November 10, 2004
It was with the luck of the Irish that we arrived in Hanoi on their National Day. We were of course oblivious to this fact until we stumbled out of our hotel for dinner at 7pm and noticed that you couldn't see the streets for the people. We pushed our way through the mass of bodies to the edge of Lake Kiem and five minutes later the fireworks began. Now you have to admit that is pretty lucky!
Mental Note 4: Travel with Irish more often!
(We celebrated the Vietnamese's National Day, as all Westerners celebrate their National Day, with one too many beers! I felt glad to be bringing some of our Australia Day culture across the waters as did my Irish companions in bringing theirs. I guess you could just see us as cultural diplomats.)Continue reading "Hanoi"
October 25, 2004
Hoi An is a World Heritage listed town and it is such a well deserved honour. I really don't like the word quaint (due to its cutesy nature) but Hoi An the city is quaint and Hoi An the people are quaint. I would just like to say once again how friendly and happy the Vietnamese people are. My growing affection of Vietnam is primarily because of its people.
Obviously being too hungover to remember Mental Notes 1 & 2 of the previous blog, I caught the night train and arrived at 6am. The only redeming feature of this choice was meeting the "Irish Gang". The "Irish Gang" consisted of a nurse, a pragmatist, a "Father Ted" impersonator and a disgruntled purchasing officer with Prince Harry Red hair. We all ended up checking into a semi-flash hotel. The rooms were just a touch out of budget and just too nice to leave. Anyway, it all added to the charm of my stay in Hoi An.
One of my objectives prior to leaving Australia was to extend my culinary skills overseas by taking cooking classes in each country I travelled. Vietnam being the forth country I'd visited and the first cooking class I had enrolled in, my track record so far has been quite poor. And of course, charming Hoi An would offer cooking classes and in a charming little room, set off from a charming courtyard with a charming teacher, with part of the profits going towards the charming charity, The World Wildlife Fund. I have added to my repoitore of recipes, Vietnamese spring rolls, squid and mango salad and steamed fish in banana leaves with lemon grass, chilli and coriander. Watch out friends and family, there are going to be some serious dinner parties when I get home! The Irish Gang joined me for the cooking lesson and it was the beginning of a week of amazing sites, much card playing, great conversation, a few beers, a few laughs and a little luck of the Irish.
The next day we visited My Son, once a magnificent society, now just aging ruins, which is also a World Heritage listed site. All I can say is don't bother. Our tour guide was as exciting as watching the test pattern and the most enjoyable part of the day was taking photographs of the headless statues with our heads as replacements. I should have stayed in charming Hoi An.
So why was Hoi An so charming and quaint??
Well, I guess it was just the old world architecture still in place and in good repair. The streets were lined with little colourful shops selling their wares, which were a class above the normal touristy trinkets. And the beaming smiles of the merchants, ensured you would walk in and have a look. Occasionally, you would stumble across an opening inviting you into a courtyard, with intricate Vietnamese designs surrounded by potted trees and shrubs and an old man smoking in the corner. Every second shop is a tailor, which after the buildings is the second most famous thing Hoi An is known for. I think between the five of us, we had four suits, three shirts, three dresses, two pairs of pants and a variety of clothes adjusted to fit our ever changing travelling figures. There is something luxiurous about getting clothes hand-made specifically for yourself. Choosing the fabric, the style, getting measured up, the first fitting, the final fitting and walking away with your purse only marginally lighter. I felt like the Queen of England (with out the wrinkles and stupid wave!)
There is something fundamentally different between the decision making powers of a group and that of an individual, particurlarily while travelling on a budget. There are generally two types of decisions, the "right" decision (ie. the economical and slightly more effort required decision) and the more "appealing" decision (the more expensive but far more comfortable decision). Unless, other factors are involved such as not enough sleep, not enough caffiene or too much alcohol, an individual generally goes with the responsible "right" decision. (Well, I do anyway). In a group however you have another aspect to add, "Group Justification Phenomena".The justifications you have for the more appealing decision are multiplied by the number of people in the group. Hence with the multiple justifications, the "appealing" decision is magically transformed into the "right" decision and Wallah! you are doing want you really want to do without the feeling of guilt.
