Thursday, 11 April 2013

Fear and loathing in Vietnam


5th - 20th September 2012
Vietnam
9201 - 9900km
Da Nang – Huế – Ho Xa – Phong Nha – Hong Linh

Those of you who have been following our adventures over the past year will have noticed a distinct lack of activity here lately. Don't worry, we are safe and well, it's just that China's Great Firewall got between us and the blog, and by the time we figured out how to get round it time had gotten so tight we barely had time to eat, let alone type.

No excuses now though, we’re back home in frosty old England with time to kill. But already these stories have begun to mist over as real life rumbles back into existence. Memories of riding bikes through jungles and mountains seem unreal, more than a world away. So let's dig them up, dust them off, and relive some of the action. Come computer! Whisk me out of this cold Tuesday morning and back to... oh shit, it's Vietnam still isn't it.


Rough ride

We still don’t fully understand why Vietnam was so hard on us. Bad luck? Plenty of other travellers love the place, and besides, adventure isn't meant to go easy on you, it's supposed to be tough and teach you a thing or two about adversity. But I find it hard to draw anything positive from our encounters in Vietnam. I want to be clear that the majority of people we met were perfectly civil. The problem lay with this sizeable minority of absolute bastards who took every opportunity to rip us off, intimidate us, and treat us like dirt. When this happens so frequently you can never relax, you're always on guard, and eventually the odds catch up with you and something really unpleasant happens. At the very beginning of this trip we said that we'd keep going until it stopped being fun. Well, in Vietnam, it definitely stopped being fun.


It’s strange falling out with a country like this. And a real shame. On the morning of the 5th of September Liv and I stood on the front steps of the Ancient House Resort, waving as a taxi pulled away with Liv’s parents. One of the best weeks of the trip was over. After enjoying the company of Chris and Graham it was not easy getting motivated about cycling again. We dawdled by the pool for most of the morning, before finally wheeling our bikes down the path and back on to the horn honking mayhem of the road.

We weren't exactly Bradley Wiggins when we got going. The next few days were a staccato affair of half days and days off as we crept northwards along the highway. Not far up the coast lay the beach resort city of Da Nang. Lax planning laws had turned the beachfront into a post-apocalyptic clamour of half-built hotels and concrete, but we needed a day off here to get spare parts and supplies. We scored a cheap room deep in the city, and the next morning found a bike shop without much hassle. The local supermarket was well stocked too, full of fruit and biscuits and other goodies that cyclists crave. Their security didn't think much of us though, so we spent most of the time being followed by two openly suspicious guards. To be fair we did look a bit trampy, but there are more subtle ways of monitoring potential thieves than literally leaning over their shoulder to stare at whatever they’re handling.

Shopping and servicing bikes didn’t amount to much of a day off, but we were off again the next morning. Coming out of Da Nang we hit the large hill made famous by the Top Gear team - rather originally known as ‘Top Gear Hill’. Glad we cycled it. There’s nothing quite like reaching the top after a hot sweaty climb and burning down the other side for half an hour with the wind in your face. You don’t get that when an engine’s done the work for you. Not the same.

The road flattened out, wet paddies spread across the landscape, and the sun splashed down into a ripe evening of reds and oranges. By the time we reached the city of Huế it was well past dark, but luck was on our side and led us to a great little place called the ‘Why Not?’ guesthouse. A lovely young woman welcomed us inside and offered us a good deal if we stayed a few nights. A couple more days off? Why not. I bet they get hundreds of people like that.


Huế le terrible service?


For one hundred and fifty years Huế was the imperial capital of Vietnam, but then communism came along and made monarchic power unfashionable. Although the American War blew chunks out of some areas, tantalising reminders of Vietnam’s courtly past still remain, and they are well worth a nosey.

After a few restful days among the pizza parlours of the tourist district, Liv and I ventured across the river, under the old city gateway and into the imperial compound. During the reign of the emperors anybody caught trespassing here was liable to be executed, giving rise to its other name ‘The Forbidden City’. Thankfully the authorities are a bit more welcoming these days, and we just had to fork out a few dollars for a ticket.

As we passed through the colossal gateway and emerged into the compound we were greeted by carved dragon totems that flanked the walkway. A hall of gilded pillars lay ahead of us, stretching wide and low, a building in cinematic widescreen, and the setting for past exchanges between the country's wealthy elite, and the mighty emperor himself.

Beyond this palatial boardroom the compound yawned open into a vast courtyard many hundreds of meters
across, ringed by walled enclosures that sported their own wood-beamed halls and elegant gardens.

No doubt this was only a whisper of its former magnificence, but it was enough to get our imagination going. As we roamed the compound, images flickered through our minds of ladies strolling the gardens, the furious emperor banishing greedy merchants, and black clad assassins padding silently over moonlit roofs.

Huế was a fine place to get stuck in for a few days, thanks largely to the warmth and kindness we received from the young lady working at our guesthouse. If I seem to be making a big deal out of this it’s because having somewhere friendly to escape to was becoming increasingly important. We didn't seem to be meeting many friendly people out here. Much of the time the default attitude towards us was of contempt. Street vendors exchanged sly comments and laughed at us before handing us our food, shop keepers shoved us out the way as we browsed their aisles, bills would sky rocket unless we checked the price first, and time after time our smiles and hellos were met with blank stares and silence. There was a background hiss of something unpleasant that was hard to put a finger on. Being over charged is fine, it comes with the territory, but there was something malicious about this, something we'd never experienced before.













The stuff of nightmares: a painting of pigs from our hotel room in Hue. 

