Saturday, 4 June 2011

Ho Chi Minh Vs Agent Orange, 5-9 April 2011


Firstly, apologies that this blog isn't the happiest but it is an integral part of Vietnam's history and is important to get into the national psyche.  As I mentioned above it contains some horrid images that may upset you but again they are there for that purpose and so we never forget.  I must point out the photos are not my own, I sourced them off the internet for the purpose of showing you the horrors of war.  This is not anti-American in any way, it purely states the details of what happened.  My heart goes out to all those soldiers that were forced to go over and fight on behalf of their government.  War is a terrible thing, it affects the people directly involved in horrible and non-reversible ways.  Let us never forget those people who fought on both sides during the Vietnam-America War.

I woke up following a ridiculously short amount of sleep, gathered my belongings and headed to the reception area where I waited with a few others for our bus to Ho Chi Minh City. The bus turned up and I was lucky enough to be sitting beside Kathy, a hilarious girl who was on a trip around South East Asia and on her way to work in a hospital in Thailand for a couple of months before heading home to continue on her path to become a occupational therapist. We sat there on the back seat chatting for a while until I must have bored her as she fell asleep... Disgraceful! I let her off though as she was extremely excited that her boyfriend, Dan, whom she hadn't seen for a while, was flying into Ho Chi Minh later that day.

The bus journey was one of the easiest I had done in Vietnam to date and we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City a few hours later. As we arrived in Saigon, I was immediately overpowered by the feeling of being in a big city again. I hadn't been in a place with high rise buildings and an intense feeling of being in a city (like non-Londoners have when visiting the capital) since China. Although Hanoi remains the capital of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City is the financial capital and it accordingly feels much richer. HCMC has had more time to develop itself unlike Hanoi as it was under American capitalist control for ten years during the war. I personally felt excited to be in a place that seemed to be buzzing, with it's incredibly busy streets and people running around carrying on with their daily lives. The city has two names. The original and mostly known name being Saigon but after the North Vietnamese conquered the town and ended the war in 1975, they renamed the city Ho Chi Minh City after their national hero and founder of the modern day Vietnam.

Welcome to HCMC motorcycle madness
Marianne and Victoria had sent me an email the previous day to tell me what hotel they were staying in. The address was in my Rough Guide but it turned out that Kathy was staying at the same place so I decided not to worry about beginning the HCMC orienteering expedition and just to follow her. We were extremely lucky that the bus actually stopped just around the corner from the hotel and so it only took us a couple of minutes to get there. We were also joined by a few other people who we rallied together from the bus; Andy and Oisin, British grammar school boys on a trip before university or something else, Life, not really sure where he was from, Jakob, a Danish musician and a girl who I think was from Canada but I really can't remember her name.

Kathy and I found Bear Beer.  Could be tricky for some to say
This is how travelling goes, you go from not knowing anyone at 8am to suddenly checking into a hotel in a big group of people and sitting down to a meal and drinks a few hours later as though you've known them for ages. Ho Chi Minh City was the first time on my trip that the heat suddenly hit me, the humidity was unbearable and made you constantly sweat, luckily enough our dorm room was fantastically air conditioned so we were able to take refuge in their during the hot hot times of day. The room also had a nice little sitting area which was something I haven't seen before in a dorm room and was a great addition. I left the refrigerator of a room for some water when I met Victoria and Marianne who were busy tapping away on the PC keyboards in the lobby. Later that evening a group of us, bar Kathy who was at the airport to collect Dan, went out for something to eat and finished the evening off in our dorm room singing whilst Jakob was playing his guitar and drinking. A great night had by all!

The following morning, I was sitting down stairs in the lobby enjoying the fantastic 'free' breakfast of eggs and bread when I was joined by Alan who was travelling around South East Asia for a while and then Tom and Nicky joined us who were travelling from Hong Kong to Singapore and then onto Australia. Not that I knew it then, but I would be spending a long time with these guys. After a while, Kathy and Dan walked casually down the stairs and we all went across the road to the Sinh Tourist office to book a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels the following day. As it was lunch time, we all decided to head to have something to eat in a restaurant whilst it was at the hottest point of the day. As we were sitting there I saw Kevco walk past with Lauren and Tanners (the Canadians from Hué), so I quickly ran over to them to see how they were doing. It seemed as though I was destined to keep bumping into these along the way too.

--By the end of the Vietnam-American War 3,000,000 Vietnamese people laid dead, of them 2,000,000 were civilians. 2,000,000 people were injured and 300,000 people were missing.--

Later that afternoon Kathy, Dan, Alan and I decided to go to the War Remnants Museum that explicitly depicts the horrors and affects of the war, mainly the perils of using Agent Orange. We were in a quandary whether to take a taxi there or to walk but we eventually 'manned up' and made the decision to walk. The temperature of the day was hot and it didn't take too long until we were all suffering extensively from the sun's power so we took a brief five minute break and sat in the shaded area on a patch of grass in a park only to be told off by the park keeper who forced us to move on. We continued with determination towards the museum and after another 5 minutes of blistering sunshine, we got there.

