I landed in Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon, although still referred to as that by most) late in the evening and was escorted to Pham Ngu Lao (the Western district!) by some kind, if a little bit suspicious, Singaporean business men I had sat next to on the plane. I exited the taxi with an invitation to a conference the following day and a mobile phone number that I would never use. “Oh that sounds wonderful. I’ll give you a call” I decided to lie.
Pham Ngu Lao was, urm, loud. It was gone 11pm by the time I arrived and the night life was in full swing. A bit like Camden on a Saturday evening, only warmer, and a much greater number of motorbikes. Although, probably less people shouting. I thought I might have trouble finding a hostel, but, even at that time of night, there were plenty of touts in the streets offering cheap rooms.
It’s always a totally different experience in an Asian city depending on whether you’re wearing a big rucksack or not. If you aren’t, you tend to get left alone. If you are, everyone wants to know where you’re from, shake your hand, or take you somewhere on the back of a motorbike.
I found something quite easily and, as I hadn’t met anyone yet, resolved to get an early night so I could come out swinging for some history early the next morning. Luckily, the banging music from the karaoke bar stopped penetrating the single French door that I was sleeping next to at around 5am. So that was helpful.
I spent the morning trying to find a quieter hostel and buying an open tour sleeper bus ticket that would take me all the way north to Hanoi via Nha Trang, Hoi An and Hue. I soon found out that Miriam and Emily were in Nha Trang and would be for a couple more nights. I decided against changing hostels in favour of getting the soonest bus I could to go and meet up with them, which would be the following night.
I spent my first afternoon at the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace, scratching up on my ashamedly non-existent knowledge of what happened during the Vietnam war. Whilst the information I received was clearly extremely biased, it was extremely interesting to read through the timeline from French occupancy, through President Ho Chi Minh’s election, the American-funded war with the French, American-backed government, North Vietnamese resistance, American invasion, to the “Fall of Saigon” in 1975. The Reunification Palace was the presidents home during the war, the gates of which were destroyed by tanks that infiltrated the Palace and forced the president to surrender – the event now known as the “Fall of Saigon”.
It was getting dark after the free tour of the Palace finished so I dared myself to get on the back of a motorbike back to my hostel. We discussed football, the entire way. I just agreed and said “Manchester United” whenever I thought it might be appropriate.
The next day, I had booked a trip to go and see the Cuchi Tunnels, where the VietCong were in hiding during the war. They are basically a network of underground tunnels that they would hide in when American troops were nearby. Our group crawled through 20m of these tunnels for about 5 minutes and it was one of the most claustrophobic experiences of my life, particularly when everyone in front of you stopped, and everyone behind you kept going! I couldn’t imagine living down there for days at a time. There were also exhibitions on the booby traps that they would use to injure American soldiers, all of which involved sharpened bamboo, and holes in the ground covered in grass.
The traps stood in stark contrast to what I had learnt the day before about the US Air Force spraying Agent Orange over acres of land, something which is still affecting Vietnamese land and genetics two generations later.
Next stop was Nha Trang, a beach resort around 12 hours by bus from Ho Chi Minh City. I met up with Miriam and Emily which was great fun and we took some motorbikes out to a waterfall about 45 minutes away. There was 7 of us in total. Miriam & I on one bike, Ollie & Hannah, and Carolina & Jake on two others, and Becky on her own. After getting lost and someone driving into the back of Becky, costing her 500,000 Dong (not quite as much as it might sound) or attention from the police, we finally arrived at the waterfall.
One of the nicest feelings in the world is swimming in fresh water after prolonged periods of only swimming in the sea. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sea, but there’s only so much salt water going up your nose you can take. Diving into a deep, fresh, clean waterfall pool is so satisfying.
The next day, we decided to go and check out the mud baths, which was great fun and we took loads of photos of all of us covered in the stuff, but unfortunately Hannah lost her camera, so that was annoying.
One of the weirdest feelings in the world is getting covered in warm, gritty mud after prolonged periods of water. It gets under your eye lids and between your lips, but apparently it’s good for the skin! Followed by some warm mineral baths and a swimming pool, and a day lounging around, drinking beer, and finding out at the end of the day that Becky didn’t believe in evolution. What!? Geordies, eh?
The next day all of that lot had departed southbound and I’d met two guys called Keith and Tom, who were part of a bigger group who had been travelling together since Laos and Cambodia. They were in the process of booking their hostel in Hoi An, which I gladly tagged on to. Keith, Tom and I went off to the waterfall again, and had more motorbike trouble when Tom’s tyre burst about 20 minutes out of town. We went to the waterfall anyway, and it meant that Tom had go back out once we got back to collect the bike, arriving back 5 minutes before his bus departed!
