Saturday, 30 April 2011

My Son and The Imperial City

Let's clear things up before I begin. I don't have a son, or any children for that matter. 'My Son' is a collection of Cham ruins outside Hoi An. Everyone says they're Vietnam's Angkor Wat, just a severely scaled down version.

Today's blog post will be incorporating two cities as I've been lazy about updating my blog these past few days. We'll start with Hoi An and My Son, taking us back to Wednesday.

Our trip to My Son had been planned the previous day. Gad and I would wake up at 4AM and pack our day packs, shower and get ready then head over to where Xan and Joe were staying. We'd meet them at 4:45, jump on the backs of their bikes and follow the tour bus to My Son. This would work out perfectly and we'd only end up paying the entrance fee for My Son. Brilliant!
Needless to say, our plan didn't work out. We woke up at 4 and found an SMS from Xan and Joe saying there was a problem with the bikes and we'd now be leaving at 7. We didn't complain, we were glad to get the extra couple of hours of sleep.

At 7 we jumped on the bikes and headed off. My Son was easy enough to find and it took us only an hour to get there. My Son was incredible. It is so difficult to describe. The sheer grandness of all the structures is mind-boggling and one can only imagine it's grandeur a millennium ago. The ruins hint at a time long ago and of the people who inhabited this incredible place. I am truly at a loss for words to describe it, the lsat paragraph has taken me fifteen minutes to write. Have a look at some pictures of My Son, they'll help me explain it to you.
The first view of My Son

An idea of the scale

Sight A, the main part of the ancient city
One of the many buildings in site A 

The day after our visit to My Son we headed to the ancient capital of Vietnam, Hue. It is in Hue that Ho Chi Minh's body is kept on display for 9 months of the year. Also in Hue is the Imperial City which was the home of the Emperors of the Nguyen - which reined from 1802 to1945. Our first day in Hue was spent getting our bearings and finding good places to eat and drink. Once our scouting was done we planned for the next day. We thought the best PoA was to head to the Citadel and walk around for the day, but only after we'd bought our tickets to Hanoi for the 1st. And so yesterday began with that course of action in mind. It took us more than two hours to sort the tickets out. This is because Gad has an open bus ticket and had payed for it in Saigon. Open bus tickets are supposed to be convenient. In each city you merely notify your guest house the day before you leave and they'll contact a bus to pick you up the next day. It's easy for me as I just book each leg separately, but Gad got sent to 4 different places to book the ticket and at the last place was told he had to pay an extra $9 to book the bus. The whole idea behind an open bus ticket is that you pay up front and you don't have to worry about availability of buses. In the end he managed to get his ticket, but not without serious hassle. We discovered that the extra charge was due to the Hue Festival which is taking place this weekend and the coming week.

A morning worth of exploring Hue had been wasted but we headed over to the Citadel anyway so as not to waste an entire day. In the Citadel we saw the Festival being set up and headed to the Imperial City. The Imperial City is probably one of Vietnam's biggest surprises. It is an enormous walled city in the middle of the Citadel and, despite having the shit bombed out of it during the war, still maintains it's incredible image.

A giant bronze urn in the corner of a courtyard
We spent the best part of 3 hours walking around this massive city, home to the Emperors, and taking in all the sights it has to offer. No photos were allowed in the emperors' main chamber which is a huge disappointment as it was the most spectacular room in the entire compound. A gold-plated throne stood in the middle of the room and poems were written on the walls, ceiling and pillars. There was a lot more that we could take photos of and all of it proved to be incredibly good. At My Son we had to imagine the grandeur many hundreds of years ago, at the Imperial City the grandeur takes no imagining. It jumps out at you from every corner of the place and shocks you to think that it was still in its prime only 65 years ago.

We walked around the Imperial City, lost in its charm and intricacy. We walked through chambers reserved for emperors and temples reserved for the ashes of emperors of old. We sat on the top of the main gate an looked out over the people of the city, as emperors did in years gone by. We were enthralled by the wonder of the place.
The view from the rear of the Forbidden Purple City compound
After an incredible day out we felt the need to wind down with some cheap beer with the locals. Near our guest house we found a place, grabbed a beer and asked a passing tourist to capture the moment.
A chilled lager with which to chill
The empire was built with millions of dong

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Suit Up!

