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Hà Nội – Water Puppets, Final Phởs & Farewells

We had reached day 18 of 30 by the time we disembarked in Vietnam’s capital city. Although a few of us were carrying on through Laos and Thailand, some of the group were leaving after day 20 and flying back to their homes across the world. As in any large group, smaller syndicates are formed through similarities in interests and/or age groups. The group I had become acquainted with included Joaquin, Kirstin, Katharina and, from day 10 when she arrived, Uli. The three girls would be leaving on day 20, along with Kieran, Dane, Heidi, Rose and Daniel, so it was important to make the most of Hà Nội.

Our first stop was at the Water Puppet show… We had no idea what to expect from the experience, but it had been described to us as “unmissable”, “incredible” and “entertaining”, so we were hopeful. We were wrong to be hopeful. With three women crooning into over-amplified microphones in the corner, we sat for over half an hour watching puppets on sticks being dragged through the water by invisible bodies, struggling to understand the storyline. It was not incredible or entertaining, and certainly not unmissable; it was bizarre, and not something I would go back to see in a hurry!

They did this as an encore. I'm not sure why...

They did this as an encore. I’m not sure why…

After a quick stop at the Hà Nội Opera House, we headed back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. Back on day 10 in Hồ Chí Minh City, I had asked Kirstin to go for a meal with me. To my surprise, she had said yes, and for the next week, over a couple of dinners and drinks on the beach, we had become closer. As she was leaving to travel home (to New Zealand) in less than 48 hours, we were going for dinner alone on her penultimate night. Rod had told us of a nice restaurant on the other side of town, but after reaching the place and finding it had gone out of business, we improvised and found a lovely fresh fish restaurant, where one has to walk past the tanks and choose their food as it lives and breathes.

Later that evening, we met the rest of the group at Murphy’s, the Irish bar in town which Rich, the only Irishman in our group, had managed to sniff out with no issue. A night of fun and dancing later, and the next day had arrived, bringing with it a trip to Hồ Chí Minh’s Mausoleum. Surrendering our phones, wallets and cameras, we stepped in to the ominous building.

Hồ Chí Minh's Mausoleum

Hồ Chí Minh’s Mausoleum

He has been embalmed, and is preserved perfectly in a glass case to this day, 44 years after his death. It’s an incredible sight; a corpse that looks not dissimilar to an old man having an afternoon nap. His security presence was the feature of the visit that affected me most. Ten at a time, we were allowed to walk three walls of the room where he lies, in single file, hands in front of one’s body at all times. No photography, talking, food, drink or chewing gum. The old lady in front of me, walking slowly with a cane, stopped for a second, whereupon one of the sixteen guards surrounding the body immediately stepped forward and told her to keep moving. I stepped off the red carpet by no more than a couple of inches and was scolded by another guard. Scary, but extraordinary to have seen the man who gave his name to the most densely populated city in Vietnam.

About a five minute walk away was the Hồ Chí Minh Museum, dedicated to Vietnam’s revolutionary struggles against foreign powers. Widely seen as a propaganda tool of the Vietnamese Communist regime, the museum is filled with memorabilia providing a comprehensive overview of his life and leadership for Vietnamese independence from the early 1940s until his death in 1979.

My ultimate wish is that our entire party and people, closely joining their efforts, will build a peaceful, reunified, independent, democratic and prosperous Vietnam, and make a worthy contribution to the world revolution. Hồ Chí Minh’s testament

Myself, Kirstin, Joaquin, Katharina, Uli & Kieran having one last Phở

Myself, Kirstin, Joaquin, Katharina, Uli & Kieran having one last Phở

After another night on the town, our last day in Hà Nội was upon us. We were up and about early to make the most of the day, and set off for the Temple of Literature, which includes the “Imperial Academy”, Vietnam’s first national university. Built in the 11th century, the pavilions and halls were used for offering ceremonies, studying and taking exams.

Now, the temple is a tourist attraction, but is still frequently used by locals for prayer purposes. There are five courtyards, each with their own beautiful features: topiary, pavilions, the “Well of Heavenly Clarity” and mountains of offerings for Confucius.

Pavilion at the Temple of Literature

Pavilion at the Temple of Literature

And that was that. Our time in Vietnam had come to an end, and it was with a heavy heart that I packed my rucksack and started to say farewell to the people who had made the last three weeks incredibly memorable. Parting with Kirstin was very difficult for me; she had made Southeast Asia a lot of fun and, as well as being intelligent and beautiful, she had a brilliant sense of humour and made me smile. J.M. Barrie wrote, “Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.” I think I said, “I’ll see you soon.”