Well, the five of us caught a one hour flight to Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines dodging the 22 hours train journey. On the hour, every hour, during the next day we reminded each other that we would still be on the train and silently congratulated ourselves on our clever decision making.
Arriving back in Ho Chi Minh at 8pm after four hours of Mekong boating and five hours on a minibus with a driver who was even crazy by Vietnamese standards, I decided that my best plan of action was to catch the overnight train to Nha Trang. The bible (Lonely Planet) describes Nha Trang as Vietnam's premier diving and beach location. Fabulous I thought, a couple of days of beach bumming, a few dives and definitely no getting out of bed before 10am. An Irish guy, who was on my Mekong Tour also had the same idea and prior to our train departing, we patronaged the local bar and celebrated the fact that we had made it back from the Cambodian border without becoming road kill.
Arriving anywhere at 5am is just a pain in the neck. I'm tired, I'm grumpy and many of my mental functions refuse to switch on. From the train station to the centre of town, I watched the Vietnamese, up early as usual, with smiles on their faces, enjoying the crisp morning air, doing Tai Chi in the park, pedalling merrily to work. I felt like strangling each and every one of them. Luckily, my Irish companion was a morning person and directed me to the hotel I had picked from the Bible and sent me straight to bed. I didn't wake until noon.
I am not so sure about these overnight trains. I know you save money on accommodation and long train journeys seem shorter when you sleep for the majority of the ride but I seem to always be exhausted when arriving and consequently waste half the next day recovering. Also, sleeping the whole way also has the effect of a slow Star Trek Teleporter. You get on the train, climb into you bunk, fall asleep and the next thing you know the train conductor is tugging at your sleeve. You go from A to B without seeing what was in between, no gradual changing scenery, no real understanding of the distance you have covered. I feel robbed.
Mental Note 1: Try catching day train
Mental Note 2: Avoid at all costs, trains (or any other type of transport for that matter) that arrive at destination between the hours of midnight and 8am.
Anyhoo, Nha Trang. Well, I can't really blame Nha Trang for this but the weather was pretty ordinary. The sky was grey with angry clouds, sometimes threatning and sometimes delivering rain. Not really conjucive to the beach bumming and diving days I was looking forward to . Oh well. Nha Trang has the laid back feel of a coastal community; half as many scooters and honking-obsessed buses on the road, tourists nor locals appear to be in a rush, a long inviting path parallel to the beach is dotted with seafood restaurants and bars at regular intervals on one side and with white bodies sunbathing in vain on the other side.
I think I had pretty much explored the city in half a day and in an effort to avoid boredom, I booked a one day boat tour of the offshore islands the next day. US$6 buys you a full day on a "Luxuary" boat, lunch, snorkelling, entertainment and a glass of banana wine from the floating bar. Bargain!! I retired to bed early anticipating the next day, crossing my fingers and hoping for sun.
It wasn't sunny and I wouldn't exactly have called it a luxuary boat, and I am not sure that a guy sitting in a tyre in the ocean doling out thimbles of yellow coloured liquid counts as a floating bar or that five sets of snorkels between twenty passengers is sufficient, but the entertainment alone was well worth the US$6. Imagine four topless Vietnamese men, all with singing voices worse that mine (I am on a par with a cat on heat) performing an array of songs from across the globe with a back up band consiting of two chopsticks beating empty water containers and a guitar with three strings. It was so awful it was fabulous. "Let's twist again, like we did last summer, let's twist again like we did last year, RA RA RA RA, RA RI RA RA RA RA!!" They made up with their lack of lyrics with their brilliant pole dancing. It was a great work out for the stomach muscles, I hadn't laughed that hard in a long time.
The consesus on the boat amongst the younger guests was that we would hit the bars and clubs of Nha Trang that night and have a big night out. From what I remember, the bars are really funky and the drinks are really strong. A backpacker a couple of days later told me that in Vietnam, the mixers are more expensive than the vodka and hence they skimp on the mixers and your drink becomes very dangerous. I left Nha Trang the next day with one of those hangovers that you would chew your right arm off to make go away.
