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Wheezing Through Hanoi

Hello Motorbike

In Laos the locals very endearing called me Tuk Tuk. I don't know why but every time I was lost, walking briskly down the road or merely looking like I was contemplating making a move people shouted "Hello Tuk Tuk". For some reason the folks around these parts like to call me motorbike, to which I retort "nice to meet you, please just call me BE WARNED I DRIVE A HARD BARGAIN".

I arrived in Hanoi from Larang Prabang in Laos only yesterday evening. The flight took only an easy hour. The shared mini bus from the airport to my hotel in the old town took a grueling, stuffy hour and a half my first impression was that Hanoi is just a vast ocean of traffic. Down every main road, every side street is a non stop stream of traffic, 24/7. The humble pedestrian plays nervous second fiddle to the rivers of carbon monoxide that flood every alley way. Even when the green man flashes it appears optional that the traffic lets you pass. Motorbikes are the dominant vehicle, with even the pavements being largely occupied by parked bikes. Hence motorbike taxi drivers hassling every 5 minutes. What a stark contrast from the tranquility of Labang Prabang. It is like comparing say Ambleside in the Lake District to 10 Birminghams. This really is modern Asia going full throttle with commerce and activity.

The only respite from the chaos is the lake (complete with its little temple) in the old town. Legend has it in Hoan Kiem lake a mythical giant turtle swallowed an emperors sword whilst boating in the lake. Why doesn't it jump out and devour the traffic? I am sure that the city will slowly grow on me as gradually as the stalagmites growing in a cave.

The city is quite atmospheric especially at nights with all the shops springing to life, the cafes and restaurants etc. The food so far (only had 3 meals)was excellent. The jelly fish was a bit plasticy though. This afternoon I had some nice, strong coffee called weasel coffee. A Kiwi in the cafe suggested that it could indeed be weasel pooh, i.e. fed on merely coffee beans and their bowels do the filtering. I think I'll have tea tomorrow come to think of it.

I saw a water puppet show today. It is amazing how they got the little puppets to do back stroke and front crawl in a mock lake whilst being persued by a puppet dragon. All this was accompanied by live Vietnamese folk music.

Anyway tomorrow evening (Monday 26th)am escaping from Hanoi for a week in the mountains surrounding Sapa and then immediately afterwards the seas around Halong bay.

Posted by gavinbose 09:47 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The Roof of Indiochina

I'll Be Back


The old woman with two solitary teeth grabbed my hand with a vice like grip. I quickened my pace and almost sprinted up hill for 200 metres. Her pace never faltered. This was despite her age, looking about 83, although you have to add ten years as the Vietnamese seem to look 10 years younger. Was she the terminator adopting a geriatric disguise? At this moment in time however I had no inclination to father the son of a future rebel leader I just didn't want to buy anything from her store.

Let me explain. On 26th I took an overnight train to the hills to escape the carbon monoxide river that is Hanoi. This had all been arranged on a package from my hotel in Hanoi so it was all very easy. This even included being picked up from my hotel by motorbike taxi and taken to the train station. The rolling stock looked a bit old but the 4 bed sleeper cabin that I shared was spotless. It was all polished hard wood panels. I had a very good night's sleep.

On the 27th I was whisked away from the station taken to a hotel in the hill town of Sapa to freshen up . The place is surrounded by terraces of paddy fields. Indeed much of the local economy is based around the growing of rice as is the case of the Dzao community, several miles from the town centre. They are just one of the many Hmong descendents of Chinese settlers. Each community have their own traditional costumes and languages.

On that day I joined a bunch of Swiss, Dutch, Belgium and Spaniards and one solitary American. We embarked on an organised trek that entailed different villages. We visited a class of 7 and 8 year olds in a village school and were quite surprised to see that they were learning algebra. This could be because they are being bombarded with education whilst it ís still free (in these mountain communities until aged 12). Some of them are even married at 15.

