Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Da Lat

As of yesterday, after 4 days in Ho Chi Minh, I am in Da Lat. It's a nice little town up in the mountains (the scenery was great on the bus until it was absorbed by darkness - 7 hours to get here) and it's alot like Pai in Thailand, except replace the hippies with bikers. There's a bustling market, a lake, lots of bars & cafes and it's generally very chilled out - Ho Chi Minh this is not. There's also lots to see around Da Lat (treks, bike rides, waterfalls) but sadly im only here for 2 nights because as of tomorrow im off with the "Easy Riders" on a 7 day, 1000km motorbike ride to Hoi An. The Easy Riders are like a Vietnamese biker gang who ride big old bikes, taking tourists on excursions to various places in the central highlands to see what they claim is "the real Vietnam". I've been excited about this since I arrived in the country as i've heard alot of praise for them from travellers i've met who say dont leave Vietnam without doing it. The only draw back (although I knew the costs before I even asked) is their non-negotiable price - $70 a day - which over a week will cost me an arm & a leg (I think i've said that before, that means im pretty much just a torso now then) but I know i'll regret it if I miss out. Oh, and although it pains me to say so I wont actually be driving (boo!), my guide's called Stefan. He's a bit of a dude and speaks really good English (aswell as French) so it's me and him on a 'Long Way Up' style adventure where im Ewan McGregor and he's that annoying one.

You might hear from me inbetween here and Hoi An but I dont know how frequently, I dont think they have Broadband in the minority villages yet... We shall see. I know im going via Buon Ma Thuot, Plei Ku and Kon Tum, but the inbetweens I dont know. I shall see you on the otherside... of the next 7 days... not like 'otherside' as in the land of the spirits. Gnarly X

Monday, 25 May 2009

Ho Chi Minh / Saigon

The hustle and the bustle welcomely returns and on a grander scale than even Bangkok. They say 8 million people live in Ho Chi Minh City with an estimated 4 million motorbikes, and boy does it show. It's crazy and amazing. How there are not accidents around every corner every 30 seconds I dont know, but in a world of Health & Safety this city (and the whole of Asia infact) is so liberating. The trick to crossing a 6 lane road with no traffic lights is weirdly just to walk out at a moderate pace looking in the direction of the traffic, leaving the motorcyclists to weave around you. Probably not for the faint hearted or whatever, but i've been around this for so long it's just normal for me now.

Ho Chi Minh is a great city, it's almost New York with Asians - very commercial, lots of shops, huge billboards & lights, markets, boulevards of expensive hotels and designer clothes, loads of museums etc etc. Like I said, New York. I haven't been to Japan or China but Im sure it has alot in common with them too. It's a welcome headache but should be avoided if you're a migraine sufferer (probably) - the horn honking never gets any less jarring.

Whilst I was there I visited the Fine Art Museum, the Reunification Palace, the War Remnants Museum, Notre Dame Cathedral (yeah what?) and also went on a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels.

Fine Art Museum: Didn't hold my attention if im honest but the modern gallery spaces out the back were good.
Reunification Palace: They were 'on lunch' so didn't get to go in, apparently it's like a time capsule of the 80's, though but im uncertain as to the purpose of the building.
War Remnants Museum: The big tourist draw apparently and you understand why, it's very shock & awe though, doesn't hold any punches with it's depictions of how Vietnam suffered under America (mutilated bodies, decapitated heads etc). Definitely seemed (maybe understandably?) very one-sided but I dont feel I know enough to comment, which is something the museum lacked in teaching me, it's main aim being to just outright shock. The worst part was the section on chemical warfare used by America (Agent Orange) and how even now it's causing horrific mutations in the sons and daughters of soldiers who fought in the war. This part was an eye-opener and maybe something people do need to see, but the babies in bottles was unecessary. So overall worth a look but you will come away feeling a little uneasy about the presentation.
Notre Dame Cathedral: It's erm, what it says on the tin. Bizarre, but a nice juxtapostion compared to its surroundings.
Cu Chi Tunnels: 20km out of the city, Cu Chi is an area which was used by Vietnamese soldiers to defend Ho Chi Minh from the Americans - or should that be ambush? It's an incredible technological achievement where by a whole host of villages lived connected underground by over 250kms of tunnels, ready and waiting for the unaware Americans to approach. Crazy stuff, and the tunnels themselves were no more than 90cm in height with tiny A4 paper sized entrances. Halfway through the visit, tourists were able to explore a section of the tunnels and it was baffling to believe people lived down there for months, if not years. I could only manage a 20 metre crawl before claustrophobia set in - very hot, cramped and disorientating. You simply must. Oh, and there was a shooting range too where you could fire AK47's and M16 machine guns at a charge of $1 a bullet. I opted out for money reasons but have you ever heard an AK47? Fucking terrifying (pardon the french).

