30.12.2007 - 21.01.2008
Well, it seems like ages since I last emailed. We’ve made it thro’ Vietnam , spent 3 weeks in Cambodia and have just arrived in Laos ...but that’s way too much for one email so I’ll stick with Vietnam ... By the way, meant to say last time, I really love hearing from all of ye, so thanks to all of you who’ve had the time to reply...I haven’t been particularly great at replying back tho’ and I’m sorry for that…I will get around to it at some point...still keep the comments and gossip coming :o) Oh, also for anyone who may be interested, I changed my flights so instead of arriving in NZ in mid-April, I'll get there in early June...YAY
So last time I emailed we were in a place called Ninh Binh where we hired bicycles and spent a day cycling out to Tam Coc and around that general area...kind of like Ha Long Bay but inland...there were the same limestone formations, some pagodas and temples...not very exciting, prob the nicest thing was the cycling: trying not to get lost in the country lanes with the crap maps we had and trying not to get killed as we cycled along the edge of highway 1 – the main north-south road in Vietnam...also seeing rural life from a bicycle is way nicer than a bus or car..
We moved south to Hue (it was still cloudy all the time but not cold) which was an ok city, not particularly picturesque, but has some great stuff around it to see. We did a boat tour on the Perfume River (flows thro’ the city) and saw a pagoda, a temple and some mausoleums of leaders from imperial Vietnam (the Chinese had control of Vietnam before the French turned it into a colony, which was before the American war...I always thought there was just the one “Vietnam” war, but apparently there were 2: the French one and the American one about 2 years after the end of the French one...this American one is the “famous” one about which all the films are made..), they were pretty cool.. Unfortunately it actually rained that day so that put a dampner on the days proceedings quite literally. Some of the other tourists actually wouldn’t get off the boat for the day – what a waste! As if the rain would melt athem!!
Before I go on, one may think that we’re kind of tour freaks...always going on organised tours – in fact we avoid them whenever possible, but in Vietnam it’s not very possible at all... Everything is organised for tourists and trying to do stuff yourself costs way more and takes way more time...so we had to succumb to doing tours...I guess the upside is that you get to meet other people which I love to do :o)
So the next tour we did from Hue was a tour of the DMZ – the demilitarised zone around the Ben Hai River which served as the border between north and south Vietnam during the American war. The DMZ stretches for 5 km north and south of the river and we visited some famous places in the area. Of course, not being a big fan of war movies nor a big history buff, alot of this area would have meant nothing to me had it not been for our guide that day. Guides in Vietnam vary in their quality depending on the level of their spoken English – most can no doubt write English but their accents can leave alot to be desired...it was known for both of Marcus and myself to turn off fairly quickly to guides because they were so difficult to understand, but fortunately not on our DMZ tour. So, we visited the Vinh Moc tunnels which were dug to house north Vietnamese civilians during bombing raids by the Americans. There were lots of tunnel systems dug thro’ out the country, but these and the Cu Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh city are prob the most famous.. And these are different as most tunnels were apparently dug for soldiers and not civilians...anyways, we got to walk thro’ the tunnels and see how narrow and small they are and how claustrophobic they could be – villages spent days on end in them...babies were even born in them! We also drove along the east-west running highway 9 stopping by the Rockpile and the Khe Sanh base which has now been turned into a museum...a little bit biased in favour of the north Vietnamese (they were the communists that won and are still now in control – the Americans were fighting on the side of the south Vietnamese). We also saw part of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail which has now been turned into a highway... This was the route along which the north Vietnamese got supplies and weapons and stuff down to the Viet Cong (the southern Vietnamese who supported the north) in the south...Anyways, the tour to the DMZ was a very educational experience in terms of the war – I’ve developed more of an interest in the history of the country now – at least the recent history!
The only other thing we did in Hue was to hire bicycles (again) and cycle around the Citadel – a legacy of the Imperial days – the Forbidden Purple City is a smaller area inside the Citadel and reminds me alot of the Forbidden City in Beijing...not surprisingly.. We also had massages in Hue ...a little more “western” than the one I had in India – altho’ the masseuse was so tiny that she was up on the table with me!!
