Lao did it end so soon?!

The sun sets over the Mekong, and on my tour

Rope swings and I have fallen out.

Just a couple of days after a self-induced faceplant on the surface of a Laos river, thanks to a souped-up member of the rope swing world, today I managed to damage my hand after another go on a pendulum play-thing.

This time, it was purely an old-fashioned knotted rope tied to a tree over one of the most stunningly blue waterfall lagoons I’ve ever seen.

With Dirk at the waterfalls

Ricky, Alissa and I had taken a trip to see the Kuang Sii waterfalls near Luang Prabang, a half hour ride away from the town, and after little sleep the night before from the overnight journey, a dip in the pool to wake us up was definitely needed.

The rope swing platform was a huge tree that leans over the water, and the way up was by clambering over its slippery roots and using a hooked stick to grab the rope. My first attempt was great, and like the tubing, good fun. My second attempt wasn’t so good – mainly as I accidentally wrapped the knotted rope around the wrong hand, the one that was to take my weight.

The result: having just gallantly got the rope for two good looking girls in front of me, who were now watching from the side, I stepped off the tree, the rope tightened around my hand, some knots whipped around it and took off some skin, and I clumsily dropped into the water in a heap.

Dirk was on hand with my camera to capture the unfortunate, and painful, moment. The girls had disappeared.

Pillock.

The waterfalls area is also home to a bear sanctuary, most of which were chilling out underneath the jungle canopy. A couple of them were enjoying some time out in some specially-made hammocks, the only thing I think they needed to complete the relaxed picture was a bear beer.

Bud - weis - errr

That night was our last night in a main town – the next two days will be spent on the Mekong River on a slow boat north to the Thai border. Ricky was preparing to leave the group, as he is meeting a friend in Chiang Mai, and so it was our last night all together on the tour.

Being 'chef'

We went to a fantastic barbecue restaurant, where the barbecue comes to you. It’s a typical southeast Asia way of barbecuing, where a small bucket of coals are brought to the table and topped off with a metal tray and what looks like and upside down colander. Soup is poured around the base, which is then filled with noodles and fresh vegetables, while a tray of meat is brought out to cook on the top.

A few of us shared chicken, pork and water buffalo – it’s quite a popular meat around Laos, probably because there are so many of them, and I have to say its incredibly nice. It’s like a lean beef, and the bits we had were lovely and tender, so much so that we ordered more. Our tour leader Fon was in good spirits too, possibly because she knew she wasn’t far from her native home, but probably because she knew within a few days she will be free of us!

Fon and a plant

After a walk around the night market, everyone went to bed early as it was an early start in the morning, with a short trip down to the river at 7am to catch the boat back to Thailand.

A wave from everyone. Well, almost everyone...

We piled onto a tuk tuk, and I said farewell to Ricky who was moving on to meet his friend at the airport. He’d been umming and ahhing about whether to complete the tour by taking the boat trip with us all, but decided it was cutting it too fine to get to the airport in time.

I knew Ricky would be on the boat with us!

Goodbyes done, I got onto the tuk tuk – only to turn around and see Ricky marching out of the hotel with his backpack and a smile on his face. He’d changed his mind after Fon told him about a bus service from the Thai border he could catch. I pretended to mop up my tears and told him he wouldn’t be getting another manly hug when he left us for a second time!

There are two options for getting back up the Mekong to the border point, and we’re taking the slower, safer one. The other is to take a speedboat service, but that is seen to be incredibly dangerous. The river is peppered with rocky outcrops that threaten to stand in the way of even the most careful of speedboat drivers. The fact only the driver gets a crash helmet wouldn’t fill me with confidence either.

Getting onto the slow boat

A few on the tour were not looking forward to the boat ride, seeing it as two days trapped on a vessel. I saw it as two days to relax amid incredible scenery, and in the end that was the opinion that came out on top. It sounds a lot to spend two days on a boat, but with a combination of good banter, a blog to catch up on and a great game of cards, the time soon flew by.

Poker on the boat

Our guide Fon was outed as a bit of a poker shark when we enticed her into a game. My cotton bud chips came out to play again, and we even taught the boat guide how to play a hand. The entire first afternoon was passed playing cards, gently bobbing around on the Mekong, drifting past lush green mountains, herds of wild water buffalo bathing in the waters and children waving on mounds of sand at the boat full of foreigners waving back.

Tasty...

As the sun began to set, we stopped in a small town for the night. There are no navigation lights on the boats, and I guess the river is too dangerous to sail at night due to the rocks dotted all over the surface of the Mekong, so it provided an opportunity to stock up on snacks and food for the next day.

Thailand-bound

After a very short sleep, it was 5am and time to catch the boat again before we knew it. We’d been warned it would be an early start, necessary to get us to the Thai border before it either closed or started charging more after a certain time.

Early and cold!

With sleeping bags at the ready, we piled back onto the boat in the dead of night and found a spot to make a bed.

Zzzzz

Mine was a part of the floor near a step, in the hope people wouldn’t stand on me. It was extremely chilly, and I was glad to have a nice warm sleeping bag I could curl up in, and combined with the gentle rocking of the boat and the constant noise of the engine and the water, I was soon back asleep again, as was everyone else in the group. Infact, it was a very quiet morning as people caught up on sleep, although I managed to wake up and catch up on some blogging.

Snooze boat

It was yet another fantastically hot and sunny day, perfect weather for cruising down the river. Everyone was in good spirits, although there was the knowledge that within a couple of days, the tour would be over and everyone would go their separate ways.

Beautiful

I’m already thinking about what to do afterwards, as its become clear that the tour will only be in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second biggest city, for a grand total of four hours. Its been timed so that the group reaches the northern city at lunchtime, and is then booked onto the train back to Bangkok at 5.55pm that night. Considering so many people have told me good things about the place, Ive decided that I will leave the tour there and make my own way back south. I had planned to visit the north, and it made sense to stay there rather than finish the tour and then travel back north. Fon agreed – its something quite a few people have done, and Canadian Alissa agreed to do the same with me.

As we approached the border crossing at Chiang Kong, we were sailing up no-mans land. On our right, Laos, which had been our home for the past week. On our left, Thailand, which was to be my home for at least the next few weeks. As the river forms the border, it’s a slightly unusual procedure with the passports as when you’ve got your exit stamp from Laos, you have to get a longtail boat across the river to Thailand, where you get an entry stamp.

Speedboat border crossing

We said yet another goodbye to Ricky at the border, who this time definitely was leaving us to meet his friend. Now there were just nine of us, although the German couple had decided they didn’t want to associate with us anymore (apparently, it was to do with a couple of us being five minutes late for dinner one night) and so their end of the table was distinctly mute. Dinner was something we’d all been waiting for – a lovely Thai green curry and rice, and it had definitely been worth waiting for.

Goodbye Laos

The rest of the group had decided they wanted to leave the border town at 6am in the morning, to maximise time in Chiang Mai. For me, what time I left wasn’t an issue, but despite the early start, I wasn’t going to complain – I would probably want to do the same. I hardly slept during the night however, and when my alarm went off at 5.30am, I felt shattered. Thankfully, I managed to bag the back seat of the minibus, so I was able to stretch out and sleep a bit more.

I woke up to hear the driver saying: “Wakey wakey, temple,”

It was 8am, and having seen a fair few temples in the past few weeks, the thought of another didn’t fill me with the joys of spring. But then I saw it.

The White Temple - incredible

It was like something out of a film, a magical place from somewhere like Snow White or Narnia. The White Temple near Chiang Rai was for me, one of those places that takes your breath away. I couldn’t stop looking at the gleaming white construction, glinting away as the early morning sunshine tried to break through the clouds and reflect off the millions of tiny mirror pieces incorporated into the design

Hands reaching for help

I think the element that captured my imagination was the fact it was such a contemporary way of making a temple appeal. Its classed as a piece of art, as well as being a working place of worship.

Aliens!

Its designer and builder is someone from the village, adding to the structure as and when time and money allows. The grounds are filled with anything from gargoyles to aliens, to keep evil spirits away, while a stunning piece of art around the main walkway entrance to the temple sees dozens of hands rising up from underneath the ground, symbolising those who need help in hell. It was all very cleverly done, yet tasteful and still in keeping with the whole place of meaningful worship thing.

Just to the side was a hut selling lucky trinkets, and I saw Fon buy one and hang it on a rail. She told me it’s the luck from the Buddha, and you hang it to bring good fortunes your way. She suggested it would be nice to hang it on a Christmas tree, so I bought one to send home to my parents for their tree. I then started wondering if superstition could kick in, seeing as I’m sending something that’s supposed to bring me luck thousands of miles away. It began eating away at me – I had visions of something bad happening the moment I sent it, so I went back and bought one for myself too!

Superstition won me over

A few hours later it was time for the last group outing, a trip to Tiger Kingdom on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, a place where instead of looking at tigers through a cage, you can go inside with them. Part of me feels a bit uneasy, not just because I could very realistically get eaten, but because I worry about animal welfare in touristy places like zoos and exhibits.

Ah, little kitty!

Having satisfied myself by reading the information booklet that the animals are well cared for, we bought tickets to spend time with both the biggest tigers, and the smallest tigers.

What an incredible animal to get up close to. The handlers told us they were quite placid during the day, as like cats they spend a lot of time sleeping and relaxing during the day. Even so, stepping through a small opening into a cage with four fully grown, and potentially deadly, tigers was an amazing experience. We took it in turns to cuddle and pet the tigers, having photos taken and generally watch in amazement as the tigers enjoyed the fuss, even kicking their legs as they had their belly tickled.

