Posts tagged ‘Vietnam’
In ways it feels like only yesterday that Gary and I said tearful goodbyes to our Mums and Dads and set off with our names sewn on to our shiny new backpacks, hardly able to breath for all the excitement/nerves/sadness/happiness and general overwhelming flow of emotions vying for our attention. Yet somehow, we have found ourselves a few days short of halfway and, even more alarmingly, out of Asia. Somehow we have become semi-seasoned travellers. Gone is the lettering on our bags – the victims of a hundred careless baggage handlers – and the brand new look. Now everything we own smells like Asia; all our clothes have bobbles around the waist from chaffing backpacks; we don’t bounce out of bed at 7am every morning; we barter for everything even when it’s inappropriate; and we start sentences with the ever-infuriating “Well when I was in Laos/Cambodia/China/East Timor…” We could be gone for years or it could have just been days.
Leaving Asia, after having such a fantastic time, was more bitter than sweet. Granted Oz could offer us all the comforts of home – chocolate, television, air conditioning, home cooking, cleanliness and the ability to communicate – but would it surprise us with impromptu religious processions in the street? Would we have the fun of blind ordering creamed yams because we couldn’t read the menu? Would there be the same backpacker solidarity that we found in rural China or Vietnam? Would we be able to buy and sell motorbikes without a drivers license? Would we be able to afford even the most basic of things? Hardly.
As a tribute to our favourite continent we decided to compile a bit of a nostalgic top ten list. After much squabbling and a few punches we came up with a list that surprised even us. Whenever asked we always say that we loved Japan and Thailand most yet China seems to have housed most of our best memories. The main difficulty lay in choosing just ten – how could we leave out watching the Hong Kong skyline come into focus from the Star Ferry or the Full Moon Party in Ko Pha Ngan or having our teeth rattled out of our heads in Timor Leste? It was hard but here it is – our ode to Asia. It’s been emotional.
10.Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos
Choose getting wet. Choose taking off all your clothes in front of strangers. Choose sunburn. Choose throwing yourself into a fast-flowing river. Choose drinking from a bucket. Choose falling out of a tractor tyre. Choose dropping your camera in the water. Choose dancing on tables. Choose 100 new friends, Choose killing your liver. Choose falling asleep at 5pm. Choose writing on your face in permanent marker. Choose risking your life for the best matinee party ever. Choose tubing in Vang Vieng.
9.The onsen experience, Japan
For most people being naked with a big group of people is about getting dirty. In Japan it’s about getting clean and let’s face it, there are very few times in life where you will have the opportunity to perch between two naked Asian women in an outdoor thermal mudbath high in the mist-shrouded mountains. The Japanese onsen experience, be it in the dedicated town of Beppu or a public facility in Tokyo, will change the way you feel about bath-time forever.
8.Food, just about everywhere
Slurrping down bowls of ramen at noodle bars; discovering mango and sticky rice at a roadside stall; bagging 20 Indonesian fried bananas for 40 cent; eating an entire fish on a stick; figuring out where M&S steal their recipes from over a bowl of fish amok; and the endless search for the best Thai curry. Who said eating in Asia just meant pad thai and fried rice? Yes there was enthusiastic vomitting and 100 odd boxes of immodium but it was worth it to be able to say – “Can you make that Thai spicy, not farang (foreigner) spicy?” And thanks to fantastic cooking classes in China and Thailand we may never have to eat western food again…
7.Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan
The phrase ‘fresh sushi’ never rang as true as it does in Tsukiji Fish Market where fishermen and chefs meet to haggle over a 70 tonne tuna fish or a handful of live prawns. While the rest of Tokyo is still sleeping, skilled tradesmen gut fish with one hand while texting with the other and demonstrate just how easy it is to turn an eel inside out.
6.Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat was one of those extremely rare, heart-stopping moments. We’ve seen our fair share of religious sites from simple wooden structures in Kyoto to the ancient stupa of Borobudor and even the gold-plated royal temple in Bangkok but nothing has come even close to seeing the light change Angkor Wat from a vague black shadow to a spectacular glowing pink, orange and yellow marvel. Never has getting up at 4am been so worthwhile.
5.Tiger Leaping Gorge, China
There are very few places in China where you can find peace and quiet but over three days in Tiger Leaping Gorge our only human interaction was around a camp fire on our last night when we finally met the eight other hikers doing the trail. During the day we edged across cliffside waterfalls, dragged ourselves by the fingernails up the last of the infamous 28 bends (more like 128 bends), clung onto fraying rope ladders for dear life and sat and stared in awe at the mighty Yangtze as it roared past Middle Tiger Leaping Rock.
4.Diving in Thailand
“Two thirds of the world’s surface is covered by water. How can you call yourself a traveller if you’re happy to settle for less than a third?” reads a sign in Ko Phi Phi. Diving in Thailand opened our eyes to an entirely different, entirely superior world full of vibrant colours, swaying reef and curious fish. Away from the blaring music, honking horns and obnoxious tauts we perfected our backflips and were adopted by schools of Sergent Major Fish.
3.Biking in Vietnam
Yes there were near death experiences, crashes, break-downs on mountain peaks, monsoons, burst tires, broken engines, dodgy chains, hit and runs, guilty pay-offs, police bribes and painful sunburns but as the saying goes – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Biking around Vietnam we managed to get off the very sticky tourist trail and see a whole other side to a very beautiful country. Of course it didn’t hurt that we got to know some great Aussies on the way too.
2.Halong Bay, Vietnam
Once listed as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam is a spectacular blanket of silky water broken by hundreds of dark shadows – giants hunched over as if in sleep. Add to that a traditional oriental junk, some fantastic food, a handful of great new friends and a liberal serving of alcohol and you have a New Year’s Eve to remember (or not remember). And as we all know, the only cure for a hangover is to run out of bed and leap straight from the deck of a boat into freezing cold water. Heaven.