The first thing you hear about Hoi An is that it is Vietnam's premiere destination for suit shopping. It certainly lives up to it's reputation. But before I go into any detail about my time in Hoi An so far let me tell you how I got here...

He's a big lad
Sunday was my last day in Nha Trang. The trip to Hoi An from Nha Trang takes 12 hours so the best choice is to take a sleeper bus overnight. This also saves on a night's accommodation. Sunday arrived as Sundays do, after Saturday and 24 hours before Monday (Rebecca Black would be pleased at my understanding of the days of the week.) I set off in the morning and booked my bus ticket for that evening along with four other Englishmen I'd met while traveling. The bus was leaving at 19h30 so I had another full day in Nha Trang. I had yet to see the giant, seated Buddha statue and decided it would be best to head straight there.

So to the giant Buddha I went (well, Gad and I went, but typing 'I' is so much simpler.) The Buddha is perched on a hill overlooking Nha Trang and there are some fantastic views from the top. To get to the seated  Buddha you must walk past a pagoda, a sleeping Buddha and a giant bell which weighs one and a half tons. I was told that if you stand at the bell the monks would pray for you so I was quite keen to put their prayers to the test. Unfortunately we arrived during the monks' afternoon nap and not a single prayer was heard. Not particularly fussed, we walked the rest of the steps up to the seated Buddha and milled around on the top of the hill, taking pictures and looking like typical tourists. Craving coffee, we headed back down and found the pagoda was being opened. Wanting to take pictures, we asked if we could go in. A monk explained that we could not take pictures until we had done three 'wais' in front of the Buddha statue in the pagoda. A 'wai' is merely a dip of the head and torso with the palms of your hands pressed together in front of your chest. We did our 'wais', snapped some photos and headed off to the nearest coffee shop, 30 metres away.

After a great day on our feet in Nha Trang it was time to lift them and hit the sleeper bus. All five of our group had been put at the back of the bus with no aisle between sleeping berths. The berths aren't exactly very wide so a lot of spooning went down on the trip to Hoi An. It wasn't uncomfortable, but the road wasn't exactly smooth and every bridge is slightly raised above the road level and acts as an extended speed bump. Everyone on the bus would be asleep and the bus would cross a bridge, everyone would be flung a foot above their berths and be rudely woken by the landing. We probably crossed twenty bridges that night.

This kinda makes up for the spooning
Hoi An is an amazing place. I would cross all those bridges twice to get here and still be pleased. The ancient town's architecture is stunning, the market is alive with activity and the whole place lights up at night like no other place in Vietnam. Everywhere you go the streets are lined with shops for suits, dresses and shoes. It's little wonder why Hoi An has been attracting tourists for years.

Gad had come to Hoi An with a single goal in mind: to get a tailored suit. He'd been preparing since Da Lat and was really eager to get going. So, after checking into a hotel, we set off to scout for a good place to buy a suit. Scouting for a suit shop in Hoi An is simple, close your eyes and point in any direction - you will be pointing at a suit shop when you open your eyes. Being sensible people we didn't just walk into any suit shop, we spent about half the day comparing prices and suit quality and pretending to know more than we actually do about suits and how they should look. At this point I would like to add that I'm not getting a suit, not yet at least. When Chris joins me for a month in June we'll be stopping off in Hoi An to do our suit shopping together.

Gad trying on his tailor-made suit
Gad settled on a place run by the famous Mr Xe, an incredibly flamboyant and openly gay Vietnamese man with a really good reputation for making fine suits. I will never buy a suit anywhere but in Vietnam. The prices are so cheap they make everywhere else's prices cry in shame in a dark corner. Gad is getting a cashmere suit with 2 extra pairs of pants, a waistcoat, 2 pure cotton shirts, a trenchcoat and 6 ties for under $300. And it takes only 2 days for everything to be ready. He's picking it up tomorrow morning, having been measured for it yesterday.

It's impossible to talk about Hoi An and not talk about suits, but I'll try add something extra. Hoi An severely lacks a night life. The entire town shuts down after 11PM, but that actually turns out to be a good thing. Very few people are out on the streets at night which means you're able to enjoy the beauty of the place with no other tourists around. And believe me Hoi An is ten times more amazing at night.

