Friday, 27 May 2011

Hoi An, Tailors, Tarts and Temples, 28-29 March 2011

The usual bus journey, note the mechanic in white jeans...?!
The bus reversed out of the roadside restaurant that we had been stopped at for the past 15 minutes but instead of placing the gear level in the number 1 slot and move forward towards Hoi An, the driver continued to reverse back towards Hué. We all looked at each other in confusion and wondered whether we were going to go back all the way Hué in reverse. The bus then stopped, and moved forward and a hard right straight into a mechanics. Oh, something is broken, that doesn't surprise me but what I was sure about is that the Vietnamese mechanics would have this baby fixed in no time whether they have the correct part or not, they're good like that. The Vietnamese can bodge anything together long enough for it to do its job. Myself and a man from Cornwall who was on holiday with his wife jumped out of the bus and done the manly thing, walked around the back of the bus to see what was happening and inhale through our teeth and tut a little bit pretending to know what was happening. It turned out to be quite a big all leak, a leak that the driver must have seen on the road as he reversed out of the restaurant, a leak that was so bad it required immediate attention.

The Japanese Bridge
On the bus there were three girls, Louis, an Australian I had met in the hostel in Hué and went for a meal with her and Jonas one evening, Marianne and Victoria, an English and a French girl Louis introduced me to that morning before we left. The journey from Hué to Hoi An isn't a long one, just a few hours. After I turned Illy and Ben's motorbike down, I thought I would do the 'Top Gear Challenge' and ride to Hoi An but the weather was absolutely miserable still so I decided it was best not to and take the boring, drier but safer bus option. The bus was fixed within half an hour and we swiftly moved onwards firstly to Da Nang then to Hoi An. Once in Hoi An, Marianne and Victoria invited me to stay with them in a hotel, or I imposed myself upon them, I can't quite remember now but we ended up getting a triple room in a hotel quite close to the centre if Hoi An.

 Hoi An's streets for primitive vehicles only! 
Hoi An is famous for its cheap tailors and superb selection of restaurants, other than that there's not much else of historic importance within the town itself. The British Matt I had met in Hué doesn't drink and instead of bars, he has a fantastic knowledge base of South East Asian bakeries and told me about Cargo in Hoi An. So the first stop we made whilst in the town was Cargo where we bumped into Jonas who had already found and tasted the delights of the bakery. The selection of cakes on offer are out of this world and the drinks menu is longer than the bible. I could have easily stayed in that place for the rest of my journey as it was a little home comfort. If you closed your eyes, you could believe you were sitting somewhere in Europe and not the other side of the world. 

Inside Cargo
Later that evening we ate a meal in the upstairs restaurant of Cargo which was a little overpriced at £4 per meal but oh boy was it worth it! I think Jonas actually got a little addicted to Hoi An's delicious selection of restaurants and would have stayed a lot longer if he were not on a tight schedule. Hoi An is a haven for tourists, it's so relaxing with it's streets limited for the use of 'primitive vehicles' meaning you can walk down the road with a certain amount of ease. It's got a great selection of bars and restaurants serving fantastic dishes from around the world and it's got the uncountable tailor shops offering tailor made suits at incredibly cheap prices. Unfortunately I didn't get myself a suit, I just thought it wasn't very realistic to carry one around and as I wouldn't be home for another 8 months at least, it didn't seem worth it.

The restaurant we ate our Cau Lao Noodles...
As Victoria wasn't feeling too well, Marianne and I bought a ticket from the tourist information booths that allow you to go into a certain amount of tourist sites around the town. It was not worth it. We went into a traditional house which opened up into a shop at the back, the ceramic museum which was uninteresting, a couple of temples and a few other things that weren't really worth mentioning. By midday and a dry morning, the rain decided that we had enough of sunshine and began a torrential downpour 'forcing' us to take refuge in Cargo with a drink and a cake. We then bumped into Jonas on the way out and relocated across the road into another restaurant and had a delicious local Cau Lao noodles. 

Wonderful rustic town
The rest of the afternoon was spent walking the streets trying to find a barber shop for Jonas. We walked across the bridge were we were being bombarded with touts trying to get us in their restaurants which. Jonas, Marianne and I were walking down one street where there was a row of restaurants under one long hut like roof, each person asked as whether we wanted something. The first couple managed to get their pitches in but I stopped short from the next one and loudly exclaimed, “Listen up people, I do NOT want anything to eat, I will NOT be coming into your restaurant, so please do NOT ask me as I walk past.” It worked the rest stood there in complete silence and let us pass by, but the man at the end, with a chuckle in his voice couldn't help but ask us.

Jonas in the barber shop
We finally found Jonas a suitable barber shop. It was a small open room with three barber chairs in it. Quite primitive chairs similar to those you would expect Sweeny Todd to use. Jonas was not just having his hair cut, he was having his beard shaved off too meaning that the cut throat razor will be coming out!! Marianne and I sat watching with intent as the barbers razor sliced around his face, neck and strangely, his forehead. After finishing his on his head and facial hair, he set about on his ears. I had seen this done before but literally on the side of the street where people are walking. The barber uses long implements to clean and shave the inside of the ears, a task that I think is a little dangerous to been carried out of the side of the street, how about if someone tripped? Anyway Jonas survived his hair cut(s) and even had a strange massage to finish off with.

With the film crew ruining my photo... Oi get out of the way!
My Son

My Son, commonly known as Vietnam's Angkor Wat, is a complex of Hindu temples that have been partially destroyed. Most of the destruction came after intense US carpet bombing during the Vietnam-America war.  Construction and inhabitance of the 70 temples is thought to range from the 4th to 14th Century AD. The temples were dedicated for the worshipping of the Hindu god Shiva and are located in the valley that is 2km wide surrounded by two mountain ranges. It's a wonderful complex that inspires your imagination of its grandiose past. The only problem with our trip was a French production company were filming at My Son the day we visited and so we were constantly being told to shut up and move on by a very arrogant French guy with superiority complex. He actually turned round to us at one point and said that we should do what we are told because they paid more than us to be there! How ridiculous, so I instinctively began to sneeze very loudly during one take, so if you're in France and watch a TV program about Vietnam and hear a sneeze in the background, IT'S ME!! I spoke to one of the friendlier crew members, a Vietnamese girl and she told me that it is a series that will explain the history of Vietnam and French involvement in the region as the average person doesn't know anything about it. We finished up at My Son and made our way back to Hoi An on a boat. A quite boring boat that drifted down stream through unremarkable scenery only stopping for the traditional 'let's see my friend's shop and buy something'.

Happily hard at work
Lifestart Foundation Vietnam

The Lifestart Foundation was founded by an Australian lady named Karen Leonard whose aim was to help disadvantaged Vietnamese people into jobs and trades helping them to become self sufficient. They maybe disabled, street children, severely uneducated, people with mental health or learning difficulties. The foundation helped set up the Lifestart Foundation Workshop in Hoi An where people with disabilities make their own unique arts and crafts to sell. All of the proceeds go directly to the members of the workshop which creates a healthy sustainable income. Jonas and I visited this shop purely by accident, we saw a sign that intrigued us and entered what turned out to be the back door but was the entrance to the workshop where smiling people were working away on creating some really wonderful items. We walked through into the shop and the vast array of things that were being sold was amazing, there was some really beautiful jewellery, pots, bowls, ornaments and the list goes on. I bought a book mark from them to show my support. I would have loved to have bought more but when you're travelling, you have to be careful how much you buy. This is a fantastic project that involves the disadvantaged people in creating their own income and helping them help themselves gain a trade and a business. This is something that is truly worth supporting, so if you're in Hoi An, go and find it a couple of doors left of Cargo. In any case, take a look at their website and see the fantastic work they do for yourself.

