Last few days of vietnam followed by the journey from hell.

Admittedly, there is not much to say about my last few days in Vietnam; the North was certainly not as well explored as the South. The reason being a fun, western-friendly hostel in Hanoi that had everything you needed inside. When I say needed I mean plasma tv, a bar, western food and pub crawls running every night- a young westerners paradise. I cannot deny that the bar crawl was one of the funniest nights I’ve had in Vietnam or that I enjoyed the comfort of a lasagne. Yet unfortunately it meant the only two things I properly saw in the diverse and lively city of Hanoi was Hoan Kiem lake and the women’s museum. Although I enjoyed learning about the amazing women who fought on the front line in the Vietnam war (never learnt that in history ey)i did do all of this tired and hungover; perhaps not profiting us much as I could have.

However refretbaly the biggest disappointment was our ‘castaway’ trip to Halong Bay which we booked through the hostel- a visit to one of the seven natural wonders of the world turned into a glorified booze cruise. We thought it was be fun getting drunk and dancing later on the private island but what we didn’t realise that the cruise of the islands  was also drink orientated-  in fact the whole thing was. On arriving at the island (I can’t complain having the luxury of taking in the magnificent limestone casques of Halong Bay on the way there) we were greeted by a naked man with a Mexican hat doing push-ups. The first set of ‘rules’ we were introduced to were that you couldn’t say 2 words or drink with your left hand because  then you had to down it- doesn’t this just sound like drinking with your friends in England? However the biggest disappointment was that on the cruise the only cultural explanation we received was a from a rep who forgot half of it and clearly didn’t care- the main thing I learnt was that the dogs who guard the floating villages get eaten (no surprises there). We were given evidence that this was definitely true as whilst leaving the island a dead dog was floating in the water- not a pleasant farewell. Thus, we might as well have been in Zante instead cruising around the natural wonders of the world- definitely book through another company if I had the chance again.

We decided to get away from the our western cocoon and visit Cuc Phuong national park; a few hours away by a rickety local bus from Hanoi. Staying in the nearby town of Ninh Binh, we only got the chance to spend one day in the  national park which was definitely not enough for this expansive and environmentally diverse place. Yet it was a lovely break to be in what felt like the real Vietnamese jungle and caves- landscapes that you imagine when you think of Vietnam. Although we hoped to see snow leopards (apparently they are somewhere in the park) the most interesting wildlife we caught sight of was a giant centipede in the prehistoric man cave- still pretty cool. However,the only unfortunate circumstance for me was that I had been ridden with a bad case of the shits (a constant issue whilst travelling) and I cannot say a sudden attack of it whilst you’re in the jungle is much fun; especially when there’s a daddy long legs next to your foot. Despite this the national park was an extremely refreshing break from our constantly hyper hostel and equally before our hellish journey.

We had been warned the 30 hour journey from  Hanoi to Luang Prabang was awful, but we thought how bad can it be; at least you get a little leather beds and regular stops and we had already managed an 18 hour one fairly easily. We were mistaken. Instead, our measly 30 hour journey turned into a 42 hour journey- yes almost 2 days in a small leather seat bed. I am not being over dramatic when I say it was the journey from hell.

It all started at the Vietnam-Laos border after getting our visas which ok took a couple of hours but that was to be expected. After dropping into a hazy sleep when we got back on the bus we woke up after a couple of hours realising we hadn’t moved at all; the drivers were sat on the floor gambling with cards. Thus, as another hour ticked by we got increasingly angry but our constant complaints and questions made no difference- the drivers just laughed and continued to gamble. Yet we felt stupid later for getting so angry- a 3 hour wait was nothing compared to our 9 hour stall. On the poor mountainous roads just after the border it is not surprising that 2 trucks were stuck, both semi in a ditch and of course blocked the whole road off. But the real problem was that nobody did anything about it until 9 hours later in the dark. So we sat in our hot leather seats at the back, starving and thirsty but most annoyingly we didn’t have a clue was was going on. Each time I asked the driver simple questions such as ‘have you called for help’ they looked at me like I was crazy or pretended not to understand
(They could understand me before). The only thing they did to help was give us a boiled egg each (God knows where they got them from) some oranges and raw noodles. Whilst we worried, constantly jumped on and off the bus due to overheating and became increasingly delirious, they just carried on gambling. I have to say this did make me miss England as clearly there was no AA to call in a situation like this.