It was an enjoyable day although we did get attacked by rather persistent villagers trying to sell textiles, from young children to the unstoppable old woman that I described. That evening was spent in a homestay in a village. This was basically a family home turned into a guest house. No luxury - just a mattress and mosquito net. It was clean, friendly and the evening meal was excellent, washed down with rice wine of course. Of course I was embarrassed as all the guests could speak at least two languages. I was sitting next to the American girl and felt quite relieved. There is no way, I thought, that she will know any other languages. Then she let the side down and spoke fluent German. I was not a complete waste of time. At least I entertained our host's 3 year old boy by playing karate space alien with him. It think he won though.

The following morning at 6 am the first light greeted the valley. The cockerel chorus had just woken me up when I saw my motorbike taxi driver standing at the end of my bed. Time to be taken back to the hotel to start my next trek. I had opted to leave the party and do something a bit more challenging. This was a 2 day trek up Fansipan. At 3100 metres this is the highest peak in Indochina.

I thought Fansipan was the filling that they put in Mr Kiplings cakes. Mr Kipling you tight arsed little git. Your cakes are not big enough for anorexic mice.

Sorry I digress. I was joined by a guide, a porter and fellow tourist (a Vietnamese Software programmer). I have just got back from the walk and it was no piece of cake. There were long stretches of 40 degree inclines. The path was quite rocky, often slippy in places. Although the view at the top was obscured by cloud there was plenty to photograph on the way, especially on the spectacular ridge. We spent the night at 2200 metres large metal shed construction that was protection of the cold wind as was the sleeping bag that had seen better days. Last night I tried to dream of soft fluffy pillows and warm duvets, hot showers and complementary soaps. Even ropey French soap Operas dubbed into Vietnamese. Anyway the walk is over, I am in the hotel and I am living the dream.

Posted by gavinbose 05:24 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

No Boom Boom Please We're British

Carry on Motorbike Cabby


"Where you go"? "I can help you". "You looking for chip hotel?" "I take you to Boom Boom girls - very good price". "You want Marijuana?"

Whereas before I seemed to be greeted with a mere "Hello taxi". Now every motorbike taxi driver in Vietnam seems to think I am up for prostitution and / or drugs. I have developed a way of curtailing this questioning however. They always ask about my intended destination first. I simply state somewhere very far away. I am now in Hoi An in the middle of the country. So if I say either Hanoi or Saigon which are both at least 500 km away. If I am feeling a little inventive I will say that I am popping in to Holland for some wacky backy on route to a whore house in Texas. What will the fare be?. Or sometimes my retort to "where you go?" is " to a far and distant galaxy many light years from here". "OK $30 - very chip price"

After 4 days of walking around the mountains of Sapa - relaxing on a boat was surely the tonic. I took another organised trip to Halong bay. This is the Vietnam that I have dreamed of and it certainly lived up to its expectations. This is about 150 kilometers East of Hanoi on the Gulf of Talking. Natures works of art: mighty harst island formations seem to rise impossibly out of the sea. An awesome sight to behold. As well as the hundreds of traditional 'junk' style cruise boats, fishing boats weave around these islands, stopping off in little floating villages for refueling or to sell their catch. We spent one night on the boat and one night on an island. Sunset on the boat was magical. Just after that I jumped into the enticingly warm water for a swim. The following day started with a 45 minute kayaking session around the bay. Bliss. When on dry land a short but steep jungle trek to a up a rickety metal lookout tower for the best views of the bay. My attention was however distracted by hundreds of giant menacing hornet creatures straight out of Jurassic park. They seemed to patrol the look out tour. Our guide for that trip was a thin wiry bloke of about 50 who could not speak English. He could however make monkey noises and swing from the vines with one hand though. There was not attempt to educate us on the rich nature surrounding us. He was more concerned about mischievously throwing. sticky flower buds at us whilst running around like a naughty school kids. Jungle man, as he will be known is the most eccentric man (or half man) I have met this holiday.

