Country number: 54
Territory number: 59
When? December 2000/January 2001 Side-trip from Manila
How? Bus, train, boat, local planes
Who? Group Tour
‘Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.’
Nightmare – arrived in Vietnam – just!
Have a last morning repack down to a rucksack. I decide it will be easier to carry up lots of stairs than a case and manfully discard woollies and my raincoat to fit it all in. I attach my new sleeping bag to the outside.
I congratulate myself on being ready with plenty of time to spare. At airport I check in easily and then realise to my horror that I have no green card. I haven’t seen it since I gave it to my secretary, Lyn, to get my Vietnam visa. I hurtle to immigration. If I go out will they let me back into the country? No, they won’t, and what’s more they won’t let me leave the country without it. Panic! I phone Malou, the maid and get her to search the house and Noli the driver is dispatched to ask at work. I know it’s not at home anyway. Take taxi back to work. Taxi gets lost. Even more panic. At work Diana the office manager has come to help. Lyn has been phoned but has no idea where it is. She says she has never seen it. Diana phones a lawyer. He confirms they won’t let me out of the country without it. I find a photocopy of the application form and decide to go back to the airport and try again. Noli takes me. Half way there Diana phones. She has found a photocopy of the green card. I go back to school to get it. My flight is due to leave at 4 o’clock. I arrive at the airport at 3.40. and find a nice Vietnam Air girl called Kim who says she will come to immigration with me. Put down my jacket on the counter to talk to her. I turn round. Jacket stolen.
Back to immigration. There’s a different man in charge. I look (and am) tearful. He lets me through, but says work must provide a duplicate for my return. Phew! I charge down to the departure gate. You can’t come through. Why? You haven’t paid your airport tax. I speed back though immigration, slide under barrier and back. No one says a thing. Why didn’t I do that the first time? Board plane at 4 o’clock. Drink plenty of gin.
Arrive at Ho Chi Minh (HCM) where I am scheduled to meet the rest of the group from England. Recover rucksack – sleeping bag has been stolen! Go through customs and am chased out of the airport by an angry official because I haven’t picked up his yellow form.I hitch a free ride into town with a tour group bus, find my hotel eventually and with a huge sigh of relief walk up to the counter. No, they have no reservation for me and no, my tour group is not staying here. The kind receptionist after a while phones every hotel in town until she finds them, at the hotel across the road. The tour leader, Terese, comes to get me. I’m sharing with a Janet, who is rather large, but seems efficiently okay. We repair for drinks in a roof top bar and meet the rest of the group, a motley assortment of sixteen people. Three single guys , five single women (though Fern is with her family) and the rest are couples. Two of the men are called Bruce and their girlfriends are Angela and Anita, so we have ABBA amongst us.
We are served by girls wearing little Father Christmas outfits. I go for dinner with Malcolm (quite attractive) and his wife (a bit stuffy) and stepdaughter (Lois and Fern). We order crab in tamarind. It’s lovely, except the crab is whole in its shell, nestling in the tamarind sauce and there is not a finger bowl in sight.
Back to the hotel. The room’s not bad, but has a very strange little mosaic sit up and beg bath. My shampoo has leaked all over my toilet bag and I don’t realize until my teeth start to foam when I brush them.
It’s going to take the whole holiday to get over this.
It’s Christmas Eve and there are few decorations in sight. A tree is playing a strange version of Jingle Bells in the lobby. I don’t get much sleep. Our room is over the kitchen and crockery smashing seems to go on all night.
I change money. It’s fourteen thousand dong to the dollar so I have well over a million in my purse.
The local taxis are called cyclos; the carriage is in front of a pedal bike. We have an introductory tour of HCM using these. Most drivers in Vietnam own motorbikes and these bear down from all directions. No-one stops, you just play chicken all the time. This applies to pedestrians as well. You simply pray and go and the traffic weaves round you. The highlights of HCM are the American Embassy (deserted and locked up), the Post Office (chandeliers and ceramic glue pots for the stamps), the Opera house, the cathedral (closed) and the War Museum. HCM is generally unimpressive but the last stop is fascinating. It’s an exhibition telling stories of the war atrocities with the most poignant pictures taken by war photographers. One series especially, called The Last Roll of Film, found in the cameras of dead journalists. Extremely emotional, and I would really have liked to take some copies away but there are only nick knacks on sale.
To my amazement I emerge into the museum courtyard to see Mary Sherry from Nepal and her husband John. We are all gob smacked. Hugs and kisses all round.
Arriving back at the hotel I bump into some parents from school and their daughter!