Next Time, The Road of Death to Dalat and Mui Ne.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Hué, The Anti-Communist, The DMZ, The Tombs and The Rain, 24-28 March 2011

Haiphong to Hué

Having got the boat back to Haiphong, I had to wait three hours for my connecting bus to Hué which is half way down the country and would take all night to reach. Haiphong was a completely different place to that I left a few days prior. The rain had stopped and the sun was out in force. Waiting for buses is an annoyance of travelling as it's difficult to know what to do. This time I decided to walk and find a park where I could get my book out and read for a while, then go to a restaurant for a bite to eat before heading back to the bus station to catch the night bus.

Whilst I was sitting in the park watching the world go by and the people going about their daily lives whether it's walking the dog, taking their kids to the park or post work exercises, a man asked whether he could sit next to me in a meaningful voice. I am always apprehensive when people come up to you and ask to sit with you, but also enjoy it as you get to meet interesting people which is what travelling is all about. This man was indeed interesting. He was an elderly retired teacher who had lived through the war not as a soldier, but a teacher. He now lives alone in Haiphong since his wife passed away. The man relived his painful experience of his country splitting up during the Vietnam war and how he dislikes and hates to current communist regime. He told me how he wanted to relocate to the non-communist South during the period of free movement but was not able to as his family were stuck in the north and he was a teacher at the time. He carried on telling me how they are forced to restrict their freedom of speech, especially as a teacher where certain topics are prohibited in the classroom. He asked me whether he could write to me and told me to pass the letter onto the BBC. I have since spoken to my mother and she informed me that I had received a letter from him which she read it out to me. I will put a copy of it up here as soon as I receive it as this story is one of many Vietnamese people who feel the same helplessness around the country today.

The man made, who carried with him an English language book wherever he went, said farewell to me and left the park to continue his evening stroll. I thought that was a perfect moment for me to move on too, so I grabbed my bags and looked for a restaurant to have some dinner at before I returned to the bus station. I found one, Kentucky Fried Chicken or as the popular kids call it 'KFC'. I hadn't had a chicken burger since I had a slight addiction to them in Nanning so I decided to go for it. KFC is different here than what it is back home as you actually get what you order and the whole experience is pleasurable unlike those outlets in the UK. I once walked into the KFC on East Road in Cambridge and was immediately greeted with, “I'm sorry, we only have chicken left.” I was a little drunk at the time and this left me extremely confused, I did to him, “But you're a chicken restaurant, so there's no problem, right?”. It turned out that they had just run out of popcorn chicken and the stuff that goes inside wraps.

I digress. After I ate the meal and wasted some more time reading my book, it was time to head back to the station and find my chariot for the evening. At the bus station I met a group of Canadians who were travelling on the same bus as me, Kyle, Tanners, Pete, Kevco and Lauren were all travelling South East Asia for a few months before heading home and to university. We all got on the bus and they decided to take beds that were not allocated to them which caused the steward annoyance as people in Vietnam stick to their seats as a strict rule and cannot cope if things aren't clearly laid out in front of them. They all had to move but luckily I had legitimately secured my bed by swapping with a lady who wanted to be beside her husband. So I was safe from the shake up. The beds on the sleeper bus are one inch too short for me and the vertical bend in the bed is not ergonomically suited to my body. These buses are for Asians and Asians only. The journey took 14 hours as opposed to the 10 hours I was told by the lady I booked the ticket off. Oh well.

Arrival in Hué

Inside the Royal Palace grounds
When we arrived in Hué, the sun I had seen on Cat Ba Island seemed like a dream as the rain had a firm grip on Hué. I had planned to stay at Hué Backpackers Hostel and convinced the Canadians to come with me, so we shared a taxi from the bus station to the hostel in the centre of town. Check in was simple and we soon found our beds, I was given a double bed for the same price of a single which was nice of them, but it wasn't time to sleep just yet. We were all starving, so we headed for the Indian restaurant a few doors down the street where we enjoyed a fantastic curry that tops my list of meals on my journey so far. Maybe because I hadn't eaten for a while but still it was lovely. The hawkers selling waterproofs were out in force down the street and were relentless in their sales pitchers despite the fact I had one on already.

The outer wall of the Citadel
Later that day, whilst the Canadians were sleeping, I went for a walk across the bride into the citadel. Hué sits right smack bang on the split between North and South and saw one of the wars heaviest battles. The 1968 Battle of Hué was the bloodiest and most destructive battle during the Vietnam-American War. The battle was part of the larger Tet Offensive which saw the North Vietnamese break the truce agreement that stated neither the north or south would take part in any military actions against the other during the new year period. The Tet Offensive saw the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong launch a massive and unprecedented surprise attack on military targets and cities across the South which caught the South Vietnamese off guard. Hué was especially hit hard as it had insufficient protection against insurgency despite it's importance and location close the the DMZ. Hué was completely unprepared and was quickly taken over by North Vietnamese Army. The next month saw fierce close face to face fighting on the streets between both sides where the southern armies led by US Marines finally regained control after dropping napalm and bombs that destroyed 80% of the city and cost the lives of nearly 15,000 people. The American and South Vietnamese incurred 668 deaths and over 3,000 personnel wounded whereas the North Vietnamese forces' deaths totalled over 8,000. Most shockingly, 5,000 civilians were killed during the battle, many of them were executed by the North Vietnamese. As a result of this battle, Hué was mostly razed to the ground and the United States started to lose public support for the war and marked the beginning of their pull out.

Inside the palace walls
I didn't go into the citadel that day as it was terrible weather and I was just too plain tired. So I headed back to the hostel where they provide free beer every evening between 5pm and 6pm. It is a fantastic offer yet dangerous as people quaff down as many bottles as they can in the hour so they get their money's worth. I think I drank a fair few as we were playing drinking games to entertain ourselves. Later on, when the hostel bar closed we headed to the bar on the corner called the 'Why Not Bar' to play some pool. By this time it was just me, Kevco, Jonas, a Swedish guy I had met in the hostel bar earlier, and two disgustingly drunk English girls who had to be carried home as they just couldn't walk and it wasn't safe for them to walk alone as the street is full of opportunist muggers. After a few games of friendly pool, Kevco and a Vietnamese man played for some money, not a lot, just 100,000. Kevco officially lost the game and went to retrieve the money out of his wallet. “What the F**K!!” he exclaimed as he saw an empty wallet in front of him where 3,000,000 Dong was supposed to reside. “S**T, I've been pick-pocketed!” He soon realised. It was the guys outside who all act extremely friendly but had managed to get into his wallet, take his money and return it empty to his pocket. Luckily he still had his cards but was obviously annoyed by this breach. I personally always split my money, quarter in my wallet, half in my secret pouch and quarter elsewhere in my bag. My three credit cards are also split up, that way if one thing gets stolen, I still have means to get money. We decided that this was the end of the night and returned to the hostel for sleep that was well overdue because of the previous evening's bus journey.

