Week 22: Vietnam part 4, Malaysia part 1

22/08/2011: Day 43

Today was our final full day in Saigon, and with that our final full day in Vietnam. We aimed to make the most of it.

Given that James is starting a history PGCE in September and both me and Catherine had developed an interest of our own in the Vietnam war we decided to visit the Cu Chi tunnels. In fact, it would have been a worthwhile visit had we not even had any interest. The tunnels are an underground network used by the Vietcoms in order to protect themselves from americans and offer surprise attacks. The underground tunnels are so advanced that they stretch between towns and even reach rivers.

Once we were up we made our way downstairs with the view to buying some breakfast before our bus departed to the tunnels. To our surprise Pollyanna was already downstairs awaiting her arrival. We had suggested that she joined us the previous night but given the early start we didn’t know that she would actually come. Nonetheless it was good to have an extra body, and she turned out to be a major source of entertainment for the day.

We were then a foursome on our way to the tunnels. Despite being only a few kilometres away we were told that the journey would last two hours. We later found out that the reason for this was that we took a detour to a toilet that was twinned with an embroidery factory housing workers who were second generation victims of American napalm and agent orange. Despite their disabilities these people were very talented.

We later arrived at the tunnels and were first introduced to the passageways from above ground. Pollyanna got a bit too excited too early and started running and looking into an empty hut which had no relationship with the tunnels. She then joined the wrong tour group and had to be called over. We couldn’t help but smile when we looked at her and her large lenseless glasses. The entrance to the tunnels was so well concealed that we could imagine how the American soldiers were puzzled as to where the Vietnamese disappeared to in the forest. Not only this but there were also a series of ‘termite hills’ within the forest. We were told that these were artificial and that the holes led directly to the tunnels below so that a steady airflow could reach the soldiers hiding below. clever.

Our guide then showed us examples of traps set up by the Vietnamese. These were often shockingly brutal. For example, digging a six foot hole and placing sharp bamboo sticks at the bottom. There was ten a camouflaged swinging door placed on top so that when someone fell in they stayed in. There were lots of spikes and traps going on, things I was more familiar with seeing in video games like Sonic the Hedgehog. Apparently they were real. Since the Vietnamese were using limited or backdated weaponary many of the traps were created using recycled american weapons. Their resourcefulness was incredible.

After this we were encouraged to go to the shooting range and try out the gun of our choice. We chose the cheapest one as they were about 70p a bullet. Myself, James and Pollyanna shared a round. Catherine, quite nobelily, stood by her stance of non violence by being the photographer. As I was not wearing my glasses I have no idea if I hit the target. All I do know is that I didn’t kill anyone else. Pollyanna, being about 5ft 1 didn’t quite suit a rifle. The again, I probably didn’t either. We came away from the driving range with our ears ringing from the AK47. Its hard to imagine what months of conflict with them could do to your ears.

What followed was the highlight of the day; actually going into the tunnels. We were told that the average Vietcom fighter in the tunnels weighed around 40kg and was probably only a little taller than Pollyanna. This made life in the tunnel for myself, Catherine and especially James incredibly challenging. James in particular came out with bloody knees. We were able to transport ourselves through the narrow tunnels battling against claustrophobia by crawling on our hands and knees and crouching where possible. There is no way that the VietCom were comfortable in these tunnels and it came to show what they were willing to do to fight the Americans. Pollyanna managed to walk most of it as we struggled behind. As I came out one of the exits a bat managed to fly in. James spotted it and managed to get a picture of it flying. It seemed like the bat was much more suited to the tunnels and flew happily in there for a few minutes. When we were all out we were all soaked in sweat and dirt. It’s hard to imagine considering the tunnels a home. I was surprised the Americans were not able to discover them as they were definitely exposed if they were discovered. An amazing war story though.

We then returned to Saigon city in a much shorter time than our first trip, dropping Pollyanna off on the way. This gave us the opportunity to change our dirty clothes before spending the rest of our day in the city. We decided, as it was our last day in Vietnam, that we would go to the market for some souvenirs. I wanted a T-shirt, not only to remember Vietnam but also to own some clean clothes.

We walked around the market for about an hour and bought a few bits and bobs. Since we still have 2 weeks in Malaysia to go I was a little discouraged from buying too much to add to the weight in my bag. Naturally we were to stumble across something familiar in the market, yep, Emily. After a brief discussion we organised to go back briefly and meet up later for dinner. We returned to the hostel.

Since I still had no t-shirt and Catherine had not fulfilled her shopping cravings we continued exploring whilst James and Emily had a quick rest. When we did eventually return we had a short time to prepare ourselves for the evening ahead. We had arranged to meet Emily at 7pm but were running a little late. We heard a knock on our bedroom door and assumed it was Emily asking why we were late. Half apologetically we opened the door to an already beaming (and still wearing the large lens less glasses) Pollyanna. ‘Do you mind if I join you?’. We had a new member of the gang. And what a member. If anyone was to draw a Chinese girl it would be Pollyanna complete with her Angry Birds t-shirt. Her innocence makes her all the more fascinating. I hope she adapts to university life in England and I hope people welcome her in the same way we have. Although I fear she might have a more romantic view of England than reality.

Anyway, once we met with Emily we went down a backstreet for our last dinner in Vietnam. I chose to eat Vietnamese curry since I felt the need to have Vietnamese food on my last day. We all had a pleasant and rather cheap meal before going to a bar for a few drinks. Initially I was a little concerned about Pollynana (paternal instincts) as she was drinking her beer a little too quickly and I feared (having met a few Chinese girls like her) that she hadn’t really built up much of a tolerance to it before. I tried to raise the issue with her without patronising but she responded, with a sight slur, ‘I am good a drinking beer’.

Later in the night, and after a few beers, many of which were downed or drunk quickly, my fears appeared to be justified. The first sign was when Pollyanna asked her friend for a cigarette. From the way she smoked it was clear that she had not smoked before. although this was incredibly comical it was also a little concerning as she was already slurring her words and I couldn’t help but feel slightly responsible. Still she was still with us, just. We then joined a few Malaysians on the dance floor. Pollyanna decided to dance with us but ended up lying on her front on the dance floor. Had she fallen over? no. She had decided that the dance floor looked the most comfortable place for rest. Pollyannas bed time? A Malaysian man bought her a red ball to ‘get her dancing again’ but I didn’t think this was what she really needed so bought her some water and took her, with Catherine help, to her hotel. Pollyanna was still in good spirits and perhaps an even funnier drunk than she was sober. It was certainly an entertaining night.

We all retired to bed in Vietnam. For myself and James it was our final sleep. To sign off James gave a beggar boy the equivalent of about £7, a lot of money to him. We could only hope that he was the one who benefited from it.

23/08/2011: Day 44
Today was a bot of an odd day as we had to acclimatize to not only a new city, but to a new country.

Our flight from Saigon to Kuala Lumpur was due to leave at 10am, which meant we had to get to the airport for check in at around 8am. For only the second time since Hanoi we got in a Vietnamese taxi and had no trouble this tie since we paid up front. In fact, I slept the whole was so have no idea how far we travelled and how long it was.

Once we had checked in we made our way through customs and said our goodbyes to Vietnam. Looking back, Vietnam offered us an amazing amount of variety from countryside to mega cities, from con men to amazing acts of generosity and from sand dunes, paddie fields, rivers and mountains to underground tunnels. Vietnam had more or less everything.

That said, we were now to embark on our new adventure.

Because we had booked our flights at different times we were not sitting together. The allowed us to sleep most of the flight, which I took full advantage of despite the lure of the Dalai Lamas autobiography :P. The flight went quickly as expected, and as preparations were put into place for landing the man beside me decided to start a conversations. He was an interesting man and told me about his job; an events manager. He was flying to New Delhi, via KL, to organise an Asian gold tournament where the winner meets the winners of other continental tournaments in Germany. He also told me his plans for a Gran Torismo race in Vietnam. He was either talking rubbish or a very successful man. I believe the latter. When I told him about my role in China he offered to interview me, stating that he could provide me with a classroom and all the necessary marketing to make a successful career in Vietnam. What a tempting offer!? He gave me his details and told me to stay in touch. Maybe I should.

Once we landed we were in Malaysia! Malaysia! We were in Kuala Lumpur, the capital. despite being less than a couple of hours by air from Vietnam the people were immediately different. Not only were they all able to speak english but the multi cultural atmosphere in the city was overwhelming. There were western people, Indians, Chinese and other ethnicities from all over the world. Kuala Lumpur is clearly a very multi cultural city.

Our first task, despite our heavy bags and tired eyes, was to find our hostel. James had found one with good reviews online and we decided to head towards that one. On the map it appeared to be well out of town but in reality KL (as it is colloquially known) is a very small city. We arrived at our station, Chow Kit and had little indication about where to go after that. Instead we decided to walk around for a while and ask for help. Different people were giving us different directions. Eventually, after walking through a local market we appeared on the correct street and found our hostel. From the outside it doesn’t look like much but inside it is great (although mum would not agree). What we found most appealing about it is its traditional Malay culture, run by Malaysians. We were required to remove our shoes before entering and were told of specific customs within the hostel. We were sharing with a Pakistani man who was now asleep for the afternoon to take his mind off his Ramadan fasting. We were lucky enough to be in Malaysia as Ramadan was approaching its climax.

It was now late afternoon and we hadn’t really done much with our day (if changing country doesn’t count as ‘much’). In our hostel we met with a girl called Marina who had visited Kuala Lumpur 25 times and told us that she thought it was the best city she had been to. She invited us to join her at a restaurant in Little India for some curry. naturally we jumped at the chance.

Marina had no trouble in finding her intended restaurant. Both myself and James had naively assumed she would be vegetarian (stereotyping her) and both crossed our fingers that she would take us to a restaurant containing the meat we desired. We needn’t have worried since she was very much a meat eater. We sat at the table and looked at the menu. Having been used to Vietnamese small portions we both ordered two dishes, some rice and some naan for our dinner, as did Marina. We then washed our hands as we intended to eat as the locals do, with our hands (not that we wouldn’t wash our hands before eating anyway :p). When the dinner did arrive it was clear that the portions were not from Vietnam. They were huge! We had a banquet on our table and we were all salivating far to vigorously at the prospect. We had a variety of different curries which we all experimented with. Each one was as delicious as the other and we just wanted to eat all night. I cannot describe how nice a real Indian curry is. I guess being in Little India, Malaysia is the next best thing to actually being in India. If the food is anything to go by India has moved to the top of my ‘places to go’ list. Eventually though the food did beat us. For the first time since we left China we were full and it felt amazing. Perhaps now is the time we put on the weight we have lost in Vietnam? We shall see.

Following our massive and incredibly flavoursome meal we retired back to the hostel via the efficient monorail. As after all great meals, tiredness soon sets in and we were in bed in no time. If the food was anything to go by we are destined to love Malaysia.

24/08/2011: Day 45

So this was our first full day in the Malaysian capital. And we aimed to make the most of it. We have calculated that we could use this day to get a grasp of the city before extending our journey to further places in Malaysia before completing our KL adventure to end our trip. But there does seem to be so much to offer us here.

Our first task for the day was to locate China town and have a walk around there. We had a recommended walk that would enable us to see the majority of sights in China town within a couple of hours. However, once we arrived at the correct monorail station we immediately diverted towards a cricket stadium and then down the famous china town shopping market (which was where we intended to end our walk, it drew us in). We explored many areas around China town including and ended up eating at a nearby restaurant. ummm chinese food again! Although the noodles we both chose were not quite up to ‘Chinese’ standards. We let them off.

Thankfully we managed to see the worlds tallest flag pole just outside of China town. Aren’t we privileged?

Not before long we found ourselves in Little India once more. It was at this point that we realised that Kuala Lumpur city is smaller than we even thought possible. We had been walking for about 2 hours and already walked through China and into India. The shift in items being sold between China town and Little India gave us another indication of the diversity in culture, religion and life in Malaysia. It is a very interesting place.

Given that KL is synonymous with the Petrona Twin Towers that dominate its skyline it would have been neglectful to not visit them whilst here. So, having them in our sights we made it our goal to reach them on foot. I decided that they probably looked closer than they were so guessed that it would take us 45 minutes to reach them. James, on the other hand said it would take no more than 30 minutes. I laughed at his naivety.

15 minutes later we arrived at the base of the Petrona Towers. I blamed my eyesight. The towers are actually spectacular in both size and aesthetics. They are really impressive. We got the impression that we had approached the towers from the wrong side as their was heavy traffic and only a few people dotted around. We decided to try to get to the other side. And to my surprise the towers were actually open to the public to walk straight through. I don’t know why but I had wrongly assumed that it would be a private building. Instead one of the towers is a large shopping mall featuring designer and high street shops. However, we managed to reach the other side where there was a nice park for us to rest our weary limbs in the luke warm sun. Romantic? This also gave us a nice photo opportunity.

Following this we decided to try to make it to our hostel on foot. Thus completing a walk from south to north of Kuala Lumpur in less than a day. This was a little more challenging than the map suggested as we had to walk east to find a bridge to cross the canal/river/motorway thing before getting close to our hostel. This took us a little out of the way but meant we were able to see a few areas of Kuala Lumpur not yet exposed to the tourist trade. Within an hour we were back at our hostel, tired but happy with our days work.

With the curry from last night burnt off we decided to look for some local food around Chow Kit. We explored the area and eventually decided upon a restaurant because others were in it.Never eat in an empty restaurant! However, they left as we walked in, leaving us alone. We went ahead and ate anyway, deciding one fewer dishes but sticking with the curry. This meant I had 4 curries on 4 consecutive evenings. My bowels were not happy.

I then took an early night in order to ensure I could watch the Arsenal game at 3am and still maintain a good mood the next day.

25/08/2011: Day 46

When researching where to visit in Malaysia there was one place that stood out to me; The Jungle (Tamen Negara). The next three days were my chance to find out if my expectations were justified. I was already in a good mood because Arsenal had got themselves into the Champions league proper during the night.

Despite their being several tour operators offering trips to Tamen Negara we decided to make our own way there via public transport. Not only is this a less expensive method of transport, but it is also more fulfilling.

We made our way to the bus depot at Titiwangsa station and boarded a bus to Jeruntut, about 3 hours from KL. This bus was incredibly comfortable, as had the bus from the airport been, and even gave James ample leg room. The buses in Malaysia were already seeming to be a complete contrast to the cramped and smelly buses of Vietnam.

Once we arrived in Jeruntut we were greeted by two men who were offering us a boat journey to the jungle settlement that we intended to stay at. However, on closer inspection there was a grubby old public bus that was offering the same location for about £1.50, whereas the boat would cost us £6 each. We may have missed out on a great boating experience but we had saved ourselves half a days budget. No regrets.

Since the bus didn’t leave for another 20 minutes James took the opportunity to find an atm to withdraw some more money. However, he was not able to find anywhere that accepted his card. I had about £20 on me so I told him I could cover him. It wasn’t until later that we realised we would struggle.