Shopping with Janet- there is lots of silk and bright lacquer ware and drinking coconuts from street vendors who pursue you down the street till you succumb. Everything is very cheap and the streets are full of busy people carrying colourful goods pannier or yoke style. The Vietnamese women actually do wear their conical hats and cover themselves up totally on their bikes with long gloves and face scarves to keep the sun off. Being brown is considered very unattractive.
We check out the bar on the top of the Rex Hotel. Lots of ex pats and cocktails and a silver haired Texan posing for wedding pictures with a beautiful young Vietnamese girl.
Dinner in the Temple Court restaurant. It’s good food (more tamarind, stuffed squid) but it’s strangely subdued for Christmas. I notice Noel (lone Irish male already on the outside of the group) has huge flakes of dandruff. After watching him at table I decide it is safer to offer him the plate last when anything new arrives, both for reasons of hygiene and also to make sure that there is something left on it.
At eleven they all say they are tired and want to go back to bed. It’s a big anti-climax. We stroll back through streets now absolutely thronging with revellers, walking, on bikes and motorbikes. The wide streets are absolutely solid. Squatting vendors on the central reservation offer bags of glittery confetti that children are showering around. Then some of the locals shower us, grinning broadly. Malcolm buys the vendors’ entire stock (about 50p) and a frantic battle ensues, culminating on the dot of midnight. We are all covered in sparkles. It’s great fun and the Vietnamese really enjoy it too. That’s much more like Christmas.
I wake up to find that Father Christmas has not been, but my bed is full of glitter and it is stuck all over my face and hair. We leave at 6.30 so there is not much time to correct the situation. We bus to the Mekong River through suburbs reminiscent of Paris. there are plenty of crash helmet shops – I’m not sure why, as no one wears one. There are often three and even four passengers on the bikes.
The guide’s technique is unusual. Here is the bus station, there the post office. No mention of the beautiful pagoda to the left? Onto the river and narrow fish tail wooden boats with very long propeller shafts that speed past thriving floating markets; boats piled high with melons, longans and apples. Each market has just one kind of produce; the river wholesalers. Further down the markets are more mixed and the middlemen become involved. Next, across a huge expanse of water, misty views of the opposite banks and in and out of distributaries of murky depths past rickety wooden bridges and stilt houses. Locals wave from hammocks slung across the water and now we weave through boats of all shapes and sizes (most are plain brown but have eyes painted on the prow) and swathes of undulating water hyacinths to Mr. Bong’s garden. Here we eat lunch and admire the obligatory python.
Rice wine tasting follows. At 45% proof it’s an interesting lunchtime experience. Then, on past private jetties and landing stages to visit some cottage industries. We wander through a waterside village to see tiles being made out of cement, fish sauce production (the most disgusting smell I have ever inhaled – now I know why I don’t like Chinese kitchens), tofu production (not much better), tool making and sharpening, log sawing (two women with a double handled blade), coffin making (!), lots of little stalls, rice threshing and polishing and finally to the nursery school. I sit and “eat tea” with one group. All absolutely fascinating. Onto a pottery factory with huge moulds and immense kilns.
More rural scenes, children washing in the river and business everywhere conducted on the water via much nodding of triangular heads.We arrive at the home-stay where we are to spend the night. There are two dormitories for us all to share in a house on stilts on the river, the water lapping below and little fish popping their heads up to inspect us. The latrines out the back. There are disputes about who will sleep where as it has already been established (Adrian shares with him) that Noel snores. He is in my room. There are eight wooden folded leg camp beds and blue mosquito nets with black floral patterned blanket quilts. (Very tasteful). The lights keep flickering on and off. I take the bed nearest the door to the toilets and find my torch.
Christmas dinner is eaten over the water in an open-air dining room. It’s a feast of elephant ear fish, congee, herb salad, spring rolls, shredded chicken in vegetables and giant prawns. Then we all play singing games and charades before retiring to bed at ten p.m. I’m too tired to notice Noel snoring and doze off to the sound of boats chugging up the river and the insistent drone of the countless mosquitoes.
Up at 5.30 ostensibly to see the sunrise, though it is more of a sluggish creep through the clouds. We motor back through the floating markets, very busy at this time of the day and stop to negotiate for pineapples at two for five pence.