After my return from Halong Bay I spent another night in Hanoi, visiting another couple of museums and just looking around. One of them was the Ethnographic museum. I spent all morning looking around the recreation of village life representing different ethnic Vietnamese communities. At least it was not as stooped in propaganda as some of the museums of the single party Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Like the womens museum that had on display the glorious dedication of women soldiers in their fighting of the imperialist enemy. Another museum that I can't quite remember kept referring to the American soldiers as puppets.

Politics is something that people do not talk much about. One individual who will remain nameless (just in case someone is reading this) spoke of the disappearance of his countrymen who opposed the regime. Although certainly not a paid up member of the single party state fan club, I was curious to see the Vietmese president who was on a visit in Hanoi. In preparation for the occasion an break dancers dancers and (rather strangely) circus acts where preparing to entertain the guy. (Maybe a lion tamer of juggling act would cheer up Gordon Brown). It was fascinating watching the build up for this, with all the press gathering, and rehearsals. I observed as a suspicious parked car was turned away. Then that was it. All the uninvited spectators were abruptly whistled off the street. Anyway - it was his loss.

One thing that can't be doubted though are the scars that dig deep into modern Vietnam. It is a very young country and it appears that the majority of the population are not old enough to remember the war. Of those that could shed some light there seem to be an absence of over 55's. It is almost like a generation has disappeared. Even those born in 1971 are affected like a guide on a recent tour. He informed me that his father had died 6 months before he was born. Another bombing victim. In Laos the story is similar. One chap told me that his grandfather had stepped on a mine and that was the end of him.

Cant discuss politics any more. Big brother and all that. After a one day return to Hanoi for a night it was off to Hue for a couple of nights after a 12 hour sleeper bus journey. I was told 12 hours but it became 15. Not bad though. Quite comfortable for anyone my height or shorter though. Hue was the political capital up to 1945. Theres a citadel to visit and a number of grand tombs built to honour a number of emporas along the Song Huong (Perfume River).

After that I intended to take a train to the 3rd biggest city Denang. I got to the station and either the train was full or had broken down. Anyway I decided not to wait for the comfortable tourist bus but instead was crammed in on the local coffin. Clearly only designed for tiny Vietnamese people. The ticket collector joked that I should pay double the fare because I am double the size. It turned out to be an enjoyable journey. I was the only foreigner in a bus packed with about 40 people. I had a could chat with some of the locals and shared there strange snacky things. Fishy tasty things in banana leaves.

I took a motorbike taxi via the marble hills (Bhudist temples in caves) to Hue. Certainly one of my favourite places so far. I think I must have stepped into a time warp and walked into 17th century Vietnam. A living museum. It is all narrow streets, with some immaculate ( UNESCO preserved) houses and shops. Complimenting nicely with this is the crumbling charm of the yet to be restored buildings. This used to be a trading port for the Chinese, Japanese and Europeans. You can see all the influences.

Yesterday was a visit to Myson - ancient remains of a 4th century Cham civilisation. 40 degrees - too hot to appreciate. Today the beach. Tonight an overnight bus further south to Nha Trang (more beaches). I got a hair cut today. Unfortunately the lady did not understand very short and she proceeded to practically shave it all off. It gets rid of grey hair though but so does the guillotine . I guess I will be wearing my baseball hat for some time now.

Posted by gavinbose 03:08 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)


The Seas are alive with the sound of music

30 °C

PS: I cant seem to get the letter that comes betưeen v and X so I am úsing Ư instead

I is now a week since the hairdresser misinterpreted "can you cut it quite short?" to mean "can you please shave it of completely so that my scalp becomes a bright red lollipop under the sun". An easy mistake to make. My scalp though há progressed from totally bald, to Bhuddist Monk stubble, to convict to military cut. I quite like it now .

