End of the Road

Location: Saigon, Vietnam

Weather: 31 degree, thunderstorms

Greetings from rainy Vietnam! I may be in the tropics still, but those of you in the UK will no doubt be pleased to hear that the weather more closely resembles that of the British Isles.

Although I’ve still got a couple of days to go until I arrive in Sydney, this will be my final blog. I’ve enjoyed the blogging experience though, and I have a few ideas in the pipeline for Oz with respect to topics I want to blog about once I’ve settled in. Today is essentially my last proper day of travelling, as tomorrow morning will mainly be spent at airports and on planes. I will probably also spend the day in something of a daze, as Mark is adamant that we have a final blowout before leaving Vietnam… So I’m going to write about how I’ve found Vietnam, what the experience of travelling with a buddy rather than solo has been like, and some of my highlights from an incredibly varied four months.

The first thing to say about Vietnam is that although as of 1975 it has been a unified country, there are still distinct differences between the north and the south. And that although the country’s worldwide publicity stemmed from the Vietnam War, there’s an awful lot more to the place than that.

Such as food. The Vietnamese have a wonderful cuisine, although it receives not nearly the same attention as Thai food. Noodle soup here is huge (called pho, but pronounced ‘fur’), and they also eat a lot of rice, as does the rest of the region. Highlights include hotpots, fried fish, amazing pork and my own favourite – a dish called Cau Lao which is a speciality of the central region of Vietnam, notably Hoi An. They also drink a lot of beer here, and the cheapest I’ve seen is about 10p for a glass. It’s cheaper than water – considerably. I’ll be sad to leave behind the food, both of Vietnam and of Southeast Asia generally.

…But this blog isn’t just about my gastronomic experiences, as brilliant as they have been. So let’s start with my first stop; Hanoi.

Hanoi is Vietnam’s capital city, situated in the north. Population of people: 7 million. Population of motorbikes: 5 million. I’m not kidding. And it feels like it too. What were once pavements are now motorbike parking spots (and driving spots sometimes) and to begin with you struggle with a constant fear of being battered over by a wild scooter. Drivers don’t stop at traffic lights here, so you just have to start crossing the road and hope that they avoid you. After a couple of days you realise that the drivers are actually very good at missing pedestrians. And the great thing is that you never have to wait for the lights to change, you just start crossing.

Hanoi is an old city, still retaining much of its old charm, but struggling to keep up with the modernisation and consequent increase in occupants. It is still characterised by narrow streets, which all combines to give the city an incredibly busy and quite claustrophobic feel. Of all the cities I’ve been to, it without a doubt feels the busiest and most crowded. And this despite having just come from Singapore. Space is at such a premium that people just build up, instead of any other direction. The result is a lot of narrow, quite bizarre looking buildings.

It completely quietens down in the evenings though, as the bikes are parked and the riders all sit around on tiny plastic stools (honestly, they are child-sized) to enjoy food, beer and company. Quite a contrast to the madness of the day.

Hanoi is certainly Vietnam’s political and cultural capital. Here the people are fiercely patriotic and proud – of their country’s independence and their Communist system. Western influence is hard to spot, with few international brands or businesses. Mark and I spent our time there looking around various museums (some of which were utterly bizarre – the Ho Chi Minh museum was essentially a museum of modern art with bizarre explanations. The ‘Communist struggle against Imperialist misuse of technology and science’ display just featured still images of planets and an obscure metal structure), learning about Vietnam’s history. And its modern history is fascinating.

The country has had to work very hard to earn its independence. After the first world war they took the fight to the French (who had colonised the country around 100 years before) and nine years later chucked them out for good. But the country was still divided with the Communist north fighting the more right-wing south. The US gradually joined the war on the side of the south to battle Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Cong. A decision that as we all now know, was later to prove disastrous for the Americans. This war lasted until 1975, when Vietnam emerged completely ravaged by thirty years of war, but independent at last.

It was Ho Chi Minh, or ‘Uncle Ho’ as the people call him, who spearheaded Vietnam’s fight for independence. There’s dedication to him everywhere, with great posters and images of the wise and quite unassuming-looking man. Extreme revolutionaries are often characterised as being violent, autocratic individuals demanding personality cults, but Ho seemed to be, as a Brit may say, a thoroughly decent chap. After he died, Ho was embalmed in state (in complete disregard of his wishes to have his ashes scattered over Vietnam) at the memorial building in Hanoi. Mark and I headed over to give our wishes to Uncle Ho on our first full day there. You queue for around 30-60 minutes (we heard stories of up to 2 hours) to go in to the memorial, and then you’re ushered through by some committed guards as you walk around Ho. You only see him for about 60 seconds before you’re pushed out the other side. It was pretty strange seeing someone embalmed like that, but certainly a highlight of Hanoi. And they really love Ho, at the accompanying museum he was credited with kicking off revolutions all over the world (including those that began and finished before Ho had even finished school).

