Thursday, 29 November 2012

A Squash and a Squeeze: Sayonara Saigon

Ho Chi Minh (the city formerly known and still referred to as Saigon) with its 14 lanes of traffic, millions of scooters and thousands of hotels was a bit of a change from Russian beach town Mui Ne. It still has all the hallmarks of your typical asian city: tat vendors, side shops, kamikaze roads to cross, people wearing pajamas day to day, but is a very different city to Hanoi and I think I like it more. There are more open spaces, the roads are bigger (less of a chance to get lost in the maze), the people seem nicer and it's hotter. It's only downside vs Hanoi (aside from the threat of bag snatching) is that the numerous fruit sellers find it acceptable to cut and serve durian in the streets so every now and then you come across a less than favorable smell.

With our new found interest in the Vietnam war we booked onto a tour to visit the Ch Chi tunnels. We waited patiently for our bus in the morning and eventually a small chap with a full head of flowing hair, high waisted jeans, pink neckerchief and beautiful coffee coloured satin shirt came to collect us. 'Jackie' (as in Chan) was a surviving soldier with a childbirth obsession and a knowledgable and entertaining guide. Our fellow bus friends were less than ideal - one giant Malaysian family with odour problems which was quite something in the heat. As the only europeans aboard we were banished to the back row. We did have a seat each (5 between 3!) but there was no suspension so it was ever such a bumpy ride. Jackie was also speaking to us about the war and childbirth so there was no chance to nap.
Before we reached Cu Chi we stopped at a workshop in which (mostly agent-orange affected) artists were on a production line producing some amazing artwork and renovated furniture including the bowls people barter outrageously for in the markets. It was an eye opener when you saw the detail and effort behind every piece, eggshell fragments individually embedded, mother of pearl delicately placed and some pretty nifty brush work. Jackie threw a lot of facts at us on the bus such as since the war there have been 60m births hence why the population is so young, and because there are so many people everything is handmade to increase employment.

We arrived at the tunnels and were joined by a larger group (huge troupe of us now) and started the tour. (I should also mention that mr.chan randomly bought Lauren an iceream which she graciously accepted in the sweltering heat). Jackie was telling us all about the area and its significance and explained that the original tunnels were small, cramped and full of beasties and bats (as unused) and that they had some example tunnels for tourists that were bigger to accommodate for westerners. He asked if anyone wanted to go in the original tunnel and a handsome Aussie lad volunteered. Jackie then moved some leaves aside an revealed an extremely small hole in the floor. He handed Rick (the handsome Aussie) his phone torch, put the lid back down and left him to find the exit. About a minute later he appeared and other than being a bit sweaty seemed unscathed. A very small handful of people then decided that ok, they'd try and for some reason the three of us thought we would too. I mostly blame Lucy for this as I'd seen a photo of her going into the hole and in a tunnel so didn't think it would be that bad. Mistake. Wrong tunnel. Down we went, Bryony, me, Lauren, and once we'd squeezed in there was no going back. It. Was. AWFUL. We were on hands and knees, shoulders touching the walls on both sides, hands on leaves and god knows what (cockroaches and giant millipedes scuttling over them) and bats on the ceiling (happily Bryony was first so they mostly flew into her). Apparently it was only about 10m long but it twisted as turned, was hot as hell, pitch black and quite frankly terrifying. I worked very hard to suppress the rising panic and thankfully this made Lauren and Bryony much calmer as they attempted to calm me. We stayed very close indeed! After a lifetime (about 2 minutes) we heard voices, saw light and THANK THE LORD we at the exit. We emerged sweaty, grubby and shaky,adrenaline pumping. We then realised we hadn't taken a photo (what with the horror and all) so decided to nip into the entrance for a photo op, safe in the knowledge head would be above ground and we wouldn't have to go in again. Bryony and Lauren hopped in, said cheese and climbed out again. I hopped in, said cheese and did NOT pop back out again. As it would happen fatty Wright here has hips decidedly more sizable than the average ayjahn (and the other two!) and lack the upper body strength required to push them back the way they (seemingly effortlessly) came. How hilarious, then less hilarious, then slightly alarming and, on the suggestion I crawl back though, full on panic. There was nothing to put my feet on for help below so I was entirely reliant on arms which had turned to jelly in my (clearly still hilarious) panic. A German man started filming as a couple of the guides attempted to pull me out but I was hot and they weren't helping. Bryony snapped away as Lauren came to my aid and after another lifetime (about 30seconds) I managed to hoof my ass out and clamber out. It was thoroughly ungraceful and simultaneously terrifying, humiliating and very funny. It put me right off my lunch.

Moving on we were shown some horrific Vietnamese booby traps and told more about the very gruesome war. When we got to the 'tourist tunnel' which was bigger, had some lighting and no beasties I couldn't bring myself to go in, so visited at the various safety exits to see how they were getting on. Given my horror on a 10m journey I didn't feel like 200m! I don't think they realised the tunnels were like microphones and everyone on the ground could hear them bleating on about their sweaty mustaches and how they were hotter than baboons. As they had got on fine I did go in the last tunnel, which was about 50m and took you to an underground room. There was still a lot of adrenaline but it was a lot less scary (including seeing a tail disappear into the wall) as we grappled about in the dark and we managed to laugh our way though. It makes you think though - we couldn't cope with two minutes in the actual tunnel and they lived underground for years. Shudder.
Ever the thrilling company

tiny original (taken using camera flash to provide light!)

Realising I was stuck

The 'Bigger' tourist tunnel

Aside from discovering I'm claustrophobic other Ho Chi Minh activities have included a fair amount of wandering (we are much better with bearings here than in Hanoi), the War Remnants Museum (a one sided, graphic look at the war), reunification palace, lots of parks (with bizarre outdoor gyms), bryony finally found her blinking bandana (it feels like an epic journey), tasty market food and frozen yoghurt heaven.

