1 May – 15 May 2015
The third entry in my southeast Asia journal.
Vientiane/Hanoi – Day 24
We’re up early and out the door. Sophie wants to make sure we get the airport early, to make sure we get seats on the plane next to each other. We have the same breakfast at the same place as yesterday, the little eatery next to our hotel (a Laotian tea now tasting nothing like regular tea, for whatever reason) and ask the hotel staff to book us a taxi to the airport. The driver speaks good English and tells us a story about how bin men in Laos are notorious for stealing. We arrive at the airport hours early due to our over-cautiousness. So I exchange our remaining kip into Vietnamese dong, and find the money is a cool plastic with see-through ‘film’ on it (something I thought unique and cool at the time but the new British five pound notes look exactly like them). The flight desk opens, we check in and wait another hour to board. The airport is tiny, I think there was only two gates at either end of one fairly large hall. The whole process of boarding the plane to leave Laos, flying to Hanoi, and collecting our luggage at baggage claim took only an hour and a half. It was stupendously easy, no bother at all. Queues were non existent, there were no problems or inconveniences. Lao Airlines even provided us with a meal – a sausage roll – even though I felt it wasn’t really necessary because of how short the flight was. In fact, the flight was so short that Sophie nearly had a panic attack, declaring that “something’s wrong”, thinking the plane was being forced to make an emergency landing. But in reality we had just landed 20 minutes earlier than planned, making actual flight-time about 50 minutes over all. We couldn’t help but mentally contrast the smoothness of our trip with the horrors of what might have been waiting for us on the ‘bus from hell’.
It’s immediately obvious how much wealthier Vietnam is compared to Laos. (In Chiang Kong we were warned before entering Laos by our hotel manager that the country was “much poorer” than Thailand, something we naively couldn’t have imagined possible.) We taxi down the motorway from the airport to the Old Quarter of Hanoi. The driver beeps at everyone furiously to get out of the way, particularly motorcyclists. It’s every bit the chaos we expected. He even reversed the wrong way down a one-way street to get us to our hotel! Already Sophie and I are in love with the city with its narrow streets, bars, people, many lights, and traffic. We eat some street food, a place with little plastic chairs and tables next to a busy road, finding the food is delicious. It stays uncomfortably hot even as the sun goes down.We walk the busy streets, see a man riding his motorbike with a Labrador on the back of it. In many instances there is little to no pavement, forcing us to walk on the road. And the bikes and cars zoom past close to us, beeping frantically. (In fact, all Vietnam seems to be is a cacophony of beeping, I find it a bit self-defeating really.) We find a cash machine near a massive artificial lake, explore a night market. Sophie buys a bracelet. We stop at a bar with deals on mojitos and have a few. Then we walk back, taking in some street art (in the guise of singing and dancing) on the way to the hotel. We’re in a great mood, pleasantly surprised with our first impressions of Vietnam.
The first thing we want to do is book transport to Halong Bay (we find ourselves eager to tick off as many ‘unmissable’ things from the Lonely Planet guide as we can). We speak to a man in our hotel lobby who can get us a coach one-way but advises a tour. As we walk round Hanoi I’m struck with toothache. On our walkabout we meet a lovely woman in a tour shop who again advises us to take a tour. Apparently most people visit the Bay from Hanoi as a tour, and freelancing it can be difficult, expensive, time-consuming, even almost impossible. We book a three day, two night tour of Halong Bay having price-checked various places. Afterwards we head to a coffee shop that serves delicious food. Reading up a little about the city, I decide I want to visit the ancient ‘imperial citadel’, so we head off – but the day quickly becomes one to forget. We are ripped off by the taxi driver on the way, and the buttons on my shorts break – meaning I have to hold them up (thanks Primark). Exploring the citadel was hampered further by what I feared to be the onset of minor heat exhaustion. I develop a nagging headache. Sophie, too, is suffering from her own pains and headaches. So it was rather a lackluster effort exploring the citadel and its museums because we were a little preoccupied. We taxi back to our hotel, looking for ibuprofen in one of the shops, and both sleep in the hotel to recover – in the middle of the day. We wake after the sun has already set, feeling better. In ‘Le Pub’ I watch the Liverpool game, and we meet and talk with a nice middle-aged traveling couple. And there’s good food to top it off.