We visited several other museums and buildings famous for the war. We learned a lot, but on several occasions also cracked up at the outrageous propaganda on display. At the Hoa Lo Prison (nicknamed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by American POWs) the French previously held many Vietnamese political prisoners. Whilst there were clearly many atrocities carried out there, it seems unlikely that a walking stick, unbroken bottle and small motor were really used as ‘torture instruments’. And all the pictures of US prisoners showed them playing chess, basketball and generally having a great time. Hmmm. In all seriousness, the propaganda across Vietnam was a shame because it was so obvious and so unnecessary. There’s no need to exaggerate what was inflicted upon the Vietnamese during the war with the US because it’s already so awful and powerful enough on its own. The over the top exaggeration just detracts from what is already there, and most westerners are sharp enough to see through it.

We had the luck of incredible hostel in Hanoi. For less than £4 a night we had an aircon dorm room, amazing shower facilities, comfy beds, a movie room, a brand new pool room and free breakfast which included bacon, sausage, pastries, yoghurt, crème brulee (!), fresh orange juice, fresh watermelon… We also befriended a group of Swedes and a New Zealander, and had some great evenings with them at a place called ‘Mao’s Bar’. It’s doubtful that Mao Tze-Tung would have been proud of a bar named after him packed with westerners and a bizarre mix of western music (60s classics, 90s cheese and present day pop-rubbish). It did give us the chance to show the Swedes the ‘Gap Yah’ video, which had them all adopting posh English accents. Oh, and before I move on I should mention the trip to Ha Long Bay – it’s a must see if you’re in the north of Vietnam.

We departed Hanoi on a 15 hour overnight sleeper bus down to Hue. Hue is the old capital of Vietnam, with the imperial Citadel and some impressive old buildings. We enjoyed cycling around the small city, although the Citadel is still in repair following the war. It is also surrounded by tombs of past emperors. The tombs are staggering, and basically citadels by themselves, taking up to 15 years to build. Hue was about the only insight we got in to Vietnam’s history pre-20th century. I would have liked to learn more about a country that is so old.

There was something odd about the atmosphere in Hue. We found the people quite unfriendly – especially at the market where they were actively quite aggressive towards us whenever we tried to buy something. That aside, we enjoyed it there but were happy to move on to our next stop – Hoi An – a further 3 hours south.

Hoi An…easily the highlight of our Vietnam trip. All of a sudden we found ourselves in this incredibly peaceful, cosy and beautiful little town. It’s astonishing that the place exists, and is so undamaged. It was an old port town, but silt put an end to this. Then it was rediscovered in the 90s and has boomed as a tourist spot. It is just really beautiful, and has a wonderful atmosphere. You could easily spend a week there and leave feeling very refreshed.

It is also famous of its out of control tailor scene. Lonely Planet claims there 300-500 tailors in the small town, and it does feel like it. So of course, we had to have suits made…and that was a lot of fun. We went to one of the more expensive and very well-reputed places in town, and I paid just over £100 for a two-piece pinstripe suit with two shirts. Very, very happy with the result and amazed at how fast their turnaround time was.

Very difficult to put in to words just what makes Hoi An so special, but I suggest googling it as you will get an idea of its beauty. And if you find yourself visiting, do not for any reason miss it! And eat the Cau Lao, White Rose and Wantons – they’re all delectable.

We were sad to leave, and our next stop was Nha Trang, 11 hours further south. Nha Trang was….worth a visit, but not for more than one night. We were happy to go after a couple of days there. Much of the city is basically a tacky western seaside town that I’ve seen many times before. Our favourite area was the northern section of the city, where the locals stayed and there were some lovely quiet cafes and beach areas, and also some stunning ruins. For some reason, Nha Trang was also the victim of regular power outages.

A couple of days ago we then took our last of the many sleeper buses down to Saigon, which is where I am now. Saigon is very, very different to Hanoi. It is much more European, in terms of appearance, way of life and the way people are towards us. We’ve experienced a lot of warmth towards us here from Vietnamese people, and it’s not as though our Vietnamese has really improved much. Although still very busy, it is much more open and well-planned than Hanoi, so it feels more relaxed, which is the opposite to what people were saying along the way. We’ve enjoyed it here, but it is a shame seeing brands like Casio and Nokia flashing in huge neon lights across the city. It’s also notably colder – today is only 23 degrees.

Like Hanoi, Saigon has some impressive attractions such as the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. It is also nearby to the famous Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war. The tunnels are a masterpiece, spanning 200km, and the source of huge trouble for American soldiers. We had the chance to crawl through some – which were enlarged I note – and you had almost no space to move. The methods used for keeping them secret were also ingenious.

