John and Sheila's Journey through Vietnam and Cambodia
Overland from Hong Kong to Bangkok,
October - November 1999.
Monday 25th. Hong Kong. We landed about 8pm. The big new airport is most impressive and very efficient. In no time we'd gone through the formalities, changed money, found out about hotels from the information desk and booked the 'Chungking House de luxe hotel' over the phone (it wasn't exactly de luxe but it was OK). The only snag was that Emirates Airlines had managed to break the handle on one of the cases but that too was handled efficiently and we were given the details of the authorised repair shop who would fix it for us tomorrow. We got the airport bus A21 into the centre for HK$33 (about UK£3) and it stopped right outside Chungking Mansion, a tower block full of backpacker hotels in a very central location on Nathan Road, the main shopping street of Kowloon, just a couple of blocks from the Star Ferry terminal. Chungking House hotel is an upmarket backpackers hotel on the 4th floor where we got a double room with air conditioning & bathroom for HK$320 a night.
Hong Kong does not seem to have changed since the Chinese
takeover two years ago. They still drive on the left and still use the same
currency, although the Queen's picture isn't on it any more. It's still very
bright, bustling and commercial. We went for a stroll along Nathan Road and
stopped at the Flying Elephant Portuguese Barbecue restaurant for a meal
of BBQ ribs, even though it was nearly midnight. We haven't quite adjusted
to the time difference yet. By the time we'd finished and walked back to
the hotel, after midnight, some of the shops were starting to close.
Tues 26th. A day at leisure shopping
in the electro-gadgetry paradise that is Hong Kong.
We went to the railway station to book the train to Guangzhou (Canton) for HK$190 each, had a hot dog baguette for lunch in a French deli and apart from that wandered up and down the bustling shopping streets. One of the shops was doing a promotion on three snake wine - we tried some but you wouldn't want to drink it for pleasure. There was another sampler of wine made from dogs' genitals and sparrows' tails and it tasted as good as it sounds.
For dinner we went to the Banana Leaf curry house and
had excellent Indian/Malay curries. For a finale we went on the Star Ferry
to Hong Kong Central district and back a couple of times to see the bright
lights across the harbour. The luggage people collected our bag from the
hotel and returned it later all mended very efficiently.
Wed 27th. China. Back to the French deli for breakfast, then we finished packing and set out for China. We got the bus right outside the hotel to the railway station for 52p each, changed our leftover HK money into Chinese (at what turned out to be a better rate than in China) and got the express train nonstop to Canton. It was all remarkably smooth and efficient.
On the train a succession of ladies with trolleys or trays came by selling food, drink, duty-frees, etc. One lady was selling glossy commemorative books of Chinese postage stamps. When I looked at one but didn't buy it she looked so sad I thought she was going to burst into tears! At Canton East, another large, modern station, we went through Chinese immigration and customs remarkably smoothly.
At this point it started getting harder - there were lots of facilities for choosing a hotel but we just wanted to get to the main Canton station to get our next train to Nanning, and this just drew a blank. We were directed to the taxi rank but none of the taxi drivers spoke English so we showed one a picture of a train and set off in some trepidation. Luckily the road signs in Canton have English subtitles and the station is well signposted so we were able to direct him and arrived without mishap for Y30 (about £3). The station, however, was sheer chaos, with no English signs and very few people who spoke English. Eventually one of the bank of hotel touts who sit outside shouting through megaphones took us through the crush to where we booked our next ticket - on the afternoon sleeper train to Nanning. Because of the cacophony, all the railway officials also speak through megaphones and continue to do so even if they are answering an individual. The noise was deafening.
All the way along I tried to explain that I needed to cash a travellers cheque first but this didn't get through until the time came to pay for the ticket, when it became clear there was a problem. After showing the travellers cheque to a few people we were directed to a bank in a hotel on the other side of the square in front of the station. After negotiating subways, steps and crossing roads to get to the hotel, the man in the bank there said (in excellent English) that we had to go to the Bank of China down the road. This turned out to be very straightforward and soon I was back at the ticket office paying for the tickets. They turned out to be cheaper than we expected and we began to doubt that they were soft sleeper, or even sleeper at all. We suddenly met some other passengers who spoke good English (they had been attending a trade fair in Canton) and they confirmed that the tickets were hard sleeper. One lady very kindly came back to the ticket desk to negotiate an upgrade for us (soft sleeper to Nanning cost Y340 for lower bunk, Y310 for an upper in a 4-berth compartment) and soon, being softies, we were relaxing in the soft sleeper waiting room, a large, high-ceilinged room with sofas and armchairs round the walls.
Once there, of course, things were easier - the lady who came in and announced the trains spoke very good English and she came over and told us which platform to go to. This didn't really help though, because there were no platform numbers but we followed a friendly lady passenger called Lin Dong who showed us to the right carriage. She turned out to be a celebrity - a singer on her way to do a TV show in Nanning. She was tall, slim and elegant and very fastidious - she carefully wiped down the rail with a napkin before hanging her towel up. The soft sleeper compartment was very clean, carpeted and nicely furnished. The bedding had pretty floral designs and there was a rose in a vase on the table.
We set off on time and when the restaurant car opened
at 6pm we went and had a meal. The menu was only in Chinese so Sheila went
to the kitchen and pointed and scored 3 out of 4 for three excellent dishes
and one very peculiar pickled brown vegetable that we left most of. After
a couple of cans of imported beer we retired back to the compartment and
by 8pm we were snugly in our bunks jogging along through the night.
Thurs 28th. We woke up 12 hours later as the train was approaching Nanning, earlier than we had been told (but at the time that Lin, our singer companion seemed to expect).
There was another train in the station that we thought might be going to Pingxiang, our next destination near the Vietnamese border, but it was going somewhere else. Lin wrote down 'Pingxiang' in Chinese for us and then we said goodbye, she went off to the TV studio to record her TV programme and we found our way to the booking office to book the next train to Pinxiang which left at 11am and took six hours. The booking office seemed very well organised with a different ticket desk for each train. Each one had a computer and, next to the keyboard, an abacus - a very Chinese combination! The tickets cost Y15 (US$2) each.