Lights start coming on around 5PM and more and more lights flicker into life as it gets darker. By 8 o'clock the town is lit almost entirely by lanterns and takes on a warm, yellow tone. After going to a night club, the walk back to our hotel was breathtaking. There was nobody out and it felt like the entire town was ours. The streets were quiet and the whole of Vietnam seemed, for once, to be resting. It was magnificent.

The market in Hoi An

This certainly makes up for the spooning!

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Re-hitting the Beaches

I'm back at the beach, as you would probably have gathered from the title of this blog. And by the beach I mean the city of Nha Trang. The drive from Da Lat to Nha Trang was out of this world. The bus cruised down and battled up one of the longest mountain passes I have ever seen. I've watched many a Tour de France and I can safely say that the pass we came down would probably kill everybody in the peleton. It wound for approximately 40 kilometres down the sides of mountains with waterfalls cascading down next to the road.

A view down the pass
The view from the top was stunning, but the bus driver wasn't stopping for anything but his lunch break so I had to snap that (left) while hanging out the window of a moving bus.
The drive after the incredible pass was not too impressive and involved a lot of hooting from our bus driver and other cars.

I arrived in Nha Trang, met up with Xan and Joe and arranged a room for the night. It was late the time I arrived, so I couldn't do much more than find a place to chow some food. After a really good bowl of Pho I headed back to the hotel with Gad and was told about a boat tour of four islands in Nha Trang's bay. It was very reasonably priced and looked like a lot of fun so Gad, Joe and I booked for the tour. Later that night I overheard a woman on the phone telling someone how much fun it was. I had wanted to see the giant, seated Buddha today but decided to postpone that until tomorrow.

I'm pleased to announce that the boat tour has gone into second place in the great experiences leaderboard, after the Easy Riders tour. It was an amazing day out on the bay and the tour guide was such a funny character. Bao was his name and he made the whole experience even better. He was full of jokes to share with the tourists and had the craziest laugh. I'm also pleased to announce he has taken second place in the tour-guides' leaderboard, Dunhill is almost impossible to outclass.

Island number one

The boat trip took us out of the harbour, under the cable-car to Vinpearl Land, to a small island far out in the bay. We stopped at this island and were told that we could snorkel there for an hour and a half. We were then given the least effective snorkel and goggle combination possible, but weren't really disappointed because there wasn't much to see. The water was post-card-esque (the only way to describe it) and was really warm. Needless to say, the swim was really refreshing and much-needed.

Bao and his boys...
On the way to the next stop lunch was served, hundreds of plates of food appeared on the table and everyone tucked in like it was their last meal. While we were eating lunch we arrived at the next stop, a floating platform just offshore from the second island. We were told we'd have two hours on this platform and were bitterly disappointed to hear that. The platform was really small and there was no way to get on to the island. We were sure it was a tactic to get tourists to rent an overpriced jetski for 15 minutes or take a boat ride at a ridiculous rate. Thankfully, tour-guide Bao proved us wrong. A few minutes after lunch, he announced the arrival of a Vietnamese boy band. The boy band consisted of three old-timers on guitar, bass and drums with Bao the lead singer. Bao entertained us with some local hits (and one of his own songs about his ex-girlfriend who weighed 100 kilos and broke his cyclo) before introducing the main attraction, a 'lady-boy' dancer and singer. They played a few well-known western numbers before packing up and announcing that the floating bar would now commence.

The floating bar was nothing short of epic. Bao had told everyone they'd be receiving a free cocktail from him in the floating bar. The floating bar was a ring of buoys tossed in the water and manned by Bao. Joe and I were the first people to take the plunge into the water from the deck and head over to the bar with our flotation devices. Bao produced his 'cocktail' which was served in plastic cups and was probably 80% vodka and 20% orange juice. I was sure he'd only give us one 'cocktail' each as that is what he'd told us. This was not the case. Bao literally poured the first cup of that vile stuff down my throat and proceeded to give me six more in the space of 5 minutes. After a 30 second swim back to the boat I was well and truly tipsy. Joe, Gad and I dived a few more times and soaked up some sun before the bar was packed up and the boat headed to the next stop.

The third island
We were charged to use the beach at the next island, but it was cheap and was well worth the money. We spent the two hours at the third island jumping and diving off a pier into the water below. Joe and I perfected the running swan dive and Gad got video evidence of it. There isn't much more to add about the third island except that we also sat in the shade of palm trees.