American civilians in protest against the war
The museum was opened in 1975 and was called The American War Crimes Museum but the name was changed in the early 90s to the War Remnants Museum as relations with the USA were improving. Outside there is the usual decommissioned aircraft and tanks from the war imposing their deathly presence upon the entrance to the museum. The ground floor is largely dedicated to those who opposed the war with a collection of propaganda posters and details of protests that happened throughout the world against the United States involvement. Upstairs is where the more shocking collection of photos and artefacts are. Especially the room dedicated to the affects that Agent Orange had on the civilians in Vietnam and the American personnel that handled the poisonous dioxin.

Operation Ranch Hand, 1962-1971, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

Operation Ranch Hand was an American plot to destroy forests and all vegetation in certain regions of Vietnam, eastern Laos and Cambodia. It's main goal was to deprive Viet Cong guerillas of cover as the Americans never stood a chance against them in the forested terrain. Another secondary goal and perhaps a more disgraceful one was 'forced draft urbanisation', by using defoliants on rural countryside, it destroyed the peasants ability to grow crops and sustain their food supplies forcing them to move into the American occupied cities. The Americans told people they were destroying crops to cut off the supply of food to guerillas but in fact they only managed to cause mass widespread famine across the rural areas of Vietnam.

The Girl in the Picture, Kim Phuc running and burning
As the widespread famine spread further across the rural areas of Southern Vietnam, increasing numbers of people began to relocate to urban areas that were controlled by the US. Urban populations tripled from 2.8 million before the war to over 8 million by the end. Of course this is what the US wanted, to gain more control over the Vietnamese population, however, they were not prepared and urbanisation became uncontrollable. Saigon especially could not cope with the growing population and around 1.5 million migrants were forced to live in slums. This was absolutely disgusting as many of the South Vietnamese officers and US military were living in luxury. Not the best way to get people on your side, is it?!

Innocent children always suffer, birth defects from the dioxin
Records show the United States of America dropped an estimated 80 million litres of chemical herbicides and defoliants between 1962 and 1971 that destroyed land and the lives of people across Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. By the end of the war, 12% of the agricultural areas in South Vietnam had been completely destroyed whilst 20% of all the land area was sprayed at least once with the herbicide that was said to be 13 times above the legal safe limit. According to the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the 6,542 spraying missions exposed 4.8 million Vietnamese civilians to the deadly herbicides eventually resulting in around 400,000 deaths and 500,000 birth defects although the Vietnamese Red Cross state slightly reduced figures. Soil and water samples taken from across Vietnam showed to be hundreds of times above the regarded safe level.  Agent Orange was only one of many different agents used over Vietnam but Orange was the most popular.

The affects of dioxin poisoning were realised as early as 1966 when The United States of America were charged with violating the Geneva Protocol of 1925 that regulates the use of chemical and biological weapons. Regardless, they continued to use the chemical herbicides and defoliants over the country. To this date it is believed that the US have not done enough to help with the clean up operation around Vietnam. In 2007 George W Bush signed a supplemental spending bill for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan that earmarked $3 million to the clear up of dioxin hot spots on former US military bases although it is estimated that the clean up of the base Da Nang alone would cost $14 million.

...Suppose we lost Indocina. If that happened, tin and tungsten, to which we attache such a high price, would cease coming. That is why when the United States decides to give an ais of 400 million dallars to this war, it does not make a gratuitous offer. In reality, we have chosen the least coastly means to prevent one of the most terrible things for the United States for its security, its strength and its possibility to obtain what it needs among the riches in Indochina and South-East Asia”. 
President D Eisenhower, 4 August 1953... The self interest purpose of war...

Agent Orange protest in USA
It is not only the Vietnamese that are suffering with the affects of Agent Orange exposure. Many American veterans that were exposed have suffered with cancers or have borne children with similar birth defects that are seen across Southern Vietnam. The War Remnants Museum have a room dedicated to affects of Agent Orange. Within the room are countless photos of people that have been born with birth defects, stories of the victims and even a tank with two still born defected babies on show. The room certainly puts war into perspective and everybody that walks through that room becomes speechless, on the brink of tears and angry at those that can stand by and inflict this on innocent people. The affects of Agent Orange will be seen for many generations as the affected people have passed on the genetic defects onto their children and they in turn will pass it on again, if they're lucky enough to have children that is. It's these poor children that weren't even born during the war that are suffering.