Then, a long journey in the bus with travel sickness threatening, to the Cuci tunnels, dug by the Vietcong during the French and American wars. The guide revels in demonstrating the six full size spiked mantraps and then takes us down a winding path indulging in hysterics as we walk through various booby traps that set off firecrackers. Thus fully immersed in the flavour of the war we are allowed to have a go on the national firing range (also providing authentic background shellfire) – I decline – and to crawl though some of the tunnels (specially enlarged for westerners). I venture in a little way. It’s very cramped and claustrophobic, especially as you have to wait for the person in front of you to take their photos while down on all fours. Noel gets lost in the tunnel and has to be brought out. The guides’ version of the war seems to suggest that it was fought between the Americans and the whole of Vietnam. I wander back to the entrance to find a tiny cage with a poor, pacing and obviously very unhappy black bear.
Back to HCM for a quick last minute shower and shop ready for our first train journey. This time my conditioner has leaked all my bag. A four-berth compartment has been allocated to Paula, Lesley, Janet and I. We go for a reinforcement meal of squid and prawns and fried morning glory with garlic. We also buy Pringles, beer and some dried fruit that turns out, rather unfortunately, to taste of toothpaste, for the journey.
The carriage is rickety and I don’t look too hard to see how clean everything is. There is a hole-in-the-floor toilet up the end. Lesley is very laid back, self-contained but pleasant. She runs a student hall of residence in London. Paula is a Wing Commander in the R.A.F. and definitely won’t brook any nonsense. She and Janet wouldn’t fit on a bus seat together. She has this sort of don’t mess with me expression and a decided twinkle in her eye. We soon get onto sex lives. Judging by what they are saying I’ve got a long way to go yet. None of them are exactly Jennifer Lopez. I wonder what I’ve been doing wrong.
I wander up the train and Angela’s Bruce is in a compartment on his own. He shouts at me to take off my clothes and get in with him. He’s already given me an unwarranted Christmas night kiss.
I try to sleep holding onto my valuables and with ear plugs in to shut out the noise of the train and of Malcolm’s compartment playing cards loudly.
We arrive in beach resort Nha Trang to a mist of continuous rain. I catch up on sleep and venture out into more rain. The bay looks as if it might be pretty if you could see it. I wander along the beach trying out different bars and see women scavenging for more morning glory in the scrubland.
A good meal in the evening at a restaurant that provides mini coal barbecues on the table and we cook our own steak, squid and prawns. Too many beers and back to the hotel for a midnight swim in the pool before bed. Icily refreshing.
It’s Lesley’s birthday and involves a boat trip to a very pretty palm fringed island, where we are paddled ashore in round coracle like boats by women in the usual triangular hats. Through winding village streets, ankle deep in water and mud, past colourful bright blue fishing boats to a fantastic Gaudi like aquarium shaped as a lionfish in a sailing ship. The sun begins to peep out as we tour the tanks of tropical fish. Terese points out that we should look at them here as there aren’t many left in the sea. There is dynamite fishing on the coral. Black tipped reef sharks swim up and down in rows with military precision. Paula enjoys it. Turtles are kept in a tank outside, though I am dismayed to see plastic bags floating on the surface of the gungy water.
It’s good weather now, but the snorkelling is terrible, a strong current dashing me on rocks and very little to see through the disturbed water. On yet another island we sit like a row of old ladies in deck chairs on a small sandy beach and sunbathe and read. I have a Tiger Balm massage and Irish Bruce disgraces himself by getting cut off by the tide and having to be rescued from the rocks by Terese. Anita tries to pretend he is nothing to do with her. Eventually back to the mainland, in very high spirits.
A birthday meal is planned for Lesley but she ate early, so we all have her party without her at the Sailing Club (ex-pat refuge). Then on to the Rainbow Club where the owner gives us free drinks for livening the place up and getting everyone dancing. Lots of Boney M is involved and Chris (with Ita) tries unsuccessfully to teach me to salsa. Back to bed too late.
We are instructed to get up at 6.10, as we have to load our baggage early for the airport. We do so, but Terese oversleeps and has to be fetched. We hear that Adrian (fresh faced and goofy toothed) and Gary (Souf Lunnon man) have come back so late they had to climb over the gate – Gary had pretended to be a chimp and swung on the bars.
Now a small propeller plane to Danang, a one-time U.S. airbase and now an industrial sprawling town and on to Hoi An. Our hotel on the outskirts is not nice. The room smells rather too much of drains (though Janet’s trainers aren’t helping and she agrees to leave them outside). I cycle into town and can’t decide if the ochre colour washed colonnaded buildings are attractive and full of character or dingy and dilapidated. .There’s a large market full of bustle, squawking livestock in woven baskets and brightly polished fruit and vegetables piled in pyramids. The shops festooned with lanterns; there are numerous art galleries, (every picture features the ubiquitous triangles) and endless silk tailor’s shops.