I met up with the whole group (Sarah & Peter, twins from Uxbridge, Mirjana & Mathilda, from Sweden, Dave and Tom, from Canada, and Keith, from Scotland) at the Sunflower Hotel in Hoi An the next day – the best breakfast buffet and swimming pool in the whole of Vietnam. Hoi An is one of the only places in Vietnam that wasn’t bombed during the war, and actually has an ‘Old Town’ with no cars or motorbikes. We hired bicycles and went for an explore.
We got off to a bad start when Keith got shouted at for crossing a holy bridge shirtless and on his bike. He was ushered off towards some market stalls to buy something to cover up and returned minutes later with a red vest (with Vietnamese yellow star) to match his red shorts and flip flops. Lovely. The rest of the bike ride was very nice though, and I spent a lot of it chatting with my new travelling buddies. We finished up with some beers on the river and were joined by a Vietnamese guy who wanted to practice his English with Peter, Keith and I. It very quickly turned into a game of English/Vietnamese Pictionary with all of us scribbling down pictures in his notebook.
On the way back, Peter noticed a sign for Cinnamon River Cruises – a dinner cruise for 3 hours costing the equivalent of about £10. I was skeptical at first, I guess you’re a bit more wary when you haven’t travelled in a big group before, but went with the group consensus.
It turned out to be one of the best value for money experiences I’ve had so far travelling. We got a 5-course Vietnamese meal, the boat to ourselves (with a Christmas themed soundtrack for some reason) and at the end we all floated candles down the river and made a wish. We then met our head waiter in the ‘Before Long’ bar in the Old Town and continued the party, with some shisha, in the lounge area there. The soundtrack in the bar was slightly different than on the boat and included Jamie T (Joe – you’d have loved it!) and Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros (At Home? YouTube it!) so we all had a good sing-a-long!
We were all up early the next morning. The rest of the group had bought plane tickets from Hoi An to Hanoi, but I had already paid for my open tour bus ticket. I left Hoi An at 8am and arrived in Hanoi at 7.30am on the next day. They left Hoi An at about 11.30am, and arrived in Hanoi about an hour later. But luckily, I arrived just in time to get on the same Castaway Tour as them!
Castaway Tour is a 4 hour bus trip out to a harbour, followed by a 5-6 hour boat trip through Halong Bay and a 2 night stay on “Castaway Island” which only has electricity from 8pm to 8am and has only 1 permanent resident – Wes, the island guide, from London. Day 1 is spent travelling and drinking. Day 2 is spent doing water sports, rock-climbing and drinking. Day 3 is spent travelling back and sleeping / or drinking. It was a lot of fun, and we met some great people doing it, including our tour guide Scott.
When back in Hanoi we decided to go for a nice meal, seeing as we’d just eaten the same meal for 3 days straight, and were recommended Avalon, a rooftop restaurant overlooking the lake. The food was a little bit expensive, but we had a lot of fun, and were kindly asked to leave an hour after everybody else had left.
On the way home, we bumped into Scott who was leading a group of backpackers from the hostel to the next bar as the one they were in had just been closed down by the police. Apparently the whole of Vietnam has a midnight curfew, but it’s only enforced in Hanoi, the capital. As such, at midnight a load of police storm all the bars, blow whistles and kick everyone out into the street. After that, if you don’t know where to go, you’re screwed. But, if you knock on the right shutters, you’ll be let into a dimly lit bar full of locals and they’ll close the shutters behind you. Before long, the police will work out what’s going on and close that down too, although sanctions for the places that stay open and the people occupying them seem to be non-existent.
Once all the bars are closed, you have to jump in a cab and ask to be taken to the Phuc Club (you can decide how to pronounce that!) which is the other side of the highway. You get out the cab and a man leads you down an alley, across someone’s garden, down another alley and out onto the river bank. About 100m up is a warehouse with flashing lights and banging music. We arrived at around 1am and the place was empty, but within half an hour the place was crammed with 400 people, locals and westerners. This club is outside the city limits, so the police don’t bother. We stayed until 4am and called it a night.
The next few days were very chilled out and included saying our goodbyes to Dave and Tom (off to Bali) and Mirjana & Mathilda (off to the Philippines) which meant a lot less to me than it did Peter, Sarah and Dave, who had been travelling together for 2 months, in comparison with my 5 days!
Vietnam is an amazing country, and there’s certainly a lot more to do there than I was able to discover in about 14 days. It’s a different kind of travelling though. Because everyone is doing the same route (but either from the North or from the South), you’re constantly bumping into people you’ve met before. And you can’t get it wrong, you just book a bus and make sure you turn up on time, not like in Malaysia where you’re lucky if anyone tells you where the bus you’re about to board is headed. I had a great time, and met some awesome people and did some awesome stuff, it was all just a bit too easy!