Vietnam had been incredible; everything I could have hoped for. I cannot wait to return, but for then, it was time to head to the airport and catch a flight to Vientiane, iPod headphones jammed in my ears and feeling sorry for myself…

K+Z

Hạ Long Bay – Bucolic Beauty

The time had finally come. I had primarily come to Vietnam to “boat around Hạ Long Bay” (as it says on my bucket list), so when we arrived at 7am I was ready and raring to go. However, our rooms weren’t ready and we wouldn’t be boarding the boat until later that morning. So while the rest of the group sat in the lobby and either caught up on sleep or read on their Kindles, I went exploring. I walked along the beach, down the main pier and stepped onto the floating platform, accompanied only by two fishermen who completely ignored me.

It was a foggy morning, but the longer I waited, the clearer it got, until suddenly I could see them. In the distance, some of the limestone karsts that the bay is famed for and what I’d come to see. Because of the fog, it was impossible to judge my propinquity to them, but I took some pictures then headed back to the hotel for a power nap before the boat trip.

Limestone karsts in the distance

Limestone karsts in the distance

An hour’s sleep later, and we were on our way to the marina, where thousands of boats were waiting to take tourists through the maze of rock formations. Being December, the water wasn’t busy and the majority of the boats sat empty. We boarded and were told to stay inside the boat until it had left the port, whereupon we would be allowed upstairs. It took about an hour and a half to reach the first sculptures, in which time we lounged on the roof and each had a turn at steering, before we were called downstairs for lunch.

Rod getting cosy with Katharina, Uli, Kirstin, Heidi & Rose

Rod getting cosy with Katharina, Uli, Kirstin, Heidi & Rose

King prawns, noodles and chicken rice were served, and when finished, we all grabbed our cameras and stood on the front of the boat to take pictures of anything and everything. There is no conflation or imbrication of the karsts, which range from 50 to 100 metres in height; each one is completely unique. The sun caused a penumbra on each and every rock, showing the magnitude of the area we were moving through.

Small fishing boats passed us with the locals onboard waving happily. I found this a little surprising, as we had been told that it is due to the high amount of tourism in the area that the area is so foggy, or rather, smoggy. Most of the locals are born on floating villages, live on the water, and die on the same platoons, never setting foot on solid ground. Boats laden with exotic fruits and vegetables pulled up next to ours and the inhabitants threw produce to us in exchange for coins carefully thrown back.

Admiring the view in Hạ Long Bay

Admiring the view in Hạ Long Bay

As we continued through one of the 775 insets, we eventually reached two smaller rocks jutting out of the water. We were informed that the locals call them the “Kissing Chickens”, as they (apparently) look that way. However, none of us could really spot the reference, and we carried on, laughing for a while. My tip: if you are asked if you would like to see them, don’t bother. They are remarkably unremarkable.

Our next stop was to be at the Hang Đầu Gỗ grotto, the largest in the bay. After alighting, we walked the steps to the entrance, and spent the next half hour walking around some of the most beautiful naturally-formed carvings I’ve ever seen. Coloured lights lit up the hundreds of stalagmites and stalactites that decorated the inside of the vast space.

Panorama of the inside of the Hang Đầu Gỗ Grotto

Panorama of the inside of the Hang Đầu Gỗ Grotto

Before returning to shore, we had one last stop at the Dau Go Cave, created in the Pleistocene epoch around two million years ago. In the centre, a huge wooden platform has been constructed, and this was once used as a setting for classical music concerts. As a musician, this was of great interest to me, and when asked why they were no longer held, our guide told us that they had not drawn enough of a crowd. Understandable, being in a cave in the middle of a bay off the coast of Vietnam, as it’s not exactly an easy commute, but a shame nonetheless.

A short while later, we were back on shore and on our way to an Italian restaurant for dinner. One questionable pizza later, and understandably worn out, the majority of the group left for the hotel, but a couple of us sat on the seafront and saw in the evening with a drink or two.

A mother and daughter leave their floating village to offer us fruit

A mother and daughter leave their floating village to offer us fruit

Hạ Long Bay is beautiful and, like everywhere else we’d visited so far in Vietnam, I would head back without hesitation.