Mental Note 3: Never drink again.
October 08, 2004
Well I just survived my first organised tour!! Two nights, three days through the Mekong Delta area in the very south of Vietnam. I was really looking forward to the tour, meeting a whole bunch of backpackers again, all carefree and friendly and with a sense of adventure. I had lost touch with the backpacker scene during the week with my Dad and was eager to get back into the swing of things. Then I got on the bus. I had landed smack bang in the middle of couple-dom. The whole bus was full of couples, all thirty plus with arms interlinked so tightly, that I think they believed that if they chanced letting go, they would risk losing each other on the bus or spontaneously combust or something else rather horrid. Now it is not that I have anything against couples or people over thirty ( i will be there shortly myself!) but, well, you know.............it just wasn't the crowd I was expecting. And lets face it, you get the general vibe of a bunch of people with in two minutes, and these faces were telling me that they liked to be in bed by 8pm with a good cup of tea. Oh well, I thought, I am sure I am just over reacting, a few quiet days would be fine, I don't mind a cup of tea once in a while. Hmmm
Our first stop was a coffee and toilet stop. This is only of interest because a mini bus came screaching up behind us as we were about to head off, and out jumped another single backpacker! He apologised profusely for being late as he clambered onto our bus. Things were looking up! I scanned the bus a bit more thoroughly and noticed two young guys sitting next to each other at the back. I had missed them on the first scan, they were both rather short. Alrighty, this was a bit more like it. I even noticed that one of the couples had let go of each other. Brave souls!
The Mekong Delta is an extremely interesting and eye opening place, and I would thoroughly recommend doing a tour if you have the time (and happen to be in Vietnam). The Mekong Delta is a triangular set of rivers and canals, all flowing with nappy poo brown water, each bank is lined with rows of shacks where the locals live. The river is everything to these people, they use it for drinking, bathing, washing, transport, cooking and they also use it as their bathroom! I have decided that the immune system of these people must be super duper industrial strength with activ-bio-enzymes. When I say shack, I mean shack, there is no one choice of building material, most residences are constructed with a mixture of plywood, metal sheets, palm fronds and old tyres. The one element that was common to all shacks was a tv aerial and I think I am correct in assuming, indicates that all shacks have a tv. I find it strange that of all the modern conveniences that are lacking in this society, underground sewerage, running clean water, toilets, that television be the first move towards modernisation. The majority of shacks are actually built over the river on stilts, with wooden walkways connecting them to their neighbours and to the dry land. It is one long floating suburb with a water highway down the middle. The above described world may not sound like the most desirable of lives to alot of us Westerners, but I tell you what, these people appear to be extremely happy. They are always smiling and laughing amongst themselves and eager to chat to you in their broken English. While cruising down the Mekong in our so called luxury boat, your arm becomes extremely tired from the continuous waving to every child who shouts out "Hello, Hello".
The Floating Market, was by far my favourite part of the tour. Every morning, very, very early, a hundred or so boats congregate on the river selling their wares. (Getting up early, I think is part of the culture in Vietnam which is in direct contrast to my own personal culture). The shoppers, in smaller boats weave around the "Boat Shops" haggling and carefully selecting their fruit and vegies, meat and poultry. It is one big floating supermarket. Now, you make think as I did, that it would be chaos, because all the "Boat Shops" looked extremely similar and were floating around. How would you know where to get your pumpkin? or where the butcher had got to today? Well, just as in a supermarket you looked at the signs. On each "Boat Shop" a long bendy pole stuck up about five foot high and on the end hung the boats merchandise. Can you imagine scanning the skyline and seeing bananas, pineapples and dead ducks waving in the breeze like flags. I have some great photos of these. (Which I will post on this site, as soon as I figure it out!)
