Vietnam [week 4]

As most of you already know, Sam and I are back in England. This wasn't a planned move. We'd intended to continue travelling at least as far as Cambodia or Thailand, but a culmination of factors led to us pulling the escape cord early and booking a last-minute flight home.

In short, we left Southeast Asia because we were exhausted. We were tired of the heat, which prevented any kind of physical exertion during daylight hours. April is the hottest month of the year and all the guides recommend avoiding it like the plague. We were tired of the rampant overcharging everywhere we went, the national sport of Vietnam. I was tired of getting sick, which happened in waves of increasing severity, and which ultimately cost me 15 kg in body weight. Those who have met me will be surprised I still exist after losing 15 kg. Most of all, I missed home comforts in a way I have never missed them in four years of being away.

This all sounds very negative and anticlimactic but it's not. Vietnam is an amazing country and I'm so incredibly glad I experienced it - even more so than Taiwan or Hong Kong - but home is absolutely where I belong at the moment. Continuing to trudge around Asia feeling the way we did wouldn't be giving the region the respect it deserves. We'll go back another time.


Our bikes weren't due on the train for another few days so we spent the weekend ticking off a few of Saigon's tourist attractions. They included Independence Palace, the nerve centre of the South Vietnamese war effort. It ultimately fell to the north on the closing day of the conflict in 1975, when tanks smashed through the gates and replaced the South Vietnamese flag with the familiar communist star.


Parked outside was a replica of the tank that did the smashing. Depending on who you ask, the event is known as the "Fall of Saigon" or the "Liberation of Saigon".


Inside the palace are lavish banquet halls and conference rooms still used by the government today.


The palace has an underground bunker, supposedly preserved exactly how is was immediately following the liberation. Spread across the walls of the former command centre are maps used to choreograph the war, this one displaying the official line dividing the country in two.


Also underground were the president's emergency residence, and lots of bleakly decorated, windowless rooms housing ancient communications equipment.


On Saturday night we met up with Harry, who'd broken off from the gang the previous week and zoomed down to Saigon alone. We shared some drinks and wandered around the buzzing backpacker district.


Beers at the bar/bookstore we found ourselves in were shockingly cheap, the equivalent of 20p each. We all got drunk on a pound and played international Jenga.


The next morning we met up with the Airbnb crowd from last week. We caught the bus out of town to a busy leisure complex where we had planned to spend the afternoon paintballing. When we arrived, we decided paintballing in 38 degree heat was a stupid idea so we stationed ourselves by the pool instead. Having felt a bit hungover in the morning, my condition gradually deteriorated into something more sinister and by the time we left, I was a mess. It was during this low point, returning home aboard a hot, swaying public bus, trying not to be violently sick out of the window, that I first conceded that returning to England might be a reasonable option.

I spent the next day in bed while Sam looked after me and listened to my melodramatic whining. I didn't leave the bedroom except to eject the contents of my stomach into the toilet. We talked about the future and booked a cheap flight to London, which had cemented itself as a good idea overnight.

By the next day, I had recovered enough to claw back the broken ruins of my appetite, eating for the first time in two days. We moved out of our apartment and into Harry's hostel, which was cheaper and more central.


Sam's scooter finally arrived later that day. We collected it from the station and paid a man to wash it, so it would look nice and shiny in preparation for selling it. My bike was nowhere to be seen. Fortunately, the guys at the station were characteristically reassuring about the situation, shaking their heads violently and motioning for me to go away whenever I produced the receipt.


The end of April marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, and rehearsals for the celebrations were already in full swing. Patriotic songs whose lyrics were limited to the name of the country and of local hero Ho Chi Minh could be heard very clearly from my dorm bed every night and morning.


My bike finally materialised on Thursday (four days after it was supposed to), broken and requiring work on the engine to silence a new, horrible sound it was making. Fortunately we had began littering Saigon with adverts the day before and interest was already growing.