Beautifully decorated gates to the Palace
The next morning I sat there eating breakfast and was joined by a Vietnamese man who was wielding a Vietnamese/English phrasebook, copied of course, and he went on asking me questions whilst making notes in in his phrasebook on pronunciation. He then asked me whether I could provide him with a few chat up lines that he could use on women in bars. He was going to work in Paris in four months time and was obviously petrified about the prospect of not being understood although he could speak French as many Vietnamese can. Jonas sat on the table next to me chuckling to himself about the situation and so I got him and his iPad involved in the discussion. The Vietnamese man listened with intent and noted everything down in his little book. He was quite obviously very serious about learning English as every page had an annotation on it. He probably will end up moving to the UK after initially working in France for a while. I wished him luck and moved on as the drunk English girls came down stairs and one of them had lost their purse but couldn't remember where or what they did the night before so I had to tell them where they were during the evening and took them to the bar to ask whether they found a wallet. They hadn't and to be honest with you, I hope this was a lesson learnt for them.

Main gates into the palace with Ho Chi Minh's portrait
After trying to help the hung over girls, Jonas and I visited the citadel and imperial palace. Hué was the capital of the region until the communist government ousted the emperor in 1945 and created their central government in Hanoi. When Bao Dai, the last emperor was overthrown by the North he relocated to create his capital in Saigon with the French colonial support. The citadel has within it an imperial palace which is reminiscent to that of the Forbidden City in Beijing that was allowed only for the emperor and his concubines. It's a nice place to wonder around and imagine what the citadel must have looked like before the war destroyed it's beauty. I enjoyed visiting this place more than the Forbidden City, mainly because it's 'real', it is how it is and there hasn't been any embellishments inflicted on it for the purposes of tourism. Jonas and I went to see a performance that was very similar to the one I saw in Hanoi at the theatre in the grounds of the citadel before leaving the place through it's main entrance that has a huge headshot of Ho Chi Minh hanging as a sort of 'up yours' to the regime he overthrew which again is similar to the Chairman's photo on the walls of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Memorial
The Demilitarized Zone

Following Viet Minh's decisive victory against the French in Dien Bien Phu and the French giving up control of Vietnam, the Geneva conference agreed to the establishment of the DMZ on 21 July 1954. The 10km wide Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) stretched almost 100km across Vietnam from the South China Sea to Laos on the 17th parallel. The split was a temporary solution to the ongoing battle between the communists and imperialists until a formal election was held to decide who should take full control over the country. The south disregarded and refused to take part in the elections stating that they were not bound by any dicisions made by the Geneva Conference. This sparked the insurgents to rebel against the south and thus started the Second Indochina war.

I went on a tour of the the DMZ and the Vinh Moc tunnels one day as they lie around 50km north of Hué. The tour was a little disappointing and personally I didn't find the experience enlightening as I could barely understand the tour guide and the tour was basically a long drive down the highway where the split used to be. We started the day off early with a breakfast next door where I met Matt Otter who was travelling upwards towards Shanghai from Cambodia. Our first stop was on the side of the road where we could take photos of 'The Rockpile' which was an important strategic look out post for the American army, the bus driver intelligently stopped the wrong side of trees though so we couldn't see it anyway. 

Kids in a village, note the boy dressed as Santa
The second stop was at the Ho Chi Minh trail and the first bridge Ho Chi Minh built. It was just a bridge, nothing special and not worth a ten minute stop at all. Our third stop was at the American base of Khe Sanh, where there was a small museum showing how the American fled in panic as their base was 'triumphantly' overrun by Viet Cong and the obligatory cashed aircraft and relics left over from the war. One thing worth seeing there were the newborn puppies running around which the tour guide bought one and took it with us on the bus (not sure if it was a pet or dinner thought). We got back on the bus for a few more hours before stopping at the Mekong Hotel in Dong Ha for dinner and then travelled along the river which lies on the divide towards the main attraction and only interesting thing on the whole tour, The Vinh Moc Tunnnels.

An entrance to the tunnels
The Vinh Moc tunnels were created after the American forces tried to scare the villagers of Vinh Moc to leave their homes as they believed they were assisting the Northern Vietnamese army. Instead of fleeing, the residents relocated their town 10 meters under ground but the Americans forced them deeper into the ground as they designed a bomb that would travel well into the ground and destroy their tunnels. The tunnels were then sunk to the lowest level of 30 meters below the surface where people lived. Seventeen children were born in the tunnels between 1967 and 1972. Interestingly, the Americans apparently released 9,000 tons of bombs on the village which equates to 7 tons per person. I couldn't imagine what it was like to live in the 2kms of tunnels below the ground in darkness and not knowing what was happening outside. The tunnels have been widened for foreigners to visit in recent years but they are still small and require a constant bend of the neck and legs. It is amazing to see such a feat of human engineering and what people are capable of when put into dreadful situations such as war.

Back in the Hostel

Getting ready for the shot of Arse
I learnt a new card game in Hué called shithead, not exactly a nice name for it but I'm sure some foul mouthed Australian named it and I'm only going to say that because I'm sure Ash and Matt, an Australian couple, tricked me. I'll refer to it in a more politically correct fashion from now on and call it “Faecal Cranium” or FC for short. The game is pretty fun but I really didn't understand how I kept losing (I do now though). I was losing so much so that Ash felt sorry for me and kindly offered to buy me a drink, a shot called Arse, which of course tasted like it stated and was the single most disgusting drink I have had! I was determined not to lose the next hand but to my astonishment I still lost meaning I got another shot, this time it was Chilli Vodka which made my eyes weep and amused the staff and my two new Australian friends. I don't even know how I ended up at the bar and playing with them but if I had known this was how it was going to turn out I may have stayed away! We finished our game and headed over to a late night bar/club called Brown Eyes to play pool.

Who needs chalk?
During my stay at Hué backpackers I had met Ben and Illy from England and Norway respectively and discovered that they were selling their Suzuki GN125. As time went on, I got more and more interested in buying the motorbike and travelling down to Ho Chi Minh with it. One evening Ben took me outside to show me the bike and have a ride on it but as he twisted the throttle and pushed the electric start button, nothing happened. He tried many times, but each time it failed to ignite into life. A bottle of petrol was added to the tank to make sure it wasn't that but still nothing happened. I told him to give up and come back inside as the free beer had begun to flow in the hostel. Despite this and the rain that had started again, he refused and spent another hour cursing and hitting the thing in a hope that it will come to life. Needless to say, it didn't. A couple of days later, I was still interested in buying it and so Ben, Illy and I went down to the mechanics to see what the problem was. Eventually, we found out that there was a lit of water in the engine which was cleared out and the bike started up, but it wouldn't keep going and they thought it was the battery but Ben and Illy confirmed that it was a new battery and they only just bought it. The mechanic carried on working on it for the next few hours whilst we sat in the hostel waiting for news. When the news came, it wasn't good news at all, I'm not up on motorcycle mechanics but he showed us a part which looked like the alternator and pointed out some broken parts within it. Ben and Illy were in uproar as they had only replaced that part the week before and had obviously been stung and given an old part instead of the new one promised. After a few expletives they agreed to the replacement of the part. A few hours later the had a working bike and I managed to get a go on her. It was the first time I had ridden a clutch, I had ridden semi-automatics before but this added another thing to do. I rode around the block a few times which sounds easier than what it actually is as the amount of obstacles in your way is crazy. People are coming at you from all angles and you just don't have a chance to properly get used to anything. I returned to the hostel in two minds whether to buy it or not. Could I ride this bike with confidence? Will it break down along the way? How long will it take to sell once I get to Saigon? Questions that I was going to spend the evening pondering and Ben and Illy had left the keys with me, saying that I should take it out for the whole day the next day and see how I feel.