As we left the station we met a Japanese backpacker who we had spoken to in Nanning and who was also going to Vietnam. He was going on a bus which left at 9am and took four hours, so he would have time to get through the border today (it closes at 5pm). We chatted for a moment then he set off for the bus station with two Chinese friends he'd made and we stood wondering what to do for three hours, so we thought let's have a look at this bus and see what it's like, so we set off through the crowds after them, complete with all our luggage. We weren't able to catch up but one of them had yellow hair which stood out in the crowd so we were just able to re-locate them after each turning. After a ten-minute dash across Nanning we came to the bus station and found the Pingxiang bus, which was a 'sleeper' bus with two rows of double bunks each side instead of seats. Each bunk has a bamboo mat and a sort of pillow, so you can lie down to sleep but there's no room to sit up! (At least not for a moderately tall European). To the amusement of the Japanese backpacker and his friends we decided to go for it and bought tickets for Y25 (£3) each, so including the unused rail tickets the journey to Pingxiang cost $10 for both of us, still a bargain! They were hurrying us along because it was due to leave, so we scrambled on and set off into the bottom lefthand corner of China.
It was very pleasant lying on the bunks driving along and despite having had 12 hours dozing on the train, we dozed again for much of the way. We stopped halfway for a lunch stop but I took much too long deciding what to have so I'd hardly started eating when the bus was ready to go again. The Chinese are a very impatient people so I bolted down another couple of mouthfuls to the sound of much revving of engine and tooting of horn, then scrambled back on the bus.
The journey actually took six hours not four, but we still arrived well before the train. As soon as the bus stopped in Pingxiang we were surrounded by 'Lambrettas' - little motorbike-powered taxis with two small bench seats under a 'covered wagon' awning at the back. The drivers immediately started negotiating the fare to the Vietnamese border post with us, knowing that's the only reason foreigners come to Pingxiang. Our Japanese companion declared that he was tired and would stay the night here and cross the border in the morning, but we decided to go for it (they can't stand the pace, these youngsters!).
We managed to end up in the most decrepit of the Lambrettas which could hardly make it up the hills and took nearly an hour over what should have been a 20-minute journey. The border was still open but only just - it was clearly the end of the working day and everyone was ready to go home. Nevertheless, they were friendly and helpful and our exit from China was very easy. There are no currency changing facilities but you need to have Y10 each for a sort of 'departure tax' that appears official - there was a big notice about it in English and Chinese.
Vietnam. We had heard that Vietnamese border officials could be difficult but in the event they too were friendly and entry into Vietnam was equally painless (even though they too were clearly ready to go home and kept looking at their watches!). There were no official currency changing facilities here either but we were approached in the doorway by a man offering to change Chinese money to 'dong', the Vietnamese currency. Uncertain of the exchange rate we consulted the border guards, and although they started off refusing to let the man in because the transaction was obviously semi-illegal, they ended up negotiating with him for us and got a better rate!
They also arranged for a 'friend' of theirs to take us in to the nearest town, about half an hour away, where we could get a bus or train to Hanoi, for US$10. There was no other transport apparently available so we accepted this deal and the man also agreed to find us a minibus to Hanoi (a four-hour ride) for Y100 Chinese each (UK£10). No doubt these prices are way higher than the locals pay but it was friendly, quick and easy and everybody was happy with the deal. The only mind-boggling bit is that I now have three currencies in my pocket which can all be used here - US$, Chinese yuan and Vietnamese dong, and four in my head because I'm still trying to convert each transaction into UK£ with great difficulty! It doesn't help that there are more than 20,000 (twenty thousand) dong to the pound (14,000 to the US$) so the numbers are mind-bogglingly large and it's very easy to be out by a factor of ten when you're calculating prices.
The minibus approached Hanoi across the bridge over the Red river and started dropping people and packages off in various streets (it obviously operated as a mail service as well as carrying passengers). Finally we stopped in a little back street, in a tropical downpour and the driver announced 'this is Hanoi' expecting us to get off. We had decided to try the hotel 30-4 opposite the railway station (named after 30th April, the date of the fall of Saigon) which the book described as run down but having character. We started saying 'railway station' and making train noises to the driver and it wasn't clear if he understood but we set off again and in a couple of minutes saw both the station and the hotel opposite. We parted with smiles and waves from the driver and went into the hotel where we found they had one room left, with no ensuite bathroom but at only US$7 it was fine. The hotel was clean and charming, built around a small central courtyard with plants in pots and topiary bushes shaped like deer. The bathroom was across the courtyard but it too was clean.
It was now about 10pm and Hanoi looked rather closed, but we went down the road and had a plate of noodles at a little street stall where the owner's daughter sat with us in her pyjamas eating a chicken's foot, after first spitting out its claws. Sheila somehow lost her appetite..
So without pausing for breath we have come a thousand
kilometres across three countries since yesterday morning, travelling by
train, sleeper train, sleeper bus (!), taxi, minibus and motorbike. And
all the way everything was remarkably smooth and efficient and everyone was
friendly and helpful. So why bother, you might wonder, to come such a roundabout
way, when we could probably have flown straight to Hanoi? Well, it's all
part of the fun and we wanted to have a quick look at China - I didn't think
it would be quite so quick! Also it's part of the game we play, drawing 'lines'
on the map of the world. At some future time we will probably come back and
see more of China, maybe even get the Trans-Siberian express all the way
from London and end up in Hong Kong, but we're unlikely to have another reason
or opportunity to 'join up' China and Vietnam again.
Fri 29th. We went sightseeing in Hanoi.
First, though, we walked down to the Cambodian embassy, just down the road from our hotel, to enquire about visas. Because they only work on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and it takes three days we would not be able to collect them until the middle of next week. However, they assured us that the consulate in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city) opens Monday to Saturday and it only takes one day, so we decided to risk it and wait till we get to Saigon.
