A Travellerspoint blog

Southern Vietnam by motorbike

The only way to travel!

all seasons in one day 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

Posted by amazingali 21:34 Archived in Vietnam Tagged motorcycle Comments (1)

North Vietnam

Hot, busy and very noisy

sunny 38 °C

Not being an expert flyer, I'm sorry to say that I had to relinquish my grandfather's penknife which I had mistakenly kept in my cabin luggage when boarding my flight at Vientiane - domage.

Flew into Hanoi and had my first experience of Vietnamese traffic on the taxi ride into the city. There are NO RULES - whoever has the most nerve is the one who 'wins' in the battle of the crossroads, roundabouts or anywhere! Car, bus and motorcycle horns are going the whole time, even at 3 in the morning when there is no other traffic. I think the men (primarily!) just like the sound of their own horn, if you know what I mean.

I walked for miles around Hanoi City, managing to dodge the cars and motorcycles. At one junction, this old lady and I waited for what seemed about ten minutes before there was a slight gap in the traffic - we grabbed each other and made a dash for it. All we could do was laugh at each other when we reached safe ground.

Queuing appears to be an unknown concept in Vietnam. I patiently waited for my ticket to come up at the train booking office and watched all these people pushing and shoving their way in front of the next person - I gave up in the end and got the hotel to book my train tickets - coward.

On my visits to the tourist spots of Hanoi (!), I met a three-generation family while I was taking a breather at the Temple of Literature. Grandma came and sat beside me and started fanning me, not herself, and laughing merrily. It turned out that she was 62 (looked 92) and had completely blackened teeth from chewing betal nut leaves all her life. My second day of tourism took in the Ho Chi Minh Complex and a water puppet theatre - very unusual. I found a real food market which had all kinds of live fish and dead meats, including what looked like dog's head.

After the noise of the city, the 2-day trip to Halong Bay was a very enjoyable change. The boat was fabulous, the company very enjoyable and the scenery just breathtaking. It really is as good as the photos you can see on any website. We were presented with so much food and had a great time visiting huge limestone caves, kayaking into deserted coves and diving off the boat before yet more food at supper. The next morning, we visited a large floating village of 'real' fishermen which had its own floating school. The drive back to Hanoi was pretty traumatic - the long straight pieces of road allow the drivers to play chicken. We stopped at a factory where people affected by Agent Orange (remember folks) produce various items for sale to tourists - very moving.

Took the night train north to Lao Cai, just on the border with China, which is the end of the train line. From there, it's an hour's drive to Sapa - hill village of the H'Mong tribe which I'm afraid I found very disheartening. I was supposed to visit a Sunday market in Cat Ba but I couldn't face the total of six hours of windy roads in a bus stuffed to the roof so I stayed the day in Lao Cai - not the best experience I've ever had as it was so hot and not a lot to see. The guy at the cafe where I stopped for iced coffee brought out a paper fan for me to use. The geography around Sapa is beautiful, just like the postcards. I could have bought a postcard in Hanoi and saved myself the hassle.

After a morning hike to Cat Cat Falls through a 'genuine' tribal village and over a very rickety wooden bridge, I had a massage back at Sapa town before we got the bus back down the mountain again and then the night train back to Hanoi with the same girl I met on the train north - great company to share my wine with.

As soon as we arrived back in Hanoi at 4:00am, I had to find my next train which was taking me south to Hue. This was a 14-hour trip from hell. The air conditioning broke in the carriage with over 100 local people and ME. There was a TV blaring above the shouts of the people, rubbish all over the floor after each meal and then, to top it all, Jeremy Clarkson on the TV, in Vietnamese!! The adults laugh uproariously at Tom and Jerry cartoons and keep whacking me to indicate the funny stuff on TV.

Hue was quite a haven of peace after the last week of chaos. It was so clean and subdued compared to Hanoi and I had a great walk (5 miles) along the Perfume River to the Thien Mu Pagoda. After fending off endless people trying to get me onto their motorbikes, I decided to just ask a guy if he would take me back to town. He gladly agreed and dropped me at The Citadel where I spent the afternoon, again in blazing heat but interesting to walk around the Forbidden City, loads of which was destroyed by bombing in 1947 (French - IndoChina War?).

Have had a pretty non-stop week but the sights and sounds have been quite astounding. Can't say I'm not looking forward to testing out the beaches at Hoi An and Nha Trang next week.

Posted by amazingali 03:00 Archived in Vietnam Tagged train_travel Comments (5)

Life in Laos - Beauty, poverty and danger

The most heavily bombed nation in the world, per capita, in history - not clever

semi-overcast 35 °C

During this last week, I have seen some of the most beautiful scenery and some of the most abject poverty.