1.The Great Wall of China
We had been on the Great Wall of China for around an hour and a half before we saw it. It’s hard to miss something that big (some say you can see it from the moon) but in the blanket of fog that had fallen over Beijing that cold winter’s morning we were more concerned about getting off the damn thing alive than we were about visibility. Subzero temperatures had left the wall coated in black ice, making an already precariously delapidated wall even more impassable. As we shuffled along, using our hands and bums to keep us from falling off the edge and into the abyss, the strangest thing happened. We turned a corner and all of a sudden the fog cleared and the sun came out. Stretched out before us was an endless stretch of sandy brickwork zig-zagging its way up and down the hilly landscape. We stopped dead, totally speechless. Bloody hell, we were on THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA!
All our pictures from Asia are available in the gallery
Of course the last day of our epic journey was anything but smooth riding. Until around 4pm it looked like it was going to be smooth – just a long, uneventful drive in repetitive surroundings – but we always knew that it couldn’t end like that. Vietnam would never let us go without one final send-off. Still, expectant as we were, it was still teeth-clenchingly frustrating when we were pulled in by a policeman only 30km away from HCMC. In the last week we had seen only three policemen on the road yet we get stopped only an hour away from our final destination? Typical.
With no valid licenses and no rear-view mirrors, and more to the point with such luminescent white skin and shiny blonde coats, it was never going to be an easy encounter. Ever the beacon of calm, I started to hyperventilate instantly when the aviator sunglass-wearing cop grabbed my handlebar and pulled me off the roundabout. With his stoney gaze he looked like a menacing Vietnamese Clint Eastwood – should I swoon or quiver? I wondered as I handed over my registration and pretended to search urgently for my license.
Thankfully my biker friends weren’t as inexperienced in such matters as I was and Joe stepped up to the plate. Having bribed his way out of Nepalese prison twice, Joe was just the person to negotiate our release. Armed with 200,000 dong ($10 US) he squared up against the police officer, offering him the old money-in-the-palm-of-a-handshake move along with an equally steely look. Unfortunately for us the Clint Eastwood, as he shall henceforth be known, had even more experience in extracurricular policework than Joe did so instead of taking the money he sneered and lead us to a nearby carpark where he handed his latest booty over to his even dodgier civilian friend who would deal with us from here on – no police corruption here. No sir-ee.
Their opening bid was wildly hopeful – if we paid $500 dollars a head (around 4 months wages for the average Vietnamese person) they would give us back our bike registration cards and our freedom. No freaking way, responded Joe full of righteous indignation. Keep them, keep the bikes, take us to prison and lock us up! There is no way we could afford that. All we have on us is $20 he insisted, shoving proffered fifties back into our pockets. Messenger Boy was starting to look angry now so Joe stepped his game up. I work for the Australian government in Ho Chi Minh, he said slyly whipping out his phone, so I should call and let them know I’ll be late for my meeting. Instantly the price dropped to $500 for everyone. Pay it Joe – let’s just pay it, get out of here and push the bikes into the Mekong we all screamed. But Joe was solid in his tight fisted negotiation. Maybe we could stretch to $10 each if we rooted around in our bags a bit.
For the next hour the negotiations waged on – Joe standing his ground, looking as menacing as he could in his aviators and singlet (aka wife-beater) with motorbike oil and carbon emissions smeared across his snarling face and us loittering on the sideline, looking as non-plussed as possible listening to ipods, fake texting friends and throwing the occasional yawn in for good measure. Worried? Us? Never. We could totally take Vietnamese prison with all of its violent crimes, man-sized rats and racial injustice….
For an hour we stood just like that – pillars of experience and western disinterest – as Messenger Boy zipped back to Clint with every offer. He was becoming more desperate and vicious with every run, leaving us to stew for 20 minutes at a time as the sun set and our chances of negotiating HCMC traffic in the daylight became slimmer and slimmer. Eventually we landed on a compromise, we would pay $15 a head and Simon and Joe, who were looking beefier and beefier by the minute, would leave Messenger Boy with his nether regions intact.
Relieved but slightly apprehensive that the evening might contain another half dozen such dealings as we got closer to HCMC, we braced ourselves for the city’s rush hour traffic. It was monumental traffic – traffic like I hadnever imagined before. Starting around 25km outside of HCMC, cars, vans and trucks were parked at bottle-necks slamming feverishly on their horns as motorbikes weaved between vehicles. Not to be overtaken by mere 2-wheeled transportation, the jeeps and minibuses lunged forward, closing up 3ft spaces between bumpers and trapping unwitting bikers in tight embraces. To counter, the bikes veered onto sand banks where they sank up to their exhausts and eventually, filed en masse onto the grassy verge between highway lanes. As we got closer it got even more hectic with free-for-all roundabouts and futile traffic lights. Packed as tight as sardines in a can we surged forward inch by inch trusting that, while one motorcyclist is no loss to Vietnam, the mass killing of 5 westerners might be an issue.
After such a collosal journey, HCMC was always going to be a let down. For the most part we drank, slept in, ate excessive amounts of food and did everything we had been unable to do on the road. Happily our paths crossed with our old friends Dan and Ash again so together with them Dave and Rich, we ventured out to see the famed Cu Chi Tunnels which were, to be frank, wildly uninteresting. Our main objection was the 8am start followed by a 2 and a half hour bus journey. After a very late night and far too little sleep, finding ourselves severely hungover in the Handicapped Handicrafts Centre being emotionally blackmailed into buying lacquerwork was light years away from what we had in mind. The day went swiftly downhill from there with an introduction video that said the Americans shot at women and children like a bunch of crazy devils, a collection of manequins in various hammocks and work stations and finally, a tiny dark furnace of a mud tunnel through which fruit bats soared freely, diving into the faces of western tourists.