After Hue we headed south to Hoi An. This was probably my favourite town in Vietnam of those that we visited. It’s really bright, colourful and lively. The place is over-run with tailors who’ll whip up anything you may need (including shoes!) in record time – like about 24 hours!! I got myself a lovely warm woolen winter coat... Would love to have gotten more stuff made – it was class: you could choose whatever design you wanted and whatever material...dangerous really considering how cheap it all was...but thankfully I’m not the biggest shopper going or my budget would have suffered! While we were in Hoi An we did a day tour to the Cham ruins at My Son – apparently one of the holiest of Cham sites...The Kingdom of Champa was an Indianised kingdom that ruled over parts of what are now central and southern Vietnam for over 1400 years...but they were always fighting with the Vietnamese in the north and the Khmers (most Cambodians are Khmer) in the south...I guess somewhere along the way they lost to the Vietnamese. Anyways, the ruins were nice but nothing spectacular...in my opinion anyways! On our last day in Hoi An the sun came out, so we rented bicycles again and cycled to Cua Dai Beach for some swimming and chilling out...
After Hoi An we stopped at Nha Trang. We ended up travelling by night bus alot in Vietnam , altho’ we had intended on going by train – Marcus prefers trains as he’s not the best of travellers.. Nha Trang had lots of potential – the sun was shining properly for the first time since we’d arrived in Vietnam , there was miles of golden sandy beaches and there were dive centres all around the place. But my first day there was probably the worst day I’ve had so far... Myself and Marcus were each doing our own thing that day, as we often do when not on an organised tour.. My thing brought me to a quieter end of the beach and while I was sitting on a bench above the beach reading a book while I waited for my feet to dry, these 2 people on a motorbike came up behind me and pinched my day pack from where it was sitting on the bench beside me (there was no back to the bench). As I heard the sound of the moto getting closer to me than it should have done (there was a relatively busy road not 10 m behind me), I turned around and saw the whole thing happening in slow motion. I started to run after them (they’d slowed down a bit to get the bag and those things don’t have the fastest acceleration esp. as they weren’t actually on the road at that point) but as I didn’t have my sandals on, I tripped over something and went flying (screaming at them if I recall correctly) and lay on the ground watching my bag disappear knowing I’d never get it back...It was a sickening feeling of utter helplessness. And what was in my bag?! Well, only the brand new camera I’d gotten in Ha Noi (complete with another almost full memory card!), my MP3 player (with our last chance of saving our India photos on it), my glasses, my journal (not that I’m a big journal keeper, but there were some email addresses and stuff like that in it), my diving logbook (with everything in it and nothing photocopied! and I’d only had with me that particular day in order to sort out some diving!! Usually it stays “safe” in the hotel room) and some other bits and pieces that weren’t a big deal but annoying to lose anyways...even my sandals had been attached to the bag to save me carrying them along the beach!!! So there was I, standing on the side of a road cut and bruised and in my barefeet with only some elderly people around me who spoke no English and didn’t know what was going on... Fortunately a local doctor who spoke good English came over to see what was going on and took me to a police station and stayed til he knew the police man was going to help me – myself and the policeman couldn’t communicate at all – the best he could do after the doctor had gone was offer me a cigarette – and I was so upset and angry that I almost took it!! Anyways, the rest of that day was spent between our hostel (the owner was acting as in interpreter) and the police station getting another report filled out. And then in a photocopying place to make copies of all my travel documents (the originals were in the bag but I had copies in my rucksack). Fortunately my passport and credit card and money was in my bumbag... So all in all, it was a pretty crap day. There were alot of tears followed by alot of beers and the following day I was feeling alot better about it – I think I had very quickly realised that, while it’s really frustrating (to put it mildly) to have that stuff stolen, none of it really matters...passport, money and health are the most important things – everything else can be relatively easily replaced. I hadn’t swum while on the beach cos I knew the bag was full of stuff that I didn’t want stolen and so I was going back to the hostel in a roundabout way to dump stuff when it happened!
Of course I’ve since heard a few horror stories that put everything into perspective – like about a French girl travelling on the back of a moto in Cambodia who had her day pack on her lap but attached to her – when someone pinched her bag, they knocked her off the moto and she was killed! And I heard of one girl whose stuff was nabbed in Vietnam and included a video camera. She was at some market after the robbery and saw her video camera for sale!!! She (a mistake in my opinion) told the guy it was hers and he tried to get twice what she had originally paid for it from her – it still had whatever she had recorded in it...she had to leave it go... Anyways, once again I learned the hard way and I’ve been trying ever since not to become a cynical person expecting everyone to be checking me out to rob me...I don’t like the sound of any vehicle slowing down behind me tho’!
