
impact and leave them with only minor maiming as a result. Anyway, we set off at a fair pace - a
good 2mph - with grannies pushing zimmer frames speeding past us on both sides! And then we come
to a set of traffic lights at a 4-way junction. The traffic lights here are great, because they
have a display that counts down the seconds until the light is going to change, so you can decide
whether you are going to risk it or not. We were about 50 yards away from the green light when it
was counting down 4-3-2-1 before turning red, and when we got to the junction the traffic had been
coming across for about 15-20 seconds already. So the nutter pedalling the cyclo ignores the light
completely and proceeds to try to pick his way across the mayhem streaming in front of us. Time
for me to break out the polythene underwear!!! And only about half his attention is directed
towards the traffic that could end our trip and lives prematurely any second. He is too busy
asking me my name, where I come from, and what I do. So later tonight he will be able to tell his
friends down the pub that he met a bloke called 'Aaaaarrrgghhh' from 'Ooooohhhhhh' who does
'Ohhhhhshiii....' for a living!
The 'War Remnants Museum' was previously called the 'Museum of American War
Crimes', but was
renamed because the Vietnamese thought the name might discourage westerners (which is practically
everyone who visits what is the most popular tourist attraction in Saigon) from coming to take a
look. It's not a big place and costs less than a dollar to get into, and has a few exhibits of
minor interest such as guns, shells, bombs, a couple of U.S. planes and a helicopter, and some
tanks and other heavy artillery. But all the impact of the place is experienced through the
photographs. Most people will have seen a few pictures of the Vietnam war, but this place has
hundreds upon hundreds of them, covering a wide range of fascinating subjects. There are aerial
photographs of napalm, bombing and defoliant attacks, a well as 'before and after' shots of the
affected landscape, and series of close-ups of the victims. The combat pictures are also
impressive, and the situations that the photographers must have found themselves in in order to
take the pictures explains why so many died. One series of pictures is called the 'Last Roll of
Film', and shows U.S. soldiers advancing through the countryside. In the final picture you can see
a ditch a few yards away, which is the spot where the photographer was killed after stepping on a
landmine. A lot of the pictures are very graphic and show the effects on the civilian population
of napalm and phospherous bombs (horrendous burns), and agent orange & other defoliants (horrific
birth defects in the children of those affected). There are even a couple of mutated aborted
fetuses preserved in formalehyde that you can look at, just in case the photographs hadn't
hammered the message home quite enough. Aside from the somewhat one-sided propaganda style of the
captions to the photographs, the exhibitions are very disturbing and absolutely fascinating.
Day One Hundred And Eight - Mekong Delta
Booked onto a 4-day trip to the Mekong Delta - a river-infested area to the
west of Saigon up to
the Cambodian border. The disadvantage of tours like this is that you're herded around and don't
get to decide what to see or how long to stay at each place. The advantage is that everything is
arranged for you - today we went boat-bus-village-boat-village-boat-lunch-bike-village-boat-bus-boat-hotel
without having to think about any of it. Nothing much to report from the villages - one processed rice, one
made coconut candy, one made noodles, and I can't remember what the other one did, but all similar stuff
with a gift shop there waiting to take your cash if you let them.
After a quiet few days, the 'Hall of Shame' revved back into action at lunch.
We sat down and
ordered food and they told us how much drinks were, brought out the knives, forks, chopsticks,
hand towels, etc. Finished the food and the bloke came round telling us how much we owed. As
seasoned professionals we always add our food costs up and don't trust the final figure we are
told, and his price was 4,000 dong higher than it should have been. So he went through everything
we had, and last of all said "hand towels 2,000 dong each". What? They are going to charge us to
use a small towel that you wipe your hands and face on? It was made worse by the sneaky way they
were put onto the table along with the cutlery (perhaps we should consider ourslves lucky that w
didn't have to pay for that as well!) and then the sneaky way he just added the cost onto the
final bill, hoping we hadn't added it up ourselves.
The evening came to a slithery end when we tried a couple of local specialities.
First of all,
snake wine. It is supposed to have special medicinal qualities, but I think it tastes like the
cheap sherry that your grandmother would get from the supermarket costing 1.99 for a gallon. Also
tried 'snake curry', and despite our guide animatedly explaining that "chicken tastes like chicken
and snake tastes like snake", it tasted like chicken!