There was one moment when the reality kicked in, as the huge tiger I had my head resting on suddenly moved and swung his paw for a toy one of the keepers was waving near its head. It was enough to make me move equally as quickly, and as the photo proved, I was a little worried about its next move!

Erm, a little unsure!!

The baby tigers, however, were the cutest of all the animals in the park. They were so playful and fun, we could have sat with them all day. Well, we could have done, had they not decided to fall asleep. Like human babies I guess, they have a small amount of play time and then need a large amount of sleep time.

Ahhhh!

That afternoon we had a final lunch together with Fon, the tour leader, before the time finally came to say goodbye. Fon had kindly rearranged my train for Alissa and I, and so we were to stay in Chiang Mai while the rest of the group made their way back south to the starting point of Bangkok. Booked onto the 5.55pm train, we both went with the group to wave them off at the station.

Aw. We'll all miss Fon!

After spending four weeks with Fon and the group, I was sad to be saying goodbye. It was easy to take all Fon’s help, all the pre-arranged coaches, tuk tuks and hotels, and all the good places to eat, for granted. Within minutes I would be back on my own, fending for myself, albeit with my Canadian friend for company. I bought a postcard and wrote a nice message on it for Fon, telling her she’d be welcome to stay at mine if ever she visited the UK, along with a tip from Ricky and I for all her hard work.

Then it was time for a few last photographs with the group beside the train. I knew I would be seeing some of them again on my travels, while others will be returning to their homes in all parts of the world. Considering we had been complete strangers just a few weeks ago, in a funny way it felt like we’d become a bit of a family, all looking out for each other and sharing all the fun times like we had. There were two that didn’t quite blend in – who didn’t even have the politeness to say goodbye, or at least wave goodbye – but that didn’t matter.

Goodbye group!

Would I do an organised tour again? Probably not – it was a bit too much of a rush for my liking. I would have preferred to spend a bit more time in each location, but then that was my choice to try and cram as much in before heading for New Year in Sydney. But then, without doing the tour, I would never have met some of the brilliant people that I have done – and that’s the beauty of something like a Gap Adventure. It was my back-up plan, my escape route if I had travelled for a month without meeting anyone. I knew a tour would put me with people, and there was a fair chance I’d make friends. So to that extent, I did absolutely the right thing. I met some incredibly people and saw some of the most beautiful parts of the world.

Alissa and I running alongside the train!

As Alissa and I ran alongside the train as it pulled out of Chiang Mai station, we both knew for us the tour was over. But the friendships that had been made – and the memories we all have together – will live on.

The tour disappears into the distance

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Totally Tubular!

Let the fun begin!

Its early afternoon and I’m already on the whisky. I’ve got a giant yellow rubber ring under my arm and 7km of river to float down. Ive also got blood pouring out of my mouth.

Welcome to the world of Tubing!

Have waterproof pouch, will tube

If you’ve not heard of Tubing in Vang Vieng, let me explain: its basically everything you’ve ever been taught not to do near water when it comes to having a shandy or two. It mainly involves a fairly fast flowing river, inflatable inner tubes, rope swings, zip lines, slides, and a lot of bars!

On the way!

The whole tubing thing is seen as a bit of a rite of passage to backpackers making their way around the southeast Asia circuit. Most days you’ll see someone somewhere proudly wearing their tubing vest, almost as a certificate to prove they survived. Because some haven’t.

Our tour company actually discourages the activity, saying its dangerous. They’re right, of course, but it doesn’t stop the entire tour group from making their way to the tube rental shop. There are various stories, some true, some myth, some just blatantly made up, about how many people lose their lives by fuelling themselves on buckets of Laos whisky and Coke and then somersaulting off a bar and straight onto a rock beneath the water.

There have been casualties, but it’s the old advice of taking it easy and being sensible. So when the bottle of Laos whisky was thrust into my face upon arrival at the first bar, did I turn it down? No chance!

At the first bar

The whole experience starts with everyone decking themselves out in the tubing uniform of brightly coloured vests, cheap sunglasses and a (not so) waterproof pouch, before heading to the tube rental shop where we hand over a deposit and cash for a big rubber ring. A truck then takes you upstream where the fun begins, as you wobble your way across a rickety bamboo bridge, following your ears to the music blasting out from the riverside bars.

First up was Q Bar, where we were welcomed with a free shot of whisky and rewarded with a cotton bracelet. Before long, a Lao Beer has been ordered, a guy from the bar is drawing symbols down your arm (it’s a code for whether you’re single or not!) and someone decides its time for a water fight.

With Dirk, taken on his camera. You'll see why that's important!

With a bad track record when it comes to cameras, I didn’t want to risk mine in the flimsy PVC bags that are supposed to be waterproof, so I bought a cheap disposable waterproof film camera to take with me (hence the awful quality of them!) However, Dirk decided the day was worth the risk, and we took it in turns to film each other with his digital camera, being careful not to get it wet.

Dog needed another drink

After about an hour we decided to move on to the next bar – its only a short 50 metre float down the river on the tube, but it provides the next brilliant bit of fun. With bars all along the first part of the river, staff from each venue desperately try to attract you in with a variety of waves, cheers, shouts and noises.

Being pulled into a bar

The main way of getting your attention though is by throwing a plastic bottle at you, attached to a rope. If the bottle doesn’t get you, the splash of water from it normally does. Of course, that’s also the way of getting to each bar and saves you from sailing past. Its really good fun to see who can catch the rope as everyone else links arms and legs to get pulled to the shore together.

Buckets and shades!

By the early afternoon, we’d got through a few beers and the whisky buckets were kicking in – and that’s when we saw the rope swing.

“Biggest rope swing in Vang Vieng,” declared the sign.

There’s probably not that many elsewhere, but whatever, it was worth a go. We climbed the steps to the wooden launch platform, about the height of two houses above the water, and Dirk the ‘cwayzee’ German went first while I filmed him on his camera.

Dirk aims to impress the judges!

Next it was my turn. I grabbed hold of the rubber-coated handle (this was a proper rope swing, not just a bit of string from a tree!) got a count of three from everyone else stood on the platform, took a deep breath and swung forward. I left my stomach behind as suddenly the wind hit my face and I raced through the air. I could sense everyone else watching below, and as the swing slowed and I rose back higher into the air, I let go and dropped into the water below.

It was great fun, and best of all, I survived.

It was so much fun, suddenly I wanted to do it again, so up the steps I went and watched a few of the others gracefully launch themselves into the water below. Dirk even pulled off a double swing before somersaulting into the river. I went for my second go, but let go at the wrong moment and made a bit of a hash of my entry.

I heard people laughing from the bar as I dropped through the air at a weird angle, and sure enough there were smiles on faces as I reached the surface of the water. I needed to do it again.

It was a bit of an error. I waited behind Alissa, who plucked up the courage to perform a fantastic belly-flop straight off the platform. As members of the tour went into the water to drag her to the shore, I decided to go. And that’s when the Laos tipples properly kicked in – in a way that made sure my arms wouldn’t hold my body weight anymore.

Video grab of the moment my feeble arms let go

The moment my arms and the rope combined to take the strain of my noodle-based weight below them, the muscles failed to function. I remember thinking as I headed for the water that ‘this might hurt’ and I was destined for a copycat Canadian-style belly flop.

Face plant

Except it was worse than that – somehow my legs and face combined to hit the water at the same time. It was quite a spectacular face plant, and I remember it happened so fast I didn’t have time to shut my eyes. Thankfully, it didn’t hurt.

“Phil mate, there’s blood,” said Ricky, fresh from plucking Alissa out of the water.

I didn’t believe him at first, thinking it was one of his wind ups. But his concerned face didn’t change.

“No mate, seriously, its all coming out of your mouth,”

Sploosh!

My immediate reaction was to check for missing teeth with my tongue, but to my relief they were all there. And Ricky was right, blood was starting to trickle out of my mouth, made worse by all the water that was dripping off my face and onto the rest of my body. But it still didn’t hurt.

That’s when I felt the thing that was missing – the little flap of skin that links your top lip to your gum. Its proper name is the ‘upper labial frenulum’, except mine was now a torn ‘upper labial frenulum’ by the force of hitting the water so hard with my noggin.

Undeterred, I had to lay the ghost to rest, and besides, it was still good fun. Thankfully, I managed to hold on and ended on a high.

Fun in the sun

Someone not managing to hold on was Dirk, but it wasn’t the rope swing he let go of. His camera took a direct hit from a barman’s pop bottle on a rope. He was in the middle of filming everyone floating down the river, and was doing a good job of keeping it dry despite being wedged into his rubber ring. Sadly, despite his diving attempts, the camera had gone.

It was the same camera that had been subject of the robbery by the Vietnamese mafia just a few days before, an incident that cost the hapless German the equivalent of £60 to get it back. Now it was resting on the bottom of a river, complete with all the footage of our rope swinging, my face plant and lots of photos of us all before we took to the water.

He looked lost, but somehow negotiated a recovery fee for a team of people to dive down to look for it once the water had cleared and everyone had gone home. The price was about £50, with no promises of it being found, and even if it was, there was little chance of the images and video on the memory card ever being seen again thanks to its watery home for the night.

On my tube!

