Still not cut my hair since May.
23.12.2007 - 03.01.2008
From Saigon we caught a “sleeper” bus North to Mui Ne, on xmas eve. The bus was quite a strange affair, as it had bunk bed type seats.
Unfortunately they had been built to accommodate Vietnamese as opposed to westerners. Very uncomfortable. Not a lot of sleeping going on.
Mui Ne was a pretty palm lined bay, although there wasn’t much of a beach to speak of.
We didn’t care though, as we’d booked a fancyish hotel to stay at, with a pool. Was really good to be able to just relax by the pool for a couple of days. Part of the the deal with staying at the hotel was that we had to attend the compulsory Christmas Eve BBQ, bumping up the price a good bit. Was actually quite entertaining, and the food was pretty good too. The entertainment was quite strange. First they had a guy dressed up as santa come and dish out sweeties. He was a lot skinnier and shorter than I remember him and he had a very big pointy moustache.
He also ran between the tables with his hands aloft, kind of squealing, like he’d just scored a goal, which was quite unusual. It was all good fun. The best bit was the prize draw, where the host drew room numbers, got the winners up on stage, and forced them to sing Christmas carols, that the band didn’t know the tune to, and that the winners only knew the first line of. Then in an effort to save the day the host burst into a rendition of “We wish you a merry Christmas”. But once again the band played a version I’d never heard before, and the host only knew the ‘we wish you a merry xmas and a happy new year’ bit which he sang very loudly and proudly at the chorus, and mumbled very quietly over and over again fitting it to the verses. We were in hysterics.
Christmas day was spent lounging around the pool in the 30 degree heat which was excellent. Then we watched the fisherman out at sea, in their ridiculously dangerous little baskets, floating by at sunset.
We skipped the turkey and had a traditional Vietnamese hotpot that night which was very good.
After a few days in Mui Ne we headed further North to Nha Trang, another beach resort. Unfortunately the weather turned a bit crap since we got here and so I’ve spent most of our time here moaning and checking the internet for weather updates. Nha Trang’s quite a big city right on the beach. The town itself is pretty naff, with lots of tourist traps round every corner. The beach is massive, and looks pretty good. However, we’ve only been down there once, to look. It’s been grey and cold, and even rained a couple of times which has not been good. We did however venture out on a fishing trip which was fun. It was ridiculously cheap.
We chartered our own boat all day, with guide, crew of two, fishing equipment, and lunch, all for around $50.
We weren’t very successful on the fishing front. Jenny caught one fish that was about the size of a 50p. I was almost resigned to returning having caught nothing. Was so frustrated to the extent that I was considering throwing the rod in, as Jenny kept getting nibbles and was doing a bit of gloating, and I hadn’t had anything all day. Luckily, she wanted another 5 minutes before heading back, which was enough time for me to catch a less than impressive, but considerably bigger fish than her….. which I rubbed in for the rest of the day.
We spent New Year's eve in a cheesy bar that handed out stupid hats for everyone to wear. Was a good laugh though, and we met up with a couple of Scots, which meant that the drinking got suitably out of control.
The DJ got an earful from all of us for preferring Abba's Happy New Year after the bells, as opposed to Auld Lang Syne. We ended up at a party on the beach and feeling pretty unwell all the next day. Was good fun though.
Last night we ate off the street. It was basically a little family with big pots of fresh seafood set up on the pavement, with only the main road separating them from the sea where the fish had been caught. Can't get much fresher than that. We were seated on little childrens plastic chairs at a tiny table, having picked a selection of shellfish - 2 lobster, about 10 scallops, and a couple of snail-like things.
The snails turned out to be the best. It tasted amazing and was all cooked in front of us on a BBQ, and we got it all for under a tenner, which is incredible value.
Today we're killing time before catching another weird sleeper bus North to Hoi An. Hopefully by the time we get to Hanoi the sun will be behaving itself, or I'm going to start getting very upset......