Following an additional 2 hour bus we finally arrived at a village named Kuala Tahan. The sun was out in force and we decided to quickly find some accommodation before stress levels could grow in the heat and with a heavy bag. The guesthouse I had researched online had philosophical quotes dotted around the place and a very quirky looking building. It looked like fun but was out of our price range. Instead we ended up at the Rippi; a hostel featuring nothing more than a bed, a mosquito net and a fan…what more do we need. And what is more, we were on budget.

Once we were settled we were able to work out how we could use our money. Given that we had paid £2 each for the beds we now had £16 to last until we left, including money to get ourselves out. We realised that by obtaining our jungle permit, buying food and water and additional items for our trek meant we were pushing it fine. I love all that.

Nonetheless, we explored the village hopelessly in search of an ATM. There wasn’t any. Thankfully there was a tour operator there that was able to use James card to book the next leg of our journey, to Penang. But this wasn’t much use to us at this moment in time.

There was nothing we could do about our lack of funds so we decided to buy everything we needed for the trekking we would be doing over the next two days. We will be staying in the jungle so it was most important that we had enough water and food to keep us going. Against the park advice we also decided not to hire a guide, as we don’t have the funds. This was all getting very exciting…although I am not sure if I still have travel health insurance?

Around 5pm, the sun began to disappear and the rain came plummeting onto out roof. It was this that made us realise that we were truly in the rainforest. I couldn’t really hide my excitement about the two days ahead. I think a combination of the heat, the rain and the constant movement sent us both to sleep for about 2 hours in the early evening. Thankfully the french girls in our hostel did the same and were in no position to judge us. When we did eventually wake up we decided to have our ‘last supper’ before entering the jungle in the morning. We both had a budget of £2 each. Which we stuck to with ease but without a full stomach.

It was then time for our last sleep before the trekking adventure in the worlds oldest rainforest.

26/08/2011: Day 47

Day one in the jungle: Wow!

We got up early to set our bags full of water and yeast based foods before we were ready to set off. Since neither of us had sleeping bags or mats we were forced to enquire at the hostel about hiring them. As they were charging £1 for the rent of each item we decided against sleeping bags and James acquired only one sleeping mat. I decided against neither, considering myself hardcore when actually I would end up wishing I had got a mat.

We began our trek in high spirits and at a steady pace. To our surprise we didn’t see and human life for a long time. Instead we were soon alone with nature. All we had to do was make sure that we could still hear the sounds of the river on our right side to know we were going in the right direction.

In fact, our desired destination was a bumban (a hide) between 12 and 14 kilometres north of our original settlement (maps varied). This would end up being our home for the night before we planned to take another route back in the morning. However, the walk was not short of events;

Firstly, the path, although adventurous and exotic, was not over walked and therefore had millions of working ants tirelessly crossing it, several spiders scattering around the place and the sounds of birds and monkeys not to distant from us. There were also several trees that blocked our path on numerous occasions probably because of the recent rainfalls. Each of these were crawling with their own ecosystem. The rainforest was magical, at least I thought it was anyway.

The humidity in the jungle was very high and it wasn’t long before we were both covered in sweat, head to toe. This meant walking was thirsty work. However, we both had only 3 litres of water between us to last the 2 days. It was already clear that thirst was going to become an issue. Water was already being rationed though, so we were prepared for this.

One thing we were not prepared for, despite the warnings, were the number of leeches that would attach themselves to us. One of the french girls in out hostel had told us that she had 8 attached to her on her last trek. Both myself and James laughed this off as carelessness. However, within 2 hours or trekking I felt a sting in my foot. Leeches are meant to be painless. we took a rest and I took off my shoe. Inside was a leech who had got his head through my sock and was sucking my blood. I think that because he had become too big too quickly we was unable to get the rest of his body through my sock and therefore had a big blood bulge in the middle. As I removed the sock I took the leech with it. Leeches should not be pulled off as they make the wound worse as they try to cling on and increase the risk of infection. What was also special about this leach was tat he had attached himself to the vein in my foot. This meant the blood kept streaming out all day. Aside from that pest, I had two more on the same foot. I didn’t feel these but we were able to remove them with salt. I didn’t dare take my other boot off. Instead, resigned to the fact that both of our feet were going to be covered in blood we continued on our journey, still yet to meet another person.

The trek became more difficult and even dangerous as we had to walk along narrow ridges and use branches to support ourselves as we went down steep hills. We even had to cross several streams. I must admit that I was in my element. I think James was also enjoying the novelty to begin with, although that later changed as we got deeper into the jungle.

As the walk was getting more and more dangerous the humidity was also effecting us more and more. Despite both of us maintaining our footing, despite several near slips James was about to be reminded of the dangerous of the forest. We were walking along a narrow ridge when I heard James slip and hit the deck. He let out a loud and painful scream that must have scared all the monkeys that may have been watching us. Slightly concerned about this out of character reaction I got closer to him to see if he was ok. As it turned out he had slipped and gashed his leg on a very sharp rock that happened to be there.The rck was so sharp that I was surprised he didn’t break his leg. James didn’t feel so fortunate at the time though. He lifted his shorts to reveal the damage and presented a massive gash down the side e of his left leg. It looked incredibly painful, and from James’ reaction I am sure it was. We both used our limited first aim skills to wipe away the blood,sterilise the wound (and the big cut on his elbow) before strapping him back up again. To be fair he took it like a man. Despite his injury there was nothing more we could do about it as we were about half way through our trek and thus an equal distance between base and the hide. He had to soldier on. He is a soldier. This, quite understandably, slowed the pace of our trekking down and we made a much slower progress as he limped away.

In fact, this was probably where the novelty of the jungle wore off for James as he began to curse the jungle. I always thing cursing the jungle is a bit risky as you never know if mother Nature is listening. If she can punish you anywhere it’s probably in a rainforest full of wild animals and unpredictable weather. The map indicated that we were quite close to a lodge, which we reassured ourselves would be an ideal resting spot to get James’ leg seen too. The map was wrong and it was hours before we saw anything that resembled a lodge.

Instead we were to meet with something completely new to both of us; a large wild mammal. I spotted something move just in front of me and stopped walking for a moment. I then saw what I thought (but probably hoped) was a big cat. I told James, whilst trying not to wet myself, that there was a big cat just ahead of us. The fact that there are wild tigers in the forest didn’t help my anxiety. Both of us, like little girls armed ourselves with penknives and large sticks as we approached what was moving in the undergrowth. If I had learned anything from Attenborough I would have known that tigers don’t make themselves so obvious to their prey. As we approached we noticed it wasn’t a cat at all but a big warthog/ pig/ anteater or baby elephant. Again, it was just my imagination that hoped it was an elephant. We later found out it was a probably warthog. We cautiously approached it was it had its snout in the mud and passed it without bothering it (except for a quick photo). We then continued our journey happy that we had seen a wild mammal in the forest. However, we turned around to see the big beast following us at quite a quick pace. We both, now wide eyed, quickened our walk as we approached the river. I assume that adrenaline must have kicked in for James as I think for a moment he forgot about his injury. We managed to cross a river and laughed about being followed by a big pig thing. Then, out of nowhere we again poked his head around the corner. The only way to describe it would be like in a horror film when the heroes think they have ran away from a monster only for the monster to say ‘boo’…I’m sure that must be a movie. We were amazed that it was still behind us and ran across another river. Crazy pig thing. About another 5 minutes of walking at a fast pace we disarmed ourselves and concluded that we had lost him. It was turning out to be a true adventure.

After crossing river after river and climbing hill after hill we became even more thirsty. But we had to ration ourselves and knew we weren’t in that desperate of a situation. A combination of our slow pace and regular stops meant we were in danger of either getting caught by the rain or the sudden shift from day to night in the early evening.

At one particular stop James took off his boots and socks to remove some of his leeches, bloody got everywhere. During this stop we met our first human, Jonas. He had been doing the same trek but had started after us. He explained that he too intended to stay in the hide we were heading for. We now had another companion for the rest of our trek. It so happened that we were quite close to the ominous lodge when we met Jonas. He also expressed the desire for water so we took a short detour to the ‘lodge’. When we did arrive it looked like a bit like Centre Parcs, except no-one lived there, it was derelict and there was no pool with a wave machine. We had no luck finding water in a ghost town in the middle of the rainforest.

Despite that we completed the final 2km towards the hide with little else to report. When we did arrive it was just as I imagine and I think James feared. It was simple a hut on stilts featuring nothing but wooden sheets for beds and a large hole in the wall for our observing. We were living in the Jungle! Tarzan and Jane. Our first task was to remove our leeches and sweat filled clothes and tuck into the bread rolls we had carried all day. We had made it! What made it even sweeter was that the rain began to pour almost immediately after we arrived. We were somewhat comforted by not being wet despite the uncomfortable squalor we now found ourselves in.

About half an hour after our arrival we were joined by an excentric dutch couple who had got a boat to down the river and walked the 2km from the river to the hide. They would trek back with us tomorrow though. That completed our gang, 5 of us.

Together we sat watching the salt lick until our eyes could not stay open any longer. We may have been a bit too loud or just unlucky but we were unable to see any wildlife come to the lake. This did not stop my enjoyment of the sounds of the jungle though. I was amazed. I was a little disappointed when James told me he felt it may have been one of the worst days of the trip for him, as I thought it was one of the best. But then I was not the wounded one. Despite his complaint I feel that he will look back and realise that he quite enjoyed the experience overall. Perhaps my enthusiasm for it was a bit too much though. As the night came quickly in the fireflies came out and the sounds changed from birds singing to frogs and other nocturnal animals flirting with each other.

It was quite disappointing that our bodies, minds and eyes could not stay up all night. But soon it became pitch black and the sights were limited. We were able to enjoy the sounds of the jungle from our most uncomfortable beds. Perfect.

27/08/2011: Day 48

So if I thought the previous day gave me everything I needed, today offered just that little bit extra.

Despite getting very little sleep on my wooden plank, and wondering why I hadn’t hired a mat, I woke up with a smile on my face. The reason: James was already up and watching out of the observation hole. I knew he was enjoying himself really!

Myself, James, Jonas, Luke and Nina all set off together when we felt ready. We felt a little responsible for leaving early as we were the ones who intended to get back in time for the last public bus at 6pm. Since we left around 8am there didn’t seem to be any danger of that.

It was certainly nicer to walk as a team and the conversation was just as good. Luke is a very interesting character and his views, twinned with a dutch accent, made him a source of delight. Jonas, in typical German fashion, was a very efficient trekker. He led from the front.

Early into our trek along this new route we came across our first obstacle’ a fast flowing river. Initially I wanted to find a way of crossing it without getting my feet wet (fully aware that wet socks attract leeches. However, when there was obviously no way of doing so we each made our way across individually using rope as support against the strong current. Perhaps this was why we were advised to have a guide with us. Still, we all crossed uninjured and were happy despite the wet feet.

The way back seemed a lot easier than the first day, partly because there were more of us and partly because there weren’t as many steep inclines and declines. This was until we made an error: somehow getting lost in the rainforest. After a short rest after crossing a small stream we began to walk up what we believed to be the correct path. After about 5 minutes it soon became clear that we were actually making our own path and were getting deeper and deeper into the jungle. Unlike yesterday, we did not have the river for guidance. Cutting our loses we decided to head back where we came from. Yet, because there was no distinct path we didn’t know where to go. There was quite a bit of head scratching. I decided that it would be easier if the others waited in one spot whilst I dropped my bag and looked for the correct direction. I was quite grateful to have the weight off of my back for 5 minutes whilst I tried to locate the right path without getting myself lost. Thankfully I arrived at the point where we last stopped and realised that our actual path had been cut off by a large fallen tree. As I looked over the tree to make sure I put my hand on it. My hand happened to land on a line of termites who reacted by gripping themselves to me. In a panic I shock them off but one managed to penetrate my skin. Horrible things.

Thankfully I found my way back to the group and we were able to continue our journey, this time making sure we were taking the right course. It was not long before we saw a group of trekkers walking the opposite way who informed us we were about 2 hours away from our destination. With this spirits rose once again. we were close to some bottled water (We had taken to drinking purified river water). When we could hear signs of human activity we came to a derelict bridge. We made an effort to take advantage of the bridge, which was actually incredibly dangerous as it was just three pillars of concrete and a 30ft drop below. We balanced ourselves as we climbed across, naturally stopping for photographs.

eventually, and 7 hours after we had left our hide, we arrived back at Kuala Tahan and what a sense of achievement. We were all glad to be back and ready for a shower. We were covered in blood and mud and actually looked like we had been in a rainforest…wait…we had. We had to wait a couple of minutes for a boat to take us across the main river and back to our hostel. As we waited another boat turned up full of clean and good-looking people. We were all quite proud of ourselves when people started staring and glaring at our blood stained ankles and clothes. I am pretty sure they thought we were ferrel. I was quite proud of all the blood down my leg and ankle. I felt like Rambo or some other hero.

Once we were back we had the issue of getting our bags back. The hostel manager had locked the storage door with a padlock and then lost the key. He told me he was too lazy to look for it so gave me the keys to his jeep so I could have a look. I took them but all I really wanted was a rest. The keys were nowhere to be found so he got into the room with a pair of wire cutters. We were reunited with our bags, albeit with a new ants nest to go with them.

we were then able to have the best shower yet, and once again were as clean as human beings. We had made it back well in time for our 6pm bus and had just enough funds to get it. Perfect.

Once on the bus I realised that I had left my walking boots out to dry beside the shower. I was really disappointed as I had become quite attached to the boots that Emily (Chinese Emily) had made me by all those weeks ago. Still, they’re only boots and my bag was a little lighter.

Upon arrival in Jeruntut we quickly made our way to a cheap hostel. When we walked in we were greeted as though they had never had any guests before, and that may have been true. Initially, whilst James went to find an ATM, I was stuck with an old man whilst he chain smoked and nodded at me. Then, after about 10 minutes, myself and James met a man who showed us to our room. Since James was wearing a football shirt he asked if we liked football, of course we do. Immediately the man got excited and invited us to his teams futsal tournament. What? Despite being knackered from all of our walking we couldn’t pass up the opportunity of playing football for a local Malaysian team. The dream surely?

The tournament didn’t start until 10pm so we had about and hour to eat and get ourselves sorted. Once we did we got in a car with the rest of the team, who were quite excited. We were told that we would be the first White people to ever participate in the tournament, and people would stare at us. Naturally, we were quite excited about this. We were then told that the tournament could last until 5am, this we were not so excited about.

When we arrived at ‘the cage’ people were already intrigued about us. We put on our Tuisyen Saujanajaya (the team name) shirts and proudly wore them as we warmed up in the cage. When we talked to the rest of the team it became clear that our team mates were not the town based Malaysians we thought, instead they were all from Tamen Negara…the Jungle. They were all from civilisations within the jungle, some were boat men, some worked for the tour companies and others were just village inhabitants. We were in a football team with the natives…it just got better.