The day continued, the sun was scorching, the drinks were cold and Dirk’s pink attire was going down well despite his camera loss. Memories were being made as quickly as the alcohol made them fade, but with a float down the river interspersed with a mini party at each bar, it was a brilliant way to spend some time amid the stunning scenery.

Jaclyn enjoying the more sedate part of the day

The sun began to drop behind the mountains around us at about 4pm, and while some wimped out and got a tuk tuk back to the main town, I was determined to float all the way to the end. I had Jaclyn and Welsh Emma for company most of the way, before they both got too cold and clambered out.

It was pitch black before I eventually saw the lights of the main town once again. In most places the river was relatively shallow, so I knew it wasn’t too dangerous to still be in the water.

The struggle to get out at the last bar

There were a few people shining torches at me too, although they were mainly tuk tuk drivers hoping the crazy foreigners braving it to the end would chicken out under the cover of darkness. Instead, my tube ran aground and I came to a standstill. For me, tubing was over. The beer blanket was starting to get a little worn in places anyway, so I walked to the side of the river and hoped for a path. There wasn’t one, but there was a big prickly paddy field that I had to traipse through. After five minutes, I found myself in someones back garden, and a woman gave me a cheery wave as I rolled my tube past her wash tub. Something told me I wasn’t the first foreigner and yellow tube to make a detour via her property, but with my cheery ‘Sa-badee’ she smiled back and laughed.

Keeping hold of the tubes

I eventually made it back to the tube shop, picked up my deposit and came across all the others back at the Friends bar once again. Most were asleep, or looked like they needed to sleep.

I went back home for a nap and returned to the main town at 11pm, meeting the remaining three people – Dirk, Ricky and Cindy, as well as our tour guide Fon – in Q Bar. Its fair to say everyone had a great night, and probably thanks to my little power nap, I was the last one standing, returning back to the hotel in the small hours having got talking to some random people from Finland at the bar.

The next day was painful, but amid all the chaos on the river, we had a brainwave. The tour was supposed to make a six hour journey north during the day to Luang Prabang, leaving at 9am. Partly inspired by the knowledge our heads would hurt at that time, five of us agreed to travel through the following night at our own expense, and therefore giving us an extra day of Tubing. In any case, Dirk wanted to try to get his camera back, so we had to go tubing again!

The plan meant we’d just miss dinner in the evening, and then meet up with the tour group for the remainder of the trip. Fon agreed it made sense, and we worked out it wouldn’t cost much for the public bus north. It was to leave the main bus station at 8pm, and a tuk tuk would collect us from the hotel at 7.30pm as part of the price.

As we waved the remainder of the tour group off into the distance, there were a few snoozes before we headed back to the river. Beer didn’t go down too well, and after a cheeky one at the start, it was soft drinks for the rest of the day, and we all happily floated down the river to the main town, watching and laughing at all the frivolities involving everyone else along the way.

One of my tubing bruise souvenirs, a few days later

Amazingly, Dirk managed to get his camera back yet again, after it was recovered by divers near one of the bars. We knew there was little chance of ever seeing the videos and photos from within it, but Dirk took it back to the hotel and removed the SD card. It went into his netbook and it made a sound – and by some sort of miracle, the photos and videos emerged on the screen. Incredible, or as Dirk said many times, ‘unssbelievable’.

By now our tuk tuk was late and we were concerned. The public bus we were allegedly booked on was due to leave within 15 minutes. Despite this, there didn’t seem to be much panic from the hotel staff who were coordinating our lift to Luang Prabang, instead telling us it was on its way. The story then changed to how they had done us a favour and instead a private minibus would take us, that would be more comfortable and usually costs more. Next, the time was put back to 8.30pm.

With still no sign at 8.20pm, a few of us began to wonder whether someone had pulled a fast one and taken the money we’d paid. We had no receipt or ticket, and I admit something seemed a bit fishy.

Eventually, a white people carrier arrived, complete with a driver who couldn’t speak English. We set off on the seven hour trip north, looking forward to getting some sleep. Unfortunately, the flat beds we’d hoped for were just normal seats, but those in the back managed to spread themselves out. It was cold, mainly because our driver insisted on keeping his window open. We soon realised why.

Just over an hour into the journey, he stopped for dinner. We waited in the car while he ate at a roadside café. Back on the move half an hour later, I was just nodding off when I realised the car had stopped, and my head fell down as the passenger door I was leaning on opened up.

“Sleeping,” the driver muttered.

“Well I was,” I muttered back.

He then walked around to the back, opened the boot and took out a blanket. At first I thought it was a kind gesture, then he got in and spread it over himself. I looked at him, wondering what he was up to. He twigged, and pointed at the clock.

“Sleep until 4am, arrive Luang Prabang 6am or 7am,” he said.

Surely he didn’t think we’d pay for an overnight bus to pull over in the middle of a town and make us sleep upright for the night. Not that you could, as some flashing fairy lights outside meant the car was rhythmically lighting up like a Christmas tree inside.

Sure enough, snores began to sound from the driver seat. I started laughing at the bizarre situation we’d found ourselves in. As the chief organiser of the bus, while everyone else was sleeping, I felt hugely responsible. My laughs, and those of everyone behind me, soon wore thin. I got out for some fresh air and a quick wander to work out what to do. If the driver is too tired to drive, I came up with the plan of driving the driver.

Tired, and not amused!

We decided to give him half an hours kip, but then I leaned on the central locking switch which woke him up.

“Do you want me to drive?” I asked, pointing and gesturing as if I was driving. He just laughed and shook his head, before telling us he needed another hour.

Patience was now wearing thin – we wanted to be in Luang Prabang in the early hours so we could sleep and still enjoy most of the day. Our driver had other ideas.

Suddenly he tidied away his blanket and started the engine. Our not so discreet hints had worked, and we were back on hour way.

That’s when the singing started – quietly at first, but then louder and louder. It was some sort of traditional Laos song, and from 1am until 1:19am, he sang it non-stop as he drove along, trying to keep himself awake. Despite this, everyone behind had managed to nod off. I was keeping myself awake to make sure the driver didn’t nod off too and kill us on the winding country roads.

Then the CD player went on, instantly waking everyone. I could hear sniggers from behind, as Alissa started laughing at the absurdity of it all. I turned around, caught her eye, and immediately stuffed my sleeve in my mouth to stop myself laughing out loud too.

As the driver began singing along at the top of his voice, patience yet again wore thin, but there was nothing we could do. Freezing cold and being kept awake by his singing and five-track CD on repeat (his favourite was track three, which I knew really well by the end of the journey) there were moments when I would have quite happily swapped for the leaky, cockroach-infested sleeper bus in Vietnam.

Oh, and the driver kept making some weird disgusting noise with his mouth and throat from time to time, which got more comedy horrified looks from Alissa behind me.

Dirk and Ricky struggling to sleep, while Alissa's head indicates she's not!

It was 4am before we reached Luang Prabang, and my eyes were sore from keeping them open. Alissa didn’t keep her early promise of tipping the driver well for his troubles, mainly because she didn’t get a wink of much needed sleep, and we headed to each of our rooms.

Except for Dirk, that is. His famous hat was missing – he’d left it in the minibus. Despite following it to try to get it back, which saw him upset a couple of dogs in the area, he couldn’t get it.

He seemed distraught. We all thought it was quite amusing!

Welcome to Jurassic Park!

Running for the hills

The award for the most stunning scenery on my trip so far has just gone to Laos.

It had been an incredibly long drive out of Vietnam and into this relatively unknown country, but the morning of our first day revealed exactly why this country is seen very much as a hidden gem in South East Asia.

The greenest jungles densely cover rolling mountains, rivers and streams intertwine through the undergrowth, deep red sands and soil contrast with the blue skies. Tall palm trees tower above the main jungle canopy, while eagles fly above. If a dinosaur suddenly appeared drinking water by a river, it would hardly be a surprise. With minimal human impact, it really does resemble the scenes out of the film Jurassic Park.

We left Vietnam shortly before 7am for the 10-hour drive to the border point. It was an incredibly long drive, but with our much smaller group now, there was plenty of room to spread out on the bus. With us are our new companions, a Canadian called Jaclyn, who works as an addiction counsellor back home, and a German couple. Unfortunately I’ve not yet managed to get their names, as they seem a little reluctant to want to talk to us.

The journey took us through rural life in Vietnam, the cityscape and motorbike mecca of Hanoi turning slowly into rolling paddy fields, jungles and watering holes for a growing number of water buffalo – many of which being used by farmers to haul goods to the market.

There were a few stops on the way, but most of us managed to grab some sleep, especially Ricky who has started entertaining us with his variety of sleeping positions.

We left his banana well alone

Eventually we began to wind our way up some mountain roads and towards the Nampho International Checkpoint, the exit point for Vietnam and the entry point for Laos.

It was a shame to be saying goodbye to Vietnam. After two weeks in the country, it still didn’t feel like enough, that I had only just scratched the surface. There is so much to see and do, particularly regarding its history and conflicts, that it needed at least another two weeks to do it justice. Ho Chi Minh is definitely a city I’ll visit again sometime, and the beaches still need discovering. And besides, when I need a new suit, I’ll just have to pop to Hoi An to see my new tailoring friends!

Crossing into Laos

With border formalities over, it was starting to get dark as we made our way to a guesthouse in a nearby town, but we were rewarded with a particularly beautiful sunset over the mountains.

Beautiful power lines in Laos

The next day was another major travel day to the capital, Vientiane, with hour after hour spent on the bus, driving through spectacular countryside, over glistening rivers and through countless villages made up of old wooden homes on stilts.