A Dutch couple came to view the scooters that evening and settled on a price, agreeing to collect them the following morning. We were relieved and delighted at how straightforward the process had been.


The sale made us instant millionaires. We got 10,000,000 Dong for the pair, basically the same amount as we paid for them in Hanoi.


Our final few days in Saigon were amongst our happiest. No longer encumbered by scooters we'd never grown particularly attached to, we could admire the utter chaos of Vietnamese traffic from a safe distance.


During our wanderings, we witnessed men on bamboo ladders cutting through giant nests of cables. I don't know why this was happening nor whether it was authorised.


A final tourist attraction was the War Remnants Museum (formerly known as the "Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes"), a transparently anti-American gallery of artefacts and photography from the country's long war. A particularly harrowing exhibition on the disgraceful use of Agent Orange, which continues to ravage generation after generation with birth defects, featured hundreds of photographs of sufferers alongside two dead foetus victims preserved in a tank. War is horrible.


Still dizzyingly rich and needing cheering up from the museum, we decided to eat somewhere special for our final night in Vietnam. Dining indoors on chairs that weren't tiny and made of plastic contrasted with the usual street experience, and the food wasn't bad either.


The next morning we bid farewell to Vietnam and caught the early flight to Beijing, where we were given five hours to roam the glassy terminal.


The longer flight from Beijing to London was remarkably empty, with about three quarters of seats unoccupied. Sleeping comfortably across three vacant seats felt like a rare victory against the bastards in business class.


The sun set as we cruised over western Europe.


Our first glimpse of England was the port of Felixstowe. Further up the river, you could make out Ipswich. Sadly we failed to reach an agreement with the pilot about dropping us off early.


...which was a pity, because Sam faced some surprisingly harsh scrutiny at Heathrow. After more than half an hour of intense questioning, during which time she was formally refused entry and detained, they finally let her into the country. A special stamp in her passport highlights how naughty it is to work on a tourist visa.


And so after that miserable welcome, we arrived in friendly Ipswich to be reunited with my family for a lovely roast dinner. Two weeks have passed since then and we're still in Ipswich, still without a clear plan for the future, but still very happy to be home (or some version of it).

My plan is to write one more post over the next few weeks, then consider retiring this blog for a little while. Thanks as always for reading.

Vietnam [week 3]

A single day of misfortune prompted some fundamental rethinking of travel plans in the middle of an otherwise very comfortable and docile week. This ultimately led to us skipping a large chunk of the country, choosing instead to rocket south towards Saigon, where we now find ourselves.


We deliberately concluded last week poised at the base of Hải Vân Pass, a famous mountain road separating the cities of Huế and Đà Nẵng. Sam's birthday was on Saturday and we guessed it might be a nice place to start things off. Sure enough, breakfast looking out to sea from the mountainside was pretty nice.


Boxer and former Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson described the pass as a "deserted ribbon of perfection" when the show came to Vietnam in 2008, before using a racial slur and assaulting the cameraman.


He was right though, it was perfect and almost completely deserted. A tunnel was constructed in 2005 to bypass the twisty mountain road meaning nowadays only tourists bother going over the top.


Looking south from the peak we could almost make out our destination, the historic town of Hội An.


When we eventually checked into our accommodation an hour later, we were made to feel like visiting dignitaries. The staff greeted us with fresh banana pancakes and cups of ginger tea.


This was because Sam's mum had paid for us to stay in an expensive hotel for a couple of nights as a birthday treat. "Expensive" is a relative term in Vietnam as the room price was equivalent to two dorm beds in a New Zealand hostel.


It made a very welcome change to the five dollar guesthouses we were getting used to, which rarely came with towels or windows, let alone swimming pools. We took advantage by swimming almost constantly, even when we didn't want to.


Also paid for was a fancier-than-usual meal of Sam's choice, which ended up being Mexican from a stunningly good place called Hola Taco. Catering for us remotely is classic Sam's mum behaviour, who last year treated us to steak while we were travelling around New Zealand. Now that I think about it, she also fed me daily for two months earlier this year. Thanks for everything, Kris.