Day One Hundred And Nine - Mekong Delta
Spent the morning taking a boat trip to a floating village. Not memorable
for either the boat trip
or the floating village, but the performance of the boat driver and the tour guide was fun. First
of all, while we're cruising around the floating market the boat driver manages somehow to get the
boat stuck on a sandbank. Now this is a 40-seater boat with engine, rudder, etc., so you would
think he would realise that it's easier to manouevre the boat when it's in the water than when
it's on dry land. His excuse for beaching us was that it's the fault of the "currents". Okay! So
his big powerful engine couldn't cope with a few ripples on the river? It's not quite as if he's
Robinson Crusoe with a coconut on each foot at the mercy of the tide now, is it??? Fortunately, he
managed to get us stuck right next to a boat selling pineapples, so for the hour we waited for
these 'currents' to surf us away again, we had the constant pleasure of crones chanting "pineapple
pineapple pineapple" at us. Joy!
The next cabaret performance was even more impressive. It was raining quite
heavily, so our tour
guide abruptly told us that he was cancelling the floating village trip, some other village trip,
and a rowing boat trip, but that we could stay where we were and buy as many pineapples as we
liked! One bloke said that hw should get some money back if he wasn't doing these things (he
seemed particularly keen on the rowing boat part). What the tour guide should have done is to give
everyone the opportunity to do these things in the rain if they wanted to instead of just
cancelling everything, and although this stroppy bloke was being a bit of a pain, it was probably
because he was just as sick of Vietnam as me! So, instead of handling the heckler professionally,
the tour guide goes ballistic! "I don't control the weather...I'm not god...What do you expect if
you come to Vietnam in the rainy season...", on and on and on. Some people in the tour group were
understanding , some agreed with him. Me? I was trying not to burst out laughing at his explosion
- I didn't think that would have helped! He then shouts at a few locals and eventually a rowing
boat turns up. The tour guide then herds the people who had the rowing boat trip as part of their
schedule into the boat. "You want rowing boat, you get rowing boat", etc..., and off they went.
The rain had eased off by now but it would have been perfect to see these poor souls huddled in
their open boat in a downpour complete with thunder and lightning! The rest of us were left on the
stranded boat with "pineapple pineapple pineapple" ringing around us. As soon as our strop-meister
tour guide gets back into the boat after pushing the others off, he proceeds to rant and rave to
the rest of us for fifteen minutes at least, going over the same things time after time - "I don't
control the weather, you get no money back, I get rowing boat, I don't control the weather, we
best tour company, I don't control the weather", blah blah blah. Fantastic entertainment for all
In the afternooon we went on more boat trips, bus trips, and village trips,
and even only a day
later I can't remember which villages we went to. Probably making and selling something to do with
rice, I'm not sure. Did go to a cool crocodile farm though, where they have around 300 adult
crocodiles producing 70 babies each per year. Now that's a lot of crocodiles! When they are 3
years old they are packed up and sent to China for eating and making shoes, handbags and belts out
of. Good if you're Chinese, not so good if you're a crocodile!
After another boat trip we arrived on a place called Tiger Island for a homestay.
A homestay is,
as the name suggests, where you stay in someone's home in a village for 24 hours to sample what
life there is really like. Unfortunately, the tourist industry here means that a homestay is no
different from a hotel. You sleep in a special dormitory attached to the house instead of in the
same conditions as the owners, you don't eat meals with them, in fact you only speak to them when
you want to buy another drink. The people we stayed with have been doing it for seven years, and
didn't understand when we asked for 'Coca Cola', we ended up having to get up and point at the
appropriate can. This makes it a bit difficult to ask about their everyday lives! They provide
lockers for your stuff and have a TV, telephone, etc. Not exactly experiencing village life!
Dumped our stuff and went on a tour of the island with our guide. She vrooms
off on her motorbike,
while we have to pedal ourselves along on normal bikes. Well, they are supposed to be 'normal'
bikes, but the bikes I have had in the past all had brakes, air in the tyres, gears, and saddles
that don't tip backwards when you're sitting on it - attributes that these contraptions all
lacked. Oh well, at least she was comfortable on her motorbike and made sure her suit didn't get
Day One Hundred And Ten - Mekong Delta
I take it back - our homestay isn't the same as a hotel. Hotels have a roof
and walls, whereas our
place had a metal corrugated sheet on it to amplify the raindrops and a plastic sheet around it.