Hanoi/Halong Bay – 26
Our coach picks us up at 8: 30am already exceeding our expectations. It’s big, well air-conditioned, and the staff are friendly and humorous. We aren’t in Laos anymore. The drive is three-and-a-half hours and it seems it’s a lawless free for all on the road in this country. The driver beeps his horn as though it’s an unshakable habit, and there genuinely were a few near misses and close calls because the people drive so erratically. No wonder road accidents are the leading cause of death in the country – in young people anyway. In what could be taken as a dark omen there’s even a coach lying on its side on the motorway, though how it tipped over is anyone’s guess. Eventually we reach a point where we can see the many limestone islands that constitute Halong Bay, but it’s still a while driving along the coast until we pull up at the harbor. The tour guide directs us to a little boat with minimal seats and instructs us to put on life-jackets. This little boat then takes us to our big boat, called the Golden Bay Cruise. We eat lunch as the boat sails between the many limestone islands, eventually docking at the entrance of a massive cave. The cave is lit up inside, and is remarkably cool (in both appearance and temperature). It actually reminded me of the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool because of the colour and size. After half an hour walking through and admiring the water’s erosion of rock, we leave the cave and set sail towards a ‘floating village’ – something not as glamorous as it sounds. In fact, it was nothing more than a raft with a sweets store on-board. We’re also a little confused because the itinerary states that we should be kayaking but the guide assures us it’s something we’ll do tomorrow. The sky, up until now partly cloudy, really clears up and grants us beautiful scenes of the landscape. (We’re lucky it’s sunny too because sunshine in the Bay is apparently uncommon.) “Happy Hour” starts on the boat. We buy mojitos and befriend an American hipster girl and a New Zealand couple, as well as two fat and old Australian men. It was stunning sailing through the islands. Eventually, we anchor near Cat Ba Island (a very large island, complete with a town and national park), encircled with other, smaller islands and other already anchored large boats. Many of the tourists are already swimming in the placid waters of the Bay. I jump in the waters along with the New Zealander lad from second deck to find the water very warm and inviting. Afterwards, we eat dinner. Sophie plays beer pong with the American and the New Zealander girl. After nightfall, we regard the stars, as well as the eerie shadows of the islands under a full moon.
Cat Ba Island (Halong Bay) – 27
Our lodging on the boat has quite a comfortable en suite bathroom, not to mention a sea view. We wake after a good sleep, bright and early to breakfast and then kayak. Me and Sophie were the first ones to take a kayak out. We were told we had 40 minutes to play about, and so we kayaked to the nearest island. It was tranquil in the Bay, except for the odd speedboat that came motoring past. It being so early, the sky was still only lit with weak light, yet it was incredibly hot under our life-jackets. One of the most fascinating moments for me was when, as we approached the island, we seemed to hit a ‘wall’ about twenty feet from the shore, when suddenly the noise of thousands of insects and bird cries fell on our ears. It happened instantaneously: there was nothing, then everything, as though we had crossed an invisible sound-proof force field. We kayaked in-between two islands, into a sort of mouth where the water ran away from us, before heading back. Back on the cruise we check out of our room and take a small boat to Cat Ba. Here we sit in the dreaded heat, waiting for a bus to take us to out hotel – all prebooked and arranged with the tour. The bus appears eventually and we say goodbye to Ken, the guide who was with us from the first coach, and are driven to a walking point in the national park. The trek was two hours long through jungle and the humidity made it a struggle, my shirt being almost see-through with sweat by the end. (Hilariously the tour agent said it was a trek suitable for all ages, even old people.) Mercifully, the trees and clouds protect us from the sun. Parts of the walking trail are covered with spider webs but the spiders themselves are all curiously absent. The insects shrill weirdly in the jungle, sounding almost like machinery, like a buzz-saw at a construction site, cutting metal or wood. But every source of the noise is hidden in the trees. I look at the tree tops, locating the noises acoustically, but never see the actual insects themselves. We reach the summit of a small jungle-ey mountain and enjoy stunning views of the other hills, all weirdly pyramid in shape, relax there for a bit before descending. On the way down I spot a bizarre looking spider minding its own business, it’s red and white in colour. On arrival, our hotel is much nicer than we thought, with, it turns out, the best WiFi in a long while. We go out searching for a beach but return after about an hour not being able to find it. Sophie has a sleep and I watch a pre-General Election debate (oh, how much my political views have changed since then!) to pass the time before dinner. Later that night we head to Rose Bar, which the hotel had tirelessly promoted. It was tiny, unremarkable, and the “DJ” kept flipping between YouTube videos because he couldn’t decide what song to listen to. But the beer was cheap (40p) and, save a few other travelers, we had the place to ourselves. So we had a few games of pool.