After a relatively event free (tunnel aside) few days something had to crop up before we left and that came in the form of a tiff with our hotel. It was a lovely guest house but we got our washing done and it came back dirty - it neither smelled nor looked clean, so we brought this up and sent it back where they grudgingly did it again. Our grubby cu chi clothes also came back less than fresh (I re-washed mine by hand in the sink afterwards and they were clean with minimal effort so wasn't hard). It wasn't much washing, but it wasn't clean and so we weren't happy paying for the final batch (we had paid for everything else). Eventually the woman snapped and told us to get our stuff and get out, so out we went into the midday heat to kill a couple of hours before our flight. They're a feisty bunch!

Spending a month in 'nam (man) has been an eye opener. We have travelled the length of the country by car, bus, local bus, sleeper bus, train, boat, foot, bike, and motorbike (not to mention quad bike, kayak, sledge and jet ski) - I will never berate south west trains again. And bryony has trodden on my toes more times than i care to count. The only thing left is to fly out... I only wonder what Cambodia has to offer.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Let's go to the beach beach!

For our last day in Hoi An we were treated to a full hour of sunshine which we used to pedal to the beach. On arrival it promptly clouded over but it was still dry so we were happy. It wasn't long before the heavens opened so on went the ponchos, Lauren hopped on the back of the bike and we used the heaviest rain so far as a perfect time to browse the shops (awful idea) before heading back to our hotel to wait for The Sleeper Bus.

The term 'sleeper' bus is extremely misleading. Instead of the standard coach seats we know and loathe the bus is decked out with two levels of pleather recliners with a box at the end for your feet. Obviously it was raining and obviously I was next to a leaky window, so that was nice. As it was about 6pm we were expecting a bit of chat but the lights were swiftly turned out so we entertained ourselves with eye-spy, I-went-shopping and other such classics. Our driver's favourite games appeared to be 'chicken' with the oncoming traffic (braking so you were rammed into the foot box) and 'beep-the-wretched-horn-as-much-as-I-can'. Our confidence in him only increased after he stopped at about 10pm to drink an entire bottle of rice wine. This being 'nam (man) there obviously a few locals crammed in for good measure and us being lucky they slept in the (very narrow) aisle right next to us. I mean he may as well have been spooning me and various limbs invaded my pleather personal space all night. The stop-start journey of no sleep and Bryony's bursting bladder (she actually fell on me at one point) continued until we were unceremoniously turfed out in Nha Trang at 5.30am...and to think we had foolishly assumed our 'direct bus to mui ne' would be direct. Still we were ejected right next to a cafe which sold coffee and pain at chocolat so there are worse places to be stranded. My bag also felt like it had been thrown in a puddle. A couple of hours later we were picked up by another bus (seats not beds) and had a wonderfully horn free, event free, multiple seats journey to Mui Ne. I wanted to hug the driver. (I say event free, we did make one stop en route to a very strange place playing pan pipe Christmas music with one of the greatest nativity scenes I've ever seen -think neon lights and dolls).

Arriving in Mui Ne was great and after RainFest 2012 it was a welcome scene - a sandy beach that stretched on for miles and SUN. It is also a kitesurfing Mecca so plenty of beach entertainment, mozzies kept at bay, a chance to go windsurfing again and a smattering of handsome men in board shorts to boot.

All this wind made me think I should at least attempt a watersport. As it had been about 6 years since I set foot on a windsurfing board I felt I should get a refresher before merrily hiring some equipment. The only option was a beginner lesson on the morning -no such thing a a refresher it turns out - but Bryony was keen to try and Katie and Dave (our scooter friends who we bump into in every town) were up for it too. So the 4 of us arrived at 8am ready for a morning of fun. An illusion that was promptly shattered the moment we met our instructor Darko the Grouch, an angry, bald Russian man with little to no people skills.
We had a land lesson (my favourite) where he barked contradictory instructions at us 'LOOKA DOWN' ...'DON'T LOOKADOWN LOOKA ME, WHY YOU LOOKADOWN?' whilst explaining the basics (which was like being taught to snow plow again). He also patted the ends of my toes to move my feet so I shrieked and I'm still not sure he knew why (donttouchmytoesihavenonails). When we finally made it into the water (we were half cooked at this point) the others believed my reassurances of 'its easier on the water' and to Darko The Grouch's credit we were all up and sailing around very quickly. Whether it was excellent instruction 'LOOKA DE ANGLE', natural talent or fear of being shouted at I'm not sure. Every time I did anything I remembered from the old days I was told to get back to the starting position and pootle along holding the mast. Lauren (still stitched at this point) was basting on the beach too afraid to congratulate us incase Darko turned on her. Still it was great fun being back out on the waterand even more fun to laugh at 'Brownie' being 'instructed'. 'BROWNIE BACK AND OPEN, NO BROWNIE FRONT AND POWER, BROWNIE JUMP IN'. He did soften a little towards the end but we didn't come back for more and left a little deafer than when we arrived.
The morning exertions had taken it out of us so we spent the remainder of the afternoon frolicking in the sea and enjoying the beach. The marvelous, sandy, sunny beach.

The only downside to the beach is that I'm up to my usual tricks and no matter how hard I try, I've brought a lot of the beach into our room so we are ALWAYS SANDY. I mean there was so much sand on my bed I might as well have been sleeping on the beach.

Another Mui Ne plus is that Sarah (who i met in Bali) was in town so I had a friend to play with in the morning. We had grand plans but they never amounted to much more than strolling along the beach and finding fruit shakes. One morning as the others slept off their red bull heads I met Sarah for breakfast and went exploring to discover a little more of the Russian town and find a jeep to take us on a sand dune adventure in the afternoon.

