After many months of you all waiting and me stalling, here it is in all its essay/short novel-form glory- the perilous and hilarious adventures of South Vietnam which commenced on the 28th of December 2012 and ended on the 15th of January 2013. It seems a lifetime ago and the fact it’s now April seems a little ridiculous to me. I am somewhat disappointed I haven’t written this sooner but at least I have managed to write what I can still remember before my goldfish memory leaves only the photos as a record.
It all began, as most travel adventures in S.E. Asia do, with a horrendous bus journey. To say this is the worst travel experience of my life may sound dramatic but I can honestly say that after 17 hours of being imprisoned on low-rate buses I genuinely thought that Ho Chi Minh City was a fictional destination that the travel companies had made up to exploit us all. Of course this was just my delusional sleep-deprived mind talking and when we finally entered the cities chaotic outskirts and saw the Vietnamese billboards and skyscraper tall buildings, excitement crept into my tired body. The reason we had a bad time on the buses comes down to the fact we managed to experience the 3 top worst things to encounter on long-haul journeys anywhere. 1 – Lack of sleep as getting on ‘a sleeper bus’ that has upright chairs at 1am in the morning does not equal sweet dreams. 2 – The awful quality of the buses, they were uncomfortable, dirty and just crap. 3 – The route. We probably took the longest possible one imaginable, through the middle of nowhere on roads that seemed to be installed with some kind of mini-mountain range on their surfaces.
However we are not the kind of people who are fazed by a terrible journey. In fact we all felt that by the end of our time in Vietnam, every sore muscle we had on arrival was worth it. It’s safe to say I absolutely loved Ho Chi Minh, it felt strange to be in such a huge place. The streets reminded me of an Asian kind of New York as the roads were narrow and hemmed in by towering flats and offices. There were so many clothes shops, I have no idea how any of them stay in business. There were chains of Burger King and KFC, western coffee shops and even a designer shopping district with Gucci and Louis Vuitton (clearly in our price range, actually the only one out of those I’ve mentioned that we tried was the ‘asian’ KFC!) after 4 months or so of seeing only Siem Reap or Phnom Penh it was amazing to walk streets which seemed almost similar to the bustling cities of the UK, but with so much more colour and of course a load more Vietnamese people… On our first day we encountered our one and only scam to date so far this year. A taxi driver ‘kindly’ drove us 3 times around the same block to our guesthouse and charged us 6 dollars. We realised as we walked to dinner later that out guesthouse was in fact opposite the bus stop we were dropped at. Laughing it off, it definitely could’ve been worse and somehow I think getting scammed in Vietnam is sort of part of it. Needless to say we were not tricked again! Our guesthouse was called ‘The Red Sun’ and run by a lovely woman who we made friends with during our stay. We’d heard stories that the hospitality in Vietnam was somewhat stony and cold compared to the warmth of Khmer people in Cambodia. I cannot believe how much our welcome at The Red Sun contradicted all of the opinions we’d heard. We spent our days exploring the city from visiting a Green Jade Pagoda to shopping in the Benh Tanh Central market.
One of our best days was our visit to the famous ‘Cu Chi’ tunnels, based just outside of the city. It’s a huge historical site leftover from the days of the guerrilla tactics of the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. The Viet Cong were the liberation army of the North and created a massive series of underground tunnels which turned into an almost city-like complex with underground kitchens, bedrooms and a whole sewage water system. Every part of the tunnel system which stretched at its peak over 360 km in length, was dug out with small spades and done by hand. It was incredible to learn about this community of thousands of Vietnamese who had to give up the most basic human resource, sunlight. For the whole period of the war these remarkable people lived in darkness, babies were born, elders died and deadly attacks were planned deep within the earth. It is impossible for any of us to imagine what those kinds of conditions were like but thousands died inside the tunnels either from disease, starvation, accidental cave ins and of course in attacks from the Americans. They were ingenious in design and even went underneath American camps, so they could ambush in the darkness and then disappear without a trace. We learnt about some different types of tunnel openings, such as fox holes which seemed to be no bigger than a small child in size. We were lucky enough to go into a stretch of the tunnels which had been modified for western sizes as the Vietnamese originals were so tiny. It was terrifying climbing into the earth and shuffling on hand and foot through these cramp passageways in darkness. A lot of people on the tour did maybe only 10 metres of the tunnel system but we managed to complete the 300metre total course which is open to the public. It was an eye-opening experience and of course a bit of a fear we conquered! We also learnt about the traps they created for the American forces in the grounds around the tunnels, they all pretty much involved very sharp spikes and even though they were primitive they looked very very lethal. The most amazing part about these tunnels is that they were completely secret, the Americans never found out the extent of the underground network or managed to infiltrate any of the tunnels properly. I was pretty much in my element as we had learnt about the Vietnam War for my History A level at school so became an informal tour guide… (this happens a lot. Oops.)