Halong Bay/Hanoi – 28
Breakfast was fun, we spent it talking to the two fat Australian men and a dull German couple, taking the time to appreciate just how fiercely patriotic the Australians were about their country. We said our goodbyes and checked out of the hotel, boarding a coach back to the port. There we re-united with two Canadian girls (one of whom, I forgot to mention, looked remarkably like Taylor Swift) from our boat and the American hipster again. We are ushered back to the big boat we were all familiar with for what the itinerary called a “cooking class”. In reality we just rolled prepared food into some rice paper. The crew then took them from us and cooked them. Then we had a lunch, which no one wanted because we’d only breakfasted an hour or so ago. We walked as the boat took us back to the Vietnamese mainland, the Taylor Swift lookalike taking the time to draw a henna tattoo on Sophie. The coach drove us home. Again, we witness the chaos of the Vietnamese roads. Multiple near-misses, the swinging of cars out into the road overtaking and cutting in, road rage – our driver on the phone one minute and flashing and angrily beeping the vehicle in front to move lanes. It was quite worrying watching our large and clunky coach navigate the herds of motorbikes back in the narrow streets of the Old Quarter, Hanoi. It really seemed like it could have crashed or killed someone at any moment. It dropped us off with enough time to eat good food and withdraw some money. We head to the tourist centre where we’d ordered our sleeper train tickets to take us to Hoi An. There we encounter “Rule” (that’s me spelling his name phonetically, God knows how it’s actually written down), a Dutch man on the slowboat with us in Laos. He also chose the flight over the bus from hell, and we collectively grimaced reflecting on the horror stories we had both read about it. We say our goodbyes and taxi to the train station, getting on the sleeper train early. We end up sharing a cabin with a Vietnamese woman and her child in one bed, and an American girl with a shaved head. We talked and she revealed she was a cancer survivor and atheist. She told us about the legalisation of weed in her native state of Colorado. Somehow (my influence no doubt) we ended up talking about physics and religion and life and it certainly helped to pass the time. She ended up falling asleep first, though. She was headed to a natural park which required her getting up in the middle of the night.
Hoi An – Day 29
I wake prematurely, about 7am, because the woman below is talking loudly to her child, who is screaming loudly. Other kids and adults join her, wandering in from some of the other cabins, talking, disappearing, reappearing again. The American girl has gone. Sophie and I mumble under our breaths, annoyed, but try and do fall back asleep again. Then the air conditioning breaks, and it feels like an age before the train rolls in to Danang. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, a motif of backpacking round Southeast Asia is that no one tells you anything! In this case, we’re just anxiously waiting to spring off the sleeper train at what we presume is our stop. There’s no announcements, no interactive boards to show you the stops. We just hope for the best, asking some locals who speak English where it is we get off. We were so relieved to be off the sleeper train that we foolishly just jumped a taxi straight to Hoi An. (Hoi An doesn’t have a train station.) It’s a journey of over 27km and costs us £15. We should have got the bus. We arrive at our pre-booked hotel and check in with no problem. Then we walk down to the old town, something kept beautiful because the narrow streets only permit pedestrians and cyclists. Hoi An, we decide, is Vietnam’s “cute” city. Every country we’ve visited so far has one. It’s the Vietnamese answer to Chiang Mai or Luang Prabang. Like the latter, the town seems to be the brain-child of a single daring architect. Every shop, cafe or otherwise, looks the same. In the baking sun, we find a cafe and there I try a local dish ironically called Cao Lao. It’s okay. We have a little look at the Japanese Bridge and I buy a postcard to write back to Grandma. We ask around for cheaper hotels but decide to stay in our current one. Darkness falls and the town lights up beautifully, like a Christmas tree, with glowing lanterns and a luminescent bridge over the river that runs through. The night market is small and unremarkable, but we find beer for the astonishingly low price of 15p. And 2-4-1 cocktails for £1! A little bar with a pool table welcomes us and we stay awhile. We leave relatively early (11am) to find Hoi An is alseep. All of it’s glorious decorations have switched off. There’s still plenty of people about, though, and the music from a few rowdy bars is still audible. We walk the dark, narrow and winding streets to the other side of the town where our hotel is.