Traffic rules

The day’s ride out of Huế was long. We spent the morning winding through shivering rice plains as the wind dragged clouds off the hills. Rain hung like fog to the west for a time, steadily sweeping in until it came clattering down on us by mid morning. We sat out the weather with a coffee, then pushed on out of the lanes to join Highway 1. This is the main road that runs the entire length of the country so we were expecting some serious traffic. Thankfully, we were wrong. Just one lane going each way, and only a scattering of vehicles along it. No excuse to drop our guard though, because the roads out here aren’t governed by anything even remotely resembling a highway code.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Vietnamese driving is the worst we've ever encountered. Consistently so. Acts of reckless stupidity crash right into you with a frightening regularity. There’s no logic to it. I struggle to grasp how anybody could make the decisions that we saw careering past us so often in Vietnam. One incident that really captures the attitude took place that afternoon as we were pedalling along the highway. There were a few cars and scooters around us but, as I've said, it wasn't particularly busy. We were just pedalling along, minding our own business, as a trickle of motor vehicles passed us by.

Then a bus swung out of the oncoming traffic and came hurtling straight towards us, sending a cold feeling down my fingers. It was an ill-timed move to overtake somebody which put this homicidal bus on a collision course with the entire northbound lane of traffic. The bus driver had seconds to get back over before he smashed into the scooter in front of me, and he wasn't going to make it. The scooter calmly began to pull over like nothing was wrong, and then I realised. This bus driver knew that he was the biggest thing on the road. He's figured that everyone will get out of his way if he drives straight at them, because nobody fancies their chances in a head on collision with a bus. So the entire right side of the highway, a dozen vehicles, were forced to bail off the road and onto the grass. A second later this behemoth twat came thundering past like a locomotive, horn blaring.

I suppose in theory this system of ‘survival of the biggest’ might just work, but it requires drivers with some degree of common sense, and as we have learnt, you really can’t rely on that out here.

I had two people crash into me in Vietnam. The first happened on the way out of Da Nang. A man on his scooter wanted to exit a roundabout and wasn’t concerned that there were six lanes of tightly packed traffic in his way. He didn't make it very far and wound up thumping into the first thing he came across, which was my front wheel. I just about managed to stay upright but it nearly caused a pile up behind me, though perhaps that was his intention after all. The accident created a gap in the flow of traffic and this guy seized his chance. He hauled his scooter away from me, pointed it at his now-clear exit, and he accelerated away across the road. I watched with amazement as he departed, before I was harried back into action as the traffic came banging and beeping past me again.

And that wasn’t even the worst. That proud honour goes to a woman I met, rather abruptly, a couple of weeks previous to this when we were cycling through the countryside on our way to Hoi An. We were making our way up a hill one afternoon, crawling along in lowest gear. The road was completely straight and empty, there were no junctions, and except for a few houses set back there was nowhere any hazard could emerge from. We just had to concentrate on getting up this hill.

I heard the whine of a motor scooter and glanced across to see a woman revving towards me from her driveway. Liv was a little way ahead, which meant that as far as this woman was concerned I was the only animate object on an otherwise empty road. The thought of a collision didn't even cross my mind because that would require a catastrophic breakdown of basic survival instincts, and evolution would have ironed those things out billenia ago.

She did seem to be in a rush. Her engine went up an octave, but that was fine, she had about fifteen feet of space either side of me to get round. Her driveway was long too, and afforded her ample opportunity to manoeuvre. For there to be an accident here, I might have surmised if I’d thought it necessary, she would have to accelerate unflinchingly and not make any attempt to turn. There will not be a crash here, I didn't think, because nobody's that stupid.

You know what happens next. The whine of the engine terminated abruptly as the scooter thumped  into my side. There was a stunned pause in which I tried to catch her eye to beg an explanation (what’s the international facial expression for “Are you insane?”). But as with the roundabout collider, she didn't even bother to look at me. Without so much as a glance she pushed past, farted out a cloud of exhaust, and buzzed off up the hill. There's something uncanny about the attitude on the roads out here, like a thousand despondent teenagers, heads down, riding the bumper cars.


Down turn

So it was a long day riding out of Huế. As the evening set in smoke trailed across the fields from burning heaps of vegetation, and it was night by the time we rolled in to a little junction town and began fishing for a room. We found one soon enough, and by scribbling some figures down in my notepad I asked the girl at reception if she had any rooms going for 150'000 dong. She did. After inspecting the room and triple checking the price we filled in the forms, handed over our passports, and hauled our bags up the stairs. As we dumped the last of them on the bed there was a knock at the door. The receptionist had some news for us, the price had just doubled.

So, here we were again, not entirely surprised but very tired, and very pissed off. I pointed to the figures I’d shown her in my notepad and reminded her that she had agreed to this on several occasions. She shook her head, then tried to barter with us, “180'000.”

I'd thought it had been a bit too easy, ask for a room at a reasonable rate and get told you can have it at that price right away. The girl had evidently failed to overcharge us, so the owner had ordered her upstairs to force renegotiations.

I stormed downstairs to have it out with the manager, a black haired lady of short stature and shorter scruples. She knew exactly what was going on. Without looking at me she calmly wrote 200'000 on a scrap of paper and pushed it over the counter. Now, this was not a crazy amount of money, and we probably would have taken that in the first place, but it wasn't the price we’d agreed. Didn’t she realise we’re British? We're incapable of letting these things slide.

Of course they had our passports now so we couldn't just do a runner the next morning. Our choice was to either get screwed over, or head off into the night to find somewhere else. It was late. It was dark. Who knew what the next hotel would be like. Who knew if there even was one. What an abysmal end to the day.

I didn’t have many cards to play, so I decided to bluff it and told her we couldn't possibly stand for this and were going to leave at once. I jogged back upstairs to discuss tactics with Liv, but as we were talking there was a knock at the door. It was the girl from reception.

“OK.”