Between the third and fourth island, fruit was served. Watermelons and pineapples were devoured very quickly by all on board, but especially by us three who had worked up quite an appetite. At this point, to my relief, the 'cocktail' was wearing off and I could enjoy the sun beginning it's downward journey. The fourth island was a bit of a waste of time as it had an aquarium which nobody visited due to the ridiculous price of a ticket. Most of the people on the boat opted to have icecream and wait for the boat to leave for the harbour.

The trip back to the harbour was short and sweet. We said goodbye to Bao and thanked him for the great tour then got on a bus and headed back to our hotel. Upon arrival at the hotel I sat down and started writing this blog.

Keep your dong in your pants if you meet a lady-boy

P.S. I've been asked to add a little bit about Crazy House as I didn't really explain it's origins too well. Crazy House was designed to look like a giant banyan tree, by the architect Dang Viet Nga. Each room has a theme (bear room, eagle room, etc) and can be rented out by people wishing to spend a night in the Crazy House. The inspiration for Crazy House is rumoured to come from the paintings of Salvador Dali. The garden contains concrete mushrooms, animals and flowers and has a strange, surreal atmosphere. It's basically a really weird place which people like to look at.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

An Easy Ride

After a week in the beautiful Mui Ne I tore myself from the beach and headed north to continue my travels. My next stop (and current location) was Da Lat, a small town in the misty mountains of south Vietnam. Wrenching myself from the beach has turned out to be a brilliant decision.

Da Lat is unlike any other town I've visited in Vietnam. It is much cooler due to the elevation and the French influence on the town is strikingly apparent. The craziness I've come to expect from Vietnamese towns and cities isn't missing, but is overshadowed by the almost European feel to the town. Rice paddies have been replaced by strawberry fields and flower farms. You could almost be fooled into thinking this is not Vietnam, until you get on a bike.

On the bus to Da Lat I met an Englishman by the name of Gad who has two weeks left in the country and is heading north to Hanoi. Gad knew a couple of guys who are also heading to Hanoi, but have hired bikes for the journey. Gad had made plans to meet them in Da Lat when he arrived and so it was that I met Xan and Joe. We met in a guesthouse called Peace Cafe and immediately got chatting with some of the famous Easy Riders. The Easy Riders could be described as Vietnam's very own Hell's Angels, minus all the leather and tassles. The Easy Rider we chatted, Dunhill, to was such an incredible character and within seconds of meeting Gad had (not very subtly) hinted that he should marry his daughter. He was such a likeable guy, full of smiles and laughs, and soon we'd agreed to do a tour of Da Lat the following day.

A snapshot of the market from an overpass. Still in Vietnam!
Chuffed with our deal, we headed to the market to see what was on offer. The market was a reminder that we certainly are still in Vietnam, but the fresh produce on offer was different to other markets I've visted. After cruising though the market and trying some locally grown strawberries we went to find a place to eat. My first true disappointment followed. The meals on the menu were a bit more pricey than usual so I went for a simple rice dish with chicken and shrimp. What arrived was the smallest plate of rice I've ever seen with half a chicken's left wing shaved over the top and shrimps which were small enough to be partially invisible. The food tasted good, but the quantity was lacking. Sadly, the meal wasn't my disappointment. When we got around to paying Gad mistook a 500000 dong note for a 5000 dong note. This is an easy mistake to make as they are both blue. The difference is that the 5000d note has a white trim on the edges. I had, by chance, been watching the transaction take place as Gad payed for his meal and noticed Gad's mistake. The man who had served us our food also noticed Gad's mistake and quickly pocketed the 500000d note. I saw this and immediately told him to stop and give back the money he'd just tried to steal. He was taken aback at being caught and quickly left the table. The whole experience put a bit of a dampener on the day's proceedings but that was quickly sorted out with a game of pool at the local pool bar.

Buddha watching over the visitors to the pagoda.
The disappointment of yesterday was washed away by the brilliance of today. We met the Easy Riders, Dunhill and Tim, at 8h30 this morning and headed off to our first stop at a nearby pagoda. At the pagoda Dunhill explained how Vietnamese people place the significance of good deeds and good karma over money (makes one wonder about the guy serving us.) He was full of anecdotes and explained how he'd taken a European couple on a tour and ended up paying for their meals, but saying he was happy to do so as it was a good deed. At the end of the trip, the couple tipped him generously and sponsored his daughter's university education in London. It was at this point that he gave Gad his daughter's address in London, which made us all piss ourselves laughing.