Thus, at 7 o’clock when the trucks were finally moved by the police we cheered uncontrollably with the other girls near us- we thought we would have had to spend the night. I tried not to look out the window at the misty,windy roads for the rest of the journey and when we were finally offered the chance of a meal at 11 in the evening, we were disappointed to find an unsanitary restaurant and decided to only eat the rice. Our incredibly unbalanced diet of a small bowl of rice, biscuits and in my case 5 kinder bueones unfortunately ended up in my friend being sick; adding to the interesting smells circulating in our corner at the back of the bus. I have to say I have never been so relieved to arrive in a place as I am to be in Luang Prabang. Finally we’re breathing fresh oxygen instead of stuffy, circulated air!

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Motorbikes, tuna and saigon beer in Dalat

Everyone on their gap year claims to have had a truly enlightening and cultural experience so I am not going to put this down as anything special. However, drinking beer,eating tuna and riding motorcycles with locals isn’t something I expected. Of course at first it was an attempt at sales- the manager of our hostel offered to give us a taster motorcycle tour around Dalat to try and persuade us to do the ‘easy ride’ motorcycle trip.  But who’s going to turn that down for free? So, after a rather exhausting day of cannyoning (abseiling down waterfalls,sliding down rocks and jumping off 6m cliffs) we hopped on the back of 5  Vietnamese men’s motor bikes and whizzed around Dalat. It wasn’t just a quick ride- they showed us the top sites such as crazy house and  took us out the countryside, we even went for a coffee after. One particularly surreal moment was when my friend came up alongside me on her bike with her guy, both of them singing ‘barbie girl’ and we then joined in- all four of us speeding along on motorbikes singing barbie girl at the top of our voices isn’t something that happens every day. I have always been slightly scared of motorbikes (i have extensively been warned by my mother) yet I felt extremely safe- in Vietnam motorbikes and mopeds seem to replace cars so I guess there is less risk of being hit by and car which makes it a bit safer…i guess. Also, they are all very good and road aware drivers- they swerve around you with such skill when you cross the road.

Dalat itself is a very interesting city- the first city in Vietnam to have a university and they explained to us how areas of highland near Dalat are still not open to tourists, one guy said how after so much occupation and warfare in Vietnam over the years they did not want it to be ruined like parts of Thailand have been. This is so understandable as although tourism is beneficial it should not have the capacity to completely dominate or even destroy a culture as Thailand is notorious for being destroyed by the west.

This could have all been part of the tourist trap and we thought once we’d tuned down the proper motorcycle ride they’d go off us- perhaps they do this to everyone. Yet luckily they didn’t mind at all and instead we sat outside the hostel drinking saigon beer and eating an amazing giant tuna (the best I’ve ever tasted but very hard to eat with chopsticks) which they had just cooked on a bbq. We sat with them for ages cracking jokes, Vietnamese people have an amazing sense of humour; really obvious and  slightly cheeky jokes. For example, when we went cannyoning I asked how long the instructor had been doing it for and be said ‘oh I just started today’ then burst into a high pitched laugh. This laugh seemed to be very common amongst Vietnamese men and the problem is it makes you laugh then you end up crying with laughter as it is so funny. Although we got a lot of the ‘beautiful girls don’t go’ and someone told me I had a beautiful nose (never had that one before) it didn’t seem creepy in any way- they just seemed to genuinely enjoy our company.

However, they equally told us some of realities of life in Vietnam, the fact they don’t have free education or healthcare and which made us feel guilty after complaining about paying back 9000 a year for university when they have to pay it up front for almost all stages of education. It was definitely a ‘how lucky am I’ moment. But there they were laughing and smiling, so welcoming and kind with no resentment towards us at all- from what I’ve experienced so far the Vietnamese are extremely friendly and generous people who go out of their way to help you out. So, does that count as an individual gap yah antidote?