We started by visiting Fairy spring, a scenic walk up a stream to a fairly unremarkable waterfall, then had a micro stop at a fishing village - very picturesque boats but most definitely a place that should be seen and not smelled as we were surrounded by rotting sea crustaceans and numerous rats feasting on the various remains. We moved swiftly on.
To the white sand dunes! These were very pretty white sand dunes (the name rather gives it away) that spring up randomly in the middle of nowhere. Our jeep bumped on up the 'road' and we transferred to our atv sand buggies/quad bikes. New thing I learned about myself: I am terrible at driving atvs on sand. With my new motorbiking prowess and quad biking history I was sure I'd have no worries as I zipped off, but I promptly swerved all over the shop and nearly fell off in front of everybody. Lauren and Bryony were cautious Sallies as I zoomed around with Sarah and Amy. All was well for, oh, 5 minutes until we went to scale a larger dune. Sarah and Amy's buggy beached itself and I watched on and laughed as the back wheels sunk deeper and deeper into the sand. Being the Good Samaritan I am I went to find the children who were lurking about to help us ridiculous tourists when things got sticky. But I got stuck in a sand bowl. I found reverse (information I attempted to shout over to a sinking Amy) but all I did was manage to move backwards and forwards for what felt like forever. I eventually made it out but it was back the way I came so we were no better off. As the sun started to set help arrived and with more than a little help we were on the path back to base. Not our finest moment.

As we had fannied about getting marooned we were a little behind schedule so instead of arriving at the red dunes (these are red sand dunes, again, imaginatively named) in time for sunset we arrived when the sun had most definitely set. However since this was the 'sand sledging' spot we were getting out for a slide! We took a sheet of plastic (opting for one between two since we were only going for the one slide) and started the trudge up the dunes. As Bryony mounted me it became quickly apparent that two on one was not going to work, so now covered in sand we got one each and made the thoroughly underwhelming sledge down, then trudged back up and back down to our waiting jeep.

The following morning Sarah and I decided to go for a morning SUP before the wind picked up. Unfortunately it was an extra windy morning and the sea looked a little choppy so we abandoned our balancing plans and after our sand buggy success we decided to rent a jet ski. So I learned a few things about jet skis.
#1 They are much harder to operate than they seem
#2 They roll with incredible ease
#3 They would make an appalling first date ('have I got snot running down my face?)
#4 They hurt.
#5 They cause joy and terror in equal measure.
#6 You can lose your sunnies very easily

Sarah requested I drive, then asked me to be safe having seen my buggy driving. After no distance at all it was clear that we had made a mistake so we flagged one of the hire guys to drive us in...but he actually took us on one of the most terrifying, endless 15 minutes of my life. I was still at the front, Sarah clinging to my life jacket straps, me clinging to her legs (there was nothing to hold) and our death master at the back leaning over to drive the thing. It was too choppy for SUPing and definitely too choppy for jet skis. It was like being on a bucking bronco made of rock and I am nursing the bruises to prove it. He must have thought my screams of 'let's go in' we're actually 'let's not go in' as he teased us with the shore. Going back to the beach ended up being the worst part of it as he hit the throttle and went full pelt towards the beach. I didn't lose my teeth as feared but I did need a sit down afterwards.

After experiencing the open sea I decided it was also too windy for windsurfing, so we did what we did best - lay on the beach and watched the professionals. Aaaaand relax.

One last thing, Gary Sinise is living in Mui Ne disguised as lieutenant Dan in the boat bit of Forrest Gump.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

And Then It Rained

Hoi An. Lovely town but the weather is sapping my soul. It has not not rained for about 4 hours in the last 3 days. I have reenacted all the movie rain scenes I can think of and looked into Ark plans. In a small town where tailoring is the main attraction, the majority of the roads are pedestrianised, the rain is biblical and you have a party member down one foot there is very little to do aside from sloth, eat or drink. On the plus side we have discovered that the local coffee is delicious and it is almost always happy hour somewhere for a cocktail or three.

A pick of noteworthy happenings over the last 4 days:

The loss of my second toenail:
After discovering my toe was starting to smell like Durian I investigated further and realised it was being held on by a scab. A very minor amount of movement and off it came. (As a whole this time, no snipping) and just like that 9 became 8. And no. It is no easier the second time round and no, you never get used to the appearance of a naked toe (I feel like the sheep in the Boundin' Pixar short).

The Spa-ahhhh
A spa seemed like an almost perfect rainy day activity - although anything foot related was out for two of us and a massage was out for poor scabbed up Lauren - so we went to the recommended local one. We set out in the driving rain 'just around the corner', so round the corner we stumbled and 5 minutes later passed the back exit to our hotel which was right in front of the spa, so that was a completely pointless trip. My back, shoulder and neck massage (lovely albeit a bit greasy) came with head, face and boob as a bonus (NOT RELAXING) and the three of us were all in the same room laid out like sausages ruining each others zen from time to time. My manicure basically involved cutting my nails to a third of their usual length and lacquering them in a flesh tone (so they look not unlike my nailess toes) but it was a mostly enjoyable experience (who doesn't like communal kimonos?).

The Rat
Sitting outside at dinner (momentary pause between downpours) we heard a shriek, a growl and a squeak and a dog had caught a rat and left it twitching its final few twitches right there in front of us. It was vile (the rat was almost cat sized)

Lauren and The Ants
Even in the nicest of hotel rooms one would be wise to be wary when drinking out of cans. An unattended can of sprite can quickly recruit friends. Being a fan of flat sprite Lauren checked if her lunchtime can would be ok to drink. 'Sure, go for it, you love flat sprite' chirped Harris. So she indulged in the remaining half a can. Until she felt something moving in her mouthful, glanced down at the rim and realised it was crawling with ants. She then hopped (swifter than Usain Bolt) to the bathroom and ejected the ants into the sink. We now drink from glasses.

Today (Sunday) has been far more entertaining. The rain was still there (standard) but was more of a constant spit/penetrating mist than notebook style monsoon. Nothing a poncho couldn't keep out. A lot of the bicycles here have a padded 'seat' on the back so Lauren hopped on for a trial and Ta Dah! We were mobile again. With a combination of Lauren being a most trusting and cooperative passenger and my pedal power we were well on our way (although the bike occasionally feels like it might buckle). (We have also only had one very slow motion fall when stationary). We booked some onwards sleeper bus tickets (terrified) and set off to the beach beach. I can imagine in the sun it is delightful but in the drizzle it did remind me a little of Aberdeen. Seeing as we were the only people on the beach (enjoying a hot coffee) the local beach patrol descended upon us to foist off their wares. One chap was very nice, sat and chatted to us and said how he was studying English so he could become a tour guide and that he sold his tat on days off to improve his English. The moment he realised we weren't going to buy any of his (quite frankly hideous) wrist tat he left without so much as a goodbye. Which was charming. Still it was nice to be out and about and seeing a bit more of the town safe in the knowledge that we were heading to a sunny beach the following evening.

