After a long week of driving across Cambodia, it was nice for my feet to finally wade into the Gulf of Thailand.
We’d stopped off at Sihanoukville, a resort on the southern coastline which boasted beautifully soft white sands, blue sea and cheap beer. It was the perfect tonic after a long few days on the road, but a good opportunity to recharge batteries before more long drives to Vietnam in the next few days.
Much of the arrival day was spent in a beach bar, sipping cocktails, eating pizza and playing pool. The evenings were spent dining on the beach with yet more chicken amok and good company. Everyone has really clicked now on the tour, but the sad news is that theres quite a few leaving us in the next couple of days.
In the meantime there were plenty of laughs – John the Aussie providing plenty of them, particularly when he was sent sprinting along the beach, chased by a Cambodian kid who was launching fireworks at him.
The next day was spent lounging around the pool, writing and uploading my blog and generally relaxing. I worked out it was the first day I’d had without any travelling, sightseeing or deadlines to meet for around two months, and I felt much better for it. It was nice to sit and do nothing for a change. It might sound strange, but travelling like this is very demanding and takes its toll – you are constantly on the go and always against time.
Rested up, and after six days working our way across Cambodia, it was time for some serious long-distance road trips to the next country on our list –Vietnam.
We left Sihanoukville early, destined for Chau Doc, a Vietnamese town just inside the border. It was a four hour journey to the border through lush green countryside and paddy fields. Along long stretches of the journey, farmers were drying rice along the side of the road. Children would wave as we passed through, spotting the Western faces smiling back through the windows.
A stop at some services a few hours into the drive brought the latest culinary discovery: the delightful sounding Special Flossy Pork.
Not happy with just taking a photograph of the odd foodstuff, at $1.50 it was worth buying just to give it a try. There were lots of ‘ughs’ and ‘yucks’ as the packaging was opened to reveal something that wouldn’t look out of place stuffed into a mattress. After teasing some apart – it had the consistency and feel of wool – I put it in my mouth.
Its strangely good – so much so I had a bit more to make sure. It tasted a bit like bacon, but with the consistency of a Hessian sack until it works itself into a chewy lump. By now, others were interested – Ricky had a try and wasn’t a fan, while Canadian Alissa decided it was so good, she too needed second helpings.
I don’t think it will feature on a Gordon Ramsey menu anytime soon, but Special Flossy Pork is certainly something we’ll think twice about laughing at in the future!
We were still pulling strands of stringy pork from our teeth when we arrived at the Cambodia-Vietnam border, where we had to get off the bus, grab our bags and walk through no-mans land to the other side. Its always a strange feeling walking through a border – a few steps taking you from one country into another – but its my fourth such crossing in a month now and you get used to the practice.
A few Cambodian flags and a border control post marked the end of my stay in a fascinating country, while teams of police and dozens of red, star-emblazoned Vietnam flags marked the start of almost two weeks in this communist land.
It marked the start of a noticeable fascination with motorbikes in quite a spectacular way. There was a steady stream of riders making their way through the border having loaded an almost unbelievable amount onto two wheels. In some cases you could hear the tiny engine struggling with the weight, as the hapless rider struggled to keep balance. Many smiled as we took photographs of them. Their main load was empty rice sacks, heading back to the paddy fields and drying sites to be refilled.
It wasn’t long before the landscape changed again, and you could tell straight away that this was a richer and far more developed country. Its still poor by Western standards, but the wooden shacks changed into more developed, permanent buildings.
After a long day of travelling, we stopped for the night in Chau Doc, providing an opportunity to look around the local market and get our heads around yet another currency, with another comedy name. The Vietnamese Dong takes some getting used to – theres 32,000 of them to the pound, but most prices are worked out for comparison in US Dollars. Its my seventh currency to use within a month, and its taking its toll – I’m bad at maths anyway, but even buying a can of Coke results in a tough mental arithmetic test these days! I did become a double millionaire though – with yet another Deal or No Deal-style option list on the ATM screen, I took out two million Dongs – about £62.
It was another long slog to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon to give it its historical name.
An eight our drive broken up by a few stops and a river crossing on a ferry. It was an interesting trip across the river, mainly dominated by an impromptu catwalk display from Asata, our American companion who went all New York on us with her struts up and down the top deck of the ship. Nobody quite knew why, or what prompted it, but it was entertaining all the same!
The ferry was full of locals, mainly attached to mopeds and scooters. They may be the transport of choice around here, but it was fun to watch them trying to brave the drop and gap over the water from the ship’s ramp onto the shore.
A few hours later we arrived in Saigon. For me it was my first major stop in the country, but for some it was the end of their trip. My 30-day tour is broken down into week-long sections, so for Aussie John, New Yorker Assata, Scottish Darren and Londoner Louise, the two days here would be the last we’d spend with them.