We also gave the War Museum a lash and it was incredibly satisfying with its photojournalism exhibitions, agent orange affected foetuses, prison cell replicas and real-life tank and plane displays. A definate must for any visitor to HCMC.
Oh, and we sold the bikes for 50% of what we bought them for, thereby making a loss of somewhere in the region of $80 a pop – not half bad for a journey that covered 1600km and cost us 1 clutch, 11 oil changes, three tyres, half an engine, three exhausts, half a dozen blown seals, 5 first degree sunburns and half a face.
But oh, what a journey it was. With my face fully healed and Gary’s nerves returned to their fully upright position, we agreed that we wouldn’t trade it for the world and that, strangely enough, we were going to miss the Aussies something shocking – no matter how promiscuous, cranky and full of shit they could be.
Dalat was a bit of a let down to be honest. The town was grimy, uninteresting and pretty damn cold. Apparently the attraction stands in the day trips so in that respect we didn’t do the town justice. Exhausted after the adventures of our previous day, the last thing we wanted to do was get back on the bikes to follow the scenic routes that snaked the area. Instead, we took all of the bikes to see Joe’s good friend MacGyver who gave them a bit of TLC in preparation for the final 450km of our trip.
Still, Dalat was a worthwile destination if only for the beautiful drive (as seen from a jeep window) so it was with incredibly painful bums but smiling faces that we apprehensively mounted our bikes and headed for the lowlands. Although we were now taking the main road, the surface was no better than the day before so we had our work cut out for us in skirting around mounds of gravel, broken road, and bike-sized craters. Just as we were starting to get fed up of our slow progress the view opened up to reveal a flat landscape of burned orange and watery green punctured by emerald mountains. “Just as you start to give up on Vietnam it throws something like this at you!” Gary screamed as he caught up with me.
Riding along with the whole of Vietnam’s landscape laid out before me and Garth Brooks belting something suitably cowboy-ish in my ear I was pretty much on top of the world. I remember thinking to myself “I should get one of these things at home,” as I turned widely into a particularly sharp corner.
I’m still not 100% sure what happened but the next thing I knew my bike had flipped and I was being dragged along the ground on my left side. Just as I started to slow I felt what I though was my back wheel detatch and hit me on the (thankfully helmeted) head. The wheel bounced and banged my head against the road a few times as I slid downhill on my face. Next thing I knew Gary was urgently dragging me out from under a mess of bikes and pulling me to the side of the road where a Vietnamese woman grabbed me and crouched with me in a tight embrace, rocking and stroking my hair.
Quick off the bat as always, nurse Xavier had his first aid kit out within minutes and was checking my pupils and cleaning and dressing my wounds. He even sacrificed his favourite Tiger tshirt to wrap up some ice to calm the swelling. Thankfully, my face broke my fall so, besides from losing most of the skin that side of my face and sustaining a few cuts and bruises along my left side, I had no serious injuries.
What we think happened is that I hit a small pothole followed by a big patch of gravel as I rounded the corner and I went down hard. Only 3 or 4 metres behind me at the time, Gary had quick enough responses to see that he was about to drive straight over my exposed neck so he kicked his bike out from under him and leaped onto the road. It was his bike then, and not my back wheel, which landed on my head as I slid down the road.
Having walked away from my first ever road accident with only a few cuts and burns and with shock on my side, I was happy to keep going for the next 200km after a short rest. The boys (especially Gary who took the whole thing a lot worse than me) were a little more reluctant but we agreed to head to the nearest town for lunch and discuss it there.
Unfortunately the shock wore off once I got back on my bike and the scenic 30 minute trip down the rest of the mountain pass (complete with wild monkey’s ambling across the road) was lost on me as I kept both eyes glued to the road and slammed on the brakes every time I saw anything that could resemble an obstacle. On the verge of a heart attack, I was never more happy to stop for lunch and we decided to press on at a slower pace. Afterall, the highway was a pretty flat, smooth, straight stretch of road for the next 120km so what could really go wrong?
First Gary’s tyre went flat around a kilometre from the nearest bike shop. After an incredibly slow tyre change (MacGyver would have done it in 3.5 seconds for 10c) and a heated arguement about what a new tyre should cost and whether he actually needed one, we were on the road again nearly two hours behind schedule. Still, we were determined not to top 40km/hr so that we would be able to deal with anything Vietnam threw at us because to be honest, it was starting to look like we were fated to die on these bikes.
Around an hour later I was pottering down the road at 40km/hr tutting over a passing truck packed to bursting point with dogs on its way to the slaughterhouse when I saw a bike in front of me veer off the road, flip and roll quickly into a stone pillar. Convinced it was Xavier because he had been in front of me and because the trip was quickly going that way, I checked the bike and saw that it wasn’t red. Sighing with relief I saw Xav leap off his bike and sprint towards the point where the bike had gone down in a cloud of dust. As the dust cleared I saw a guy caked from head to foot in dirt lying under a bike. “SIMON!”
He wasn’t moving.
As it turns out Si had blown a tyre and only had enough control for a crash landing. He was quickly surrounded by dozens of worrying faces and Xavier had thrown himself on the ground and was propping him up. For a few sickening seconds he said nothing before getting up, brushing himself off and saying quite calmly “I’m fine. Where’s the bike?” and hobbling across the road (only Simon could crash his bike 10m from a bike shop).
While Si had both his bald tyres replaced we all lay on the warm pavement and watched the sunset, arguing over whether we should continue in the dark or just set the bikes on fire here and now. Gary was desperate to get hold of a match and Joe was all for stopping at the next town while Xavier, Simon and I were more determined than ever to get all the way to Mui Ne in one piece. After all, we had taken all of what ‘Nam could throw at us by now and it hadn’t been too bad. I had walked away only half a face down and Simon had only slightly turned one knee – not even a scratch. Gary, Xav and Joe however, were still on the Final Destination death list.