The next morning we had a two-hour bus journey to reach Hà Nội, the capital of this amazing country…

Huế by Motorbike

The bus from Hội An to Huế took roughly three hours and included one of the most breathtaking scenes one can ever hope to see. I snapped the picture below from inside the bus, but if you ever saw the Top Gear Vietnam Special, you may remember that this place featured quite prominently. Jeremy Clarkson said in the episode, “That image really is a metaphor for Vietnam; the mountains, the coastline, the big new engineering project and the traditional fishing scene…” He went on to say, “It is a fabulous country, it really is,” and he couldn’t have been more right.

View from the Hải Vân Mountain Pass

View from the Hải Vân Mountain Pass

Once off the Hải Vân Mountain Pass, where the clouds had been so thick that visibility had been no more than 20 feet, it was a straight drive to Huế. The rest of the day was dedicated to a motorbike tour of the city, each of us with our own personal driver, none of whom, we soon realised, spoke one word of English. Huế is situated a few miles inland from the South China Sea on the banks of the Perfume River, and so it was necessary to wrap up a bit warmer for the trip. We drove away from our hotel and opted to have a late lunch instead of waiting four hours for an early dinner.

Once copious amounts of Phở had been consumed, we were back on our bikes and whisked down busy roads, narrow tracks between paddy fields and through tiny villages to get to Thủy Thanh Commune, a small village dependant on rice cultivation, complete with its very own Japanese style Thanh Toan Bridge. (I must stress that taking photos from the back of a rapidly swaying motorbike is not easy, so please excuse the blur!)

Biking through Thủy Thanh Commune

Biking through Thủy Thanh Commune

We met our guide here, a soft spoken Huế local with an impressive grasp on English. He explained to us that the river rises to dangerous levels, wiping out months of hard farming work and rendering 99% of the village people even poorer than normal for the rest of the year. Only a small fraction of the residences are more than one storey, so quite often a house will be completely submerged under flood water.

We went inside the small museum, where a completely batty but incredibly sweet old lady demonstrated for us how the farming tools worked. She showed us how rice is cultivated from stem to individual grain, beating off the husks with a swift blow from her pestle before separating them by chucking the whole lot in the air and catching the grains before the empty shells could float down.

Not a clue, bless her!

Not a clue, bless her!

Leaving Thủy Thanh Commune, we had a short ride to the village of Thuong Ba, the final resting place of Emperor Tự Đức. A pavilion overlooks a bare courtyard with two rows of stone statuettes facing each other, rather like a chess board. On the other side of the pavilion, men fished for their supper, throwing their catch into the boat they’d make their way home in.

Our guide explained that the Emperor was struck by smallpox and became impotent, fathering no children. His Nguyễn army had fought against France, but were no match for their superior tactics and fire power. France had become victorious and were seen as the rulers of the region once more. The last Emperor to rule Vietnam independently, Tự Đức died at the age of 53, cursing the French with his final breath.

Bendik getting into the Asian spirit

Bendik getting into the Asian spirit

We departed, and soon arrived at a roadside shop that sold brightly coloured incense sticks by the thousands. We were sat down individually and given the opportunity to roll our own stick. I must have done OK, because I got a thumbs-up and a grin from the main maker. We were told afterwards that she can make upwards of 5,000 sticks a day, which made me feel a little inferior…

Another short ride later, passing a group of grinning village children waving enthusiastically, we were standing outside an abandoned battle stadium; Hổ Quyền. No ordinary battles had taken place here, though. Not human versus human or even human versus tiger, but tiger versus elephant, an incredibly cruel sport where two animals, one with the advantage of speed and one with the advantage of weight, were pitched against each other. We weren’t told which would most likely win.

Our last stop of the gradually greying day was at the Thiên Mụ Pagoda. This place was going to be more significant to me than I had first thought. At school, I had learned of a monk named Thich Quang Duc who had performed the act of self-immolation in Hồ Chí Minh City. There is a famous picture taken by Malcolm Browne of the event (below). As we came to the end of our tour of the Thiên Mụ Pagoda, we were shown a car; the exact car that took Thich Quang Duc to his death that day.

Thich Quang Duc's self-immolation & the car that took him there

Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation & the car that took him there

Once back at the hotel, Rod told us that there was only one place in Huế worth going for a night out, so we walked down to the Brown Eyes club for an evening of pure cheese: Jenga, music choices that included the Grease Medley and very questionable dancing. It was great fun, and Huế had proved itself as a place worth stopping, even if just for a day.

