Travels without a Plan #22

Vietnam – Home of a Million Organised Tours
Sometimes you have to get away from the hawkers, taxi drivers and postcard sellers that swarm the the streets of Vietnam. I’m starting to see what other backpackers meant when they say that the locals only see you as a walking dollar sign. The best bit of advice that I can give is, be on your guard if you come here (more of that later).

Getting to Vietnam had to have been the most stressful and frustrating journey on my travels so far. The modest sounding 22 hours turned into a 30 hour journey of hellish proportions, in which tempers were lost and the police were threatened to be called. Firstly, no one working on the bus could speak a word of English, and for that reason, we were never told anything – how long stops would be, where we were or what we were doing.

The worst example of this was stopping for 4 hours at 3am, in order for the driver, his family and friends to eat, drink, gamble and sort out the transportation of what can only be described as illegal goods. Yup, us tourists seemed to be the cover for the transportation of unregistered electrical items. This was as obvious as stopping at a petrol station, a white van pulling up, loading the bus with boxes, exchanging money and then driving off again.

After the four hour wait, during which we were told nothing, we drove to the border crossing for 30 minutes, only to find that the officials were not up yet, and they were not too happy at being woken up by a group of hungry, tired and very pissed off tourists. All through my journey in SE Asia, the border crossing into Vietnam has been talked about in terms of the worst in the region, officials being total bastards for no apparent reason, delays of up to five or six hours are not uncommon at all, as officials look through everything. However for us, it was slightly more simple, $1 payment (I’m sure that goes into the pocket), and a wait of around two hours, whilst passports were checked again and again.

We were finally in Vietnam after leaving 14 hours before, it could only could get better. How wrong could we be. We were given a new driver, who probably never went faster than 25km/hour. I kid you not, people on bikes were overtaking us!! One thing that can be said for a slow journey is that it gave the ideal opportunity to take in the scenery – huge rice fields with workers in cone hats working away, whilst water buffaloes grazed nearby, this had to be a picture perfect Vietnam….. however, the scenery could not hide the sense of frustration that was slowly sweeping us tourists.

After four more hours of slow driving we were all getting amazingly hungry. Most people had not eaten for over 20 hours and, with no sign of another break, tempers of some of the passengers were getting frayed, and once someone started to chant “Food, food” we all joined in, much to the bemusement of the Vietnamese locals. Eventually we stopped at the worst roadside cafe, with even worse toilets. If this was what Vietnam was going to be like, it was not a good start…..

For another eight or so hours we continued to drive, with items of contraband constantly toppling on top of people – cans of Red Bull, electric fans, and even a couple of bags of rice. People were not amused. At 11pm as we approached Hanoi, we thought our problems would soon be over, but no, the driver tried to drop us off in an industrial estate over 6km away from any hotels or guest houses. This was the final straw for most of us, and with the driver screaming at us to leave the bus, we all refused. Seeing he had lost the argument, he set off again, stopping at a five star hotel. Of course, no one moved again.

Trying to get some organisation into the proceedings I stepped up with a map of the city indicating where we all wanted to go, this only resulted in his wife screaming even more abuse at me. After much shouting and help from a couple of locals, we realized that the driver was lost, and the only way he could proceed was by following a motorbike into the centre of town, by this time it was 1am, 30 hours after we had set off. Luckily we found a guesthouse, and slept very well.

Hanoi is a beautiful city with great big lakes, parks (mostly dedicated to dead war heroes and Lenin), long wide roads with some great colonial architecture. It really surprised me how beautiful this city was. One of the most striking aspects of the city is the sheer number of motorbikes there are, there are literally thousands and they all love using their horns. It makes the traffic of Bangkok look like some provincial town. Crossing the road became a mission of epic proportions, total madness!!

It was also here that on the 1st of May, Labour Day, thousands of people in the city, including me, took the pilgrimage to see the embalmed body of their beloved communist leader Ho Chi Minh, or as they like to call him “Uncle Ho”, at the Mausoleum. What a bizarre and strange experience, standing in line for over an hour with hundreds of locals all looking very serious. The room is bathed with subtle lighting, tonnes of flowers and there is total silence with the whole room protected by very somber looking guards. In the centre is the body, pale and very dead looking. All in all, very bizarre.