This plastic sheet wasn't really up to the job of stopping the sound coming from next door's TV
when they switched it on at 3am to watch the football. Couldn't get back to sleep again after
that, so started off the day tired and irritable - which of course is going to be a pleasure for
Took another boat trip (enough! No more boat trips, please!) to another floating
market (enough of
those as well!) and also had a look around another village. A look at their market, obviously! As
well as the usual snakes, frogs, etc., this place had one stall where they had a tray piled high
with skinned mice. I draw the line at snakes though and will be avoiding mouse curry if it's on
the menu tonight! Took the boat back to the island, managed to grab some sleep, then headed out
again on an exciting ... boat trip!
Got off the boat after 3 hours (don't think I looked out of the window once
at the Mekong Delta
life - seen plenty of that already!), and transferred from the boat dock to the hotel, about a
15-minute drive according to our new tour guide - the previous guide Mr. Stroppy had left to
bemoan his existence to another set of tourists. It was raining outside and the roads were very
bumpy and the trip actually took half an hour, but you're not really bothered when you're sitting
in a minibus. A bit of a shame then that we weren't sitting in a minibus! You have probably seen
the carts that take luggage from the airport terminal to aeroplanes? Well, we were perched on the
corner of one of those, pulled by a motorbike, with a load of luggage behind us. Other tourists
were crammed onto uncovered wagons also towed by motorbikes, and off we went. Our driver kept
looking behind him, occasionally to make sure that we hadn't fallen off but more regularly to look
at the flat tyre on his motorbike. As we were perched on the corner of a metal grate, it didn't
really matter to the comfort of the ride whether or not he had two flat tyres! So we arrive at the
tour company's hotel, cold, wet and irate at being made to sit on this thing, when we spot the
icing on the cake. Sitting unused right next to where we stop is their own minibus. I don't know
if it had luxury air conditioning or not, but it definitely had a roof, tyres and seats, and would
have been infinitely preferrable to what we were given, even if they had to make a few trips to
transfer everybody. We briefly tried to tell them that they should use the minibus, before
abandoning that idea when they laughed and made it abundantly clear that they didn't give a toss
what we thought! The peasants! Thought we would have a problem with ants in the room, but by
morning the frogs that were hopping around the bathroom had eaten them all!
Day One Hundred And Eleven - Mekong Delta
Blah blah boat trip, blah blah floating market, blah blah temple, blah blah minority village.
An entry into the 'Hall of Shame' from an unlikely source though. A Vietnamese
family was part of
our tour group, and instead of eating the lunch provided on the boat they brought along their own
food - a bag full of snails - and cooked them up themselves. They asked us if we would like to try
some so we thanked them and nibbled on a couple each. And then one of them uttered the immortal
words, "How about a tip for the woman who got them from the market?" We try 4 of their 4,000
snails because we thought they were being friendly by offering us a taste of their culture, and
then they ask us for money? [expletive deleted] right off, [racial slur deleted]!!! Even with the
Vietnamese dong worth hardly anything, there isn't a denomination small enough to pay for 4 measly
snails. Even worse is that these Vietnamese are on holiday, they live in California (and have done
for the past 22 years), and one of them is a dentist. So they are really desperate for the price
of a few snails, obviously! The exchange did give a perfect example of Vietnamese culture though -
penny-pinching over a few snails says more about them than their food ever could! [Note: My
exasperation at this latest petty money-grabbing example was so intense that this piece was
considerably longer before the majority of it was cut out by the censorship panel!]
Not much interesting happened on the long bus journey back, except for when
we took a ferry across
the river. It's your typical roll-on-roll-off car ferry, but as we approached it the driver
stopped and told everybody to get off. We then walked onto the ferry as the bus drove alongside
us, then got back on it. Initially I thought it was a ploy to make us walk through a gauntlet of
hawkers and beggars instead of driving past/through/over them, but after asking our tour guide he
explained the real reason. He said that it is common (I'm not sure how common, but certainly
common enough for even the Vietnamese - a race who seems to value life of any kind less than any
other I've ever known - to do something about it) for drivers to 'miss' the ferry when attempting
to drive onto it. There have been a lot of fatalities so now only the driver goes onto the ferry
with his bus. I can understand how a driver can 'miss' a turning or maybe 'miss' a traffic light
turning red, especially if they are sticking a different CD into the car stereo, and up until a
month ago I couldn't imagine how a driver could 'miss' a ferry the size of a football pitch. But I
have been enlightened after watching people's attempts at driving over here, and am quite amazed
that any vehicles at all actually make it onto the ferry safely!