I arrived at Chiang Khong, on the Thai-Laos border and stayed in a lovely guesthouse with my veranda looking over the Mekong River. The rickety old tuk-tuk struggled to the quay and deposited me at immigration before we crossed the river in a tiny boat. The level of poverty strikes you as soon as you arrive in Laos but the people seem pretty happy with life. I love seeing the kids running around butt-naked and having a great time holding kittens up by their tails or playing in the mud by the side of the road.

The slow boat to Pakbeng was a mixture of experiences - load, drunk Americans tempered by the most fantastic scenery along the river's edge and watching the ridiculously dangerous jet boats speeding past us. Many stops are made for locals to get on and off the boat with their various cargoes. Spent the night in a very basic guesthouse then started off again with most of the same crowd. As we neared Luang Prabang at the end of the journey, the scenery became even more spectacular and the river got faster, with small white-water areas that the captain negotiated skillfully. I spent the last couple of hours sitting at the prow in the quiet, talking to a guy who helps with the African environment but is based in Cambridge and lives in Norwich!

Luang Prabang is a lovely town with an obvious French influence. I did my usual walking tour and met a film crew, making a documentary about traditional Lao dancing. Watched as the lovely girls danced in front of the Vat Xieng Thong to the music of drums etc. Climbed Phousi Hill which gives fantastic views of the town nestling beside the Mekong. It seemed as if I was level with the turbo-props coming in to land at the airport!

Took a trip to the Kuang Si Waterfall next day which was spectacular. After climbing through the forest to the top of the falls, I scrambled back down and swam in a small pool which was freezing, despite the day's high temperature. I have finally seen the sense of having an umbrella at all times. Local kids were using a rope swing to fly into the middle of the pool - it is so strange that parents will point out 'these strange foreigners' to their kids.

The minivan driver insisted on stopping at a local tribal village which is very uncomfortable to witness as the poverty is palpable. Kids beg for food and, of course, money. The drive to Vang Vieng next day was through even more straggling villages in the mountains of northern Laos on roads more like tracks than the main road south! A rain storm turned the road into a river in minutes and the cows, pigs, goats, water buffalo and children just sit in the road and dare you to run them over! The huge lorries lumbering south have mud flaps with pictures of Che Guevara and (I think) Robert Redford.

Unless you want to kayak or 'tube', Vang Vieng is just a hick town beside the Song River. I walked about 5 miles into the hills and found a limestone cave with a Buddah sitting in the dark. The old man who took me into the cave showed me the bats in the ceiling and the huge drops just beside the path - very scary in the pitch dark. On the walk, I was very aware of the warnings about unexploded ordnance (UXO) which are still in the paddy fields and on the stone paths.

The serious bit - it is estimated that 30% of all bombs dropped by our 'cousins' from '64 to '73 did not explode and still lie in the ground, waiting for a victim. 2 million tons of explosives were dropped on half a million bombing runs over Laos. There are more than 200 accidents each year, mainly in the paddy fields.

Next day's drive to Vientiane was another experience! We passed an open truck with two elephants standing in the back. A local lady got on and didn't stop talking for the entire five hour journey! At least she kept the driver awake! The only good thing about the roads being so badly potholed is that you can't go too fast, thus allowing time to avoid the oncoming lorries, buses and bikes. We all breathed a sigh of relief on reaching the reasonable sophistication of the capital city.

Spent a lazy morning wandering around Vientiane, climbing the Patuxay Victory Monument and watching work on the new Mekong River Walk. Complimentary car to the airport for my flight to Vietnam.

Laos is certainly an experience - I love their rice whiskey (35%). When I asked for it in hotels, the waiters all laughed - they don't know what a hardened drinker I am!!

Posted by amazingali 19:38 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

A week in Chiang Mai

I fell off my elephant!

sunny 38 °C

Well, I'm not quite sure what all the fuss is about concerning Chiang Mai!

After an uneventful 12-hour train journey from Bangkok, I arrived at this 'mecca' of tourist travel. While waiting at the station in Bangkok, I saw a man steal money from a Buddhist monk who was saying prayers for people who were stopping to give him food and money - he won't get to heaven now will he. On the train, the 'stewardess' served us a lunch of spicy chicken rice - the stuff that makes your lips go numb. That's the most action my lips have had in a while.

The mountains around Chiang Mai are quite spectacular. On Wednesday, I spent a whole day at the Thai Elephant Home which is a rescue place for mistreated elephants - much more ethical than some of the other 'farms' where the elephants put on shows - eeugh. Kimi, a young Japanese girl, and I were given our own elephant and taught how to ride them bareback. We each had our own Mahout who was really giving the orders. We climbed into the jungle and had lunch at the top of a mountain, looking down into a beautiful valley. It was as I was getting off my beast, ready for lunch, that I fell off! Not very far, but I hurt my wrist and we all had a good laugh. After lunch, the elephants had a play in black mud and then we walked slowly back down to the river. We then swam with the elephants which was fantastic and they seemed to have a great time too. A wonderful day and a fantastic place to support in its efforts to save these abused animals.