We also decided to visit the History Museum in Ho Chi Minh, again based around the Vietnam War period and had some very gruesome exhibits about the effects of Agent Orange, a chemical weapon used to destroy large parts of the Vietnamese jungles. There were huge blown up photographs of deformed babies and children with awful disabilities as a result of the exposure to the deadly chemicals. Even U.S. soldiers were affected and there was one photo of a young American girl I will never forget. It is a huge black and white photograph of a very beautiful child around 5 years old who has bright blonde hair in pigtails and is wearing a pretty white dress. Yet she has no arms. The photograph is beautifully shot in soft focus and it had a profound effect on me due to how her innocence was contrasted with this stark reminder of just how far reaching the war’s consequences were. There were also exhibits showing the press coverage by the American side and of course a lot of extremely biased propaganda against the U.S forces which was to be expected from a Vietnamese museum. It was a pretty tough day to see such Technicolor examples of the violence and of course read more detail about the atrocities committed by the U.S soldiers (e.g. the My Lai massacre…) I am so glad we had the chance to explore how Vietnam shows the war and learn even more about how it affected the country. Things do look positive though and there were many displays focusing on the now peaceful relations between Vietnam and the U.S.A.
Although we were spending time delving into Vietnam’s past we of course had our main event of our holiday. New Year’s Eve! I have to say it was the craziest and most surreal experience of my life that I doubt I will be able to match. It consisted first of having awesome matching outfits of the Vietnamese flag on t-shirts… I’m not sure why we decided to all wear matching clothes but if we weren’t going to stand out enough as a group of 5 white girls in a city of millions of Vietnamese then well, now we were pretty much a tourist attraction for them. So we marched out onto the city streets of Ho Chi Minh, eager to find the huge countdown clock which was rumoured to be in a large square in the centre of town. After running through hundreds of people and crossing roads packed with motos (I’m talking thousands upon thousands of the things) we finally found the huge crowd of people waiting for the big countdown. We hadn’t quite realised the scale of the event and learnt later that 8 million Vietnamese people had turned up in the square to watch 2013 begin. This is probably why the crowd pretty much turned into a giant mosh pit, minus the crappy screamo music. Instead there were Vietnamese pop tunes blaring out and we fought our way through the packed crowd to find a spot to watch the giant clock. The display was incredible, with a giant L.E.D covered tower with a globe on the top and huge t.v. screens showing the crowds. Dancers hung from ribbons across the central part of the square and everyone was ‘dancing’ (which was basically shuffling it was so packed.) We seemed to meet and say hello to every single member of the crowd we met and the whole night is a blur of faces I can honestly say I can’t remember (for more reasons than it was just busy haha!) Finally the countdown came and the 5 of us screamed it out in English against the huge 8 million strong chorus of Vietnamese numbers. When the time came it was like everyone had just exploded with excitement and we hugged the crowd around us, we then pushed our way to the front and performed an ‘ad-lib’ version of Aud Lang Syne, seeing as none of us actually knew the words it was hilarious and we attracted a huge audience of random Vietnamese people. After midnight we then spent almost 2 hours posing in photographs with pretty much everyone in the crowd. Trish was even told to hold a woman’s baby and pose with it… I think it was a mix of the matching t-shirts with their flag on and the fact we were the only white faces we saw the whole night!