Quiz night... Where is the Gulf of Bothnia anyway?
The morning arrived and I tentatively handed the keys over to Illy and told her that I had decided not to take the bike as I was concerned about my own safety and confidence. She completely understood and told me not to worry about it but I could see that she was a little disappointed as a couple of days ago I was 99.9% going to buy it and now they have to try and find another buyer. Having spoken to them since, I heard that they never did sell it but on a lighter note have got engaged! So congratulations to them!! 




The Imperial Tombs and Mausoleums

Only 10 minutes after I turned down Ben and Illy's motorbike, I rented a scooter out so that I could go and see the tombs and mausoleums of the past royals that dot around the city. Although the engine size between the bike I didn't buy and the scooter I was riding only differed by 15cc, I felt a lot safer on the later, maybe because it wasn't mine and it wasn't somebody I cared about.

The path across the lake to Minh Mang's tomb
As I confidently rode out of Hué, a lady in her forties rode up beside me on her motorbike and began talking to me asking me how I was, where I came from and all the usual questions. Having answered her inquisition I enquired as to the whereabouts of a petrol station as I desperately needed some or I was going to be in big trouble soon. She took me to a petrol station just around the corner and translated to the pump attendant for me. She didn't really need to but it was nice all the same. She then asked me where I was going and I told her that I was going to go to the tombs, she generously said that she would take me there as she just lived around the corner and it wasn't far. Nice of her I thought, but alarm bells began to ring as she then invited me around her house to visit her children and for a meal. I began working on my get out excuse that I would have to give her, there is such a thing as too nice and they usually have the ulterior motive of money! Sure enough, as we arrived at the mausoleum, I bought my ticket, thanked her for her assistance and politely turned her offer down as I 'needed to get back to Hué early'. She took me by the arm and escorted me through the archway into the grounds of the mausoleum and began on the sob story. My children, they each go to school to learn English and it costs her 1,000,000 (£30) Dong each month (or week, I tuned out at this time...) and it's very expensive and she'd be ever so grateful if I could help her out. I put 20,000 (60p) in her hand which I wish I hadn't done as it frustrates me so much that these people are disgracing their fellow countrymen as all con artists and swindlers. She looked at the 20,000 I had given her and disgustingly and ungratefully asked for more to which I replied absolutely not, that is all I was going to give her, I thanked her and walked off. I should have taken it back off her and told her to F off but she knew where my bike was! I hate this whole crap that constantly surrounds you in Vietnam, an air that everyone is out to get you and that no offer can ever be as gracious as it sounds. What about the poor friendly folk that actually want to invite you round to their house and meet their family like the Hmong people and the hotel owner in Sapa?

Through the bullet hole into Minh Mang's Tomb
The first tomb I visited was that of Minh Mang who was the second Nguyen emperor and lived from 1791 to 1841 and his final resting place is just off the river surrounded by a lake. His tomb is surrounded by a two circular brick wall and his body was taken into it by means of a tunnel that was blocked up afterwards to stop people robbing his grave. The outer wall has a gate in it that had some bullet holes left over from the war that made good peeping holes into the inner circle. The surroundings of the tomb are blissfully peaceful and a great resting place for anyone, dead or alive. Upon my arrival at the tomb I bumped into Matt from my hostel who was on the organised tour that took people around by bus. He left incredibly early in the morning and hadn't accomplished much more than I, so I was happy with my decision, although I was a lot wetter than him! With him was a Dutch girl called Urske who, not that I knew it then, I would be meeting down the road randomly again.

A tomb left at peace
As I moved onto the next tomb, I remembered why renting a motorcycle is such a great idea. I travelled down the small, poorly maintained path-like track that weaved it's way beside the river through a small enclave of houses. It's fantastic seeing these beautiful little villages where real Vietnamese people live and work as it gives you a proper taste of what the country is all about. A few kilometres down the road, I randomly found two more tombs, one that was completely overgrown and seemed like they didn't care much for and another which was down a small dirt track and was quite big but under renovation. Both tombs were blissfully deserted meaning I could begin peaceful exploration of the sites without any hassle.

Surrounding area of Tu Duc's tomb
The rain began to expand its vertical bombardment soaking me more and more as I was exploring the surrounding area of Hué hoping to find Tu Duc's Tomb sooner or later. After half an hour of an excellent ride through some hills, in some sand, finding dead ends, I found it and also got reunited with Matt and Urske who had just been to a shop to see how hats were made or something like that. So glad I wasn't on that tour. Tu Duc was the fourth emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty who died in 1883 and is buried in one of the most lavish tombs of the area. It is set in some beautiful forested area and the exceedingly large construction costs brought outrage to the workers who protested and attempted a coup. It was extremely difficult to walk around as the rain and mud had made the red slippery tiles even more slippery meaning every step had to be balanced or you'd end up on your arse. This was the last tomb I visited on that day and headed back to Hué, firstly the scenic route down some small winding track through a village, but when that came to a dead end I decided to turn around and go back on the boring main road back into Hué. I took thirty minutes to do a quick lap around the walls of the citadel to see the rest of Hué which wasn't much and headed back across the crazy bridge dodging motorcycles towards the hostel where Matt was sitting there already with his laptop in front of him looking smugly dry as I dripped.

One Final Thought...

The track through the villages
Hostels are great places to stay in as you get to meet lots of new people and it can be great fun. Although the guests at Hué backpackers annoyed me a lot. One night I went up to my room to go to sleep and I was greeted by a Canadian guy sitting outside. He asked me whether I was staying in there, to which I replied yes. He then asked me if my bed was on top in the middle, which it was and then proceeded to tell me that it was free now. My mind raced, why would it not be free, it was my bed and no body else should be in it. A question that was finally answered the morning after. Apparently the Canadian guy went back to the room to go to sleep only to find two people disgracefully having sex in his bed and the only other bed that was free was above, which was mine. I thought this was utterly disgusting behaviour and I hate it was British people show us up like that. There was three of them in a group, one had food poisoning so was being sick constantly in the ensuite toilet but the other two had obviously drunk too much and were also chundering all night long too. There was just a constant line and noise coming from the toilet. When there was someone in the toilet, they proceeded to think it was OK to throw up in the shower. They began to leave the door open which made me even angrier as I was facing the toilet, so I just shouted, “Oi, shut the f***ing door before I smack the s**t out of you!”. I'm not a violent person but these 18 years old just pissed me off too much. Luckily they left the next day. However, the dorm the following evening was a completely different place as the 3 Canadians were extremely drunk and had us in stitches all night long making for an enjoyable last night in Hué

Next Time, Hoi An, Dalat and maybe Mui Ne

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay, Sunshine and Hapiness, 18-22 March 2011

The boat rocked from side to side as it's engines opened up and we steamed through the bay towards Cat Ba Island. In true Vietnamese style, there were too many people on the boat so I was one of a group that were sitting on plastic seats on the back, clinging on to the railings to prevent the stools from moving. It was still overcast and I began to give up on the sunshine that I hadn't seen for a fair few weeks.

