Sunday, 29 December 2013

Miss Saigon?


Yesterday, in between long bouts of being asleep, I managed to pop into a few of the many, many travel agents along the backpacker strip in Saigon and ask about Mekong Delta tours. I picked up half a dozen leaflets, all for three-day trips, most visiting the same towns, and all costing about the same price - $95 for the three days. It's something I want to see, it's within my budget, and while I asked about local bus services (I wanted to keep my options open for Phu Quoc island or more time in some places), I was in no fit state yesterday to contemplate them.
The plan, then, was to rest up for another day in Saigon, book a tour starting Saturday, and cross into Cambodia on Monday evening at the end of the tour.

That was yesterday.

This morning, I woke up feeling much better, balked at the idea of spending a further day in Saigon, packed up my stuff and – after a number of false starts not dissimilar to those experienced at rush hour on Princes Street, when the bus you want decides you can get the next one, it'll be along in a minute – hopped a number 2 bus to the Mien Tay bus station: gateway to the Delta.

Well, I did once I got to an interchange and got a number 2 bus in the correct direction.

I stark contrast to the prices quoted by the travel agencies of $15 to the bus station and $20 to Ben Tre (which I hadn't believed even in my poisoned stupor), the bus to the station was 5,000d (25c) and once there, I had the choice of My Tho at 35,000d ($1.75) or Ben Tre at 50,000d (go on, do your own maths on that one). I opted for My Tho, figuring I could move on if I got there and didn't like it.

Buying my ticket at 13:50, I was told the bus was at 14.30, and the bus number – printed on the ticket – was pointed out to me (this made me happy – see my previous interactions with buses). A uniformed attendant of some sort located the driver for me, and my bag was stowed and I was on the bus 2 minutes later. Just as well, as it filled quickly, and departed at 14:10 since there were no more seats anyway.

Local bus to My Tho

The man next to me struck up a conversation and asked where I was going. He was on his way to Ben Tre for his brother's wedding. When I mentioned I would probably head there the next day, he offered me his phone number so I could call him when I got to town and he would help me find my way around. Through a 90 minute bus journey, this progressed to his uncle showing me around the canals on his boat, me staying with Tin and his family tomorrow night, and his assisting me to find a hotel in My Tho this evening.
My only regret with the journey is how far behind I am with my Japanese, as Tin has better Japanese than English, and it would have amused me greatly to sit on a local Vietnamese bus having a conversation in Japanese with Tin. That will teach me to apply myself more consistently to maintaining my skills in things. I used to not be too bad at all at Nihongo.

Tin san

So tonight finds me in my first private room of my trip (lonely but relaxing), with an appointment for 10am tomorrow for a lift to Ben Tre and a day and night with Tin's family (he has at least two brothers and a sister – there may be more...).
Yet another unintentional homestay. It's becoming a habit, but I find I really don't mind it when it's kindly offered and honestly meant. I'll accept it gratefully and enjoy the company of friendly, welcoming people while I'm far from home.

From Ben Tre, I have a rough idea where I'll head. Tin has suggested Ha Thien, and I'd like to go to Cantho for a look at the Cai Rang floating market. So probably those, in reverse order. There's a border crossing to Cambodia at Ha Thien, or I can get a ferry to Phu Quoc if I really feel the need – although it will be pushing New Year by then, and I don't know how busy everywhere will be.
I'll have to have a look at some point when I have some sort of internet connection (which is not as I am writing this).

Christmas Eve notwithstanding, I'm glad I left Saigon today.
I think if I had not been ill, and if I'd tried to get around the city by bus rather than walking (it's a very thankless city to wander), it may have had a chance of leaving a better impression. In all honesty, though, I'm not one for a metropolis, and Saigon seemed to have little to recommend or distinguish it among large international cities.

The delta, for now, holds more promise.


So, predictably, understandably, but mildly disappointingly, wedding parties are apt to continue for more than one evening, and this proved to be the case for my potential hosts in Ben Tre.
Checked out and ready to go at 10, Tin text to let me know. 