When the football did actually start we both had small cameo roles, and to be honest we didn’t set the world alight. However, the crowd were definitely enthusiastic about our presence. James managed to pull off some skill in the middle of the pitch which brought about the biggest cheer of the night from the crowd. Other than that, given we were guests and the matches only lasted 10 minutes at a time, we were given limited playing time. However, the experience of playing for them at all was enough. After our second game we decided to head back to the hostel given that it was another hour until our final group match and we were already dropping off. When we arrived back I realised I left my sandals at the pitch. I had loved the £2 sandals since the day I bought them (except they looked like Jesus wore them before I did), and now they were gone, not because they were uncomfortable or broken, but because I was careless. I had then lost two pairs of shoes in a day…my bag was getting lighter and lighter.

With that very memorable day concluded we slept in a bed once again ready for our alarm call and the next leg of our journey.

28/08/2011: Day 49

Well the intensity of the previous few days couldn’t last forever, and we were probably quite thankful for a day of travel on our way to Penang. It was a chance for our legs to rest (and James’ to start healing).

We left early from Jeruntut by bus to the Cameron Highlands. This left a little later than scheduled which gave us the chance to eat some breakfast in a cafe and get some water. Water should never be taken for granted :P.

Coincidently we found ourselves on the same bus as Luke and Nina (the Dutch couple from the Jungle), that was until we were asked to change buses again. It didn’t seem long before we arrived in the Cameron Highlands. If I am honest it looked like a great place to stay with the opportunity for some more trekking and some great sights. However, we probably needed a rest from the trekking, and I now had no boots. We decided, with little more than a week remaining, to proceed to the island of Penang soon after.

So after only about 90 minutes in the Cameron highlands, where we were able to eat and have a walk around, we boarded a bus in the rain bound for Georgetown, Penang. To our fortune this bus only contained us and another Malaysian man (who decided to sing in a high-pitched voice at random intervals). This meant we had a row of seats to ourselves to lie down.

The journey was to take only about 4 hours but after about two hours in the continuous rain we pulled into a car park and both the driver and our fellow passenger shot out of the car. It soon became clear that it was around 7:30pm and the fasting of Ramadan had just finished for that day. This meant the driver was probably dying for food, hence his haste to get some. We followed them and decided to eat as well. It was great to see so many people eating together at the same time, everyone (other than us) fasting since 5:30am. i was glad to experience Ramadan first hand and see how the people eat when the fasting is over. At our table was a Malaysian girl who was not fasting but happened to be eating at this time anyway (she said she often fasts for fun with her friends though). It would be interesting if I could challenge myself to fast like this, if only for one day, but I fear my experience of food in Asia will never allow me to stop eating.

Eventually we arrived in Penang and the driver was kind enough to drop us off at a hostel he recommended (although he probably got some commission). Initially I didn’t want to stay there as it was £5 a night but James convinced me to stay, and I was glad I did. Firstly, the bedrooms were amazing, similar to the capsules I have seen and heard about but looked a lot more comfortable. It turned out the hostel was only 3 days old, and it seemed like it. Everything was very new. something that was new to us as well was the showers, they were hot! For the first time since….I don’t know….I actually don’t know, we had showers that were more than luke warm. I didn’t want to leave the shower but had to because the ‘big game’ was about to start and the hostel was playing it. Arsenal were playing Man Utd, or at least were meant to.

In the end I had to sit through a massacre. Initially everything was going well as I sat next to a Korean Man utd fan. Then James joined us and Man Utd scored. James returned downstairs. When he came back Arsenal immediately missed a penalty. If I needed someone to blame it was going to be James. But even he couldn’t be to blame for the 8-2 defeat (which wasn’t helped by the South African who decided to offer his own commentary throughout the second half. I went to bed in a huff a little later :P. Still even losing 8-2 to Man Utd couldn’t spoil a week to be remembered. Malaysia seems to be another great choice.

Week 21: Vietnam part 3

15/08/2011: Day 36

Despite the late night events of the previous night we had a boat trip booked early this morning. This was billed as one of the highlights of Nah Trang and didn’t disappoint. We were just hoping that we wouldn’t be landed with the unfortunate coincidence of having out dorm mates with us in the day.

We were lucky that no one else in our dorm showed any signs of movement as we left for our tour. As we went downstairs to grab some breakfast before our pick-up arrived we once again bumped into Catherine. she has, up until now, been a couple of days behind us in terms of our location, but thanks to James’ correspondence with her she was able to find our hostel and book into the same boat trip as us.

As it turned out our boat trip featured a fantastic group of people of various nationalities; German, Canadian, Danish, Venezeualan, Spanish, Chilien, Vietnamese, American, Dutch and of course us English. What was even better was that they were all in high spirits, except the German.

Our tour took us to several islands around Nha Trang, offering something unique in each. This, and the pristine clear water, made for a great day. The first stop of interest was an island that had a small and accessible coral reef. We were able to snorkel out to sea with all the fishes and witness some of what the sea holds. I, being a snorkeling novice made quite a fool of myself by attempting to snorkel without the essential breathing apparatus and then asking why I couldn’t breath. Idiot. We did, however, eventually have a great hour snorkeling in the sea and were able to swim quite a distance to see various features within the sea….mysterious.

When we returned to the boat we were greeted with a fantastic array of food, with the spring rolls creating the most saliva in my mouth. We were made to wait for a while before we were given permission to eat, but when we did we all stuffed our faces like we hadn’t eaten for days. Despite this there was still about half the food remaining. It was wasted.

After a short cooling off period after the food our boat stopped in the middle of nowhere and we were told by our excellent and funny guide that it was now ‘happy hour’. For happy hour we were able to swim to a floating bar in the middle of the sea to get free cocktails. The only catch was that we had to get into the sea first. Naturally all of us men headed straight for the top deck to try a variety of entry methods into the sea. The sea was a little cooler here and the current a lot stronger. In order to avoid being taken with the tide we swam to the floating bar in heavy rubber rings. We were then greeted by a Vietnamese man with a huge bucket of orange liquid. He was sitting on a circular object big enough to allow 3 or 4 people to hold onto it. He offered free drinks to everyone which turned out to be a mixture of vodka and wine. Needless to say it didn’t taste like the fruity cocktail I was expecting. But having a cheeky beverage at sea with a people from all over the world was an experience. We then had a few minutes to try more jumps into the sea. I must admit that I was a bit of chicken with the jumps and didn’t try anything that probably would have resulted in a belly flop. James was a little more confident though.

It was then time for our onboard band to perform. Little did we know that the ‘band’ consisted of our tour guides singing out of tune, one of which was now dressed in drag. They were really entertaining and got most of us quite excited. The Vietnamese, however, were not sure what was going on. Now that everyone was in high spirits the main guide tried to get one person up onto the stage from each nation to perform a song by a singer in their country. England was first. fortunately for us/ unfortunately for everyone else, we were not the only english people on the boat and a man was made to sing Wonderwall to the rest of us, including the ever more confused Vietnamese tourists. However, people really started to get involved when the American girl (of Korean parents) got involved. She had had a few beers with lunch and it showed as she danced up and down the boat shouting her song. All good fun though. Next up was a well-built Canadian man who had to sing a Celine Dion song..fittingly Titanic. Everyone was having a great time…Except the German.

unfortunately, after spending most of the day on new islands and at sea our boat trip. We then had to return to the hostel to prepare for our early departure tomorrow and enjoy our last evening in Nha Trang.

For dinner we intended to find a restaurant we had been recommended which supposedly sold cat, hedgehog and other wild animals as a dish. We walked around in the rain for a while (I was now wearing a poncho reminiscent to that of the prostitutes yesterday…partly to keep dry and partly in the hope that they will think I am ‘one of them’). As the rain was getting heavier and we weren’t appearing to have any luck we decided on a restaurant on a new road. Bearing in mind that there are hundreds of restaurants in Nha Trang it was quite spooky to discover the exact restaurant that Emily was in. I believe it may have been creepy for her as I tried to see what kind of food was being served by peering through the window (still in my luminous poncho), it was then that I made eye-contact with Emily, like a weird stalker.

We ended up having a nice meal and obtaining some free chopsticks. We said our goodbyes and headed for one final drink before heading back, as it was now getting quite late. In fact, we would have retired to bed earlier had we been able to get to bed without the prospect of being urinated on by the people we share the room with. One of the ‘normal’ people in our room had decided not to spend his night in our room. Thankfully there was noone else in our room when we returned and we were able to get to sleep relatively quickly, This was not interrupted until the lads returned around 4am to turn off their air con (also ours) which ensured everyone sweated all night. One of them came to my bed at 4.30am, woke me up and asked why I was asleep before urinating in the sink. Perhaps we have been just as bad in the past, but I hope we never made anyone think about us in the way everyone felt about them. Despite them, we had had an awesome day at sea and a great meal. Our Nha Trang adventure had finished. Next stop; Dalat.

16/08/2011: Day 37

Having packed our bags the previous night we were well prepared for our morning bus to Dalat, near the central Highlands of Vietnam. Being someone who is unable to wake up properly without having a wash I jumped in the shower whilst but ws unable to find my towel. An unsuccessful attempt o shake myself dry like a dog meant I was walking around the room looking for my towel. I eventually found it wrapped around a semi naked girl. It needs a wash.

We soon left (after the routine egg baguette) for our coach. The journey, aside from being beautiful, was slightly uneventful and we arrived at the small city in the early afternoon. We had previously been recommended a hotel by some other travellers. When we arrived it was slightly above our budget at £14 for the room. We instead decided to walk around the city in search of cheaper accommodation. We spotted a tourist information centre and asked if they knew of any cheap hotels. They then told us we could stay above them for £3 each a night. We agreed despite the room not being lived in for 54 years (or so it seemed).

That sorted we used the rest of the afternoon to familiarise ourselves with our new city. I was amazed how the party and beach location of Nha Trang had become the peaceful and scenic Dalat in just a 3 hour drive. Both myself and James immediately fell in love with this nice city (a city we could walk though in a couple of hours making it possibly even smaller than ZhangjiaJie city). We walked through the local market, once again attracting double-takes from locals. The market here is the focal point of the city and despite being relatively small we could see why. We then, for some reason unknown to us, decided to walk around a massive lake. Although tranquil and peaceful it became more of a challenge to get all the was around than a peaceful stroll. Think Tillgate park in Crawley and double it.

As we were approaching the end of our mission we walked into a children’s play area and watched some of the nutters play (if that’s not too weird). On lad in particular had us in stitches as he raced around in a fast electic car crashing into walls, stalls and other children with no sign of intention or remorse.

having built up an appetite we decided to eat in a restaurant that we knew served hedgehog. Together we shared hedgehog and deer. Naturally, deer was a far more familiar taste and I actually really enjoyed the steak, despite being surprisingly small. Hedgehog on the other hand was a lot more flavoursome but left a strange aftertaste. It was nice but I wouldn’t be too disappointed if I went the whole trip without eating another hedgehog.

We finished the night playing pool with a Frenchman, named Francois, before meeting some school teachers and sharing a beer before retiring to our ‘hotel’. Arsenal had an important European game against Udinese, so I had to disturb my own sleep to try to work the tv for that. The next day was one that I had been eagerly anticipating for a long time.

17/08/2011: Day 38

If there was a day to rival any other since we arrived in Vietnam it was this one. It seemed to have everything from culture to nature (if there is such a spectrum).

Initially, and probably an early indication that the day was going to be a great one, a man had agreed to take us around Dalat and the surrounding highlands on his and his friends motorbike. They were two local men and appeared to know they’re stuff. We met them, as arranged, at 8am and quickly finished our egg and chilli baguette before mounting our respective motorbikes. We had agreed to spend 8 hours with them, and it soon became clear that they intended to fill every minute for our pleasure.

Our first stop was a farming village. Our man, Hiep, taught us about how the Vietnamese peasants who live there make their living. We saw miles of layered fields each filled with different crops, from rice to cabbage to coffee. He then pointed out that the most successful farmers had the nicest houses. From what he was telling us it seemed as though life on the land was hard work, particularly as the have no animals or machinery to aid them. It was a good start.

Following this myself and James had to do a trek to a peak to see over the farm land, see Dalat in the background and the mountainous scenery that surrounds it. Although billed as a trek it was more like a walk up a small hill, but the view was certainly worth it. We then visited a flower farm where flowers were grown for distribution all over the country; apparently the rose business is more lucrative than the cabbage business.

Once we had walked through the vast array of flowers and seen the people at work we were taken to a coffee plantation. Hiep, who seemed to have almost too much knowledge of the landscape and everything in it, then informed us of the process for making coffee. I dont like coffee but when I drink it next (without vomiting) I will appreciate the process of getting it to my cup. In fact, we were invited to taste some of the coffee from the plantation and I could not turn down this invitation. Like true professionals they filtered the coffee into our cups and watched intensely for our reaction to the first sip. Of all the things I have eaten and drunk since my arrival in Asia I was the most apprehensive about drinking this coffee. I did anyway and was shocked at the might of the taste. Vietnamese coffee is bloody strong. James told me that they recommend drinking water after this coffee to rehydrated you. Despite experiencing it I couldn’t bring myself to finish a whole cup. James, as a coffee lover, drunk what remained of mine.

At the same venue we were taken into a hut to witness the fermentation process of Rice Wine. My experience of rice wine had only been in discovery that it can bring an abrupt end to anyones night. Hiep made sure that we all drank some (at 65% alcoholic volume) before getting back on our motorbikes.

What we saw next was totally unexpected but awesome nonetheless. We were taken to a minority village away from most other road links. Here, Hiep dropped us off and drove to the other end of the village. We walked through the village at the sight of curious children, skinny dogs and snorting pigs roaming the street. we learned from the village that in order to be married in this minority group a womans family must pay 5 buffalos to the parents of a man in order for their children to be married. The man then has to live and look after the girls family and take the womans family name. Effectively, the girls parents buy a man to replace the buffalos they have lost and help bear children to continue their family name. I liked this cultural difference. At the end of this street was Hiep who introduced us to a villager friend. The friend quickly introduced us to his own friend…a monkey.

The monkey had been rescued from hunters and befriended by Hieps friend. Although still on a chain we got the impression that it was now leading a better life than it would have been. However, it clearly craved attention as it leaped out of the tree as soon as we approached at and was keen for some playtime with us. Initially I just held its hand. In response to this it got a little too excited in a way that only males can, much to the delight of James. However, it then latched onto James’ lag and began to ‘groom’ him by plucking and eating the hairs on his leg. Great monkey. The more I looked at his face the more he looked like a human being. He then jumped on my back and tried to put his dirty monkey hands in my face. I loved the little thing, and it was such a great and unexpected addition to the day.

Our next top was the Elephant waterfall. neither of us had heard much about it but we were informed it was one of the main reasons why people come to the highlands. It made for an impressive sight when we first arrived and the power of the water was immense. The backdrop to the waterfall was the beautiful farm lands that we had visited earlier in the morning (apparently the rocks at the bottom were supposed to resemble elephants…I coulnd’t see it). To our surprise we were told to walk down and across some slippery rocks to reach the base of the waterfall. It wa quit a dangerous walk and we saw a few other people at this point, all of whom were wet. We stood for some pictures near the base of the waterfall and expected to return to the road afterwards. However, we were encouraged to go down even further until we were practically underneath the falling water. British health and safety? Despite the slipperiness of the rocks and the danger of the fast flowing water we walked as closely as we could to the waterfall. We were showered with water as we stood admiring it. It was amazing to think one or two steps more would crush us under the might of the water. I don’t think either of us thought about testing it though. We then returned to the top of the fall and walked to a pleasant temple nearby featuring a giant happy Buddha and his disciples.