The museum is shocks your bones to the soul and has you constantly asking; How can one human being do this to another human being? The images of victims that were incinerated by napalm and phosphorous bombs, prisoners of war being tortured and the list of gruesomeness goes on. We left the museum in a solemn and pensive mood. Of course the museum was heavily biased towards the Vietnamese, but it is their country and it is them that have suffered and are still suffering from the affects of this horrid war.  The photos on display showing horrible scenes of how war had truly altered the American forces into a non-human force as they smile over dead bodies, picking up body parts without care, torturing Vietnamese and setting light to houses.  These poor soldiers that signed on for protecting their country were forced into this horrible situation whilst the people who put them there sat comfortably the other side of the world in Washington DC.

"I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy...That was my job on that day. That was the mission I was given. I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women and children."
Lieutenant William Calley, testifying at Court-Martial in defence of his actions in My Lai, 1970

On the way back to our hotel we desperately needed to relax and pick ourselves up after visiting the museum, so we stopped for Bia Hoi and it was worth it. Sitting down on the incredibly small plastic chairs, that are actually built for 3 year olds but nobody has told the Asians yet, the pitcher of freshly brewed golden larger was slammed on our table by the unusually rather inhospitable lady. We poured it into the traditional chipped glass mugs and sucked the deliciousness down in a few gulps. It certainly hit the spot and lifted our spirits back to the present day and thoughts on what to do that evening were circulating round the table.

That evening we gathered the rest of the group together and headed to indulge in some more bia hoi before it ran dry as it does quite early on in the evening after the Vietnamese have all been released from work. We found one place that was full but the friendly owner accommodated us by placing a few chairs just on the road and so we sat down drinking her beer in the middle of the street. This didn't last for long as the police arrived which sparked the lady to jump up and quickly gather the chairs before they saw. It didn't work and they pulled the lady aside and gave her a telling off and perhaps a fine, I'm not sure, I hope not as she was a nice lady. After the police disappeared, so did our beers, so we headed off to the 'Dollar Bar' around the corner where surprisingly enough, all drinks are $1 and we were there for the rest of the night.

For more information on Kim Phuc's foundation check out her website, click here.

Next time, Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Mui Ne, Beaches, Dunes and Pesky Kids, 3-5 April 2011

I was woken up at 6.45am by the annoying sound of the telephone ringing in my hotel room. Confused, I picked up the receiver and greeted the person on the other end with a sleepy “Hello?”.
“You bus to Mui Ne?” A lady enquired with a rushed and slightly angry voice.
“Yes?” I confirmed with intrigue.
“It's here now, you come now!” She barked.
“No, you said 7.30, not 6.45. You're going to have to wait!” I responded annoyed in the fact that I was being ordered around but dumbfounded that a bus in Vietnam turned up early. Luckily I had packed the majority of my things the night before and I just had to collect a few remaining things and brush my teeth. I managed to get downstairs by seven only to be greeted by the rather agitated lady whom I had spoken to earlier. She forced me out of the door with her eyes and a flick of the hand pointed to the minibus a little further down the road. I got in and then spent the next 30 minutes driving around Dalat picking up other people from their hotels. Once the minibus was full, we drove a little further out of the centre to meet a coach that was going to take us down to Mui Ne.

Mui Ne towards the end of the day
The journey was relatively short but exciting as we descended through the mountains on an incredibly bumpy road. I arrived in Mui Ne around four hours later and the temperature difference was immediately noticeable as the sun was out in full force. It was the first time I had properly seen the sun without the accompanying rain clouds for a long time. It was marvellous. I checked into the Mui Ne Backpackers but the dorm was full so I stupidly agreed to stay in a single room which was $16 a night. This idiotic mistake was proof that I had become tired and complacent. I should have just walked away and found somewhere else for less than half the price, but I just couldn't be bothered. The room was nice though; air-con, plasma TV, fantastic en-suite and a fridge for my Dairylee slices. I had a couple hours rest whilst the midday sun was beating down strongly before making my way onto the beach.

Road turns to sand
I sat on the beach for an hour or so, had a swim in the sea and read my book for a bit, all the usual things you do on a beach. I can't sit on a beach for very long without getting bored. Mui Ne is a haven for kite surfers as the wind curving along the South China Sea around the southern Vietnam create one of the best beeches in the world to take part in the sport. I would have liked to give it a go but it was terribly expensive to even consider it. I left the beach and wondered back to the hotel, had a shower and then went to get a meal. As I was looking for a restaurant I was struck by the amount of signs and menus that had Cyrillic translations, presumably Russian. It was the first time I had seen Cyrillic since I left Mongolia before Christmas and I began to remember how to read it. I was shocked that Mui Ne was a popular Russian tourist spot, but I suppose for the Eastern Russians, Vietnam and China are the closest and most likely beach venues to them that they can afford.