I got my trusty notepad out and pointed at the figures. “150'000 dong?”

She nodded.

I bolted downstairs to confirm all of this with the manager. I wanted to be sure we were on the same page, preferably the one in my notepad that had 150'000 dong written on it.

“150'000 then?” I asked the manager, and then a funny thing happened.

She nodded reluctantly and then whipped her palm up in front of my face. She turned her nose up and began flicking her head from left to right like an affronted horse. After a few of these theatrical shows she spun round and marched out.

I was now the only person in the lobby, and I sighed. I was convinced she knew she had been caught out, but she put on this little show anyway. It was funny, and a little bit sad. It stank like a fraudster trying to save face, which it probably was. But no matter, our ordeal was over.

I ascended the stairs for the umpteenth time that evening, more than an hour after we'd first walked in. I was worn out, tense, but relieved. Liv was standing in the corridor, her expression told me something was wrong.

“Guess what?” she said. “We can't lock our door. It's broken.”



Underground retreat

We had crossed into the demilitarised zone the previous day and that meant, rather counterintuitively, there were lots of old military sites nearby. Just getting a room felt like enough of a battle, but we were keen to learn about the Vietnamese side of the war. So against our better judgement we took a day off in our unpleasant little rip off hotel, and set out to explore the area.

A few kilometres east lay the Vinh Moc Tunnels, an underground network of passageways dug into the hills to shelter and sustain an entire community during the conflict. Not just soldiers, but whole families lived underground here to escape the bombers. Sleeping, eating, bathing, even raising animals in a constricted maze of compacted earth.

Thinking back to our hotel manager I thought it would be no bad thing if she was thrust into some kind of awful war. Hate breeds hate, it's true. But as we cycled along the lanes that morning we were joined by two young lads on their bikes who would brighten our moods. They spoke no English, but we could tell by their inquisitive looks and friendly smiles they weren't up to any mischief. So we rode together, and once we'd locked our bikes up at the entrance they came with us as we descended into the tunnels.

We had the place to ourselves and it was a great afternoon. The four of us wandered down the dimly lit passageways, and crept down forbidden routes into pitch darkness. Sometimes we’d emerge by the sea, other times in damp chambers, occasionally a dead end - ample opportunities for startling each other with a well timed “Boo!” The tunnels descended to lower vaults where life-size dummies were arranged in alcoves, ostensibly to teach us about life in the tunnels, but really only succeeding in terrifying us whenever we ran into them.

On the way out we bought a round of pop for the kids, and then rode back along the lanes together. We parted with smiles, a bit frustrated that we couldn't say much else. The two lads pedalled off, and Liv and I reluctantly headed back to our hotel.

So, the hotel. The night before we'd sorted a compromise. Liv had gone downstairs to deal with the matter of the broken door, and we'd been moved into a larger room with a working lock. They'd not talked about the price with us, perhaps because they were as sick of it as we were, but we decided since we were now in a bigger room we could offer to pay a bit more for it anyway. That seemed to lift the cold atmosphere of the place somewhat – the hotel manager began speaking to me again – and we figured that although we were down on a few dong, we'd gained some vague notion about what it meant to save face, although frankly I still felt about as welcome as a wet dog.

We departed early the next morning, and stayed on the highway for an hour before breaking off onto the almost deserted Ho Chi Minh highway. The scenery grew more beautiful and our legs more tired, as the road rippled up through shallow hills.

By mid afternoon we descended into a expanse of cultivated flatland surrounded by steep towers of limestone. This was the Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park, a designated world heritage site famous for its caves and beautiful scenery. Gazing at the landscape we couldn't help but think that the authorities had seriously missed the point, having stamped UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE in ten foot letters right across the rocks. Idiots.

On our way into town we were greeted by a man on a motorbike telling us to fuck off so we didn't have high hopes of getting along here either. Mercifully our hotel turned out to be lovely. The trouble was we didn't know that at the time. Everybody seems okay at first, and then they make fun of you, hike the price, or steal your passports. Vietnam was proving to be particularly draining. Despite our slow progress we decided we needed another day off. We didn't kid ourselves, we didn't need an excuse for it, but having some world class caves to explore nearby did make the decision a little easier.




Despite having fruit thrown at us on the way there, and some scooters try and drive us off the road on the way back, we considered our day trip to the caves a success. After cycling a dozen kilometres or so we locked the bikes up and clambered up the path to the entrance. Climbing down through the mouth we found ourselves staring into an enormous underground chamber. It was huge, big enough to accommodate a football stadium, and all around lay these astonishing meringue-like formations composed over thousands of years by dripping sediment. We descended the clanging metal staircase to the cave floor and made our way along an old underground river bed surrounded by these deranged natural sculptures.

It was dusk when we got back on the bikes, and although we had to contend with those nasty individuals swerving at us in the dark, the ride back was otherwise peaceful. Actually I nearly crashed right up a cows bum, and Liv's front light ran out of juice, but despite all of that the overriding memory I have is of tranquillity. Fireflies sparked in the hedges, cow bells jangled in the fields, and a pristine vault of stars was spread out above us. It was at least occasionally peaceful, and we needed a bit of that.

Although there wasn’t much to do in the town, by now we were getting on well with our hotel so we extended our stay and wallowed in the hospitality. By the time we left we were in two minds about the road ahead. A couple of restful days in a friendly hotel reminded us that getting a bed didn't have to be a struggle. But we were in the north now, and although we had heard conflicting accounts from travellers, a common theme was that the south was friendly, the north much less so. With friends like these who needs enemies, right? We set off up the road, fingers crossed, grimly prepared for whatever was to come.