So Nha Trang doesn’t exactly hold very dear memories for me! And apparently, we’re proving to be somewhat of an amusement for the work mates of one of Marcus’ friends in England, who evidently checks her emails at work and now her workmates try to keep abreast of all the awful bad luck that we have – they say they’ve never heard of anyone traveling that has had the same amount of bad luck as us!! Marcus wouldn’t leave my side the following day! We just chilled out at the beach. I also squeezed in a visit to the Oceanographic centre there as it had been recommended to me by Robin (my PhD supervisor)... I never ended up diving cos the visibility was not up to much. I did get some help from a guy who owns one of the dive centres tho’ in terms of printing off my one and only PADI dive qualification from the internet...thank God for that qualification – without it I’d wouldn’t have any way to prove I’m a qualified diver and would prob have had to do an open water course or something (Imagine that!?) !!
So after Nha Trang we headed on to Ho Chi Minh city ( Saigon ) for a few days. We didn’t do much there to be honest – wandered around a bit. I bought another new camera!! Unfortunately camera prices there were closer to those at home so I had to downgrade from the previous one – my budget just didn’t include replacing cameras every 3 weeks or so!! It’s quite sickening really – I spent the average annual Vietnamese wage on cameras while I was there – no wonder they think westerners are so rich..relatively speaking we are! Oh, we did visit the war remnants museum in HCMC which was great – a must for anyone visiting the city. It’s got a great exhibition of photos taken by war journalists from both sides...very moving altogether. We also had our last Bia Hoi in HCMC..
From HCMC we joined a 3 day tour of the Mekong Delta that took us right over the border to Phnom Penh , the capital of Cambodia . But in the middle of the tour we side-tracked off to Phu Quoc Island (the easiest way to get there is to fly, but we didn’t book on time and there were no flights left for when we wanted to go..).
The first part of the tour of the Mekong Delta was great, mostly because there was a great bunch of people in our group.. We all got on well. We spent a lot of time on boats visiting the floating market at Can Tho, going thro’ the little canals in the delta area and visiting a coconut candy making place, a paper noodle making place, a rice factory place…all interesting to see…
Phu Quoc Island was AMAZING!! I loved it…my first tropical island experience. It was relatively quiet as the only way to get there is to fly from Saigon or to bus and boat it – which we did and which is a bit painful, but totally worth it! Apparently flights are expected in the future from Singapore and Bangkok so that’ll kill the quietness of the place.. Anyways, we found some cheap accommodation and spent our time chilling out in hammocks on the beach, taking a dip to cool off. Evenings were spent eating yummy seafood (bbq shark…mmmm…) and drinking beer by the edge of the sea. We’d met a lovely Australian girl called Phoebe when we arrived – she’d been on our boat, and we ended up in the same accommodation as her so we hung out with her the whole time pretty much. One day we went out on a snorkelling trip off the southern tip of the island – pretty cool coral reefs there (bearing in mind these are the first tropical corals I’ve seen!) and I went diving another day off the north eastern corner of the island – that was pretty cool too. I didn’t end up doing the night time squid fishing that they have there, altho’ if I’d had another night I would have done…I’m hoping to find that somewhere else along the coast of the gulf of Thailand…could be fun?!
After 4 days on the island we had to return to Can Tho to meet up with the second half of another Mekong Delta tour…it was touch or go when we got there as to whether or not there was room for us on the tour, despite our having booked it ages in advance, but we were crammed onto the bus in spite of the protestations of the driver! The second half wasn’t as good, prob not because of what we did or didn’t see, but the people on the first half had made all the difference.. We visited a crocodile farm (yawn) and a pagoda (would it be really rude if I said double yawn?! – after a point tourist sites get a little tiresome and what makes traveling is the traveling itself and watching the life of the locals, chatting with them when lucky enough to be able to do so) and on the final morning, a fish farm on the Mekong and a local village of a minority Cham group. We continued up the Mekong by boat to the Cambodian border and after sorting visas etc, continued a bit of the way towards Phnom Penh by boat and the last bit by bus…It was a lot of boat travel, and it was fairly pleasant once you weren’t stuck on the sunny side of the boat… People on both side of the border waved to us as we went by…kids especially. It was a lovely way to see life along the banks of the river.
So that was Vietnam . I enjoyed it. We spent the entire 30 days of my visa there – probably not the best idea to be leaving a country with no spare visa days if there’s a problem at the border, but fortunately we had no problems. I visited everywhere I wanted to visit apart from Sa Pa in the north and Dalat which is inland down south – but there’s never time for everything. So far (including Cambodia ) Vietnam was my least favourite country, or rather, would be bottom on my list for a return visit if the chance arose…I’m not sure why, Vietnamese people just aren’t as friendly as others we’ve met since… But it was great to visit.
Some pics from Vietnam: http://www.flickr.com/photos/niscratz/sets/72157626405985215/
So, that's all for now, hope all's well and will be in touch again when I get time :o)
Love Aoife xx