Eventually we did decide to plough on though – three hours behind schedule – as far as Mui Ne where Dave had booked us a room in a snazzy resorty and he and Adam were keeping a few hammocks warm for us in a beach bar. An hour and a half of frequent stops and not pushing over 20km/hr later we were slouched over beanbags, couches and hammocks in Pogo Beach Club downing beers and recounting our tales of woe to a captive audience.
Last day tomorrow – bring it on ‘Nam.
*Note: Although my face looked a lot worse when I took the bandages off (see below – click to enlarge) one week later the scabs have all fallen off and left only the tiniest pink patch underneath. So no regrets!
I’m not really sure how, but I have somehow found myself wedged between two surly Vietnamese business men in the back of a jeep. In the baking heat of the day I am sweating profusely in my tank top and hotpants, flinching every time they eye up my legs and hugging my now-redundant motorbike helmet to my bare chest. In the front two more well-heeled men are alternating between giggling hysterically and speaking in rapid Vietnamese. They ask me if I have any idea what they are talking about and I tell them that I have a reasonable idea that it has something to do with one of them marrying me. They laugh heartily before confirming that yes indeed, the driver does intend to make me his third wife. Would that, they ask, be okay with my boyfriend or would it be better for them to take care of him first? I laugh and accept their offer because I think they are joking and because I am utterly alone in their packed car somewhere on the top of a mountain 80km away from the nearest town. And I have no phone reception.
I hope they are joking.
Around 15km into our drive they pull over on the side of the road and two of them jump out and run off into the forest. A third one holds the door open and tells me to get out of the car while the fourth sleeps peacefully in the passenger seat. Stepping gingerly out of the jeep I can’t help but notice that this is the perfect plot for a new Rippley film. While motorbiking around Vietnam a western girl (incidentally a backpacker) breaks down. Lucky for her, a car full of local men on their way to a business meeting pull over and offer to help. They load her bike into the back of their jeep and speed off up the fog enshrouded mountain. For a while her friends try to keep pace but with the road in such a bad condition and with the fog so thick that they can barely see their front wheels, they eventually loose the jeep, cursing themselves for not getting the registration number and for letting her go in the first place. “It should have been me!” screams her boyfriend internally, over and over again.
Meanwhile the girl is sensing a chill in the jeep. Not sure whether it is due to a sudden drop of 30 degrees celcius in the air temperature or to a pervading air of menace, she starts to shiver. The driver, ever the gentleman, offers her his coat before ordering her out of the car and dragging her by the hair to a nearby forest cabin where he and his friends rape and mutilate her beyond recognition. For months the girl’s friends search high and low for her but with only a vague description of the men and no idea of the colour, make or model of the jeep they are forced to return to their respective countries empty handed. By now though, the girl’s college sweetheart is wracked with guilt and both his sleeping and waking hours are filled to bursting with thouse five poisonous words. It should have been me.
While all of this was playing out in my head the driver (Nguyen) and his friend had returned to the car with a length of wire they had borrowed from a friend who lived nearby and were dutifully strapping my motorbike more securely to the back of the truck. “That should hold it!” said Nguyen. “I was so worried about it coming down those mountains. They are so dangerous. Make sure and call your friends and tell them to drive as slowly and carefully as they can, I would feel so guilty if they got hurt because I was driving too fast. And zip up that coat so you don’t get cold. You can keep it. Now we will drive you to Dalat and we will find someone to fix your bike and I will book a hotel for you and your friends. I just hope they get their safe.”
And just like that all my dreams of meeting a dramatic and newsworthy end on a winding, fog enshrouded mountain somewhere in rural Vietnam were lost. As promised my four knights in shining armour drove me to the nearest bike repair shop, keeping me amused all the while with offers of marraige and descriptions of Vietnamese culture. Just as they unloaded my bike and sorted me out with some delicious coffee and hot tea (out of their own pockets of course) and haggled the shop owner down to local prices, I got a text from Joe. “Stuck on top of mountain with Gary. Bike is totally broken. No way of getting down. Send help.” Oh bugger.
Noticing the loss of colour in my face Cassanova and his band of merry men valiantly offered to do the hour long round trip again, forfeiting all of their business meetings and leisurely plans to save yet another hapless westerner. As they were leaving Xavier, Simon and Dave (who had the misfortune of being a passenger for the ill-fated day) rolled into town and Xav and Si hopped in the jeep to go back and help.
Meanwhile, back on the mountain, Joe and Gary had given up all hope of ever being rescued and had resolved on finding their own way down. After trying unsuccessfully to flag a car (the only person who did stop to help them had a clueless root around the bike to find the problem, located the working spark plug – now one of the only working parts of Joe’s bike – ripped it out and then hopped back in his car and left without a word) they tied the bikes together with bungee chords and Gary tried to tow Joe up the mountain. Half an hour and a couple of metres later, Samantha Mumba (as Gary’s bike is called because she’s black) started to cough and splutter like a chain smoker, threatening to pack it all in and head back to Dublin if they didn’t unload her fast. Some more strenuous pushing ensued and just as they were discussing what kind of physical barriers should apply for two men spending a long, cold, wet night on a mountain (after all, if Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal can do it…), the Vietnamese rode over the horizon like big, smiling Power Rangers.
Unfortunately Joe’s bike was utterly buggered so while he hitched a ride as far as Dalat, where our heroes hooked him up with the MacGyver of mechanics and a resonably priced accomodation, we ploughed on through mountain passes for the last 60km of the drive – racing through precarious roads against the rain, the setting sun and the vicious kamikazee mosquitoes.