On the road again!

We stopped in one such village for a break, and discovered the iced coffee was particularly good, not just because it came in a plastic bag, but because it actually tasted like coffee. A few of us, particularly those of a North American background, are missing the occasional fix of a good brew, and some we’ve tried to drink have been pretty disgusting.

Cost cutting at the local Starbucks

Vientiene was only a short stop, arriving mid afternoon. We saw one of the main landmarks, Patuxai, on the way into the city. I thought it looked familiar – it resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which I thought was a hark back to the days when France occupied the country, but infact it’s a memorial to those who were killed in liberating the country.

Taken from the bus!

Strangely, it was financed by America and built with concrete that was supposed to have been used for an airfield during the Vietnam war. The Americans then gave the money for a new city airport, but instead the Laos government used the cash and concrete to build the monument – and now its nicknamed the vertical runway!

After so much travelling, and after hearing there wasn’t a great deal to see in the city apart from more temples, I decided to spend a couple of hours relaxing and taking in the atmosphere. Ricky and I enjoyed drinks and a bite to eat at a nearby bakery, and we sat outside as the sun set.

Overtaking a school bus

It was yet another early start the following morning as the tour headed to Vang Vieng, a place well known on the traveller circuit thanks to its river tubing – and river bar –exploits. We arrived around lunch time, and met up with Emma and Megan who had left the tour in Hanoi to continue their own travels. We ate at an organic restaurant before working out what we wanted to do in the afternoon. Fon suggested we visit some caves, but to do that we’d need to hire a bicycle or a moped. With time and our falling energy levels against us, the bicycle option was out, and so we hired some mopeds for about £4.

While I’ve ridden mopeds before, I must admit I’m still a bit wary about getting on one. Its not necessarily my own skills I’m worried about, but those of everyone else who uses the roads here, combined with the fact most are full of potholes and ruts. However, it was the only way to get to where we needed to be, so Dirk, Steven, Ricky and I all hired automatic ones, while Jorg, part of the German couple, hired a manual motorbike as he is the only one with an actual motorbike license back home.

We took the bikes for a test, and while mine felt like all the nuts and bolts needed a good tighten up, and the front wheel was at a bit of a funny angle, it rode quite well. There was no fuel in the tank, so a few of us filled up and then headed back to the hotel. Steven was there collecting things from the room and still needed fuel, so to save time I took his bike. Ricky and I had only just got around the corner when the one I was riding conked out. I started to push it on the half-mile or so walk to the petrol station, before Ricky offered to run with it as a bit of a work out. I then took control of his bike, which also stopped working a minute later.

By now, there were some concerns, but after taking the latest one to die back to the place where we hired it, I was given a water bottle full of petrol which I then ferried back to Ricky. It was a huge faff, but thankfully we were all soon on our way.

Most of us took a passenger with us – Jaclyn joined me for the ride – and with our tour leader Fon’s words of ‘be careful’ ringing through our ears as we left the hotel, the group of us tentatively set off down the road. That’s when disaster struck the German couple, as somehow on a right hand turn Jorg, the only one who officially rides motorbikes back home, managed to plant his front wheel in a pothole and catapulted his girlfriend over the handlebars. There was a lot of concern from all of us as they picked themselves up off the gravel track, though sadly the girl, whose name I cant remember, probably because of the way she wanted very little to do with me, decided to tell us all to stop laughing at her. Of course, we weren’t, but it was a bit of a turning point in relations between them and the group.

Heading to the caves

Shaken but uninjured, they joined us as we carefully made our way along the potholed track to a cave. It cost us 10,000 Laos Kip to visit, and a guide took us through fields towards some imposing limestone cliffs that formed part of all the mountains around us.

Headlamps on, we followed the guide up slippery steps into the hot and humid cave. There were no lights in here, unlike the caves at Ha Long Bay. For me, this was as close to proper caving as I’ve come. The walkway took us through narrow gaps in the rocks, over crevices and around stalactites and stalagmites, beyond which are impressive rock structures and shapes. It took about 10 minutes to reach the end of the train through the rocks and humidity, but it was great fun.

Look out below

By the time we’d turned around and reached the fresh open air again, we were all dripping with sweat. Thankfully there was a lagoon beneath the cliff, so we all jumped in and had a lot of laughs in a huge waterfight.

The lagoon

The laughs soon came to an end when Steven’s motorbike yet again decided it didn’t want to play ball, just a few metres up the dirt track from the cave. With a good three miles to go before we reached any civilization, we tried desperately to fire up the engine, but it was having none of it. We worked out the battery was flat, but the other bikes only had a battery lead with about four inches of slack. We were about to try turning one bike on its side to try to connect a working battery to Steven’s stranded machine when two locals in a pick-up turned up, and thankfully offered to run said heap of junk (the bike, not Steven!) back to the town.

Despite an offer of some cash by way of thanks, the pick-up driver wasn’t interested – yet another example of how people in this part of the world often go out of their way to help others. Meanwhile, the German couple were quibbling over a demand for five Euros to repair the damage they’d caused to their bike when they crashed. Eyes were rolled.

Friends cafe!

Dinner that night was in one of the many ‘Friends’ bars in the town, a place where people can chill out on comfy laid back seats and watch that American ‘comedy’ that my friends know I’m not a great fan of.

Nom!

It was nice to sit with a Beer Lao and relax though, watching bedraggled people walking by having dropped off their giant inflatable rubber rings at a nearby Tubing store.

Later that night we went to Q Bar in the town, and despite the fact it was relatively early in the night, we found utter carnage! People were covered in permanent pen, in various states of undress, varying levels of drunkenness and many were packed onto a stage dancing the night away, clutching buckets of Laos whisky and coke. It was only about 10pm, but then this is Vang Vieng and the home of Tubing…

Q Bar...this could get messy!

Tomorrow it’s our turn!

The Powers of Hanoi

There was a watery feel to the first day in Vietnam’s capital – unfortunately, most of it was on us.

We arrived at lunchtime after a four hour bus ride from Ha Long Bay, and we knew it was another huge changeover stop. For most of the group, Hanoi was their last stop, including Colin and Sarah who had become really good friends.

After dumping our bags in the room, we walked through the bustling streets. The first thing we noticed was the noise – motorbikes, horns, people yelling from the various stalls. If this was back home, Environmental Health would be imposing a hearing health warning on the place, but it definitely had a lot of character.

More chaos crossing the roads

We were walking through the streets, heading for our recommended lunch spot, when there was suddenly a few spots of rain. Then there were a few more – those really big splodges that seem to drench you in one hit. And then suddenly there was a wall of them.

We all dived for cover under the various stalls and canopies, other tourists scattered down the street looking for a place to shelter, dozens of moped and scooter riders immediately pulled over and donned ponchos in a whole spectrum of colours, stall holders were frantically trying to pull their t-shirts, noodles and barbecuing fish indoors. The ever enterprising street hawkers suddenly acquired armfuls of umbrellas to thrust in our faces.

In t-shirts and shorts, the torrential rain wasn’t much fun, while the lack of grip from my flip-flops meant I was pretty much skating my way to wherever our tour leader was intent on taking us. In the end I went barefoot – the street muck and gubbins was already washing over my feet as rivers of rainwater made their way to various blocked-up drains, and we arrived at the restaurant wet, bedraggled and in need of a beer.

The puppet theatre (the day after the rain!)

Thankfully lunch gave us time to dry out, and the rain stopped. We walked to Hoan Kiem Lake, the centre of the city, where we came across the Thang Long Water Puppet theatre, home to a famous water puppetry show. I’d read about it briefly, and as it was only an hour long, was fairly keen to go. The group was split though – some wanted to go, some didn’t; some wanted to go the next day, some didn’t; even couples like Colin and Sarah couldn’t agree – Sarah wanted to go, Colin absolutely didn’t!

In the end, after a lot of faffing around and ‘umming and ahhing’ outside the box office, I decided to put an end to it by buying a ticket for Ricky and I. Everyone else followed suit, but the second class seats ran out so we plumped for the 100,000 Dong first class positions.

Inside the theatre

Inside the theatre has wings like any other theatre, but a pool of water instead of a stage. It was a full house, complete with a reluctant Colin who somehow bagged some of the best seats at the front of the stalls, and before long the lights dimmed, a strange oversize human puppet banged on a gong, and the theatre was filled with traditional Vietnamese music and singing.

The art form was born many years ago in the paddy fields around Vietnam, a way for farmers and villagers to entertain themselves amid the watery land. The illusion is the puppets aren’t connected to anything, as all the controls run under the water, and this was no different.

Water puppets!

As it was all in Vietnamese, I had no idea what on earth was happening. Puppets appeared from behind a screen, swished around in the water for a bit, chased dragons, had fights with water buffalos and climbed trees to collect coconuts. The music was good, and there’s no denying it’s a great spectacle – it’s by no means a West End production (Her Majesty’s Theatre would at least clean all the melted candle wax off the top of the puppets heads after each show!) but it was good fun.

Singers and Vietnamese band

The finale was particularly special when a fish somehow flapped around in and out of the water and then magically got turned into a dragon, which with the help of a bit of UV light, flew through the air and into the wings. Sadly, the illusion was foiled when it slid back down its wire in full view of the audience, but it was a nice try – and then all the puppeteers waded round to the front with another dragon to take their bow.