Outside the embassy we flagged down a cyclo (a sort of cycle rickshaw with the driver on a bike at the back and us in a sort of armchair just wide enough for two on the front) and went across town to the old quarter, which is a fascinating maze of small shopping streets where the goods from the shops, parked bikes and people eating their lunch completely block the pavement so you have to walk along the road while the bikes, motorbikes and cyclos weave their way around you. Road junctions are absolutely incredible - there are no road markings or priorities, everyone just looks straight ahead and goes where they are going and somehow they all get there without quite occupying the same space at the same time. In one or two places there are traffic lights and these periodically release tidal waves of bikes and motorbikes which surge down the road, and if you are in a cyclo in a minority stream of traffic crossing the road it can be quite daunting (for us, the passengers, apparently not for the driver).
We went to Hang Bac street which has become the travellers' café street of the old quarter. Here there are dozens of cafés which also double as travel agents, offering tours to all the scenic spots in the North, with photos and testimonials from satisfied previous travellers all along the walls. They also all offer internet access and half the space in the tiny cafés is taken up with PC workstations. Eight years ago when my edition of the Lonely Planet guide book was written, none of this existed and now Hanoi is becoming a real backpacker destination with an atmosphere in the old quarter rather like Kathmandu - relaxed, easygoing, colourful with facilities like pizza houses and even a couple of 'pubs' if you really need them!
|| After breakfast we walked down to
the Hoan Kiem lake which sits in the middle of the city of Hanoi between
the old quarter and the newer side where the big public buildings and expensive
hotels are. We crossed the picturesque wooden Huc Bridge to the even more
picturesque little Ngoc Son temple that sits on an island in the lake, a
haven of peace and tranquillity in the middle of the busy city.
When we crossed back to the shore the cyclo driver was
still waiting for us; when a foreigner goes for a ride in a cyclo the driver
attaches himself to you, knowing that eventually you will give in to his
demands to take you for a one-hour tour of the city. We negotiated a price
of D20,000 (£1) for the hour, which was probably a good deal for both
of us, being way higher than the local price but a bargain for us. It was
a great way to see the city, proceeding at just over walking pace in the
comfort of our chair, as long as you are not a nervous passenger (see earlier
remarks about the traffic!). We went all round the old quarter then into
the newer part of town to see the restored Opera House and adjacent Hilton
hotel, which are both very impressive. This is the real Hilton, not the 'Hanoi
Hilton', the prison used to house captured American servicemen, which is
not far from our hotel but we haven't seen it yet. Then we cycled up to the
big covered market to the North of the old quarter and our hour's tour ended.
||We had considerable difficulty persuading
him that we were going to walk from here but we did, through the market (which
was not as interesting as the streets in the old quarter) and across to the
banks of the Red river, the big river that runs beside Hanoi. Here we saw,
and in fact climbed up onto Long Bien bridge, a huge 'Meccano kit'
of girders and wooden planks that the Vietnamese kept patching up however
often the Americans bombed it. At one time it was guarded by 300 anti-aircraft
guns and 84 SAM missiles but there's not much sign of that now. Road traffic
now goes across a new bridge downstream and Long Bien is just used by trains
and a constant stream of bicycles. While we were standing on it a train rattled
its way across and it seemed as though the vibration would demolish the bridge
more effectively than the Americans were able to do!
We walked back to the old quarter and had lunch in another
travellers' café, then looked around some more. We found another
recent innovation, a little music shop selling modern pop CDs for £1
each. We didn't enquire too closely into their provenance. We had another
one-hour cyclo tour with a different driver and as dusk fell ended up at
Al Fresco, a wonderful pizzeria run by a jovial Australian called Jacko who
has lived in Hanoi for some time - when he came there were no motorbikes
or other vehicles, the only way to get around was by pushbike. Our cyclo
driver had waited for us of course, so we had another hour's tour of 'Hanoi
by night' ending up at our hotel. The only problem is that both cyclo drivers
will be waiting for us tomorrow morning - could be an ugly scene!
Sat 30th. In the event we had a long lie in and by the time we emerged they must have got fed up and gone away. While Sheila had even more lie in I went for breakfast at the Hoa Sua, a lovely open-air restaurant which is also an aid project - a training school for orphans and street children which has already produced over 300 professional chefs. A journalist and photographer were doing a feature on the project for an American magazine called 'People'. While the journalist interviewed the lady who runs it, the photographer was arranging the tables, the plates of food and the staff and taking a series of pictures.
On the way back I walked past the 'Hanoi Hilton' prison. There were postcard sellers outside the gate and part of the site has been demolished and is occupied by a gleaming multi-storey office building so it doesn't seem so grim as its reputation suggests.
||We took the easy option and spent
the rest of the day sightseeing on a cyclo round the city for £1 an
hour. We went to the Temple of Literature, a Buddhist temple and university
that was founded in the year 1070 and which has the names of the graduates
carved on stone slabs standing on stone tortoises, and to the One-Pillar
pagoda, a delightful little temple perched on a tree and approached up a
flight of steps. The adjacent museum and mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh was closed
'for renovations' - apparently Ho's embalmed corpse is sent to Moscow each
year for maintenance.
We cycled round the city, past the lake and to the old
quarter where we went up and down the bustling little streets again. Hanoi
is a delightful city but it's time to move on and when we got back to the
hotel we went across the road to the railway station to book the train to
Hué, the former capital of Vietnam in the narrow bit in the middle.
Booking the train was very easy - there is a separate window for foreigners
where they have a laminated card with times and prices for the main Hanoi-Hué-Saigon
line. There are no first and second classes in this egalitarian society of
course, but there is soft seat and hard seat (and soft sleeper and hard sleeper
if you're going all the way to Saigon). The 680-km journey to Hué
now takes 12 hours - it was 23 hours when my guide book was written, so they
are making rapid improvements to the infrastructure. We booked soft seat
on the 8am train for 455,000 dong (£23) each. I was a multi-millionaire
(in dong, anyway) before I bought the tickets - oh well, easy come, easy
Sun 31st. We packed, checked out, crossed the road and boarded the train by 7:30am. Our tickets had the coach and seat numbers so it was very easy. We had booked the daytime train because the journey goes through some spectacular scenery. Unfortunately the windows were rather dirty and protected by a metal grille on the outside so this rather restricted the photographic possibilities.