A sad blemish on the history of this fine country
The next stop on our tour was at an old war remnant, a house in which a family had hidden northern soldiers from the Americans. The house had been bombed and all inhabitants were killed. Bullet holes are spread all over the remnants of the house and some of the holes still have bullets in them. It was a chilling reminder of the history of this beautiful country and the effect of the war was brought home when Dunhill showed us where a bullet had hit him in the stomach.

From the war remnant we drove on possibly the most amazing road in the country. It was a ribbon of perfection, winding it's way down the side of a mountain. Driving on it was a good enough experience, but we were also treated to one of the most spectacular vistas on the way down. It is on roads like this that a motorbike truly comes alive. Two wheels allow you to flow down the side of the mountain with such ease and precision and the Easy Riders are masters of their craft, making the experience so much more enjoyable. The mountain pass took us out of Da Lat and into a nearby village where we stopped to see the coffee beans being grown and the process of silk making from silk worm to being woven into scarves and clothes.

The view on the way down
A wall of water. Elephant Falls.
Directly after the silk factory we came to Elephant Falls, one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the region. Thousands of litres of water gush over the falls every second, falling onto large rocks and generating a fine mist. We walked down to the base of the waterfall and sat there, enjoying the cooling effect of the mist. The waterfall is even more spectacular from its base and the sheer quantity of water is mindboggling.
Today's blog is going to be a long one, so if you've got this far I urge to bear with me until the end, I haven't even got to lunch yet.

Bet that last line got you nervous. How much longer is this bastard going to write for?

Not much longer. I've got to lunch. We found a little place alongside a dam and sat down to enjoy some much-needed lunch. Dunhill arranged for a selection of everything to be brought to the table for us to sample and eat. A vast amount of food was placed on the table and we tucked in ravenously. Lunch was one of the highlights of the day because we got to share a meal with the Easy Riders and chat and joke as friends. Dunhill kept adding food to our plates, saying 'Make yourself at home' every time he did so. The setting was perfect and the food was delicious. At the end of the meal there was still some food left uneaten, despite the best efforts of six hungry men to finish it. The English lads and I each payed $4 for the meal, which covered us and the Easy Riders. I still find it amazing that R100 can feed 6 people in this country and food will be left over.

Lunch was followed by a trip to a local rice whisky producer. Petrol is less brutal than Vietnamese rice whisky! We each had a shot of the potent stuff which Tim informed us is 70% alcohol. Unfortunately production was finished for the day so we weren't able to see it being made, but we certainly experienced the final product!

By now clouds were rolling over and it looked ready to rain so we made our way back to Da Lat for our last stop of the day, Crazy House. On the way it started drizzling so we broke out the ponchos at which point the rain stopped. Crazy House is a good name for what was on show. It's not so much a house as someone's acid trip converted into a concrete structure. Words can't really describe Crazy House so I'll show you some pictures instead.

It's been a long post, thanks for your commitment to my blog. If you got this far you deserve a medal. I'm not going to give you a medal, but I think you deserve it.

Dong jokes are hitting an all-time low

P.S. If I've made spelling mistakes in my blog post or any previous blog post it's probably because all computers are set up in Vietnamese so every word I write is underlined in red. I gave up on checking thoroughly as it would take too long.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Mui Ne is Mooi, Ne!

So I've come up with a cheesy title for this latest blog entry and the more astute of my readers will have noticed that the blog itself has a new title. I've changed the title from 'My Backpack in 'Nam' to 'Oliver's Backpack.'  This is because my plans are ever-changing and I will now be incorporating Laos and Cambodia into my trip on the way back south.

You may be wondering what's been keeping me from blogging these past couple of days. Allow me to show you:
Palm-fringed beach. Good morning, Vietnam!
That is what I wake up to every morning in Mui Ne. Okay, not quite, I wake up to this:
I took that photo. That's why it's skew.
But those are the same palm trees in both photos.