I've spent a lot of time walking around the city, taking in the sights, sounds and smells. Just about every nation seems to be represented here and it's a great place to be if you want a massage (of any sort), tacky souvenirs or a route out to all points of the compass. I got copies made of the CD of photos given to me at the Elephant Home yesterday and then booked a day at a Cookery School for Friday. Bought some contact lenses for a mere ten pounds and carried on walking, fending off the tuk-tuk drivers who are very persistent. Business is pretty bad at present as the tourists do seem to have stayed out of Thailand to a certain degree.

Had a great day with Andy and Caroline, Julia and two other young Germans at the Cookery School. After walking to the local (REAL) market, we started our wok adventures and managed to cook seven different dishes during the day. None of us could manage the last one, so we took it home for supper. We were all presented with a Recipe Book which I will surely use when I get back. Did you know that rubbing whole tumeric on a mosquito bite stops it itching?

After all my walking over the past few days, I treated myself to an hour's foot massage - bliss. I've decided that I am now all templed out until I get to Laos. There is not enough water in the rivers so I have also postponed my white-water rafting experience!

My last Chiang Mai adventure was to spend four hours on a quad bike, trailing off-road to the top of yet another mountain (1500m) at Mae Rim. Singh, our leader was great - so supportive of the Korean girl who was pretty scared and her boyfriend was a pain. So, the four of us had a fantastic ride up through local tribal villages until we reached the viewpoint with absolutely fabulous views down into the valleys around Chiang Mai. The village people don't look too happy, perhaps because the economy is in a pretty bad state - petrol has tripled in price but the price for their goods hasn't increaded. A little while ago, the King dictated that they stop growing opium and grow cabbages instead - not so much money I'm guessing! On our way up the mountain, we stopped at a roadside cafe and tried rice whiskey - my driving seemed to improve after that.

When we finally got back to base, Singh took up for lunch to Tiger Kingdom - not my idea but it was fantastic to see the tigers up close and personal. When we were there, the Prime Minister was visiting and the place was swarming with police and special agents, some with riot shields and all the gear. As we left the restaurant, a huge Mercedes was parked out front and I joked to Singh that this was our car as it had VIP on the screen. The driver laughed and asked if I wanted to get in - Singh blanched!! The PM is certainly not a popular guy, especially around Chiang Mai which is Taksin's home town. People are worried about what's going to happen when the King dies as the Prince is apparently a waster. Got back to hotel to find that bus to Chiang Khong had mistakenly been booked for the wrong day - never mind - off to Laos tomorrow for my trip down the Mekong.

Posted by amazingali 18:56 Archived in Thailand Tagged events Comments (1)

A week in Bangkok

In loving memory of my dear friend Gill who died this week - a blessed release for her

semi-overcast 34 °C

Bangkok is definitely NOT just Kao San Road and 'ladyboys'. The Skytrain is brilliant for getting down to the Taksin bridge from where you can take the public ferry (less than 20p) and travel for miles up the Chao Phraya river, seeing all the temples and palaces on the way - what an introduction to the city.

Evidence of the 'demonstrations' is seen in burnt out shopping malls and there is a weird public video on the transport system which is like a 'Feed the world' song. I did the tourist bit with an American pilot and visited the Grand Palace, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the solid gold (50 tons) Buddha and the Reclining Buddha - just to mention a few! King Rama IX is revered by all - I saw taxis with the slogan 'Long live the King' and at first thought they meant Elvis! Unfortunately, the tour guides are obliged to take all customers to the Gem Gallery where they give you a really hard sell - never mind. The traffic is quite horrendous but amusing as long as you don't need to be anywhere in a hurry. I have found a Thai Massage place where all the masseurs (male) are blind - what an experience. It was so good, I went back a second time for two hours the next day.

I'm very sorry to report that, everywhere you look, you will find sad, old, ugly Western men, touting their Thai brides about - well I don't suppose they're sad! It looks so incongruous and yes - sad in my book.

I've tried Thai wine - I can't say that France has too much to worry about just yet! The Brisbane Geology professor in my hotel gave me the end of his bottle - generous! I had soft-shelled crab curry at Jim Thompson's house - he was an American silk merchant who loved Bangkok so much, he stayed after the war. He became famous for providing all the beautiful silks for 'The King and I'. Also visited the Royal Barges Museum in the back streets across the river - strange.

Out to the Floating Market, Snake Farm and Thai Village today after a lazy day yesterday with my cousin who was just on a stopover on her way to Perth. The Floating Market was very commercial but you could imagine how it must have been some time ago when everyone brought their produce for exchange. The little canals (Klongs) reminded me slightly of Venice - same principal being the lifeline of the old community. The fishtail boats charge up and down just like the Venetian gondoliers.

Off to Chiang Mai tomorrow after this sad and hectic week here in Bangkok.

Posted by amazingali 04:48 Archived in Thailand Comments (2)

(Entries 11 - 15 of 20) « Page 1 2 [3] 4 »