Saigon, Cu Chi tunnels, Mekong Delta
16.12.2007 - 23.12.2007
Saigon is a bit mental. Really bustling big city. There are so many motorbikes here. Crossing the road is an absolute joke. There are few traffic lights, and even where there are ones, none of the bikes take any notice.
They clearly are taking notice of what's going on around though, and so it is possible to cross with caution going very slowly and letting them weave behind and in front of you. Very dangerous though. There are apparently 8 million people and 3 million motorbikes in the city. They're just everywhere, and the rules of the
road don't seem to apply. They drive the wrong way down main streets and even drive about the pavements which means really there is no escape. They passed a law, only 5 days ago, meaning that they all must wear helmets. So they're all wearing really new shiny colourful helmets which is quite funny.
We've done quite a bit of wandering round the city. It's a really busy place, and tere are lots of tourists. There seem to be predominantly US tourists which I suppose makes sense. The area of the city that we're staying in is a bit of a mecca for tourists, and consequently it's a bit crap, but the centre is quite nice, and the shopping is pretty good. Not that I'm particularly interested in that. We spent most of our first few days just trying to get across the roads. The food here has been really good.
They do a soup called Pho Bo, that is a clear broth with noodles, beef, beansprouts, chili, aniseedy leaves which seems to be the staple for the locals. It's magic. Been getting a bit sick of it recently though because we've eaten so much of it.
They also have the cheapest draft beer in the world here. We sat at a little street bar that was full of both tourists and locals all tucking into the stuf. IT came in a plastic jug, about a litre big, and cost 20p, which is pretty good. Supposedly it gets cheaper further north, so very much looking forward to that.
We went on a tour of the famous Viet Cong tunnels at CuChi the other day. The site is about 1 hour drive out of the city, to the North West. We booked up with one of the many tour agencies, and went on one of the 30 or so bus loads of people that go there every day. Apparently they get 1000 visitors a day, which is pretty crazy. Our tour guide was pretty crazy as well. He (allegedly) was part of the US lead South Vietnamese army that fought the Viet Cong around Cu Chi. He gave an amazingly detailed account of the history of the war, and indeed the preceeding wars that Vietnam have been involved in. He was a fountain of knowledge. Not only that he was a veteran of the American War who had fought for the US collecting injured soldiers and returning them to the base. At the end of the war, even though he had lived in New York for a time prior to the war, and was invited by his comrades to return, decided to stay in his homeland. He was captured by the Northern Communist forces and spent 4 years after the war in a reeducation camp. So he said anyway. Even if it wasn't true it was a really good story. He certainly knew his stuff.
I was a bit sceptical about the tour, but the fact that the tour guide was so good made it so much more interesting. The Viet Cong were clearly extremely ingenious and skilled in the art of war, which makes sense as they had spent the 20 years prior to the American invasion fighting off the French on their own soil. They accepted that they didn't have the immense fire power of either the French or the US, but used their knowledge of the countryside to defeat both. The Cu Chi tunnels are an intricate system of tiny tunnels - 1.3m high and 60cm wide - built on three levels, 3m, 6m and 8-10m, running for over 250km along the cu chi river and into the jungle. They had been building them for the 20 years preceeding the US occupation. In fact the US built a base right on top of the network. So at night the Viet cong would emerge and steal weapons, etc anything they could get their hands on. Even when the US eventually discovered the tunnels, they tried everything from Napalm, Tear gas, Grenades, Smoke Bombs, even sending men called 'tunnel rats' or sniffer dogs down into the tunnels. Despite the masive casualties they remained in the tunnels until the US withdrawal.
They had boobytraps all over the shop, and were clever enough to smoke american brand cigarettes and use US soap to confuse the dogs that were used to try and trace them. All amazing stuff. I was hanging on every word the guy was telling us. It was great. Even Jenny was pretty interested in the stuff we were shown. Not so much the hour lecture on the bus. She slept and listened to her ipod instead.
