We arrived in Vietnam after a relatively straightforward bus journey across the border from Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The headline story from our time to Vietnam is that we became victims of crime for the first time during our trip. My phone was snatched from my hand in Ho Chi Minh City.
It was mid morning as we walked along Pham Ngu Lao in the direction of Le Loi, the only thing in our way was a massive traffic laden roundabout that we had to negotiate via a pedestrian crossing. The traffic in Hoi Chi Minh City is manic, streams of motorbikes throng the roads in a constant wave of movement, if you are on a bike you enter the steam of traffic and get swept away, if you are a pedestrian you enter the stream and hope that the traffic avoids you. Vietnamese drivers are adept at avoiding pedestrians, unless that is, they are trying to steal your mobile phone.
The traffic was so impressive on the roundabout that I decided to film our crossing to the other side. The pedestrian crossing was huge, spanning at least three of the carriageways that were merging into the round about to our left. It would take us perhaps 40 seconds to reach the other side and I thought our game of frogger with the oncoming traffic would make a good piece of footage.
I was about midway across the crossing with the phone in my hand pointed at the oncoming cars. I was just thinking that I had picked a bad time to film because the traffic at that moment wasn’t quite as bad as it might have been, when suddenly, I became aware of a moped approaching me at some speed from behind. I swung the phone towards the oncoming moped driver for this was the kind of near miss that I had become accustomed to and would make for just the kind of footage that I was looking for . The driver continued to ride directly at me until the whites of our eye balls met. “This would be a great piece of footage” I thought, “a near miss of the typical Vietnamese kind”. Just as that though had crossed my mind, the driver now level with my face simply reached out and gently slid the phone out of my hand and continued his drive towards the busy roundabout leaving me to flounder in one of those split seconds that we always talk about.
After the second had passed my instinct kicked in and I turned to chase my assailant shouting something stronger than “that cheeky little rascal has stolen my phone”. I ran at speed into the traffic laden round about but after about 50 meters I came to my senses and realised I was in danger of getting knocked over as mopeds, buses and lorries screamed past me demonstrating that special Vietnamese “dodge the tourist” skill described above.
I retreated to the roadside to lick my wounds. My phone is like an extension of my right arm. It has proved so useful during this trip, photos, contacts and social media, my flexible link to the outside world. Yes I was gutted, we had been warned repeatedly about the hideously high levels of street crime in Saigon but I like to think that I am street wise and immune from such overt daylight robbery. Pride, as I learned, comes before a fall.
The act of crime was only the start of that days woes. Getting a police report from a police station in Ho Chi Minh deserves the status of an Olympic sport. I got a gold medal eventually but it took the rest of the day, including three visits to the police station and the procurement of a translator for $10 USD. The lowest point came when I was sat in the back room of the small city centre police station whilst the young lethargic policeman took my witness statement through the expensively procured translator. The officer sat slouched on a wooden chair at the other side of a decrepit wooden desk in front of me. If he was slouched any further down the chair he would have fallen under the table. He scribbled with compete lack of interest as I relayed what had happened. Occasionally he paused to pick up an electronic tennis racket-like instrument. He swiped it through the air intermittently and it crackled on contact with its target, the mosquitoes which hovered around the dusty room where were sat. At one point I couldn’t believe it, but one of his colleges joined us and sat in the corner of the room strumming a guitar! The four of us, me, translator, disinterested police man and the guitar playing policeman made for a surreal scene that I will long remember, it was almost worth the $10 dollar translator’s fee. Oh, there was one more person in the room, a black and white picture of Ho Chi Minh hung from the wall above us. I couldn’t help but wonder what he would have made of made of the scene that he was overlooking below.
Eventually I got my police report, I wonder if the insurance claim will be worth it. Losing your phone isn’t really as bad as you imagine. My photos were backed up two days before, Google does a good job of automatically storing contacts. The worst is losing the ability to access social media remotely but deprivation of that kind of post modern activity must occasionally be good for the soul?
Happier times in Hoi Chi Minh City were spent during a “back of the bike tour”. We were picked up in the early evening by two super enthusiastic Vietnamese students. We sat on the back of their bikes and they drove us through the city at night. We visited various authentic eating establishments where we paused for some authentic food before moving on to the next stop. At the first stop we met up with perhaps 20 other folk doing the same tour and after each eating stop we drove on in convey through the crazy city night traffic in Saigon, it was an exhilarating ride and the food that we ate on that tour was some of the best we had on the trip. A crab soup was particularly impressive, a whole crab nestling on a bowl of creamy crabby broth, beautiful!
I also ate a duck embryo out its egg, I wouldn’t have normally done that but I could sense that I was about to become engulfed by peer pressure from the other folk that we were eating with, so I succumbed and ate the baby duck – it actually tasted pretty good.
The next day, we visited the War Remnants Museum to learn more about the Vietnam War and its ongoing affect in the country. The most memorable moment for me was talking to a young American tourist as we stood alongside a US Chinook helicopter which was displayed on the forecourt of the museum’s entrance. It felt a bit uneasy looking at the various American machines of war which were displayed outside the museum, they were all recovered after the conflict after either being shot down or abandoned. There was something a bit trophy like about the displayed helicopters, aircraft and tanks now standing in the middle of the city in the country that they were designed to destroy. I asked the American how he felt as he observed these powerful symbols of his country’s identity now standing helplessly within the walls of a museum in Vietnam. The American told me that his intention to visit the museum was solely out respect, respect for all the war dead and he wasn’t thinking any further than that. He told me that his Grandfather had flown Chinooks in the war and it was uneasy for him to see the same type of flying machine in the confines of the museum but he repeated that he was here out of respect for all those that fought and lost their lives, for him it was a pilgrimage for me a learning experience. Interestingly, he also explained that his “buddy” was waiting for him at the hotel. His buddy was apparently particularly patriotic and it was too much for his pal to bear to visit the museum where the horrors of the conflict are illustrated without reservation.