There was no restaurant car so Sheila nipped back onto the platform and bought a loaf of crusty bread and some cheese and as soon as we started (right on time) a man with a trolley came round selling thick black coffee and various snacks. We were soon out of Hanoi into the Vietnamese countryside where people in conical hats were labouring in the paddy fields. It was very comfortable travelling along on the train although it turned rather misty and drizzly outside so we could see even less. At about 11 o'clock they brought round a packed lunch which was tasty - hot meat, two veg and rice in separate little containers and a bottle of water. After we stopped in Vinh, a town about halfway to Hué, the flat rice paddies that had been continuous since Hanoi gave way to hillier country with much less cultivation, and by 3pm we were weaving through hills and mountains densely covered with trees. At 5pm they brought round packed dinners, very similar to lunch with slightly different dishes in the little boxes.
About 8pm we pulled into Hué and as we left the
station the man from the hotel was there to greet us with our names on a
sign board! What had happened was, while we were waiting in Hanoi station
a young lad came round all the foreigners on the train promoting his hotel
in Hué - he showed us photos, told us the room prices (from $10 to
$25) and promised we only had to look, there was no obligation - he even
wrote this down on a hotel card word for word! So we said OK we'd look, so
there was the hotel minibus waiting for us and five others when we arrived,
all most enterprising and efficient. The hotel, the Thai Binh, was very clean
and attractive and there are communal balconies on each floor where you have
breakfast in the morning (included in the price). The catch turned out to
be that all the $10 and $15 rooms were full (the hotel did look pretty full
in fact) so we ended up in a spotless $20 room with a/c, fridge and ensuite
bathroom which was still very good. We negotiated that it would be $18 on
the second and subsequent nights (still including breakfast) and felt happy
with the deal.
Mon 1st November. Hué. The inclusive breakfast is as much as you want from the breakfast menu so we made a hearty selection and sat on the balcony in the cool breeze. Here it is noticeably warmer and more humid than Hanoi, which was pleasantly warm till the sun came out when it got quite hot.
Having sampled most other forms of transport we booked a day's motorbike tour of Hué with Minh and Thu, who live in a house near the hotel and who are pretty good at catching tourists as they go by! The royal tombs and other sights are spread out several km around Hué so it seemed logical to travel there like the locals do. Perched on the back of a motorbike each we set off and it began to pour with rain. Undaunted our drivers produced four poncho-style raincoats which we all put on and continued through torrential downpours for the rest of the day. We got completely soaked and it reduced the photo possibilities significantly but it was still a great tour. We went to two pagoda/temples, arriving at the Tu Hieu pagoda in the middle of a service where the saffron-robed monks were chanting, ringing bells and beating drums. Afterwards one of them who spoke English invited us in and showed us round. Out at the back there was a courtyard full of pots with bonsai trees and other plants. The rain had stopped temporarily and the water dripping off the leaves into pools on the ground made a tinkling musical sound.
|| We went to two of the royal tombs,
the largest of which (for the emperor Tu Duc) encompassed a park with a
lake and wooden pavilions, several ornate wooden buildings, a temple, a courtyard
with stone mandarins, horses and elephants guarding it, a building with a
huge stone slab inscribed with the emperor's achievements (composed by himself
during his lifetime) and finally the tomb itself which was a surprisingly
plain stone cube in a brick courtyard, after all the decoration that led
up to it.
We also drove around through the countryside which seemed to be mainly water; rice paddies, rivers and canals with people ploughing using water buffalo, fishing using nets hung out on long bamboo poles and a lady catching herons by enticing them onto her boat with food.
When we got back Sheila went to a shop with one of the
motorbike drivers and got two of the poncho-style raincoats for 50p each!
We returned to the hotel after a really good day, soaked to the skin and
really appreciated the luxury of hot water and a bath. The downpour continued
so we went to the nearest restaurant which was an Indian at the corner of
the little alleyway where the hotel was. For 119,000 dong (£6) we had
excellent curries and a couple of Tiger beers. By the time we got back to
the hotel the tropical downpour had developed into a thunderstorm that literally
rattled the windows.
Tues 2nd. It rained heavily all night and it was still raining heavily in the morning. As we started to go downstairs we realised just how hard it had been raining - there was an unusual hubbub of activity and we found the whole ground floor of the hotel was flooded waist-deep in yellow-brown water. Outside the street was shoulder-deep, as we could tell from the people trying to wade down the road, some of them still holding umbrellas against the rain. The small shanty houses further down the street were flooded almost to the tops of their doorways. We went to the top floor and from there could see buses and cyclos abandoned like islands in the main street which was flowing like a river. It slowly dawned on us, because Hué and the surrounding countryside is dead flat, how widespread this flood really was. This was clearly no ordinary downpour and someone said it was the worst flood for 25 years. The newspapers subsequently said the worst for a hundred years. The electricity had gone off some time ago and now the water went off as well. Oddly, the phone in our room kept ringing with a peculiar warble as something shorted out somewhere.
We sat on the communal balcony talking to some of the other guests until hotel staff started laying out mattresses and making up beds there for the guests who had been flooded out of the ground floor. The first room on the ground floor was room 101! We were preparing for a long stay and counting our rations - two Mars bars, three bottles of water and two bottles of airline wine, when there was a knock at the door and one of the staff handed us two sandwiches for breakfast - we were very touched that with so many other problems they had time to think of that. A few minutes later there was another knock and they gave us the laundry we handed in yesterday, beautifully cleaned and pressed! How did they manage that?
By 10am the rain was still pouring down, the wind howling, the thunder rumbling and the sky was so dark it was hard to read a book right by a window. We settled down to wait. We read books and the water level in the street outside continued to rise over the shoulders of the occasional foolhardy individual who waded past. The next person by was actually swimming down the street. At midday the hotel proprietors set up an improvised rice kitchen on the first floor landing/balcony and handed out plates of rice and egg to the assembled guests. One of the staff apologised but said he couldn't get down to the market to buy anything else! The staff in the Thai Binh hotel were absolutely marvellous in this crisis. Much later we spoke to people who had been staying in a much posher hotel down by the river - the staff in their hotel not only failed to warn them of the rising flood, so that they woke up in the middle of the night to find their belongings floating round the room, but didn't feed them and also raised the room price because they had no way of getting away!