My Tho is already pretty off-track, and I thought Ben Tre might be putting myself in a bit of expensive back-tracking territory, so I opted instead to head for Can Tho or Vinh Luong instead, which at least are then on the road to Ha Tien and the Cambodian border.
The hotel got me a taxi to My Tho bus station, where I was then informed that no buses ran from there to - well, anywhere other than Ben Tre or Saigon. Everything else just stays on the highway. 
So I hopped on a moto-taxi (yes, they all have spare helmets for passengers, and everyone wears them), and my friendly moto-driver stood with me by the side of the highway, waving at every passing bus from Saigon that was headed in the right direction. 

200,000d (ouch! about 8 times the price it would be for a ticket bought in Saigon) got me bundled onto a minibus with a lot of waving and shouting, and we sped off along the highway with me trusting I'd end up in Vinh Luong at the end of it. An hour later, at a seemingly popular rest-stop along the Hwy 1A, I was called from the bus, and placed on another with no driver, and where the existing passengers shook their heads when asked if it was going to Vinh Luong. As my previous ride headed off in a cloud of dust, however, I just had to trust to the general experience that Vietnamese will get you where you're going one way or another. To be fair, all the assistance justifies the extra pennies in my book!

Sure enough, a few minutes later the driver turned up, I was waved into the front seat with shouts of 'Vinh Luong, Vinh Luong' and a lot of nodding and repeating, and away we went. I was dropped at a random street in VL, and prodded at the address of a tour company-come-hotel in my guidebook for a ride on another motorbike. I'm getting good at balancing on the back of a motorbike in Vietnam's interesting and rather unique traffic system (there is a system, and it works very well - keep going in the direction you want, as long as nothing bigger than you is in your way) with a 70l rucksack on my back! It's good to learn new skills...
My stay in VL lasted about 40 minutes, as the travel desk would give me no information unless I bought a map (100,000d), and then (as is usual, here, it seems) exaggerated the distance to everything to make it seem I couldn't possibly get anywhere by myself (no guys, even if you draw your map on a *really big* scale, I can estimate distance for the journey I just did and whether I can walk it or not). Lonely Planet suggests VL for homestays only, and it seemed to make good on that dubious promise by not having much to recommend it in terms of the town itself. I asked at one hotel for a room, but they were full, before making a bee-line to the bus station which was happily interrupted by a bus to Can Tho onto which I was speedily corralled. 

At the next stop, a French-Argentinian couple boarded, and at Can Tho I grabbed a taxi with them to the hotel district, where they grabbed the last room at a lovely looking and way out of my budget hotel (out of which I got a free taxi - thanks guys! - a glass of pineapple juice, and a map), and I headed in the direction of the budget guesthouse in my guidebook.

Can Tho should probably get it's own post, with pretty pictures, as this one is becoming unwieldy.
Also, my laptop may not make it much further. Aah. The failings of modern technology... (I jest. I just don't charge it enough. Because it does 6 hours of heavy internet use at a time, and gives me false confidence.) (See.)

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Experiments in remote blogging

I have a post all drafted up on my laptop, but no internet. So I am
writing an email over 3G on my kindle, and trying to post that to the
Only you guys commenting will let me know if it worked.

So comment!

I am about to go and forage in Cantho. Floating markets at silly
buggers am tomorrow.
I need to work out the chances of accommodation in Phu Quoc on what
will happen to be new years' eve.
Could be fun!
Take care, all.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Hair of the dog?

After a Christmas day wandering Saigon, I managed my first bad call on street food.
Mystery meat dumpling thing did not agree with me in the slightest.
Today is a bit of a write-off, although I've had worse.

Planning for next stage of trip still needs to happen, but at least I'm booked into this hostel for another night yet, and can easily extend it.

Not that I want to. Saigon at night is pretty cool, and Christmas eve was amazing here, but it ain't Ha Noi or Da Lat, and I'll be happy to move on.
As a city, it's very smoggy, and really dirty - which means that combined with the heat, it smells rather unpleasant. It's busy, and in the evenings I suppose you'd call it vibrant, but it just isn't very *interesting*. Then again, I've not really poked the monuments or historical buildings or anything, so I may be doing it a disservice. They might clean those.

At some point today, I will hopefully feel able to drag myself out of bed and get to a tour agent to see what I need to do for moving on.

Currently trying to make three very important decisions:
Do I book a Mekong tour, or try to explore it myself?
Which method shall I use to get to Cambodia?
Should I attempt to eat this banana?