After such a busy morning we had built up quite an appetite and decided to join Hiep and his friend for some local noodle soup. Despite becoming quite sick of noodle soup this was by far the best we have had yet. ot only was it abundant in beef but we also had fresh salad, chilli, soy and other herbs to add to the mix. It made for a lovely blend of flavours :p why don’t we add flavour to our foods?

Our first visit after lunch was to a silk factory (is there anything this countryside doesn’t have?). Here we could see the whole silk process in action. First from the silk worm, to the extracting of the thread, to the actual threading and making silk garments. It is not surprising that silk is expensive, although one sill worm can produce 800m of silk thread… fact of the day.

Keeping with the bug theme we then visited a cricket farm. This was basically someones house. Apparently the owner of the house had seen a programme on TV about crickets and then decided to keep his own. Wierd? apparently not. After a few generations of breeding he know had thousands of crickets which he feeds for two months until they are big enough to be boiled and sold to restaurants around the country. The man now had made a good business out of a strange hobby. Luckily for us the owner had laid out some precooked crickets for us to sit down and eat, with sweet chilli source of course. They reminded me a little of the scorpion I ate in Beijing but actually felt a little more strange. James, on the other hand, was either very hungry or a big fan of crickets. Either way the plate was empty when we eventually left.

Our final stop on this great journey (aside from a short stay at the old train station) was to the ‘Crazy House’ back in Dalat. I am still not sure what it is meant to be but it is essentially a plastic house built at random angles and containing rooms dedicated to different animals; eg. the Ant Room. It had spiral staircases and weird shapes all over the place. I had no idea what it was all about and felt it was probably better suited to the fun fair on Torquay seafront than the rural heart of Vietnam. Despite being puzzled we both managed to enjoy it. James, for example, liked sitting amongst the plastic mushrooms.

So a great day had drawn to a close and we said our goodbyes before enjoying a nice, and somewhat romantic, meal in a cheap nearby restaurant. Bliss.

18/08/2011: Day 39

Today saw another change of scenery, and although not as eventful as the previous day, still enabled us to experience something new.

Our first job was to get up early enough for our bus to Mui Ne. Thankfully we had done the majority of our backing on the previous evening and we were therefore prepared well within time.

The bus was a relatively small one and this brought about its own issues. James’ large height is normally quite cute, But when it comes to sitting next to him on a tiny mini bus it can create a very claustrophobic feeling for those with a slender frame (I believe this is my category). This meant the journey was quite uncomfortable for me, but there was nothing either of us could do about it so we had to live.

fortunately the journey was only about 3 hours and the sights as we drove down the spiral path from the highlands was spectacular. The bus even stopped a couple of times to allow us to take pictures of the sights. Joining us on the bus were 3 chinese people who made the trip go a lot quicker. I have found myself looking out for Chinese people on this trip…perhaps its a comfort thing.

Once we arrived in Mui Ne, a place as famous for its fish source as it is for its beaches we sort about checking into the cheapest hotel. We found one that offered a room with 2 beds for $6 a night. Although cheap it was somewhere mum would definitely complain about. We had no air con and we had a mosquito squatting mission on our hands, but we got what we paid for. I went to check out the beach attached to the hotel; a rubbish tip…again we got what we paid for. We both became quickly aware that a storm was coming so we took shelter in hammocks in the porchway of the hotel (at which I believe we were the only guests). As we lay dosing off in the hammocks the wind began to pick up and coconuts began to fall from their vast heights, crashing against the floor at force when they did. Soon after the storm really started and began battering down on the surrounding palm trees. As we were outside but under shelter we were able to enjoy the tropical storm without getting wet. As well as being a tremendous sight it was also quite relaxing and we were both soon asleep in our hammocks. I woke up son after and decided to use the opportunity to catch up an hour of sleep in my mosquito netted bed.

as evening approached and the rain ceased we decided to check out the Mui Ne village proper. It is about 4km from the resort with the hotels so we caught a taxi. initially we thought the village was the ‘place to be’ at night but we were surprised to see the taxi drivers surprise when we asked to take us there.

Our initial intention was to go to the village for food and if we were lucky, a beer. However it turned out to be a very local place with no other tourists whatsoever. Eager to enjoy everything I do I tried to see the best in the village (which smelt of fish). In fact I saw very little wrong with the village, especially as it was very different to everything else we had seen in Vietnam. James, was quick to quirp that he felt it was similar to Torquay. I failed to see the comparison…different people, different eyes.

We then realised that there were no taxis running through this village and we had missed to last public bus by quite a while. There was only one option…walk. This seemed quite exciting to me as it was just one solid road and therefore nothing could really go wrong except for the unnecessary consumption of time and energy. Fortunately for us a minibus containing chefs ad night attendants heading for the hotels near the resort stopped and offered us a lift. This meant we were spared of a long and dark walk home by some helpful Vietnamese people. We got lucky, again.

19/08/2011: Day 40

Since we wanted to move on from Mui Ne in order to spend a few days in Saigon before our flight we used today as a day to get what we wanted from the area.

Knowing that time was not really on our side since we only had a day we got up early and hired push bikes. Having seen the beach behind our hotel we decided to seek a nicer area to relax and swim, especially as we were told the coastline around Mui Ne is beautiful. So, we set off on a little adventure along the road, always keeping the coast to our left. After around 30 minutes of cycling we spotted a small alleyway from the pavement. With no desire to cycle much further in the heat we decided to explore it and see what it led to. We got off our bikes and walked down the alley way having noticed the sea in the distance. Eventually we arrived at a beach..and what a beach!

The beach we had found was empty but the sand was white and the water clear. We had found exactly what we had been looking for. What made the beach even more perfect was that it had a football goal neglected in the middle. Not being ones to pass up the opportunity for a kick-about we quickly acclimatised our feet to the boiling hot sand and proceeded to have a penalty shoot out. unfortunately James one this contest fair and square. Oh well. We then spent an hour or so relaxing in the sun before going for a little swim in the sea. The sea had some small jellyfish in it but even they couldn’t spoil the location. We were later told that the beach was empty as we are now in low season in south Vietnam because of the monsoon season and gap year students due to arrive in September. Once again we were quite lucky.

At around 1:30 we called an end to our beach time and got back on our bikes. Again it took half an hour to cycle back and we just had enough time to get some lunch before our next trip. During lunch, which consisted of hotdogs (naughty), Catherine passed our restaurant. Again we ran into her, it is becoming almost expected, as it also is with Emily. She had just arrived in Mui Ne and we convinced her to join us on our trip to the sand dunes.

The three of us then boarded a tour to the sand dunes. These are the natural wonder of Mui Ne and presents the diversity in landscape that the town offers; both beach and desert. However, we were initially told that the sand dunes would be inaccessible were it to rain, which it did but not for long.

Our first location was the white dunes, which had turned a golden colour in the rain. It was strange to stumble across a desert, and certainly something new for me. Whilst the other, richer, tourists hired quad bikes to move around the sand dunes the three of us borrowed polystyrene mats from a local girl. Together we walked to the top of a steep sand peak and plucked up the courage to slide down it on our fronts. For the next 15 minutes we were all children again, except it wasn’t snow we were sliding down but desert sand. The sliding wasn’t quite as dangerous as I imagined but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We spent about half an hour walking and sliding in the desert before we were told enough was enough and we had to return to the coach for a trip to the next dunes, of a slightly different colour.

Because it began to rain again the coach was moving quite slowly as to avoid the rain for when we arrived at the dunes. The tour guide, who we were all growing to love in a ‘bless her’ kind of way, seemed to think this meant she had to fill the time with her own voice. So she talked the whole way to the dunes, to our perplexment. But she did not just talk about anything, she talked about herself; initially she told us her name and age, then she told us about her life story, then she told us that she was single two months ago but is now married. As if that wasn’t enough she then told us, a coach full of strangers, about her weight issues before she got married and how she has got to a healthy weight now she is with him. We thought she had finished but she then told us that he husband wants a baby but she doesn’t feel ready and then she used her phone to show the coach pictures of her family. We didn’t know how to take all the information and part of me felt myself, James and Catherine were the only 3 listening. She then requested that people sing a song to help the journey along. I think out of sympathy more than anything else myself and James took it in turns to sing cringeworthy renditions of basic english songs. It was cringe but saved us al from hearing about the guides life.

Eventually we did arrive at the second dunes. These had a lot more people on them than the first and we decided not to slide any more, Instead we spotted a dip and rise on one of the dunes and one of us suggested a race to the bottom of ours and to the top of the next one. I have no idea where we have our energy. Anyway, we did a three second countdown and began our run down the hill. Obviously myself and James were quite competitive and wanted to beat each other. I, perhaps too competitively, set off far too quickly and didn’t adjust my body enough before we reached the bottom of the dune. This meant I went head over heels losing my shoes, glasses and dignity. Not one to be beaten I got up and carried on running barefoot. For a moment I thought I had caught James up and won the race but his celebration indicated I had not and my shoes were now in the hands of a local boy. I got them back though. That slight embarrassment over with we stood and enjoyed the sights of the dessert dunes around us before it began to rain again and we retreated to the dryness of the fly ridden coach.

When we returned to our hotel we had a short time to dry off and freshen up before we had arranged to meet Catherine and Guilia (an Italian woman from the tour) at a bar nearby. We arrived before they did and ordered food, which was well needed. We then sat for the evening enjoying a beer and teaching Catherine and Guilia about the cricket that was on in the background, they didn’t get it.

20/08/2011: Day 41

Today was the day we got our bus to our final destination in Vietnam; Saigon (also known as: Ho Chi Minh).

As planned we left our hotel half an hour before our intended departure to grab our egg baguette. We then boarded our less-than-exciting bus to Saigon which lasted four hours, of which I think I slept most of it.

When we did arrive in Saigon we were fortunate enough to be planted in an area with cheap hotels in abundance. We had set ourselves a $5 limit on a bed and it took us a while to find anywhere quite so cheap. eventually we did, a dorm room on the rooftop of a building with no lock or air con…perfect. As per her request we also secured a bed for Catherine. As it turned out we were the only people in the room, save for the man who lived on a mattress behind a curtain in the corner, but we didn’t mix with him much.

As it was already mid afternoon myself and James went for some early dinner and then looked for a place to watch the evenings football. We bumped into some English lads who indicated where we could go to watch the football…so thats where we headed. It wasnt quite in the busy area of town and took us half an hour to get to bus eventually we arrived at a bar showing live english football in English.

The 8pm kick off was the Arsenal vs Liverpool game and it was around this time that Catherine informed us of her arrival. James quite kindly volunteered to pick her up so that could stay and ‘enjoy’ the football. Instead, during the time that James was gone Arsenal had a man send off and conceded two goals (I can only hope Frimpong is remembered for more when I reread this in the future). James enjoyed the result more than I did. Not a happy bunny.

Since Catherine had not yet eaten we sort after some cheap food. We found some at Saigons late night market and I decided I was hungry enough for noodle soup. With a combination of my own stupidity and frustration at the Arsenal result I put far too much chilli in it, to the point where my face turned red and my eyes watered. Silly man.

We eventually ended the day in a cheap bar having picked up a Vietnamese girl called Tiffany who had been stood up by her friend. Being cheap skates the four of us sat and drank a beer in an empty bar because it was cheap. We were, however, approached by two young children selling flowers after midnight. Having a Vietnamese speaker with us meant we could engage with the beggars and they told us they didn’t know where their parents were and they just knew their mother would pick them up at 3am regardless of how much money they had earned. poor kids.

Tired, we were in bed by 1:30, well before the 9-year-old kids outside.

21/08/2011: Day 42

For some reason it already felt like we had been in Saigon for a while but today was actually our first full day in the city. We were already loving the vibe.

Having failed to locate Guilia the previous evening we decided to contact her to see where she was staying. We didn’t really know where so told her that we would be heading to the war museum and told her to meet us there if she wanted.

Before we made our way to the museum we needed to eat some food. We decided to head to walk around for a while looking for a cheap and cheerful restaurant. As we walked around the cheap area we were not surprised to bump into a familiar face; Emily’s. In fact, none of us changed our expression at all upon meeting her, almost as if all three of us expected to find her at some point. She told us that she was eating in a cafe near by and spotted us out of the window. This time we decided to proceed to a different location, safe in the knowledge that we will find ourselves in the same place again soon.

After a light lunch we decided to make our own way to the museum. It was now about midday and we allowed an hour to reach it since it didn’t reopen for the afternoon until after 1pm. As we are all on a tight budget we avoided and mode of transport that didn’t involve our feet. For me this is a much more fun way of getting around, particularly as I like the feeling of achievement when I manage to read a basic map correctly, little things.

Thankfully we reached the museum without a hitch and intended to spend about an hour there. However, as soon as we arrived it became clear that we needed much more time to take everything in…the museum was incredible. Basically it is an information centre about the Vietnam war from a Vietnamese perspective. All of us were somewhat familiar with American films and representations of the war but we were all ignorant to the way the Vietnamese viewed the war, this was soon to change.

Our first stop was to look at the American machinery used in the war. It was then clear that the intention of the museum was to depict the brutality of the war and the unnecessary force used by the Americans. It did a good job of shocking. This was especially true when we entered the torture chambers. The museum had not held back in posting photographs of torture techniques put in place by the french and americans against the Vietnamese communists. All of these, such as keeping grown men in barb wire chicken pens or limp amputation made for grim viewing. Every visitor seemed to read intently and walk around in both shock and interest. If the aim of the museum was to promote sympathy in the VC and a dislike for American brutality it was going a good way about it. This section reminded me a little of what I imagine a world war two concentration camp would be like.

Inside the main building we were guided through an area where Vietnam thanked ‘all the communist parties of the world for their continued support’. It then showed pictures of varies countries and their individual protests against the American was in Vietnam (including Britain’s). We then made our way around the museum reading various war stories from both sides of the war. I was particularly struck by one American soldier who had dedicated all of his medals to the museum alongside the message ‘I am sorry, I was wrong’. It was hard-hitting stuff and I was making sure that I read everything.

We then entered an area dedicated to war photography. I never thought this would interest me but I was amazed at every one. Never before had I looked at war photographs and imagined the stories behind them. Again the museum had not held the graphic ones away from public viewing. It was during this section when a Vietnamese man approached me and asked ‘how do you feel when you see this?’. The way he asked the question made it obvious that he thought I was american and I was temporarily searching my brain for an answer that would not be out-of-place. I returned with ‘its unbelievable’, which it truly way. I later told him that I am British and he responded by happily asking me to teach his little brother English. There I was performing a little English lesson in the middle of the most shocking photographs I have ever seen…perhaps a welcome break from being continuously shocked.