Ho Chi Minh City had served our NYE expectations and risen above them. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much or had so many photos with people in my life. It was then time to continue our travels to the beach town of Nha Trang. We only had a couple of days in this coastal backpacking destination and were all pretty much expecting some beach time and some good times out! Unfortunately it was overcast most days so no hard-core tanning took place (even with our best efforts of lying in our bikinis during a mini-sandstorm being blown up.) What was incredible to see, because of the less than perfect weather, was the way the sea reacted. The waves reached unbelievable heights and as they plummeted back to earth, sand, rocks and of course a whole load of water threw itself back into the sea. Needless to say I avoided any paddling in the shallows- a couple of the girls braved it during our one attempt at tanning and ran full pelt into the collosal waves. I was seriously worried that I might have to throw myself in after them to rescue them from the raging sea, not that I would’ve helped at all in that situation anyway. But the lack of hot sunshine didn’t put a dampener on our spirits and we had a couple of fun nights just chilling out and enjoying the holiday feeling -A particular favourite of ours was the amazingly named ‘Why not?’ bar… In each place we visited we tried to have a main event or activity we did that we could splurge a bit on, as we were living on as little as possible most days. For Nha Trang we chose to go to a posh restaurant on the sea-front called the ‘Sailing Club.’ I can safely say we will never forget the food we ate that night. It was undoubtedly some of the best food I think I have ever eaten or will ever eat! Especially as fried rice and omelettes had been our travel food of choice, when my seafood risotto presented itself I had to pinch myself. It’s the only time none of us worried about the price (well not until after of course!) We decided we’d been pretty pro so far at living on about 10 dollars worth of a food a day (so that’s what.. 6 pounds?) The food ranged from my heavenly risotto to an incredible creamy cheesecake which has been remembered as a kind of mythical legend now and is often brought up after a week of rice and porridge at our project… Sitting by the sea, watching the angry waves crash onto the beach illuminated in the dark by the restaurant’s floodlights, I had a little thought to myself ‘life doesn’t get a lot better than this.’ The funniest thing was the bill at the end, apart from the fact it was of course a little out of our usual price range, we were using the Vietnamese Dong currency. 10,000 VND is a dollar, so you can imagine what the total looked like. It was in the millions! After our culinary indulgence, the next day we were saying goodbye to Nha Trang and decided to book our sleeper up to the mountainous town of Dalat. The bus journey was again amazing and luxurious as the one from HCMC has been. Compared to the Cambodian sleeper buses these were like travelling guesthouses and I was beginning to think that Vietnam had backpacker travel sorted…
As we travelled further into the misty mountains and into Dalat after another period of endless hours of interrupted sleep and groggy book-reading, I began to see a completely different landscape of Vietnam. The urban scenery and tin-shack store fronts transformed into lush green jungle and endless fields of rice and crops. The road up to Dalat seemed to be carved into the mountain, giving way to spectacular views which slowly became obscured by a thick, cold mist which engulfed our bus. I couldn’t believe we were still in the same country, it felt like we had transported into a completely different world. The road’s edges fell down in sheer drops into jungle-ridden valleys below- luckily they were mostly quite wide so I didn’t fear too much for our lives on this occasion. When we arrived in the town itself the first thing we felt was the cold! Of course we knew it wouldn’t be like the heat of Ho Chi Minh as it was much higher up but it was a big surprise as to just how cold… I had one jumper and a pair of leggings that I had to wear every day with extra layers underneath as well. It was a mere 25 degrees and I think it made us all realise just how much we have acclimatised to the mid-to-high 30s which we live in day-to-day (god help me when I move up to sunny sunny Scotland for university!) The other aspect which surprised us was how much it reminded us of home, not just the weather or the fact everyone was wearing jumpers but just the way the city was laid out. It was again very developed, just as Ho Chi Minh City had developed into a super-city, this town had clearly caught up with the 21st century. The atmosphere was of an almost German-pinewood getaway and again we were warmly greeted by our guesthouse owner. The accommodation was so impressive for the prices we paid and it looked like a kind of hunting lodge! Dalat is actually a very popular Vietnamese tourist destination for families living in the Southern part of the county, so we saw a lot of local holiday-makers that made a lovely change as well. By the end of our time there we had all acquired wooly hats and several new jumpers which we have hardly worn since… Our days mostly consisted of walking down to eat at the fabulous bakeries, scour the beautiful markets and drink amazing coffee! The town was really striking in a lot of ways and I had fun with my camera (maybe too much fun, there were so many photos!)