We eat the most delicious fish wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in ginger, lemon juice and garlic. Some of us take a boat trip on the river and are paddled about by more men with hats. Angela, Fern, Janet and I cram into one (trying to distribute the weight evenly is interesting) with Gary, younger, podgier Bruce and Adrian in the other. Their boat nearly tips over as they jostle for positions and then so does ours because we are laughing so much. Two minutes up the river we all have to get out again as the boats pass under a bridge so low that the water comes up to the edges. The boat dives into the reeds to view grass, snails, and kingfishers and then back past the low bridge and round to the main river – more small hamlets, boatyards, waving locals. Then another walk, admiring pagodas, a carved Japanese bridge and more silk shops.
Now, very tired so pass on dinner and go back to the evil smell.
I am woken at 8.30 by the chambermaid. I have slept for fifteen hours despite the traffic noise, Janet coming and going, a chainsaw and a bed full of ants. In daylight the room looks very grubby. I decide to opt out of the planned trip to My Son and rest by the sea instead. I cycle down there on a hotel bike. The beach is delightfully seedy. There are constant interruptions from beach vendors selling T shirts, cigarettes, fruit and all sorts of things I don’t want. I pretend to sleep and then retrieve my bike. The chain has fallen off, so I get covered in grease sorting this and then drift back through the paddy fields.
Later, I walk into town (my bike has been “borrowed”) and go back to the fish restaurant. Most of the group are there. They have paid to be allowed to help cook fish the same as we had yesterday (and other dishes), which they will then eat. This is called a cookery course. I opt for a massage instead and am taken upstairs by Madam Phu to the living quarters, bamboo matting, clothes everywhere. The TV is on while I have my massage, one child watching it and the phone ringing constantly. After ten minutes Phu gets called away to deal with the cooking, so both her sister and daughter take over. An hour with two of them working together. Worth a huge tip.
I gossip in the bar with Angela and Malcolm while the others cook. They say My Son was not worth the time spent – right decision then. We eat more fish. I get a lift back on Lois’s pillion – it’s very wobbly.
New Year’s Eve begins with a carnival procession through the streets. There are countless decorated floats, all featuring Ho Chi Minh, marching bands and music. On the river, more big boats and mini dragon boat racing, ferry boats crammed full of people and crowds everywhere milling and talking. We undertake marathon sight-seeing and a shopping expedition. Everyone except me has clothes made and fitted. Janet also buys an “antique” wedding food carrier inlaid with mother of pearl. We visit two pagodas, Chinese assembly rooms with fiery dragon altars and an old Vietnamese house furnished in Chinese style, where we are given tea and sales patter about buying table cloths. We dip into the art galleries, but they are disappointing on close inspection. I buy some gorgeous silk lanterns.
Back to the hotel for a rest.
Cycle down to the riverfront for another massage (ace) and then secure a balcony table by the river with Gary and Adrian. As we eat our meal lighted boats sail into view and up the river mooring opposite. Scores of candle lanterns are floated downstream. It’s all magical. I watch for a long time, talking to Gary. He tells me about his massage parlour experiences in HCM and then asks if I would like to go back to the hotel to bed with him. Not an appealing prospect anyway, especially in the light of what he has just told me. I opt for a boat ride past all the illuminations instead. Really really lovely apart from having to smack Gary’s arm away once or twice.
The streets are full of games and dances, shows, bingo type games to chanting music and much hilarity and folk dancing. At midnight drums beat, firecrackers go off and dragons dance. I hang out in the ex-pat bar Tam Tam till 3.30 in the morning talking to an American called Carl about hegemonics (I didn’t know what it was either) and philosophy. The other girls from the group have gone there much earlier hoping to pull, but without much success. Unfortunately, in the process my bike has been locked away in the restaurant for safety. Walking back I tell Janet that I least I found a man to talk to. “But he was fat” is the reply. He must be half her size.
Very tired (again). Why do I do it? We crawl onto the coach taking us to Hue and doze. We stop at Marble Mountain, where we go to the special shop that does the best deals – if you want a six foot carved lion or a luminous green Buddha. The others climb to the top of the mountain for the view (it’s misty again) so I stay at the bottom and drink coke with Adrian who has very swollen ankles. (Too much alcohol.)
Then, over a spectacular mountain pass with beach views to a prawn lunch in a beachside café where the waiter gets confused and everyone eats everyone else’s lunch. Into Hue finally – the veritable long and winding road. I run a bath and sink into it. No hot water. Dinner is in a restaurant run by half of a feuding deaf and mute family. The other half run the rival establishment over the road. It’s satay (ruined by fish sauce) and rice paper pancakes.