On 9th November (follicular massacre day) I took an overnight bus to the Seaside town of Nha Trang. Quite a built up but thankfully none of the tackiness that comes with many of the European Anglosised resorts. Golden fine sandy beaches snake round the coastline, interrupted by some fascinating rock formations. Unfortunately there is a lot of litter on the beach at the moment caused by the recent Typoon. To seek cleaner beaches I toôk a 4 island boat tour. Unfortunately the sophistication police were not at hand that day. The Vietnamese unfurtunately suffer from the verbal disease that spread initially from Japan 20 odd years ago. Thêre is yet no known cure from kảreoke othẻr than removal òf the vocal cords. Every other bar or hotel boasts about thêse talent dodging contests. Thêre is no répite even at sea!

Our on board tour guide, despite not being able to sing a note, did have an amazing repotoir of international sóngs. He ưent ảround the boat asking for people to join him in a rendition of their native song. To my astonishment he new populảr Korean, Japenêse and Israli songs. He did however stretch the definition of a national song. Somehow Yellow Submarine became Canadian. I was waiting for him to ask me and I was prepared to come up with a fake nationality - from Lichtenstein or San Marino, Suriname or Andora. Fortunately he didn't even ask me. If he had he probably would have known a 19th cẻntury Sea Shanty from land Locked Andora.

One travel fad came out of Vietnam about 15 years ago. This is the Easy Rider tour. This is based on what I consider to be a very over rated cult film ưith Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda basically going on a road trip getting stoned. This is a clean and sobẻr version. This is where you travel pillion style and the driver/guide takes you on an often off the beaten path tour of the coutnry. This can be a one day trip or evern I have heard a 21 day trip. I decided to go for a 2 day trip. I chose a guide who spoke very good English and who worked for a reputable company. He came up with a suggested itinery that included a one night stay by a lake in in the Central Highlands. This is an area that I dub the lake district of Vietnam.

So I was taken around winding coutry roads and major roads. We stopped at Coffee plantations, tea plantations, small sillk factories (from silk worm to finished garment in one location), small clay brick making factories, shrimp farms, fishing villages specialising in cuttle fish. We flew by some stunning scenery. Some of the hills were curiously as bald as my head. This it was explained was the effects of agent orange - over 35 years on whole patches of forrest devoured of vegitation. I was even introduced to one of the only divorced women in rural Vietnam. Despite being hemôrrhoid inducing bum it was a good experience and Son (my guide) was very informative and good company. We sank a few beers together on the first night.

Son dropped me off in Dalat. At an elevation of about 1500 metres it is one of the coldest spots in Vietnam. All that meáns is that you don''t need a fan or AC - just a thin blanket. In the evening though a thin sweater will do for me although the locals are often dressed in arctic attire. In Dalat I did a bit of sight seeing , went on a cable car ride and did a one day walk. The scenery is very European with the many pine forrests. Tigers had however inhabited thêse hills á recently as 50 years ago although conflict had killed them off. Thêre are also stories that the locals killed them as they posed a threat. Apparently King Cobras were however still part òf the wildlife population according to one of the trekking guides who told me that he encountered one during a waterfall walk.

Conflict had also largely destroyed the local railưay line. There ís though a short 8km run still functioning as a tourist attraction. This only runs if there are enoough customers. Myself and 2 retired Australians endered up chartering a single carraige old diesel train for about 15 quid between us. Now that is something that you get to do much.

Last night I took an overnight bus to sprawling, noisy Saigon. I have crossed about half a dozen roads today and the stress of it takes it out of you. I bumped into this English chap Hastings who I had first met in Holong bay. We are going to hit china town tonight to recover from traffic trauma. The day after next I will embark effectively on a 5 day trip (mainly by boat) to Cambodia.

Over and out.

We flew by some stunning scenery.

Posted by gavinbose 04:41 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)


River of Dreams

28 °C

Mr Bean is not just a sporadically amusing rubber faced buffoon in a near silent BBC comedy with global appeal. You know, the consistently irritating creation that lags far behind the genius of Rowan Atkinson's other Creation - Blackadder. This Mr Bean is a 60 year old Vietnamese travel guide who on a daily basis takes tourist around the notorious Cu Chi Tunnel network (near Saigon) that helped the Viet Cong defeat the Americans.