Mui ne, we're coming! Please keep fingers and toes crossed the sleeper bus isn't the death box I think it'll be.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Hue to Hoi An: The Motor Cycle Diaries

Sitting like sardines in trains, busses, boats and (scamming) taxis is an essential 'traveling' experience but we quickly realised that the only way to have a bit of personal space was to take your own solo transport. So the obvious choice was to hire some motorbikes, book a guide and motorcycle our way down to Hoi An. As we are now experienced (ahem) bikers we were (sort of) confident that we could do it but not stupid enough to think we could do it alone. I mean we know nothing about bikes or, as we've learned from our 'nam journey so far, map reading or indeed any of the language.

Of all the places in 'nam (man) Hue (hway!) didn't really appeal and we chose it as an easy starting point for our journey, but we really liked it. It was much quieter than Hanoi and had a much nicer vibe.

We met up with our guide, Mark, in the evening to sort everything out for the next couple of days. He was the keenest, most enthusiastic and most Australian person I have ever met. He talked us through where we'd be going and said he wanted to watch us ride before he took us out. Great! Our experience was limited to almost empty island roads, not the hectic roads of a 'nam city. 'Look', Mark 'has been ridin' all his life' and he 'guaranteed' us many times that 'our safety was his number one priority' and also that 'yous going to be within the first 100 white people that have ever been in the villages' - this was 'guaranteed' too. He was extremely nice but goodness me what a talker.

Picking up the 'Scoots'
So the next morning after a buffet hotel breakfast (so good it's worth a mention) we met Mark to offload our big backpacks (thank god) which were going to go down in a bus and pick up our 'scoots'. They were beauties. After double checking we weren't a danger to ourselves we set about leaving Hue (hway!) for the back roads of 'nam, man. It was a baptism of fire. It was no where near as bad as Hanoi but there were a lot of other motor vehicles, push bikes and pedestrians to avoid and to say I was a little terrified would sum it up. But soon we were off the beaten track and onto a well beaten up track, bumping and splashing our way into the mountains. One of Mark's rules was that he wouldn't take us out without long sleeves (all limbs) and closed toed shoes - joyous news given my only long bottoms were leggings and I had to encase my toes (apparently minor nail discomfort is better than no toes). Our safety was his number 1 priority you know. Well my shoes were wet and muddy after I hit my first pot hole so that was lovely. After about 20km we reached a nice, surfaced road and had a break for a drink (being watched intently by a small child all the while) - we were now on the Ho Chi Minh Highway. Driving along on Blue Steel (my scoot) with the wind in your face, cardigan billowing behind you like a superhero cape, school children excitedly waving at you, sun shining and beautiful jungle mountains all around we all experienced moments of pure joy. Until I realised that the my billowing top had billowed down to reveal my entire right breast (covered, but out of my top nonetheless). This was kindly pointed out by a school boy. Not embarrassing at all. By the time we stopped for lunch we had covered a fair amount of ground, visited the Laos border (as close as we could get without annoying the fierce man with an AK 47), narrowly avoided several dogs (they all have udders and a death wish over here), nearly crashed into a truck or two, been through and awesome tunnel and turned my face into a bug graveyard (only two but still horrific experience). We climbed on top of the tunnel (primarily for a wee but also for a photo op) and spotted a monkey. On telling Mark our wildlife spot he said it was a really rare monkey and we were probably some of the first people to see it...until we looked again and realised it was tied to the small building and was 'just a macaque'. So we didn't see a rare monkey.

On we went winding round and up and down the mountains, stopping for interesting titbits and generally feeling quite amazed at the jungle mountains surrounding us. When it started to rain we were given our 'wet weather ponchos' which are some of the most ridiculous items of clothing I've ever had to put on. Ridiculous but very practical and we stayed dry as a bone. We passed some of the original Ho Chi Minh trail but westerners are still not allowed on it so we admired from the edge.

We took a detour into a small village which was the highlight of my trip so far. We must have looked like fools pulling up in the ponchos as it was no longer raining so they were promptly removed. The children were super cute and everyone was so pleased to see us, they were so happy and friendly and interested and all our faces were starting to hurt from smiling so much. It was a bit odd as we were a massive novelty to them but the situation was a novelty to us. A couple of the younger children were a bit afraid and the grandmother wouldn't go too close to 6'4 Mark - especially after he revealed his tongue bar! They loved looking at photos of themselves and their reaction to an iPod was hilarious. It sounds a bit 'gap yah' but even though we were only standing around and smiling we could easily have stayed there all day. It was a really lovely village too, the houses were made of beautiful timber and everything looked clean and ordered (nothing like the smelly, gloomy Bali house I visited). This was another opportunity for Mark to tell us we were some of the very first white faces they'd ever seen. They didn't expect anything but we were a bit sad we hadn't bought any little gifts for them. By this point we'd been in the sun a bit and (Lauren in particular) had picked up a bit of a bikers tan (think skiing goggles and a the middle few inches of forearms). The three of us are all fairly pale with freckles and curly hair (quite the trio!) and they were particularly intrigued by Bryony's red hair and the burn lines on Lauren's arms - one woman looked quite upset by it! There was only so long we could stand around grinning so we hopped back on our bikes and waved goodbye.

There had been a landslide just down the road and plenty of large diggers were there fixing things. It was, however, still extremely muddy thanks to the recent downpour so navigating through proved to be highly entertaining - enhanced by locals returning home in the opposite direction. Now we've had our fair share of locals laughing at us on this trip but these guys were laughing in a very friendly way - I mean we must have looked comical as we waddled and slipped our way through the mud on our trusty steeds. I am pleased to report that even though I thought I'd be getting a mud bath, I made it through to the other side. Bryony on the other hand, whilst laughing at my progress, slipped and fell herself (we are allowed to laugh as she was unharmed). The laughing locals were very quick to help her up and she waddled her way over to us with a rather muddy leg.