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

A Very Saigon Christmas

Best. Christmas Eve. Ever.

Merry Christmas, everybody!!

Mountains and motorbikes

Sleeper buses are significantly less comfortable than sleeper trains. Once again, I'm very glad to be a short person, as the beds on the bus are basically reclining seats with a sort of footlocker underneath the seat in front, where you can fit a very small bag, and your feet. Total length of each unit probably less than 6 feet.
My travel buddies for this trip were Daniella, Niamh and Andrew - the former going as far as Na Trang, the rest of us changing buses there for Da Lat.

Niamh had no foot locker on her seat, so a sling system was improvised out of a sarong in an attempt to ensure that erratic driving didn't catapult her into the lap of another passenger.
Glad to be skipping Na Trang - the Vietnamese Benidorm, as far as I can tell - after getting in at 5.30am, we waited for the bus to Da Lat over an iced coffee, while watching Na Trang wake up. (Note: I loathe iced coffee. Vietnamese iced coffee is pretty good. It tastes mainly of chocolate.)

We were all expecting Da Lat to be a small town, given that it's up in the mountains - it's not. It's a beautiful, very European-looking city.
All of us were staying at the Dalat Family Hostel. New, and without many reviews online, it was something of a gamble - albeit that the few reviews were outstanding. They were accurate. It's an amazing place, run by fantastic people: Anni, Phuong and Mama Bear (Anni's mother). Anni and Phuong are natural teases, and very affectionate and open - they seem to just thoroughly enjoy having a house full of Westerners to wind up, but they do so in such a lovely way! Dinner there is $2, and everyone staying eats there. The atmosphere is amazing.

The first day, after arriving, we wandered around town with another new arrival - Tom - helping him take photos for Christmas cards for his friends:

We decided to hire motorbikes the next day, and take a tour around the surrounding area. At dinner that evening, our group of intrepid explorers grew to 8, as other guests decided to join in. Duly, in the morning, 6 bikes arrived: Niamh was pillion with the guide, and I rode with Andrew, with Tom, Hamish, Josh, Aline, and Michi going solo.

Taking photos from a moving bike is quite tricky, but I did my best. The cloud lifted, and it was the best weather there had been for any of us in a week or so.
Da Lat is the only place in Vietnam with the climate for flower cultivation, and so supplies the whole country with fresh flowers, as well as having some of the best climate for coffee plantation. The weasel-poo coffee was beyond everyone's budget, but we sat and had some of the second-best stuff - moka-bean coffee is amazing.

Elephant Falls was the next stop, and the last before lunch:

The weather threatened to turn after that, and as much of the road back had roadworks, our guide decided to shorten the exploration a little. We nipped to a rice wine distillery:

Rice wine and whisky distilling: same same but different

and then to a silk factory, before heading back to Da Lat.
Niamh left the next day to return home, Andrew delayed his flight to stay on in Vietnam a few more days, and Tom, Andrew and me kept hold of our bikes to go exploring the next day, too. Hamish has bought a bike, which he's riding to Ha Noi, so he came along with us again. Same same but different, we headed out on our own to try to reach a national park close to Da Lat. The roads started off excellent - smooth tarmac and twisting bends around lakes and mountains. They degraded after about 20km though, so we changed plans and ended up going off route and exploring. We found one small town, with a friendly local who gave his name as 'Handsome', who we met in a coffee shop. He led us to where we had lunch, and although we paid massively over the odds for it (probably 3 times what a local would have paid), I had a good time enough not to mind. It was still only about $3, so it's not too bad when that happens. It just reminds you to look out for it.

We stayed one more night in Da Lat, before getting the bus to Saigon on Christmas eve. The last day, we hung around the hostel, helped with dinner, and got taught smatterings of Vietnamese by Mama Bear. In the evening, Phuong showed us around Da Lat, including taking us for hot milk and cakes at a cafe - the milk was some kind of green bean derivative - we think maybe edemame - and was utterly delicious. I need to find what it was and get hold of some when I'm home. Even if I have to import it myself. It's that good.