The sun is relentless today. Sophie and I hire a bicycle for about 60p (20, 000 dong) and cycle to the beach. It’s 2km away, and so the journey takes us about 15 – 20 minutes. Initially I thought it would be horrible and hard but our riding the bikes generated a refreshing breeze to spur us on. It’s intimidating, though, being on the Vietnamese roads. I don’t cycle in England anyway, and in the rare instances I do I always stick to the pavement (illegal but safe). The Vietnamese have no patience at all for cyclists, probably because they’re sick to death of westerners clogging up their roads on rustic little push bikes. They beep us with their horns so regularly that it’s just constant noise (as I said earlier, self-defeating). Sometimes I can’t figure out what or who the drivers are beeping. In one case a motorcyclist arrived at a crossroads. There was no one anywhere near him, but he still beeped his horn frantically before committing to it. The cars drive very close to us and very fast. I knew we were getting close to the beach when I could smell the sea. We parked our bikes up at a stand for 10, 000 dong each, and were escorted to a sun-lounger. To our surprise, the loungers were free of charge. The beach was nice, the water clear. We stayed for the better part of the day until the sky grew overcast, then we cycled back. The roads are still perilous and full of traffic. We shower in our hotel and decide the novelty of Asian food is starting to wear off. We decided to treat ourselves. So we head to a nice looking restaurant called ‘Before and Now’ and I get lamb. Then we went for a wander around the lovely town again, finding the pool bar we enjoyed last night. We play a few games before returning back to the hotel. (Where, I’m sure on one of the days, we had to wake the doorman who was asleep in a sleeping bag near the hotel door. We felt bad as we’d clearly woken him up. He opened the door, let us in, and I assumed went straight back to sleep. I hope he wasn’t waiting just for us to come back.)
Election day back in Blighty. I watch in disbelief as the Tory party are re-elected with a majority government. Frozen is also on the TV, requiring Sophie’s attention. We are disappointed to find that a sleeper train is not available for us tonight. The timing as well, 11pm – 10am, would have been perfect, meaning not only do we have to stay in Hoi An another day, but we have to get the evening sleeper bus instead. Hoi An is by no means the worst place to be stuck, but our time here is already overspent and we have a tight schedule to keep. With not much to do we cycle again to the beach. This time, though, it bores me because I’m missing out on news about the election! (There was no WiFi at the beach.) I’m exhausted, somehow, and disheartened by the election results. On the beach I overhear someone say it was Ed Miliband’s fault, and that David Miliband would have been the better choice (spoiler: he’s wrong). We’re back in the hotel by 11pm, but not before eating, drinking, and playing pool in the town.
Today, again, is largely a filler day waiting for our ride out. We leave our bags in storage, check-out, and walk round Hoi An. It’s scorching hot. We want to look at a nice oriental building (I think it was a Chinese congregation hall), but it’s a swizz because you have to buy a ticket for other places in order to enter. We go back to Before and Now and Sophie adores the air-conditioning, and play pool. We jump from cafe to cafe, drink some mojitos, get some snacks and wait for our sleeper bus. A mini-van arrives, and takes us around the corner where we are left waiting with four Dutch and two French travelers. The sleeper bus arrives. Funky colours, like tacky Christmas lights, around the windows. It seems alright, it’s not full. We have a lot of free ‘beds’ (chairs in a permanently reclined position – a bit like Dentists’ chairs) around us. The experience is new and exciting. The only thing is the bus has no toilet, as promised. But that’s okay, because we assume there will be regular stops. Unfortunately the driver turns out to be a maniac, speeding and overtaking and beeping often, at one point hitting and taking the curb of the road, causing concern and waking some of the passengers. Heavy rain falls, and lightening flashes around us. A horrible motorcycle accident: two crumpled bikes and two bodies, presumably dead, next to them. (I tell Sophie I saw them moving and they were definitely alive to make her feel a little better.) The driver blasts music really loud – actually deafening – through speakers. I have to shout to Sophie to talk to her. Then he turns the lights out, presumably so we can sleep, but then puts them back on again. One of the Dutch girls walks to the front and asks for the driver to turn the music down, but he (and his entourage, there were a number of Vietnamese men sat with him) yells at her to sit down without answering. I start needing the toilet, and you can’t even blame my puny bladder because it’s 10pm at this point and we set off at 6:30pm. As far as I can remember all our previous coach journeys had toilet breaks every two hours. An Asian man stumbles to the back of the bus as mutters: “Restroom!” and then the driver pulls over. The man then takes a piss out on the side of the road! More time passes and all I can think about is: I’m going to piss my pants. Sophie says she needs one too and asks me to go to the front. I do and the driver yells: “No, toilet, no!” at me. Sophie follows me up and demands to use the toilet. The crew continue to shout, saying things in Vietnamese which have the other Vietnamese passengers looking and laughing at us. We walk back to our ‘beds’, humiliated, when the driver stops the bus. He yells: “Toilet!”