Trouble

There was no denying the landscape was beautiful. The empty road led us along the base of a stunning grassy valley, up over lush hills, and through serene rural villages. We surprised the owners of a rickety wooden shop when we showed up for lunch, but they were friendly, and smiled and nodded in approval as we wolfed down a bowl of their noodle soup. There were hardly any vehicles on the road all day, and everybody we met seemed friendly for the first time in a quite a while. People smiled. Even the rowdy alcoholic at our second noodle stop insisted we have some of his rice wine. And then some more. And then we really had to be firm. But thank you. No. Thank you.

At just the right time - as our muscles started feeling sandy and the sunlight ran amber – we saw a sign for a guesthouse. It was a basic room, but we were lucky to find anything at all this far out. We ate a good dinner, sparked up some mosquito coils, and fell asleep.


We found this thing fermenting in the restaurant that night. Does anybody have any idea what it is?

The next morning started out equally perfect. The sky was pristine and the road was quiet. We stopped off at a shop by a railway track, and the owner came over and offered us some free bananas. We were the happiest we'd been since Hoi An, but all that was about to change.

We set off again, waving to the woman and smiling to ourselves. The terrain looked set to go easy on us for the rest of the day, and there was a small city within easy range.

“This is brilliant!” I shouted back to Liv, who beamed back at me. We talked about this being the turning point, about how a final week like this might make us forget about the hassle of the last few weeks.

In my excitement I got a bit ahead of Liv, and was pumping along through a neat little village when I heard shouting behind me. I skidded to a halt and turned to see Liv, a hundred metres behind me, getting off her bike to confront two young men by the side of the road. Something had happened.

I sprang off my bike, spilling the contents of my handlebar bag, and ran over to her.

“What the hell do you think you're doing?! What are you thinking? Hey? Look at me!”

The men wore dismissive sneers, and made brushing gestures with their hands.

“Liv what happened?”

“These men just tried to grope me.” she turned back to the two men, “You think you can just grab people like that? Hey!”

Things were happening fast. I stepped up to the men and made my feelings known. They didn't understand a word we said but they got the idea. But they never faltered in their aloofness, shooing us away and, as I understood it, telling us we should stop making such a fuss.

A third man appeared from a doorway, a friend of theirs. As he jogged over I began to feel very uneasy at the way things were going. There were three of them now, and they were becoming increasingly aggressive.

One of the men suddenly ducked down and scooped up a rock about the size of a lemon. The shouting tailed off and a horrible sensation sank through me. He wrenched his arm back and hurled the rock, full force, straight at Liv. There was a thump and a gasp and she was knocked staggering back.

Confused instinct drenched in fear sent me lurching towards her attacker. But I stopped myself, or perhaps the fear did. Getting into a fight with these three would end very badly. The man was picking up another rock to throw, so I got between him and Liv. He threw a fierce glance at me. I raised my hands up, backed off, and turned to Liv.

The rock had struck her hard on the hip and left a deep bruise that was welling up with blood. She was in shock, and scared. I was terrified. I turned around, suddenly fearing the men were about to pounce, but in those few seconds they had vanished.

What the hell do you do? Villagers came and gathered around us, pointing at the discarded bicycles. We tried to explain what had happened, but everybody seemed to think Liv had fallen off her bike. We sat down for a minute to try and calm down, but people were staring and asking lots of questions and we couldn't understand them. A woman who saw Liv's wound came back with some oil to treat it, and another man tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out that my ipod and wallet were scattered across the road, easy pickings for thieves. These kind gestures went a long way on this the worst of days, but we were still shaking and afraid.

A police van appeared from somewhere and pulled over, it was probably just a coincidence but now we had the chance to get those thugs arrested. But we didn’t. Everything was getting hectic and I thought the best thing to do was to get Liv out of there as soon as possible. To be quite frank I didn’t hold high hopes of the police being much good to us anyway. I was done with Vietnam.

Liv got to her feet and I picked her bike up off the road. We pedalled away, shaking and in tears. Once we were out of sight from the village we stopped by the side of the road and sat, there wasn't much to say.

As the shock faded our own guilt began to surface. Liv chastised herself for losing her cool and shouting at the men, and I felt weak and guilty at not having protected her. It took us weeks to settle our thoughts and realise that sometimes you come up against people like that and there aren’t always good ways of coming out of it. I think Liv is an incredible person, for so many reasons, not least because she'll take on two men who try anything like that. And although my inaction probably stemmed from fear, it was fear well grounded. I'm not a fighter, and even if I'd landed a good one on the guy who threw the stone, things would not have stayed in my favour for long.


We were still in for a nasty couple of days though. The suddenness of the attack was menacing, especially in such a small village, and we were both incredibly nervous as we rode. Two motor scooters, on two separate occasions that afternoon, made the effort of flicking us the finger and careful enunciating a “Fuck you.” at us as they came past. They looked like they meant it too.

Then we got lost down the lanes, but despite speaking a comprehensible level of Vietnamese many people just point blank refused to help us when we asked for directions.

“Which way to Hong Linh?”

“No!” and they'd scowl at us, or turn their backs.

As we pedalled into town, washed out and emotionally exhausted, children began jeering at us. “Hey! Give us money!” and their family burst into laughter. We might have laughed too, but we had serious doubts about Vietnam, the whole country felt gnarled. We pedalled off at speed, stomachs fluttering.

We found a hotel just before dark, and the repellent attitude just kept on coming. We were given a room with a ceiling that leaked onto the bed, and when I went downstairs to request another room the two young women behind reception just laughed.

“No rooms. Full.” they told me, grinning.

This was not true. The hotel was huge, ten stories at least and there was nobody else around. “I need to move. Water. Dripping. Bed.”

They laughed together, and one imitated a drop with her finger, plopping on her head. “Drip drip!” and they both laughed again.