So Ho Chi Minh, yes, I like. Accomodation's a bit expensive but the city has a great atmosphere and there's a lot to do. Oh and if you want to chill out in the park, expect to have a crowd of Vietnamese students around you wanting to practice their English, they're like language cruising zones. Ha. X

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The Mekong Delta

Chau Doc: A long, tiring, uncomfortable and above all noisy (so much horn honking!) journey by bus from Ha Tien to Chau Doc, let alone the amount of people and pungent bags of fruit piled infront of me. But, I wouldn't have had it any other way, this is traveling Vietnam style and it's an experience all on its own. Chau Doc is a small place and most Westerners just pass through on their way to Ho Chi Minh or Phnom Penh. The big draw (or atleast the 2 nights I was there) was Sam Mountain, it seems half of Vietnam descended here to gather, climb and pay respect to the pagodas on the mount. Sam was about 5km out of town so I walked it and then it was a further 2km (?) climb - easy for a pro-trekker like myself - to the summit. Truth be told it was more of a steep hill than a mountain and it was paved all the way, but the views out over Chau Doc and the delta were very nice. Again though, I swear Vietnam has never seen a white person before ("...jaws all on the floor" - Eminem) so the now customary & always humorous 'photo with the tall white man' took place - maybe I am just too handsome? *shrugs* :)

Can Tho: A minibus brought me from Chau Doc to Can Tho, not by choice, was less of an experience but also less of a headache. Can Tho is the deltas' biggest city (5th biggest in the country fact fans) and you definitely see it become more commercial, all on route to Ho Chi Minh I suppose. It was a little hive of big activity, but still no tourists, except the million who stopped off on route to Saigon. On my second day I booked a trip on a boat to go to see the floating markets with a tour around Tho River and the delta canals - a 5:30am start is not good for my eyes or brain though. The trip lasted 8 hours and I took some pretty & good pictures - including when we got stuck amongst plantation, but it was one of those 'is that really the time?!' days because by 2:00pm, I was exhausted and craved sleep.

Vinh Long: Im staying at a hotel called Phung Hoang and it seems the more stairs you climb, the cheaper the room. So im paying a reasonable 100,000 dng for the penthouse suite on the roof. I say penthouse but it's just a normal room, but the views from outside are pretty cool in the mornings and evenings (I wished for a thunderstorm but it didn't happen - the irony). The town itself is tiny and everything happens in a single corner by the river - restaurant, bar, guesthouse (note the singular) and if Chau Doc & Can Tho were lacking in tourists, Vinh Long is void of 'em. I am the only, not even in passing coaches, it is just me. The reason I came here was to see An Binh island - a boat trip away with lots of tiny linked islands that you can meander through. The trip was ok, not fun but also not not fun, I thought the boat trip on Can Tho was alot more scenic. Also did an hour or so bicycle exploring but without a map or route, I had to backtrack so not to get lost - was nice to see the villages though. There was a doubly expensive all day tour where you got to visit lots of local workshops and plantations which im sure was a better excursion, but the 4 hour trip was sufficient for me.

Im Mekong'ed out I think, crave more busy surroundings and more travellers. Im really glad I experienced the Mekong Delta properly (a bus tour wouldn't have done it justice) but tomorrow when I arrive in Ho Chi Minh, i'll be all smiles for civilisation and Westerners. I hear it's a crazy chaotic place - im intrigued by the free-for-all traffic system i've read about, with lots to do and see, but all the better for it in my opinion! Saigoing... Saigoing... Saigon. X

Friday, 15 May 2009

Ha Tien

The drive from Kampot to here was fun, on the back of a motorcycle with my backpack, navigating the muddy tracks (or roads as I think they're known) with 3 changes of driver; definitely the best way to travel - wind in your face and 360 views. The temptation to motorcycle from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi becomes ever more tempting...