To our horror, it’s another side-of-the-road job. It’s not even secluded. There are stalls on both sides of the road, people looking at us. A few people get off, Vietnamese women squatting and weeing on the grass. I force myself to go (I hate doing it when people are looking at me). Sophie asks the driver if there is an actual toilet, prompting the driver to laugh and hand her a torch. It was horrible. She tells me she needs to go, but can’t bring herself to. The other western girls also refuse, but get back on the bus uncomplaining. At that moment I found myself intimidated by a gang of hostile men, in the middle of the night, the middle of nowhere, not knowing what to do. It was the first – and only – moment of the trip where I wished I could just close my eyes and wake up back home. I tell Soph she’s just going to have to go, because I’m genuinely fearful of the driver just driving off and leaving us stranded, our backpacks and all our belongings still on-board. She starts to cry and I feel helpless. Then, 40 minutes later, we stop at services. With food and water and western toilets. Was the whole thing an act of deliberate cruelty? Now it’s ‘dinner time’, at the fine hour of 11pm. I eat a little and don’t drink a thing, and squeeze out three pisses just to make double-sure I don’t get caught out again. After this stop, the driver cuts out the loud music and turns off the light, and things finally start to feel like a sleeper bus.
I wake up again, needing a wee. It’s some hours later I think, and still dark. Privately I curse myself for having such a weak bladder. The driver stops to let some passengers off, again in the middle of nowhere, on the dusty side of a road. I get up and tell the driver I’m going to the toilet – at least I think I did. As I’m weeing behind a bush I realise the ‘driver’ was in fact one of the passengers getting off. I finished as quick as I could and ran back on-board, thinking it could just drive off without me. In hindsight, this is a moment not worth thinking about. I never woke Sophie, and everything was on the bus. My passport, my phone… There’s a parallel universe out there with me wandering beside the dust-bowl of some rural Vietnamese town, probably with the tears in my eyes distorting the fading taillights of the sleeper bus. This was certainly an eventful experience, and not one I’d want to repeat again.
Nha Trang – Day 33
We’d heard about sleeper buses being called ‘nearly sleeper buses’ and now we know why. The chairs are so small, you spend the entire journey twisting, turning, weaving in and out of a broken sleep. If this is a taste of what the ‘bus from hell’ would have been like then I can’t pat myself on the back enough for flying instead! We arrive in Nha Trang 40 minutes early. It’s still cool because it’s not yet 7am and the sun is weak. Say ‘Nha Trang’ to me and I think of two things: Russians and piss. Because it’s full of Russians and stinks of piss. Actually, it smells more like dog shit. At first I thought the bus had just pulled over near a pile of shit but the smell refused to go away no matter where we walked, despite it’s reputation as a ‘cosmopolitan’ beach port. Maybe the Blackpool effect is cross-cultural? We don’t get off to the best start, walking 10 minutes in the wrong direction thanks to a less-than-helpful motorcyclist, and are also denied information at a tourist-bureau because the woman behind the counter spoke no English! A friendly hotel receptionist phones us a taxi to our hotel. It’s early but they let us check in. Our room is windowless but the light looks like natural light. We sleep for nearly three hours, then shower and look for food. We find a nice place that has a pool table and good lunch. The beach down the way is nice, but the water is very deep and wave-ey, coming in at a strange angle, not directly parallel to the beach. I’ve never noticed/seen anything quite like it before. We pay 150, 000vnd for two loungers until 7pm but the same man who sold them to us then starts telling us we need to leave (along with everyone else) around 4pm, trying to usher us along to some other beds mumbling “the police will check”. Sophie refuses and so do two other girls. The beds he wants us to move to are in the shade. Still, everybody else complies and we watch as they pack away the surrounding beds. The sun vanishes behind a bank of cloud and we return to the hotel to wash before dinner. The nightlife seems reasonable. We eat and go to a sports bar, playing (you guessed it!) pool, watching the Liverpool game. There are plenty of Brits in the bar, in groups. We head back to the hotel during half-time, buying snacks for the journey tomorrow (we’ve booked tickets to Da Lat, leaving at 7am). Still sleep deprived from the chaos of the bus this morning, we prepare ourselves to leave tomorrow and for an early night. Sophie breaks an ashtray packing. I shovel it up and hide it in the bin!