Landing in Dalat eventually, we met Joe and the Vietnamese for dinner and a few rums (which they refused to let us pay for) and we reminisced over the wonderful day we had had. Sure, two of our bikes had broken down and four had needed repairs but there had been a lot of positives too. Having wandered off the right road early in the day, our morning drive had taken us through a variety of back roads until we reached a point where there weren’t even back roads any more. Then we had taken to a bumpy, dusty dirt track where we zipped past pens full of squeeling piglets and roads choked with runaway chickens (thankfully Gladice controlled her blood lust this time round) before we stopped to put our raincoats on in the holy grail of villages.
Well off the beaten track the village consisted of little over a dozen wooden huts between a construction site and a valley. Pretending to be coy at the start, the villagers peeked out of windows and children hid behind trees and rocks. The longer we stayed though, the bolder they got and eventually half-clothed and completely naked toddlers began to approach us to have their photo taken while their parents crowded in open doorways, smiling at us and gratefully accepting offers of cigarettes and good will.
Granted it wasn’t a perfect day but what with all the naked children, wild animals and meeting four of the kindest, most generous men in Vietnam, we were all pretty happy to call it a ‘good day’ as we settled into our warm, low-lying beds for some well-earned sleep.
More pictures from Dalat are available in the gallery
The best way to describe Nha Trang is as a Vietnamese Playa del Ingles. A playground for westerners and wealthy Vietnamese, Nha Trang offers everything you would expect from a tourist blackspot – a beautiful white sand beach, plenty of accomodation, more bars than you can shake a beer at and a handful of great nightclubs. Unfortunately it has all of the less attractive trappings too including hundreds of persistent tauts selling sunglasses, beer, cigarettes, photocopied books and “massa” (massages – usually with happy endings). There is also a pretty distasteful group of prostitutes strutting about at nighttime cornering western men, groping them and while they are distracted, stealing their wallets.
Usually that many tauts and drunken westerners in one place would have been our nightmare but by the time we reached Nha Trang – tired, dirty, and with painful saddle sores – we were more than happy to surrender to shameless tourism for a few days of eating, drinking and recovering on the beach. And that is exactly how it turned out. Within 20 minutes of arriving we had already tracked down all our old friends from Hué – including the lovely Rhiannon and Alex and the painfully funny Adam – and organised a three night piss up. We also stumbled upon Dave who, after a forgotten night in the infamous Sailing Club, was vomitting on lawns, in ponds and just about everywhere he could find a space free of stalls and motorbikes.
That set the tone for the trip and we spent a fun-filled few days bouncing from Why Not Bar to Red Apple, alternating between 50 cent double rum and cokes and buckets of red bull and vodka. The Aussies, as usual, were letting it rip on the female tourists, waitresses, hotel staff, hawkers, bar maids, tour guides, sales girls, mothers, daughters and bystanders of Nha Trang creating a web of scandal, controversy, bitterness and hilarity wherever they went.
So for three guiltfree days we sipped cocktails and whispered about the latest sex scandal on the backpacker scene, pausing only to fend off wayward hookers and drunkenly harrass American tourists about their role in the Vietnam War (“so how do you feel about what your people did to all those poor Vietnamese women and children? Huh?! I don’t care if you weren’t born and if your parents were anti-war protestors! I’m holding you personally responsible!”).
I’m sorry to say that we also saw very little of Nha Trang – just the enchanting Po Ngar Cham towers nearby and a quick excursion down the coast which found us peering over the wall at a lively fishing village where boys were playing football, girls were pretending not to watch and men were swigging beers and swinging their legs over the edge of a pier. Apparently Nha Trang can be pretty nice if you can set down your beer, say no to the booze cruise and set a course of your own.
More pictures from Nha Trang are available in the gallery
It’s difficult not to get annoyed when every single car, truck and motorbike that passes beeps at you. This counts doubley in the morning when you have just woken up, have not yet eaten and are facing a 10 hour ride on the rock solid seat of a bike which is smoking as if it could explode at any second. After two days of this we were getting a little fed up – everyone flashing us, slamming on their horns and shouting out their windows. Why us? What does that strange clicking jiberish mean?
Some time around 11am the penny dropped though as it escalated and motorbikes pulled up alongside us to talk, bicyclists strained their quads to keep up with us and drivers wound down their windows to wave and smile. The sleeper buses brought most of the tourist through here in the middle of the night on their non-stop trip to Nha Trang so we were the first westerners many of them had seen in years.
When we pulled over at villages for water and breadrolls, people stopped eating and beckoned to us to join them, children crowded at a distance screaming “What is your name?” and whenever we slowed our bikes women came to stroke our arms and necks and run their fingers through our hair. One quick stop to reapply suncream attracted a gaggle of locals with outstretched arms. They thought we were using skin whitener and, concluding that whatever we were using must be the best stuff, they were desperate for a sample.
Suddenly all the annoying honking noises sounded a lot friendlier and, waving and shouting “Hello! Hello!”, we sped through what was to be our best day on the bikes. The run up to Nha Trang was the most spectacular stretch of palm groves, smooth road elevated above lush forests and the most impressive mountain passes we had ever seen. The first few passes were pretty quiet so we had the snaking roads to more or less to ourselves. Uphill labours (which I spent talking to my bike, making empty promises to change her broken tail light and get her an oil change if she would only just get me up this one last hill) were rewarded by sprawling views and steep downhill nosedives that flung us from the top of the world to sparkling blue water, rocking fishing boats and hammocks swinging on pastel porches. With the width of road at our disposal, we flew headlong into spirals and jarring hairpins, certain at every second that we couldn’t possibly get any closer to the bay below us without falling in.