The next afternoon we were to get our longest sleeper train yet (16 hours) to Hạ Long Bay. This is what I’d been looking forward to for many, many months…

Hội An: Tailored Suits, Cooking Classes & Motorbikes

Another exhausting sleeper train later, and we had arrived in Hội An, a stunning city on the South Central Coast in the Quang Nam province. Our hotel was the best yet; the rooms reminded me of James Bond’s suite in Venice at the end of Casino Royale, with beautiful dark wooden beds and heavy doors leading out onto a balcony overlooking the pool. We had been pleasantly surprised throughout the trip as the itinerary had stated “basic accommodation”. We had been briefed before our arrival; this was the place to buy tailored suits if one so wished.

We were only scheduled for two full days in Hội An, so it was important to get measurements taken as soon as possible. The city is a little inland, so even the short walk from the hotel to the tailors seemed an epic journey in the sweltering heat. Out of the 13 of us on the tour, 12 decided to have something made, whether it be for work, leisure or both. The attraction is so great because the quality of the clothing is faultless, the service is so fast and, of course, it’s very cheap.

Feeling overwhelmed at the choices on offer

Feeling overwhelmed at the choices on offer

Those who know me personally may claim that I am little flamboyant, and I suppose they’re right. The percentage of new people I meet who think I’m gay is probably proof that I’m a tad camp. I didn’t help my case by being a little daft with my choice of jacket and waistcoat linings, but I’ll come back to that in a bit…

That afternoon, we were booked in at the Tam Tam Café for a Vietnamese cuisine cooking class. Adorned with conical hats, we followed our bubbly guide into Hội An’s food market, where she explained what she was getting and what it would be used for. We walked the short distance back to the restaurant laden with everything from rice grass and pork to peanuts and banana leaf. Over the next hour, meat was shredded, added to salad, tossed, seasoned and wrapped in the leaf in which it would be cooked, spring rolls were wrapped delicately and fried, and tomato skins were peeled in a singular helix and wrapped tightly to create a rose decoration.

Tourists? Us?

Tourists? Us?

The best part of the day? We were to eat the fruits of our labour for dinner that evening. We tucked in to the feast on offer, devouring spring rolls and being pleasantly surprised at how well our variation on Chinese Zongzi had turned out. When we had finished, we thanked our hosts and departed.

We had been told to return to the tailors for around 8pm, so the next hour was spent wandering aimlessly down to the Thu Bồn River and taking photos on the famous bridge. We had gotten used to the street sellers now; a young boy was attempting to attract passers-by with candles in floating holders that can be placed on the river, but was not garnering much interest.

Young street vendor

Young street vendor

After a brief visit to the tailors for a couple of adjustments to be noted, a good night’s sleep in comfortable beds and an early breakfast, we were on our way to the motorcycle hire shop. I had never driven a motorcycle before that day and had no idea what to expect, so, once perched on the saddle of my 50cc moped, with a Burberry-esque helmet, flip flops shamefully taken from the previous hotel’s bathroom and borrowed ladies’ sunglasses (my $2 market ones had surprisingly broken), I was ready to pick up a passenger and head the five kilometres to the beach.

Fifteen terrifying minutes later and we were sat on the sand in the blazing sun and cool sea breeze, listening to iPods and reading books on Kindles, and there we stayed for the next three hours. With some expert sand sculpting, Bendik became a mermaid while Kirstin was transformed into a muscle man, complete with rather impressive sand package. Immaturity is undeniably promulgated in numbers.

Kitted out in all the right gear for my first motorbike experience

Kitted out in all the right gear for my first motorbike experience

The afternoon brought clouds with it, and the temperature drop meant we were soon off the beach and heading back to the tailors for one last visit to try and collect our new clothes. I was finally going to see my suit in the fabric as it were, and I was not disappointed. I had ordered a made-to-measure, three-piece pinstripe suit, six shirts (mostly in loud colours and all with double cuffs) and four ties, all for the total sum of US$200 (£130).

But the pièce de résistance, masterpiece and magnum opus was the tricolour silk lining I had chosen. I completely understand if you hate it, but I believe my personality is perfectly personified in those three panels.