Nha Trang/Da Lat – Day 34
We wake horribly early and shower, then wait for the bus. It’s a four hour journey through winding roads with one bathroom break. Everything we read about our destination seems to be coming true: as we approach, the temperature cools. The sky is overcast and flowers and strawberries are grown here instead of rice. The mountains give the temperature a northern European climate, and the natives wear hoodies. Our hotel has cats in it and smells a bit like a pet shop. But for £8 a night, it’ll do. We nap for two hours and wake to find it’s been raining. We head to a restaurant and have food, then enjoy some good WiFi (but bad hot chocolate) in a quirky coffee shop. We book something called ‘canyoning’ at a place called ‘Groovy Gecko’ for tomorrow. There’s not all that much to do in Da Lat apart from canyoning, which is the main attraction, so in the night we eat some insanely cheap steaks at an okay restaurant and visit one of the few bars recommended by Lonely Planet – a place called ‘The Hangout’. It’s a complete dive. It’s small but it has a pool table to occupy our time. The only toilet was up a windy and very steep set of stairs, and was in someone’s house! I felt really awkward walking past the living room, where a family were just sat watching the TV. The house also stunk, like our hotel stunk, like Nha Trang stunk.
We go to bed early, preparing for a busy day. The air con is turned off because it’s cool up here, it’s even a little too cold to comfortably sleep.
It’s early. Da Lat is cold; we’re both tired. Groovy Gecko tours picks us up (actually from over the road where they are situated), and we pick up four English girls and are on our way. Fifteen minutes later we’re at the side of some road bordered with evergreen trees. We’re ordered to strip off our clothes and get into wet suits, cars passing us sneak a look. We start by practicing the abseiling technique we’ll be using to descend waterfalls by wrapping our cables round tree trunks where the forest floor begins to slope into a valley. We are accompanied by another – but separate – group of canyoners doing the same thing. Their group is massive, about 30 people. I’m glad we’re in our smaller, more intimate group. Despite the numbers, and arriving later to the practice site, the large group moves ahead of us. I question their safety measures. Seeing this, our guide jumps into action. We trek downward, through woodland, trying not to slip. We take a short cut through the bush that allows us to cut in front of the big group and we arrive at a rock face near a small waterfall. The large group arrives and has to wait behind us. One of our two tour guides has already made his way to the bottom and is taking pictures. We abseil down, doing a few good ‘jumps’ on the cables to make it. Then we trek alongside the river in the sticky heat until we are told to sit in it. The life-jackets allow us to float down, almost like we are tubing again. It’s a beautiful, tranquil sight: the sunlight scattering through the leaves, the hanging tendrils and roots dipping in the water, the rocks striped different shades where the water has lapped at it. The river is a muddy colour, though. We approach a set of rapids that act like a natural water slide and down we go. When we are finally dumped into more calmer waters, I find the buoyant life-jacket and my water-logged shoes make it difficult to swim. Picking ourselves up, we then walk for a further fifteen minutes through the hot and beautiful jungle. We reach another challenge: a 25 meter waterfall. It’s the big one. The large group, not long behind us, arrives and begins to set up. We are instructed to take off our shoes, keeping on only our socks for a better grip. The way we were told to do it was this: You have to slide your feet – not take steps – when abseiling over the cliff and down the waterfall, until you reach a point where the waterfall begins to cut into itself. Once this point is reached you have to lean forward so not to slip, and hold your head down so that the water doesn’t crash into your face. Then comes the jump. I remember the guide telling me to jump at this point and thinking he can’t be right. That either I or he had made some sort of mistake. It looked way too high. I did anyway, and Sophie slipped before she could do it! One of the girls in our group cut her leg during the descent and I think started crying in frustration or shock or both. During our canyoning experience we sort of struck a friendship with them. Their names were Sophie, Annie, Stacey, and Anita.