An entertaining and witty guy, the laughter lines however hide an arduous life. In the late 60's his sympathies were clearly with the Communists in the North. This was until one day when the troops came and murdered his 20 year old fiance in Saigon. Raging with anger and grief he left the country and went to live in America. His father was a US citizen living in Saigon of Filipino origin. He eventually joined the US army and came back to Saigon 2 years later to fight with them. In 1973 the war was over and 2 years later North and South were reunified. The communist victors forced their people into 5 years of internal oppression. It was during this time that Mr Bean's sympathies were discovered and he was sent to a reeducation camp for 5 brutal job. His job was in mine clearance.

1980 saw his release in the year that effectively ended more or less 120 years of internal and external conflict in Vietnam. So he went to his family home to find that it had been occupied by the military and was hence turned away. He tried to find his family but nobody gave any solid answers, only that they had fled. Without even 2 dongs to rub together he had to start earning money from scratch, including dealing with bootleg goods.

In the 90s, with the advent of the Internet he was able to locate his family and fortunately all his immediate family had survived. Some were living in the US. Mr Bean's story could make a movie and indeed he counts as his friends the film director Oliver Stone who directed a Vietnam Trilogy. Mr Bean's story captivated the audience on the 90 minute bus journey to the tunnels. He was full of criticism for America's (let us not beat around the George Bush) genocide in Vietnam and for the harsh treatment of the communist oppressors. This is the first time anyone has spoken for so long and so openly about his life.

Learning about Mr B's experiences on route to the tunnels gave the actual visit some added resonance. What followed brought it home further. It is always an option on the tour for foreigners to experience living in what was 5km of underground tunnels. There is a short stretch that has been cleared of snakes (one hopes) and has been widened to fit Westerners. It was however still a claustrophobia inducing mere 120 metres that I crawled through. It was hot, dusty and often pitch black. It quite honestly felt like a kilometre and I could not wait to get out. I did however have to contend with this German guy in front of me who wanted to take photos every few metres. I must admit I was hoping for one stray snake to do its job. Still it could be worse. He could have been flatulent and obese.

My only battles recently have been the losing battle with traffic in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). I therefore decided to escape on a 5 day tour of the Mekong Delta, all the way to Phenom Penh in Cambodia. This was mainly by boat. This entailed exploring the main channels together with the smaller tributaries via rowing boat and small motor boat. I also got to tour around the little hamlets on a bicycle. This was truly like experiencing another world. People, lived, worked, breathed in the river and on a cold night, probably played scrabble on their boats. We passed a number of floating markets, boats selling a diversity of products: Papayas, melons, wood, chickens, chairs, double glazing, annuity bonds etc. Myself, a German girl and a guy from (would you believe it) Cheadle Hulme took a home-stay together on a Mekong island. They seemed decent ordinary people. In fact I met up with Tom from Cheadle Hulme only last night. You always meet eccentrics though. For example there is John from Canada, a 60 year old aging hippy whose answer to anything was to take his harmonica out and play. This was to the bemusement of the border control people in Cambodia.

So a couple of instrument free days followed for me in in Phenom Penh. This included the contrast of visiting the royal palce and a former school that was turned into a torture chamber during Pol Potts regime. Pretty heavy going but there is something quite likable about the city and it is more appealing than Ho Chi Minh. Despite the obligatory traffic hell, the place is littered with pagodas,l temples and parks. It is a modern city but seems to have one eye on the past. The begging is a bit intense though and the litter seems to pile high.

I felt that I needed some light relief hence I am now in Shihanoukville, the premier beach destination. Golden sand, beach bars, boat trips to a tropical island called Bamboo Island. I stayed on a beach called Serendipity. I seem to remember that the word is to do with fate resulting in good things happening. It did not quite happen with me and indeed a couple of nights ago it was looking ominous. I was drinking a couple of nights ago with a couple of guys who turned out to be gentlemen from the criminal fraternity. After a few beers - and after I had found this out I made my excuses and left. I will tell you the story when I get home.

To be continued.

Posted by gavinbose 05:08 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

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