Of course life on the road could never be as wonderful as that all the time so we knew there were hardships to come and sure enough they did, in the form of Joe’s bike Gladice. Pretty popular when she was first released some time around 1940, Gladice was growing tired of her workhorse life; tired of always being overlooked in favour of younger, prettier models; tired of being jolted this way and that into oncoming traffic; and tired of being ridden senseless by fat, lazy, sweaty men. She used to be top of the pile, beloved by the masses and well able to hold her own on the road. Now though, everywhere she looked she saw herself – filty, beaten down and broken. Now she was angry, indignant, tired and reckless. Until now, Joe had overlooked her flaws, shelling out 500,000 dong in hush money when she rammed a younger bike in a carpark in a fit of hysterical jealously. He had been patient but today Gladice took it too far. Today Gladice took an innocent young life.
“I was just driving down the road and she was running fine,” said Joe when he spoke to police later in the day. “And there was this tiny little chick on the road but I’m pretty used to seeing livestock on Vietnamese roads so I didn’t take any notice of it. I mean, just today we passed a water buffalo tied down in the middle of the highway and we all know that chickens have a bit of a road fetish so no big deal right? Well the rest is a bit of a blur. Maybe she was jealous of the chicken’s youth or maybe she’s bloodthirsty but Gladice suddenly veered straight for the chick and mowed it down like a woman possessed. The chick tried to run but he had no hope – all that was left after she had done with him were a few feathers floating in her exhaust smoke. I think I heard her laugh then and I’m positive she revved her engine but we’ll never really know will we? Maybe I should just have her scrapped. It might be kinder at this stage…”
Mourning our fallen feathered comrade we pushed on, battling kamikazee mosquitos which collected in our tear ducts, spattered against our tshirts and dove between our teeth as we raced the falling light to the beach resort of Doc Let. We also got our fill of mountain passes as that night’s tourist sleeper buses raced in either direction, choking narrow roads in their quest to overttake each other ten, twenty, thirty times before the journey’s close. I can honestly say that there is nothing more terrifying than approaching a corner on a struggling morotbike to see two huge buses filling the breadth of a narrow pass, honking and swearing at you to get out of their way. Desperately you search for an escape route only to find no ditches. You contemplate veering off the side of the road and sailing through the air to the beach 50m below but then you remember the metal barrier placed ‘for your safety’. You slam on your horn, slow down and cling to the side of the road, closing your eyes and gritting your teeth in preparation for the impact. Then just as it looks like your days are numbered (or would look if you could see through closed eyelids), one bus falls back, allowing the other to overtake and they zoom past you, waving and smiling as if they didn’t just almost kill you.
After such a day its not surprising that everything after it was a bit bland. Doc Let was nice but nothing to write home about and the 30km drive to Nha Trang the following morning was dull enough, apart from one wonderful stretch of completely empty Grand Prix track which wound its way up and down a mountain in a series of tight, smooth turns which climbed up the walls at parts and made us feel like we were in a video game. Finally, around 600km after leaving Hué, we hit our halfway point filthy, exhausted and gagging for hot shower and a cold bottle of Tiger beer.
More pictures from the road to Nha Trang are available in the gallery
From the very first day, our biking tour was the real Top Gear experience – our shoebox of money only bought us rattley old shopping trolleys; having the largest head in Vietnam meant that Simon almost had to resort to strapping a collendar to his head; and Gary obliged us by kickstarting our two day trip from Hoi An to Nha Trang with yet another copycat emergency.
“Oh crap!” I heard him shouting as we zipped down Highway 1. “My key fell out of my ignition and I have no idea when. I won’t be able to turn the bike off or open my fuel tank!” Fortunately for us, if there is one thing that every Vietnamese person knows how to do, it’s fix a motorbike. Any problem can be solved using two lollipop sticks, a tube of pritt stick, a handful of pipe cleaners and some coloured paper. Three minutes after he arrived, panicky and urgently pantomining his predicament, a small man covered from head to flip-flopped foot in oil handed Gary a brand new key tied on a string for safer keeping free of charge. Mechanical geniuses and they’re warm hearted – we were really growing fond of these curious, smiling people.
A little boring at the start, the road eventually developed into a pretty easy-going, flat ride through tiny tumbleweed towns. For hours we cruised uneventfully past flooded rice paddys, watching distant lime green tones develop into murky reflections of nearby mountains as they blurred in and out of focus. Thankfully, the scorching heat of the day was offset by the dusty, exhaust-infected air whipping past our skin so it wasn’t until we pulled in at My Lai for lunch that we realised just how badly sunburned we were. Not happy to let us eat in peace, Joe whipped out his trusty Lonely Planet guide and proceeded to tell us all about the town’s tragic history.
As it turns out, My Lai was home to the worst massacre of the Vietnam War. Under the pretense that they were aiding the North Vietnamese Army, the US army decided to make an example of the small market town. During the weekly market, when they knew that everyone would be in the town centre, the army landed nearby, pouring out of their helicopters and surrounding the town to cut off any chance of escape. Over the next few hours they threw grenades at houses, shops and bomb shelters and mowed down every person they saw. At least once, they lined over 150 people up in a ditch on the side of the road and shot them one by one. At the end of the day, every single person in the village was dead. Most were women, children or elderly people and not one single member of the NVA was found.
Sitting in a shaded porch listening to the kitchen staff’s easy banter, watching chickens dart between noodle stalls on the street and marvelling over the man zipping up the street with a full chest of drawers tied to the back of his bike, it didn’t seem possible that such a thing could have happened in living memory. How could such a close-knit town ever develop out of all the ash and corpses left behind that day? Not surprisngly, finishing our lunches was another impossibility so we morosely decided to press on in the hope that we could find a hotel before dark.
On that front we were incredibly lucky. Just as dusk began to spread it’s jaundiced fingers across the sky, we came to another rural town and, spotting those six golden letters glinting in the falling light, we pulled into a hotel on the side of the road. Rounding the building we were thrilled to discover a small lake crossed by a rudimentary bridge which lead to a beautiful white sand beach. This discovery and the sucessful completion of another trying day definately called for a few Huda beers on the beach so we settled onto a wall and reminisced over the day as the sun set and the boats on the horizon twinkled to life.