Deserted beach
The next day I took yet another motorcycle out to explore the area surrounding Mui Ne. My first stop was supposed to be the inland sand dunes but there were too many touts there at the time looking for money, so I paused for only a moment to take a photo. That moment was too long as a child took the opportunity to hop on the back of my bike and say “I take you to 'so and so', I am your guide.”. I responded by rebuking him and ordering the cheeky little git to get off my bike. He did and I moved off completely shocked by the cheekiness of the child. Further along the road cut through the land and emerged on the coast where a long golden beach stretched out for a long way. I took the opportunity to stop and check it out, and I'm glad I did as it was completely deserted. I took a dip in the sea and relaxed sitting in the refreshing water for a while until a wave crashed in bringing a huge crab that landed a few feet to my right, obviously unhappy to be on the beach its claws were snapping away as it scuttled back into the sea. I love the sea, but don't like the illusive sea creatures that bite and sting, so I took this opportunity to collect my things and get back on the bike for further adventures. I continued on the same road for a while as it left the coast and the dry soil on either side turned to a red colour. I reached a cross road where the condition of the road deteriorated to dirt and so I turned back and headed back towards Mui Ne. On the way back, I got a chance to open the bike up as the road was in good condition and empty only stopping for something to eat in an oversized and underpopulated restaurant by the sea.

The red sand dunes
As I reached the sand dunes again, I searched for an empty spot where I could park up away from any of the annoying boys and men that wanted my money. I found a place and as soon as I took my helmet off, a boy began running towards me from behind shouting at me. I ignored him and continued to walk up the red sand dune which produced an distressing amount of heat. The sand dunes are huge, there's a red and white one but I only visited the red dunes. As I was taking photos, I could see the boy who was shouting at me was now sitting on my bike, either waiting for my money or trying to steal it off me before I got back. I couldn't relax with him sitting there whilst my wallet and passport were sitting beneath the boy, so I headed back down and was greeted by the boy ordering 10,000 Dong. I looked at him incredulously and asked him why to which he stated that he had looked after my bike for me. I responded by telling him to get off my bike and told him that I was not going to give him any money because my bike was OK without him looking after it and I didn't ask him to. The boy continued with his demand and I ended it by igniting the bike's engine and speeding away from him as he began to swear at me. I was so furious and eager to get away from the money grabbing child that I forgot to put my helmet on and only realised when I went to wipe the sweat from my forehead.

The Fairy Stream
I got back to Mui Ne around twenty to thirty minutes later and made a stop at the hostel for a quick break from the sun and to have something cold to drink. Whilst I was drinking my cold Coca-Cola, I talked with the Australian owner and he told me something interesting about Norwich that I didn't know before. It actually stands for Nickers Off Ready When I Come Home! With this new piece of information fresh in my mind, I headed back down the road on my bike to the Fairy Stream, which is a wonderful and somewhat magical stream flowing just outside Mui Ne. I pulled up off the road and was greeted by the usual people getting you to park your bike up and paying for the privilege. Then I was set upon a young boy who wanted to be my guide down the stream, I of course declined his offer of assistance and with a series of forceful 'no thank yous' I managed to part company. I got to the steps where you walk down into the stream and was offered the service of looking after my trainers, which again I declined as I could quite easily carry these and there was no way I was going to pay for it. As I was walking a few feet upstream a couple of young boys ran up behind me and started walking with me. It annoyed me as I knew their friendly manner came with the ultimate price tag at the end and there is nothing you can do to get rid of them. 

The stream from the top of the sand dune
I continued walking in the warm water stream on the soft red sand trying to be as polite as possible to these boys until we reached a sand dune and they asked me whether I wanted to climb it. Of course I did. It was hard work as the sand was soft and slipped away easily under each step but I got to the top eventually rejoining the two boys who had got there way before me. The boys then asked me whether I wanted to go back as they had to go to school. They told me that I shouldn't go any further up the stream as it was all 'same same' but I told them that I didn't want to return just yet hoping that they would just turn around and go with just a pleasant 'goodbye'. My heart sank as they held out their hands in demand for cash and my hopes for two young Vietnamese boys who just wanted to be friendly and had no concept of money were demolished. I find it terrible young children are being brought up like this. It's as though their parents are using them to get money off tourists because we may feel more sorry for them and are more likely to give to children than adults. To their ungrateful disgust, I reluctantly gave them 10,000 Dong (around 30p). They immediately sneered at my offer and asked for more. This is when I should have taken it back and said go without but I told them that they should think themselves lucky that they got that as they didn't actually do anything worth a monetary return. Without a word of thanks they left running down the sand dune obviously cursing me. Feeling a lot calmer after the children left, I continued up the stream a bit further all by myself. It's a marvellous stream, really peaceful and the landscape is utterly bizarre. Again a photo will tell you more than my words... I returned to my bike and steamed off back towards Mui Ne.