One blind corner ridden mountain later we arrived at a government town in the middle of nowhere. We were checked into the only guesthouse there and taken to a very Vietnamese restaurant - the sort of restaurant where there is no menu, they just bring out plates of food and you keep your fingers crossed it's not pooch a la chilli sauce. (I should also point out that the tables and chairs are actually child sized - I felt like I was eating at Liss and Rory's table).

The second day started about 3 hours earlier than planned as the propaganda speakers start from just after 4.30am and people start busying themselves (including an unholy amount of hocking and grunting). We set off on day two of our biking adventure but after about 3 minutes things came to a halt. A couple of uddered dogs ran into the gravelly stretch of road, Lauren braked, skidded and tumbled off her bike (at the only stretch of road we'd seen with people on it). They ran to her immediately and were kind and helpful. Thankfully it was nothing too serious but enough to mean that anymore riding was not an option. Hands and head were spared any injuries thanks to the sensible helmets an gloves we were given but she gravel-grazed her elbow, hip, knee and sliced the top of her foot open. Ow. Many helpful comments were made such as 'you're the first white person to fall on this part if the Ho Chi Minh trail' and 'today was going to be really specky, it sucks we can't do it' (specky is apparently aussie slang for spectacular). Thankfully, being a government town there was a very well equipped hospital but minutes away. Being a Vietnamese town, however, they did not allow us to use a car for any transporting, despite a number of shiny medical 4x4s sitting around doing nothing. After the initial shock and faint/sick feelings subsided she was winched onto the back of Sal's (our mechanic) bike and whizzed round the corner for medical care. At this point Sal, small, Vietnamese Sal, carried her across the hospital threshold Officer and a Gentleman style (which was brilliant!). While she was being cleaned up and stitched (2 stitches in the foot gash) Bryony set about finding a toilet (standard). Zero English was spoken at the hospital so when 'toilet' drew blank stares from the receptionist she charaded it out which led me and ALL of the locals in the reception to laugh a lot!
We were quite the tourist attraction and whilst some paper work was filled in a lady (who actually spoke a bit of English) started taking photos of us. Then newly bandaged Lauren was asked to lie in the bed while she took photos of the doctor taking her pulse and posing with a stethoscope...apparently the first westerner through the doors of the hospital was a most excellent PR opportunity! A couple of X-rays were needed to check for any breaks (again, more photo ops). As she was being returned to the treatment room the doctor rolled the wheelchair OVER BOTH MY BIG TOES. Bryony attempted to help/offer helpful words but couldn't stand up straight due to her laughter. I was momentarily paralysed by the hideous feeling of a hot bruising feeling in the still-nailed toe and the sensation of the slither left on the other foot now pressing into the stump. I think it was karma for just thinking that someone else had taken my foot-bad-luck. I did my best not to make a scene.

Mark had organised a car to take us to Hoi An - 4 seats between 3 of us! Luxury! Short lived luxury mind you as the windy mountain roads that were a pleasure on Blue Steel were quite simply horrendous in a car. 4 long hours later we arrived. We booked into a non backpacker hotel so our wounded soldier could recover somewhere other than a dorm. We met up with Mark and His wife Leanne that evening and they took us for an authentic Vietnamese BBQ which was very tasty. We proceeded to numb Lauren's pain with beer and rice wine which the locals joined us in (again on the child chairs).

 Everyone says you need to motorbike off the traveller trail to 'see real vietnam' and I've always thought they sounded really cliched and gap yah but I take it all back. Even though we were on a fairly guided tour, you really don't see any other tourists and you really do get to see what the country is really like. It has completely changed my opinion on both 'nam and the 'nam people - real, non city dwelling Vietnamese are some of the nicest people I've come across on my travels so far. The country itself is amazing, too - I am now loving 'nam, man. Now if someone could just turn the rain off and stop the incessant beeping...

another wee adventure
biker tan!

The Ponchos - Stylin'

All clean and bandaged!

Another photo op for the hospital

Blue Steel

Rice Wine and Beers

This was after it got a bit chilly and we look good
The amazing local children

Monday, 12 November 2012

Caves, Chickens and More Cramped Travelling

Well. The sleeper train was quite the experience. After the nearly-missing-the-bus incident we made sure to get to the right train station in plenty of time. Our taxi this time was a chevrolet swift - possibly the only car smaller than a kia picante but we are pretty used to a snug journey these days. It was a lovely place to spend an hour - sweaty, busy and full of people staring at us (and we were sitting next to a man with a lot of pig feed). We had booked our tickets to stay in a four person cabin and keeping our fingers crossed we weren't joined by anyone too strange/anyone at all. That illusion lasted until we got in the train and tried to work out which six person cabin we were in. Not the same one as it turns out. We sat in the same one foolishly thinking it wouldn't be full, but this is 'nam (man) and a favourite pastime seems to be ramming people into small spaces like battery hens. Bryony and Lauren drew the short straw and although together were in a cabin with two families. Two men, two women and two children. I know what you're thinking, you've counted 6 already. But what's another two people in such spacious accommodation? I was in a room with two couples (one European, the girl of which was far from happy) and a Vietnamese lurch look alike. I'm not sure why but the people of 'nam love to hock/grunt and it is rancid. (The guys also have hideously long nails but apparently this is a status thing to show you don't have to work with your hands). As far as room mates go they were fine, but I wouldn't say we were fresh and well rested by the time we arrived in Dong Hoi. And don't even ask about the toilet (or the man I walked in on at 3.30am).
Not in view: another two bunks
Roomy - you couldn't sit up straight
This is genuine joy - 2 seconds earlier all the power had gone off

Thankfully our transfer to the Farm Stay was an absolute breeze: we left the station and a man with a 4x4 (that actually felt safe) and a sign was there to meet us and ferry us there. Novel!