Cat Ba Town
The boat moored in a tiny port on the Island and we transferred to another bus that drove us to Cat Ba Town which is the main settlement on the island. The view was spectacular despite the grey sky that hung above us. I plugged into my MP3 player and increased the volume to full as the girl sitting opposite me began to casually throw up into a plastic bag like it was the normal thing to do. Surprise, surprise, it was raining again as we pulled into the make shift bus station in Cat Ba Town. I had already decided where I was going to stay and made my way quickly down the street and checked into Bay View Hotel. The main row of hotels are, as the name of mine gives away, on the front and look out over the bay.

The bay in Cat Ba Town
My main purpose for staying on the island was to take a boat trip into Ha Long Bay which has become extremely popular since Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond visited Vietnam on there Top Gear special that finished of with them taking their modified amphibious motorcycles across the bay. I was a little concerned that the karst scenery wouldn't be as impressive as I had been to Yangshuo and Xingping in China where the scenery there blew me away. It turned out that I would have to wait to see the bay a little longer as the immensely heavy cloud above gave way to a liquid bombardment that lasted well into the evening. This made me think about what I should do the following day, should I book on a boat tour around the bay or should I hire a bike out to see the island. I decided to wait and see what the weather was like on the day before I made any decisions.

Me and my bike for the day
The day arrived and I looked out of my window and although it looked out the back of the hotel onto a cliff face, I could tell that the sunshine was finally out. The bad news was that I had missed the boat trip but I went downstairs hurriedly ate breakfast and rented a motorcycle. The man whom I rented the bike from handed me a map and told me what route I should take. There appeared to be only two roads on the island, so it seemed to be impossible to get lost. I got on and headed out of Cat Ba Town on the coastal road with a lot more confidence and feeling more comfortable than I did when I was on the bike in Hanoi. The road was very quiet and in good condition so I could take my time riding with no fear of people appearing from all angles.

The road out of Cat Ba Town
As soon as I left the hubbub of the only major settlement, the road became winding and ascended up through the cliffs opening up on the other side to a straight road with water either side of me. A bit further on, the road hugged the coast and at this moment a smile immediately appeared on my face. This was a perfect moment, riding around a very quiet island in the sun and fantastic breathtaking scenery. There were many times when I had to pull over, take off my helmet and just stare at the view in front of my eyes hoping that the scenery would be engrained in my memory. The problem with stopping is that the sun immediately heated my body up to sweating point and the removal of my waterproof was instantly required to save me from melting.


Breathtaking scenery
The island is tiny but absolutely beautiful, it's got it all; green vegetation, rice fields, the sea, cliffs, mountains. Any where you look, there's something jaw dropping to see. Once I hugged the coastal road for a while I took the road towards the centre of the island where you can visit the National Park or head further north. I took the man's advice and initially took the road to the north and headed through tiny villages where the inhabitants shout hello to you and you have to dodge the lazy dogs that lay asleep in the middle of the road. The road ended at the port where boats leave for Ha Long City. The condition of the road at some points becomes a matter for serious attention as random pot holes and rocks that have fallen of the adjacent cliffs litter the road.

Dodgy ladder into cave
On my way back down to the south of the island I stopped in the national park area and visited the hospital cave where people were treated during the American War. I parked the bike up on the side of the road and paid to go in. The chap handed me a flashlight and just told me that I couldn't go to level 3 as it was unsafe. I thought he was going to come in with me but he promptly pointed to the direction of the entrance and said 'enjoy'. I got to the entrance where a small rotten wooden ladder led into the cave. I climbed the ladder whilst making sure to test each step with a bang of the foot before putting my full weight on it and was thankfully when I reached the top in one piece. There, in front of me stood a heavy steel door hung ajar on a reinforced concrete entrance. I peered in through the open doorway and was immediately struck by the depth of the darkness within. I tried the light switch that hang to the left of the entrance, but there was no electricity as the whole island loses power each day from 7am to around 7pm for one reason or another. I flicked the flashlight on and pointed it down the corridor hoping that it was strong enough to reach the end but it wasn't. My heart began to beat faster and faster as the unknown forced adrenaline around my body.




Entrance to the hospital
“HELLO!”, I shouted out only hearing my word repeated and repeated until the force of my voice was not strong enough to echo any longer. This cave is big! I moved further down the corridor into the complex of rooms, shining the beam of light into each room to my left and right I I went. The place was cold, the rooms big surrounded by undecorated grey concrete walls that you'd expect in any bomb shelter. There was a small passageway to the right but I bypassed it and continued on to the end of the corridor which opened up to a stairwell. I climbed the stairs to the next level where there were endless more rooms and a locked passage way which leads up to the next prohibited level. Having been up the stairs, I turned around and headed back down to explore the passageway I previously walked passed. I walked down it, passing more rooms, an operating room with it's concrete surfaces, a small pool for bathing in and suddenly I came across some steps that led up into a huge opening which was apparently used as a theatre and recreation room. The whole hospital cave is inspiring, hidden within a small outcrop the engineering feat is outstanding and I can only say that if there was a war on, I know where I would go.




Looking out from the cave
I found my way back out and waited a minute for my eyes to painfully reacclimatise themselves to natural daylight again before climbing down the dodgy ladder once again and heading back to my scooter. I decided not to get straight back on my bike but to sit down and have a cold drink first. I asked how much it was for a Coca-Cola to which the guy, who I had paid entrance fee to, responded 15,000VND (just under 50p). I did the equation and thought this to be an OK price and dutifully paid for the can knowing that I had paid a little too much as we tourists always do, but it's the price of home so it's not too bad. After talking with him for a while and having his dog forcing its way between my legs, a lady who seemed to be his boss appeared and he immediately got up and said, “Coca – 15,000” with a grin and a small laugh. The lady returned a similar grin and laugh. I then understood that they were laughing about the price I had paid for the can of Coca-Cola. Fine you've overcharged me which is not fair but expected, but to laugh in my face is just unfair. I politely said goodbye through gritted teeth and headed south along the road towards Cat Ba Town.


Fantastic roads hugging the cliffs
I hadn't got very far down the road until I was forced to stop as the road stopped dead. Well actually the road turned into sand and construction vehicles were sitting idly on it waiting to work. I had to turn back and retrace my steps, which I didn't really mind as the view is tremendous and the road almost perfect. After a few kilometres, I arrived back on the south coastal road that goes from Cat Ba Town to the southern port. I took a right towards the port, it was the road I had travelled on the day before on the bus in the rain but this time the sun shone and reflected magically off the waves. The road weaved in, out and around the cliffs similar to the Amalfi Coast (but perhaps less turns) and is the most dangerous road I have been on for a long time, not because of the road condition or other drivers but purely because the scenery immediately forces your attention away from the road. Having reached the port, there was no where else to go, so I headed back to Cat Ba Town and for a refreshment break at my hotel before travelling to the last road terminus on the island, the beach.


The beach
Once I reached the beach, it looked like paradise. Crystal clear blue water gently lapping onto the smooth golden sand. I got into the sea and celebrated having my first swim since I began the journey. There were not many people on the beach, just a group of young travellers on the other side to me. I sat down and got 'The Sorrow of War' out of my bag to continue reading. It's a tragic book about how war affects innocent people that are forced to take part in the brutal killing and clean up operation afterwards. This book is not a normal novel, it's not a diary, it's not in any order and neither does it need to be, it is a collection of memories written by a North Vietnamese Veteran called Báo Dinh who went to the war with another 500 men but was only one of ten who survived. His pseudonym, Kein, is part of a team collecting the corpses of dead soldiers after the war and this evokes memories. The memories show how lives are tragically affected by war, the horrors that he witnessed and took part in during battles, how is one true love, Phuong, got gang raped by his 'comrades' as they were under attack. The non-linear text is extremely effective in representing how the mind of a veteran is constantly battling against memories of war. If you want to read a book on the Vietnamese-American war, read this it's gripping as all the shocking details of the life of a soldier are laid out in front of you. This is one man's story but must be a mirror of so many other men who have fought in wars. It was initially banned by the communist government for obvious reasons but it was a book that couldn't be hidden for long.