What sealed the deal in making Dalat our favourite part of the Vietnamese adventure was our day canyoning out in the mountain’s jungles and waterfalls. This was undoubtedly one of the most amazing days of my life! I had no idea what canyoning even was and went along with the other girls excitement with no idea what I had really signed up for… but I’m glad I did! We hopped onto a mini-bus with about 10 other backpackers and thrill-seekers. Mostly middle-aged men, we were the only ones below the age of 25 and I was a little worried that my notorious uncoordination, fear of heights and general failure at sporty activities was going to be noticed big time. However we got chatting to our group and they were all really lovely people- at times they were more scared than any of our group! We arrived at a random point in a jungle-lined road and were kitted up with our life-jackets, harnesses and helmets. I had forgotten to bring any kind of practical shoes (as usual) so was given an attractive pair of old plimsoles which looked like they’d been around longer than me – by the end of the day I completely understood why they looked so dirty! Our instructors were incredible both at English and keeping us safe for the whole day. They were all experienced Vietnamese abseilers and seemed to genuinely love their jobs, somehow I think they must have one of the best jobs in the world! The group trekked down a very very steep hill path deep into the jungle. We stopped by some trees which were growing almost at 45 degree angles to the earth, to practice our abseiling techniques. I have never really been great at this stuff so I was very nervous about trying it out, luckily the instructors were patient and talked me through how to handle myself on the ropes. It was then time to try out what we’d learned! Nothing like a 15ft sheer cliff drop to practice… I’m not quite sure how I did all those things looking back but the adrenaline pumping through my body all day made me feel almost high (no drugs were involved, even if at some points I wished they were haha!) We did 4 different abseils at different areas of the river which we followed. 2 were down cliff faces and then 2 were actually abseils down running waterfalls! Between each abseil we swam through the rivers and slid over rocks. My favourite part was the natural rock slides, were we literally just slid down small waterfalls on our backs! The trekking was really difficult and so so tiring but the only way to reach the climax of our adrenaline adventures. The 25ft waterfall abseil. Yes, I was suspended twenty five meters high, clinging onto a rock with my only my feet that had flowing water plummeting into a lagoon below whilst hanging onto my ropes with the full force of my fear. We went down in pairs and I genuinely don’t think I could’ve done it without Trish being on the rope next to me! The rocks were slippy and half-way down the abseil I had a terrifying moment where I fell to my knees. Somehow, maybe by some kind of divine force, I made it back onto my feet and carried on through the incredible force of the water crashing into my body. The rope ran out at about 7ft from the water below (this was the plan don’t worry) and so we had no choice but to jump and free fall into the lagoon. I had flashbacks to my bungee jump I did whilst fund-raising and after swearing very very loudly to myself I let my fear go, as I did the rope, and the next thing I know I was clambering up to the rocks panting and pretty darn proud of myself! I still can’t quite believe I did it, before this year if someone had told me I’d be doing that I would have laughed in their face. I have put a photo up to prove it, both to you and to myself that I didn’t just dream it all!
We were sad to leave Dalat with it’s quaint coffee shop-fronts and thrill-seeking adventures but we had our last destination to get to. I am in fact not planning on making this blog post into a novel, don’t worry- I just don’t want you to miss out!