What has kept me from blogging was sheer laziness. I have been spent every day since my arrival in the aptly named Mui Ne (It sounds like Mooi, Ne) on the beach. Every day except today. Today I am proud to inform you I got on a motorbike again. And this time I stayed on it. (A little aside: It is my opinion that the towns and cities in this region were named by a horny Afrikaner. To get to Mooi, Ne you have to pass through Phan Thiet - pronounced Fun Tiet. Your journey sounds like this: Fun Tiet! Mooi, Ne?)
The Lonely Planet had informed me that there are some incredible sand dunes about 35km away, hugging a beautiful lake known as Lotus Lake. As a tourist it is my job to take in the sights, so I went off to find a motorbike to hire for the day. Within no time I was heading to the sand dunes.

The first sand dunes I got to are known as the red sand dunes. Strange name, I've heard it has something to do with their colour... I was bitterly disappointed with what was on show. The dunes were certainly a reddish hue, but they weren't as dramatic as described by the guide books. Unperturbed, I headed for the white sand dunes near Lotus Lake. The directions I had been given weren't exactly very specific, but somehow I found my way there.

Upon arrival at the white sand dunes and Lotus Lake a monkey saw it fit to attempt to bite my leg. Thankfully for me, yet sadly for it it was chained to a post and couldn't get close enough. Lotus Lake was pretty cool and  proved to be aptly named, as there were indeed lotus flowers in the lake. The sand dunes, however, were nothing special.
Lotus Lake
After an hour in the dunes and an hour in the shade of the trees in the above picture I headed back to Mui Ne for a much needed swim.

I arrived back in Mui Ne, returned the bike and charged to the sea for a dip. I plunged into the water and felt immediately refreshed. The water is incredibly warm and I would have stayed in for longer if the sun hadn't been threatening to roast my shoulders. So, being the sensible lad I am I headed out of the water for the shade of a nearby palm tree. It was then that whatever gods there may be decided to shit on my head from a lofty height. A bloody jelly fish stung me on the eyelid. I know exactly how to get rid of the sting, but how the hell was I supposed to piss on my face? I opted for the more sane option and gunned it back to my guest house and hit the shower.

My recovery has been made, so don't fret. My eye is completely operational and only a slight sting remains. No swelling just yet.

Don't let a jellyfish near your dong

P.S. This is what a fishing village looks like in Vietnam:
Boats, lots of boats.

Monday, 11 April 2011

My Tho and the Moto


It's been a while, hey. I blame backwater syndrome, you know, when you get off the beaten track finding the interwebz can be a bit tricky.

So after Can Tho I headed to a little place called My Tho, considered the entrance to the Mekond Delta region. On the bus to My Tho I met French couple who were planning on doing a stay in My Tho similar to mine. Fred and Carine were their names and we decided to try the same hotel for a room. The hotel we wanted to get to was the Rang Dong Mini-hotel.

We hopped off the bus in My Tho and were surrounded by moto taxi riders. We told them where we wanted to go and settled on a price and were whisked off to the Rang Dong Hotel. The idea was to find a cheap room, something the Rang Dong hotel doesn't offer, but the Rang Dong mini-hotel does. We'd been taken to the wrong place and ended up walking about 4 kilometres in the heat of the day to get to a cheap place.

The incredible dragon fruit
After settling in we spent the rest of the day wandering around the markets. A local recommeded a place to eat that evening and we went to check it out. On the walk to the place that evening I bought some dragon fruit which would serve as my dessert. And as an added bonus, I took a photo to share with you. At supper we planned to hire motorbikes the next day to get to a snake farm (where Fred and I were going to sample snake blood) and then Ben Tre.

After enjoying our really cheap meal we headed back and arranged to collect the motorbikes the next morning. We went to the place we'd arranged to fetch the motorbikes from and got two motorbikes. One for Fred and Carine and the other for me. It was the first time I have ever driven a motorbike and doing it in the craziness that are the roads of Vietnam just added to the intensity of the experience.

That poor monkey, chained to the tree by its neck
I quickly got the hang of it and soon we had arrived at the snake farm. The snake farm turned out to be more like a zoo and was possibly one of the most depressing things I have seen in my life. The snakes were kept in tiny cages, too small for their size and the other animals were treated even worse. We saw a tiny monkey chained to a tree by its neck, bears in cages only twice their size and otters pacing  around a cage with only mud where water should have been.