After around an hour at the beach, I decided that I needed to leave because I didn't have any sunblock with me and I was beginning to feel the sun slowly burning my skin. I rode back to the hotel and was greeted by the man whom I rented the bike off, he said I had a lot of fuel left in the tank and as I paid for the fuel, I stubbornly wanted to use it all up before returning it. The sun had begun to lower itself in the sky creating a red tint emanating out of it. I opened up the throttle and headed back out of the town. It was an absolute pleasure to ride along those roads, I could have spent days just cruising around the island soaking up the beautiful landscape. My last stint I really went for it, mainly just wanting to waste as much fuel as possible. I know it's not good for my carbon footprint but I was not prepared to give the man any more of my money!! After travelling half of the southern coast again, I decided to turn back towards Cat Ba Town and watch the sun set over the bay.



Mysterious...
Feeling excited and exhilarated by the day's activities, I went straight to the tour booking office next to my hotel and booked myself on a Ha Long Bay cruise the next day feeling confident that the sun was there to stay. Well I was wrong, I woke up early the next day and the clouds had come in and seemed as though they were there to stay. Despite this my fellow passengers and I remained confident that by midday the sun would shred through the grey clouds and bless us with blue skies and fantastic views. This was not so, it remained overcast all day, it didn't rain but just stayed grey.  But the overcast skies created an air of mysteriousness around the bay.


My camera is not good in this light!
The boat tour was still great though, although I do still think Yangshuo and Xingping in China is better. The vastness of the bay is astonishing and the karst outcrops that must go down a long way under the sea level are awe inspiring. As part of the trip we visited two caves, the first was magnificent and had a huge opening to a enormous vault where they had strategically place atmospheric light to accentuate the features inside. The second cave was a lot smaller and had us crouch down to avoid smacking our heads on the stalactites. The view from above the cave was amazing. It looked out over the bay and a lake that was completely enclosed.


Back on the boat, the driver/chef had been slaving away cooking a meal for us to enjoy when we returned. We didn't begin eating until the boat relocated in a little bay with a small beach around one outcrop. The meal was absolutely delicious, we had fresh fish, spring rolls and other vegetable things. It was one of the best meals I have had on my trip. After the meal we had the opportunity to jump over board into the bay and swim around but the weather didn't encourage us to do so as it wasn't all that warm. Despite this, one girl, who was an English girl from a group of girls that had been travelling together for a few months and were about to head home, and a French man decided to take the plunge and jump in. They were enjoyed their swim around and the girl actually made the long swim to the beach but on the way back we all looked on in horror as a huge jellyfish homed in on her and stung her arm as she was getting back on the boat. Luckily the sting wasn't too bad and was just a little irritation for her.




Floating villages amongst the outcrops
The last thing we did that day was kayaking and it was one of the best things on the trip. I shared my kayak with a Canadian girl who was travelling for a while but also looking for work. She has an interest job in prosthetic design, designing artificial limbs and had been working a while in Canada before leaving her job to come travelling. I'm sure she would be well sought after in this war ravaged part of the world where many people lose their legs and arms to unexploded land mines. We paddled our way round an enormous outcrop watching local people in their oyster farms and fishing from their floating houses. It was fantastic and for some reason I ended up completely soaked which amused the other passengers but it was actually really cold when the boat began moving again. What a difference a day can make when it comes to weather. Yesterday it was blissful sunshine and today it's completely overcast. This concluded our trip around the bay and we headed back to Cat Ba Island where the minibus collected us and sped us back to our hotels in a fashion that had us clinging onto the seats.


As we arrived back in Cat Ba Town, the sun was setting again and left us in complete darkness as the daily power outage went on a bit longer than usual. It finally came back on around 8pm after an hour of darkness and the sound of the numerous generators on the front ceased leaving a calming silence to the bay for my last evening.

Cat Ba Island was one of the highlights to my trip so far, so peaceful, so beautiful.

 Next Time, Hué and maybe more...





Friday, 20 May 2011

Son La to Haiphong, Endless Rain, 15 - 18 March 2011

My alarm bleeped annoyingly emphasising the lack of sleep I had during the night despite going to bed at 9pm. My bus to Son La was scheduled to leave at the ungodly hour of 5am! I got out of bed and made my way cautiously across the room making sure I didn't bump into anything as I went to flick the light switch on. Despite my index finger firmly relocating the switch into the on position, the light bulb remained lifeless. I checked the TV but that too was lifeless meaning that their was a power outage again. Dien Bien Phu has power outages everyday for the majority of the day for some reason. This was not great news when I wanted to make sure I hadn't left anything behind.

With my bag on my back, I made my way to the bus station and it was quite an interesting walk as the streets were pitch black but the locals were out in force selling meat, fruit and vegetables on the side of the street on their bicycles with dimly lit torches. I was astonished by the amount of people out and trading so early. As soon as I crossed the river the lights seemed to be on. I got to the bus station that always seemed to be buzzing with life and after asking and thrusting the ticket in his face, the man at the gate showed me which bus was mine. I got on board and dumped my bag on the back seat and found a seat for myself, which wasn't difficult as there was only one man on the bus at the time. Shortly after sitting, a Belgium couple got on and sat on the two seats opposite me. I spoke to them for a while as we were waiting for the bus to move but as the bus moved off, Karen and Paul drifted off to sleep. I tried to sleep but couldn't as the bus journey was more like a rollercoaster ride, hugging the corners of the mountains, sharp breaking whilst fog surrounded us and forcing blindness upon the driver who slowed a little bit and just avoided on coming vehicles who were blowing their horns or flashing their lights frantically. Vietnamese don't slow down to avoid collisions, they just hit their horns thinking that things will magically disappear from their way, a technique that may work with people or buffalos but definitely not brick walls.

The journey was somewhat spacious, we stopped to pick up a hand full of people along the way but we all had several seats to ourselves to stretch out on. We stopped randomly in the hills by two wooden houses and the driver and his aide got out and walked into one of the houses, next thing we see is a water buffalo being butchered, gutted, sliced diced and boxed up in front of us beside the bus. The two young boys, who were oddly smartly dressed for cutting up dead animals, picked up the box they had just put the chopped up buffalo in and made there way to the bus. Initially they were about to put the box inside with us but I think they gathered we weren't happy about that and placed it in the small luggage compartment at the back of the bus which was directly under the back seat. The smell of the dead buffalo filled the air of the bus instantaneously, we all opened our window which let in the damp, cold breeze from outside helping to subdue the stench. Thankfully we didn't hang around too long and the bus driver soon moved off. Buses in Vietnam are multi purpose, they carry passengers (sometimes too many) and courier goods from one town to the next for a small fee. People just give them a call on their mobiles and they go and collect all types of things along the way.