The gap yah starts in Ho Chi Minh city and Dalat

There is no originality in backpacking around Asia on your gap year or ‘gap yah’…it seems half of the people I know who have taken a gap year are floating around Asia in some place or another. I am aware I epitomise the cliche (especially in my hareem pants and birkenstocks) and it may seem like a purely hedonistic journey which I am privileged to go on, but there is a reason why it is such a well trodden path. for me the attraction is to experience a completely different culture, to burst our safe European bubbles of ignorance and of course have fun and meet people from all over the world.

After doing my exam on the Vietnam war twice (lots of resits happened last year-partly why I felt the need to take quite gap yah) I was particularly interested to visit the country that I had laboriously spent revising for two years- to see the effects of a war that only took place 25 years ago. Luckily, the four other girls who I am travelling with (we are all tall with brown hair- safe to say we stand out from the crowd a bit in Vietnam) also take an interest in history and are willing to do and see as much as possible. Therefore, after arriving in a sweltering and densely polluted Ho Chi Minh city and a heavy jet lagged first night out, we didn’t hold back from visiting the war museum and exploring the city on our first day. Even more luckily one of my childhood friends (I told you everyone was in Asia) is living in Ho Chi Minh city, she was therefore an excellent tour guide on our first day as we were all slightly dazed by this chaotic city. She had helpfully already warned me on how all tourists struggle to cross roads and how you should confidently walk in front of the mass of mopeds and motor bikes coming towards you- a great technique. On first impression Saigon seems a strange mixture of intense globalisation and laid back French culture and archituecture- a kfc or Macdonalds and patisserie or coffee shop on every street. The most famous French architecture being the post office (designed by gustav Eiffel) and the replica of the Notre Dame- both of which seem slightly out of place in the hot and to take tropical climate.

Yet undeniably the most memorable and at the same time heart wrenching experience in Saigon was the war museum. Whilst walking into the museum we saw a disfigured man with no arms selling books-  I didn’t really think much of it at the time and said  ‘no thank you’ but later realised he was clearly a victim of agent Orange. That is what the war musuem did- gave their side of the story and showed all the millions of Vietnamese people effected even today. Whether they have disfigured limbs or have simply been corrupted by the west it made me realise how the west are so ignorant and almost arrogant in how we destroyed these countries and their culture- there should be much more compensation for the effects of the Vietnam war.

On our second day we decided to take a break from the busy city and go on a tour of the Mekong delta- a very wise decision. A definite highlight was the array of food we tasted whist we visited 2 of the 4 little islands, from watching coconut sweets being made to trying a variety of home grown fruits it all seemed extremely natural in comparison to some of the chains on offer in Ho Chi Minh city. The islands themselves fulfilled one of my images and goals to see in Vietnam- to be in a jungle. However I have always imagined myself hacking though a jungle with we machete and unfortunately I just wondered around on man made paths. Although it was a classic tourist trip (we all put a snake on our shoulders and wore little Vietnamese hats in boats down the Mekong river) it showed how some people do still live completely naturally and away from the globalised world. However, I did see a local lying in his hammock on his iPhone…clearly nobody is completely disconnected!

Now here I am in the no so hot and humid Dalat- a city 1500m up and an 8 hour night bus away from Ho Chi Minh city- it has a much more fresh and springlike climate with waterfalls and rivers nearby. Beautiful and almost European looking with its winding roads and colourful buldings, Dalat was refreshingly un touristy- maybe we have ventured ever so slightly of the best and track. Yet we still did not hold back on wearing hot pants whilst walking around Dala, making very Vietnamese person gawk at us in their furry winter coats, one woman even offered us cardigans. We fulfilled our tourist stereotype even more by going on a peddle boat around the massive lake in Dalat- a characteristic which seemed almost eueropean. This resulted in many Vietnamese people taking photographs whilst we floated around in our swan boat- I think the hareem pants are going to have to come out tomorrow…