I felt terrible about what had happened that day, and I was damned if I was going to let these harpies ruin Liv's night as well. I was going to stay here, badly pronouncing sentences from the phrasebook until they got tired of their game. In the end I spent half an hour there, being laughed at, then ignored. Eventually a middle aged man got up from one of the sofas and walked over. He stepped behind reception and showed me a piece of paper with some numbers on.

“Big. Small.” he pointed at two of the figures.

They were room prices, and revealed that on top of being dumped in a leaking room we had been grossly overcharged. We were in a small room, paying the same price as a big one. This guy was evidently the manager and he had finally taken pity on me.

“Do you have rooms?”

“Yes.”

“And they cost this much?”

He shook his head and pointed at me. “English.” he said. English people had to pay more.

“I've been in Vietnam for long enough mate. How about a local price?”

I was tired and angry, I hadn't showered in a few days. I looked pretty desperate. He looked me up and down, then finally nodded, and I was shown one of the dozens of empty rooms.



Escape

Liv was determined she wasn't going to be driven out of the country by what had happened. I wasn't so sure. We only had a handful of days left on our visa and it was going to be a squeeze to make it to the border that we'd originally been shooting for. There was another way into Laos though, directly west of us, a day or two’s ride.

That morning as we wandered around the streets to try and find an ATM the matter was settled. People shouted at us in the street, telling us to get out of their city, and an old man made another grab at Liv then cackled in our faces. It felt like we couldn't do anything back, in case the whole city descended on us. It was decided, we were getting the hell out of Vietnam.

There's no justification for behaviour like this, but then again everything has its cause. Slightly north of Hong Linh lies Vinh, an ancient city blown to pieces by successive fighting with the French and Americans. This whole area was pulverized by the wars, and countless people lost their mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. People seeking answers to the horrors here might easily leave with a nasty impression of the white westerners who did this. Hello, we're white westerners too. 

We caught the bus to Vinh to find an ATM and change some money ready for the border. As we stepped aboard the driver clocked us closed the doors, banging my shoulder and nearly trapping me outside. It stings. The only way to cope is not to take it personally, but you just can't relax. You’re on edge the whole time, waiting for something to happen.

The next day we set off towards the border. As we left the hotel we discovered that the white-man fee that had been knocked off by the manager had been replaced by a mystery tax that pushed the price back up to foreigner rates. We were exhausted and didn't even bother to argue.

The ride west was horrible. We were tense, got lost, argued, and flinched every time a car came past. We ducked off the road to calm ourselves down, and sat there in a café staring at the walls as a little boy levelled a plastic assault rifle our backs, and fired again and again to the crackle of motorised gunfire.



A fitting end

Our day needed to go absolutely perfectly if we were to have any chance of getting to Laos that afternoon, and that didn't happen. We did manage to get to a town within shooting distance though, and our motel didn't try any funny business. Rather fittingly though the restaurant tried some clumsy tactics. We checked the price of everything we ordered as we ordered it, and when the bill came it was almost double what we’d been told. Their explanation, once we had reminded them that we knew the price of each of the dishes, was that the few plies of toilet tissue used to wipe our mouths were as expensive as a chicken dish. We enjoyed the certainty of catching them out, told them to stick it up their arse, paid what was due, and left.

I can't tell you the relief we felt about getting out of there. It was like Christmas Eve and our hearts were pounding. But we were troubled. We seemed to have fallen out with a whole country. Neither of us had thought it was really possible – a few bad experiences yes, but not coming out feeling like half the country hates you.

We tried to find answers from internet forums, and discovered that we were not alone. Dozens of people reported similar experiences of constant unfriendly encounters spilling over into aggression or violence. Theories abounded as to the cause. Some thought it was racism left over from wartime propaganda, while others held communism responsible for turning people into spiteful little trolls. Amongst all of these voices were many people who did not share our views. Many who had cycled through the country and been met with nothing but friendliness. A good number who even felt that Vietnam was their favourite country. We can't argue with that, but we can say, rather objectively really, that Vietnam treated us far worse than any other country. Bad experiences were so rare for the rest of the trip that they barely even registered – one aggressive boatman in Thailand, being charged a bit extra for water in Indonesia… but these were separated by months of flat out friendliness. In Vietnam we were dealing with spite and hostility every day, no wonder only 5% of visitors choose to return.

Our last night in Vietnam was vastly improved when we stumbled across these beautifully stuffed creatures. 


Probably the clearest lesson to emerge out of all this was how easy it is to become an arsehole yourself. For instance, we tried to get away from our hotel in Hong Linh without paying for a couple of drinks. True, they had treated us like dirt and repeatedly lied about the price of the room, but is that cause to try and rob them? Maybe. I really don't know. But stealing things is a nasty way of behaving, that's pretty well accepted I think, and we had no qualms about trying it.

In our junction town hotel near the Vinh Moc tunnels, after all the hassle with the room price doubling and then the lock being bust, when it came to check out they fudged up the price and undercharged us – charging us the extra we'd offered to pay for the first night, but not the second. We convinced ourselves that this was them compromising with us after all the crap they'd put us through, but that really didn't ring true. Sure enough, as we were leaving the black-haired woman came screeching after us, and we found ourselves caught in the act of trying to do a runner without paying the full agreed price.

It's easy to become one of them, it really is. One Vietnamese guy posted in one of the discussions online, saying that foreigners shouldn't take it personally because everybody, even the locals, get treated badly. Given our experiences it's easy to see how such behaviour perpetuates itself once it gets established. Snowballing hatred set in motion by the country’s divide during the war? Communism? Capitalism? I can’t say, but something is wrong. We left with the sense that something insidious had pervaded this country, and made cheating, lying, and abuse a part of everyday life. I realise how bad that sounds, but the problems were so widespread it’s the only way I can hope to explain it, and convey the intensely bitter taste this country left in our mouths.