So Ha Tien, it's a relatively busy little town on the coast and alot of people use it as a port to get to Phu Quoc Island, but in researching I realised I visited alot of places like that already (chilled out, beach with a book etc) so to go seems silly. The town has one tourist information centre and the lady who works there, Phoo-Wong (pronounced, not spelt) has been teaching my Vietnamese and lets me use the internet for free (thus another post). Today she also rented me a bicycle and I explored the local scenery; went to Mui Nai beach (pretty poor) and on to Thach Dong cave (a favourite amongst the Vietnamese it seems) but I wasn't so impressed, not much there really. At one point they were more interested in having their photo taken with me than paying any attention to the cave - I am the only tourist in Ha Tien I think. The best part of the day though was just cycling through the Delta & villages, lush landscape and an abundance of waves & smiles at every turn. "Hello" times a hundred.

The currency here is the Dong and the quantities are quite amusing. For instance I withdrew 2,000,000 Dong from the cash machine - which seems absurd, but you get 27,025 Dong to just 1 Sterling (no pound symbol on keyboard) so today I am a millionaire. And just to give it some sort of context im paying 120,000 for my room, a bottle of water costs 4,000 and a meal is about 50,000.

Tomorrow im leaving for Chau Doc (not actually on the maps I made but it's North-West of Cao Linh, on the border) and apparently it's owned by Vietnam but is actually part of Cambodia, minus all the border hassle. I'll probably spend a few days there, there's a few villages and fish farms to explore and also a mountain by the name of Sam. From Chau Doc im heading to Can Tho and then to Vinh Long.

I Havell, the time, in the world. X

Thursday, 14 May 2009

On Route to...

Im writing this from Kampot, but im on my way to Ha Tien (the Southern most border crossing). I decided against going to Vietnam via Phnom Penh because it made more sense to enter as low as I could and then work my way up, as opposed to having to backtrack. The very South (everything below Ho Chi Minh) is the Mekong Delta, it's all very rural and is known as Vietnam's 'rice bowl', producing 38% of the countrys' annual food crop - an agricultural miracle according to me' guide book - so should be very scenic. It is sad to leave Cambodia, just as it was sad to leave Thailand, you just feel you know so much about the language & culture and to move on puts you back at square one. Nethertheless, I am very excited about Vietnam. Will let you know... :)

Paddy fields, here we come. X


In big prominent letters. New Country, new map.

Kampot, Kep & Bokor National Park

Arrived in Kampot on the 8th of May and my plan was to spend my time between here, Kep and Bokor before my Vietnam visa began on the 14th. And thus, this "plan" succeeded.

Kampot is a very small town with which sits on the river (forget it's name) and despite what maps show you proximity wise, it's not actually a seaside town, the sea is about 6km away. Despite this though it's very nice here; there's a bustling market, lots of riverside resturants with views of the mountains (beautiful at sunset), a few bars and a good book shop, but you can walk around the town in half a day. Most people visiting Kampot though use it as a stopping off point before heading up to Bokor National Park as more tours are organized here and it's cheaper than say in Sikanoukville.

I stayed here 2 nights in a nice guesthouse called Long Villa ($4) before taking the bus for a 2 day/1 night trip to Kep - 45 minutes along the coast. Kep is a quaint little town (even smaller than Kampot) and it's three main attractions are the fresh crab, Kep Mountain and an island off the coast called Rabbit Island. I didn't feel the need to see the island because the weather wasn't so good and it would have taken up a whole day, so I did a trek around Kep Mountain during the day and spent the evening at the crab market. I want to say that whilst exploring Kep Mountain I didn't get lost but unfortunately I did, except not on the actual mountain just on my way back to town. I walked for about 10km in the wrong direction (and in hindsight explained all the bewildered looks from locals) but luckily a motorbike driver stopped and eventually understood I wanted to go to Kep so he brought me back for a small fee. He was a nice guy and seemed quite proud to have a Westerner on the back of his bike, he enjoyed the attention of the villagers as he drove but I was just happy to be heading in the right direction (I still think I had to go left but evidently not...).

