Ever since that Top Gear special in Vietnam, I’ve been wanting to visit. And not because I fancy myself as a Clarkson ( does anyone ? ). I’m not entirely sure why. The landscape, or maybe the history, or the madness of the road, or being wild and riding a bike on the country’s single highway linking the north and the south. I was probably enticed by a mixture of things ( somewhere involving Top Gear ).
This is the second installment of my travel post. There is no particular red thread to this post. There’s too much to write, and a lot of it would probably be yawn-inducing. I’ve recalled and set down a few of the things that ( I hope ) are of more interest, and dumped a selection of the better photos.
Snapped this dog, then he tried to snap me:
For starters, I was going solo. I’ve never backpacked alone, and I had mixed feelings about it. My game plan was choosing hostels that had a bar and offered free beers at some point in the evening, not because I wanted to get sloshed on local brew Bia Hoi, but because free beer brings all the boys to the yard. I didn’t realise there would be so many people travelling alone, and it was easier than I thought it would be to get into conversation and meet other travelling folk. In Hanoi, a group of singleton backpackers formed, with whom I went to Halong bay and bar-crawled and ate Bahn Mi and all that. On an overnight bus I got into conversation with another Brit who was also heading south, talked the night away, and afterwards we got off and I didn’t see her again. Turns out you can have a whole conversation without knowing a person’s name.
They say that you’re quite safe in Vietnam. That means you probably won’t get mugged or attacked, but you might get scammed or hit by a motorcycle ( if you don’t pay attention ). I watched an Australian, Jayme, jump at the sound of a horn and land right in the path of a bike which drove up his backside. He bounced off it like a Loony Toons character accidentally sitting on a nail ( and was unscathed ). As for getting ripped off, it only happened once, and we sort of let it happen. In Hanoi there is an army of street vendors, mostly women, with baskets on a pole across their shoulders. One of them started dressing up Jess and me in her traditional hat and baskets, we took photos, then she pushed a bag of fruit into my hand and asked for 50,000VND. I said that was too much, Jess and I gave her what we had loose on us, maybe 30,000, she snatched back half the fruit and we were left with no beer money and some pineapple core. Fair play to her. In any case, I learned from a video in the Museum of Women’s History ( of course I went ) about how street vendors earn next to nothing, get hounded by the police, and spend 10-12 days away from their families to earn money. She got us, and I’m glad. Neither of us wanted any fruit, but we got photos and an anecdote.
Arty shots in Hanoi:
Often when you go to a country or visit a place, you want to find the “real” thing, the “local” food, the “authentic” streets, the “unspoiled” or “not touristy” locations. ( Ironically once you go somewhere you make it both touristy and spoiled. ) The most “authentic” Vietnamese place I went was the lesser known Dong Hoi in central Vietnam. I took a sleeper bus from Hanoi and arrived at half 5 in the morning, with no other option but to wait for the hostel to open and sit on the quayside watching the fishing boats chug into the harbour in the pre-dawn haze. This place was real “local”, and by that I mean there wasn’t a whole lot going on. There were no other backpackers and very little English; I got lunch by walking into a restaurant/fish market, raising my eyebrows in a confused manner that was supposed to mean ‘food?’, and then nodding furiously when a lady said ‘soup’. I’m glad I saw that side of Vietnam, but I’m not sure I’d necessarily recommend it, or go there again.
Because I’m quite claustrophobic, I thought I’d go down into some tiny underground passages. Near Ho Chi Minh city in the south are the Cu Chi tunnels, an underground network in which resistance fighters lived during the American occupation. They measure 120cm by 80cm, and that’s the enlarged replica. The original tunnels are smaller, and full of snakes. I knew that I wanted to go in the tunnels when I was planning my trip ( read: scouring the Lonely Planet guidebook on ma Kindle ). Every time I thought about that small space and having a person ahead and one behind blocking me in, my lungs tightened and I felt the skin ripple up my arms. It’s not a thought I can bear without having a physical reaction. Before we went down, there was a demonstration of the traps ( brutal ) and the tour guide explaining “how we killed the American soldier”. As the first people were going down into the tunnel entrance, I was feeling quite springy. There was a woman stood by the door who couldn’t go down, and I thought, “suck it up, even I’m going down”. Five seconds later I was in the tunnel suppressing a panic attack. It was hot, but the heat in my face wasn’t from the tunnel. Someone was shouting about not looking at her rear, but seeing too much tan-lined bum cheek was not my greatest worry. There’s ladders where you can get out every 10 metres. I managed 20 out of 50, then had to bolt.
I finished off the whole shabang with a Tet Lunar New Year booze up on the rooftop bar of the hostel, had beef noodle soup for breakfast at 2.30am, got a few hours sleep, and left the hostel at half 6 for a connecting flight back to Beijing. In many ways it was a relief to be coming back to a place where I speak the language, can get around without checking a map every two minutes, and have a room that I don’t share with 11 other people. It’s strange to think that Beijing has become a place that I could enjoy returning to, somewhere that I missed, and for all it’s weirdness, somewhere I can call home.