Gaudiness defined

Gaudiness defined

Hội An is a beautiful city and yet another place I wouldn’t hesitate in revisiting if I were given half the chance. The city is known for its tailors, and although there are plenty of “up-market” options (A Dong Silk springs to mind), I recommend the one we used whole-heartedly. The women are friendly, helpful, relaxed, open to haggling, and keep your details on record for three years in case you want anything else made. Like most tailors, they also offer a handy postage service for a little extra cost, so your clothes can be waiting for you at home when you get back from your travels. Thông Phi tailors; remember the name.

With our new clothes packed and shipped, we had one more night in Hội An before a three hour bus journey the following morning to Huế

Junk Boating in Nha Trang

Saying goodbye not only to Hồ Chí Minh City, but also to Mika, a gorgeous Japanese sweetheart who was leaving the group, we boarded our first sleeper train to Nha Trang. This in itself was a revelation. We were put up in a first class carriage; in Vietnamese terms, a small cabin with two bunk beds. Apparently the only difference between first and second class is you get a slightly thicker mattress, but one can’t be fussy in Asia, so we wiled away a couple of hours playing a ridiculously addictive card game (Skip-Bo) before hitting the bunks, attempting to stretch, failing and sleeping until our 5am wakeup call.

Dane, Rod, Rose, Dan & Kirstin on the sleeper train

Dane, Rod, Rose, Dan & Kirstin on the sleeper train

Arriving in Nha Trang in darkness, we trekked down to the beach to watch the sunrise. Amusingly, half of the inhabitants had decided to join us to do their morning stretches and T’ai Chi. In all fairness, if I lived there I’d do exactly the same, because as the sun came up, the full beauty of the area revealed itself (Image at the top of this post).

That afternoon, we took a cycle tour to take in some of the sights Nha Trang had to offer. First up was the Long Sơn Pagoda, with its impressive Buddha sitting over 150 steps up with a fantastic view of the city below. Extraordinarily, this whole area was once located elsewhere, but after a cyclone in 1900 which destroyed much of it, it was taken apart, transported and reassembled where it sits today. It is important to note that a surprising symbol may be spotted in such places: the Swastika. However (and this was news to me), before Nazism adopted the symbol as their official emblem, it had been a symbol of peace for over 5,000 years.

Long Sơn Pagoda and Buddha as seen from ground level

Long Sơn Pagoda and Buddha as seen from ground level

A short cycle along the dangerously busy roads brought us to the Po Nagar Cham Towers which sit majestically on the Cù Lao Mountain overlooking the bay. Prayer takes place most of the day here, and tourists are encouraged to light an incense stick and kneel in the Towers. Although I was willing to try anything, my personal view is that their religion is theirs, and it would be wrong for me to encroach upon their rituals seeing as I’m not of the same belief system.

View from the Po Nagar Cham Towers

View from the Po Nagar Cham Towers

A dinner of Phở (what else?) and a better night’s sleep later and we were driven on a warm morning to the marina to board our junk boat for the day. A junk boat is a normal vessel, with seats for passengers and life jackets (that are worn for a maximum of five minutes) for safety; the only differences are that a huge amount of alcohol is consumed and music is constantly booming from hidden speakers. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a day than relaxing in the sun with a cold drink, good music and even better company.

We drifted for 45 minutes through the South China Sea before reaching our first stop, an island dedicated to an aquarium. Not too keen on spending US$20 to see the same fish we could look at over the side of the boat, we waited until everyone had done, and set off for island number two. This time, Joaquin, a Spaniard living in the US, had something to be excited about. He was asked if he’d like to try paragliding, and was in his harness and ready to go before he’d even been told the price. And where better to do it?

Joaquin getting a bird's eye view of the islands

Joaquin getting a bird’s eye view of the islands

Safely back on the ground, we re-boarded our boat and watched half an hour of the strangest Karaoke I’ve ever seen. The nationalities of each passenger were determined, and a song for each thought up and performed by one lucky audience member. For instance, we were serenaded by the Irish with a U2 song, and slightly less relaxingly, by the Kiwis with the Haka. It was so bizarre that the Vietnamese man with a coconut bra went mostly unnoticed.

We departed, and at last, the main event had arrived. This was my chance to be a child again, and I relished every moment of it. With a floating bar set up on the water, the passengers made their way onto the roof of the boat, before jumping, flipping, tumbling and belly-flopping into the water 12 feet below. It was brilliant fun, and something I would do in a flash if I am ever lucky enough to revisit Vietnam. The only downside was that it was jellyfish season. Having never received a jellyfish sting before, it was a little shocking to garner nine in the space of five minutes. An experience all the same!