Toenail Update: (consider yourself warned before reading this next bit)
We arrived, chowed down breakfast and checked into the dorm where I felt strong enough to tend to my feet. Armed with my nail scissors and Lauren's manicure kit I set about attempting to trim/file whilst muttering 'I'm a surgeons daughter' under my breath when things made me feel faint (one really shouldn't ever have to cut the bottom of one's toenail). One of the guys running it had spotted my rank toes and just after I had made them look almost normal and strapped them into place he arrived with a Vietnamese lady who happened to be a nurse. She removed my carefully applied tape, said 'OH', ferreted about in my first aid kit and started snipping. No chat, no nothing. Just straight in there. Obviously I couldn't look but Lauren's face, Bryony's gasps and the sound of the scissors gave me a pretty good idea of what was going on down there. And just like that my toenail was gone. Gone! 10 had become 9. She swabbed with iodine, covered it up and was on her way leaving me in a small state of shock. I'm doing my best not to think about the nailess stump that is now my big toe.
Taking a break from toenail tending (they were still both there at this point)

Anyhoo we had a lovely day in the rural countryside (including a rare spot of sun) and spent our Saturday evening drinking tea, eating peanut m&ms and playing scrabble...and were still the last ones to bed. Rock and Roll.

Phong Nha Ke Bang is a national park in central 'nam with huge limestone karsts and is known for its amazing caves. We visited a selection of them and thanks to our informative guides we learned a lot about how the caves were formed (very pure limestone eroded away by water) and how the area was used during the war. It was all very interesting and has sparked an interest in the war which is good considering there is more to do the further down we go (saying that I still have no idea why America and 'nam were at war but my friend google will hopefully help). It was also really fun learning about sink holes and how they're trying to find out where they come from. There is one that always rises 4 days after it rains in Laos so they think it's fed from a cave there. It was also odd being on a touristy tour, but being the only westerners there. It felt very quiet and we are in a lot of local's photographs! We saw a selection of caves - the 8 ladies cave (v. sad back story involving 8 people being stuck in a cave), paradise cave (which is huge and pretty (and up a lot of steps)) and the dark cave (more on that in a moment). After lunch we were taken to a river, led over some very precarious bamboo bridges and rocks to a lovely (and COLD) spot for swimming and chilling (quite literally) We then headed to another river spot where we were given headtorches (fetching and smelled like badger) hopped into kayaks (unexpected) and paddled to another cave (doubly unexpected). All 3 of us hopped in, with two half paddles (Lauren lording it up in the middle with a 'sore wrist'). After about 5 full revolutions we put the paddles together and I paddled us to catch up with the others (Bryony and I were not a winning team). They took us to a cave, which we walked into an promptly started swimming through. Before long it was ever so dark and we were floating into the unknown (bats and all). We hit a point where we couldn't go any further (well not in bare feet and a life jacket) and all turned our torches off and this is when our guide chose to tell us about the cave's wildlife. I can confirm that there is nothing quite like the feel of gravel on top of your newly naked toe. Ugh. On the kayak back we couldn't break our circular trajectory (poor team work and a small kayak) and were toed back in by a canoe. Excellent. Apparently that kayak trip broke up a couple once - when they got back to the farm they got on buses in the opposite directions.

There's a story about rockets being launched at this wall and people hiding in tunnels but I can't remember exact details

The jurrasic park-esque golf cart up to the cave steps

A very small portion of Paradise Cave
The River we Swam in
swimming in the lake (including flattering waterlines)

Lauren personifying beauty and grace (we did have to go under the water at this point)


Shortly before the rescue

excellent framing

our rescue team

We had an early start this morning to catch the public bus to Hue. As is fast becoming standard this was a far from pleasant experience! The mini'bus' arrived shortly after 5 and was completely empty but we were ordered into the back row (we'd picked up Australian Patrick so we were 4 at this point). So far, ok. 4 of us in 4 small seats. The driver had thoughtfully left the lights on and the windows open so the biting life was there like a welcoming committee for us and proceeded to feast on any exposed skin. The next pick up more people farmed in an there was much rummaging going in behind us. We turned round to see that they were putting a motor bike in the boot. Yes, a motor bike in the back of a minivan. Why not? We were distracted from the fact our bags were on the road in the rain by our chair backs being thrust forward leaving us sitting at a very strange angle. It was then we realised the plastic bag on the bike was flapping and clucking. A live chicken, in a plastic bag, on a motorbike, in the boot of a minibus. How on earth do you even get a live chicken in a plastic bag? Our bags were then rammed back in and as Lauren's was thrown in top of the bike the chicken bag became very silent.(I should mention it was centimeters from our seats, we were practically sitting on top of it. On we went, picking up more people along the way. As the only white faces we were quite the focal point and I think it's safe to say we were almost definitely being laughed at. The driver also mentioned that yes there were 4 seats but in Vietnam that means 5 people. Which I imagine is fine if you are Vietnamese sized. Again, the seat to seat length was exactly the same as my thigh length so it was a very cosy journey indeed. For 5 hours. 5 HOURS jammed into a very small space knowing there was a chicken corpse right there. I should also mention there was also no suspension so it was ever so bumpy. However, just when it seemed it would never end we were ejected in Hue (pronounced like a combination of Juan and Wahey) and as luck would have it we were but meters away from our Hotel. Every cloud and all that.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Another day, Another questionable driving experience

Another day, another questionable driving experience. We left Cat Ba to head back to Hanoi before moving down the coast. The bus to the ferry was relatively pain free with two exceptions: 1. The 'nam man who crammed in next to/on top of me and proceeded to (attempt to) top up his phone DIRECTLY IN MY EAR. Vietnamese numbers sound absolutely ridiculous and he made many, many attempts. It started off being funny... And 2. About 3 minutes before we reached the boat there was a very loud bang and one of our tyres had burst (there were two on each corner so we made it to the port just about).

The boat was also rammed and it started to rain very hard but other than that nothing to report.

Then a mini bus greeted us at the other side to take us to our bigger transport bus. If you've ever wondered how many people you can fit in a 23 seater mini bus, in 'nam, man, it's 41 (plus luggage). A very snug journey indeed. The length between seats was the exact length of my femur so I was very firmly wedged. Good news is that the driver adapted his driving to the fully loaded vehicle. We didn't come to a shuddering stop in the middle of a junction for a full 3 minutes, or bunny hop onto, then promptly stall on a dual carriage way or feel unsafe at anytime. The '15 minute' (at least half an hour) journey to our main bus was quite the scenario but I'm happy to report the onward journey was issue free (and I'm even starting to block out the constant beeping of horns).