The bus stopped again shortly after picking up the buffalo, it was 7.30am and it was time for breakfast. I had already snacked on some bread I had bought in DBP and Karen and Paul generously gave me their last Dairylee segment to go with it so I was not hungry. Despite this, we quickly jumped off the bus as being stationary meant the smell of the buffalo crept into the bus again and became too much to bear. We headed into the road side restaurant which resembled a shack made from a mixture of bamboo, metal sheets and odd pieces of wood, and took a seat. We asked for a pot of tea which finally arrived after several translation attempts. There was a group of 3 men sitting beside us who had finished their breakfast of Pho and had begun on the rice wine. They saw us and immediately offered us a shot. It was only 7.30am and they had started drinking the hard stuff already and seeing as it is incredibly rude to turn down an offer, we were subjected to downing several shots of the incredibly potent liquid, it might have been because it was early but it had a slight taste of petrol to it, not that I know what petrol tastes like of course. With our bodies warmed by the tea and rice wine, we left out new friends and the restaurant owner who refused to take our money and headed back onto the death bus for a further few hours to Son La.

We arrived in Son La bus station a little after 9am and rain was pouring from the sky above. We quickly gathered our bags and headed inside the bus station where Karen and Paul bought their onward ticket to Ninh Binh for the following day. I had a look at my possible destinations and decided that I needed to think about where I wanted to go next a little further. As the bus passed a sign to the guesthouse I had looked at staying a few miles back, it meant I would have to look for another one, perhaps closer to the bus station. I ended up staying at the VIP Guesthouse very close to the station with Karen and Paul as my next door neighbours. The room was nice, cramped, with an en-suite and a TV. I quickly settled into my room and had a knock on the door. It was Karen and Paul saying that they were heading out and wondered if I would join them. A few moment later, we were walking down the road towards the centre of town. The rain was slowly yet steadily spitting from the clouds and I suddenly regretted not bring my water proof with me. We approached a taxi driver outside the bus station, asked him how much to the centre of town and of course he responded with a ridiculous price. We tried to haggle but he was not having any of it so we tried the next taxi driver but they were obviously working as a team because he said exactly the same price and refused to put it on the meter. They thought they had us trapped as it was raining and the centre of town was 5km away. Motorcycle, xe oms as they're called were pestering us but they were going to charge even more to get even wetter. We stubbornly said no and walked of towards the town centre. It only took a minute for one of the taxi drivers to come to their senses and pull up beside us. He lowered his price to a reasonable level and so we jumped in. The driver also had the meter running and once we got to our destination it read just a little lower than the price we agreed on. It was barely anything to quarrel over, so we paid up and got out.

The heavens opened up a little further which forced the three of us to take refuge in a restaurant until it stopped. The only problem was, it didn't really stop raining at all, so we sat in the restaurant talking, eating and drinking for a couple of hours and once the clock struck 12, we began on the beer. Only a couple but it was enough to take our minds of the abysmal weather outside for a while. The rain was too much and Son La had too little to offer in the way of sights to see so we headed back to the guesthouse. Karen and Paul are kind of professional walkers, they annually take part in a charity event that sees people walk 100km in a day, so the 5km walk back to our guesthouse wasn't an issue for them. I on the other hand was drenched as I didn't have any waterproof on. Just my jeans and a shirt. OUCH, a pain shot horizontally through the centre of my back and a thick liquid started dripping down my legs. Pavements in Vietnam are the most dangerous thing on the road, most of them are just for motorcycles to park on, some have holes that plummet into the sewer below and all of them are slippery in the rain. I had just stepped of the curb to avoid a parked motorcycle when I slipped and landed in a drainage hole. I was covered in mud and things I don't really want to know. I quickly got myself up and although laughing about it externally, I was fuming and cursing Vietnamese pavements inside my head.

Karen and Paul left the following morning and I was alone again, it was also raining again. Son La is the second time I became a little depressed on my journey as it was raining, there was little to do and I hadn't been essentially on my own for a couple of weeks since leaving Hanoi. Although I did meet Andy and Emma, and Karen and Paul, for some reason I strived for more companions. I think the problem with Vietnam is the lack of hostels and staying in guesthouses just doesn't give you the opportunity to meet anybody new. Perhaps it was just the rain and the fact I was shut up in my room because of it. I headed out to the town centre in the rain, perhaps to go to the prison which was supposedly worth seeing, I planned to walk there and get a taxi back with the fresh Dong I would withraw from the cash machine. Didn't work out like that. First of all I couldn't find the prison so I went for something to eat, then I couldn't find a cash machine that would take my card so had to walk home as I didn't have enough money for a taxi and to pay for my hotel room. Having said that, I didn't even have enough money to pay for my hotel room!

I made the long trek back to the guesthouse which seemed even further and endless on the way back in the dark. I got to the guesthouse and approached the manager and showed him all the money I had left. I think I had a deficit of 10,000, which is nothing but still not enough to pay the agreed price. The manager, who spoke little English, smiled and indicated that it was fine and shoved a handful of Doublemint chewing gum in my hand as a present. What a nice man. This was to be my last night as I was leaving early again the next morning on the bus to my next destination.

It had been raining for the past week almost non stop and the day I got the bus to Haiphong, on the coast below Ha Long City, was no different. It was freezing as the bus conductor had his window open constantly all the way across to the other side of the country. The journey became a little tighter as we went along as people were constantly being picked up and squeezed on with their bags of god knows what. When I arrived in Haiphong, it was still raining and I still had no money so I had to walk to the nearest cash machine before I could get a taxi to the hotel I wanted to stay in. I planned to stay in Haiphong for one night only as it is the gateway to Ha Long Bay and I was going to get the ferry across to Cat Ba Island the following morning. The hotel I wanted to stay in was unexpectedly too expensive so I ended up in another hotel which was slightly cheaper yet still expensive. It was one of the worst hotels I have stayed in, the noise was unbearable all night and I couldn't wait to get onto the Island.

The following day it was still overcast yet the constant rain had made way to intermittent downpours. I left the hotel after a horrible nights sleep and headed to the ticket booking office to get my ticket to Cat Ba Island. The lady in the tour office was extremely friendly and as I had an hour to wait until my bus picked me up, I sat there with her as she went through my phrasebook teaching me Vietnamese and took turn in asking each other questions. The bus finally arrived that took me to the boat and out of Haiphong.

Next time, Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Dien Bien Phu, A Battle to the End! 12-14 March 2011

It was 7.30am and my minibus for Dien Bien Phu had pulled up outside the hotel, I said goodbye to the owner and his wife, the true boss, and approached the bus. The wife also acted as chef and had made me a chicken sandwich for me to take onto the bus for the journey. She had told us how she dreams that one day she would like to move to Europe as a chef. I passed my bag to the driver who crammed it in the back with all the others and I stepped up into the bus and found a seat on the back with two other people.

Beautiful, though...
My hopes for a semi comfortable journey were dashed when we stopped two minutes later to pick up more people. There were three seats free and we picked up five more people. A girl squeezed herself in next to me and her companions mirrored this in the other rows. I just hoped that there weren't going to be any more collections as there was not any more room on the bus and this was to be a eight hour journey through the hills to Dien Bien Phu.

I began talking with my very close (proximity) travel companions and learned that Andy and Emma, the couple to my left were British, had been working in Australia for a couple of years and were gradually making their way back home via South East Asia and India. The girl to my right didn't talk much, she was an American and that's pretty much all I remember about her.