Well, there was no doubt about it, the couples continued to be couple-ly. Which is of course what I expected but the single travellers were kinda couple-ly as well! At meal times, and on the boat and on the bus, everyone sat around having very polite conversations and drinking tea. (Ok, I am exaggerating with the "drinking tea" bit, but they would have, if it had been served). And I would also like to point out, (so that I don't offend many travellers and many of my friends in relationships) that not all couples act "couple-ly" by my definition. By couple-ly I mean, not being able to move more than a metre away from each other, having 90% of all your conversation with your partner and having an expression on your face that says all my exciting adventurous days are already over, which is only broken by a meek smile when your partner leans over and remarks on how good the tea is.
It wasn't all bad, in fact in all honestly, I had a really great time..........one of the couples, an English couple who lived on a boat in a canal, when at home, were actually really friendly and alot of fun. They also preferred beer to tea. I am hopefully going to catch up with them in India in a couple of months.
Next stop is Nha Trang, which is apparently great for diving and supposedly attracts alot of the backpacker crowd. Fingers crossed!
October 01, 2004
I have been travelling for approximately six weeks now and today I am a bit sad. Not because my travelling experiences haven't been fabulous but my Dad came to Saigon to visit me for four days and he is currently on his way to the airport to catch a flight home.
This is my very first entry (well, excluding the bio) so I have alot of backward blogging to do. For all of you who don't know me, excuse my awful writing and jumbled thoughts. I am primarily writing this blog for friends and family to keep them up to date with my journey and reassuring them that I am safe and "yes I am really having a good time!" and "No, I am not lonely". However, I hope to include details of my travels that will inspire would-be-travels (especially those who are currently too scared to venture out and do it on their own) and include interesting tips and stories of places where I have been for those already on the road.
Ho Chi Minh/ Saigon has been my home for the last five days. As previously mentioned my Dad has been here with me. And aren't Dad's wonderful! I left the backpacking world behind me and having been staying in a rather flash hotel and eating in restaurants three times a day. (The waistline expanded this week!) I have had a HOT shower for five days straight now, and when I am thirsty, I simply stroll across the room (yes it was big enough to stroll across) and open up a fridge with a variety of beverages and after being out all day, I get back and my bed has been made and a fresh towel or two has been laid out neatly. Now this is the best bit...........at about 6pm, we get a knock on the door and a smiling man comes in and turns the beds down! I thought that was very lucky coz after all the fantastic Vietnamese food I have been ingesting I am not sure I would have been able to manage it. Six weeks ago, none of this would have impressed me. I wouldn't say backpacking has lowered my standards, as much as it has made me realise how little I can live on and how little I need to have a fabulous time. All the other fluff doesn't seem to be important or affect the fun level. (It was still great for a week though!)
Saigon has definitely been my favourite large South East Asian city so far. (So thats beating Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Denpasar). Much of the architecture has a French feel to it but the city still retains it's busy Asian flair. The traffic is fabulous! I could watch it all day. As far as I can tell there are no road rules. Basically the hundreds of motorcycles and scooters, which carry up to five helmet-less passages play dodge with taxis and other cars. I haven't seen a crash yet which I think must be a statistical mishap. An expat American whom I met in Bali where the traffic is only slightly less chaotic, told me that he doesn't ride a scooter, he simply plays a computer game a couple of times a day.
Dad and I had a great time. We are actually very similar and in-depth conversations about the latest politics or other current issues takes up alot of our time. Although I have absolutely adored meeting new people, it is nice getting to the nitty gritty of a topic with no chance of offending someone! We did the mandatory Chu Chi Tunnel Tour, which for half a day only cost US$4 (next door to our flash hotel the same tour was US$20!) and visited the War Remnants Museum. Both were extremely interesting. I am a bit of a history buff, so learning about the Vietnam War in Saigon is a real buzz.
Anyway, I have been sitting in this internet cafe for two and half hours now.......I might go back to my hostel and have a shower before venturing out into another Saigon night. I hope the water is hot!
I am 28 year old female from Perth, Australia who has recently given up the drudgery of a nine to five job to travel to exotic places, to meet new people and generally have the time of my life before marry a man, a mortgage and pumping out some kiddies! In a nutshell I am putting growing up on hold!