The only way to travel!
08.07.2010 - 16.07.2010 32 °C
Yet another interesting train journey with a packed carriage of Vietnamese family holidaymakers. The end of the journey through the Hai Van Pass with Marble Mountain on one side and the sea on the other, was quite envigorating, luckily preparing me for the fiasco at Da Nang station. No taxi was there as the Hanoi hotel had not faxed my information through and taxi drivers were pouncing on me from all sides. One guy kindly offered to phone the hotel and he got it sorted - Mr T - my saviour. He loaded my suitcase on the back of his motorbike and we set off for the lovely town of Hoi An, via a bar for a very welcome beer. He managed to tell me that his sister is a tailor in Hoi An where everyone gets clothes made. He also related horror stories of his childhood during the Vietnam War - quite shocking.
After unloading at the hotel and trying to sort out my booking, Mr T took me to the tailors where I ordered the classic long tunic and trousers which will be ready for collection tomorrow - fabulous. Spent the evening walking around the very lively streets of downtown Hoi An, investigating the Japanese Covered Bridge and searching out a good restaurant on the harbour front - slightly reminiscent of Marbella.
Very loud speakers woke me at 5:30 - I think the idea is to tell the world how great Vietnam is these days (true) and encouraging everyone to get up, enjoy the day and work hard. I had a lovely day visiting the My Son Holyland Temple Ruins under a very hot sun. The saddest part is that a lot of the ruins were bombed by the Americans during the war but are now being restored. To get back to our coach, I jumped into an original US Army jeep - felt just like an episode of MASH. We then took a boat back to Hoi An down the river, stopping at the required craft village. My tour guide thought I would forget that he owed me change from a beer bought on board but finally, he relented after I quietly trailed him for half an hour - cheeky sod.
Woken again by the political messages of encouragement then got Mr T's mate to take me back to Da Nang station for another long haul train trip to the beautiful beaches of Nha Trang. Along the main coast road into Da Nang, there are golf courses (designed by Greg Norman) and fabulous resort complexes springing up everywhere. It seems a strange irony that, only 40 years ago, the Americans were bombing the shit out of the country and now they're building luxury apartments in the very same place where one of their air bases were.
Finally arrived at Nha Trang and got a taxi to my hotel. I think I've cracked the taxi situation - the idea is that you look knowledgeable, demand a price or ask if the taxi is metered and refuse the first price, regardless! I bought a bottle of rice whiskey at the station and crashed after such a long day of crowded, loud train travel.
After walking along the beautiful beach at 6:30am, I decided to treat myself to a day at the local Mud Bath Spa - what a day! I had the place to myself as I was classed as a VIP and had hot mineral baths, sauna, steam room, mud bath in my private room then a jacuzzi. After all this, I had one of the best massages I have ever experienced which lasted for more than an hour. It ended with hot stones on my back and then, after all this decadence, they served me a lovely meal before giving me a facial and a hair wash. To top it all, I then met Mr Lee, my prospective motorbike driver for the next five days, for drinks to discuss our upcoming road trip.
So now - the Ho Chi Minh Trail on the back of a motorbike! With my suitcase packed in a plastic bag acting as a backrest for me, we set off early and headed into the Central Highlands of Vietnam, leaving the coast and the heat. Whenever we stopped for coffee or lunch, Lee tells me about the local area and various pieces of history about Vietnam. He has a wonderful smile and a great giggle - we are having the best time! The motorbike is a fantastic way to see the passing countryside and to experience the sounds and smells also. OK, so now and again the smells aren't too great but it's fantastic to hear the kids shouting hello as we drive past and to smell the trees and vegetation on the mountain roads.
We met our first rain storm on the first afternoon and I soon learned how to get off the bike quickly and get into all the wet weather gear. Getting ON the bike proved to be quite an amusement for Lee and all around - I have to take a run-up and then throw my leg over behind Lee who is already seated and laughing away, watching my antics.
After arriving at Dalat like a couple of drowned rats, Lee invited me to supper with his family in their basement rooms. There was a banquet laid out on the floor with newspaper acting as the tablecloth. The food was great, consisting of soup, boiled chicken (with head and feet still on) two whole fish and endless rice, vegetables and more rice whiskey - 35% proof - not to be taken lightly. I gave Lee's two young boys a couple of dollars each for their piggy banks but I'm not sure that money is a concept they really grasped - no bad thing.
Before leaving Dalat for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, we stopped at The Crazy House - the 10th maddest house in the world - look it up on Google! During the trip, some of the many places I visited included a silk weaving factory where they still use Jacquard looms; a whiskey distillery in a back yard; huge waterfalls where we walked underneath in the spray; more Buddhas and a mushroom farm where the owner kept a python as a pet.
The second night, we stayed with the Mnong tribe in one of their tribal long houses on stilts, right alongside a lake - very beautiful and peaceful except that I was shot with a small BB gun on my way back from the local restaurant. The young tribal boys thought this was very funny. An easy day followed when we had a reasonably short ride and finished the afternoon at Gia Long Waterfalls where we could swim in this secluded area, about 10 miles into a forest - beautiful. Unfortunately, a group of young guys had just finished their drinking party and left all their cans in a clearing - very sad.
Next day we were travelling alongside the Cambodian border before turning east, towards Saigon - Ho Chi Minh City as it is called now. Uncle Ho travelled from North Vietnam along this route as he could not make progress on the standard route, close to the coast. We got lost a couple of times and had to turn back on the red, dusty roads but it was all fascinating - we were so off the main track that Lee thought I might have been the first 'Westerner' some of the kids had ever seen.
A sobering end to this great trip was a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels, just outside HCM. Local people dug a maze of tunnels to hide from the Americans, alongside the Mekong river - and it worked. They also used to hide in the water hyacinths with bamboo pipe breathing tubes and get across the river to launch surprise attacks.
As we approached HCM, the heavens opened and the traffic came to a standstill - nearly as bad as Hanoi but at least here, they obey traffic signals. I had tears in my eyes as I said goodbye to Lee - what a tremendous experience it was - why not try it?? www.easyrider.vn