Though we had the big waterfall out of the way, the next part was the scariest bit: cliff-jumping. It was unexpected and there were two jumps. One from seven and one from 11 meters. I didn’t do the 11 meter one because it required a run-and-jump to scale a few feet of rock below. I just didn’t feel confident and most people didn’t do it. I did the seven meter one though, twice. And even that was a lot higher than you’d imagine. Seven meters doesn’t sound like much but, when facing it, every natural instinct to avoid death kicks in and your feet almost glue themselves to the ground. I like to think I would have done the 11 meter one if I could have trusted myself to be clear of the rocks – but I’d lost my socks in the plunge pool of the previous waterfall and my shoes were a pair of over sized and waterlogged Vans with little grip.
Next up was another lazy river experience to one final abseil of a waterfall nicknamed the ‘washing machine’. It begins with a blind walk down a cliff, and then descent into the waterfall. By ‘blind’ I mean it was possible to watch others go before you with the other two waterfalls, but this cliff edge ended so abruptly, and the rock cut in so deeply, that you could not see a person as they went over. The guide warned us that failure to descent fast enough caused the water to spin one around (hence the nickname). The girls really seemed to freak out about this one, though I actually didn’t think it looked that bad, not after the other one. But I underestimated it. I dropped almost in free fall, really overconfident with myself, and crashed right into the water between a confluence of two streams of falling water, all enclosed between the cliff edge and a boulder. I was taken completely by surprised and was a little frightened. The water crashed down on top of me, forcing my head underwater as I’d gasped in shock. I took on a lot of water, swallowing an awful lot, and seemed unable to lift my head and breathe. I started coughing. I think the life jacket saved me, riding the current and pulling me from the hydraulic forces. I got to the riverbank and everyone just seemed to be smiling, apparently unaware that I almost drowned. The tour guide took photographs of our group on our phones. Afterwards, we walked out of the valley and back to the roadside, where we had a picnic. We’re shocked to learn it’s only 1:30pm as we are dropped off at the hotel, we’ve done so much. We both nap for about an hour. The girls say we should meet up if we see each other out later, and add Soph on Facebook. We go to the same cheap restaurant as we did last night – Cafe 13, because it’s a nice environment. Then we book a bus to Ho Chi Min City with Groovy Gecko (who undercharge us but refuse our money), and go to bed feeling pretty sore!
Ho Chi Min City – Day 36
Again, we’re starved of sleep and freezing in the cold of the hotel. We check out and hop on an eight hour bus journey to Ho Chi Min City, the staple of the Communist victory over American forces in the Vietnam War. The trip is okay. We have breaks but it’s long. We arrive in the City and walk down what looked at first like a dingy and unremarkable alley, but it actually turns out to be brimming with Asiatic culture. There are food stalls, markets, just people in general, and it’s bright with lights. We find our hotel entrance mid-way through they alley and check in. The staff look as though they have given us an upgraded room, but after half an hour they come in admitting a mistake and downgrade us. Wonderful. We then eat, shower, and explore our new neighborhood: the rather mainstream ‘Backpacker’s Central’ (as it’s colloquially named by travelers). We book a trip for tomorrow and play some pool. What a rotten two days for me: it’s 6 – 0 to Sophie! The restaurants are expensive and add a sneaky five per cent charge to the bill. We get a little drunk and play silly true or false games. Then we collapse in the bed, knackered. Although we don’t have to be up until 11am, we really need the sleep.
After a good, well needed, sleep, we head around the corner of our hotel to a tourist center, Panda Tours, where a bus is waiting to take us to a place called the ‘Cu Chi Tunnels’. First, we go to a restaurant that absolutely rips us off, charging – in English sterling – approximately £1.50 for a bottle of water. Then we wait for the bus. It’s an hour and a half journey, with one rest room break on the way.
I personally found the tunnels really interesting. They are a legacy of the Vietnam War. We were shown ‘new’ woodland that had grown back since the intense bombing campaigns, and had the opportunity to jump into a small hatch that the Viet Cong would use to ambush the Americans. The trip demonstrated some of the primitive bamboo spike traps that, though primitive, used to terrify them. An example included a hollowed-out pit with spikes in it, hidden away so soldiers would fall into it and be impaled. We also visited a shooting gallery. I tried firing the M1 machine gun. In retrospect I wish I’d forked out a bit more to try the AK-47 but I was a bit of a tight-arse on the day. I couldn’t believe how loud the gun shots sounded. As me and Sophie walked within range of the gallery, before we could put on our headphones, somebody had fired theirs and my ears rang out in pain. Although it was a bit freaky firing the gun, I quickly got used to it. Sophie fired one bullet and decided she didn’t like it at all, giving me free reign to lock and load!