...the mountainous view is better by naked eye...
The bus journey was long and bumpy but the scenery was absolutely amazing! At times the road was non-existent or under construction as many things tend to be around this part of the world. An couple of hours down the road the bus pulled over for what we thought would be a short stop, but no, we stopped for an hour whilst the Vietnamese passengers filled themselves up with Bun Cha. We thought this to be slightly ridiculous and stood outside eating a quick snack waiting for them to finish. We got back into the hot and uncomfortable bus and hit the road for a few more hours on death provoking roads, hanging off the edge on every bend and narrowly missing all oncoming vehicles. Still, if I died on this road, at least I died with an amazing view! The temperature difference between Sapa and where we were was so incredible I wish I had worn my shorts, not my jeans.

...not through moving bus window!
A few more hours passed by until we made our next stop at 1pm which we took to be a natural lunch break for anyone. We asked the driver how long we had and he motioned with his watch, twenty minutes, so we thought we would go off and find somewhere to eat. We walked 100 meters down the hot and dusty road to a small wooden shack market and Andy found somewhere to eat, I wasn't too hungry as I'd been snacking on some dried fruit which I had become addicted to. I walked back towards the bus station to find the toilet only to be confronted by the driver slapping his watch with his middle and index fingers and urging me to get onto the minibus. “It had only been five minutes,” I told him to which he didn't seem to care. “You said twenty minutes, it's been five.” I repeated myself trying to make myself clear but the driver had no wish to interact on the matter and the other Vietnamese passengers were shouting for me to get on board. This made me angry and agitated, we waited for them for an hour earlier for a pointless, stupidly timed lunch stop and now they can't seem to get away fast enough. I shouted to Emma who had just walked back up the road that Andy needed to get back as we seemed to be leaving with or without him. She ran back down to the market and grabbed him before he started to eat and the bus drove towards them and they barely got on before the bus driver slammed his foot on the throttle which kicked a lot of dust into the air behind us.

The War Memorial
We finally arrived in Dien Bien Phu around 4pm, it was hot and humid, the hottest temperature I had experienced so far on my trip. I had found a guesthouse in the Lonely Planet which I was drawn to as it was a micro brewery. I told Andy and Emma about this hostel and they were also keen to go and find it, so we grabbed our bags and began the walk towards the hostel following my hand drawn map of the town. However, after ten minutes of walking down the main road and still not only half way there, we decided to turn back and get a guesthouse closer to the bus station as Andy and Emma's bus was extremely early in the morning and they didn't fancy the walk, which I couldn't blame them. We found a guesthouse which was of the no-frills category close to the market. We dumped our bags in our rooms and had a quick freshen up before heading out to find some bia hoi.

After a well needed shower, we headed out to the streets of Dien Bien Phu and found an place selling Bia Hoi. We immediately ordered a pitcher of freshly brewed beer between us and it went down like a dream. The cool, refreshingly smooth tasty beer slipped down our throats making us forget the bus journey earlier that day. One pitcher turned into two, three, four and I'm not sure how many as the locals joined us and began filling our glasses up to toast with them. Darkness instantaneously surrounded us as all the electricity was cut off across the whole town unexpectedly following a brief hushed silence whilst the staff found the candle lamps and conversations continued as though it was a normal occurrence.

The centre of town... brilliant...
They began to take more interest in us and the teenage daughter of the owner came over to talk to us. We didn't have much verbal communication between us as she was either shy about speaking or more likely has just learnt English from a book as her written communication skills were almost faultless. We spent a while reading her questions and writing our responses until her father invited us over to a table where they had laid out a birthday cake with other sweets for one of their children. They offered us cake and we sang happy birthday to the little girl whilst she opened up her present. It was really nice to be involved in such a personal family affair and to see the happiness on the girls face when she got her gift. By this time, it was 10pm and the restaurant was needing to close, but the owner kindly invited us round to his house to watch a premiership match that was on that evening.


The grand entrance to the cemetery of fallen comrades
His house was just across the road and we were accompanied by his youngest son and eldest daughter who was still communicating to us through her pen and notepad. When we arrived at their home we were individually asked to follow him into the back where he wanted to show us something. A bit strange we thought and feared for our lives. However, Andy and Emma both took their times and came out with a laugh which had a slight nervousness to it. I was intrigued and followed the man to the back garden where I was confronted with a dozen porcupines, all in cages, being fed and watered by his wife. I did ask whether they were for food or pets and was relieved when he confirmed the latter. I returned to the front of the house which opened up to the road with a feeling of 'what the hell is that all about' on my face to which Andy and Emma nodded in agreement.

A huge bomb crater on Hill A1 from a B-52
I didn't really watch the football as planned as I began talking with the youngest son who was no older than 8 years old. He didn't speak English but he showed me his transformers with excitement and we ended up playing with them for the next 30 minutes whilst Andy watched the football with the boss and Emma was talking with the girl. The match finished and we politely said thank you to our extremely kind and generous hosts and left in search of well needed food as we hadn't eaten a decent meal since breakfast.

Our luck was in, there was a bakery open selling cakes, burgers and hot dogs. We settled for a couple of hot dogs each and a beer which I struggled to get down me. After sitting there for half an hour, we decided it was time for bed as Emma and Andy had to get up extremely early to get early morning bus to Laos in the morning. We walked back and I said goodbye to my new friends who I was so fortunate in meeting on the bus that day.

Destruction beyond belief
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu, 1953-54

Dien Bien Phu is synonymous with the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu which was an important turning point for Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. After the second world war was over, the first Indochina war began and the Viet Minh insurgency was growing in strength and had gained land from Hanoi as far as Luang Probang in Laos. The French were continually failing to quash the Viet Minh's victories over their armies and needed to stop their advances into Laos which was still under French control. France saw the only option was to launch an all out attack on Dien Bien Phu which would cut off the Viet Minh's supply line and force them to retreat. France were poorly prepared and didn't stand a chance against the Viet Minh who had secured all the highland in the area and severely outnumbered the French army. Nguyen Giap, commander of the Viet Minh's army described the battlefield as a rice bowl, they had all the high ground while the French were all deep inside. The French lost the battle miserably and decisively.

French Trench of Hill A1, their best hope...
On May 8 1954, Ho Chi Minh delivered the news to the Geneva Conference declaring Viet victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu. They had no choice but to divide Vietnam at the 17th parallel until elections were held that would reunite the two halves, Communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam to the north and French supported State of Vietnam to the South. The last French troops withdrew from Indochina in 1956 which paved the way for the United States of America to get involved.  The United States had been funding the French for years in an effort to remotely squash the communist influence on the area.  They were always agitated by the French inability to do so they took the opportunity to go in and 'finish' the job.

An example of Viet Minh strength
Unmarked graves of the victims of war
The Victory Museum, of course with heavy Viet prejudice, documents the battle from start to their victorious finish with photos, artefacts and destroyed French and American artillery. Across from the museum is the cemetery which is a very moving complex with endless lines of graves for all those that lost their lives in the battle. Overlooking the cemetery is Hill A1 which is the highest point in town and was held by the French troops during the battle. It is littered with a rabbit run of trenches and was extremely hard fought for between the French and Viet Minh armies. After the walk up to the top of the hill, you get a fantastic view of the lines of unmarked graves below in the cemetery and the surrounding countryside to seal my trip to Dien Bien Phu before it started to rain.

Next Time: Son La and the obligatory rain... rain... rain... rain...