After Kep I travelled back to Kampot on the 11th and booked a 2 day trek to Bokor which turned out to be a bushwhack through the jungle going off the beaten track, across rivers and up near vertical slopes (climbing skills at one point were needed) for 6 hours. The road (which they're rebuilding so the park is essentially closed) is a 30km climb and the summit is 1079m above sea level. It was definitely the most challenging trek i've done and for this reason the most fun, but at the end my legs burned with the epicness. The biggest reward is when you reach the abandoned, battle scarred ghost town at the top - sorry, forgot to say, there's a deserted town with a casino, hotel, hospital, post office, church... It's eerily beautiful, like something from a post-apocalyptic movie and the mist which drifts across from the sea multiplies that by a 100. You can explore everything and the view from the casino out over the town and the ocean was staggering, made even more so because looking down, you couldn't believe how high you'd climbed. The town though, despite its nuclear disaster-esc feel, felt in no way scary, even when we ventured out at night with only our flashlights illuminating just 5 metres ahead of us due to the the dense fog, the buildings were just like modern relics and harboured no ill-feelings like the way S-21 did. Oh, and the sunset, followed by the lightening storms which lit up the horizon in all directions, were also incredible.
On the second day, after spending the night in the Rangers Station (the converted hospital) we set off back down the mountain and hitched a ride in a pick-up truck, then there was epic rain and because the road was blocked we did a 2 hour smaller trek back down to the bottom... Followed by a beer (or 5) beside the river. Thumbs up for Bokor National Park. X

Thursday, 7 May 2009


Beaches: Dirty
Weather: Raining
Travellers: Few

If I was ignorant, this would be my summing up. But, none the less, this was the case. It's apparently low season now in Cambodia which on one hand is good (things are less expensive - my $8 room cast $4 for instance) but on the other is bad (it's rained every day except yesterday and there aren't that many tourists).

There's about 7 beaches here spread across about 8km and i've visited 6 of them in my time here. They're all pretty much the same except for the amount of bars, number of touts and general busyness. The best however was a beach called Otres about a 6km walk away - empty, clean(er) and more importantly, it was the only day it didn't rain. My guesthouse is just off a beach called Serendipity which is always busy (even if it is low season) and full of people trying to sell you stuff so I try to avoid this one, instead walking or cycling along the coast to where it can literally be deserted. And strangely, walking along a deserted beach in a thunderstorm was actually pretty amazing, two fingers up at Mr. Sun.

The town is a bit of a non-event, a few decent book shops and a supermarket but nothing else really, I just venture in and venture out again with no reason to hang around. There's a market, a few resturants and internet cafes but most seem orientated at locals more than me, either that or I can do better along the beach or from mz guesthouse.

On the 4th I booked a ticket to Ream National Park (one of the reasons I came here) which is small cluster of islands and mainland 18km from Sihanoukville. We took a boat for about an hour and a half through the mangroves swamps to a completely isolated - and clean - beach where we spent the best part of an hour, before going on a 2 hour trek through the jungle, passing a local village and rendezvousing back with our boat via a lunch of Barracuda. Luckily the weather also was half decent so had a good day out, although to find out it wasn't the right season for the supposed Irwaddy dolphins was a bit of a let down.

Now I dont want to sound like a Negative Nora about Sihanoukville, I do like it here, I just think on this occasion the tourist season is against me. I have met some nice people here and enjoyed myself but ultimately the weather let me down on most occasions. Who planned this trip anyway?

The days i've had here where the weather has been good (all erm, 2 of 'em) have been fun, but I think im ready to move on... I think I have stayed here a tad longer than expected but that's mainly because I was holding out on the weather, I haven't seen a beach in over a month! Definitely indulged in too much T.V here though which is never a good thing. Anyway, tomorrow im off to the seaside town of Kampot (and Bokor National Park) for a few days before heading along the coast again to the smaller seaside town of Kep - good crab apparently! From there im heading back via Phnom Penh to cross the border into Ho Chi Minh city,Vietnam on April 14th.


P.s. My Y button is infact my Z button and visa versa, thus explaining anz mistakes :)