A 3 hour mini bus journey stood between us and our next exciting destination on our travels. How bad could it be? Oh, what a question to ask whilst on the roads in South East Asia. I like to refer to that 3 hour journey as a ‘near-death experience.’ One I will not be repeating again unless completely unconscious and so unable to feel the same gut-clenching feeling of thinking each bump of the journey as an opportunity for a dramatic collision. The driver was, in a couple words, completely nuts. The vehicle turned up to our Dalat guesthouse and we assumed it was taking us to another bus, maybe like the brilliant sleeper ones we had so far experienced? As we raced out of the city limits onto those afore-mentioned mountain roads, I had an uneasy feeling that the bus was in fact a myth and this beat-up van we were crammed into was our cage for the next 3 hours. I was right. 25 passengers in total were squashed into this tiny mini-bus along with all the luggage. The seats were damp and I had a suitcase wheel lodged into my side. Thankfully Mui Ne is only 3 hours away from Dalat, we’d endured 17 hours from Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh, across the border, so the 3 hours should’ve passed relatively in no time at all. Each time the driver saw a pot-hole he seemed to speed up so that the small bus would gain some air-time as it sailed across them. When we pulled up in Mui Ne and I staggered out with my backpack I hugged the ground and thanked our lucky stars. It’s definitely something all people that travel go through but I was unbelievably glad it was over!
From a dramatic bus ride, we collapsed into our hostel beds in the beautiful Mui Ne. Although over-run with Russian tourist shops the place had a really lovely holiday feeling and some great restaurants. The beach was beautiful and the waves were a lot kinder to us, allowing some much needed sea-time! After a day relaxing in the sun, we again decided to look for some adventure and had heard about the beauty of the ‘red sand dunes.’ A lovely man at a local BBQ place booked us on his jeep tour for the day. A complete bargain we were expecting maybe a car with a painted ‘JEEP’ sign on it or something. Yet the next morning a real Jeep turned up, if somewhat weather-beaten with our driver who of course spoke little to no English (a lot of pointing to watches and thumbs up ensued.) We felt pretty bad-ass as we sped down the coastal roads into Mui Ne’s incredible natural views. Our first stop was something called ‘Fairy Springs’. I still have no idea why it has that name, it was a stream which we walked down that was lined with the most spectacular orange and white rock formations. It looked like a mini-canyon and like nothing I’ve ever seen before! We also encountered an ostrich-riding centre that is apparently very popular but just looked a bit cruel really, still managed to get a photo with the giant bird though! We then stopped to take some photos of the panoramic harbour views before heading off to the white sand dunes. Mui Ne has several large expanses of desert-like sands, some white and some orangey-red depending on the rocks in the area. The white ones were incredible and it felt like we again had been transported into a completely different part of the world, Dalat felt a million miles away! We decided to rent out two quad-bikes to navigate around the dunes, which was absolutely amazing. Trish was the driver and I clung for dear life as she decided to re-enact some form of extreme quadbiking! I took a thousand photos of the sand whipping around us as the huge dunes surrounded us and we raced wherever we wanted. I have a particularly good video of us almost rolling the quad-bike, pretty much shows our skills at controlling the thing… As if the day could get any better we sped off in the Jeep once again to catch the sunset over the red dunes. The setting sun slowly turned the orange sands to a fiery red and we took silhouetted jumping photos with the dunes as our incredible surroundings.
So, if you’ve made it this far and read all of the above I think you should get some kind of award really. After our time in Mui Ne we headed back to Cambodia and started our new year at our projects. I think you can see why it took me so long to post about Vietnam, it is a somewhat epic story and I don’t really write things half-arsed so at a word count of 4,500 words this is my longest blog to date! I will soon be posting about 2013 in Cambodia, there are lots of stories still to tell. Since I came back in January, my boyfriend has visited, my parents have visited and we have seen Khmer New Year come and go. With under 4 months left on this incredible journey, I don’t want it to ever end.
As always can I say a massive thank you, to everyone who has been holding out for this post and those who made it to the end!
Until next time (in the next month I swear I will write, even if it kills me!) x