An easier day was spent running a 10k race at the Vietnam Golf and Country Club. It was the first race that I have run feeling anywhere near good for some time and of course, it was just great to have raced in Vietnam.
We also visited Cu Chi Tunnels by day trip. There is an immense network of tunnels underground which we were given the opportunity of crawling through for about 100m. We were warned that the tunnels were hot and claustrophobic – not the best place for a person that’s shuns lifts in favour of stairs but I had conquered my fear of tight places by going down the Potosi mine in Bolivia so I had to give Cu Chi a go. I was supposed to follow a line of other people in our group but instead I hovered around at the back until most people were well inside (or nearly through!) and then I went for it. I scrambled along and was surprised to find escape routes every twenty meters which helped me to relax a bit. Looking back over the photos to illustrate this blog post I was horrified to see this spider over my shoulder. I had no idea that spider was there If I had have seen it I would have got out of the tunnels in record time!
After leaving Ho Chi Minh we travelled by train to Nha Trangh, a coastal resort that is dominated by Russian tourist. In addition to Vietnamese, the restaurants in Nha Trangh have menus and signs in Russian and the larger shops employ Russian staff. The resort was quite pleasing with a long stretch of sand fronting a wavy blue sea. We met Karen and Ian, in Nha Trangh, a couple from Middlesbrough and we enjoyed their company eating with them twice during our stay.
After four nights in Nga Trangh we ventured on again by train to Hoi An. Lunar New year was approaching and the Vietnamese were travelling in droves, the train was laden with locals and all manner of goods that they were taking the opportunity to move.
Hoi An was a great place, a beautiful town split in two by a quaint river where the reflection of candle light glimmers from the lanterns that float on the water at night. The river banks are flanked with impressive restaurants which come alive in the evening. There are hundreds of shops selling local art work at good prices and the hotels are of good quality and decent value. It was in Hoi An that we met our friends Harper and Gamble who had flown in from Japan. We hired motorbikes and headed out to the ruins of “My Son”, navigating a particularity treacherously busy highway on the way.
We had to save Richie from a motorbike rider that pulled alongside him to try and influence him to drive to her uncle’s shop. We spent the second night in a late night coffee shop (drinking ale). The bars have a curfew of midnight but there was late night football to watch so we hired a taxi driver to take us “underground” and the coffee shop on the outskirts of the town was were we ended up. We sat with a few locals drinking ale from the fridge and watching the football on a screen above. It was about this time that Richie got
a hangover food poisoning but he eventually made a full recovery.
After Hoi An we took a plane to Hanoi. In Hanoi we took a three day, two night trip to Halong Bay. A film of our trip is found here. We spent a night on a junk ship and a night at a remote beach side hotel where spent a brilliant afternoon kayaking alone through the misty bay. On the first night, karaoke was in full swing on the junk boat. It was Lunar New Year’s Eve and the crew were going crazy on the karaoke machine.
Karaoke not being my thing, I hastily made an exit for the fishing which was taking place on the starboard side of the boat. I met an elderly male traveller from Bolton, he explained to me with a typically blunt Lancastrian accent that “as long as there was karaoke inside the boat, he would be outside fishing” – I was with him all the way. I caught two squid, the crew told me that catching the fish was an impressive feat as it wasn’t squid season – perhaps they were massaging my ego, perhaps they were drunk on karaoke.
In Hanoi we watched a performance at the water puppet theatre. It was great watching the puppets including the water breathing dragon. It was the same night that we ended up drinking outside a street bar on the way back to the hotel. We sat amongst hundreds of others on plastic stools surrounding a busy junction up a back street. It was great to watch the life of the vibrant Hanoi night pass by. The midnight curfew kicked in again and we begun our walk back to the hostel. Somewhere along a quiet back street all of a sudden a metal shutter rose sharply from a shop front that were passing. A Vietnamese looking male gestured to us, “quickly, would you like another drink?”. The night was young so why not?
We entered the drinking den and the shutter clattered down behind us. At first we sat with a couple of Irish men doing what Irish men do very well, drink and talk. Later we met Emma and Arnuad who had also found the late night underground establishment. Arnaud was a French man and master of international politics. We had one of those great drunken conversation about international relations. I think we put the world to rights that night and Arnaud was able to explain some of the complexities of the politics of Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam which I had not understood during my recent visits. The complexities of the world became clearer that night.
It was cold in Hanoi so a week later we retreated back South to Da Nang (very close to where we had come from in Hoi An) it was the first time we had travelled backwards on the trip but it was worth it as the clouds broke on the way back and 1 hour later the plane descended into the bright sunshine we have become accustomed to. In Da Nang we struck a great deal, staying at a brand new four star hotel before it had even officially opened. We negotiated a good price in return for acting as guinea pigs so the staff could practice their hotelier skills ahead of the grand hotel opening which was about two weeks later. The hotel was great, a huge skyscraper with a roof top swimming pool and panoramic views across the sprawling white sands of the bay below and the city of Da Nang behind. In the end the attentiveness of the staff became to much to bare. Everywhere we walked someone followed, every door was opened for us, at meal times the staff hovered about our table rushing across to clear of plates as the last mouthful of food hit our mouths – it was all appreciated but far too much!
Da Nang was our last stop in Vietnam. We flew out of the city about a week later. Lunar New Year had come to an end but the Chinese embassy’s were all still closed for the festive period. We needed a visa for China and Russia so we decided to go to South Korea instead.