Strange rock formations
My next stop was the cash machine. I love going into ATM booths here as they are usually really well air-conditioned so I make sure to take my time whilst withdrawing money. I spent the next half hour riding aimlessly around the area seeing what I else I could find, but my search turned up empty handed as I goto several dead ends but nothing interesting do I returned to the hotel and handed back the motorcycle to the annoying man I hired it off and sat by the pool just checking my emails. As I was doing so, a couple of familiar faces peered round from reception, it was Jonas and Louis who had just arrived from Mui Ne. I knew they were coming as Louis text me earlier in the day, so I quickly dumped my laptop and headed out with them to find a hotel. We did find them a nice little hotel, to my annoyance it was cheaper than the dorm I was staying in but I only had myself to blame. It was too late to change hotels as I had made the decision to move on to Ho Chi Minh City the next day.

Road through the desert
After Jonas and Louis dumped their bags in their rooms we headed out to a seafood restaurant that I had been recommended by the people in the hotel. As walked through the restaurant to the seating area that overlooked the sea, we met up with the other people that were staying in my hotel and ended up joining them for the evening. I am always weary of eating seafood in foreign countries as it's easy to get food poisoning from it. I think it's something that has been instilled in me by my mother who was always careful when we were on holidays. There is only a certain amount of restrictions you can put upon yourself when travelling as you still need to enjoy yourself and experience different foods. My one rule is to only have seafood when I am by the sea and only have fish when I'm near a river. My friend Luke didn't follow this rule during our Eurotrip he decided to have a seafood kebab in Bratislava, Slovakia which is a land locked country, he ended up with severe diarrhoea for a good couple of days afterwards. So following my rule, I ordered Shrimps in Beer which turned out to be fantastic and of course had some more beer on the side to supplement it.

Fishing is still a big source of income...
Following our meal we headed to the crazy golf course to meet the rest of the group who left before us. It was a great laugh, I played against Jonas and Louis and believe I actually won because of a freak shot when I used the Andy technique of smacking it and see what happens. The ball launched off to the right, bounced off a rock which bypassed the rest of the course, went over the hill and straight into the hole. My first hole in one. After the golf course, we headed to a bar on the beach. The beach bar was not exactly lively, although the music was pumping out of the speakers with tremendous volume no body was dancing. It was far too hot to dance so most of us were sitting, relaxing and drinking on the beach with the cool breeze comforting us. It was an incredibly relaxing affair until Regina appeared. I met Regina, an American girl, a few hours before back at the hotel whilst I was sitting beside the pool. Regina was buzzing like she had taken ecstasy or some stimulants as she was bouncing around dancing all over the place without a pause for breath. She got me up to dance and Jonas shortly followed. I couldn't keep up with her as she had an unbelievable amount of energy. Instead of going all out on the dancing front I brought out the ECD (Energy Conservation Dance). ECD mainly consists of your feet making slow repetitive kicks or taps whilst your index fingers do the majority of movement. It's a great way to take part in the dancing whilst retaining energy especially in a warm climate. This didn't last long as Regina and I took the dancing to the dance floor by request of the barman. The barman obviously wanted us to kick start the dancing, so that's exactly what we did as we were soon joined by a couple of Russians, a couple of American guys and a few British girls. I tell you, that place started to rock and then drip with the condensation of sweat on the ceiling! Hmmmm.... Nice I hear you think!

One last photo of the stream
After an hour, I retired from my dancing career as I feared that I would have no water remaining in my system to function for much longer so I returned to Jonas and Louis who were talking with an American man on the beach. It was marvellous outside, the breeze immediately began to cool me off. Regina soon followed and finally sat down, exhausted next to me and the American started telling us about the glowing algae in the sea that lit up as you moved your hands producing kinetic energy. We thought this required further investigation as we didn't believe him. The five of us stripped down to our underwear and dived into the sea and it was heaven, I was finally cool and as we looked down and moved our hand excitedly under the water, hundred of specks flickered as the algae lit up. It was amazing. We spent ages in the water in awe at this natural wonder and then our gaze turned to the stars. I realised that I hadn't seen stars for a while like I had in Mui Ne's constantly clear skies. The waves suddenly became stronger and the bar began to clear up and close so we took this as a sign to leave the sea and the bar. I was going to head back to the hotel as my bus to Ho Chi Minh was early the next morning and the others went to another bar. My bus was actually only four hours away, but my mind was buzzing as it usually does after a night out, so I sat outside by the swimming pool for a while cooling down before I finally felt as though I could sleep.