All of this provided greater insight in to the Vietnam War. I’m not going to go in to great detail, but if you want to learn more then the Wiki page is a decent place to start and there are a whole host of good books on the matter. What became clear was that the US had next to no justification for interfering and becoming so involved, and that their methods during the war were disgraceful. The numbers of civilian casualties were staggering, with towns all over the country burned to the ground by napalm bombing. A lot of the jungle was lost too and is unable to grow back again now. I was aware that it is a period in history that the US feels quite ashamed of, but I didn’t realise quite how bad it was. The fact that a developing country, that had just come off a ten year war with the French, that was still divided, was able to fight off the might and technology of the US army is nearly impossible to comprehend. But what is clear is just how much the North Vietnamese believed in their cause, and how committed they were to being victorious.

Yet Saigon (since named Ho Chi Minh City, but still called Saigon by those living in the south) feels very American and you sense some bitterness towards the North that they were so insistent on unifying the country. You also sense that Saigon is very responsible for driving Vietnam’s economy and business, with skyscrapers marking the skyline and international companies everywhere. There’s a lot more under the surface that you would need more time to understand.

So after a final day of shopping for some essentials, I’m now sat in a bakery (there are a lot of those too in the south) preparing for a final evening of celebration to mark the end of my travels. I fly to Bangkok in the morning and by this time tomorrow I’ll be on a flight to Sydney (well nearly, but that sounds better).

I’ve really enjoyed travelling with someone, after several months of going it solo. Mark’s been great company, we have a very similar approach to travelling and it’s been a lot of fun. It also means that you can share thinking responsibility for the little travel inconveniences along the way, such as when you arrive at your hostel and the shutters are down, or you misplace something important, or when your bus stops and no one has any idea where you are. It allows you to relax more. In future I would be keen to travel with a good friend again. Although it will be (just a little) sad parting ways with me now living in Australia.

My highlights were (in no particular order):

  • Scuba diving
  • My first week in Bangkok
  • Meditation retreat
  • The two weeks spent in Singapore living like a local
  • The confidence you gain from travelling
  • All the conversations with people from all parts of the world (except North Korea…)
  • Food
  • Seeing the Grand Prix in Malaysia
  • Cruising along the Mekong
  • Spending my Birthday at Angkor

 

As for favourite places…

  • Angkor!
  • Bangkok
  • Koh Tao
  • Hoi An
  • Phnom Penh
  • Singapore
  • Taman Negara
  • Chiang Mai
  • Cameron highlands
  • The White Temple
  • Marina Bay (Singapore)
  • Petronas Towers (KL)

 

Not quite sure how to sum up the travelling experience. Maybe I should give it a score out of 10!? It’s been pretty incredible, and I would recommend to anyone to put aside some time to live out of a backpack and travel round a part of the world for a while. You’ll get a lot from it. Many of the places and experiences I’ve mentioned above me will stay with me for a long time. And I’ve loved having the time to sit and talk with people, or to settle down with a book and not worry about the time or the chores you have to do. Without a doubt it’s made me want to see more of the world, although it has made me more specific over where I want to visit.

Personally, 4 months is too long though and I can’t see myself taking such a long break for a while yet. After the first 2-4 weeks I began to feel a little aimless, and by the time I reached Chiang Mai I was pretty weary of backpacking. The meditation retreat and those two weeks in Singapore were immensely fulfilling though, and arrived at just the right time. After a while I really began to miss doing my work, and I feel very ready to get stuck in to it in Sydney now. Feels like it’s been a long time coming. Would also comment that bringing a netbook was a great decision (credit to Mum for that one) as it’s allowed me to stay in touch with my friends and family, and do bits of work here and there.

In four months I’ve visited six countries, and only one (Singapore) would I say with any confidence that I understand. You get a flavour for a place by travelling through it, but don’t kid yourself that you’ll experience anything like the depth you do when living somewhere. Completely embracing the local culture by learning some of the language, eating with the locals and not dressing in tacky vests (nothing shouts ‘tourist’ more loudly) does make a big difference though. I’ve put aside my dream to see every country, as you only have so much time to travel, and I’d rather dedicate more time to those places I really am passionate about visiting. But I would probably just put aside 2-4 weeks for dedicated travelling. That’s very much personal preference though, as I met travellers who had been going for over a year and said they were still loving it. In fact, after meeting countless travellers it’s clear that the way you travel is very different for each individual. Do it in the way that suits you best.

So I’m going to sign off at this point. Thanks to those of you who persuaded me to go backpacking, after I started talking about it nearly three years ago, and thanks for reading the blog – a few of you have commented that you’ve really enjoyed it which is great to hear. I’ve enjoyed doing this, and will continue in Australia, about a very different topic. But for now…

Farewell and good luck!

Nathaniel

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