After the gallery we crawled into 100 meters of tunnels, a slither of the 200+ kilometers of network that the Viet Cong used to crawl through and ambush Americans during the War. The tunnels were very hot and sticky, and extremely narrow, despite them being artificially widened to accommodate the growing obesity rate of western tourists (and also because the Vietnamese are naturally smaller and slimmer than Europeans, that’s why the Americans had difficulty using the tunnels against them even back then). The tunnels bordered on being claustrophobic at times, because you went down single-file. There was a line of people in front and a line of people behind. And if somebody held the queue up in front of you, you were left in the dry heat, almost panicking and wanting to get out. When I re-emerged above ground, I was dripping with sweat.
The journey back to Ho Chi Min was smooth and uneventful. We booked another tour to the Mekong Delta. (We’d followed the river all through our trip, so it seemed fitting to give it a send off and watch it empty into the South China Sea before moving on into Cambodia.) Then we got our laundry sorted, and booked another night with the hotel. Then we ate and, of course, found a pool table, until a large group of lads arrived and spoiled it by standing really close to the table, probably deliberately. We found an English pub that doubled up as a travel center and I had really nice bangers and mash. The owner was nice if not a little eccentric. (He was talking to a short, angry American man who he claimed was a good writer at the time we met him.) Knowing we had to be up early, and satisfied with an eventful day, we left the busy, tourist-ey streets of Ho Chi Min and headed back to the hotel, where we had to flick bugs off the sheets with our fingers.
AMC (ABC?) Bakery to the rescue! A pizza and garlic bread for breakfast and we’re waiting at Panda Tours again for our coach to the Mekong Delta. We befriend two Dutch girls, and a Canadian couple – the second group of Canadians from Edmonton, Alberta that I’ve met on this trip. As the coach rolls off the tour guide tells us it will take three hours to reach the Delta instead of the one-and-a-half hours advertised. It’s like we’re in Laos all over again. This prompts an English couple to abandon the trip. The tour guide then tells us our arrival home could be 9pm, and not 6pm. We have no deadline, no train to catch, so we aren’t too troubled by the news. We’re actually used to this sort of deception. The actual journey takes about two hours with a stop-off at a temple with a big Buddha. As we reach the Delta we are ushered on to a boat and set sail to a place called Unicorn Island. There is a bee farm here. The guide makes Soph stick her finger in a sheet removed from one of the hives, unsurprisingly it is covered in bees. We both try the honey and also some honey tea, both freshly vomited from the bees we’d just tip-toed around. Then we take turns holding a snake. After that we island hop to Turtle Island, where the guide breaks open a coconut for us to drink its milk. We tried some sweets that they apparently make from the primary ingredients of the coconut. Not even one mention of the turtles. The third island we hop to, we are provided with a cold and banal lunch. After that we walk across a bridge, to find crocodiles below in the water. (For some reason I didn’t write down the name of this island, but I imagine it was ludicrous and had nothing to do with the content of the place.) The idea was to go on a bike ride of the island but Sophie’s brakes don’t work, so we turn back. We purchase some raw meat on a sort of stick-with-string, something like the first fishing rod ever invented, and use it to torment the crocodiles before one of them finally clamps their jaws down on it.
After this excitement we’re back on the boat and headed to a sort of marshy bayou, where little boats drift over, taking four of us at a time. It’s peaceful being rowed through the leaves. We eventually dock somewhere in the bayou, and whatever it was, it was still more convincing that Luang Prabang’s ‘harbour’. Some local musicians play local tunes, demoing the verses of four different songs. We finally take the boat back over the Delta, back the way we came. After a mostly sunny day, the heavens open and the rain really hammers down. We’re soaked to the bone before we can board the bus. Despite the rain, there are no delays getting back to the hotel. We head to the same English pub as last night and ask about transport to Cambodia. The owner informs us that the Cambodian authorities take your passports on arrival at the border, and that this is normal procedure. We book our bus for tomorrow and play some pool.