Later, after scrubbing violently at the black film smeared across our exposed skin and tenderly treating our excrutiating sunburns (well, Gary and I treated our burns while the Aussies admired their golden tans) we popped over to the canteen across the road for dinner. Fed up of pho (beef noodle soup), we ordered a feast of grilled beef, fried rice and sautéed chicken. As is the norm in Vientam though, what we had ordered was less important than what the cook felt like dishing up so our succulent feast came out as several bowls of squid noodle soup – squoodles – which the waitress identified as “rice” and “beef”. A second, and even third round of ordering was no more successful so, after downing four whole squid, six packets of instant noodles and three litres of chicken stock each, we decided to call it a day and get an early night so we would be ready for the ambitious 340km ride we had planned for the next day.
To be continued….
In our heads the bike journey was always going to be a repeat of that first day – sunny weather, long lunches on the beach, quaint villages, plenty of photo opportunities and a pretty easy pace. We were pretty stunned then to wake up on the morning of our first day of biking to find monsoon weather. Even more disappointing was the first 50km of our trip – grimy suburbs, crowded roads, beeping horns and not a paddy field in sight. Soaked through (despite the massive cape raincoats we had bought to cover us, our bags and our bikes) we were forced to pull over when the roads became treacherously slippy and our grumbling bellies got to us.
After some urgent pointing, a trip to the kitchen and a consultation with the phrasebook we managed to order a bowl of questionable pho which Gary, Joe and I devoured but Xavier and Simon couldn’t bring themselves to eat. “Do they not have any burgers or even some fried noodles?” they pleaded. An early brush with food poisoning had left Simon a little doubtful about Vietnamese street food so he was of the ‘eat nothing rather than something Hep A contaminated’ school of thought. Far past that after travelling China (and in Joe’s case Nepal and India) we greeted food poisoning and diahhroea as old friends and were pretty much grateful for anything we could get.
Fed and watered (or in Simon and Xavier’s cases still starving) everything started to look a little brighter, and after another hour of driving through sheets of pounding rain the weather finally started to co-operate and the sun came out just in time for our first mountain pass. The pass was an incredible combination of helterskeleter patterns, hairpin turns and freefall hills ending in hair-raising views of lush mountains, crystal water and dense forests. Since trucks, buses and cars were diverted through a tunnel under the mountain, we had the road more or less to ourselves so, finally appeased that this biking lark was a good idea, we used the full width of it, whooping and hollering like children playing cowboys and indians.
It was all fun and games until Alice (my bike) started to cut out and spew an unhealty amount of smoke. After easing her over the last mountain we stopped in a leper colony (population 200) to have the oil changed before pushing on to Da Nang. Hitting the city in rush hour traffic, we spent a hair-raising 75 minutes navigating gridlocks of a hundred or so motorbikes, dodging suicidal pedestrians, weaving between veering trucks and ambitious cyclists and losing each other again and again to the droves of polished, coloured heads crowded around traffic lights and roundabouts.
Surprisingly we made it through the crush alive though and another hour of driving in darkness brought us to Hoi An – a charming village stuck between a river and an ocean. After a decadent hot shower and badly needed clothes change, we met Alex and Rhianna (friends from Hué who we were to bump into in every city) and headed to a riverside restaurant for beers and an excessive amount of food.
Charmed into submission by Hoi An’s winding alleys, 200 year old storefronts and hundreds of coloured lanterns reflected in the shimmering river, we floated through the next two days in a vegetative state. Loving our new hedonistic lifestyle we skipped from the beach to the bars, wolfed down delicacies in colonial cafes and browsed the multitude of clothes and craft shops crammed into every inch of the old section of town.
More pictures from Hoi An are available in the gallery
Getting off the sleeper bus at 6am we were hit by a wave of hot, humid air. Exhausted after a cramped, sleepless night, we checked into the fabulous Backpacker’s Hostel and dragged ourselves to the citadel to see the Imperial City. Ponds packed tight with orange carp, magnificent looming gates, flaking yellow temples, loittering elephants and gleaming lacquer roofs were all lost on us as we trudged around, sweating and panting under the high sun, wanting nothing more than to curl up under a fan and sleep for a week.
Having learned our lesson we spent the rest of our trip taking it easy, kicking around the hostel and taking full advantage of happy hour. Unfortunately this often meant sampling the bar’s less popular spirits such as chilli, garlic and arse flavoured vodka. It was during one such chilli and arse fuelled night that we added some new characters to our tale – Simon, Xavier and Joe – three Aussies on a lad’s holiday in Vietnam and their friend Dave who, confusingly, was travelling with them and not with them at the same time. Little did we know that a harmless game of darts followed by some enthusiastic vomiting would totally change our run-of-the-mill trip to ‘Nam.
The next day we met the Aussies for breakfast and, united in our suffering, we decided to get some motorbikes out and spend the day honking our way around Hué. Unfortunately this didn’t quite work out as planned. Around 2km in Gary’s bike broke down and, oblivious as usual, the Aussies zipped off in a trail of dust. Despite enlisting the help of a friendly local who spent 30 minutes trying to retrieve our hapless friends we couldn’t locate them in the maze of streets so, grumbling and bickering, we decided to bike around on our own, agreeing that after 2 months alone together a little more quality time was exactly what we needed.
Fate apparently had other more sadistic ideas however as we soon tripped across the band of merry men on a beach around 20km outside of Hué where they were stretched out on plastic furniture, sipping beer and sharing prawns and fish with two local puppies. Evidently devastated by the loss of us, they had since found replacements in Adam, another Aussie, and Tony, a local guy who they had picked up on the street. Tony had told them that he was an english teacher and was keen for a chance to practice his english. When we got the 2 million dong bill for a sparse and mediocre lunch we were a little suspicious but since he had already taken the boys home with him to meet his family, we decided that he was just a decent guy who had made a genuine mistake in choosing a restaurant.