To give you an idea of the roads and bridges
Shocked by the terrible conditions we dashed off to have some coffee and breakfast, just wanting to get as far away as possible. After breakfast we crossed an 8km long bridge to get to Ben Tre. Ben Tre itself was a disappointment as we didn't have a map to guide us around. Instead of wasting our time getting lost in Ben Tre we thought it better to get lost on the back roads around Ben Tre. It was on these tiny roads that the motorbike (actually a scooter) came alive. We rode on thin strips of tar and gravel and ducked off the roads onto tiny paths. We crossed bridges only just big enough to fit a scooter and bumped and bounced our way past tiny farms and houses.

After hours upon hours of driving on the back roads we headed back to Ben Tre for a snack. After the snack we agreed to head back to My Tho as we had given up trying to navigate Ben Tre. On the way back I had an experience which would be remembered above all others on this day. My first motorcycle accident.

That's me, on the bridge back to My Tho
I was in a turning circle, turning to get onto the right road to reach My Tho when another motorbiker gunned it past me through my blind spot and clipped my front wheel. My front wheel straightened up and I came off. Unsurprisingly, so did some skin on my elbow, knee, ankle and hip. No major damage was done and I was able to get up. The police arrived on the scene within 30 seconds and I thought 'Fuck, I'm going to get arrested!' Thankfully the police were absolutely useless and left without even helping me to get my bike up and off the road. As road acidents go this was very tame and I was up and on my bike again in no time.

We headed back to My Tho, dropped the bikes off and had an overpriced, but welcome, stiff drink. All in all my first motorbiking experience was one for the record books and I loved every minute of it. Even the crash, especially the crash. It somehow rounded off the whole experience. I now have my first war wounds from Nam.

Get your dong out for a motorbike ride

Battle scars.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Mekong River

Before I get to the crux of this blog post let me show you a little something I've been wanted to show you for a while:
The (in)famous bia hoi
And now for the crux.

I spent most of today on the Mekong River. I had to get up at a ridiculous hour this morning to get on a boat that would be taking me (us, as it turned out. A Canadian couple was also on the boat) on a trip along the Mekong River. The idea was that we'd catch the sunrise while on the river then head down to Cai Rang floating market followed by another floating market and then a meander back to Can Tho through the mangrove-lined canals.

I just killed the crus of my blog post, I've managed a synopsis of the day's events in a single paragraph, which happens to include the world's most ungainly sentence. But I digress.

The sunrise.
We set off really early, cruising down the river in the early morning light, waiting for what was supposed to be an amazing sunrise. Needless to say the sun rose, but certainly not amazingly. Something about it rising over construction cranes and steel pipes nullified the effect a bit. The sun definitely was a striking orange hue, but the setting let it down a bit. Honestly I blame bad timing on the sun's part, really. It was like timing a stage entrance to collide with one of the moving props. Sloppy, really.

Vietnamese madness on water. Cai Rang floating market.
With the sun letting the team down a bit, Cai Rang floating market needed to make up the lost ground. And it did just that. Cai Rang came out of nowhere with a stunning entrance to the sound of outboard motors and lapping waves (I'm extending my stage metaphor by the way). Hundreds of boats had moored near the bank of the river and their owners were peddling their wares to the surrounding boats. The market itself was incredible, but I must confess a little disappointment in the variety of wares available. Most boats were selling pineapples, watermelons and other fresh produce. With the exception of a few boats selling crabs or fish there was very little on offer besides fruit. Our guide bought a couple of pineapples and we navigated through the market for a while before heading off.

We ducked down a little canal shortly after leaving Cai Rang. It was in this fated place that I had an epiphany of epic proportions. We moored at a little Vietnamese coffee shop/sitdown place with coffee and tea... I don't know what you would call it. Restaurant certainly doesn't fit the bill. Anyway, we moored at this little place and got out of the boat. Our guide then took us to see how the Vietnamese people make the fabled Pho. We were able to see all the steps in the process and were quite amazed by how much work goes into making those delicious noodles. After gawking like idiots at the process we went back to the coffee shop. I'll call it a coffe shop from now on, it makes life a little easier for me.
An epiphany in a glass.
 So we sat down and a menu was produced. I'd heard that Vietnamese coffee is good, so I ordered a hot coffee. Ice coffee was also available, which is why I called is a hot coffee. A tiny, steaming glass of coffee arrived five minutes later bringing with it a rich aroma. That first sip was the start of the epiphany I mentioned. Vietnamese coffee is the greatest thing ever to grace the planet. It blew me away. It was rich and flavoursome, potent but not at all bitter. It was almost creamy in its texture. Quite plainly, it is the greatest thing that happened to me today. I left the coffee shop wanting to go back for more immediately. And at 10 000 dong (R3.50) a glass, I should have. But we had more of the tour to do.