The final bow - and a dragon

“It was pathetic,” spat Colin as I walked past him on the way out, with a few stronger words thrown in for good measure. Sarah giggled next to him, knowing he hated every minute but secretly enjoying it herself, while others agreed the music had been a highlight. For the sake of a few quid, it was a bit of history and culture and I think, perhaps secretly, everyone had a smile or two as a result.

Cheap street drinking

After dinner that night, it was send-off time for a large chunk of the tour group, including many of those who had been with us since leaving Bangkok three weeks ago. We tried the local brew, Bia Hoi, which costs just 15p a glass, and is consumed on tiny chairs in the street. We ended up in a dive of a place called Bucket Bar, which specialised in the much-loved south east Asia drinking tradition of sticking various spirits into a sandcastle bucket and then adding a dash of Coke. I had a bit of an uneasy feeling about the place, especially when the shutters came down and the door was closed with everyone still inside – apparently its to avoid the Vietnamese ‘fun police’ who go around shutting places at midnight. Had we gone to the bar at the end of the night, I might have enjoyed it a bit more, but a few of us called it a day early and instead decided to have a clear head for a full day of sightseeing the following day, starting off with seeing a dead body – never good with a hangover.

It turned out my feelings about the place were proven right. German Dirk, famous for never taking off his typically Bavarian hat and who’s becoming a bit of a character in the group now we’ve learnt we can take the mickey out of him, managed to have his camera stolen. It happened to be nicked by people who work at the bar – a bit of an inside job- and Dirk had somehow worked it out. He offered two million Dong (about £65) to those who had taken it so that he could get it, and his photos, back.

Dirk, minus his hat

The fee was agreed, and he took a taxi to a cash machine to get the money. Unfortunately for Dirk, three men on motorbikes then followed him in the taxi to the cashpoint. With the money in his hand, he agreed to hand it over once he had the camera back in his possession. He was given the camera, but then decided to ‘amend’ the deal by handing over a single 500,000 Dong note and jumping back into the taxi and telling the driver to move it.

I can only imagine his horror when the driver instead turned off the engine and took the keys out of the ignition, before telling him it was the Vietnamese mafia.

Outside the taxi, one of the men was now on a mobile phone. Justifiably worried, Dirk handed the remaining 1,500,000 through a gap in the window, before the taxi driver then decided to drive off with him still in the car. He’d now realised the taxi driver was also in on the conspiracy, and was probably about to drive the hapless European out of the city and to some warehouse for an unscheduled meeting with ‘the boss’.

Fearing an additional unscheduled meeting with a meat cleaver, he somehow made a James Bond-style escape from the moving taxi near some traffic lights, and took to his heels through the back streets of Hanoi.

“I had Dirk cowering in my bathroom last night,” said Steven.

“He was asking ‘what is going on, what is going on, this world is cwayzee (Dirkism)’, proper panicking thinking the mafia were also in the hotel,” he added, in his finest Sunderland accent.

It had cost him 60 quid, but amazingly Dirk got all his photos and his camera back, and somehow has a great tale of how he defeated – or should I say evaded – the Vietnamese mafia. Its not a pastime I intend to take up anytime soon.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

The next morning I was up early to look at a corpse. Thankfully, it wasn’t Dirk’s, but of Ho Chi Minh, the man seen by the Vietnamese to have saved the nation. Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum is only open in the mornings, and there are stories about how you can be queuing for hours to get a glimpse of him. Fon, our leader, said we’d meet at 8am in the hotel reception. Unfortunately, my room mate Ricky, who stumbled in during the early hours, decided to switch off my alarm clock, and I woke up bang on 8am. After getting ready, Fon had already left, so I jumped in a taxi and made my own way there.

It turned out to be one of the best things I’d done – it gave me the entire day to wander around wherever I wanted, free from any time pressures. The tour I’m on has been brilliant, but every day is fairly structured with set times and places to meet for dinner. It was nice to just be out in the city and look around for myself. Taking a taxi, rather than walking with the group, also meant I was at the mausoleum really early, and was one of the first people to visit ‘Uncle Ho’ that day.

Ho Chi Minh

Rather like Mao, who I saw in Beijing, Ho Chi Minh is still very highly regarded here, even in death. He declared Vietnam independent of the French and Japanese in 1945, but that was short lived. America supported the French and helped transport troops to the country, so Ho Chi Minh led Vietnamese guerrilla warfare against the occupiers in 30 years of war. In 1954, he defeated the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, but it ended up leaving the country divided in the north and south. Along came America for the Vietnam campaign, and after years of fighting, and the US conceding it could never win the war, he oversaw the reunification of Vietnam in 1975.

Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in his honour, and after his death his body was embalmed and laid on public view at the Mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square, where he once addressed half a million of his countrymen with his independence speech in 1945. Now it’s a shrine and pilgrimage site, heavily secured with armed guards and soldiers, and as I walked into the mausoleum, everything fell silent. Vietnamese joined with tourists to silently walk around the body of one of the world’s most historic figures. The room was softly lit, and his body was in a triangular shaped glass coffin, filled with more soft lighting which highlighted his face and hands. His famous wispy beard was very noticeable, and he looked at complete peace, almost with a smile on his face as if his work on this world was done.

I moved on from the mausoleum to walk around the grounds where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked. He embraced a very simple standard of living, turning his back on the presidential palace and instead living in a very basic stilt house overlooking a lake nearby.

Ho Chi Minh's house on stilts

He apparently insisted the palace belonged to the people, and chose to live in the small rooms that are still preserved as he left them. Beneath the rooms and amid the stilts is a large desk where he would work in the shade and meet dignitaries. Nearby is a goldfish tank, complete with fish, in the same place where his own would once swim.

The nearby museum documented his life, revealing why he is so affectionately known as ‘Uncle Ho’ by his people, and telling the story of how he travelled the world in his younger years, broadening his mind and giving him ideas on how he could lead his country in later life.

Ho Chi Minh museum

Surprisingly, it included photos and documents of the time he lived in England, staying in Southampton close to where I lived at university, and working in London’s West End. As ever, the photography in the exhibitions was impressive, using press images taken by snappers who would embed themselves with the leader for years. There was a huge contrast between those showing him in his khaki uniform on the battlefields, lining up anti-aircraft guns with his soldiers, and those showing him as the kind, caring, ‘man of the people’ that he is so well remembered for. Its easy to see why his photo and image adorns everything from the Vietnamese Dong banknotes to posters in the street, and even a t-shirt worn by Colin.

After a full morning of learning about the man, I was a bit Ho Chi Minh’ed out, so had some lunch at a café I found near a museum with a Mig jet in the grounds. It turned out to be the Vietnamese military museum, but didn’t open for another hour, so after a very Western sandwich and chips I had a sit down in a nearby park and did a bit of people watching.

Mig fighter

The museum turned out to be one of my highlights in Vietnam, mainly because everything was so easy to understand about all the past conflicts, but also because there were some fascinating things to look at – including a huge pile of smashed up American aircraft parts retrieved from crash sites.

US Aircraft piece being removed after being shot down

The same piece of wreckage today

The museum started out with primitive weapons such as spears, cannon balls and bamboo spikes that would be left in holes in the ground as a painful, and lethal, trap.

A painful trap

Through the various buildings it told how the Vietnamese managed to outwit and outfight both the French and American armies, with exhibits including a shrapnel-torn French helmet, a full US airman’s flying suit, weapons from all sides involved in war and various bombs and grenades, complete with descriptions of how they work and the devastating impact they have on those unlucky enough to find themselves on the receiving end.

Seen better days

I spent a good hour though looking at the captured aircraft and vehicles left behind by the Americans, including a Chinook helicopter, various fighter jets, Jeeps and missiles.

Captured aircraft and wreckage

There was also a selection of Vietnamese fighter jets that had been put on display in celebration of their achievements. It included a MiG 21 fighter that on one night in 1972, shot down five US aircraft, including a huge B52 bomber, in one mission. The museum and nation is clearly still proud of its achievements, and steps placed next to the jet mean you can have a good look inside the cockpit.

Inside the Mig cockpit

Its was strange to look at the controls and imagine what went on in there on December 27 that year with pilot Pham Tuam in the seat. The trigger button on the control stick for the missiles has been left visible, probably on purpose, and it’s a weird feeling to know exactly what happened with a few presses of that button.

The end result is just a few paces away, with a number of B52 engines, many smashed to smithereens, parts of a fuselage and wings all gathered together as a form of triumphant trophy.

Broken warplanes

As a Westerner, you get so used to seeing and hearing stories of American victories on the battleground, of watching films which show the US armed forces celebrating as they beat the enemy in a whole ‘good over evil’ manner.

When the shoe is on the other foot, it’s slightly surreal to see the proud US Army or US Air Force logos and battle markings in tatters on crumpled heaps of metal, and the American patent numbers and part instructions stamped or engraved on engine parts twisted and mangled by the force of impact – a reminder that once it all used to be a part of a huge fighting machine that had flown from somewhere so familiar as a friend to us all.

Shot down B52 engine

While at the museum I climbed the steps to the top of the flag tower, giving a great view over the city, before making my way through the old quarter to take in the atmosphere.

Back streets of Hanoi

Like Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi is very much a motorcycle city – everyone seems to have one, and every road is a challenge to cross. I’m getting used to it now though, with the whole ‘head down and walk’ technique proving quite useful. The narrower old streets are a bit unnerving, and every minute someone else seems to beep at you, but its all part of the fun!