Karaoke performer from the UK; not quite as muscly as me, but he'll get there...

Karaoke performer from the UK; not quite as muscly as me, but he’ll get there…

The whole day was very memorable, and after an early dinner, it was time to take our next sleeper train to the picturesque city of Hội An

Hồ Chí Minh City, Notre Dame & Củ Chi Tunnels

Six hours on two minibuses saw our group pull up to our hotel in Hồ Chí Minh City, known by the locals as Sài Gòn. It seemed bizarre that Christmas decorations were being put up, not only because it was December 2nd, but because it was 25°C in the shade. It was lovely of the locals to try and make the tourists feel at home, though, and I appreciated it. Christmas is my favourite time of year, and this trip meant missing the build-up, as I’d be arriving back in Heathrow on December 24th.

Anyone who has been to Southeast Asia will know that 99% of travel is done on motorbikes. We’d already experienced that in large doses in Cambodia, but nothing could prepare us for the sheer number of motorcyclists or the complexity of junctions in Hồ Chí Minh City. There’s a trick that my brother, Sterling, taught me; “To cross the road, just walk. Look down at your feet and walk. Motorbikes will zip past in front of and behind you, but don’t break stride.” And it worked. The riders judge where you’re going to be by the time they’re level with you, so they’re able to dodge you. Scary stuff, nonetheless.

A street vendor sorts her goods

A street vendor sorts her goods

During our time exploring, we took in the Hồ Chí Minh City Opera House, traceurs practising Parkour in the park playground, fitness classes utilising castanets, and finally, the jewel: Công xã Paris (Paris Commune) complete with its own version of the Notre Dame de Paris; the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. Finished in the late 19th century, it stands at nearly 200 feet tall, and in the middle of the thriving metropolis, looks a little out of place. After a mental reminder that I wasn’t back in Eastern Europe, we had a brief look around and went for some of our new favourite food; Phở.

In front of the Saigon Notre-Dame (with touristically bright shorts)

In front of the Saigon Notre-Dame (with touristically bright shorts)

After a night out with much shisha smoking (a personal love of mine), it was time to sleep, for the next day would bring with it the famed Củ Chi Tunnels. But first, the war in a nutshell. For around fifteen years, North Vietnam (Democratic Republic of Vietnam) fought with South Vietnam (Republic of Vietnam). The Americans supported the south until 1973, when they withdrew their forces. South Vietnam surrendered two years later, rendering the US’s efforts useless. America had just faced their largest defeat in history; politically and socially.

The tunnels were used by the Viet Cong guerrillas as hideouts, and were their operations base for the Tết Offensive in 1968. The whole forest is riddled with booby traps: huge centrally-pivoted planks in the ground (that, if stepped on, would send the victim falling ten feet onto rusted metal spikes), mines that have not yet been detonated, and other gruesome ways to meet your end. Amid the pitfalls are secret entrances to the three-storey tunnel system. Amazingly, these, along with the tunnels, have been widened to over twice their original size.

Now you see him, now you don't

Now you see him, now you don’t

Our incredibly stout, plump, straight-faced, dry-humoured guide, Fat Man Hi (“If you need me, shout ‘Hi, Fat Man'”) informed us that the tunnels were made very narrow so the “fat Americans” could not fit. Still, it was amazing to think that, with the heavy combat gear, rifle, machine gun, radio, hand grenades, gas mask, rations and a torch, anyone could squeeze themselves in. We were shown tanks, weaponry and rather creepy mannequins portraying the day-to-day lives of the soldiers. (“This soldier flirt with this girl. But she a virgin. ‘Virgin’ is when you don’t know how big the banana is.”)

Then came the inevitable. We were offered the chance to crawl just over 100 metres through the original tunnels. I suffer relatively badly from claustrophobia, sometimes to the point where I can’t breathe if I’m pulling a jumper over my head and it gets stuck. But I was determined to give it a go, so the photo below is not an accurate representation of what was running through my mind by any means. Please permit me to remind you that these tunnels have been widened twofold…

Keeping it together in the Củ Chi Tunnels

Keeping it together in the Củ Chi Tunnels

Once out of the tunnels and back into sweet, fresh air, it was time to leave yet another fascinating place. Our guide had made the day for us. Pictures are one thing, but once one visits these places so full of history, coupled with a local’s view, a much more realistic picture is engrained in the imagination.