The nest floating market we reached was smaller than Cai Rang, but a little more diverse. Apart from freshp fruit and veg, there were cloths and clothes available. We only spent long enough at this market to buy some carrots as there were very few boats there in comparison to Cai Rang. After our brief stop we headed off the Mekong river into a nearby canal. What lay ahead was a slow, peaceful meander down canals lined with mangroves. We puttered along, snaking back and forth with the river for a couple of hours until we reached another coffee shop/lunchy place. After the gentle cruise down the canals, sitting and having an ice coffee in the shade was pure bliss.

After nearly 8 hours of Mekong River cruising we arrived back at Can Tho. It was 1 o'clock and it was sweltering so I headed back to my guesthouse to cool off near a fan. I then dawdled my way around the riverside district and made my way to this internet cafe to blog about my day. I'm off now to have some chow.

I'm running out of dong jokes already

P.S. Look what I spotted floating in the river. 
Pollution is pretty bad, but this is just ridiculous!
He shouldn't be smiling.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

To Can Tho


I've booked my bus ticket to Can Tho, in the Mekong Delta, and will be heading off tomorrow morning. It also looks like it could be the most complicated bus journey I've ever undertaken. It has already proven to be quite a task.

I had a little business card from the bus company saying that they go to Can Tho and Mui Ne and Da Lat and Nha Trang etc etc. So I wandered over to the offices this morning and asked for a ticket to Can Tho. Unfortunately the lady who was helping me didn't speak much English, but she explained to me that if I want to go south I have to go to their other offices. She then showed me the address on the business card. I looked at my little map of central HCMC to see if I could find the street, but failed. I handed the map over to the lady and asked her to mark the spot. She drew a little dot right on the edge of my map. The road she had pointed out to me was only just visible on the map and was too small to have the street name shown.

I gauged that it was within walking distance and set off. It took me about half an hour to get there, but it was easy enough to find.

Now you're probably wondering why I said this could be a complicated bus journey. I'll explain. I'd bought the ticket and was told I need to be back there at 7 the next morning. An hour before my bus was due to leave. I asked why I needed to be there so much earlier and was told that there is a bus that will pick me up and take me to the 'big bus station' where I'll find another bus to take me to Can Tho. This would ordinarily be an easy thing to do, take a bus there, switch buses and head to Can Tho. No problem.

Well, it would be easy if people spoke English. It could prove to be a little more challenging to try communicate with people in different languages.

It should be a great experience though and I relish the challenge.

It rained last night. I was having supper and a bia hoi and there was lightning around. To be brutally honest I was disappointed with the weather's meager performance last night. The rain telegraphed its arrival like a real amateur and I was able to get under an umbrella long before it started raining. Rain like that happens in South Africa all the time. I expected more from the weather. I wanted raindrops the size of kittens and rivers forming where streets used to be. I wanted tourists to be flailing around screaming "the horror... the horror!"

Only damp dong

Monday, 4 April 2011

Those Long-Awaited Pictures

Hey there,
As promised I've found a place to connect my camera and upload some photos for your enjoyment.
My first Vietnamese meal. A Bowl of Pho

At the War Remnants Museum

Ben Thahn Market. Knock-off watches

Titanic made an appearance at Ben Thahn

Shrine at the centre of one of many parks in HCMC

The sweetest coconut... in the world

Goldfish being sold from the back of a motorbike
The Local Lager - Saigon
The Saigon River, complete with boat of sand
A room in Reunification Palace, all-lacquer
A relaxed room in Reunification Palace
In the basement of Reunification Palace. The huge red button was just a reset button :(
A temple of some sorts
Sitting on a tiger
Bui Vien Street at about 21:00