It would seem proper to end on a positive note, and praise the people who showed real kindness towards us since they were doing so under difficult circumstances. Dwell on the fact that this shows how our own behaviour has a real impact on the people around us. So be nice, it matters.

That would be the best way to tie things up I think, on a positive note. But to do that would be dishonest. We were glad to be leaving Vietnam. With the exception of our week's break in Hoi An we had had bad experiences right the way through, from the very beginning right up to the end. It had been deeply unpleasant, and shaken the two of us up so much it took us weeks to completely get over it. Our concern that evening as we sat up in our beds wasn't how we could spin this story into something uplifting, it was: we're not out of the woods yet, we still have to get across the border.

These concerns weren't enough to suppress the relief we felt about being so close to getting the hell out of there though. We got under the covers, knocked the lights off, and fell into a deep sleep. Please Laos, be gentle with us.




To download a text only version of this post click HERE

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

A bumpy ride into Vietnam



24th August - 5th September 2012
Vietnam
8744 - 9201km
O Yadao – Pleiku – Kon Tum – Plei Kan – Dak Glei – Ngam Xoi – Hoi An

There's always one isn't there. Always one who has to spoil it. Nine months on the road and we only had good things to say about all the countries we've cycled through, then Vietnam swoops in and whacks us with a double barrelled twat cannon. If we'd thought hills would be the toughest thing we'd come across on this trip we hadn't banked on the gauntlet of hyena-grade hospitality we would encounter here. We were in for a rough ride through Vietnam and it began as we pedalled our way through the central hills on our way to a rendezvous on the coast.



Forebodings

And yet it all started so well. We were up at dawn on the 24th and got the tent packed away in time to join Jamjam and the rest of the border guards for breakfast. That done we headed over to the red striped barrier where they stamped us out of Cambodia and waved us goodbye. Goodbye indeed Cambodia, we will miss you. A muddy lane wound for a few minutes then we were Viet-side, greeted by border guards and oppressive lumps of windowed concrete.


We were, I admit, somewhat wary about the weeks ahead. Over the last few months we'd met a couple of travellers who'd bit their lips sympathetically when we mentioned our plans to visit 'Nam.

“Why the winces?” We'd ask “You not have a good time?”

“Ah it's not that.” this half remembered conversation might have gone “We just had a few bad experiences. More than anywhere else. It was tough sometimes. Like, for a communist country they're pretty into capitalising off of you. I'm sure you'll have a great time though.”

This wasn't the first time we'd been cautioned. Almost every country we'd visited had come with a danger tag attached. We'd been warned about everything from street gangs to extremists to dangerous driving and man-eating tigers. We took heed of the advice as it came, but by now we were confident that South East Asia was safe, friendly and unlikely to ingest us.

As we began our first day in Vietnam this trend looked set to continue. We spent the day gliding along a quiet road that gently ascended through grassland and small towns. Most of the hills were ripped bare by industry and many of the remaining 'forests' turned out to be plantations but the people were as lovely as ever and we spent the day waving to excited kids and friendly old fellas sat on their porches. Lunch was good too. The standard affair of noodle soup (called 'Pho') was not too shabby, and the girl running the shop treated us to a free lesson in Vietnamese as we waited for the rain to clear.

Vietnamese is a tough language to get your tongue around. You don't just need to remember the words, but also whether the tone should be high, low, middle, rising, falling, middle-rising, high-falling. Etc etc. And actually getting your word to rise or fall is trickier than you might think too, unless you perform exaggerated head movements and drag your vowel sound up with a skyward wiggle of the head. Does make you look a bit weird. Thankfully the Vietnamese use a romanised script, so if you are struggling to inflect you Pho correctly and mad facial gesticulation is only provoking funny looks, just write it down on a piece of paper.

Ice cream for breakfast, yum!

Making rice noodles

No vacancy

The gentle incline had kept our speed down for most of the day, so it was dusk before the city came into view. Pleiku seemed monstrously huge compared to anything we'd seen since Phnom Penh, stretching out across the plain below, glittering with lights. Our road descended and deteriorated into a ragged pot-holed strip and we battled down in a swarm of motorscooters and trucks.

A hotel sign soon appeared as we rumbled into town, but as I walked in two ladies grabbed me and led me straight outside again, pointing down the road.

“Full, I guess.” I said.

“Or they didn't like the look of you.”

The next hotel did have a room available. A rather distracted young man on reception led me upstairs while he texted away on his phone, then gestured into a small room. I had a look, gave him my “Mmm not bad” expression, then returned downstairs to report back to Liv. OK so it was a bit pricey and we'd have to carry our bags up four flights of stairs but we were knackered and hungry so we decided to take it.

But then something unexpected happened. As Liv began hauling her stuff inside the owner appeared from somewhere, stood right in front of her and began shooing her away “No. No.” and gesturing that we should leave immediately. What was the problem? Was it the bikes? Well, they were a little dusty from the ride into town, but no worse than the bunch of scooters parked in the reception, and it wasn't like she was saying leave the bikes outside, she was making it quite clear that she wanted us to go away.


The guy behind reception refused to look at us when we appealed to him so there wasn't really much we could do. With the woman making brushing motions at us and laughing we turned and rode off down the street, humiliated.

One more hotel turned me back as soon as I walked in, and then after a long hour scouring the streets Liv finally found a hotel that would take us. We checked in and immediately hurried out again to get some food. We were completely exhausted and very, very hungry.


Stumped

We would find no sympathy from our waitress that evening, who adopted an attitude towards us that can most kindly be described as 'indifferent'. Indifferent to what we wanted to eat. Indifferent to whether we lived or died. Although if we had died I reckon it would have twisted a smile out of her.