I don't have the time to stay longer in Da Lat. But I'm going to miss this place:

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Vietnamese Scrabble

Ha Noi to Hoi An

After Sa Pa, I spent two more days in Hanoi, meeting up with Kate again for lunch one day, and just meandering around and getting lost in the city on the other. The food in Hanoi is amazing – for between 20,000 and 50,000 dong ($1 - $2.50) you can get huge amounts of meat broth, noodle soup, or whatever else takes your fancy. Banh mi set you back all of 12,000d, and the itinerant basket-carriers sell every kind of fruit imaginable, or bread, or doughnut type things – all of which you can pick up for about 5,000d (although you need to barter, and then wander off, before they come after you with a good price). They also deep fry everything that stays still long enough, at little portable fryers. If you happened to have one with you, it would probably be possible to get them to deep-fry a Mars Bar.
I should have brought one with me and added to the varied cuisine of Vietnam. I'm sure they'd have thanked me.

The streets are maze-like, and there are myriad alleyways and narrow passes lined on either side with stalls and thronged with pedestrians, along which motorcycles weave among the wares and the wary. The shopping districts are scattered over the city, some composed predominantly of shops selling imported goods and fancy clothes, others of stall units, selling everything under the sun. The stalls tend to be of a type in each street - there's a street to buy sewing equipment, one of hardware stalls, and so on. My personal favourite is the Street of Cunning Artificers:

In this row of metal workshops, they dismantle everything from motorbikes to fridges, and fashion new items from the scrap - it mainly seems to be storage boxes. There are welding sparks down the street as far as you can see, and you have to be careful peering into the interiors.

As much as I enjoy Ha Noi, however, it's time to move on - there's a long way to go. 
And so another day, another night train. This one to Da Nang. I decided to miss out Hue, which is a big city with a huge number of old imperial buildings, and a big cultural centre. Like every other tourist in Vietnam at the moment, I've opted to accelerate south away from the rain. I don't mind the rain so much I itself, but the cloud is low, the rain is dense and sustained, and it's actually very difficult to see anything much through it. Basically, I've skipped down about half the length of the country.

My travelling companions in the sleeper were Silvaig (gentle warrior) and Heim[something] (rock-watcher) from Norway, and their Vietnamese guide, John. They were alighting in Hue to begin a ten-day cycling tour of the central highlands. I'm mildly jealous, as it seems a fantastic way to see this country, but it's a bit dreich at the moment for me to really be envious. They were lovely, and the conversation covered everything from their grandchildren and looking forward to the ski season when they get home, through attitudes to past wars between different generations (Rock-watcher still isn't great with Germans, apparently), to the mythology and legends of Vietnam, Norway and Wales, and the relative importance and symbolism of dragons.


They left at 11am at Hue, and I went on another 2 hours to Da Nang, and then shared a tourist bus with two Canadians and an Indian to Hoi An. Again, you get the best prices on these things if you wander off. We paid 60,000d each for the trip, which is more or less exactly what it would be for a half mile walk to the bus station, public bus, and taxi from the bus station at Hoi An. A great improvement on the Sa Pa version of the same thing!

Picturesque it may be, but if you don't want to get any tailoring done, there's not much to Hoi An. The lanterns that adorn every shop front, lamp-post, tree, telephone wire, and any conceivable location make the town absolutely beautiful to wander around in the evenings, and there are street stalls selling the local specialty, Cao Lau – grilled pork with noodles – and the fusion food resulting from Hoi An's history as a major port in the 17th century. After the incredible flavours in Hanoi, though, I must admit to being disappointed with what I've managed to get here. I may have been unlucky, but it just isn't the same. It's also comparatively expensive (50,000 – 120,000d), but then it is a small town geared to tourism, so I can't blame it for that. Unfortunately, the chances of a silk lantern making it back in one piece in my rucksack are pretty much nil, so I've had to forego them, although they are beautiful.

I've set up camp for the afternoon in a fish and chip shop (don't judge me! It's really good. Fish and chips is a perfectly reasonable world cuisine. Barracuda is really tasty!). 

Vietnamese version of the Anstruther Fish Bar. The pepper and mustard (I think) sauce thing is amazing.