The rain continued all afternoon but the yellow-brown flood level remained constant, not quite reaching the windows of the bus marooned in the main road. The Vietnamese are amazingly resourceful and industrious; we were resigned to having no light or power until the water had receded from the ground floor but we saw people moving around on the flat roof of the building next to the hotel and heard what sounded like a generator - a moment later the lights came on! Apparently four hotel staff had swum and dived somewhere and raised the hotel generator up to a higher level, fixed it up, cut the wires to the ground floor so it didn't short out and restored power so our hotel was the only blaze of light amidst the darkened city.
As night fell the typhoon renewed its vigour and the flood level stayed constant. Sheila listened to her new CD player (purchased in Hong Kong) and planned what to do the next day - she decided to paint her nails.
One of the hotel staff swam off somewhere and acquired
a scrawny (live) chicken while another went diving (literally) to the ground
floor to retrieve dozens of bottles of beer and we all had piping hot chicken
and rice with flood-cooled beer for dinner on the second floor landing.
We then joined a card game round the table on the landing until the staff
started laying out their mattresses there and we retired to let them sleep.
There were already two improvised mattress beds there and two on the top
floor for guests flooded out of the ground floor so we were lucky to still
have our room to ourselves, even though the wind had shifted and water was
now coming in one of our windows and spreading over the floor rather alarmingly.
Wed 3rd. No change. The typhoon continued to blow, the rain fell, the flood level stayed constant and the water continued to spread over our floor despite Sheila mopping it up from time to time.
||Thurs 4th. The typhoon
seems to have blown itself out. There is just intermittent 'normal' rain
this morning, the flood level is well down and our floor is dry. People are
discussing their escape plans but it appears that it will be some days before
the roads are open again. Someone waded down to the airline office but it
was shut. There was great activity outside as people were sweeping the water
and muck out of their homes and putting their possessions out to dry. About
midmorning we went wading out to the end of the street and up to the main
road which was partly clear of water and full of cyclists - a cyclo driver
even stopped and asked if we wanted a tour - things are getting back to normal!
We spoke to Thu, the lady at the motorbike hire shop.
She couldn't swim but had gone to stay with friends who lived in a flat
somewhere. Her single storey house & shop had been flooded almost to
the top of the doorframe but apart from one pushbike which had been swept
away she had not lost anything. There was still no electricity anywhere that
did not have its own generator. Back at the hotel we were eating another
lunch of chicken noodles when one of the guests came back and said that the
cafés along one particular street had reopened and he had had banana
pancakes and real coffee! We decided that we couldn't face any more noodles
and that afternoon we would do the same. About 3 o'clock we put on our poncho-style
raincoats (because, surprise, surprise, it was still raining) and waded off
to explore. We went down to the river and across one of the main bridges,
which seemed to be just inches above the rushing water of the Perfume River,
which still completely covered the riverside gardens. We went into the Citadel
through Ngau Gate and past the nine holy cannons, which were still liberally
draped with water hyacinth left there by the flood. However, when we got
to the main entrance to the Imperial Enclosure, within which is the Forbidden
Purple City (the Emperor's personal palace) the gatekeepers wouldn't let
us in and it wasn't clear if this was because the palace was closed for the
day or still flooded. We waded back to the hotel, enquiring at each café
if they did banana pancakes but none did. That evening we played cards with
the other guests on the landing and retired late, exhausted from our unaccustomed
Fri 5th. There were birds singing outside for the first time this morning, but a light drizzle was still falling and the street was still ankle-deep in water and sludge. The news is not good, however - apparently there is another typhoon on the way and there will be no plane or bus out for a couple more days. We walked down to the big Century Riverside hotel by the river where there were rumours of flights to Hanoi and people leaving mysteriously on buses, possibly for the airport, but no taxi would take us to the airport, saying that the road was too flooded and there was no firm information about anything. We met Maria and Tracy, Americans from our hotel and Peter and Lyn, Australians who had come to Hué on the same train as us but moved to a small guest house near the river where they were luckily on the second floor and were being well looked after. We learned more about what was going on - there were at least two trains and lots of buses that had been stuck where they were since the typhoon struck, with water up to the windows, which made us realise how comfortable we had been.
|| We walked back to the group of travellers'
cafés in Hung Vuong street which were the only ones in the city serving
hot food and had banana pancakes, chips and coffee! The places were packed,
mostly with foreigners, but there was no attempt at profiteering either
here or in the little hole-in-the-wall shop near our hotel that sold Pringles
crisps, among other delicacies. Several groups of children came and hung
around us at the café, half selling us postcards, half playing with
us, each group minded by the adult with the fresh postcard supplies should
anyone be lucky enough to sell some.
That evening fourteen of us sat around the table on the
second floor balcony and discussed our escape plan. We had just decided to
somehow get to the main highway in the morning and hitch a lift on a lorry
to Da Nang, where we believed the airport was open (Hué airport was
complete chaos) when we found there was a news bulletin (in Vietnamese) on
TV and all went to watch it. We couldn't understand a word but the pictures
were clear enough - Da Nang was flooded as badly as Hué and the road
between the two was impassable. Later on there were pictures of a railway
tunnel almost full of mud, and railway tracks hanging in mid-air where the
embankment had been. We decided to stay put for another day and see what
developed. Outside in the street the water level had dropped and they were
sweeping away the mud but as we went to bed we could hear it was raining
Sat 6th. That night the second typhoon hit. The wind violently rattled and crashed pieces of the hotel and more rain came bucketing down. However, by the time we emerged at 10am the transformation was startling - the sky was blue and the sun shining. Hué suddenly looked much better, despite the mud and debris in the streets. We walked down to the Vietnam Airlines office to see about a flight to Saigon because the road and rail south were both badly damaged and would not be passable for some time, but they were just starting to sweep the mud out of the office and would not be opening today.