The last stop was the Agent Orange room. This was a collection of photographs and stories depicting how American dioxin and napalm bombs effected and continue to affect the Vietnamese even today. There were several stories about generations of disability and how people are still biologically affected by the poisons they were exposed to. Perhaps most shocking were the deformed embryos that were on display. There was also a recent letter to Obama asking for assistance to people still being born with defects as a result of agent Orange. It was in this room that we eventually met with Guilia.

So this was an amazingly eye-opening day in the museum and we were actually there about 4 hours, as were most people who entered when we did. It was amazing to see how the Vietnamese were effected by the war. However, we still wondered how the Americans would portray the aspects of the war that we had seen there, perhaps we need two sides of the argument before drawing any conclusions, but this side didn’t present the Americans (or the French) in a good light.

After an afternoon back in academia we decided to make our way back to the centre, only to be hit by the tropical rain. We stopped off in a cafe for a tea/coffee and were presented with rats running from the rain. Quite comically this caused Guilia to jump onto her chair in fear.

Eventually we got back to our hostel and didn’t get wet. From here we headed for a an indian restaurant that we saw selling £1 curries earlier in the day. Once we were inside and presented with our order we were in heaven! The curry was delicious. Catherine, however, had mistakenly ordered a spicy curry and was unable to make a good start on it. To not let a girl go hungry I offered to swap (also wanting people to believe that I can take my spice). Thankfully she was able to eat mine and I was able to eat hers (with the aid of a beer or two). In the end the four of us enjoyed a nice meal at a very cheap price.

Not wanting to end the night there we headed to a bar which labelled itself ‘sports bar’ in order to watch the sunday football. However, they didn’t have any football channels and instead had very made up Vietnamese women. One ld man entered the bar and sat at the bar. Immediately one girl preyed on him and within 3 minutes she was laying across him and playing with his face. Another bar made washed a mans face with a wet wipe…is that sexy? Thankfully we had two friends with us, both of which were female, so we weren’t eligible for the attention. This became even more thankful later when we realised the tall ‘bar maid’ was in fact a bar man.

The night ended when I got in contact with Pollyanna. She was the girl I met in Changsha on day one of this trip. Coincidently she was now in Saigon, Vietnam and I arranged to meet her. The two of us had a drink and I soon realised she was even more scatty than I originally noticed. This made her incredibly funny. I introduced her to James and Catherine and she immediately amazed them both…a very new character to us all.

Week 20: Vietnam part 2

08/08/2011: Day 29

On our first full day in Ninh Binh we both really wanted to take advantage of what the place had to offer. Luckily for us what the town has to offer is in abundance. The town itself is quaint but the real attraction is the surrounding landscape. On this day we began to see another side to Vietnam, despite being only a few hours from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.

Initially we woke up with no real plans for the day. This meant that we were free to do as we pleased. Personally I am glad we did not book onto one of the designated tours for the day as tours often have a tendency to restrict our freedom. Instead we decided to rent some bicycles and cycle to the surrounding beauty spots.

Our first stop was Tum Coc. This was about 6km outside the town of Ninh Binh but since we had bikes, and a flat terrain, we were able to reach it in no time. However, the baking heat of the sun and the unpredictability of the roads made this journey quite memorable.

Once we arrived at Tum Coc, a natural river that runs though beautiful farmland, limestone peaks, caves and even graveyards, we hired a boat and a man to row us. Despite many of the rowers appearing to be middle-aged women in authentic Vietnamese hats our boatman was a young plump man wearing a motorbike helmet and sporting a cigarette. He seemed a character.

We boarded the boat and began to row up stream through the peaceful valleys. Both myself and James were fascinated by the mans ability to row with his feet. In fact, he dd not use his hands for anything other than lighting another cigarette for the whole journey. He seemed quite chilled out about the whole affair. For much of the journey we sat in silence admiring the area. I believe James imagined he was in Apocalypse Now, but was often brought back to earth by the quacking of ducks who appeared to own these waters. It was a really nice experience and such a contrast to the crazy city of Hanoi. It was already feeling like we had experienced two of Vietnam extremities. The boat trip lasted about an hour and a half and we passed several peaks and went through 3 long but shallow caves. Naturally our rower was quite low in the boat as he was using his feet so he had no problem avoiding the hanging rocks in the caves as we sailed through. Myself and James, however, had to be vigilant as we passed through the darkened caves as to not knock ourselves out on the rocks.

Eventually we arrived back at our departure point where our rower quite cheekily asked for a tip, he deserved it. Tipping is extremely rare in China and often seen as insulting, so I have begun to forget to tip anyone, perhaps Vietnam see things differently. We then returned to our bikes to find James’ back tyre to be flat. James was less than happy about this unfortunate incident but we were not short of solutions (although we didn’t know where we might find one). fortunately we managed to find a hotel within walking distance who had staff friendly enough to pump up his tyre for no fee. We were ready to get back on the road, but not before a cold beer in a bar where the staff were embarking on their early afternoon nap. disappointing the owner put ice in our beer…ice I believed was from the tap so had to remove. I have had better beers.

We then got back on our bikes and cycled another 4km to what we were expecting to be a cave. At this point the sky was blue and the sun was glaring at us. This made for fantastic sights along our bike ride, site we would have missed if we were on a tout. In fact I don’t think our location is available on the tours. When we arrived we parked our bikes in an empty parking lot and began to walk towards where we believed the cave to be. We then saw the cave but didn’t acknowledge it as the actual cave we had come so far to see ad it was just a small whole in the was featuring a weathered plastic tiger. Instead we made out way up the side of a one of the limestone peaks, as this seemed like the correct direction. At this point the sun was at its most potent and we were both dripping with sweat. I have noticed that my forearms sweat in Asia. This must be a new kind of heat.

The higher we got up the peak the better the view became but the steeper the climb became and the more we sweated. After about 15 minutes of hard work we reached the very top of the peak and the view was unbelievable. The small structure at the top of the peak offered us 4 differing views; from one side we could see the long and winding river that we had sailed down earlier, on another the miles of rice fields that we had passed on route, another offered a view of the distant peaks stretching miles into the distance, and the fourth saw the small town of Ninh Binh far into the distance. All of this combined with the clear sky and heat from the sun made the experience all the more worthwhile, We used this time to cool off and dry out our sweat ridden clothes before making our descent down the same route.

As we were making our way back to the bottom the atmosphere in the sky interchanged. The sun dimmed and clouds took over. Then the thunder began to make itself known. We knew what was coming, a storm. We made our best efforts to get back to the bikes as soon as possible and wrapped ourselves in waterproofs in preparation for the journey back. With haste we began to cycle back before being interpreted by some kids who told us they like candy with there palms held open. We told them we didn’t have any and continued on our journey back.

The storm did not materialise until we reached our hotel but it seemed that we were not the only ones expecting it as the whole way back though the paddie fields was covered in swarms of midges. I have never seen so many flies in my life and I had to cycle with my hat over my eyes to stop them covering my vision. This did not prevent me swallowing a few hundred though. Whenever we got through the swarms we would have to stop to wipe our faces, necks and legs of the midges that had decided to attach themselves to us. James’ forehead was covered in midges that had splatted themselves on his face as he c cycled into them. An experience.

Once we were back we were able to shower and freshen up before dinner. It was during this period that James discovered the power of the days sun. despite removing his vest he still looked as though he was wearing one. The big man was in a lot of pain. As a result I had to play nurse; rubbing lotion into his back, getting some takeaway rice and tofu, and buying him the cold coke he desperately wanted. In fact, I even had to take care of the waitresses nappiless baby whilst our meal was cooked. But I think James would agree that a little pain was worthy payment for what was a great day.

09/08/2011: Day 30

As James had not fully recovered from the previous day he decided to take a day off to recuperate and get his energy back. Perhaps that was a good idea. However I really wanted to do some trekking whilst we were in a semi rural location with a national park nearby.

When James confirmed that he would be having a day off I washed and showered before going out in search of a way of reaching the national park without paying over the odds for a tour guide or a taxi (the national park is 40km from Ninh Binh). Luckily for me i soon came across a man who was willing to take me by motorbike and wait for me whilst I trekked before bringing me back. He would do this cheaper than any tour I had heard about.

Myself and the Vietnamese man set off on our motorbike adventure across all sorts or terrain; tarmac, sand, rocks, mud and water. The sights we saw from the back of the bike we great and well worth the numbing of my bum. In fact, after an hour of sitting on the back of the bike, a place designed for luggage storage, i could not feel any of the lower half of my body. It was worth it though. It was this point when the man decided he was hungry so we stopped off at a remote diner for something to eat. Eager to try new things I told him that I would eat the same thing as he. He ordered Buffalo meat with soup…what a choice. Whilst I was enjoying my buffalo the man returned to the table with a bottle of vodka. It was still quite early and I had not anticipated eating buffalo, nor did I expect to have vodka offered with my breakfast. However, my driver insisted that I had several shots of vodka with him as we ate. We both finished our food quite quickly, and almost finished the bottle of vodka too…which happened to cost the equivalent of 12p. So now, not only was I sitting uncomfortably on the luggage rack of a motorbike, but my driver was slightly drunk. He changed from a quiet man to a man who screamed when driving through puddles and meowed when driving around sharp bends. Perhaps the fact that I had joined him in drinking the vodka meant I saw this as more of an adventure than a danger to my life.

Eventually, after a very dangerous motorbike journey, we arrived at the start point of my desired trek. As I was about to begin I was approached by some monks who were interested in the buddhist bracelet I was wearing, but I did not speak to them for long. I then began my trail into the forest. It soon became clear that it was possible that I was the only person in the forest and that did not fill me with confidence in my own safety. In fact, I realised soon after I set off that trekking alone gives me a heightened sense of awareness and with that more fear. However, since I was keeping an eager eye on everything I spotted so many large spiders scattering away under my feet and several other insects who were not as interested in me. The trek was not particularly challenging but the sights and sounds of the forest made for a very interesting couple of hours. I was sure that I could hear the monkeys but accepted that it was unlikely that I would actually see one.

Eventually I reached the highest point of the trek where I was greeted by some local Vietnamese people who appeared to have entered the forest as a get away. They insisted that I sat with them whilst I took in some water and made me eat some of the sour grapes that they had brought with them. However, since they kept offering me grapes that I did not particularly like I decided to continue on my trek to the halfway point, the Thousand Year Old tree. It was also important that I continued as sweat makes me cold if I stop sweating, is that right?

The thousand year old tree was big but did not look as old as advertised. But I am not one to doubt. From the tree the path seemed to change. Beforehand the path was obvious and well-formed. However, now it appeared that there was a faint path but it still required me to force my way through some of the plants and forest. It soon became apparent that I may have taken the wrong exit from the tree. Especially as I seemed to be walking a lot further than the 3km promised. Despite this being quite scary, stuck alone in a Vietnamese forest, I was amazed by the diversity in he wildlife I was. What was especially fascinating was a massive blue spider sitting in its web. I could easily have walked into the web and on closer inspection I was very glad that I didn’t as the spider didn’t look too friendly. However, the highlight of the trek came later when I saw movement in the trees above me. Then out of nowhere a hairy fellow with 4 limbs jumped from the trees and into the undergrowth. It did not give me a chance to pay closer attention but it was either a small monkey or a hairy human baby. I was later told that what I saw was either a monkey of a giant squirrel. I am glad that I was told that giant squirrels exist after my trek as if I came face to face with one before I may have screamed.

Thankfully, my little adventure off the designated path ended and I rejoined the original path, I had perhaps taken a half hour detour. Thankfully I was now close to the point that I had agreed to meet my motorbike. As I arrived at this location the heavens opened and we were hit by a tropical storm. Not wanting to waste any time, and perhaps still running on the alcohol in the vodka, my driver suggested that we brave the storm and motorbike through the forest in the rain. This sounded like the best idea anyone has ever had ever. I jumped at the chance. So we both removed our shoes and put on ponchos before getting back on the bike. Here, with the rain falling so heavy that it often hurt, we began to ride through massive puddles, getting both of us soaked. It was an amazing experience and one that I think he also relished.

After about 15 minutes, and having survived the storm, we arrived at the next location on my itinerary, the cave of prehistoric man. I was told it was one of the oldest evidence of human civilisation in Vietnam, yet I still had not seen another tourist. This time the trek to the cave was a little shorter and I had reached it after about 15 minutes. Inside the cave I had to use a torch to see anything. It was very spooky. There were three chambers to the cave and each housed hundreds of bats. I was not confident enough to stay there for long. Fascinating stuff.

Then, after my driver had finished his tea we made our way to the final stop before heading back to Ninh Binh. This was an endangered primate centre, It cost about a pound to go in and I was only given a tour around the sanctury for about 10 minutes. The centre rescues monkeys from hunters selling them for food or to China for medicinal purposes. This meant I was more than happy to pay for my entry ticket and got to see lots of different monkey species.

The return journey was a different route to the first and didn’t seem to take so long. My driver maintained his enthusiasm for driving through puddles, which kept my mood good despite my tiredness and wet with sweat and rain clothes. He delivered me directly to my hotel and I was grateful to him for making my day amazing.

I was then met by a revitalised James as we prepared for our evening bus departure by researching the next leg of our tour, Hoian. We got some nice dinner before boarding our sleeper bus.

10/08/2011: Day 31

Today saw our arrival in Hoian, however it was not without a surprise or two along the way. Not least a 5 hour stop in a city we had not intended to visit. But perhaps we would have missed out if we had not ended up there.

So we had been travelling overnight towards Hoian when the light from the sun appeared to wake everyone on the bus up simultaneously. At which point we arrived in the city of Hue, around 8am. Many people from the bus had Hue as their destination for the journey. We, however, were intending to travel another 180km down the coast to hoian, so we stayed on the bus.

However, the bus only moved another 200m before asking us to remove ourselves from the bus too. Surely we weren’t their already? We believed it was probably safe to assume that we would be transferring to a smaller bus as there were now fewer passengers on our original one. Yet, as seems common in Vietnam, the bus company contracted what all of us had been told by the people we purchased the tickets from. We had originally been told that we would arrive in Hoian at 11am but were now told that the bus would not depart from Hue until 1:30pm, giving us 5 hours to kill.

Initially this was met with grumbles and frowns from all of our contingent. However, we then realised that we had 5 hours to explore a new city, a city renowned for its flamboyance. As a result both me and James set off on exploration (not forgetting to buy breakfast along the way). consulting our map we decided upon a couple of interesting looking landmarks within the city and decided to approach them on foot. A motorbike man approached us and told us we should go with him as it was too far to walk. He justified this by telling us that he had friends in Ipswich…I dont think he does.

After crossing a large bridge we arrived at what seemed to be the old city walls. However, they were not as hard to cross as they perhaps once were and we were soon in the old city. I was surprised to see many houses with gardens and well maintained streets. Our intended destination was the ‘Forbidden City’ in the centre (reminiscent of that in Beijing). Once we arrived there we realised that we seemed to have taken an alternative route to the other tourists as there were many of us there. We were then old that it would cost us a few pounds to enter the palace walls so we decided the view from the outside would suffice, especially given that we were not in the city for long.