Hội An once thrived as a major trading hub in Southeast Asia, a position it held for centuries until its river silted up and shipping moved north to Đà Nẵng. Lots of the old Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Dutch buildings remain intact from those boom years, a magnet for lots of tourists.


Hội An is unquestionably the whitest place we've visited in Vietnam, but has dealt with mass tourism in quite a dignified way, without the constant touting and flashing neon signs you see elsewhere.


When our time in the hotel was up, we moved down the street into a big pink building, where a lovely lady called Tri had agreed to host us.


It was heartbreaking to euthanise the swans Tri had created for us, only to dry our bodies with their remains.


We spent most of the day at the beach, feeling very smug about having beaten the forecasted heavy rain. How little we knew.


The next day at least began well. We left Hội An with the intention of riding 700 kilometres over the next four days towards Đà Lạt, our next major stop. The first leg appeared straightforward and allowed time for a detour to Mỹ Sơn, a cluster of ruined Hindu temples left behind from the ancient Cham civilisation.


Pressing further inland along Google's definition of a major road, it gradually became apparent that the road in question was still under construction. We eventually gave up and accepted that the last hour of vibration and inhaling red dust had been for nothing. Our only option was to backtrack completely to Hội An and seek an alternative route, but daylight was now a concern, with only a few hours remaining.


Daylight would soon be dethroned in our list of concerns by rainfall, which began gently but soon felt monsoonal. I fell off my bike attempting to pull over for shelter, smashing a wing mirror and bruising my ribcage in the process. Although I was fine, it was frustrating that none of the several onlookers got up to help when they saw it happen. We moved our bikes off the road and stood underneath an awning outside a garage for the next two hours, waiting for the rain to ease.


When it finally did, we rode slowly to the nearest hotel and checked into a tiny room, soaking wet, grazed, sunburned and hungry. The only food place still open was a small convenience store, where the shopkeeper grossly overcharged us for some instant noodles, a box of crackers, and a pack of processed cheese wedges.


Storms were set to continue over the next four days, forcing a reassessment of plans. Riding was clearly not a safe option, whilst loitering somewhere we'd already spent four nights until the rain passed felt too much like treading water. Eventually we decided to catch a train to Saigon, where we'd base ourselves for our final week or so in Vietnam. We surrendered our bikes to the cargo guys and watched as they set about draining the gas from our full tanks into their own containers in order to "save weight".


The next part of the process was equally hilarious, a patching together of scraps of cardboard and sticky tape that would surely protect the bike from anything that would have otherwise damaged it while in transit.


When the bike had been fully secured, it was slotted into a wooden frame, ready for loading. I love the guy that posed for this photo.


Our train didn't leave until the following afternoon so we had some time to explore Đà Nẵng, a modern city of wide, tree-lined roads and skyscrapers.


Walking to the station the next morning we spotted this precarious box fortress on wheels, a common sight in urban Vietnam. Motorbikes are crucial to Vietnamese society; they use them for everything you'd use a car for in the western world, from taking your three small children on the school run, to transporting large shipments of goods across town.


It's a long way to Saigon, just over 16 hours on the express train, but the ride was surprisingly comfortable, with leather seats and air conditioning.


We passed some pretty scenery along the way, but the luxury of switching off and not granting the outside world my constant attention did make a pleasant change from our usual mode of transport.


The offer of dinner from a travelling meat pit made me feel physically sick.


Underslept and disoriented, we arrived at Saigon railway station at 5am like a delegation of zombies.


Our Airbnb apartment wasn't available until noon so the host suggested we meet at his office where we could nap in an empty conference room, then join his team for Friday lunch. This was a really nice gesture and the food was great.


After lunch we headed to the apartment, which overlooked Saigon's river and southern suburbs. Our new plan was to camp out here in Vietnam's largest city until our bikes arrived on the freight train three days later.