Day One Hundred And Twelve - Saigon
Took a day trip to see a couple of the popular sights around Saigon. First
was a temple, but at
least this one was a bit different - very colourful and a cool building, and the robes and
chanting gave it the feel of a space-age 'Moonie' style sect. Managed to resist the urge to sign
up with them though, despite already having the requisite haircut!
The highlight of the trip was a visit to the Cu Chi tunnels. Although they
were originally built
in the 1940s for use against whoever Vietnam was at war with then (could be anybody, I'm losing
track!), their close proximity to Saigon meant that they were in an area of high strategic
military importance. The South Vietnamese knew about these tunnels that were in their country and
had been there for the past 25 years, but they didn't know exactly where they were. Maybe somebody
should have drawn a map? In fact their knowledge of their own land was so poor that the Americans
built one of their largest military bases on top of part of the tunnel complex. They coudn't work
out how the Viet Cong were getting into the base without being seen, baring their bottoms in
defiance, then disappearing again. I can just imagine the American general in charge of the base
scratching his head and thinking "It's like they just pop up out of the ground!". The tunnels were
all dug by hand using a shovel and bamboo basket, were in three levels between 10 and 30 feet
deep, and had a total length of over 200 kilometres. They contained rooms used for meetings,
hospitals, eating, storing ammunition, etc., and provided the V.C. with an invisible city to hide
in and work from.
Some of the tunnels have been left as they were during the war, some you
can see have been
collapsed by massive bombing, and some have been 'westernised' so you can crawl through them. The
'westernising' process involved making them 50% bigger so that lardies like me won't get stuck!
The whole tour group waddled through a short 10 metre tunnel, then we came to the 'secret' tunnel.
Completely camouflaged it was a tiny trapdoor covered in leaves leading down to a tunnel, and
after our 'tunnel rat' guide had gone through he asked for volunteers to go first. Nobody spoke up
so I thought I would give it a go, despite the hole being really tiny. I managed to squeeze in
somehow, and after posing for the camera put the trapdoor back above my head and went through the
tunnel to the exit, only about 10 metres away. I crawled out the other end, only to find that
nobody else was even going to give it a try. I was probably the biggest person in our tour group
and they all didn't fancy it. I can understand the women not being up for it as they were all
probably swooning (I took my shirt off before squeezing through the hole) at my bronzed (not
Neapolitan, no, definitely not!) body, but the blokes wimping out as well? Shameful display!
The last crawl of the day was 100 metres. Our guide led off and was gone
from sight like a rat out
of an aqueduct within a few seconds, while the rest of us struggled behind. I tried stooping,
crawling, walking on hands and feet forwards and backwards, everything, but there wasn't an even
remotely comfortable way of getting through the tunnel. Despite the tunnel complex being hundreds
of kilometres long, 100 metres was enough for me, and I emerged dirty, sweating like a pig,
knackered, and with legs like jelly that took quite a few beers to get back to normal. Still,
really cool to do it, and next time I fall into the gutter coming out of the pub I can blame it on
the after-effects of the Cu Chi tunnels!
After we were done scurrying around underground like a family of moles on
acid, we saw a display
of home-made booby traps and a hilarious propaganda video. The booby traps were all pretty
inventive and all followed a similar idea - they are put into camouflaged holes in the ground and
when an unsuspecting foe steps on one they are impaled on various parts of their anatomy by a
collection of spikes. The exhibition also explained why our tour guide, who was carelessly
prodding these contraptions, had a large plaster on his thumb! The propaganda film was made in
1968 by the Viet Cong, and portrays Cu Chi as a prosperous and peaceful part of the country being
ransacked by the American aggressors. No mention of the tens of thousands of Viet Cong guerilla
soldiers hiding there. It also portrayed the 'crazy devil' Americans bombing innocent women and
children, then showed the same women and children armed to the teeth, making the booby traps, and
later being decorated as 'heroes' for killing a certain number of American soldiers. Come on,
commies, you can't have it both ways! There was also a firing range where you could pay a dollar
per bullet to fire live rounds from AK-47s, etc. I'll just wait for a couple of years for George
Bush to start bombing Britain, then conscription will be brought back and I'll get a gun for free!