Vietnam, unlike any of the other places that I have been to, seem not to want individuals to make their own way around the country. They charge far too much for transport (up to five times the local price) and make everything as complicated as possible. For us tourists they have the tourist buses that go up and down the country dropping off passengers at all the major towns, it feels totally against what I want to do, but sometimes you have to accept the local way of doing things.

Have been to Halong Bay, an amazing area east of Hanoi. 345 small islands in an area of around 40km, truly beautiful, although the weather was far from perfect. As well as the transport being restricted, the government doesn’t like people to go off and see things on their own, therefore there is a huge market in organised tours where you are shipped from one place to another, allowed to take a couple of photos and then shipped to the next place of interest.

Another tour from the city of Hue is the DMZ Tour, a real opportunity to see some of the most fought over bits of land during the Vietnam War. Many horrifying statistics came out of the tour, the one that stood out most was that the Americans layed 500 million land mines in the central highlands area alone, and they have only recovered half of them. Deaths are still being caused over 25 years after the war. It was also shocking to hear that the areas that we were driving through used to be thick forest until the start of the war, but the Americans’ use of Agent Orange totally stripped that away and still now, scientists are unsure whether the area is affected by the deadly chemicals!!!

After the harrowing tour of Hoi An, it was another nightmare night bus ride (when will I ever learn?), that even the Valium that I was offered by a fellow Brit was unable to get me to sleep. Hoi An is a stunning little town, with a long history of trade with the rest of Asia, and many of the buildings reflect this, with small Japanese meeting houses and assembly halls, beautiful. It also had a fantastic beach, first one in nearly a month and a half, I really miss them!!!

Hoi An is also famous on the backpacker circuit for one other reason – tailors. The tiny little town has over 300 of them. With the best intentions I arrived, but after meeting the shopkeepers, their better halves, mothers, uncles and aunts, all thought that I was going to get away without buying anything soon disappeared. However, I was amazed at how modest I was, firstly due to money, and secondly I didn’t want to carry all the stuff. I had made two pairs of Linen trousers, one perfect copy of my favourite Mambo shirt, another short sleeved shirt, and for complete luxury a handmade pair of boxer shorts, and all this came to the princely sum of 25$US, and the quality is first class.

Then it was a short hop to the seaside party town of Nha Trang. Firstly about this town, if you plan to visit be very careful, as the rip off artists and muggers are out in force, catching drunk foreigners unaware. In the three days I was there I knew four different people (including myself, 13 months of travelling and first hint of a robbery) had items ranging from cash, cameras, and watches snatched. My tale is very common apparently. I was on the beach, taking a leak, when a local came up to me and started being rather too friendly (a true professional), as I was telling her in no uncertain terms that she should f#$k off, she managed to pick pocket me. Luckily I never go out with anything other than cash and it was the end of the night, so hardly any money was taken.

One of highlights of Nha Trang is the legendary “Mama Hahn Boat Trip” around some of the local Islands. To put the boat trip in perspective, Mama Hahn is under house arrest, she no longer goes out with the boats. The boats have now changed the emphasis of their trips. Originally there were all about Smokin’. Now, the new look trips are all about drinking, with the best bit being the floating bar. What a fantastic idea, floating in the South China Sea and drinking red wine under the baking sun. Everyone agreed, with slurry voices, that the trip was a great day.

Then a quick trip to Dalat, “Honeymoon Capital of Vietnam”, so un-subtle that it makes Las Vegas look like a small holiday village. It really was terrible, with parks such as the Village of Love and Sigh Lake. I think you can get the picture. A full day was far too long.

I’m now in Saigon and totally ready to leave Vietnam, just the War Remnant Museum, and the ex American Embassy to see. I leave for Cambodia on a 10 hour bus ride tomorrow morning (wish me luck).

Don’t get me wrong, Vietnam is not a totally bad place, it’s just different from the rest of the laid back, friendly countries of SE Asia. Constantly checking money and being worried about getting ripped off does get very tiring (the influence of Communism, I wonder). But the locals away from tourist areas are amazingly friendly and the scenery is truly stunning. If it’s recent history you’re after, then this place is second to none – Civil War, Communist Revolution, and the most costly War with America. It’s a fascinating place.