Next time, Ho Chi Minh Vs Agent Orange

Dalat, Into the Valley of Love, 31 March - 2 April 2011

Marianne, Victoria and I stood there amongst a lot of other gringos waiting for our night bus that would take them to Nha Trang where I was going to leave them and move on up the hills and into Dalat. I was in charge of getting the bags safely stored in the compartment underneath the bus whilst Marianne and Victoria were going onto the bus and securing some decent beds for our journey. It so happened that we got the beds at the back and I was sandwiched, unfortunately I know, between Victoria and Marianne and with two more girls to the right of her. Hard times for Andy... The problem with the night buses are that the temperature always fluctuates dramatically, you go from sweating your areolae off to freezing your toes off, which is not pleasant when you've got five bodies squeezed into the back of the bus. The bus journey wasn't too bad despite the infestation of some unknown insects crawling over us which made the two other girls go a little crazy shouting “KILL IT, OH MY GOD KILL IT!” in their London accents. We arrived in Nha Trang early the next day and were lucky enough to see the sun rise over the sea from the bus. A wake up view I hadn't seen since on the train in Siberia. The bus pulled up and I said a temporary farewell to Marianne and Victoria as I would be meeting them again in Dalat over the next few days.

Nha Trang Beach early morning
My bus wasn't due to leave for another hour and half so I decided to take a walk to the beech to have a look at the only thing Nha Trang has to offer apart from the party nightlife. It was a nice beach and it was good to witness the numerous Vietnamese undertaking their morning warm up ritual before heading to a hard day's toil in the office or such like. I sat on the beach wall looking out at the waves crashing against the sand and ate my Dairylee on bread breakfast which has become a dangerous addiction of mine since the Belgium couple gave me that one slice on the bus from Dien Bien Phu to Son La. I made my way back after a while to find a café for a quick coffee before heading off on the bus up the hills. A rather large coffee shop full of policemen on or off duty, I don't think it matters, was open and was just a short walk from the bus stop so was a perfect choice. I sat there on my laptop typing up my next blog and drank my rather strong Vietnamese coffee which I had become quite accustomed too since Niek introduced me to it one morning in the small café beside the cathedral in Hanoi a few weeks earlier. After it was finished, I wasted a few moments trying to get onto BBC to see some news before heading back to the bus stop and get onto my connecting transport.

View from the bus window
The bus journey from Nha Trang to Dalat takes around four hours and it passes some absolutely fantastic scenery on the way up through the mountains. It's best described through a photo, so I'll put one somewhere around here.... The road was in very bad condition making it for a bumpy ride at some points and as the driver didn't slow to avoid any, what he considered to be minor pot holes, the ride was also a little frightening. As we neared Dalat we slowed down as a man was waving franticly for us to stop. A couple of cars were stopped around a motorbike that laid on its side in the middle of the road and beside it, a the motionless body who I could only imagine to be the rider. The bus driver did not stop. You could see him think about it but realised that he couldn't have helped, especially with having a bus full of passengers. A little further down the road we got pulled over by traffic police who wanted to see the drivers papers, passenger list and more importantly, a bribe. Every time you get on a bus in Vietnam you have to write your name and nationality on there manifesto which is used for, either just keeping track of our movements or help identify our bodies should the bus crash. This time, we arrived safely without incident or breakdown in Dalat.

Dalat from high up
I'm not sure whether I've pointed this out before or not, but the only problem with buses is they can drop you off anywhere they choose to meaning you have no idea where you are in the town when you arrive. This time it was inside the compounds of a hotel which obviously pays the driver commission to do this. I had a look at the room in the hotel and it was actually quite nice, satellite TV, ensuite bathroom, double bed, wi-fi. All a man could want, so I negotiated on the price to save £1 and took it. Having not had much sleep the previous night, I soon retired for an late morning snooze before I dragged myself into town to see what's what in Dalat, the honeymoon capital of Vietnam.

A rather Francais roundabout
The city is an obvious escape for the Vietnamese as it's located in what they call 'The Valley of Love' which holds some extremely beautiful mountains scenery that are dotted with extraordinary waterfalls and the altitude means the harsh humidity is subdued with fresh mountain air. The unlucky thirteenth emperor Bao Dai built his summer palace in the forested hills just outside the busy trading streets of Dalat. Bless him, he did need a place of solitude where he could relax during the countless coups from the Viet Minh to gain control of Vietnam from the French colonists. Bao Dai was eventually ousted as Head of State by Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem following the rigged 1955 referendum held in the Southern Vietnam. He spent the rest of his life living in exile in Paris until his death in 1997.

The entrance to Bao Dai's palace
On my first full day in Dalat, I rented a motorcycle from the hotel manager and with my rather sparse Rough Guide map in hand, I hit the road and the first stop was Bao Dai's palace. After missing the correct road a few times, I found the gravel road that elevated me up towards the palace. The modest art-deco style palace was built in 1933 and sits amongst green wooded surroundings atop the crest of a hill that looks out over the rolling mountains. The palace has been left exactly as it was the day it was last used by the emperor and his family. After walking around the palace and grounds for a while, I hopped back onto my motorbike with the disgusting Arsenal sticker on the front and headed onwards towards, well I didn't exactly plan on getting anywhere in particular.