We avoided the swarming taxi men (again, these scammers have rigged meters so you have to go to one of the side streets to hail one) And made our way to the train office to pick up our pre booked tickets where we were politely told to wait 5 minutes. 45 minutes later the man with our tickets finally arrived - we had been entertained in the interim by the lady showing us beach photos of where we had just come from. I can confirm that we saw nothing that looked anything like the photos in her book.

We trudged the streets to find Joma (as we now have vague bearings of the city just in time to leave) and had a very successful journey. For the last month Bryony has been looking for postcards that aren't of toothless women with fish, a notebook and sunglasses that don't swamp her face. All three were found in the 15minute stroll and as a happy bonus the notebook was bought from the nicest local we've met since being here and was for a deaf charity. We are now settled in a delightful bakery cafe drinking real tea, with real milk (saving any 'there's sugar in my tea-no there's not- oh it's condensed milk' situations) waiting to get on the sleeper train in a couple of hours bound for Dong Hoi. I can only hope it poses less avenues for disaster than wheeled transport but I've come to the conclusion that nothing really goes to plan in 'nam, man.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Hanoi to Cat Ba - Drivers and Dennis

Well we nearly didn't make it to Cat Ba Island thanks to one of the most incompetent taxi drivers I've ever come across. As we are now travel savvy (ahem) we decided to flag down a taxi sans backpack (backpacks) so we weren't taken for a ride. We failed and proceeded to search with all our possessions...and a Kia Picante decided to pick us up. All four of us and all four backpacks poured into the tiny automobile. Now, we have discovered that our Vietnamese is less than understandable, so we showed him the name of the bus station written down. And pointed to it on a map. And acted out bus station cherades style. Being a fairly major bus point you'd assume he'd know where he was going. He didn't. The usual break neck paced traffic in Hanoi was instead crawling along at a glacial pace as we set off in the wrong direction. Watching the minutes slowly ebb away and the meter slowly creep up we were becoming ever so slightly concerned that we were going to miss our bus. Still he continued to look at our map and no amount of pointing to the lake was actually getting us there (we could direct from the lake you see). We even showed him 'bus' in Vietnamese at which he nodded enthusiastically, said 'yes, yes' and pretended he suddenly understood. Eventually we hit the main road we needed to and instructed him to go straight (with use of yet more pointing) but he kept slowing down and pulling over despite our pleas to keep moving in a straight line. At this point he was chuckling and I'm sure he was winding us up. With 10minutes to make our bus it wasn't actually that funny. All I could hear was Bryony and Lauren in the back sniggering at my failing attempts to convey anything to our idiot driver. The most irritating bit? When we finally saw the fork we needed to take he said 'ohhhh, Luong Yen'. Exactly what we had said, pointed at and showed him to read. This was obviously hilarious for him and he dropped us off laughing (presumably at us, not with us). He then spent forever getting our change and actually opening the boot. We arrived to an angry Vietnamese man who hurried us on to the bus which promptly left the moment we were on.

The bus/bus/boat/bus journey onwards was pretty event free (aside from a very questionable toilet break. Closing the door involved picking it up and placing it over the frame) and we arrived at Cat Ba. It isn't quite the idyllic Giliesque island I had pictured but I'm sure it might be prettier if the sun made an appearance!

We booked on a junk boat to take us kayaking around Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay (almost all the other activities involve fully functioning toes). The sun was trying, the water was very calm, the karsts very pretty indeed and the guides good fun. We had planned to spend the night on the boat too, but a swift look at our group and the less than balmy weather changed our minds. As a group of three a tandem kayak poses quite the dilemma. I nearly ended up with my ginger German nemesis (I'm sure she was nice, but I mocked her outfit and the girls then decided it was almost identical to mine which obviously they found most amusing) and we mugged off the Germans in favour of the handsome guide. Which then backfired thanks to an 8 year old who needed help. So Dennis and I ended up in a kayak, with Dennis steering in the rear and me paddling away up front. Dennis was a lovely older chap from Washington (state, not DC) but we weren't exactly the dream team. Our navigation was more of a zig-zag form than straight lines and I was regularly splashed. Still, we managed to navigate various lagoons, waterways and beaches and had a lovely morning. Back aboard our vessel lunch was somewhat marred by a very annoying Belgian lady who liked China and Climbing. She proceeded to bore us with how much she liked China and climbing until we retreated to the (not so sun) deck for a post lunch snooze. We dropped off the climbers and went for another Kayak. This time Dennis had ditched me in favour of his wife Linda so handsome guide Tom shared my kayak and proceeded to tell me how I was clearly the weak link in the felicity-Dennis team as he was getting along excellently with Linda. At this point we were still considering an overnight stay on the boat and Tom asked Dennis and Linda if they would care to join us. Unfortunately Dennis couldn't as he needed his breathing machine... Well I felt bad for making him work hard in the morning!

(Mum, block the following paragraph). The following day we decided we should explore the island further, and how better to explore than on a scooter. At breakfast we got chatting to a lovely northern couple who decided that they would join us in our maiden scooter voyage and we found a foot massage place to rent from (obviously). After nervously riding up and down the road a few times we journeyed further afield with thoughts of cat bas fabled beaches in our minds. We found the beaches and they looked not unlike cess pits (and cat co 2 was a nudist beach) so swimming was off the agenda. Instead we headed further in land towards the national park which was excellent fun with very pretty scenery (a nice change from the 'sea front' we are staying on. There is nothing quite like the theill of the open road and the feeling of the wind beneath your toenails. We are now almost confident bikers on the look out for goggles and tasseled leather jackets to complete our looks.