She did her level best to ignore us despite the fact we were her only customers, she glowered when she looked at us, wandered off bored half way through our order, and when Liv asked for some extra chilli she served them on a used plate she grabbed from an uncleared table next to us.

Slam! “There's your bloody chillies.” The back of her shirt seemed to say.

As we left we tried out our Vietnamese “thank you”, with not a pinch of sarcasm, and she glared back in icey silence, looking like she was about to punch us. Her attitude was unsettling, but we were knackered and just glad we had found a bed to sleep in. Anyway, being dead-eyed and ignored by a waitress suited the mood of the evening, even if it did not bode well for the coming month. Welcome to Vietnam.

The next morning at breakfast we tried to make some sense of it. Perhaps the hotels really had been full. Maybe that room I'd been shown really had just been booked up. Not likely, it is true. Nine months on the road and we'd never encountered a full hotel, then three in a row in Pleiku. Seemed a bit fishy. Perhaps if Pleiku were a city of dreams then we could understand the discrepancy but unless you are in the grip of a malarial fever then your dreams are unlikely to coincide with the heavy grey reality of this place.

I'll be quite honest with you though, we were concerned. We were about to head out along a back country route through increasingly smaller towns and if we ended up in a one-hotel town and they decided we weren't welcome then we could be in real trouble.

However we did had to admit it was... how to put this... interesting finding ourselves completely stumped by what we'd experienced. Maybe it was bad luck. Maybe it was just that the Vietnamese were so direct that we got the wrong end of the stick and interpreted it as rudeness. After a week or so we'd tune into it, know what to expect and it'd be fine. That's how these things go.


On the war path

For just under a week we made our way north through the hills, following the old supply routes used during the war. The days of bush bashing, aerial bombardment and rickety bamboo bridges are well past thankfully and nowadays a neatly paved two lane highway bobs along the course, named in honour of the north's spiritual mastermind during their fight for independence, the ever present Ho Chi Minh.

They say that you can tell a lot about a country from the people it prints on its currency. In Vietnam every denomination has Uncle Ho upon it, short cropped hair and a benign smile, looking something like Santa's embarrassing out of date driver's license.

We'd been told by a few people that the war was not really an issue here any more. Americans are welcomed with open arms, and many kids didn't really know that much about it. While this may or may not be true, the outcome of the war is evident absolutely everywhere. All across the country these huge posters crop up, populated by proud, angular workers and armed guards, chests inflated, beaming at the hammer and sickle. Whether it's an issue or not, who knows, but the outcome is there to see; bold, red, and proud.

Vietnam would appear to be doing alright for itself too. These 'small towns' on our map, which would have translated into a couple of houses and maybe a shop in Cambodia, revealed themselves to be enormous urban centres tens of thousands strong. After a month in quiet old Cambodia it was a bit of a shock, but as we got further north the towns did begin to diminish in size and within a few days and a couple of hundred kilometres we were zipping by little riverside villages and hilltop markets. All in all it wasn't half bad, although the same could not be said for some of the people we encountered.



Ransom

The next perplexing mystery in the world of Vietnamese hospitality emerged the day we left Pleiku. We finished up early to allow for any problems we might have getting a room, but all was well. Soon after arriving in town I was being shown into a spacious downstairs room by the owner of a little guesthouse. The room was great, the price was right, so we got to work unloading our bikes, handing our passports over and filling in all the forms. No problems there. But then the lady waved me over and led me upstairs to a different room, a much smaller and dirtier room than the one downstairs. In here, she gestured. I shook my head. She opened another door and waved me inside. Same again, cramped damp little chamber. Bewildered I wandered back downstairs and got the key for the first room. Nothing more was said about it. 

Another misunderstanding perhaps? Well maybe, but it would be hard to interpret standing in one room and discussing a price as actually meaning, “I want a small damp room upstairs please.” A weird one no doubt, but the excitement of eating communist ice creams and seeing decapitated dogs for sale at the market quickly drove out any worries we had and we relaxed into a long lazy afternoon.

Two nights later, after some short but tiring days along the loping highway, we decided to take a day off at the bottom of a large hill in the rather pleasant, slightly dusty township of Dak Glei. We found a little motel tucked away down a rough track and about half an hour later we found the owner too. The rooms were pretty basic for the $10 asking price but we got a few dollars snipped off, and although our Vietnamese was still abysmal and the woman who ran the place spoke absolutely no English, she and I managed to have quite an amiable interaction as we fumbled through the checking in forms. We paid up front and she took our passports to process with the local police.

A dusty day off, then time to check out. We were up early in order to nail this hill before the day got too hot. Our bikes were loaded and ready to go so I found the owner and handed the key back. Could we have our passports back please? She dallied. I stood around twiddling my thumbs for a moment, then the lady wrote something down.

“100'000”

I shrugged. No, I want our passports back. She spoke no English but by pointing and rubbing her fingers together she made it quite clear what was going on. We had to pay another 100'000 dong in order to get our passports back. Confusion from the bartering? No way. This amounted to more than the original asking price, and there was no way there had been a misunderstanding - we had written the figures down, she'd pointed and agreed and we'd paid it in full up front. We had the receipt. She had us by the balls though now, and she wasn't letting up without some extra cash.

Luckily the communication barrier swung things to our advantage. My frowning and head shaking, although in actuality a reserved British protest at the whole situation, appeared like the actions of a man who had absolutely no idea what was going on. The owner believed she needed to be more clear. She unlocked her secret drawer and pulled out our passports. She held them up.

“These.” her finger pointed. “For this.” she pointed at the scrap of paper and rubbed her fingers again.

Still I frowned and shook my head.

She waved the passports before me. “These.” the gesture repeated. “For thi-”

I snatched the passports from her hand.