Tuyen Lam Lake
I headed out on the same road that led me to the palace and just hoped that I would find something. The roads elevation increasingly fluctuated and became more winding, I stormed past an entrance to something that looked popular as there were tourists buzzing round and buses parked up in the car park. I thought this needed further investigation, so I turned round and tried to head back up the hill to the entrance. It was a little more difficult than it sounded, the hills gradient was too much for the weak motorcycle to handle and I really had to struggle with it to get it back up. I eventually made it, found a parking space for it and followed the rest of the tourists up some elongated steps that stretched smoothly up the side of the hill. At the other end I was confronted with quite a modern temple complex, a temple that I wasn't too interested in as there are only so many temples you can see in Asia as the majority of them all look the same. I walked swiftly through the mass of crowds worshipping and groups taking endless photos of each other in the typical Asian pose with two figures erected in the peace sign and found a path that led through the forest. The refreshing walk through the trees led down to the Tuyen Lam Lake, an artificial reservoir created by a damn built in 1980. I thought this was a perfect place for a break and an ice cream by the lake.

The disappointing artificial waterfall
Time was passing quickly and so I got back on my bike and headed back towards Dalat to visit one of the waterfalls closer to the town centre. I chose wrong, as the chosen waterfall was not only dry but seemed to be a man made creation with animal statues, tourist tack shops and even horses painted like zebras that you could take for a ride. At least it didn't cost much to get in as I wasn't in there for any more than ten minutes and on the way out I made sure to warn some incoming tourists that they may want to reconsider and go somewhere else. I hopped straight on back on my bike and head along the road a little further to see what was there and came across a terrific war memorial. This is why getting a bike is good, you have the freedom to discover random places and not be reliant on your guide book which gets a little boring in the end as you just feel as though you're seeing places because you're told to.

Crazy House
On the way back to my hotel, I visited one of the best pieces of architecture I have seen. Hang Nga Crazy House sits in the quiet suburban streets of Dalat and by it certainly earns the title of 'crazy'. As soon as you walked through the front gates of the house, you feel as though you've walked into Wonderland and are late for the tea party. It's rabbit run of steps lead you through the houses bedrooms and other rooms that are all bizarre in their own way. The house is like the Gaudi cathedral in Barcelona, it looks as though it will take a lot longer to be completed as more and more annexes are being joined onto the house. Hang Nga, as she is known locally, gained a doctorate in Architecture in Moscow where she lived for 14 years. Her buildings have been somewhat controversial in Vietnam as the designs are far from the drab socialist architecture they are used to. The house for me stands for free thinking and freedom for people to reach their goals despite governmental restraints imposed upon them. Hang Nga's father, Truong Ching, was Ho Chi Minh's successor and became Vietnam's second president from 1981-88 when he died. With this in mind, Hang Nga must be given a certain amount of freedom from the party that no ordinary person would usually have. The house is scattered with photos, newspaper cuttings and memorabilia to honour her father's successes. I think a few photos will explain the craziness of this house better than my words so here are a few.

Stairwell leading up to more rooms
The stairs inside...
The artists vision...

Another part...
Wonderful chalet
Later that evening I visited V Café to celebrate my day with a nice meal and a drink whilst listening to live music. The cosy restaurant that can only sit at best twenty people was just a few doors from my hotel and I had heard good reviews about it from the internet and lonely planet. As I was sitting there an Australian man sat down at his piano whilst his partner, a Singaporean lady, grabbed her microphone and began to entertain the five of us currently in the restaurant with smooth sounding jazz. I spent quite a bit in that restaurant as I had a main, desert and a few beers which I don't usually have but the waiters were very attentive and made me feel at home so I sat there catching up on my blog, listening to great music and enjoying great food and drink. Highly recommend the restaurant if you're in the area! I finished the evening off by taking a stroll through the streets of Dalat which fill with market tradesman at night time as the central roads are closed off to traffic. I really enjoyed the feeling of the city as it was so chilled out yet bursting with life.

View from the cable car
The next day came around and I decided to hire the bike again to visit a few more places dotted around the area. Firstly, I wanted to take the cable car which was supposed to reach a beautiful lake at the end of it. So I followed the directions I had set out for myself in my head and eventually found the start of the cable car and bought my return ticket. There was hardly anyone using the cable car, so there was no queue and I got straight in and got on my way across the valley towards the said lake. The view of the valley and Dalat below was fantastic and the journey took around twenty minutes to complete. I disembarked and made my way through the standard tourist trap toward the exit. Once I reached the exit, however, I suddenly realised that I had been there before, the day before in fact, it was the entrance to the temple and to the lake that I had visited. Although I was disappointed, I couldn't help but laugh at my ignorance. I didn't bother walking through the temple to the lake again and instead stopped for a quick bite to eat at a restaurant by the cable car station which turned out to be a pot noodle in disguise and got back on the cable car for the return journey.