We went for fried eggs at the travellers' café with Maria, Tracy, Peter and Lyn and we and Maria and Tracy decided to hire bicycles to do an improvised tour of Hué. It's a wonderful way to see the city and we enjoyed cycling around in the sunshine. We went across the bridge and to the citadel, having to cycle through roads axle-deep in water in a couple of places, and although we managed to have a peep through the Imperial Enclosure doors it was still very flooded. We tried to cycle to the seven-storey Thien Mu pagoda but people coming the other way convinced us that the water was chest-deep further on so we turned back and cycled down the other side of the river to the railway station. There, too, rumours abounded but no firm information, but it seemed that it would be weeks rather than days before the trains were running south. We heard that a carriage of one train had actually been washed away by the flood - horrific, and it could have been us if we had been a day later. As we cycled back up the road they were hauling bodies out of the river and putting them in coffins which dampened our mood even further.
We decided to go out to the airport just to see what was happening. We negotiated $15 for the four of us to go there and back with a wait while we looked round. The drive out to the airport still involved fording a couple of places where the road was flooded but nothing the taxi couldn't handle. The railway line ran parallel with the road and we saw two graphic examples of why the trains weren't running, where bridges had been swept away leaving the tracks hanging in midair. There were lots of people at the airport, mostly westerners, in two rather uncertain queues and a list of five flights to Saigon and Hanoi for that afternoon, but no clear information on what would happen when. Outside the terminal building were several tour buses and at an invisible signal all the people got off one of them and went straight into the departure lounge, obviously taking priority over normal travellers. We decided to come back and do battle with this for real tomorrow and we went back to the town and to the café for dinner. That evening we sat round the table and discussed our plans in the nearly deserted hotel. It appears that many people have managed to get away or are camping out at the airport for the night.
In the morning as we were departing for our cycle ride
the hotel manager had been sitting in reception with the cover off his computer,
drying it out with a hair dryer. That evening when we went to settle up he
produced our bill from the computer.
Sun 7th. We knew it would take all day to get on a flight to Saigon and it did, although it wasn't as chaotic as it could have been. Vietnam Airlines were doing their best because they opened their office on Sunday as promised, having swept the mud out, but the computers weren't working so all they could do at first was to take a list of names of the 30-odd people who were there, mostly westerners, mostly people we recognised from the hotel or café. We all hung around for a while then the rumour flew round that tickets were on their way from the airport - some said they were already written out, others that they were blanks.
Sure enough tickets did arrive (blanks) and the man behind the counter started writing them out from the list of names. When the first person got his he waved it in the air and there was a cheer from the crowd! It was a very slow process because he couldn't make out the foreign (to him) names, so you had to be there when your turn came, to spell it out, and also because some people were paying for the $72 flight with credit cards, which was possible but very complicated. Maria was holding the place in the queue for the four of us and she just hung over the counter holding a fistful of cash until he looked at her and said "you want to pay cash?" and bingo, he was writing our tickets even though we were way down the list! The catch was that they would only make out the tickets for Thursday, because the computer was unavailable and according to their records the flights were full until then. Everyone knew that the people on those flights had already gone or weren't coming, so with the tickets in our hand we got a taxi to the airport and, with the same familiar group of westerners, set about getting onto a flight today.
Most of the people who were at the airport yesterday got out, so it turned out to be easy. There were two flights going to Saigon, at 1pm and 4pm. The first was full but they rewrote our tickets for the 4 o'clock and we returned to the airport café to wait. We made a feeble attempt to get wait-listed on the 1pm flight and in fact when it boarded there were spare seats that some people got but we were OK waiting. All the time cargo planes were coming in with relief supplies, soldiers would march smartly out to them and unload boxes onto trucks while officer types stood around talking earnestly and were filmed for TV. Helicopters came and went from time to time.
We checked in and went through to the departure lounge routinely but then the tension began to mount because the runway lights were not working so nothing could take off after about 5:30 when it got dark. At 4:45 they started loading us onto buses even though the incoming plane had not arrived and we drove out and parked by the runway. The tension grew as dusk started to fall. A plane landed but it was another relief cargo flight. At last a passenger plane came in and pulled up on the runway opposite us. Soldiers marched round to the far side and began unloading relief supplies from the cargo hold as we got off the buses and started boarding the plane in the gathering gloom. There were no incoming passengers - this flight was purely to collect the last of the 'refugee' tourists from Hué, leaving the airport empty and the city practically deserted of foreigners. The only failure in the organisation was that we boarded from two buses onto each end of the plane but we had allocated seat numbers, so everyone had to struggle past each other down the gangway. The pilot kept coming to see how things were going and it was getting quite dark so we were very relieved when they at last closed the doors, started the engines, turned around and took off. We started to believe that we were really getting out of Hué.
Our great regret, though, is that by flying to Saigon we are missing out a large section of south central Vietnam where there are several places we really wanted to see. We resolved then to come back next year and pick up where we left off.
The plane was an Airbus 320 and it was spotless because there had been no incoming passengers and they even served us a small snack! We felt like country bumpkins suddenly coming to civilisation. The culture shock deepened when we arrived in Saigon which is huge, busy and very commercialised. Peter, who quizzes everybody he meets about good places to stay and to eat, knew where he wanted to get to and he found a minibus driver who would take the six of us there for $10, so we all piled in. Peter's plan was to go to the Sinh Café in De Tham street, the travellers' street in Saigon, where one of his contacts will have left a message with the name of a recommended hotel that he couldn't remember. Of course the driver took us first to his preferred hotel (where he gets commission for bringing tourists) but we insisted and he reluctantly took us round the corner to the café. There Peter found his message and the recommended hotel turned out to be the one the driver took us to! So Peter and Sheila swallowed their pride and went back to check it out while Maria, Tracy, Lyn and I had a cold drink in the café with our luggage piled around us. Some time later they came back to say that they didn't like the look of it anyway and had booked us into the Southern Hotel, a new hotel on the corner of the street where we got a clean, reasonable-sized room with fridge, TV, a/c and a bathroom with hot water for $17. Everything is such amazingly good value here.
After cleaning up we went back to the café for
a drink and a meal where Sheila had a wonderful barbecued chicken with garlic,
cooked on a little personal charcoal BBQ that they put on the table. The
area is a bit seedy, with dubious ladies coming up and offering massages
while you sit and eat, but there are all sorts of shops and Sheila is developing
that buying-frenzy look again.