On street corners, budgerigars chirp away amid the handicrafts and clothes hanging from almost every shop. The smell of incense fills the air as the sticks slowly smoulder away in doorways. There’s a real ‘local life’ feel about the place, tonnes of character and commerce blending together under the hot sun. The street names even follow what you’ll find for sale – Silk Street, Paper Street, Basket Street. It was a wonderful area to meander through on my way towards the main lake and its island temple, where yet again a few tourists stopped me to have a photograph with the tall white bloke from a foreign land!

Helping out

I bumped into Colin and Sarah on the walk back to the hotel, and we walked together, buying an obligatory ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ t-shirt on the way. That night we had our final meal together as a large group in a restaurant called Gecko. The food wasn’t great, but the dessert list was topped with a famous brand of ice cream over here, that needless to say, caused Colin a great deal of amusement throughout the trip.

Naturally, he had to have one.

Early the next morning, we had to say goodbye to so many people who had become such good friends. The lovely Verena from Germany, who made us smile so many times when she reached for her Super Mario German to English dictionary to help with conversations, my first roommate Malcolm who is returning home to run the Fleet Service Station on the M3, the Welsh girls Emma and Megan, the former who had provided so much entertainment with her dancing prowess in Hue, and Australians Tamsin and Victoria.

Changeover night

But there was a couple I was gutted were leaving: Colin and Sarah. Over the three weeks we had become such good friends – they make such an amazing couple together, both bouncing off each other with their cheeky wit and laughter, always bubbly, happy and lifting the mood around them.

I don’t think any of us will forget one of Colin’s finest moments on the trip, at a service station somewhere in Cambodia, where we were all incredibly hungry. Scanning the menus, and looking for something filling, American Assata piped up that “perhaps we should just get a few dishes and share them on the table, ‘family style’,”

The suggestion went down about as well as pork scratchings at a Bar Mitzvah, but nobody wanted to speak out. Apart from Colin, who in one move, summed up exactly everyone’s thoughts. With his hand raised, elbow banging slightly down on the table as if he was making a suggestion, he simply said “er. No.” before putting his hand back down and burying his head in the menu.

Nobody said a word at the time, and it fell silent, but afterwards we’ve all laughed so much at that moment.

With Colin and Sarah

Colin and Sarah are both individuals who even if they were not together as a couple, I would have become really good friends with anyway, and I know we’ll definitely stay in touch and meet up back home. They have another week in Thailand together before returning to Nottingham and their jobs; Colin as a tax man, Sarah as a PE teacher, and I know that we’ll stay good friends when all these travelling days are over.

There were a few tears from Sarah as we all said goodbye at 6am, before their taxi disappeared down the road. Soon after we collected our bags and jumped on our bus that is taking us on towards Laos. There’s just the small matter of a 10-hour journey to the border before then!

Hue and Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Me' Hearties on a junk at Ha Long Bay!

I’d love to be able to write about how amazing Hue is as a city, about all its culture and history, about how its Forbidden City was just as good to look around as the one in Beijing – but I can’t.

That’s mainly because there was only one bit of Hue a large group of us saw – a bar named DMZ. Located a few blocks away from the hotel, it was where we headed during a brief respite in the rain to get some lunch. The only problem was, they had a special offer from 4pm where you get a free bucket of vodka and lemonade. Well, it would be rude to turn it down!

A flaming B52 - and so the sightseeing problems began

Colin, Sarah, Ricky, Malcolm and I had every intention of taking in a bit of culture. Instead, we took in far more Flaming Dr Pepper, Double Flaming B52, Flaming Jagerbombs and delicious Skittle Bombs (Cointreau and Red Bull – try it and taste the rainbow!) than we really ever should do in the early evening.

It was accompanied by more pool, and a particularly shocking game where I was seven-balled for the first time ever, much to the delight of everyone who saw it, by our resident tour pool shark Ricky, and after a few more cocktails we decided to head back to the hotel to meet everyone for dinner.

He did me twice in the end...

Twenty minutes later, we were on our way back to the same place – its where Fon our guide had booked a table for the night, so with more free buckets of vodka and lemonade, we were well on our way for a big night.

Feeding time

I somehow managed to regain a bit of form on the pool table later in the night, with a six game unbeaten streak and knocking everyone from Aussies, Kiwis and locals off the table, as well as Malcolm who managed to pot the black on about his second shot, but by far the strangest incident while I was at the table was a bit of rough justice by the bar staff on a Vietnamese bloke who didn’t want to pay his bill.

Dragged off a chair, and making a failed bid to grab a pool ball, he was promptly thrown flip-flop-less into the street and whacked with another pool cue a bouncer had grabbed from behind the bar. Something told me its not the first time they’d dealt with unpaid bills in this manner – and a few of us made sure we kept paying for drinks as we ordered as a result!

With departure not until mid afternoon the following day, Ricky was intent on carrying on after DMZ. It wasn’t long before Emma from Wales, who joined the tour in Saigon, signalled the end of our stay there by collapsing on a table and ending up in a heap in the corner. Undeterred, she managed to stay with us as we all ended up finding a late night bar called Brown Eyed Girl – it was a bit of a dive, but the beer was cheap.

Ricky drove but still had to pay

It had gone 4am by the time we stumbled out and into the basket of a local cyclo rider, while Malcolm and I got a lift on the back of a motorbike taxi. Back at the hotel, Malcolm decided he was sober enough to ride the motorbike, and stupidly the taxi man let him. He promptly fell off and had to pay up for the damage. I had a less eventful but enjoyable chat with my parents and nanna on Skype until around 5.30am, when it was definitely time for bed!

The next day most of us woke up just before the midday checkout, and unsurprisingly headed straight back to the DMZ bar for lunch. Ricky and I demolished both a pizza and a burger meal, while everyone else filled up ahead of the overnight train ride to Hanoi.

Heading north

The transfer to the station took us past the Forbidden City, so at least we saw a bit of it. Our guide Fon was laughing – she knew very few of us had seen anything of the city, but I think she knew we also needed to let our hair down a bit, especially with all the rain. Without getting wet, there wasn’t much else we could do apart from camp out in a pub!

The train to Hanoi was scheduled to leave at 2.43pm, but as could be expected, it was running an hour late. A few of us had planned an evening of poker onboard, so we were hunting for poker chips at the local stalls. Unsurprisingly, there were none to be found, so having weighed up the ideas of playing with boiled sweets, peanuts or Bombay Mix, I spotted something hidden away at the back – cotton buds.

Everyone agreed, and £1 down and two packs of cotton buds later, we were waiting on the platform for the train. There were a lot of locals waiting too, while others walked towards us along the tracks, using the rails as a convenient cut-through.

Railway children

A group of Dutch tourists were also waiting alongside us, who then caused problems when the train finally arrived by clogging up the narrow corridor in the carriage. A few of us were stranded outside, being beckoned on by the train crew desperately wanting to make up time, but we were stuck as there was no room inside the doorway for 10 people and all our bags.

The train arrives, the Dutch prepare to annoy us

One train guard ushered me into a second class carriage, but there was then no way for me to turn round. As I shuffled down the carriage to a doorway, so I could back my rucksack in and turn around, I then got yelled at by another railway worker who must have thought I was heading to the wrong carriage. It was all a bit of a mess, but eventually I found my way to my bunk.

Poker fun on the overnight train

The journey was a lot of fun – it’s a very comfortable train, and I have to say much nicer than any of the Russian and Chinese ones I travelled in across Siberia. We even got given free water, a freshening towel, and – a pot noodle!

The only problem was our poker plan hit a snag when the table was deemed to be too small – a rack was screwed into it for water and snacks. It soon came off with the help of a screwdriver in my multi-tool kit, and play was underway. With a 50,000 Vietnamese Dong buy-in (about £1.50, so by no means mega money!) it’s amazing what you can improvise with. The dealer button for the night was one side of an Oreo biscuit being passed around the table, while the cotton buds were carefully cut in half and became worth 2,000 Dong each.

Cotton bud chips, half an Oreo as dealer button. Vegas would be proud!

With a few beers and a pot noodle, the time flew by as we had plenty of banter and laughs as the sun set and we rattled our way through the countryside and north to the Vietnamese capital. It started to get late, and the game was ended with a crazy round of pre-flop raising and betting which saw me all in with Ace Jack. I was quietly confident with the hand, but Ricky ended up taking my chips, and second-place Stephen’s too.

Steven, Malcolm and Verena with Pot Noodles at the ready!

It was 4.30am when we arrived in Hanoi, and we were immediately on a bus for the four hour trip to Ha Long Bay, a beautiful stretch of coastline to the east of the capital and a Unesco world heritage site.

Cliffs at Ha Long Bay

It was nice to see and feel the sun shining on us again as we set off for lunch on a traditional junk. We’d been asked if any of us didn’t want seafood, so of course I opted for the non-seafood option. There was everything from barbecued pork, chicken, beef stir fry, vegetables and chips. Between four of us, one of whom is vegetarian, there was plenty to go at, summed up by a series of photographs secretly taken by Alissa which made it look like I’d enjoyed some sort of private dining experience!

Hmmm, quite nice...

'Would sir like some more spring rolls?'

I'll try some of that over there?

Rumbled!

By the end of lunch, we were approaching the spectacular limestone cliffs that rise so impressively out of the sea. There seems to be hundreds of them, everywhere you look, each covered in greenery.