I’m travelling pillion on a motor bike to visit the sights of Hue. First, to the Citadel – the Vietnamese version of the Forbidden City, a smaller replica of the one in Beijing. Next, to the market to buy provisions for our next train trip and then on to a pagoda. It’s really exhilarating, but painful, because my sunglasses won’t keep out the dust and my contact lenses are soon clogged up and my eyes streaming. I have to shut my eyes eventually, which rather spoils the sightseeing. Down the riverside road with views of the tourist boats, Paula put her arms round the waist of her driver.
Back to the hotel to deposit our goods and I nip upstairs and get my swimming goggles. Everything is now blue and no doubt I look a total wally, but at least I have some idea of what is going on and can enjoy the ride. The terrain becomes more rugged and narrow and we bump down cart tracks and tear up narrow hill paths. Our last stop is at an emperor’s tomb, again with river views.
A quick meal before the next leg of our journey; interesting menu – fox, bat, snake, frog, eel. We climb frenetically into the carriage; the train only stops for a very short while and takes no prisoners. Terese has told us what order we are to board in, so we can get straight into our compartments. We climb on (literally – up a very high ladder) to be knocked flat by Gary, who is determined he will not be the one to be left behind.
I munch processed cheese (this country is full of triangles) and play the truth game with the girls and Fern again. This time I buy into Malcolm’s card game and after an hour’s heavy gambling at Newmarket emerge 30,000 dong to the good. I declare it is bedtime and repair to my compartment, to find the girls much the worse for beer and in no mood for sleep. We sing lots of love songs badly and are joined by Irish Bruce and Chris who stand in the corridor and make sure no-one else goes to sleep either while they render “Nights in White Satin” At last another very bad night’s sleep. The train arrives in Hanoi unexpectedly on time and I have to dress in a mad rush and leap off.
Breakfast at an establishment called KOTO (Know one teach one,) a training place for disadvantaged boys. Eggs Benedict done passably, but difficult to tell the Hollandaise from the egg yolk. On to the hotel and a glorious bath tub. Hanoi is great, much better than HCM, bustling, full of character. Through all the old quarter down streets each dedicated to one single item, Paper Street, Hardware Street and so on to the lake. Into an old house being used as a café (very disappointed we don’t stop) and then to the Ho Ch Minh complex: mausoleum (closed), walkways and parks, the presidential palace (I get whistled at for going too close) and the small house he lived in because he wanted the simple life (sophisticated and immaculate as well as serviced.) The Ho Chi Minh museum is an odd mixture of art, culture and history and has to be unique.
An early dinner at a restaurant overlooking the lake, traditional music and costume, wonderful seafood (no time for lunch). Then to the Water Puppet show. This lasts an hour and is a good 45 minutes too long. I get a fit of the giggles at the music. The puppets are operated using underwater poles held under screens in a tank of water on stage, so all the puppeteers wear waders and get very wet each day. There are dragons with firecrackers, jumping fish, men in paddy fields and some very good dancing puppets. A whole village is kept in occupation making these puppets as they only each last three months before rotting.
In the coach for a four hour trip to Halong Bay. Overnight there has been a decree that all the traffic will go one way over the bridges. Result, a traffic jam that takes us an hour to get through. We stop at another good works programme, for disadvantaged families, to look at embroidered art. The weather is still against us and fabled Halong Bay, like Nha Trang, is disappointingly misty. We take a boat ride though countless limestone pinnacles and islands and in some ways the mist adds to the ethereal beauty of the scene. It is very lovely. Yet another seafood banquet and then a visit to a limestone cave lit up with gaudy fairy lights – a huge cavern that would have cost ten pounds to visit in Cheddar.
We spend the rest of the time gossiping. Ita tells me about all the S and M goings on in her home village. Angela and Bruce have spent half the trip not speaking to each other and seem to have had another row.
Our hotel is small and basic and the balcony has a sign that says “Do not seat on here”. I retreat rapidly. The evening is dull and disappointing, poor food, a few tacky shops and no bars except for Vietnamese karaoke.
Our last day. We journey back to Hanoi via a ceramic factory. Then I hit the shops with Janet and do another marathon trawl buying chopsticks, hats and sundry other unnecessaries.
Our last meal is at the Café Mocha. I try turkey, seeing as I haven’t had any yet this Christmas. It’s disgusting. Lastly to the Jazz Café for really good blues music, and then we all kiss each other good bye and take cyclos back to the hotel.
When? January 2005, last leg,, coming overland from Vientiane
Who? Group Tour