Mon 8th. Saigon. We had an excellent breakfast at the Sinh café, with real food (bacon & eggs and strawberry & banana milk shake), there was warm dry weather and no mud on the road outside. The typhoon is starting to seem like a long time ago. We arranged with a cyclo driver who spoke good English for a tour of the city later for the six of us at 20,000 dong (£1) per person per hour then we went to do different administrative tasks. I went to the Cambodian embassy to apply for visas which was very easy - one form, one photo, $30 and they'll do it the same day. I went there and back with a different cyclo driver who was very pleasant and only charged 15,000 dong or $1 per hour and he gave me a quick impromptu tour of the city centre on the way back. I mentioned to him that there were six of us going out later and so when we all met up outside the hotel there was almost a riot between the different groups of cyclo drivers who wanted to take us for the tour. In the end it was all resolved - I kept my friendly, cheap chap and Sheila set off with the good English-speaker who became the self-appointed tour guide.
||We were cycling for six hours in the
end and it was a brilliant tour. One of the highlights was simply weaving
through the traffic, where the swarms of motorbikes and bicycles were even
thicker, faster and more chaotic than in Hanoi. We visited an animal market
on the waterfront where there were monkeys, mice, kittens, puppies, snakes,
tortoises and various birds for sale, either for food or pets as you prefer;
definitely not for the squeamish. Further up the Saigon river we stopped
near the stern-looking statue of Tran Hung Dao who was pointing down at a
park full of ornamental bonsai trees, or it may have been a bonsai tree shop,
I'm not sure. We saw the former American Embassy where the last people were
helicoptered out in 1975, and cycled up past the zoo to the Emperor of Jade
pagoda. This is a spectacularly colourful Buddhist temple with a wonderful
atmosphere, full of fantastic statues and elaborate decorations, filled with
smoke from burning incense sticks so that you stumble out with your eyes
streaming from the smoke.
We then did a long haul across to the other side of the city, stopping on the way at a ceramics factory where people were painstakingly making the most elaborate designs using fragments of duck shell. We continued over to the Chinese market in Cholon district where we saw the ducks, as well as just about every other form of small livestock, for sale along the crowded streets. The market was highly specialised with different goods in different streets including one with dozens of bags of different kinds of sugar, another with dozens of different kinds of beans and a large area devoted entirely to motorbike spare parts. Some stalls were full of hundreds of a single engine part. On another street we stopped at a Chinese medicine shop that the 'tour leader' knew and inspected all the bottled snakes, lizards and other health-giving potions.
The cyclo driver who led us had been in the South Vietnamese army and had gone through a harrowing period of 're-education' before he was allowed to become a cyclo driver. He is not allowed to have any other job and many of the cyclo drivers were formerly doctors or lawyers. Nevertheless things have changed dramatically in the last ten years. Then it was illegal to even speak English (or French) and if anybody talked to a foreigner they would be reported and were likely to be arrested in the middle of the night. On the final run back from Chinatown we stopped briefly at the Thien Hau pagoda which is also very colourful, before heading back to the hotel. It was altogether an absolutely fascinating tour.
That evening we treated ourselves to a few beers and a
wonderful curry at the Sunshine Indian restaurant in De Tham street. This
street is where most travellers gravitate to and we saw several of the Hué
typhoon survivors walking past and several came in for a beer and a chat
with us including the French ladies who had slept on the landing of our hotel
and who had slept for two nights at the airport before they got out. They
always looked smart and fresh whenever we saw them despite roughing it for
days on end.
Tues 9th. We went on one of the standard tours today, to the VietCong tunnels at Cu Chi. Most of the cafés and hotels also act as travel agent/tour operators and run pretty much the same tours at the same prices but the big established ones like Sinh Café run big buses packed with tourists so we went to a new agent round the corner who had been recommended to Peter and we went in a minibus with just the six of us plus a Japanese chap who appeared at the last minute. Because we more or less 'owned' the tour we could change the departure time, ask him to stop for photos as we went along, etc. The first stop was at a petrol station outside Saigon which also had a tourist trap crocodile farm and little zoo attached. There was a pitiful little baby bear in one of the cages who seemed to just want company and he licked our hands and let us stroke him.
As we were driving through the rural area outside Saigon we saw lots of rectangular bamboo mats propped up at the side of the road outside the houses. We asked the driver what they were and he stopped at one of the houses to show us - they were making rice paper and the mats were for drying the sheets of paper in the sun. We arrived at the main tunnels entrance which is very touristy and went to a big modern temple which is a war memorial, with thousands of names round the walls inside and a big picture of Ho Chi Minh in the middle. The driver then suggested that we go to a different set of tunnels which are a bit less touristy, which we did. After an introductory video about the Cu Chi fighters who won medals for killing Americans we went into the forest and crawled through the tunnels. Most of them have been made bigger to accommodate tourists but one part has been left original size and it was a very tight fit. It was extremely hot and humid down the tunnels and it was hard to imagine people living down there for weeks on end.
It was mid-afternoon when we got back because we started
late so there was just time to hire a cyclo to the Cambodian embassy before
it closed, then for a quick tour round the city centre past the Rex and the
Colonial hotels, the old grand hotels of Saigon, and to Ben Thanh, the central
market which was fascinating but rather a hassle, with the stallholders pulling
and pushing at you to get you to their stalls. We walked back to the hotel
and met up with Maria, Tracy, Peter and Lyn and went to the Lotus café
for dinner. We had spring rolls and Vietnamese dishes such as lemon grass
spicy prawns and ginger chicken. It was delicious and, like most things here,
amazing value at about 45,000 dong (£2.25) each including a big beer.
Wed 10th. We decided the only way to see the Mekong delta in the time available was on a tour. Maria and Tracy had moved round the corner to the Hong Kong hotel which is under the same management as the Thai Binh in Hué and also very good value, so we arranged through them for a day trip in a minibus and boat for just the four of us. We left just after 8am and drove out to Mytho, the nearest of the delta towns about an hour away. The drive was mostly through built up areas and we didn't see much rural life but Mytho was interesting, with a colourful market and the very pleasant Vinh Trang pagoda which gets radically different writeups in different editions of the Lonely Planet guide; this probably reflects the fact that a few years ago the Government ran pagodas as tacky tourist traps but now Buddhism is making a comeback.
||We then boarded our boat in a creek
off the main river and set off into the Mekong, which is huge, even though
this is only one of its channels. A big tourist boat went past and everyone
was wearing life jackets, but all we had between us and the river was a few
planks. We branched off the main river down a small channel which meandered
between what looked like mangrove swamps, with fishermen who were immersed
up to their necks in water.