Having had breakfast and looked around the old city we were surprised to see that we only had two hours remaining in Hue. We then intended to visit a pagoda with a monastery about half hour walk away but then thought better of it given our restricted time. Instead we headed towards the Ho Chi Minh museum…which was closed. Instead this enabled us to explore the atmosphere of Hue a little more, and exchange some money. Since I only have Chinese currency I am finding it increasingly difficult to change to Vietnamese Dong, as they seem to prefer the Swiss Franc to the currency of their neighbours. I was later told, by the motorbike man, that I had something wrong’ in my head for not paying him to take me to a Pagoda.

Eventually we did arrive in Hoian, some 7 hours after anticipated. Our spirits were not dampened given we had the opportunity to take in an additional city, Yet, we arrived in the city tired enough the accept the first hotel we came to, a double room at £4 each a night.

Once we were showered and had submitted our laundry we went to explore Hoian at night, with the intention of finding a suit and having some dinner. Hoi-an is the tailoring capital of Vietnam and every other shop is a tailor. James had been bright in looking at reviews of different tailors online before arriving here. Therefore, our intended destination was Me Xe’s tailoring. We could only hope to get a gooden.

We soon realised that the Hoian old town can be explored in less than an hour, and it was almost impossible to get lost despite the inaccuracies of the hotel map. Hoian has a different atmosphere to both Hanoi and Ninh Binh. It certainly holds more history (I think it escaped American bombing) and the people seem to be a lot more welcoming. It reminded me a little of Lijiang in China, a huge compliment for Hoian.

We managed to stumble across Mr Xe’s shop quite easily. His staff were incredibly helpful and were offering us tips on what kind of suit we should buy. They even had a Next catalogue for reference.I was a little concerned given my budget (which I believe is a lot tighter than James’) as the suits of good quality would cost us around $100 (£65). I came to the conclusion that the opportunity to get a good quality suit tailored to my body for a cheap price was too good to pass up. I considered it my birthday present. Once we had chosen our design we were both measured by Mr Xe. He is about 5ft 3, clearly homosexual, extremely flamboyant and has the highest pitch voice on any man, Vietnamese of otherwise. James was first up and had to strip down to his boxers to be measured by the little man. It’s fair to say that Mr Xe did a little too much touching in places that did not require to be touched, much to James’ pleasure. We were both measured quite quickly and were told to return in the morning for our second measurement. We were both quite anxious about how our suits might look.

On the way back to the hostel we came across a nice little Vietnamese restaurant with a very friendly hostess. She served us some much needed food and gave us a discount at the end for no reason other than she wanted to. Hoian had already made a good impression on us both.

11/08/2011: Day 32

Today was a good day to relax, especially as the city of Hoian appears to encourage a care-free attitude and relaxation.

Our first job for the day was to eat breakfast. Vietnamese breakfast, as well as many other aspects of the country, still has a french feel about it. And baguette are right up my street at the moment. However I have begun to feel that I am eating too many eggs in Vietnam.

Anyway, we were then required to have a second measurement (no doubt both of h=our waists were a little wider after a big breakfast) before we could officially start our day.

The hostel had provided us with free bikes to explore the city. As it is flat we were able to breeze through the old town and get to many places very quickly. Having planned to take advantage of our bikes we intended to visit a beach recommended to us by some an Isralei in our hotel. As most of the attractions in Hoian are to the south we decided to head to the beach in the north. Our reward: Sun, sand, sea, beer and peace.

The beach was simply beautiful and we were able to relax there for a few hours. James decided to try to remove the tan lines on his back that indicated he was always wearing a vest. Im not sure he succeeded though. I, however, couldn’t seem to stay in the sun very long without requiring entry to the warm and clear sea. For the afternoon we were in paradise.

We both, quite sensibly, decided our bodies may have had enough of the sun by mid afternoon and so decided to eat before heading back to the old town. We ate at a restaurant and were served by a young Vietnamese girl who claimed to speak English, French and German. We were in no position to question her.

After washing the sand from our bodies and inspecting ourselves for sunburn we were able to revisit Mr Xe for our first fitting. When we both put on our suits we looked quite smart. Although I can’t help but think I look like a child whenever I put a suit on.

We then had a nice Vietnamese dinner at the harbourside before going to a bar for a free ‘bucket’, which turned out to be jar of juice. Having had a relaxing day we then returned to the dorm, greeted with our clean laundry….clean clothes!!!’

12/08/2011: Day 33

This was a great day for me as I got to see one of the most renowned places in Vietnam; My Son (pronounced something like Me Sen

James decided to take the morning off to recuperate but I decided the appeal of the ancient relics was too good for me to pass up. Therefore I left our room about 7am to catch breakfast before a bus to the site, around 50km away. I had previously told James that I would cycle there but was laughed at for being ridiculous by a Vietnamese man for being ridiculous. Once I was on the bus I could see why such a suggestion was laughable.

After just over an hour I arrived at the relics and was introduced to the site with other tourists by a tour guide. The guide was clearly not keen on Americans for how they destroyed most of the sights during the war and even consoled the french people in my group because they were…french. From what he was saying it seemed as though he had reason to be angry as he was clearly passionate about My Son and angry towards the french for stealing some of the relics and storing them in the Louvre. It made the initial meeting a little awkward though.

He then guided us into the ancient ruins, which are a source of pilgrimage for some Vietnamese who worship their ancestors there. Not only does it date back hundreds of years and have cultural and symbolic significance to the Vietnamese people, but it was also a major feature in the American war, as it was a structure in the jungle visible to American aircraft. Many of the Vietnamese soldiers were hiding in the surrounding jungle.

The first section of the relics was the best preserved, apparent from some bomb craters that featured in the land. The structures were amazing and I was quite surprised they were still standing as they didn’t look the most secure. Our guide, however, was more interested to point out a phallic looking rock in the middle of the area. He told us that it resembled a males ‘magic stick’ and that if a man touched it he will have a better ‘magic stick. The rock also had a round whole in its side, our guide claimed that men who stick their own ‘magic stick’ in the whole will have a bigger one when they take it out. He then asked for a man to remove his shorts and try it out. unsurprisingly no one tried. This was particularly awkward considering there were women and children in te group, some had already been insulted by his french and american remarks. He was a character.

The section featured the remains of relics after the war. They still appeared to have some symbolic significance to the Vietnamese and were still as impressive as those that remained complete structures. These did not seem to draw as many people in which meant i was able to explore them quite peacefully. The final section was relics being repaired or held up by scaffold. It seems the My Son relics days as originals may be numbered.

After visiting the sights we then boarded a boat instead of a bus to return to Hoian. This was amazing as we were able to see wild animals coming out of the jungle to drink from the river. We were also presented with a free lunch. The boat trip actually turned into a real experience, which I had not expected. As we were progressing down the river we anchored into a small Hamlet where we walked around and witnessed people creating crafts from their houses. I felt a little guilty that I didn’t buy anything.

It was then only a short trip back to Hoian, which luckily dropped us not far from the tailor, Mr Xe. Coincidently James had just arrived to pick up his suit when I did. This meant that we were able to pay together and return to the hotel with our suits. Mr Xe threw in a free tie for us, what a nice man.

On the way back another coincidence occurred, we bumped into Catherine (the Danish girl we met in Hanoi). She was a little flustered and claimed that she had been walking for an hour in the heat with her backpack looking for a cheap hotel, and had no luck. We invited her to join us on our trip back to our hotel where we were able to find her cheaper accommodation.

With a rather eventful and cultural day out of the way we boarded our night bus to Nah Trang. Luckily these buses has more leg room. What was unlucky though is that I was surrounded by americans dudes. Duuuude.

13/08/2011: Day 34

Today was our first day in the seaside town of Nah Trang. We had read and heard such great things about the place that we were both a little excited about it.

We woke up to the sound of Vietnamese music on our bus and the sight of a packed beach and a beaming sun. How long had we slept? Little did we know that it was actually only 6am and the beach was full of Vietnamese locals enjoying their hometown before work or school. Shortly afterwards we were kicked off the bus.

It didn’t take us long to realise that Nha Trang is not that big at all and we were able to find our hostel on foot in no time. Given that this meant we were very early to be checking in for the night we used the free time to relax and freshen up. Thankfully we were offered the key to a dorm at around 10am. Then our day could officially get started.

SInce we haven’t done any laundry since Ninh Binh I have run out of clean underwear (I am heavily criticised for the state of my underwear as it is….they are my travelling pants I don’t mind leaving behind). I have now the ingenious method of washing my pants whilst I shower and using the dry pants that I washed in the previous shower to wear afterwards. This was I am constantly wearing clean underwear and only using 2 pairs of boxers.

Anyway…once we were checked in and relatively settled we sort after our plan for the day. The most famous aspect of Nah Trang is its beaches. Some suggested the beaches are the most beautiful in Vietnam, we were to make our own judgement. We decided to check out a beach and set out to look for it. On route to the beach we were approached, as has become expected, by sunglasses sellers. I managed to get a pair for £1 after he set the extortionate starting price of £3 (I sat on my last pair).

Once we arrived on the beach it became clear that it would take some beating. The sand was white and the sea was clear. This, added to the clear sky and happy sun, made for a perfect beach day. Both myself and James took turns in going into the sea whilst the other looked after the bags. That is until it became too hot for either of us to sit on the sand and we both submersed ourselves in the warm water and risked our belongings. I bought a coconut and pineapple cracker from a masked woman dressed head-to-toe in winter clothes…it tasted ok.

Following a few hours in the sun we decided to give our bodies a rest and have an afternoon nap before heading out for the evening. It was premier league kick-off day (despite the riots in England) and we needed all of our energy to be ready for this football. We left our hostel soon before any of the games kicked off and looked for some cheap food before we settled down with the football. We walked a little longer than we both intended but we were quite lucky with our eventual choice of restaurant. This one had 3 Vietnamese women standing outside calling us in (although I am pretty sure one used to be a man). They asked us if we would like to join them in their restaurant for a staff meal to celebrate one of the waitresses birthday. Free food! We sat awkwardly at a table full of strangers and felt a little like the poachers we were. It turned out the Vietnamese birthday girl was only 23 and her Kiwi boyfriend (50ish) had paid for the banquet we were about to eat from. He later revealed that he has only met her twice. It became a little awkward when the birthday girl, and mans girlfriend, failed to acknowledge him when he gave her a present and hardly spent a minute with him all night. I think everyone felt the awkwardness. Also featuring at the meal was a lad called Kevin, aged 1. He was half dutch and half Vietnamese and incredibly cute. However, the waitress were giving him bottles of beer for him to suckle on. Both myself and James were flabbergasted at this, particularly as it appeared to be a normal thing to do for them. Kevin later appeared to be slightly drunk when he was dancing with one hand in the air and trying to hit me with a bottle opener. Still, his father put him on his lap when he left on a moped. The meal was gorgeous and we made sure we stayed in the bar for the first round or matches, although this meant watching a slow stream of the Birmingham game as it wasn’t on TV, shock.

Later, after a pretty dull Arsenal 0-0, no description required. We headed to the beach as we were told this was where all the activities were (it was a full moon). When we got there it was getting a little late and it appeared that the party was dying down a little. However, we tried to make the most of it and followed everyone to the Why Not bar afterwards. The crowd of tourists in there were unlike any other I have seen in Asia. Somehow they have alll congregated in Nha Trang.

I ordered a takeaway noodle soup on my way home and soon realised that they had handed me 4 bags and a bowl. One bag contained soup water, another meat, another noodles and the final one had leaves. It was less of a takeaway and more of a D-I-Y soup meal. I quite enjoyed missing it all together with the security guards at the hostel. That was until the English lads from our dorm arrived and demanded the taser from our security guard and started playing around with it. I tutted like and old man and went to bed as soon as my soup was finished.

In fact, it was when we returned to our hostel that we first realised the kind of people we would be sharing a dorm with. In England we refer to them as ‘tossers’ and of course they were English. They were disrespectful to Vietnamese, other people in the dorm, stole things from people’s beds and were generally behaving like they should be in Ibiza. Clearly they should have been.However, although concerned about the reputation of my country I couldn’t help but thank God that they are in Vietnam and not England because if they were I think the riots would be a little more pathetic.

However, we had a great first day in Nha Trang, free food with some Vietnamese people being the obvious highlight. It seems that there is a lot to do in Nha Trang, most of it quite relaxing, we think.

14/08/2011: Day 35

In order to secure our free breakfast we had to get up before 10am despite our late night. This is a great incentive as it gets us up and about without being lazy. Naturally the breakfast consisted of a baguette with fired eggs. I believe I have now eaten 412 fried eggs in Vietnam (or there about).

Over breakfast we met a scouse couple. We were quite surprised to find that they were normal people despite being English. They too had had a bad experience with the lads from the night before. Realising that myself and James are also relatively normal (I think), we decided to head to the Nha Trang mud baths together. We quickly got changed and jumped in a legitimate taxi to the spas.

I had never experienced a mud bath before and wasn’t too sure about what to expect. We arrived to find many Vietnamese families bathing together in family-sized tubs of mud. Quickly we washed ourselves down and jumped into our own tub. Bathing in mud was surprisingly fulfilling and felt very nice. The only error we seemed to make was allowing it to enter our mouths, where it quickly solidified. The four of us sat in mud for about 20 minutes and probably looked quite odd to all the locals since we were enjoying it so much and putting buckets of mud over our heads. We were then told to sunbathe for 15 minutes whilst the mud became crusty on our skin. Since my face was covered in mud it almost felt like my face had solidified and froze. Naturally we all looked quite stupid. But since we all looked the same we were quite content about it. After this we washed our mud off in mineral water before hitting the hydrotherapy and mineral water jacuzzi. As there were 3 men to the one girl we did not quite feel as feminine as we should have done and all admitted to enjoying the ‘treatment. I must admit that I was loving it. Finally we were able to cool off in a warm mineral water swimming pool and eat an ice cream. The perfect relaxing day with a new experience to add.

By the time we had got back to the hostel it was beginning to get quite late. We then found out one of the English lads in our dorm had woken up with a big tattoo on his arm. This caused me to chuckle inside, but since he was big and drunk again I did not laugh at him. Instead we headed to a bar/restaurant not too far from where we were sleeping. Here I ordered a pork and rice claypot. Although the food in Vietnam is fantastic its claypots don’t quite beat the chinese. We sat through the Man utd game before heading towards the bar that offered us free food the previous evening. As we were walking along the street we were greeted by lots of women trying to get us into their respective bars with shouts of ‘oi man’, now James’ favourite phrase. One girl stopped us to convince us to go into here bar and as we stopped a familiar face appeared behind us, Emily. Quite coincidently she was in the bar that we were stood outside and had spotted us. We then joined her and her boyfriend, as well as an Australian and a Canadian. for a few drinks. I was quite pleased that we were away from the English rabble, but disappointed that this pleasured me at the same time.