Day One Hundred And Thirteen - Saigon
Quite a dossy day today without any tours planned. Woke up late, had a burger
and chips for
breakfast as a change from shovelling rice down my neck, then strolled to see the Reunification
Palace. Used to be called the Independence Palace, but like everything else here it's name was
changed in 1975. It was built in the mid-1800s, so it was a bit of a surprise to walk through the
gates and see a dodgy-looking 1960s style government building instead of a palace. Turns out that
while the Vietnamese were squabbling amongst themselves in 1962, the original was obliterated
after some heavy bombing. So goodbye attractive palace, and hello concrete eyesore. The palace is
best known for the footage of NVA tanks crashing through the front gates in 1975, forcing the
President to surrender and signalling the end of the war. Wandering around it took around an hour
but there was certainly nothing palacial about the place, and the furnishings were either dull
functional military or 1960s Chinese nookie-factory! Watched another propaganda video chastising
the decadent westerner pig-dog imperialists for 'interfering' in Vietnam, then ended the history
lesson by walking around a local market buying tourist tat.
Went to a local eaterie in the evening where their speciality is 'flying
rice'. Like a rice
pancake cooked in a clay pot, they break open the pots then chuck the rice across the restaurant
where a waiter catches it (some of the time!). All very entertaining until I got a lump of stray
pot in the back of the head. If it leaves a mark then I can claim it to be shrapnel from when I
was in Vietnam! Still had cash left over and found some shops that were still open so bought
another selection of ridiculous tat.
Day One Hundred And Fourteen - Escape from Vietnam!
The plane tickets are booked, the visa is expiring, and today I am OUT OF
HERE! All that remains
is the final 'Hall of Shame', in rough chronological order.
Vietnamese 'Hall Of Shame'
1. Taxi touts at Hanoi airport.
2. Hotel touts at the taxi drop-off point.
3. Hidden 'government tax' on top of agreed room rate.
4. 10,000 dong bottled water at the hotel.
5. Overcharged by 50% for 'Perfume Pagoda' trip.
6. Boat trip 1 dollar bottled water.
7. Boat crone demanding a tip aggressively.
8. Taxi meter to Museum of Ethnology twice the price it should have been.
9. The entire Sapa train ticket fiasco.
10. Taxi driver to Hanoi train station.
11. Coffee women at 5am on Sapa train.
12. Having to pay in order to walk along a road to the village.
13. Sapa woman asking $2 for water - 6 times the going rate (new record at the time).
14. 60,000 dong asking price for 11,000 dong taxi ride.
15. $6 for $4 bus trip.
16. Show prices in dollars, then give people a ridiculous exchange rate when people pay in dong.
17. Having to ask the hotel receptionist three times for the correct change.
18. 30,000 dong for a 10,000 dong taxi ride.
19. Blatant forcing into shops masquerading as a 'rest stop'.
20. $2 necklace being sold for $18 - another new record.
21. Pleading with us to buy tat to "help the handicapped children".
22. Being cornered on the river and ordered to buy drinks for the person rowing the boat.
23. Getting a family member to row the boat so you can concentrate on selling embroidery to
the captive audience.
24. "Tip tip tip tip tiptiptiptiptip" - not only demanding one but then complaining that it's not enough.
25. Including lunch in the tour price, but then charging extra for proper food.
26. Providing drinks with lunch hoping people will think they're free.
27. Charging 55,000 dong to get into each royal tomb.
28. Rob-dog motorcycle drivers on the way to the royal tombs.
29. Everyone in Hoi An dragging you into their clothes shop.
30. Restaurants allowing kids inside to pester you with tat.
31. "You give me one coin".
32. Dodgy ticket scam for My Son monuments.
33. Trying to sell food off the street to people eating in restaurants.
34. Yet more thieving taxi drivers in Nha Trang.
35. Being charged for hand towels given out with a meal.
36. Tour guide exploding.
37. Being taken 30 minutes in the rain on a baggage cart.
38. Expecting us ti pay for eating snails.
39. Hotel and taxi driver charging us double for taxi ride.