Peter, Sarah and Keith had all booked on to the same flight out of Hanoi to Bangkok on 16 March, the day my Visa ran out, so I decided to join them. After that, I’m heading north to Chiang Mai and Pai, before I leave South East Asia for good and head to India. Now that’s the adventure I am looking forward to!
TL;DR – I’m now a certified scuba diver. I got attacked by a fish. Scott talks over people a lot.
On to Thailand. 3 hour minibus at 6am from Penang to the Thai border to collect my 2 week visa, followed by an 8 hour minibus to Surat Thani (only 8 hours due to the 1 hour lunch break half way through – no need), and over night slow boat to Koh Tao. The cheapest place to learn to scuba dive in the world!!
I get to Surat Thani at about 8pm, 3 hours until the boat leaves so plenty of time for my first Thai food and beer – Pad Thai (fried noodles) and Chang. I was also lucky enough to bump into some English speakers (although the boat was almost exclusively western travellers) as I checked in and got food with them. In order of introduction, Brian (American), Scott (Canadian), Phillippe (French) and Katherine (Chino-Kiwi-American – I know, not a real thing) who have all come from the South West (places like Krabbi and Koh Phi Phi, places I won’t be lucky enough to visit now unfortunately) and we all grab some 50 Thai Baht food (£1) and a large Chang (£1.50) and settle at a nearby table, while Scott talks over us all. We discover that Phillippe is a straight-edge, para-glider, before Scott talks over him again. Then we make our way to the boat.
Before we know it, we pull in to Koh Tao (possibly helped by the 2 large Changs each, more probably helped by Scott’s over-the-counter-sleep-aid tablets that were shared round at lights out, i.e. Valium) and we all (except Brian) decide to join Katherine at Big Blue Dive School where she has booked an Open Water course. Scott and I join her on the course, Phillippe just books some fun dives (“Scuba isn’t as fun as flying” – flying being paragliding, of course).
Our Open Water course starts that evening so we spend the morning mucking about in the sea with a ball and a snorkel whilst Katherine moans that we should do something exciting, Scott talks over everyone and Phillippe wears a speedo. We decide to go to High Bar, with a view overlooking the next bay, and we hire a Sŏrngtăaou (converted pick-up truck with benches in the back) to take us there. Bad idea, considering the steepness of the roads up to High Bar!
That evening the course starts. A few videos and some homework on the first night, followed by some theory a session in the extremely heavily chlorinated pool the next day. Before this, we get buddied up into our groups. Scott, Katherine and I get put with two Dutch girls and meet our instructor, Chloe, and Dive Master, Sasha. Then we hit the pool! Whilst Phillippe (in his speedo) takes photos.
The next day we have a test based upon the videos, theory and practical work we have done so far. Everyone except Scott (who fails) scores full marks (serves him right for talking over everyone) but by some miracle he makes enough excuses to pass. Well done everyone! Next we get on the boat for two afternoon fun dives (seeing, amongst other things, Christmas Tree Worms and Angelfish) and the following day we do two morning dives (Hawksbill Turtle, Blue Spotted Ray, and a Nemo!), and we are all now certified Open Water Divers! Go team!
Next up, the Advanced Adventurers course which will allow us to go down to 30m and do night dives, which we agree we will carry on in a couple of days with Chloe and Sasha again. The Dutch girls can’t continue with this one so we get paired up with 2 newbies, Lynn and Viktor. No theory this time, straight out on the boat for two dives that afternoon (a wreck dive and buoyancy test), another one later in the evening once it’s dark (night dive), and two more the following morning (deep dive and navigation test).
During the navigation test, we are given a compass and we have to swim in a square returning to the same spot using headings. Chloe decides that this will be really funny here because there is a Trigger Pit, i.e. an area occupied by a Titan Triggerfish – one of these;
To quote that Wikipedia entry, “although bites are not venomous, the strong teeth can inflict serious injury that may require medical attention” and “the titan triggerfish will not always bite, but can swim at snorkellers and divers escorting them out of their territory” – oh yeah, this should be hilarious! They tell you to get on your back, put your fins between the fish and your body and do some gentle kicks – that should deter it and then it will leave you once you’re out of its territory – just don’t panic! So, we all set off on our squares, as I reach these one corner and come back in the opposite direction I notice that Sasha and Katherine are being attacked by one of these things. They do as explained and our left alone. I have a good laugh to myself.
(Bunning family – if you’re reading this aloud at dinner, Sam better do this bit. Sammy – I want sincere panic in your voice, your life is in danger… Speed up through each paragraph and then slow down again at the end. Okay – Go!)
