Vietnam – Dangerously Nice

5 12 2010

(Sorry for the massive delay on this! I just came out of a month in China, in which access to my blog, as well as Facebook and other sites, was banned. Hopefully I didnt lose too many readers!)

Leaving Phnom Penh by riverboat, I headed to the world of pho, conical hats, and ridiculously huge numbers of motorcycles for 15 days. I travelled south to north, arriving into the Mekong Delta region, then moving on north to Saigon, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi, Halong Bay, and Sapa. My Vietnam experience got off to a really great start – the first day on the riverboat through the Mekong Delta (the river of which was swollen since it was the end of the rainy season) gave a gorgeous glimpse into the ways of life of people who live in such a water-filled area. I then had a really great time in Saigon, where I Couchsurfed with a cool young local guy – Phong – in his family home. In addition to taking me around sightseeing on his motorbike (seeing such neat things as the Cu Chi Tunnels – where the Viet Cong held out against the US), we played badminton together and he showed me the best of Vietnamese cuisine! We spent most of our time together eating such delicious things as pho (pronounced like “phaa-er” with a rising tone…ish), bun cha, bun bo Hue, and a variety of other wonderful dishes (see pics below). Basically, Vietnamese food is really damn good, not to mention being dirt cheap and abundant, so that kept me satisfied throughout my time there! 🙂

After Saigon, it was on to the historic town of Hoi An by overnight train, on which I met a host of interesting people including an old Viet guy who could apparently read and write French but not speak it (we communicated by writing each other notes on scrap newspaper!). Hoi An itself was a bit disappointing though – there were hordes of white people and the town’s core was basically just tourist shops, yet there weren’t really any particularly breathtaking sights or things to do that could justify that level of tourism! Ok, there were some nice old buildings, and I did a group daytrip tour to some nice old Khmer-style ruins at a place called My Son (followed by a nice river boat ride back into town), but basically it seemed most people were there to shop for silk and other “specialities” of the town.

After that, it was onto Hue by the most breathtaking train ride I’ve been on yet – with the rail lines running along high mountain ridges along the coastline. Hue started off well – a fairly small city with less concentrated hordes of tourists and with a big Imperial Citadel smack in the middle of it (Hue used to be Vietnam’s capital way back when), as well as cool tombs of old Emperors out in the countryside that I explored via guided group tour on a riverboat. It was all very nice, but after doing group tours to My Son and the tombs, I wanted some solo exploration (the guides on these things are always insane, the white people are irritating, and the itineraries you’re told about when you sign up never match what actually ends up happening), so the next day I rented a motorcycle to explore the Vietnam War DMZ area (“DMZ” is ironic, since this area saw some of the heaviest fighting), which was a couple hours’ drive out of town, with various sites scattered around the countryside. I knew, getting into it, that it would be a long and tiring day of riding, as it was about 2 hours to the first site, then another hour to the next site, another couple hours to the next one, and then a couple hours home again, but it was all a great adventure to me, so I was cool with it. It started off well enough – the riding was beautiful through the countryside and I first visited a DMZ dividing bridge, the Vinh Moc tunnels (similar to Cu Chi, but bigger in tunnel size), and then the main graveyard for the war dead. However, on the ride out to final sight (an old battlefield and war museum, in an area where the hills are apparently still barren because of all the Agent Orange used), disaster quite literally struck. I had just crossed a nice bridge/river and was rubbernecking it, going about 50km/hr or so, when I looked back forward to find myself rapidly heading straight at a large water buffalo on the highway that I hadn’t seen before. My instinct was to sharply veer right, but the cow, already spooked by how fast I was coming at it, had started running right as well. I was too shocked by it all to react any more, and so my motorbike collided with the head of the cow and I and the bike crashed down onto the pavement and rolled forward along it for a good 20 feet. (The cow was fine, apparently). Needless to say, the memory of those moments I spent rolling is one I’d like to forget – all that was really going through my head at the time was shock and confusion along the lines of “Wait.. what? Let me try that again / If only….”, but life, unlike some things, doesn’t have a “reset” button, so I was left a bleeding mess on the pavement and the bike was pretty smashed up too. Luckily, the crash happened in a little village, so a bunch of people rushed around and started staring at me and arguing amongst themselves in Vietnamese as to what to do with me. I surveyed my damage, which was miraculously light – only a few big scrapes, a sore shoulder, a sore hip, and a slightly cracked rib (could’ve easily been a lot worse / fatal). Eventually, an onlooker took me to a nearby clinic, which was a surreal experience – I walked in there, bloodied and messy and the nurse on duty just stared at me a long time, before going away and bringing back a lady who could speak english and whose first words out of her mouth were, “What do you want?” Err… well, some bandages I guess?? Heh – never thought I’d hear those words in a situation like this! After they cleaned me up a bit, the next major problem was the fact that I was over 2 hours away from Hue and my motorbike was screwed. Again, luckily, there was a mechanic not 100 feet from the crash site and he and his boys spent a few hours turning it back into brand new (my bike was a common model, so all the parts were available), though it cost me 50$, with all sorts of “added expenses” when he saw me open my wallet the first time! Mechanics – the same everywhere in the world! During this time, I got some food with some locals and had like 15 people surrounding me, all curious and wanting to talk – so it wasn’t an entirely unpleasant experience! What *was* an entirely unpleasant experience though was having to ride the bike back to Hue, in the darkness (night had fallen already). Talk about having to confront your fears! I, of course, went way more slowly, but nevertheless, no more motorbikes for me!