The bay

We stopped at one and were taken inside a cave, where apparently the stalactites and stalagmites form the outlines of animals, according to our guide. There was one that looked a bit like a dolphin, but I think much of the experience relied on an active imagination.

In the cave, or a 'Kip' as our guide called it

Colin had by far the best spot of the day however-  high above us he’d noticed what looked like the back end of a horse hanging from the ceiling. Strangely, that wasn’t mentioned in the official tour.

The Colin Craig 'Horse bum from ceiling' discovery

Back on the boat we sailed around the cliffs to a spot where we could hire a kayak canoe.

Ricky and I agreed to hire one, and off we went paddling through limestone gaps and tunnels, venturing out into the choppy sea and around some of the rocky islands.

Ha Long Bay

Emma and Megan spent much of their time trying to keep up with us, so we towed them along for a while, and at one point a fish managed to jump out of the water and into their canoe, sparking panic. It was only a tiny thing, but nonetheless we had to do the manly thing and save them from the stickleback that was harmlessly flapping about in a puddle of water at the bottom of the boat. He swam off in the sea without a care in the world.

With a few beers and photos on the sun deck as darkness fell, it was a very relaxing journey back to the port.

Sailing to shore

Dinner was at a recommended place called Bamboo Bar, which managed to serve up not only the worst meal of the tour so far, but a good dose of unintentional comedy too. They didn’t have enough chairs, so were were all perched on top of incredibly tall bar stools around tables that you couldn’t get legs under, while the swarms of staff looked like they’d never had more than three customers in at once. I had a fake bamboo tree next to me, meaning the only way I could get comfortable was by angling myself away from others. There were just six menus in the whole place, the staff lost track of who had ordered, food was arriving while orders were still being taken, Dirk was arguing because they’d asked him to pay before the food arrived, and European-style techno music was blaring almost full blast from the speakers.

I ordered a chicken club sandwich, which arrived with one tiny sliver of chicken in it, while Colin seemed to wait an age for his sandwich. At one point, a man walked through the place with two loaves of bread, quite obviously for our orders, while Ricky was left so hungry from the measly portion he tried to order another dish. Except despite being one of the world’s largest exporters of the stuff, the restaurant had managed to run out of rice. It was almost farcical, and with little else to do in the area, many of us went to bed early.

Road hog

The next day we headed back to Hanoi, with the usual game of ‘what’s on the moped’ from the bus throwing up this little beauty. Sausages for tea?

This little piggy went to market...

Rides, slides, silks and suits…

A smile from a local in Hoi An

Nha Trang, in the south east of Vietnam, gave us a lot of fun. We arrived tired off the overnight train, but there had been mention of a waterpark nearby. Little did we know it would be one of the biggest water theme parks in Asia!

Arriving at Nha Trang

It had been played down a little by Fon, who told us there was only one slide, and instead was trying to recommend various boat trips. After a bit of searching on the internet, I found the website for Vinpearl resort, complete with all its photographs of waterpark heaven.

It was a bit pricey – about £11 – but it didn’t take long to convince people, and soon there was eleven of us following my slightly childish love of slides and heading to a taxi.

The ski lift to the waterpark

To reach the resort, which is located on an island, you have to take the special chairlift. It’s a familiar design – its actually a Poma ski gondola, but it turns out its also the longest chairlift crossing over water in the world.

A huge cruise ship was parked up in the blue waters nearby, but the theme park was incredibly empty. It meant we could ride and slide to our heart’s content – particular favourites being the huge family raft tube which almost threw us off the side, a kamikaze style steep slide which had cheese-grater style joints which deprived your back of a few layers of skin, and a fairground-style ride that spins you round and upside down.

Scary stuff. The rides were frightening too

A few of the lads had discovered the ride just after lunch, thinking it would be fairly tame. It gave us a bit of a shock – partly as every now and again, while you were barely held in upside down, there was a worrying jolt and a metallic sound which didn’t sound too healthy. It spun you around upside down until most of your blood was in your head, far longer than anything back home, and eventually it brought you back down to earth.

I love theme park rides, and Hull Fair is one of my highlights every year, but there was something about that ride that just did not feel safe. Everyone felt the same, but we decided we’d tell the girls that it was good fun and get them on it at the end of the day.

Potential death trap

It was a decision which could have backfired – it meant we’d have to put our lives in the hands of some dodgy Vietnamese ride technology yet again, but it could also mean we’d lose quite a few friends. As it happens, they all seemed to enjoy it far more than us – Fon our tour leader even shouting for the ride operator to send us up again for another dose!

Thankfully we didn’t, but after a full day of swimming, sliding and a bit of volleyball on the beach, everyone was shattered. We had a few beers at a nearby bar, and then tried, unsuccessfully, to find a late bar, before ending up in a sidestreet place being beckoned in by a big burly Australian.

He told us how he’d moved there having met the love of his life – a picture of him and his Vietnamese wife on their wedding day hangs on the wall – and that while he didn’t make any money, he loved the country and decided to stay. There was a gaggle of older blokes outside, each with their own Vietnamese ‘love of their life’ hanging off their arm. Ricky decided he would tell everyone he was Russian, and occasionally changed from his Yorkshire accent mid way through a sentence while talking to a French bloke. It was amusing, but all a bit odd, and we went for bed.

The next day was spent feeling quite ill. Having been out the night previous, I’d missed taking my anti-malaria tablet so thought it would be a good idea to take it as soon as I remembered the next morning. Big mistake! An hour later, just as I reached a restaurant for brunch, I broke out in a fever and sweats with one of the worst headaches and sickness. It left me feeling washed out for much of the day.

A pretty horrendous journey on an overnight bus (see my previous post!) took us to Hoi An, the silk and tailoring capital of Vietnam.

Cheapest beers ever!

It’s a historic port city, with huge Chinese and French influences and a great deal of history. Its built up around a river, along which boasts some of the cheapest beer in the world. At the equivalent of just 15p, it was rude not to indulge in some, especially as the weather was on the turn.

75p for a round - even I got one in!

The city has around 400 expert tailors, and is famous for its made to measure clothes. Many of the girls were excited about a full day of shopping amid colourful – and I have to say, very impressive – dresses and skirts. After looking around at suits, and finding out I could save a few hundred pounds on a tailored one from the UK by having one made here, I realised it would be stupid not to have one made.

She could have done with a stool...

I shopped around and was quoted around $160 for a suit. At £100 it was still quite a good deal, but I ended up bumping into Dirk who’d just splashed out $220 on two suits and three shirts. He took me to the shop and introduced me to Lu, and demanded she gave me a good deal. I’ve never made a suit from scratch before, and it was strange to be shown all the different fabrics and to have to choose a colour and appearance.

Measuring time

I went for a charcoal grey material, made of a cashmere wool and silk blend, and was quoted $140. I ended up knocking that down to $100, and then getting a tailored shirt thrown in for an extra $10. I was shown some design catalogues, picked the look I wanted and told to come back the following day at 11am for a fitting.

Before I’d left the shop, my material was already being cut and prepared and being laid out on the floor by Lu who was quite possibly one of the bubbliest, friendliest shopkeepers I’ve met out here. I don’t quite know how they manage to make clothes so quickly overnight, but I was about to find out.

Somehow overnight this becomes a suit and shirt!

The next day Ricardo, Dirk, Malcolm and I decided to hire cycles, so at 11am I rode back to the shop for my fitting. The shirt and trousers were already hanging up waiting for me, and fitted absolutely perfectly. Its so hard to find trousers that fit me well, and they alone were worth paying the money for. The suit jacket was handed to me but needed a few alterations for it to fit properly. I was told to return at 5pm, so in the meantime we all went for a ride to a nearby beach.

I want to ride my....

Having had plenty of experience of watching cyclists dicing with death through the windows of various buses in the last few weeks, I had a fair idea of what to expect, although thankfully the roads around Hoi An are relatively quiet.

On my bike

It was nice to take to two wheels and make our way through the countryside, with fellow tourists giving us a wave and a smile as we passed by. It was only a dollar to hire a bike for the day so it made sense to see a bit of the region while we could, and after a few Larue beers over the last few days, it was some much needed exercise.

It was about 8km to the nearest beach, and as we entered the village we got flagged down by someone at the side of the road with a whistle. Thinking it was the Vietnamese police, we pulled off into a shed, where someone was waiting with tickets. Apparently, no bicycles were allowed at the beach. It was a lie! It was only a short walk though, so we paid the 10p per bike they were wanting and headed to the sands.

Rubbish beach

We needn’t have bothered. As Ricky said, it was ‘probably the worst beach he’d ever been to,’ and I had to agree. The weather had undoubtedly battered the coast – one of the locals told us it was the tail end of a cyclone – and the waves were still rough. Along with some washed up palm trees, there was rubbish everywhere, and on closer inspection it soon became clear where it was all from – China.

The message was missing

The horizon we were trying to see through the mist and spray was over the greeny-coloured South China Sea, and all the tins, plastic bottles and glass containers washing up on the Vietnamese shore would indicate tonnes of the stuff is being thrown into the sea further up the coast and ending up littering what would otherwise be, on a calm and sunny day, a beautiful bit of coastline.

We carried on up the coast to see if it improved, but it didn’t. Instead, we headed back towards Hoi An for some lunch, but taking time to get photos of local farmers and fishermen working in the surrounding paddy fields, while some of the local cows took an interest in us.