Next thing it’s after me! What do you expect? You’re in a Buddhist country and you laugh at someone else’s misfortune? Of course you’re going to be attacked by a Titan Triggerfish, you fool! It comes after me and, in my usual cool and casual style, I turn on to my back and give it a couple of kicks of the fins expecting it to back off. But, no. It just keeps coming for me. So, I keep kicking and it keeps coming, so I kick harder, and it’s still there. Harder still, it won’t leave me alone. So much for cool and casual, this things going to eat me alive!! Oh, it’s gone…
I’m alive. I’m fine. I’ve survived. What an experience! Hang on… I can’t breathe. I’m under water. I have an overwhelming urge to gulp air but, for some reason, scuba tanks aren’t built for gulping air. Where’s the surface? 22m upwards. Got to get up there to breathe!!
No. Remember you’re training. You’re a highly skilled Advanced Adventurer. Advanced Adventurers don’t shoot to the top because they can’t breathe. Advanced Adventurers consider the ramifications of decompression sickness, nitrogen bubbles stuck in the body. You know what you’re doing. Remember your training.
(Sam – if that didn’t get across the life threatening panic I was under, then you, and only you, are to blame!)
I swim back over to the group and give Chloe the symbol for “not okay” and then improvise “I can’t breathe” and “my heart is pounding” and she tries to calm me down. Deep breaths. Calm down.
Eventually, I sort myself out and we set off again. My “buddy” (some buddy!) decides that the best thing for me now is to try out our first ‘swim-through’, basically an underwater tunnel. Cheers.
Anyway, as a result of all that stress, I (and the rest of the team, with the exception of Scott who was so busy talking over someone at the time that he forgot to show up for he last days diving) am now an Advanced Adventurer, with a specialisation in panicking when attacked by medium-sized fish.
Next stop, Ko Chang. See you there.
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Time for some much needed rest and relaxation following 2 weeks of drinking heavily in spite of illness; back to KL (not my favourite city!) during Chinese New Year, when everything closes!
I booked up my hostel in advance (near to Chinatown and with a TV room) and found a long book (Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol; two words – ‘anti climax’!) to see me through a few days without needing to do anything energetic, like get drunk, socialise, or leave for anything other than meals. It went well for 2 nights, turning my attention from the book only when I needed to blow my nose or sneeze (once or twice every few seconds) and talking to very few people.
It was actually quite fun, just relaxing and not pressuring myself to enjoy the tourist sites of a city I don’t really enjoy being in. I got a bit more adventurous with food, and even found my favourite hawker stall in the food court. Such a different experience to that day 6 weeks ago when I forced myself to walk round the city for what seemed like hours to discover it was still only 9am and in no way appropriate to pass more time by eating another meal. Urgh. Cities.
Then it was Chinese New Year’s Eve and Jalan Petaling was buzzing with, literally, a firework. Oh, and some firecrackers which were let off far too close to most of the people wandering down the street, leaving most deaf and others needing corrective surgery. Mitch (Canadian guy that I met in Cameron Highlands) had returned to KL from ‘Bamboo Village’ for a flight to Cambodia and had brought an entourage of ‘Bamboo Villagers’ for the NYE party, so I met up with them for beers on their rooftop terrace to watch the firework. So much for not drinking.
Other than that, Chinese New Year was largely unimpressive, more of a family occasion than a partying one, although that’s understandable in a country where alcoholic drinks are (apparently) taxed at 400%! It also lasts for a few weeks, meaning that transport and beds are booked up well in advance by relatives travelling to other parts of the country to visit other relatives. As such, I was told I should absolutely think about what I would be doing next and book bus and hostel as far in advance as possible.
Next, I’m walking down Love Lane, Georgetown, Pulau Penang, after a 7 hour bus ride that I almost missed (“Oh, don’t trust the screens, Sir, they’re always wrong…”) at 9pm searching for somewhere to stay. Full. Full. Full. (“Didn’t you know? It’s Chinese New Year. You should have booked in advance!”) Then I stumble across Red Inn Heritage (the other Red Inn) and, by some freak chance, surprising even the owner when she is told by my new room mate who is watching TV nearby, there is a spare bed in a dorm. Done.
Penang is the food paradise of Malaysia, I am told. Little India. Anytime after 7pm. Beautiful. In fact, everywhere I ate there (I stayed 4 nights) was incredible, but Little India was something else. Hawker stalls tend to sell one dish, a grandma’s secret recipe sort of deal, and it’s all incredibly cheap. The only problem is that you can’t try enough of it!
Since my cold had cleared up, time to head to Ko Tao, Thailand for the cheapest Scuba Diving in the world (apparently). I would have loved to have gone to the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia but it’s still too wet and nothing will open there until April – so, it’s the 12 hour minibus followed by the 8 hour night boat to the islands. Joy of joys.