It should be noted now that the rest of my Vietnam time, especially Hanoi, was hampered by my huge and painful scrapes and bruises, so I couldn’t be as exploratory as before and had to take things more slowly (even now, the scrapes haven’t fully healed).

The next day, I was off again for a long and painful night train ride to Hanoi, which was slowed by flooding (we had to get off the train at like 3am, ride a bus for an hour, then get on a different train) and made painful by my still-oozing wounds. As if there wasn’t enough negative energy around me already, on the way in to Hanoi, our train struck and killed an old man who was apparently on a bike too near to the tracks!

Hanoi itself was nice enough – it has a core ‘old city’ where the streets are filled with merchant shops and each street is geared towards a certain craft (e.g. the shoe street, the gravestone carving street, etc.). I visited the old US POW prison there and watched a Vietnamese water puppetry show, which was cool! Hanoi also has lots of small lakes throughout the town, which were nice to walk around, including one which still has the wreckage of an old B52 bomber in it! There was a big ASEAN conference starting up when I was there too, and I may have seen the convoy of Philippine president Aquino pass me by while I was walking!

After Hanoi, I took the ubiquitous group tour / cruise on Halong Bay, an amazing bay of limestone karsts outside of Hanoi. Tourism is huge, but at least its justified here. The tour I took involved cruising the bay on a boat they term a ‘junk’ (not indicative of its quality though!), stopping off to explore a couple big caves and a floating village. We then spent the night on the boat (which was *freezing* cold!), followed by a long and leisurely cruise back to shore on the second day. While pricey ($40), it was well worth it to me and I met some interesting folks on board as well. Scroll down for pics!

My final Vietnamese destination was Sapa, reached by a sleepless overnight train ride from Hanoi (sleepless because I was cheap and bought a hard seat ticket, which is sometimes ok if the coach is quiet and you can stretch out, but here every seat was full and the guy across from me had a seizure in the middle of the night, which caused quite a stir!). Sapa is a mountain town (i.e. cold! I had to buy a jacket, gloves, and a toque!) whose predominant population is minority tribes (e.g. Hmong, Red Dao) rather than Vietnamese, so the place had a different feel than the rest of Vietnam (most of the tribe folk don’t even speak Vietnamese – their English is better!). While touristy, the views were gorgeous and I spent my time walking around nearby local villages. After that, its off to China!

In short, I would’ve liked to spend more time in Vietnam, as the scenery is beautiful, the food is delicious and the language – while incredibly difficult to speak – is easier to read than some of the others, due to its use of Roman characters. The smoking situation here is insane though – its allowed pretty much everywhere and engaged in whole-heartedly, which probably took a few years off my life! Vietnamese are also pretty crazy drivers (compared to other Southeast Asians, which is saying something!) – they’re on the horn so much that cars are built with horns that don’t sound a single loud tone, but rather a long, pulsating, lower volume tone (at least, I think this is the reason the horns are different, its the only place I’ve heard horns like this!). As for the people, I found them to generally leave you alone and not show as much curiousity or open friendliness as in some of the other places I visited, but you do get some curiousity / people talking to you every once and awhile (especially if you hang out at local eateries and such), so its nice in a way, as you feel more like a local and not always the object of attention, though you still get enough attention to not get lonely!

Just stay away from motorbikes!

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