Liv and I sat gloomily at breakfast trying to think up a nice explanation for what had just transpired, but the only conclusion was that this apparently pleasant woman had just tried to ransom our passports for a few extra bucks. What an absolute cow.

That morning was a long uphill slog through drizzle, but by midday we hit the top, the weather cleared and we enjoyed a first-class afternoon coiling down hills into a sequestered river valley below. Despite its isolation a lot of the land had been cleared, yet there was jungle too, bursting out between hydroplants and bare hills.

Creepy commie posters where everybody has the same face

A miserable restaurant lured us in with promises of a late lunch, but once we'd cracked open some drinks from their fridge we were informed, by inference from the yelling of the chef, that she didn't want to cook us anything after all. We pushed on up the road where our luck turned and we found another restaurant and a log cabin guesthouse. The road ahead of us was pretty steep and we were pretty shattered so we decided to call it a day.

After our ordeal that morning we weren't keen on handing our passports over, so instead we had to spend about 90 minutes filling in forms, speaking to people's brothers on telephones, and sitting down for a mild interrogation with an old man at the restaurant. Still, once the sharp eye of suspicion had fallen from us it meant we could sleep easy knowing that we could just leave without hassle in the morning, because we had a big day ahead of us.

None of the events of the last few days taken on their own were that bad, even the blatant money grabbing of the woman in Dak Glei, scams happen, and she was only asking for $5. What was troubling was their frequency. We'd been in the country six days and yet out of all the places we'd stayed only one had been a simple check in, pay, check out affair. We'd not had anything like this during the whole rest of the trip, no problems back to back like that, and nothing so scruffy and obvious as the passport blaggery.


After a day in the saddle these things weigh heavier than they might otherwise and taken together they had started to accumulate into a faint dread at the end of each day. For the first time geography was not the prime cause of our weariness. We needed a holiday.

We were in luck.

For the past few months we had been trying to arrange a meet up with Liv's parents. After deciding on one country, and then another as our proposed route danced across South-East Asia like an startled earthworm, we had finally pinned down a date and a location. It was in just two days time at the ancient trading port of Hoi An, less than 100km from our log cabin guesthouse.


The stars were still up when we rose the next morning and we cycled like crazy all day down out of the hills and across the plains until we screeched into town a day early.



Meet the parents

After an evening eating pizza by the riverfront and a night in a little hostel we were able to check in to the luxurious Ancient House Resort that would be our lodging for the next week. Thick feta-white walls curled round a cosy courtyard pool and, tucked away along stairwells and walkways, the walls stacked up into balconyed bedrooms. Our porter led the way and showed us inside. For about an hour we lay in amazement on our enormous double bed, cranked up the air conditioning and sipped complementary tea. And then a knock at the door came, and Graham and Chris arrived with cheers and bags and excited hugs.

The last few days had been so taxing that I hadn't really had a chance to process what was coming up, if I had it might have made me a little nervous. Meeting Liv's parents for the first time! Gah! And I haven't had a haircut in 6 months!


Of course I had nothing to worry about. We all got on so well right away that it felt much less an introduction and more a reunion, paving the way for an absolutely brilliant week together. As the four of us explored nearby ruins, paddled in the sea, and roamed about the yellow painted lanes of the old town, Liv caught up on the news from home, and we spun yarns about the last 9 months on the bicycles.

Hoi An was the perfect setting. Lots of narrow alleys and crannies to explore, cafes with views down across the river. Plenty of history locked up in the bricks and the temples and bridges. And although the town was usually busy by the evening, during quieter times of day we could watch centuries old scenes unfold, as women tottered by hauling buckets of water, gnarled old boats tick-tocked upstream, and stall holders cried out the latest catch.



Every single day was a gem, although the boat trip out to Cham island was a particular highlight for me. We spent the day snorkelling around the rocks spying out crazy-coloured odd-bodied fishes, corals and starfish and eels. After a fine lunch on the island we swung in breezy palm shaded hammocks before a final hour bobbing about in the sea. It was just perfect.

We celebrated the end of each day with a popped cork and a lavish meal. Starters, desserts, wine – all unheard of by us budget conscious travellers. The food was always fresh and delicious. Sometimes surprising too. Anybody for pig-ear salad? Yum! Inevitably each night turned into a bit of a late one, the time running away to the sound of chinked glasses and laughter. Giant beds and a big buffet breakfast served to refresh us, and the next day was ready to show us some more great times. Really, it would be hard to imagine a nicer way to spend a week.







But all good things must come to an end, and so too must our wonderful week in Hoi An. Although Chris and Graham had a week in Burma to look forward to, it remained a struggle to say farewell when their taxi arrived to whisk them away. Liv fought off a tear as they disappeared down the road, and I put and arm around her and let out a sigh. The end of a really splendid week. Still, what a week it was, and there'll be plenty more to come.

What did Liv and I have ahead of us though? After our perplexing week through the hills we were none the wiser about what to expect from Vietnam. One minute we were chatting to lovely noodle soup sellers, the next we were being given the evil eye by a waitress with an attitude. One night we're getting on fine with our hotel owner, the next she's trying to jimmy some extra cash out of us.

Vietnam could swing either way in its final two weeks, yet as the afternoon wore on and we lingered by the hotel swimming pool it was quite clear that we'd rather not have to gamble on it, and just carry on the lifestyle of the last six days. Yes, that would have suited us just fine.

Packed up and ready to leave...
...but not just yet.

Testing out some winter-wear
Liv looking lovely
Liv noshing noodles
Vietnamese countryside
Vietnam is a nation of coffee drinkers and they like it as strong as syrup and served with tea.




The village kids in Vietnam were wonderful cheering, waving, racing us on their bikes and giving us high-fives. They kept our spirits up