We were taken round various bunkers, and shown an abandonned m41 tank. The highlight of the tour was the tunnels themselves. We were able to crawl through 100m of the tunnels. There were escape routes every 30m which you could get out of if you were so inclined. Many were. It was absolutley stifling, and really really cramped. Quite difficult to move.
It was also pitch black at some points and we decended twice, to 8 or so metres. Was very claustrophobic. We both made it to the end with another few, dripping with sweat. Quite a lot of people bailed out early. It just reaffirmed how incredible the Viet Cong were, as I think the tunnel we crawled along had been heightened to allow us to get through, and it was absolutley tiny, even for Jenny who's a midget. Was a really great experience.
The next place of interest that we went to was the War remnants Museum. This is dedicated to the American war. I thought it was really interesting. Jenny didn't.
They had various tanks, and other equipment that the US abandonned when they withdrew from Vietnam. One of the bombs was ridiculously big, about 3 times the size of me. It was used to wipe out areas 100m in diametre. Absoultely ridiculous. The main body of the musem is a gallery of photography of various aspects of the war. Some really amazing pictures. There was a lot of emphasis on the terrible after effects of the chemical weapons used by the US - agent orange and napalm. There were a lot of gory pictures of children born with deformities as a result of the effects of these, and terrible skin burns suffered by those who were subjected to napalm. There were a few really horrendous shots of American GI's involved in the Mai Lai massacre, where the US 'search and destroyed' a village, executing 504 civilians in the process, many of them women, children and elderly. The place is a really good exhibition of all that was wrong with the Vietnam/American war, and war in general.
After exhausting all of Jenny's patience with musems and war, we booked ourselves onto a 2 day tour of the Mekong Delta. Probably the less said about this the better. It was absolutely crap. Both Jenny and I were as bored as each other with this. The Mekong River and the floating market thereon were quite interesting. Unfortunately we only spent about 2 hours doing this. The rest of the time was spent on the boiling hot bus, or on boats. Not boats on the Mekong, but ones ferrying us to crappy factories making crap - coconut candy factory, rice factory, fruit orchard, rice krispie factory!?! It wasn't their fault obviously, but it wan't really what we'd gone to see.
We spent ages at each of these extremely uninteresting places where they tried to sell us the stuff they were making before getting back on the bus/boat for another 2/3 hours. Complete waste of time and money. What made matters worse was that we had to get up at 6.30am both mornings to go see these places. So we were both really tired and crabbit. The Mekong itself was pretty cool though, having slagged off the rest of it. We took a boat that weaved in and out of the women all selling their goods to other passing vessels.
It was massive. We also went to see another market where they were selling snakes and other interesting animals.
The Vietnamese seem to eat anything. We've seen snake on the menu already, and snake wine so hopefully will get to try that at some point. Then as we get further North supposedly dog may start appearing on the menu. Think Jenny may draw the line with that, I'm not decided yet........
09.12.2007 - 16.12.2007
Sihanoukville is a town down in the South of Cambodia, about 4 hours by bus.
The buses deserve a quick mention. The drivers are literally constantly on the horn. Every person they pass is given several loud blasts of the horn. In between the horn you have to suffer the blaring Khmer Karaoke that emits from the TVs, that most of the tone deaf locals enjoy droning along to. If it's not the music then they have weird pantomimes playing on the TV where they all the characters have Hitler moustaches. All very bizarre, but seem to be hilarious to the locals who piss themselves laughing every couple of minutes.
Sihanoukville itself is a bit of a dump, however a short moto ride away is Serendipity beach which was where we were headed. We hadn't used any motos up til this point, but we couldn't see any tuk tuks so just had to go for it. Motos are just guys on motorbikes whose bikes you jump on the back of to get lifted around he place. Not particularly exciting, although pretty dangerous considering we had our massive rucksacks with us. We took one each and they balanced the bags on their fronts and we hopped on the back with our daysacks. Was a bit concerned that we weren't offered helmets, but they were wearing them. Especially as hardly any of the moto drivers wear helmets. We made it to our destination unscathed though, so it was all good.