Tonight I'm moving on again – this time to Da Lat, up in the central highlands. If the weather is reasonable, I'll try and do some tours of the area, and there's a national park I want to see.
On the back of my complaint about my boots, I managed to leave them on the train at Da Nang, so I won't be having the same problem as in Sa Pa – minimalist trail shoes it will be. I can test my theory at least. I did it FOR SCIENCE! (Honest.)

I possibly shouldn't be let out alone. Travelling the world by myself... what (else) could possibly go wrong? You'll have to wait for the next exciting instalment!  

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

It's the same rain

My luggage arrived from Paris on Thursday, as promised: bleary-eyed and sprinkled liberally with pastry crumbs, complaining of the lack of good coffee. It's all present and correct, which pleases me greatly.

After a wander around Hanoi, back at the hostel I got chatting to Kate – she travelled from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi on a motorbike a few months ago, pottered around the rest of Asia for a bit and is returning to Hanoi to teach English for a year. I don't have a photo of Kate to post, sady, as it's on my phone and I've bricked that (on which, more later). She took me to her favourite place in the city to get banh mi (a sandwich, basically - this one makes them with pork and pate):

It's the stand with the green umbrella

She arranged a couple of apartment viewings for the evening, and I had my night train to Lao Cai to catch. I went for phu (noodle soup) at the place recommended by my hostel – it was good, but I prefer the one I found myself down a side street. That was too far to go before I needed to get to the station, however.

When I booked the ticket at the hostel, they gave me a voucher which I then needed to exchange for a ticket at the station, an hour before the train. My train was at 21.10, so I got to the station at 8. The station building has two sections – there didn't used to be a waiting area for the trains to Lao Cai (you get a bus to Sa Pa from there), but they've built one on. It's just a big room with a couple of temporary desks in it and a lot of chairs. Eventually, my ticket was for the 21.50 train – apparently there'd been a mistake when the vouchers were produced.

Past the waiting area, there is a walkway of planks built in between the tracks, perpendicular to the platforms. You just wander along to the platform you need. The train carriages on the 21.10 (people were still boarding as I headed to my train) looked like old-fashioned British railway carriages. Those on the 21.50 looked like Anderson bomb shelters – folded corrugated metal roof and walls, with a flat front and back. Inside, though, was perfectly fine. Four bunks, individual reading lights, and little fold-out steps on the wall for top bunk access. I had a top bunk, and across from me was Priya, an entertainment manager from LA. We formed a plan to travel to Sa Pa together and try to do Mount Fansipan (the highest peak in Indochina) once we got there, as the train was due in at 6.30 to Lao Cai and we thought we'd be in Sa Pa for 8 – early enough to try to do the trek in a day.

The train was delayed in to Lao Cai, arriving at 8.30. At the station, there were a lot of people hastling to get you on a taxi or minibus. My guidebook had given me an idea of the price, but had said nothing about it being anything other than a public bus with a fixed fare, so I was unprepared and could not quite remember the figure the guidebook had said (38,000 dong). This was exacerbated by the first demand from the minibus being 500,000, which was so much higher I thought I must have been mistaken. I tried to find my guidebook, but it was buried under other things, and in the end Priya just dumped her bag in the minbus and decided to go at 200,000 dong. Once I found my guidebook on the bus and checked, I was angry at myself for not digging my heels in more, at Priya for not waiting, and at the drivers for ripping me off. Happy days! 

The trip up the mountain to Sa Pa was shorter than expected, and the cloud had moved in and set up camp, so there wasn't much to see.

The town looked pretty, but it was chilly and damp. Trying to climb Fansipan would have been pointless, so Priya and I went our separate ways. I'd booked a hostel, but – as is the way here – there were other places with the same name nearby, and the one I ended up at was closed. I was rescued by Ben, the manager of another hostel in Sa Pa, the Mimosa. He drove me across on his motorbike (my first ever motorbike ride – I didn't die!). After sleeping in my clothes on the train I needed a shower, but the water was cold, the room was damp and chilly and smelled of cigarette smoke, and by the time I was at least clean and dry, I was not on good terms with Sa Pa!