Meeting a few more locals

We had lunch at a bar and restaurant across the road from the hotel. It was one I’d spotted as it was advertising a free pool table on the door, and it was about time some of our competitive streak came out in us again. After a few frames, it started raining outside again – and it just didn’t stop. It was absolutely torrential, so much so the roads began to flood. Running across the road to the hotel opposite was enough to soak you through. Most of the group had taken refuge back in their rooms, but most of the group, me included, also had to get back into town for 5pm for a final fitting.

Thankfully I still had my cycle parked outside the hotel, so having dug out my Berghaus again, cycled off through the puddles to Le Loi street, where my suit was hanging on a door waiting for me. This time it was too tight – and meant another trip back at 7pm. In between, I had to return the cycle, so either way I knew it meant a drenching. Sure enough, it was still hammering down, and I arrived back at the shop with all the girls laughing at me. They sat me down and gave me a bottle of water, taking my raincoat and hanging it to dry off.

The suit and swimshorts look is in, right?!

The suit fitted really well, with sleeves the perfect length and no wrinkling at the back. It’ll probably be a different story by the time I go back to work, but within a few minutes a courier was at the shop ready to pack it off to the UK. It was $28 to send it via sea mail, but thankfully I had a brainwave and asked how much to send another kilo of belongings from my rucksack. It was $2 more, but meant walking back to the hotel.

Thankfully Lu said I could borrow her bike, so back I went on her traditional ladies cycle, much to the amusement of the hotel porter when I arrived. Twenty minutes later, I was back at the shop with the pay as you go mobile phone Dad got me when my iPhone broke, my unused electric shaver, some books and a few more souvenirs and papers. Every little helps when it comes to keeping the weight on your shoulders down!

With my first ever made-to-measure suit on its way home, dinner was, unsurprisingly, at the same bar and restaurant opposite the hotel as we had lunch, and the evening was spent playing pool as it continued to lash down outside. There’s no wonder the staff at the restaurant joined the hotel staff in waving us off the next morning – we certainly gave them a lot of business during our short stay!

When it rains, it pours - especially on the mountain pass

We headed off on a four hour journey north to Hue, pronounced ‘Huway’ due to the French influence in the area. The rain was still incessant, meaning we couldn’t take a spectacular mountain pass and instead had to travel through Asia’s longest tunnel, at about 6.9km.

It came out onto some tight hairpin bends in scenery that seemed familiar, and then Malcolm confirmed why. We’re following the same route that Top Gear did when they filmed in Vietnam, and I distinctly remembered the stretch of road we were on. After a few unnerving twists and turns, we arrived in Hue – and still the rain continued to pour.

Sleeper Bus Hell!

I’m writing this with my heart in my mouth. My good friend Colin just grabbed my arm with genuine fear. We’re travelling on what might possibly be the most frightening journey of our lives.

We’ve had to take a night sleeper bus to Hoi An, as the night train which was supposed to take us there was cancelled after the railway line was hit by a lorry last night. Travelling around Vietnam is proving to be an experience.

All smiles before the journey!

I’m currently typing as we’re climbing mountain passes above the sea in the dead of night. The lights were switched off at 7.30pm, its pitch black and I’m laying in my sleeper bunk, while Colin and Ricky are next to and behind me. Its fair to say we are all clinging on to the metal railings as tight as we can, while the driver of the bus a few metres away is happily overtaking on blind bends, talking on a mobile phone and generally swerving all over the place.

I’ll admit, writing this blog entry is partly to take my concentration away from the dramas going on through the front windscreen, partly to look back on in the future and remember just how petrified many of us are, and partly so that if this laptop is found in the wilderness below one day, there will be a record of exactly how it ended up stuck in a tree.

The news that we were to change from a comfortable sleeper train to this worrying form of transport was posted on the Gap Adventures noticeboard in the hotel lobby this morning. Its news that wasn’t particularly well received by anybody, mainly as nobody was looking forward to an overnight train ride, let alone one on bumpy roads in a tightly packed bus.

Colin and Sarah before we set off

Despite our annoyance, we all got onboard when it picked us up outside the hotel at 6.30pm. For most of us it’s the first time we’ve experienced a sleeper bus, and I think for many of us it could possibly be the last. Its clearly built with shorter Vietnamese people in mind – my bed isn’t quite long enough for my six foot frame, and the three abreast formation is cosy to say the least. We all ended up laughing about the situation, apart from Colin who failed to sleep a wink on the train, and knows he’s in for another sleepless night on a bus.

I can just about straighten my legs!

The bus is laid out with about 30 bunks, which are a bit like unadjustable thin hospital beds. Your feet tuck under the head of the person in front of you, while there’s a little rack to balance snacks and bags. I chose a bed on the bottom left near the front of the bus, offering a grandstand view of some of the ‘oh my God’ moments that were about to unfold in front of us.

The bus was full when we left the second pick up in Nha Trang, but that doesn’t seem to matter here. If you have money, you can have a seat, even if that does mean you’re on the floor inbetween everyone else who has a proper seat. Soon we were picking up Vietnamese locals needing a lift, until we got to a point where all the aisles were full of people. I had one man right next to me – invading my ‘personal space’ territory, happily watching as I tapped away on my laptop, giving me a cheeky smile every now and again.

Poor quality picture, but you can just see Colin's new friend in the aisle!

The next eye-opener was when we stopped for fuel on the outskirts of Nha Trang, when many of us noticed that a large portion of the bus appeared to be held together by parcel tape.

Sellotape had a field day

It was a fact confirmed by Dirk, our German tour mate, who was unfortunate enough to be placed at the back of the bus, squashed between Vietnamese families and under a dripping skylight that was covered with tape. The bottom of the bus was also full of holes.

Our holy bus!

The main eye-opener was the driving. While Mongolian roads a few weeks ago were scary for their general lack of rules and order, Vietnamese drivers do at least tend to stick to traffic lights and speed limits. But it’s the increased number of mopeds without lights and a need to overtake anything in the way as quickly as possible that causes problems here, while braking is only to be done at the last moment, if indeed it’s done at all.

With no proper motorways, the end result is motorway-style driving on a grand scale along a road with more twists than the A46, and more potholes than the moon.

Quite often our bus is driving along the wrong side of the road, oncoming drivers keep flashing their full beam at us, the sound of a loud horn is so frequent it just becomes background noise. The feeling as we career around a blind bend, overtaking a van or lorry, only to see headlights suddenly appear, is quite hard to explain. And every few minutes, his stupid mobile phone ringtone goes off, to which he answers and has a cheery natter with someone.

I know road rules and driving standards vary in different countries, but this is in another league!

Colin donned his special hat for luck

Its only 10pm and for those of us still awake, our nerves have pretty much gone. As we climbed up a mountain pass, with a sheer drop into the sea below us, lorries roared past with just an inch or so clearance. Slower, more careful drivers were just an irritant for our driver, who made it his mission to overtake as quickly and as dangerously as possible.

At one point, the whole bus rolled to one side after he misjudged a bend, making many of us think we were heading for the roadside barrier and a bit of a swim. That’s when Colin grabbed my arm, thinking the end was near.

“This is honestly the most terrified I’ve ever been,” he said.

Ricardo said he was genuinely contemplating getting off and hiring a car for the rest of the journey.

“The oncoming lights just keep getting bigger and nearer,” he laughs, nervously.

I keep telling myself the driver must know what he’s doing as he drives this route for a living. But theres still a nagging feeling of doubt hanging over me.

Some of the others have nodded off, blissfully unaware of all the drama around us. Maybe I should do the same. Hopefully I’ll write more tomorrow.

Smiles from Victoria, Tamsin and Cindy. Colin reached breaking point!

We survived! Thankfully, I’m able to write more – we made it to Hoi An almost three hours later than scheduled somehow. We were all just glad to have made it in one piece. Most of us actually got some sleep, although there was one moment in the middle of the night where there was a huge blast of horns, the brakes were slammed on and in my slumber I remember a swerving feeling before the distinct rumble and bumpiness of going off road.

I didn’t actually open my eyes – I didn’t want to see what was going on and decided if it was the end, I’d rather be asleep!

I did open my eyes at about 4am though, with the feeling of something crawling over my feet. It didn’t feel too small either, and with the help of my camera display screen being used as a torch, examined the area where I had my feet.

A cockroach.

I tried to shoo it out but it wandered off somewhere, so I went back to sleep. I’m obviously getting used to living alongside the bugs here now!

This was all combined with quite possibly the angriest bus driver I’ll probably ever meet, who ironically demanded we take our shoes off before getting on to his cockroach infested vehicle. There were a number of occasions where his face scrunched up and he yelled something in Vietnamese, and with a flick of his hand yet another person had been reprimanded for taking one footstep too far in a flip flop.

It all ended in a playing field somewhere in Hoi An, where our luggage, if it wasn’t soaked already from the hold of the leaky bus, was thrown into the mud. We were dumped without any onward transport to our hotel. Someone from the bus company was shouting at our tour leader Fon, who by now was looking exasperated. I could tell it hadn’t been the easiest of journeys for her either – it’s the first time she’d had to take a sleeper bus too.

Hoi An in one piece - just!

It turned out Gap Adventures had been promised a transfer to the hotel, but once the money had been taken and we’d reached the destination, the bus company and angry driver decided otherwise. We trooped around the town to our hotel, and then on for some breakfast at a lovely French café by the river.

Fon said she wasn’t too hungry.

“I had two cockroaches in my bed last night, and they weren’t there this morning. I think I’ve eaten them…I’m full of cockroach,” she joked.

It was certainly a journey few of us will forget.