After the nice ride on the cable car, I returned to my bike once again and headed further down the wonderful road weaving through the trees towards Datanla Falls which were a few kilometres away. I pulled up into the car park and paid the man the compulsory 3000 Dong so could write on my seat in chalk and 'look after' it whilst I was walking around the falls. The walk to the falls follows a path through the forest for around 500m until you reach some steps that lead down to the base of the waterfall. There is an alternative, which unfortunately I didn't know until I had done the walk, and that is to take a toboggan down as rails have been set up that weave through the trees. Oh well, just think about the exercise and all that! The falls were worth it, not the most beautiful but still stunning as they ate one of those magical things of nature. I sat at the bottom of the falls for a while and enjoyed a refreshing ice cream whilst looking at my guide to figure out where to head next.

Without me in the way...
Having not decided where I should go, I just got on my bike and headed further out along the same road. The view didn't get tiring, but as I descended further and further into the valley, the cars and trucks began to pick up speed and pass me a phenomenal speeds around blind bends without any consideration of what was coming the other way. I got to the bottom of the valley where another waterfall was, I procrastinated for a while as to whether I should go in or not and came to the conclusion that I wouldn't. I turned around and headed back up the hill but for some reason, I never passed the waterfalls, the cable car and the road was unfamiliar. I was stunned when I arrived back in Dalat at the other side of the city to that I left. To this day, I am still in complete quandary how that happened. It was one road down and one road up, I don't remember consciously taking any turn off. Or perhaps that was the problem, I was in a trance at the time?

Beautiful Temple
Despite ending up at a different side of the city, it turned out to be a good thing as the next item on my improvised agenda was to explore another road out the other side of Dalat where there seemed to be a few temples and other things. The first temple was a small, local temple that had no tourist trade whatsoever. It had a small hill behind it that had several shrines on it and held tremendous views of the valley. After taking solitude on top of the peaceful hill for a while, I had to move on as the afternoon was moving on swiftly. Around ten kilometres further down the valley was a small town and I followed a small lane off the main road that seemed to have a lot of people on it to a temple that was completely nothing like I have seen before. It was decorated in what looked like broken ceramic pots of different colours. Again, pictures tell a thousand words, so here's one. The complex consisted of the main temple, a bell tower, a garden and a giant standing Buddha that was covered up at the time for renovation. I climbed the bell tower and listened to the service that was being held at the time from the top whilst considering whether this was the best temple I had seen and whether it could be beaten.

The pagoda standing tall and colourful
The sun was beginning to fall lower in the sky and I had one stop left to make before I called it a day. The last stop was the Lam Dong museum that was supposed to hold a lot of beautiful and interesting historical artefacts, including musical instruments which I must admit was the thing that enticed me. I got into the museum and it was interesting as far as old odds and ends go but didn't overwhelm me or impress me in the slightest, so it was a rather quick walk around. I got back on my bike and carried out the last task of the day, find a restaurant to have a meal in before heading back to the hotel. Before I got back to the hotel, I decided to use up more fuel by just taking a ride around the lake in the centre of Dalat which is wonderful at sunset as people are going their to chill out after work and the fresh evening air refreshes you. I stopped for a few minutes to take in the peacefulness and the view of Dalat's very own, although slightly smaller, Eiffel Tower, which is actually a radio tower in the shape of the French landmark but is treated the same as it's dramatically lighted up in the dark and is a treasured sight of the city.

Lucky female lion
As soon as I returned to the hotel I received a text message off Lois asking whether I would like to meet up with her, Marianne, Victoria and Jonas for something to eat and drink. Typical, these messages always come after you've eaten so I arranged to meet them a little later for a drink after they had finished their meal. They text me the name of the bar they were in and the street it was on and with my non-existent photographic memory of Dalat's streets I set out to find the bar. It was surprisingly easy and despite one wrong turn I found the bar and them having a drink with their hotel manager. It looked as though it was a karaoke joint, but I was corrected and told that it was a semi-professional karaoke place where the performers apparently got paid. The manager of their hotel was a nice guy who spoke great English and got us all up to dance, although he insisted on picking each one of us up and spinning us around (Yes, I know! Strong man!). He then called it a night as the clock struck ten and tried to get the girls to go back with him and have an early night as they were going on a motorbike tour with him the following day. They refused and we went to have a couple of drinks and a few games of pool in a small bar that Jonas found the night before. A perfect end to my time in Dalat as I was leaving for the beach the next morning.

Next time, Mui Ne, Sand Dunes and Faries.