Serendipity beach wasn't much to look at as beaches go. Very dirty both on the beach and in the water. Was pretty cool at night though, as all the restaurants that the beach backs onto put big comfy wicker seats an low tables on the sand right in front of the sea, and at night you couldn't really make out the plastic bags and chip boxes floating on the surface of the sea.
It was a pretty lively place, which might have had something to do with the fact that the cheapest beer in Cambodia can be found here, as it is brewed in Sihanoukville. 50 cents a glass of draught, which was well received.
There were quite a number of children patroling the beach at night selling various things, and lots of people missing arms and legs crawling along the sand begging for money. There was more begging here than we've experienced anywhere we've been in South East Asia. Literally every couple of minutes from the moment you sit down. Quite difficult to deal with. Lots of the children had sticks that were filled with fireworks that they set off every night on the beach. This was a bit disconcerting given children that could barely walk semed to be allowed to have them. There were also a few twats firing them at each other and waving them about right next to where we were eating that wasn't funny.
We managed to find a better beach without as much litter and free from rivers of vile smelling rivers connecting the restaurants to the sea. It was much quieter. We spent a few days chilling there, before taking a boat to Bamboo Island an hour off the coast.
This was much more secluded, and we stayed the night in a very basic A-frame bungalow right on the beach. Was really tranquil, and there were cows and chickens roaming about the place and on the beach. There was one big bull that clearly wasn't to be messed with. We watched as a little 5 year old local got a bit too close and was met with a full butt to the face. Apparently it had split his nose open, and there was a bit of comotion as the locals all gathered round to see if he was ok. We were a bit further away, and it was quite funny from our vantage point, because the bull just stood staring at them as if asking 'does anyone else want a go?' It was punished by having a rock thrown at it. Think the boy was ok. Didn't get much sleep on the island as there was no fan in our room. Aboslutely baking hot. I got up in the middle of the night for a pee in the sea, and was greeted by loads of tiny twinkling white lights flashing in the water. They were amazing. Like little underwater fireflies. Thought I'd maybe overdosed a little too much on the cheap beer and was seeing things but Jenny said they were some kind of shrimp. They were pretty cool though.
We returned to the mainland and spent another couple of days dossing about before returning to Phnom Penh for a night, rising the next day to catch a bus to Saigon. We took a trip to the central market on our free afternoon in the Cambodian capital. It had all the usual stuff, and some very unusual stuff. There were women sitting selling all sorts of insects to eat. Big insects.....and spiders.
Tarantulas are a delicacy in Cambodia. I took a few pictures of them, and was asked for a dollar, so I told her just to give me one. She gave us one and a big cricket for good measure. We took them back to the hotel to try. We each ate a leg of the tarantula.
It was pretty manky. It had quite a lot of hair on it. Having been the big man and bought the thing at the market, I wasn't quite so brave about it when it was out of the bag. It was a bit big for my liking even dead. We both ate quite a bit of the cricket, but it wasn't great either. Thy both just tasty really salty, crunchy and a bit like they'd been kicked about the floor a bit. Try everything once though.
The next day we got up and headed for the bus station an travelled the 6 hours over the border to Saigon - officially called Ho Chi Minh although nobody here actually calls it that. The border crossing between Cambodia was remarkably smoothe as it was all taken out of our hands by the posh bus company that we went with. It was also quicker as we had already purchased our Visa in Cambodia which is a requirement of entry to Vietnam.
04.12.2007 - 09.12.2007 27 °C
From Siem Reap we took a bus South 4 hours to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. We stopped off for a bite to eat in a tiny little place where Jenny had her best opportunity yet to prove that her pre-trip boasts of wanting to eat crickets and insects, weren't just hot air.