Monday, 5 November 2012

I'm in 'nam, man

Good news! I made it to Hanoi glitch free complete with passport and new thief-proof phone. Handily my flight landed at the same time as Bryony and Lauren's and we met up in arrivals (where the taxi men swarm like flies). We were on our way to find the bus stop when we happened across a lone Canadian girl who was being targeted by the taxi men. When we realised it was a dollar more to all get in the same taxi we decided to hop on in and headed off to our chosen hostel. Or so we thought. Our quiet but nice taxi driver wove us through the hectic roads to somewhere in Hanoi where another chap opened the door. He asked to see our booking (which we had not made) then told us it was fully booked, but not to worry he could take us to another place. It all happened quite quickly and we couldnt see the sign for the savvy Canadian Mandy sensed all was not kosher and we said no to the second hotel at which point they both scarpered. Scammers! We were then left (in the dark) with no idea where we were. We found another taxi to take us to the hostel...he spoke no English, didn't understand our no doubt flawless Vietnamese and despite looking at a map of the area countless times still drove us round in circles unable to find where we were going. At this point my first impressions of Vietnam were not good - I felt less than safe and we were all super wary...Especially since the airport-taxi-in-cahoots-with-fake-hotel-scam is the first one they mention in the guide book!

After depositing our things at the hostel we went to explore (and eat) and our impressions quickly changed. There was lots going on for a Sunday night - amazing local breakdancers, a children's roller skating get together, free to join in line dancing and park aerobics, a Dog wearing trainers and a gangnam style flash mob.

To me, Hanoi feels very much like a typical South east Asian city - absolute chaos on the roads, street food on every roadside, a lot of neon flashing lights, more scooters than you ever thought possible and endless walls and stalls of tat. The fashion here seems to be Bedroom Chic. Everyone looks like they're in pajama sets, lots of matchy matchy sleepy sleepy pastel patterned numbers (mostly paired with some classy heels). After waiting at 'pedestrian crossings' we realised that the only way to cross the road is to literally just stride out and walk with purpose. Into on coming traffic (hectic Asia style oncoming traffic). Apparently they just avoid you. We are getting quite good at it now but I'm not sure if thats a good thing or not. Quite the change from Singapore where jaywalking earns you 20 lashes and probably a hefty fine/prison sentence.

Day 2 and we were up to buy our bus ticket to Cat Ba island (which we are doing this space) and then some more exploring. We took the electric train, which is described as an excellent way to familiarise yourself with the city. Well, lonely planet, I'd say that's a bit of false advertising. What we actually did was drive around the old quarter in a large golf buggy whilst our driver gesticulated at various streets, shops and buildings. And by gesticulate I mean waved his hand vaguely in a direction and, if we were lucky, mentioned the number to read on the guide sheet. That was 25minutes well spent!

We spent the afternoon drinking tea in a delightful cafe whilst attempting to plan the next couple of weeks (which we have sort of managed) and then did a bit more exploring. I say explore, we basically trudge round saying no to transport offers, marvel at the endless tat and wonder who on earth would buy any of it, get quite lost, walk some more, work out where we are on the map, walk some more, realise we don't know where we are in the map, walk some more, eventually end up back at the central lake (where, legend has it, a giant tortoise lives) and then work our way back to the hostel. I feel I should mention here that I am in the top bunk, the stairs of which are less than kind. Getting in and out is not a seamless maneuver when toe-capped and I'll be sure to shotgun the bottom next time.

Tomorrow we are (hopefully) off to Halong Bay and Cat Ba island. Fingers crossed we can spot the scammers before they see the 'mug' we have tattooed on our foreheads.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Slumming it in Singapore

I arrived on my thought through and well planned trip to Singapore and settled into Lucy's 22nd floor apartment. She gave me instructions to meet her after work at Raffles for a Singapore Sling (the done tourist thing apparently). Living out of a backpack with two rank toes, glam wasn't really an option for me but when her Filipino housemate returned and saw that I was going out in my havaianas she became quite disapproving (I'd known her for a minute at this point). As luck would have it (!) we were the same shoe size, she was deaf to my protests of 'thats very kind, but no thank you' and before I knew it I was kitted out in a tasseled Gucci pair of shoes and sent on my merry way. (The flip flops went with me in my bag and were back on in no time). Raffles is a colonial hotel where you buy a sweet, pink cocktail, eat monkey nuts and throw the shells on the floor. Tourist cliche tick number one.

As Lucy was working I had lots of time to 'explore' on my own. You can barely move here without going into a shopping mall - very cruel when I have no money and no space - so I had plans to stroll around the botanic gardens and MacRitchie reservoir in the sun (tan is fading) but apparently all it does in Singapore is rain. And when it rains, it rains. I got a coffee to wait out the first biblical downpour and was just thinking that Sophie was right when she said it was quite a lonely place when I met Fisherman Mark the Hot Scot (from Aberdeen of all places). He was waiting for his flight home that night and proved delightful company for a soggy afternoon.

My second attempt to get to the botanical gardens I actually got there, walked for about 7 mins and guess what? The heavens opened. I took refuge in a summer house/gazebo structure and felt a bit like Liesel in The Sound of Music. Only there was no Rolf to sing at and hold my hand as I leapt daintily from bench to bench. Another mission abort. By this time my toes were not in any state to don my trainers, so the rainforest walks I had planned were out too. The rain also hampered my attempts to hang by the pool and work on my (now very unremarkable) tan.

Despite the almost constant monsoon I did manage to survive a Singapore cinema experience (think arctic), go to bikram yoga with Lucy (hilarious and very hot), dance a fair portion of the night away at Kudeta (the bar on the boat at the top of a hotel - great sky views terribly captured on my average new camera), eat street food (a mixed selection...I had no idea what most of it was, often fishy and once unimaginably spicy), survive quite the craziest taxi ride ever (I've never heard such a maniacal was very infectious), do the Night Safari at Singapore Zoo (amazing - I haven't seen elephants, rhinos or full size hippos before and they were epic), have a lot of fun with Lucy (a large proportion of it spent trudging round with her adamant she knew where she was going and failing to hail taxis) AND wash everything I have so my possessions no longer smell like tent! I also brushed and straightened my hair so the dreads that were forming have been delayed for now.
I don't want to jinx anything but I'm happy to report that I am checked in, I am in possession of my passport and my new phone (I think it's almost completely thief proof) and have no intentions of missing my flight. Hanoi, here I come!
Should anyone need me, my new number is 07706799152. It definitely does not do whatsapp.