Still hungry after our millionaire’s lunch we hopped back on the bikes and followed Tony as he took us on the most incredible tour of the countryside past crumbling graveyards, bathing buffalo and colourful villages.
Eventually we pulled up for a photo opp next to some flooded paddy fields where a dozen or so labourers were hunched over their work in the evening light. Never content to be bystanders, the Aussies decided to muck in. Flinging off their flip flops and hiking up their boardies, Joe, Simon and Xavier waded knee-deep through the mud to lend a hand, much to the suprise of the workers. Why would these rich westerners want to parttake in backbreaking work when they could be sipping tea over a bowl of pho or lounging in a hammock on the beach? Eventually the hilarity of the situation hit home though and they started to laugh, becoming hysterical when Xavier ran around screaming after finding a leech on his leg.
After destroying a handful of rice plants and laughing ourselves silly we started our highspeed journey home, pausing only to let a farmer pass with his 300-strong herd of ducks. Thankfully we arrived back in the hostel in time for happy hour and, totally elated after our day’s adventures, we raved about how wonderful it would be to do the same thing every day. Evidently pretty drunk at this stage I suggested that we should do it every day, that we should buy bikes and make our own way to Ho Chi Minh together. Having already downed 10 beers or so, the boys all agreed enthusiastically and we managed to comandeer one of the staff members to bring us bike shopping the following day.
The next morning we woke up severely hungover and a feeling little more realistic about our chances of riding 1200km on Vietnamese bikes. Pride being what it is though, no-one wanted to be the one to say “This is a stupid idea – we don’t have licenses or insurance or even a map.” So for 4.5 million dong each we bought some questionable secondhand motorbikes and our fate was sealed. Over the next two horrifically fun, painfully wonderful weeks, instead of lazing on beaches and bartering for steaming bowls of pho we would tackle monsoons in short sleeves, heave broken bikes up 1500m mountains, be absolutely sizzled by a relentless sun and spend entire hours searching for anything edible in small villages – and all because no-one wanted to be the first to say those three dreaded words – “This is stupid.”
*Note: We found out later that Tony had scammed us and many other backpackers like us. Considering all the fun we had during our tour though, and the fact that we spent our lunch hour drinking Huda beer and eating fish on a beach, it’s a scam I’d definately recommend to a friend.
More pictures from Hué are available in the gallery
Have you ever felt so happy that you became totally removed from yourself? Like you drifted up out of your body so that you could get a better view of just how wonderful it was to be you at that moment? I had one of those experiences today when I watched myself being rowed through caves and flooded paddy fields past women doing their washing, fishermen submerged up their armpits and several generations of ducks moving in formation across the still water. Gary was clicking away at the front of the 6ft green steel boat, alternatively worrying about falling in and raving about how this was “every photographer’s wet dream”.
All to soon though I came crashing back to earth as the rythmic whoosh and slap of oars passing through water was broken by a shrill ringing at the back of the boat. Answering his mobile phone, our rower passed his oars from his hands to his feet and started to paddle us downstream in an easy cycling motion, reclining on his elbow and laughing hysterically at the person on the other end of the line. Maybe there wasn’t so much of a risk of us falling in after all.
The location was Tam Coc, known locally as ‘Ha Long Bay on land’ – a bold claim no doubt but one it definately lives up to. To put it simply, we found everything in Tam Coc that we had been hoping for but had missed on our cruise down the Li river in China. Rather than shivering and peering through the mist, we were marvelling over the ingenuity of fishermen who were wading through the water with giant nets to catch tiny fish, listening to the sound of the oars reverberating off of cave walls, waving at local women who were punting downstream and oohing and ahhing to our hearts’ content.
And Tam Coc was only the beginning. Once we made it back to land, we hopped back on our motorbike and headed for Bich Dong, a cave-pagoda set in a mountain. After passing through the pagoda and touching the head-shaped rock for longevity we continued up the stone steps, through the thick winding roots of bayan trees and over the sharp porous karst rocks to the tip of the mountain. From there we had a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside as it stretched out for miles – a vast puzzle of misty hills, watery brown rice fields, flaking red roofs, sunny yellow walls and glimmering mopeds.
By far the best part of the day was the motorbike we rented and insisted on driving at 60km/hr through bumpy country roads, past schools breaking for lunch and over hunchback bridges. As we zipped past, a blur of pale skin and blonde hair, people came out of their houses and shops to wave and shout hello and whenever I was driving, to laugh uncontrolably at the wussy man who, could you believe it, was letting his woman drive the bike! A novel idea indeed.
During our adventures three field mice fell prey to my front wheel and at least six small children came closer to death than their mothers will ever know. It was terrifying but absolutely fantastic and, since we returned unscathed (although slightly shaking from the adrenaline), biking through Vietnam à la Jeremy Clarkson promises to be a weekly event from now on.
Just gagging for an excuse to use up our full tank of gas, we decided to go out to Hoa Lu – once the 10th century capital of an early, independent Vietnamese kingdom called Dai Co Viet. While the original castles are now in ruins, 17th century copies of the buildings are still standing in all of their paint-peeling, lacquered glory. While they may not be worth a trip in their own right, they are definately worth a glance if you are bouncing about Tam Coc and have a few hours, a litre of fuel and some years off your lifespan to spare.
Now approximately 10km away from Ninh Binh (the terrible rat-hole town we had chosen as a base for our day trip), it was Gary’s turn to drive and, feeling like a real man with a motor between his legs and his girlfriend wrapped around his stomach, he decided to take the 35km route home to the eternal regret of vulnerable wildlife and expectant mothers across Northern Vietnam.
More pictures from Tam Coc are available in the gallery