We made our way as a group to the beach for a while and the additional company made for a better night that the previous, especially as we also met up with some Israelis with some stories to tell. It was what happened after the beach that provided me with my most vivid memory of the night;

James had already retired to the dorm when I began to walk home alone after finishing my baguette. We had been advised not to walk home alone but I took this as a universal suggestion. Apparently Nha Trang is a little different. As I was walking down the street 3 mopeds parked up beside me. From the back of the mopeds jumped 3 skinny Vietnamese women dressed in hooded ponchos (with the hoods up) They ran towards me like zombies and were shouting ‘bum-bum’ and ‘sucky-sucky’. A little scared and unaware of what was going on I tried to tell them that I didn’t want any ‘bum-bum’ or ‘sucky-sucky’ but then one of them gripped my crouch whilst another tried to pull down my shorts. Quite unaware of how to stop this, given that they were women, I have one of them a rather camp slap on the wrist. She let go and as I tried to retreat towards the only open bar about 20 metres away they all gave up and jumped back on the scooters and drove away. I was left in shock, not only that I had nearly been raped by 3 women in ponchos but also that I still had my wallet and room key. Looking back I was actually quite scared but it is certainly an experience to talk about. I later found out that I was lucky not to be robbed as these ‘Kamikaze Prostitiutes’ are famous in the area and rob any lone traveller after 2am. I think I was saved by the fact that I was not as drunk as they may have expected, nor was I as drunk as the English guys in our hostel.

In fact, when I arrived back at the hostel I found out that one of the English lads had urinated in someone elses bed. Quite selfishly I hoped it wasn’t mine, it wasn’t. Instead, and despite the chatter amongst them that noone wanted to hear I returned to the room to get to bed. When I got in I was greeted with the most unusual sight; James was brushing a small drunk strangers teeth with the most incredible concentration on his face whilst she stood with her mouth open. It is certainly something I am never going to let him live down but I went to bed puzzled.

China II: Week 19 + Vietnam

1/08/2011: Day 22

Night train journeys are always the best because you wake up in a location far from where you were when you put your head down. That kind of thing freaks me out.

Anyway, both me and James woke in good spirits a few minutes before our arrival in Nanning.
were now in a location new to us both, so the real adventure was about to begin.

Thankfully, and in keeping with the luck that has followed me throughout my time in China, our hostel was only a stones throw from the train station. This meant that we only needed to use our limited notes written the day before to find it. When we did it seemed like a nice enough place..it had beds and a shower. However, since we arrived quite early we were required to wait for our beds to be cleaned. We used this opportunity to shower (both of us were dirty and smelly).

During this time we were approached by an American girl named Emily. She asked us where we were from and we were surprised to hear that she knew Torquay. In fact, she had even visited Torquay a few Christmas’ ago…a very small world. It turned out that she actually enjoyed her stay in Torquay despite the exotic and exciting places that she had visited on the rest of her travels.

Given that all of our resources indicated that Nanning is little more than a gate-way city to Vietnam we decided to avoid the limited attractions within the city and explore the outskirts. After observing a map of the province, Guangxi, we decided on a destination; Baise.

Once checked in and showered myself, James and Emily walked to the bus station in the hope of finding a cheap bus. Emily had an additional weapon: Chinese. She put my Chinese to shame but made me even more determined to learn more. Given her experience over 2 years I have now come to the conclusion that Beijing is the place to learn and will consider a long stay there on my next visit.

Anyway once in the bus station we were approached by a nutty looking woman with a brolly. Usually I avoid these people like the plague but on this occasion she told us that we can go to Baise. Thinking that she may be offering a good deal we decided to go with her. In hindsight she was trying to rip us off…shock. The woman made us jump onto a public bus and got of in the middle of nowhere. Here we waited for our hired bus whilst the old lady sat on the curb muttering to herself. Just as we were preparing our excuses to leave the bus turned up and the woman took our money. From the look of everyone else on the bus it definitely seemed as though we paid over the odds..we later found this to be true.

The bus journey was not that exciting but my highlight was offering James pieces of mango. Apparently this is offensive to him. I am beginning to find out that James can be wound up by very trivial things but accept the abnormal things that happen as quite normal. Different people, different needs.

Despite not quite reaching Baise (in fact still about 2 hours away) we decided to get off the bus in the middle of nowhere. It turned out to be a fantastic decision. For a few minutes we considered what we could do in the middle of nowhere. Then we decided to head towards the mountains we could see far in the distance. As there only seemed to be one road we decided to walk across the fields. i.e. off the beaten track…perfect. We walked across dozens of fields featuring everything from corn to bananas to massive anonymous fruits. Naturally, we avoided stepping on any of the crops that lay in our way. This meant we took our time in getting across the fields and often out ourselves in dangerous situations. This was highlighted when Emily fell over when jumping off a mud heap. She wasn’t too embarrassed or hurt though. We saw very few people as we passed over the farm lands. This was possibly because the farmers are wiser than us and avoid going out in the heat of the day. However, the few people who we did see did not seem to welcome us with open arms. The first was a man burning his own crops, who seemed like a bit of a nutter. The second was an old woman who told her cow off for looking at us and the third was a man who turned off his hose so that we couldn’t coll ourselves down with it. They were all quite suspicious of us, and understandably so considering there was no reason for foreigners to be crossing these fields. We were loving it though, it was defiatly the right choice from exploring another city.

After a couple of hours of trekking in the heat we came to what looked like a small village. Our guess was that the farmers from the fields had their family homes there. Initially there didn’t seem to be many people around but as we began to walk through the village more and more people can out to look at the foreigners. We then managed to obtain a group of children who followed us through the village on bicycles, picking up their friends en-route. Everytime we looked behind there seemed to be a new child shouting ‘hello’ at us. We then came across a group of girls who already had their camera phones ready to film us as if word had got around of our presence before we even arrived. This was certainly a nice experience.

We only walked a little further through the village until we came to the railway track. Here a very bored man asked James to take a photo of him and if he could send it by post. The man posed on his stretch of railway like the proudest man in the world and then gave James his address (in Chinese) to ask for th e photo posted. It might be true that this was the first photo the man had taken of him (except for the one on his id card).

Reluctant to walk much further since we found a bus that passed through the village on its way to Nanning we sat at a cafe and drank some local beer. This was not only refreshing but very rewarding. Today had already been successful.

We each had a couple of beers before the next bus arrived. Since there was no toilet in the cafe or on the bus we all had a very awkward journey back praying for our bladders to hold up. Eventually we did arrive back where we were able to have a quick shower before picking up some food at a chinese restaurant. More Chinese food! I still can’t get enough of it!

After dinner we went back to the hostel to relax where we were joined by 6 dutch students who were touring China. We joined them for a game of ring or fire until the early hours of the morning. The consequence of which promises to make tomorrow a very interesting day, especially as we have an early start.

02/08/2011: Day 23

Perhaps as a result of the late night the evening before I was uncharacteristically still asleep at the time of our alarm: 7am. Our bus left from the bus station to the waterfall at 7:40 and we still had to get ready, get there, get sufficient water, buy our tickets and board. Once again we made it and it didn’t seem that much of a rush. At he station we met the dutch boys from the night before. They, like us, looked like they had a rough night, indicated by there glazed eyes.

Since we wer promised a 4 hour journey we saw this as adequate time to catch up on our missed sleep. However, as the time slowly progress (time moves slower on a bus) 11:40 was soon gone and we were approaching 1pm. This would not normally be a problem but our return coach to Nanning left the waterfall at 3pm. Everyone was a little concerned that we may have to turn back as son as we arrived. Everyone except the driver. Instead of picking up on his passengers desire to reach the fall he decided to stop for a half hour lunch break. Naturally all of us were a little puzzled by this, but we got the opportunity to fill our empty tummys…every cloud.

Even with the break we were able to reach the fall by 2pm, with 3.15 as our scheduled departure. We then found out hat entry would cost us £7…a huge dent in our budget. Myself, Emily and James seeked an alternative entrance through a deroliced house and a steep hill. Once again Emily hurt herself climbing, but she’s a tough cookie. We had to admit defeat soon after though as there seemed no free way in and we already had limited time.

So once we were in it was just a short walk before we saw the splendid view of the waterfall (Detian Pubu). What was also fascinating was that it appeared to be unspoilt by tourism and there were no queues of people or people pestering us to buy things. We had an hour to spend in paradise with just a f ew dutch lads and a couple of Chinese families….how is this place not on everyone’s radar? At this moment we were so thankful of the waterfalls lack of publicity.

We walked closer and closer to the base of the water fall, which actually acts as a border between China and Vietnam. Despite the numerous signs telling us not to swim in the water the beauty of the fall and the heat of the sun made it far to appealing and any danger was soon forgotten. We stripped to our undies and began swimming in the open water at the bottom of the majestic waterfall, of course not getting close enough to die. As we swam so peacefully through the water we each had dragonflies perched on our heads who were also enjoying the ride. Perhaps the waterfall had already killed us and we were now in heaven? I would have believed it. This is what it’s all about :P. For a while we swam around the different parts of the waterfall and even tried to swim close to one of the smaller falls…the current prevented me from reaching it. Despite only having an hour to swim and observe it we were more than satisfied with traveling such a distance. The waterfall has to be experienced to be believed as no photos can do it justice. And swimming so close to it uninterrupted by anything other than the friendly dragonflies made complete contrast to most other places in China.

We were so happy with our day out now that they journey back seems like a blur (probably because I slept through most of it). However, we were then back by about 9pm as oppose to the 6pm advertised. Perhaps the bus driver knew that no one would complain about the journey after seeing the waterfalls.

As we arrived we remembered that one of the hostel staff wanted to have dinner with us in the evening (although we suspected he only really wanted to eat with Emily). When we got back to the hostel he was still waiting for us but we made sure we showered first. He then told us he and his friends had booked a restaurant for us about 10 minutes away by taxi. We had to tell him that we did not want a late night and we could not afford the restaurant he wanted us to go. As if to confirm our suspicions he then told Emily that he will visit her on her travels soon. He was a little strange but she just nodded accepting.

So our last big meal in China came from the muslim noodles in Nanning Although not the most exciting of chinese foods it does some up most of the qualities of it. tasty, cheap, interesting, fresh and filling. I am going to miss Chinese food so much. I get the impression James will too.

It was then time to pack out bags for the morning and relax before our morning bus to Hanoi, Vietnam. Another goodbye to China was just hours away.

03/08/2011: Day 24

Today we left China and arrived in Vietnam. I left feeling that I have not quite finished with China. Perhaps this is a good indication that I will return one day. But now is the time for a new country, a new culture, with different food and people: Vietnam.

Initially we left Nanning at 8am for a short journey to the Chinese-Vietman border. Once we arrived I expected to have a simply passport check at customs and be in Vietnam in no time. What an idiot I am! Have I not experienced anything of China in a year? Instead we were dropped off some 500m from the ‘departure’ section of customs. Here we had to wait for a golf caddie to take us to the entrance where we queued for permition to exit the country. Once this was complete we had to walk another 2 hundred metres though a car park (neither of us knew which country we were now in) towards the arrival section of Vietnam. As if the two buildings were hundreds of miles apart everything appeared to be different; the uniforms, the people and the language. As we queued for permission to enter Vietnam one of the Vietnamese mobile phones rang: Blue: One Love. James’ response was instantly ‘brilliant, I’ve travelled half way around the world to listen to Britains 2011 Euro Vision song contest entrants’. I sympathised.

Once we were out we then had to get on another caddie to take us to the bus. I got the idea that the two caddies were not that necessary as the buses had the ability to drive and the customs could e done much quicker. If only I was in charge of Chino-Viet customs. I am not, so I got over it. James did not get over Blue.

When we eventually arrived in Hanoi we were dropped off in the middle of nowhere. It was here that we got our first lesson in Vietnamese people. We bargained with a taxi driver to get to our hostel for 115,000 dong (about £3.50). At this point we had no idea what a good deal was but a woman on the coach suggested 150,000 is the most we should pay. The driver agreed and put our bags in his car. He put my bag in the front seat, which, despite being slightly odd, did not make us suspect anything. He even had a cute little horn that echoed.

We had a map in hand and by spotting street names we realised that he was taking a very obscure route around the old city. I offered him a bit of mango to sweeten him up, in return he gave us a card of what looked like a prostitute but he advertised as ‘a very good massage’. Eventually we arrived at our destination and the driver then moved m bag to reveal the meter indicating 560,000 dong (£15). ooohhh that’s why he put my big bag in the front!. Initially we laughed this off and reminded him that he had confirmed 115,000 before we entered the cap. We then started shouting and threatening to drive off (but we didn’t know where he intended to take us). Despite his rage and reluctance to let us out the cab we had one thing on our side; the fact that we only had 130,000 dong anyway. We should him this and he then collapsed onto his steering wheel as if to cry, quite pathetically. He then demanded Chinese yuan that he saw in my wallet. I refused. Eventually, and with no knife in his dashboard he gave up trying to rob us and took the money we agreed. We both decided we had won that battle. It was quite a welcome to Vietnam. However, I think it was a worthwhile experience as we now know that the Vietnamese may not need a second invitation to get one over on us. It was definitely one fo the strangest taxi journeys I have ever had.

We used the rest of the day to explore the old town and meet the people in our hostel. The hostel even-handed out free home-brewed beer between 5 and 6pm to all guests which allowed us to meet several new people. Then myself and James began to explore the city in search of the famous Bia Hoi…13p beers. As we walked around I was so shocked to see so many Western people. I have not seen so many foreigners in one place since I was in England. I still questioned why so many people neglect China when planning their trips. Although from some of the people we have met I am quite glad I didn’t meet them in China.

However, we sat for a couple of hours drinking the local beer. We were served by a crazy lady called Rainbow who both shouted at you and flirted with you at the same time. I was more scared of her than the taxi driver.

Then, as if by chance, we saw Emily walk passed. We were then joined by David, a dutch nazi from our hostel, and two Danish girls. This was our gang for the rest of the night. We enjoyed the local beer and drank in a couple of local bars. It turned into quite a late night. But a nice relaxing welcome to Hanoi (by contrast to the taxi journey). I could already tell Vietnam is going to be a different experience to China. But I can also tell I am going to enjoy it. What have you got to offer us Vietnam?

04/08/2011: Day 25

Our second day in Hanoi, and indeed Vietnam, was used as an acclimatization day in the city. And both of us needed acclimatising to this crazy city. Everywhere we turn in Hanoi there are people trying to sell us things that no one in their right mind would by,. e.g. wooden dragonflies that balance on your finger. If it’s not these people hassling us its the thousands of people on motorbikes who honk their horns more often than they look at the road. For a newcomer Hanoi looks like a city in chaos. In this respect there is no shortage of entertainment.

Once we were up and about we headed towards the centrepiece of the old town; the lake. Despite not being overwhelmingly beautiful it did look slightly out-of-place as a peaceful area in the middle of Bedlam. We walked around the large lake and stopped in shade as an escape from the intense heat. It was here that I started to draw comparisons between the Vietnamese and the Chinese…of which there seems to be very few comparisons despite their close proximity. I enjoy people watching; On the bench opposite were a young Vietnamese couple hugging and kissing which initially got my attention as public displays of affection are rarely seen in China. On top of this we were able to look at the behaviour of the people. Despite the fact that they don’t seem to be too subtle about trying to rip us off I have yet to see anyone spit on the floor or sneeze in someone elses face. Perhaps I have entered civilisation…is that a good thing? However, probably the most striking difference has been the women of Hanoi. Vietnamese women appear to be extremely beautiful…but why? We discussed a few possibilities; 1. the way they dress. Many are dressed with fashionable clothes rarely seen on Chinese women 2. the light touch of makeup. It appears that a little bit of make-up indicates that she may have shaved her armpits. 3. and most influentially, the food portions are minimal. The Vietnamese women are tiny, and never seem to be fat. We have put this down to eating one bowl of sticky rice as a meal, when I could easily put away 5.