As we arrived late in the afternoon, there wasn’t chance to do much before dinner, so a few of us browsed around the local market. To get there you had to cross about four major roads. Normally, that’s not a problem, but when there’s no observed pedestrian crossings, and a city where motorbikes are the main transport for its population, crossing the road becomes an unnerving challenge for Westerners.
The advice we’d been given was not to look or listen, and to just walk across – the general idea being that everyone else will see you and work around you by anticipating your walk. They get on their way, you reach the other side of the road. The golden rule is not to stop, as that just confuses everyone and causes chaos.
Putting that into practice is not easy – it goes against everything you ever learnt with the Green Cross Code, and laughs in the face of almost every human instinct programmed into us to avoid instant death. But it seems to work.
Stepping into free-flowing motorbike traffic, flying past at up to 30 mph, is a strange feeling. Horns beep, occasionally people shout, but it’s the only way to cross roads. After a while you get used to it, the only unnerving part being on the odd occasion when you look up at dozens of faces and mopeds heading straight at you when you’re in the middle of the road. Somehow, and its down to millimetres at times, everything manages to miss you, and miss each other!
We reached the market to find a lot of bargains – this is definitely the place to come for cheap clothes and labels, particularly if you need a new rucksack. North Face bags can be had for as little as a fiver, and they are not necessarily fake. I’m currently using one I got in Thailand earlier in the year, and its holding up very well and excellent quality. Many of the labelled goods are made in factories nearby, and the theory is that many of them with small imperfections, or even excess stock, gets released to the locals to sell on.
That night was changeover night, so we met our next tour buddies and had to give those leaving a good send-off. Two of them had become really good friends – fellow journo John from Australia, and London auction house valuer Louise.
Louise was only on a week long trip, but told me she’s reached a point where she wants to travel more, afraid she’d look back and regret not doing more. It’s a similar thought to my own, and it wasn’t the only thing we had in common – it turned out we were both at Southampton Institute together, and even in the same faculty group!
For three years, I was studying Journalism and Louise was studying Fine Arts Valuation, culminating in us both graduating on the same day and at the same ceremony. For much of those three years, we would have been in neighbouring classrooms, as many of our classes were in the same building. We probably passed each other many times in corridors, unaware that in ten years time the paths of our respective lives would cross again thousands of miles away from home.
John was also on a short trip, having had time off from work but unable to travel anywhere with his girlfriend at the same time. He’s one of life’s good guys, giving and taking great banter, able to lift a mood when its needed, and able to pull off some of the best impressions of people on the tour, including our lovely leader Fon. We knew we’d all miss the British/Australian banter, and we made sure we gave him a good send off. We ended up in some bars around Ho Chi Minh, watching a bit of live Premier League football between Manchester City and Newcastle, drinking cheap Saigon beer and having plenty of laughs.
So many, that my 5am arrival back at the hotel ensured my next day tour was written off, but it turned out that the following day had some great highlights.
With a raging hangover thirst, and the need for something other than rice or noodles, we headed to Pizza Hut. John pulled off some of the best impressions yet, that had Ricky, Alissa and I laughing so hard we were very nearly on the floor. Particularly funny was his line “I am not bus company,” referring to Fon’s explanation that we couldn’t be late for the bus as it wont wait for us. His breakdown of breakfast and pricing, complete with hand movements, was exceptional.
Hangovers cleared, we needed to get to the war museum to meet the rest of the tour group. We decided to take some of the cyclos, a kind of bike with a pram-style basket on the front that you sit in. It’s a taxi service, and proved to be one of the best decisions of our stay in the city.
John got placed with Alissa, while Ricky and I got given our own, and soon we were weaving around all over the roads and through the thousands of motorbikes that make this city such brilliant fun. It took about 20 minutes and the equivalent of just under £2 each for the ride, but it was money well spent. The laughs continued, and it was a brilliant way to see the city.
The laughs soon stopped at the War Remnants museum however, a collection of photographs, images and stories about the Vietnam War and the effects caused by some of the American weapons used on the Vietnamese people.
I had no idea just how much damage is still caused by some of the poisons dropped on the country, particularly Agent Orange. Some of the photographs of people and children still being affected, or born disfigured as a result, were particularly hard to look at. So too were the images of war and some of the stories of what happened to whole villages under American fire.
There were collections of crash wreckage, bomb fragments, guns and mines which were left behind by the fighting, while the outside area is dominated by aircraft and tanks that belonged to the States.
Before long, it was time to say our goodbyes to the rest of the group that was leaving as we headed to the main railway station for an overnight train to Nha Trang. It was sad to leave our friends behind as the bus continued on without them, but we shared some great times together and good friendships were made. I’d like to think we’ll meet up again sometime, and Ive already promised John a pint in Melbourne when I arrive.
That night we were on the train to the coast once again, sharing a compartment with Colin, Sarah and Malcolm. We raised a beer in tribute to those who had left, and looked forward to the next part of the trip with some new friends in tow.