I headed out for a wander in the town, to look around. There isn't much to the place. Without the setting of the terraces, it's rather drab (although some of the buildings are lovely), and it seemed quiet and suppressed. The weather seemed to have the same settings as Glasgow – 'currently raining' and 'currently not raining' ,with an indistict border between the two. I decided that any trekking would be pointless, and to try to get a train back to Hanoi that night. I was wandering around town looking for a travel agent that would get me a ticket for the night train and a taxi back to Lao Cai when one of the H'mong women who walk around Sa Pa selling various things started talking to me.
It had never been on my agenda to do what they call a homestay and go to one o f the villages to stay with a local person. I'm too shy (no, really), and also slightly put off by the whole set-up of organised cultural tourism. But Zain (I have no idea how to spell it, and she couldn't write it down - this is about as good a phonetic spelling as I can achieve) was friendly, and kind to me, and I was in need of someone being kind to me. So I went back to the hostel, swapped a few things round into my day sack, and went with Zain.

Her village was about a three hour walk from Sa Pa. About half of it was good road, then it got sketchy. I had my hiking boots on, but apparently these do nothing at all on sodden clay, as I was just slipping over all the time. I'd have been better off in one of my pairs of barefoot shoes!

On one of these myraid occasions, I broke the screen on my phone (because I am an idiot and had left it in my back pocket). It still works, I think, but I can't tell because the screen is dead, and I can't get my laptop to pull anything off it, either.
Covered in three different colours of mud, I got to Zain's village at about 5pm.
Her family is lovely – her husband Chow and their four kids: Shoong, Dong, Neu and Bao (again, spelling is made up); their home was dry, and cosy for all that it was three open rooms with a concrete floor and almost no furniture apart from half a dozen wooden stools, and a metal table that spent most of it's time hung on the wall. The fire was warm, dinner was lovely, and my bed was comfortable (I think it might have normally been the bed for two of the kids, which I felt awful about but didn't know how to ask and couldn't make Zain understand!). For the first time since getting off the plane, I got a sensible night's sleep, so I think I'm finally shot of the jet lag for now.

The next day, after breakfast, we walked back to Sa Pa (a different way, thankfully!! all my worry about trying to get back up the clay slopes were unfounded) through four other villages. It rained. I shared Zain's umbrella. I took some photos, as the mist started to clear a little, but they mainly show the rain!

The last 6km back to Sa Pa was on the back of a motorbike again. Still not dead!

I got back to the hostel, and got a telling off for not showing up the night before as he was worried about me. I apologised, explained I'd gone to a village, and asked if it was possible to have a hot shower and then check out (the hostel was still damp, and cold, and the rain isn't going anywhere for a few days). I spent the rest of the day huddled around the hostel fire with the other residents, as the rain hammered down outside, and then caught the night train back to Hanoi with Chris, Marius and Jans.

So, my Sa Pa was not scenic terraces, and mountain trekking. My Sa Pa was wet, and chill, and there was a lightning storm on the way back down that lit up just how steep the drop is if you leave the road. But my Sa Pa was also Zain, and kindness and hospitality. And I learned some H'mong. So there's that. 


Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Everything is improved by Dragons

This is Jacki, of Emergency Pants fame, eating lunch on our way to Hanoi train station:

The potato-banana (which probably has a real name) is an excellent addition to any meal.

After lunch, I visited the Temple of Aggressive Topiary

Otherwise known as the Temple of Literature. It's basically a shrine to Confuscious, built along the idea that everything is improved by dragons.

(Although the flag doesn't have a dragon on it - they missed a trick there.)

I spent a fair amount of time considering the internal monologues of the statuary:
" Is this an Elephant? It doesn't feel like an elephant..."
 "Um, Trevor?"
 "I thought there was supposed to be a tortoise! This isn't a tortoise! Trevor! Where have you taken us??"
Wood Ghoul doesn't say anything. She just weeps for the lost.
 Skeptical tortoise is skeptical. When everyone is quite finished, he'd like his elephants, please.
 Do you like my hair?

When you're as old as I am, all of this will seem mere trivia, my friends.

Also, by special request, selfies:
 Yup. Dragons.
Dragons, and being short.
Me and Vietnam have a lot in common...

So, that was today.
Apparently my luggage will be here tomorrow. I hope so, because I've booked a sleeper to Sapa for tomorrow night, and if my luggage doesn't get here by then, things may start to get interesting. Maybe I'll find out just how far one can go with one change of clothes and a kindle!