That night, we were to take our first overnight train to the city of Nha Trang

Châu Đốc & The Mekong

On day eight of our tour, we crossed from Cambodia into neighbouring Vietnam. We had a few hairy moments at the border as our tour leader was questioned as to why he’d entered the country twelve times in the last twelve months (non-Vietnamese tour leaders are forbidden as it takes a job from a local), but after his shrugged response (“I travel a lot”) had raised a few eyebrows, he was permitted to rejoin us. It was another half hour to Châu Đốc from the border, and the time was spent listening to Rod, our tour leader, explaining some of the differences between Cambodia and Vietnam.

“The Vietnamese seem a lot ruder,” he said, “They shout ‘OI’, but it actually means ‘Hey you!’ and is deemed inoffensive.” He had cottoned on to our fondness of Cambodian Amok, and informed us that we wouldn’t find it again; instead, it would be replaced by Pad Thai and Phở. None of us were quite aware just how much a part of our lives Phở would end up playing. It is a delicious noodle soup normally served with either beef, chicken or seafood. It’s a must-have for every meal in my opinion. It was also pointed out that traffic regulations were a lot stricter. But, after seeing a man on a motorbike in Cambodia wheeling his intravenous drip along beside him, anything was an improvement.

Fish Market at Châu Đốc

Fish Market at Châu Đốc

After unloading our luggage at the hotel, we paid a quick visit to the market before clambering aboard two longboats for a guided tour up a branch of the Mekong; the Hâu River. Several things were apparent: there is no differentiation between men and women when it comes to manual labour (in fact, throughout my time in Southeast Asia, it because very apparent that the women do the bulk of the work), fishing and fish farming are the main trades, floating petrol stations actually exist and an interestingly high percentage of people living on the water have a television.

That last one seemed particularly odd seeing as the average wage per annum for a Vietnamese fisherman is US$1,200. However, whilst visiting a fish farm on the river, we were told that, by way of an incentive, the government provide a free television and satellite connection to anyone who converts their floating house into a fish farm. Ingenious!

A local woman toils on the Hâu River

A local woman toils on the Hâu River

Flooding is obviously a huge problem, not for the residents of the floating houses, but for the locals who live in small villages a little way inland. We visited a small clutch of houses on stilts, built to evade the rising waters. Looking at the height of the first floor level, one could assume they’d gone slightly overboard with their precautions. I did. That is until one sees the markings of previous years’ flood levels. The highest, recorded in 2002, was drawn at 20 feet above the current water level. Quite extraordinary, and relatively difficult to imagine living in such a setting, where, for most of the year you can walk everywhere, but in September and October, you are required to row.

Flood level measuring pole

Flood level measuring pole

As the sun got lower in the sky, we returned to dry land and walked back to the hotel, where Joaquin and I decided to hop on a motorbike each and drive up to Mount Sam to watch the sunset over the paddy fields. A 20 minute journey later and we were stood on top of the mountain, looking over a very misty Châu Đốc; not quite the breathtaking view we’d hoped for. But it was no matter; we had both vowed not to pass up a single opportunity, so we were glad to have done it and knew there would be other chances to take stunning photos along the way.

That evening, we got a real taste of Asian culture. We’d heard the whisperings, but never thought it true. Something mythical whose verisimilitude was unknown to us, until we arrived, and I can now confirm that whole buildings dedicated to karaoke do exist! We booked a room for two hours, ordered our drinks and perused the menu for the first song to play on the 50-inch television and surround sound system. We giggled amongst ourselves at the wailing emanating from the room next door, before realising that, if we could hear them, they would definitely be able to hear us.

Kieran, Dane & Heidi getting into the karaoke spirit

Kieran, Dane & Heidi getting into the karaoke spirit

The funniest thing is that, to avoid copyright, the karaoke company film their own music videos in the style of the original. I guarantee you will never see anything stranger than a weedy Vietnamese man lip syncing to Meatloaf whilst riding an obviously stationary motorcycle against a green screen. Nevertheless, that evening was spent belting out everything from Bohemian Rhapsody to YMCA, and it was great fun. The UK is missing a trick!

Châu Đốc, a lovely place to spend a day and ease yourself into the Vietnamese culture. The next morning brought with it a six hour bus journey to Hồ Chí Minh City

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