We ended up at Mr Thanh's bee farm on Thoi Son island where with some trepidation we were able to ease the bees aside and stick our fingers in the honey. We then sat in the garden restaurant under shady trees and had the best meal of the holiday. After tea with honey, which was incredibly sweet, we had plates of fruits and then a wonderful spread with a whole elephant-fish fresh from the river (we saw them catching the one for the next people who arrived) steamed with herbs, spices, tomatoes, spring onions and chillies as well as dishes of grilled and fried prawns. We ate the fish in a similar way to Peking duck - starting with a sheet of rice paper which you wet to make it soft and pliable then spreading onions, herbs and salad and picking chunks of fish onto it with chopsticks, then rolling it up and dipping it into a spicy sauce. There was a lemon pepper dip for the grilled prawns and a soy sauce one for the fried prawns as well as rice and noodles. We were absolutely full after this and they set up some hammocks under the trees for us to lie in to recover! It was very expensive by local standards, $21 for the five of us (including our guide) but ridiculously good value by western standards. For pudding we went for a short boat ride to a coconut candy factory where they produced different sorts of coconut sweets and some really lethal banana wine, then back in the boat to Mytho.
It was about 5pm and we dozed in the minibus through the
dusk on the way back, to avoid being terrified by the kamikaze driving standards
as we ploughed through the Saigon rush hour. We probably paid well over the
odds for everything - $20 for the boat for the day, $24 for the minibus and
$8 for the guide, but we all thoroughly enjoyed the day. Despite being full
from a huge lunch we went to the Sinh café as soon as we got back
and managed to enjoy several beers and some barbecued chicken and beef.
||Thurs 11th. A day
at leisure in Saigon. While Sheila went shopping for clothes, which are
ridiculously cheap here, I walked around the central area taking photos of
the pretty turn-of-the-century town hall, the very grand and ornate
Post Office, Reunification hall which is the former presidential palace
where the South capitulated in 1975, and the Museum of the Revolution in
a neoclassical last-century building which seems to be the favourite place
for newlyweds to have their photos taken, standing next to the tanks and
captured American fighter planes.
Later in the afternoon we went and had a cup of coffee
in the Rex Hotel and had a look at the rooftop bar, then after a bit more
shopping in the nearby 'Russian market' we went round to the Continental,
the other classic old hotel and had a cocktail in the Bamboo Bar, the spot
where all the foreign correspondents used to gather during the war, but the
drinks were pricey and there wasn't a lot of atmosphere. Maria and Tracy
fly back to the States tomorrow so we met up for a farewell meal at the Sunshine
Indian again and it was just as tasty as last time.
Fri 12th. And then we met them for breakfast at the Sinh café and had an emotional farewell as they left for the airport. You get very close to people you've lived through a natural disaster with.
But the relentless sightseeing has to continue and we set off for another five-hour cyclo ride. Sheila had the same well-informed, good-English cyclo driver and I had the same cheerful, friendly, one-toothed one as on our six-hour tour the other day. We wanted to go to the Giac Lam pagoda over on the other side of the city and the cyclo driver insisted on taking us to a glass-blowing factory which was on the way. We weren't keen on this because we thought it was going to be a tourist trap but it absolutely was not - we walked into a huge tin shed and inside it was an inferno - there were open furnaces blasting out heat, people walking about blowing red-hot glass bowls and jars on the end of metal pipes and there were showers of sparks as they patted them into shape with sticks. There was broken glass all over the floor, they only had flip-flops on their feet, the heat was indescribable and there was certainly no sign of an inspection certificate from the health & safety department! All the people there (who apparently work 12 hours a day 7 days a week) were very friendly and insisted that I have a go at blowing a glass jar, but mine ended up lop-sided and was consigned to the scrap heap.
After this the pagoda was a haven of tranquillity. It is the oldest in Saigon and is full of mellow woodwork and intricate decorations, with a community of monks who live and study there. We learned that a monk only qualifies for the saffron-coloured robe after ten years and after being a monk for thirty years they are entitled to wear a black and white chequered-pattern robe that we hadn't seen before.
Next we cycled way over beyond Chinatown to see joss sticks being made but it was a bit of a washout because it started to rain as we got there and they were rushing about bringing in the joss sticks which had been drying in the sun. We cycled back along the Black River, one of the branches of the Saigon river, and it really was black - covered in oil and smelling like a sewer. All the banana boats were moored up along the quayside with bananas from the Mekong delta area. I don't know why sitting in a cyclo and being pedalled around town by someone else should be tiring but it is and we went back to the hotel exhausted. The cyclo driver told us we had seen everything there is to see in Saigon - this is pretty unusual, they can always find something else to persuade you to see.
After a rest and a sandwich left over from breakfast for lunch we went down to the Russian market to temporarily satisfy Sheila's shopping urge and bought various 'brand-name' outfits at ridiculously cheap prices. As dark fell we thought we'd have a drink on the rooftop bar at the Rex hotel but we found it was closed because it was being used for a Miss Asia beauty contest, so we went and had a beer at a café on the corner instead. We booked what appeared to be the last free table in the Rex's restaurant (all the others had 'reserved' signs) and had a really good meal of steak with peppercorns and steak tartare, although we stuck to beer because the wine was a bit pricey by anybody's standards. There was a floorshow with Vietnamese music and dancing, probably for the benefit of the large groups at the reserved tables, but we enjoyed it too.
Back at De Tham street we went looking for Peter and Lyn
who were due back from their Mekong delta trip today but it started to rain
again so we bought some CDs instead.
Next to Cambodia. A preview of Angkor Wat..........
Sat 13th. We set off from Saigon to Cambodia.
Click here to go to the Cambodia page.