Anyway, enough of the people watching. Once we had finished with the lake we made a long journey towards the ‘Temple of Literature’. The lonely planet indicates that this is the 16th best thing to do in Vietnam…how could we miss it? Despite what the map suggested the temple was quite a walk from the lake. But at this point we have all the time in the world and there was no rush (except preventing the sun from evaporating our skin). James had not seen a temple in China so seeing one in Vietnam was a must. When we eventually arrived at the temple, and still unfamiliar with the currency, te cashier woman ripped me off by giving the wrong change….even the people working in temples are dishonest here, We still hope it’s not a sign of things to come. It was only James’ eager eye that pointed out that we had the wrong change. The woman had the correct change waiting on a pile at her desk just in case we realised. Although it could have been an honest mistake :P. Once in the temple we didn’t see anything terribly spectacular (except an awesome statue os Confucius and 4 of his disciples). But the familiar smell of incense and an old woman performing her prayer rituals made the experience worthwhile, even if we were a long way from the old quarter now.

Being fit young men, and slightly scared about getting in another taxi, we headed back to the dorm on foot. The map labelled a market on route and I wanted to see if it was a meat market and if the Vietnamese have the same interesting approach to food that the Chinese have. As it turned out most of the market was clothes. However, as we got nearer the exit we smelt fish. We stumbled across a few stalls selling fresh fish and crabs. Naturally a couple were selling caged cats and terrapins as well. Other than a few fish guts we didn’t really see any bizarre or disgusting sights, not like we have a blood lust or support animal cruelty….just curiousity.

Given that the day was hot and sticky I decided to take a shower before the arrival of the free beer at the hostel. During this shower I had the worst headache I have ever felt. I thought my head was about to explode. For some reason I found some solace bending over and putting my head between my knees. As I was naked and in the shower I am very glad that no stranger walked in to see me as a madman. I put it down to the malaria tablets I have been taking and now look at them as some kind of round pink demon. After I while the swelling of my brain seemed to decrease but the pounding put me in no mood for beer. I tried some anyway. Water went down a lot easier.

Once again we met up with Emily, as planned the night previous, and also met with Catherine (a Danish girl). James got to play badminton with some local kids.We got ripped off for some sugar-water after ordering tea, but didn’t complain. We had a quite night with a few beers before going to bed shortly after the local beer hoi finished. I woke at around 4am to hear James talking with the other people in the dorm (1 more english and 3 dutch) about a hypothetical war that was happening in the dorm Holland vs Britain). One of the dutch nominated himself as William of Orange….I went back to sleep.

05/08/2011: Day 26

Today was the day we began our trip on one of the most exciting places in Vietnam. To Halong Bay. We were picked up around 8am from our hostel. It appeared that we were one of the last pick up points as the hostel was largely full and the only remaining seats were beside a very angry-looking asian man…a bit miffed that he had no place to put his day bag.

Our initial concerns about him were eased as soon as he started talking…because he told us he was Malaysian. Not only do we intend on visiting Malaysia in a couple of weeks, but Jangers (a friend from Torquay) is half Malaysian. The man was definitely a bit of a character and immediately told us not to visit Malaysia because there are not enough Laplanders. He then revealed, as if we had been friends for years, that he visits Thailand at least twice a year for the ‘very cheap women’. Every question we asked him seemed to have an answer that related to Thailand or Thai women. He then reveled that he will be voting for Malaysias opposition party at the next election because they are ‘more open-minded about lapdancing clubs.

The company of him and his friends certainly made the 3 hour journey to Halong bay a lot more interesting. When we did eventually arrive we were made to wait in the heat for around half an hour by the tour guide that everyone could sense was going to be a nightmare. In fact, it became even more apparent when he told our spanish companions that they could not stay on the boat overnight as there were not enough people who wanted to stay on the boat. We had previously been told that we could not stay on the boat as there were already to many people who had paid to sleep on it. As if this excuse for not hiring a boat for his guests (as advertised) was not contradictory enough he later told others that no boat could be hired because they are too dangerous to sleep on and even went as far as telling people that 25 boats had crashed into each other the day before so no boats were available. So far the vietnamese people have not blown me away with their hospitality. Thankfully we were all light-hearted enough to laugh him off.

When we were eventually off and away the views of the bay were amazing. In Halong Bay there are thousands of Limestone peaks that appear from the surrounding waters. Its almost like stepping into a science fiction movie (maybe I permanently am in one. or perhaps science fiction is not fiction at all). The clear blue sky made for picture perfect scenery from the boats deck. Here we could gaawp at the surrounding views whilst lying on a sunbed on the top deck of a Vietnamese boat. Heaven.

After a while we arrived at one of the islands in Halong bay to see a cave. I think I hae written here before that caves don’t really excite me too much. But I don’t know why. Caves have everything one needs from an experience: history, mystery, scariness, science and bats. I have decided to see caves with fresh enthusiasm. However, the Vietnamese, like the Chinese always do, seemed to look at this cave with too much imagination (rich?). The see monkeys, dragons and even humans in the stones that clearly could represent. Whatever makes people happy though. One of the Malaysian lads was not shy in presenting his own opinion.

After the cave and after a about another hour on the boat we approached a village on the sea (or so it was described). Here featured the real drama of the day. We all went from our large boat and entered a tiny local fishing boat armed only with a car battery. There were some big blokes in our party, especially James, and the driver (or sailer or fisherman or local) expressed his concerns about the weight of the boat. As if money rules the universe we proceeded to sail towards one of the peaks anyway. We eventually came to a peak that had a naturally formed cave (the kind of cave that gets me interested) which we were able to pass through given our low height. After about 20 metres we came into what looked like a lake. The limestone peak was hollow in the middle so had created a wonderful circular area of sea that just looked incredible. Despite being very eager to enjoy the splendid view we then came across an issue…. the boat was flooding. it appeared that the incredible weight of the boat had caused water to enter from underneath (I’m clearly not a boat expert). Without panic the sailor took the wooden planks from our feet and revealed the extent of the damage. Which created panic amongst everyone else. At this point I was not sure if this happens to every group and part of me assumed it was an act to give us a bit of a fright. It wasn’t. Soon the man was using half a bottle to scoop out all of the excess water whilst passengers with empty bottles were joining the effort. The local man was shouting to try to attract other boats who were able to get to out boat and evacuate people from it….women, children and french first of course. Eventually, and to the relief of everyone remaining on the boat the boat man decided the boat was empty enough to continue our mission. We left through the cave and once again entered the open water. Here he indicated that we could swim if we wanted. Both myself and James were never going to miss the opportunity to enter the water whilst surrounded by another natural beauty…as if it is becoming habit. We both stripped off and jumped into the water with some spanish and Malaysians. Whilst we were enjoying it I two german girls (this was a very global group of people) asked if anyone had any spare shorts they could borrow, of course i did. But there were two girls and not wanting to disappoint one of them (and slightly over excited about being in the sea) I removed the shorts I was wearing and passed them to the one remaining girl. Free in every sense of the word.

Once that episode was over we dried off on the sun beds on our way to our destination; Cat Ba Island. Here we were escorted by our favourite tour guide to our destination for dinner, and eventually to our hostel. Despite our tiredness, and Hachiko on tv, we went to explore the harbourside in Cat Ba. It was swarming with people apparently because of a celebration of an anniversary of Ho Chi Minh’s visit to the island. After a relaxing evening at the harbourside we reported in for bedtime.

06/08/2011: Day 27

We woke up at around 6:50 when we were due to meet for breakfast at 7am. In a rush I had a quick shower and packed up my stuff. I think James was a little more organised. We only arrived a few minutes late to find that there was actually no rush and we would have to wait around anyway. The breakfast included a fresh baguette and jam….complete novelties to me.

After breakfast we joined the rest of our group, including the brilliant Malaysians, on our short return trip to our boat. When we did arrive at the port a monsoon storm started. Out of nowhere women appeared selling ponchos….and sold oodles of them to our fellow tourists. James, being the more sensible of the two of us, owns a coat. I decided to brave the rain in neither coat nor poncho in the hope I would dry quickly after the storm passes.

The short delay caused by the rain was more exciting than a hinderance and we were soon back on the water. This time with a friendly tour guide. Smiles all around from our comrades. after a short while on the water we came to a small cove where we were given the opportunity to explore Halong bay by kayak. Initially James thought he was too tall for a kayak, but sometimes he needs to be told he is still human and kayaks are built for humans. One of the passengers told the tour guide that his life jacket was broken, the response ‘if you can swim it doesn’t matter’…exactly! We were soon off and away, James obviously being the more adept at kayaking as my coordination seems to be non existant. In fact, when in a large cove I decided I was better off in the water than sitting in what is essentially a plastic tube. I jumped from the kayak and into the sea. James, being a good friend, used this opportunity to row away. It then became apparent that I am not as confident in the sea when I do not have companions to take my mind off what may lurk below. If I am honest, I have never been so releaved to see James’ little smurk when he eventually returned. I got back into the kayak without any shark bites or jelly fish stings.

following this we were then allowed to have some relaxing time on the boat whilst enjoying the natural wonder and bathing in the sun. Both me and the swedish guy on our boat were on the top deck trying to dry out our boxer shorts. Perhaps something you can only get away with when on a boat in he middle of the ocean. It was not long before we were back in Halong city and having a beer with our Malaysian friends. Thankfully, for us very hungry fellows, we were then taken to lunch. I have yet to find a fault with Vietnamese food, except for the quantity. The Malaysians summed this up: ‘In Malaysia our tummy always full, In Vietnam out tummy always empty’. Taste sensation though.

When eventually back in Hanoi we had one more night to have fun before our scheduled trip to Ninh Binh tomorrow. We used this opportunity to find a new Bia Hoi stall away from the rather annoying Brits that seemed to cohabit the city with us. Perhaps I am so used to being the only one that having loads of foreigners around annoys me a little. Selfish boy I am. Myself, James and Raaj (a Brighton Uni graduate) found a nice little stall featuring local Vietnamese people. Here we stayed until the owner was sold out of her special brew. After that we bumped into Emily once more (didn’t really bump into her as we knew where she was). He boyfriend had arrived the evening previous and we were eager to meet him given the character reference she had created over the last few days. So the 5 of us headed to a bar named Half Man, Half Noodle. Where we spent a couple of hours. Here we were joined at our table by two interesting people…one of them will live forever in the memory as Buzz Lightyear.

Buzz Lightyear was an american from Chicago. And he was a stereotype. Given our joyful mood the stereotype american became more of an object of humour than an annoyance. This was helped by the fact he looked and sounded identical to Buzz Lightyear. Once we began talking he was quick to quirp that he had been to Laos and performed the tubing bar cruel. In typical American fashion, and not to be outdone by others that have been there, he then explained how his experience was a little different. Normally people swing from bar to bar in an inflatable tube with no problems. Buzz Lightyear apparently decided to do a ‘triple backflip into the water (pronounced warder)’…i.e. falling with style. During this courageous performance Buzz managed to cut his shin. Any one other than Buzz Lightyear would have seeked medical attention. However, this Space Ranger had a mission to complete. He continued by telling us that he then purchased a bottle of vodka and poured it into his wound. As if this wasn’t brave enough he then removed all debris with his handy penknife. We all sat in silence waiting for the punch line…it didn’t come. We later chuckled to ourselves. Thankfully the awkwardness that is often caused by arrogance or lies was broken when Buzz told Emily’s boyfriend that Laos beer is better than Belgian beer. As Emily had previously told us, her boyfriend doesn’t take kindly to people with a different opinion to him.

We later went to another bar, with everyone finding Buzz the main source of entertainment, even if he didn’t know himself. We had noticed that he now could only talk out of the side of his mouth. The man was an idiot, but a fantastic idiot. When in the next bar Buzz sat with his sister and James. James gorped in amazement as Mr Lightyear attempted to impress Vietnamese women. This, in typical Buzz/American manner was by kissing his biceps and lifting unsuspecting victims above his head. Needless to say, he left unsuccessful and even mourned as he walked around the lake alone for an hour. Everyone loves a character.

Aside from Buzz, who will never be forgotten, we had a pretty good night. I, for some unknown reason, woke up on the hotel roof whereas James came in from the abyss at 7am. Hanoi may be crazy, but it’s certainly entertaining. Thats what 13p a beer does…to infinity and beyond!

07/08/2011: Day 28

A slightly sombre day i comparison to the last few. But it was our last day to really experience Hanoi.

Naturally the noises of the dorm room and the light from the sun woke us despite our requirements for sleep. But this wasn’t too much of an issue. The previous day we had decided to risk our dashing good looks on a street barber. we were on a tight budget and saw it as part of the cultural experience.

We walked around for a while trying to find the best deal on a haircut. It appeared that we were not going to get a better deal that £1.50, but we wanted it cheaper. As a result we continued to look before coming across a tattoo Vietnamese man with a large cigarette hanging from his mouth. Vietnamese equilivant of Dad? It turns out he is not quite as professional as my old man though. I was first up and a little afraid of what this scary man was going to do to me. He strapped me to his chair and began to sheer my locks. He might as well have had his eyes closed. In fact, if it wasn’t for the cigarette ash dangling from his mouth I think he probably would have. I was quite lucky to escape with some hair remaining and no burn But in truth the haircut wasn’t bad for a pound.

James was next up and looked as though he was being put to the electric chair. He was terrified. Not even posing for photographs could mask his fear. In reality the barber just cut as much hair off as possible and didn’t care much for styling. He did, however, put random and unwanted lines in James’ designer stubble. Much to my amusement and James’ confusion. The street barber, in full view of the passing public, was certainly an experience but perhaps one that we will not partake in again….unless our hair grows.

We decided to enjoy the Hanoi speciality food, Pho, once more before we were to board our afternoon bus. We have eaten so much Pho in the last few days and it has already made James a close acquaintance with any toilet he passes. However it tastes good. Pho is basically noodle soup with meat. Nice.

We then boarded our bus to Ninh Binh. Initially it seemed as though we were to be packed onto a tiny bus with no air con for 4 hours. But this was just to transport bus to te depot. He we were transferred to a sleeper bus (not needed but a nice luxury). We arrived within 4 hours and were quite fortunately dropped right outside the hotel that we had booked ourselves into earlier in the day.

When we entered the hotel we soon discovered that there were cheaper dorm beds available for $3 a night. We jumped at the chance to sleep in a dorm and were lucky enough to discover that we had the dorm room to ourselves with a TV that showed the Community Shield in English. After a brief look around the quint town it began to get dark so we decided to call it a night with the football and a mattress.

I think James had a sleepless night because of his irrational fear of lizards.