But once again she bottled out by developing a mystery stomach ache at the crucial moment. When we arrived in Phnom Penh there were about a million tuk tuk drivers ready to pounce as soon as we got off the bus, in fact one drove along side the bus before it had even stopped and Jenny agreed through sign language to go with him. We ended up with him as our tour guide for the various sights of interest around the city the next day. We met up with him the next morning and were taken about half an hour out of town to the shooting range. This was an extremely bizarre experience. We drove down a little track off the main road and turned into a completely unmarked drive where a gate was opened and shut very quickly behind us. We were ushered to a table in what was a bit like a little cafe. We were gawking at all the various guns adorning the far wall when the guy who seemed to run the place brought us over a menu each with lists of various prices for various different weapons that we could have a go at. He recommended the AK-47 Kalashnikov for me with 25 bullet magazine, and for Jenny an M16 semi automatic with 15 bullet magazine. There were various other weapons from handguns to tommy guns you could choose from. You could also shoot a bazuka at the mountain, or throw a hand grenade into a duck pond. These were all a bit out of our price range however. So we went with our hosts recommendations and donned camouflage jackets then were taken into a long darkened room with a seat at one end and a target about 50 yards away at the other end. Jenny was sat in the seat first, the guy loaded it up, then the gun was put in front of her, and off she went.
Same drill for both of us. He let us have a few goes on semi-automatic, then flicked a switch to automatic for the second half. Was pretty exhilerating, especially as mine jammed twice, which was a bit disconcerting. When he flicked it to automatic it was really kicking back into the shoulder. It was also mental how many bullets came out and how fast they did with one squeeze of the trigger.
All good fun. Expensive fun though, $30 each for the 5 minutes that we spent there.
After the shooting range we went to see the killing fields at Choeung Ek, on the outskirts of the city.
This place was really depressing. The area was used to execute and dispose of Cambodians in mass graves during the Khmer Rouge's regime from 1975-79. Very very sobering. Felt very guilty about firing the weapon just before going there. There's not a lot to see, however the history of the place and the huge gaping holes in the ground where mass graves have been disinterred, make it a pretty thought provoking site. At the peak of the Khmer Rouge's ethnic cleansing process, they were executing 100 people a day at the site. One of the graves had 450 bodies found in it.
There is a stupa - memorial - to those who died which is a tower that contains some of their clothes and several hundred skulls. I think all in all 14,000 bodies were discovered at the site, many of them women and children. All very chilling.
It only got more horrifying when we went to visit the prison at Tuol Seng in the centre of the city. This place is probably the creepyiest place I've ever been.
It's an old school that was transformed into a prison where thousands of Cambodians were brought to be interrogated and tortured by the Khmer Rouge, before eventually being driven to the killing fields to be executed.
The classrooms had all been transformed into various types of prison cell and they have room after room of black and white photos of those who ended up in the prison.
The sheer number is astonishing. There were also many women with very young children in some of the photos. They have also preserved some of the torture devices including amongst other things a box that housed various scorpions, venemous spiders and centipedes that was put on the victims'heads. There are also various extremely disturbing photos of people who have been tortured to death thrown in for good measure. Whilst the list of Pol Pot's security regulations are a window into how paranoid and ridiculous the Khmer Rouge was.
The place is just sickening. But it is a testament to one of the most barbarous genocides in recent history, so I don't suppose that's very surprising. We both left feeling pretty shellshocked by what we'd seen.
We spent a couple of days recovering and dossing about Phnom Penh. It's not a very nice city so far as places to see, however there is so much going on, that it was great to just sit and watch locals going through their everyday lives, markets etc.
The number of children begging and selling books is a bit depressing, and you can't go 5 minutes sitting in a restaurant without being mobbed by them. We got chatting to one of the booksellers who had amazingly good English. He looked about 12 but said he was 16. He told us that he sold the books to pay for school, and that he got to keep any money that he made from it. He said that it cost $7 a month to go to school. So we bought a couple of books off him. Unfortunately he borrowed a book off one of his less friendly colleagues who found this out and came and pestered us to buy his books, which ended in him threatening to kill me......which was nice. Turns out the books are pretty crap. I've got half way through my one only to find that there are about 25 pages missing. Bit annoying.
The food in Cambodia has been pretty good. Quite like Thai, but the curries are thicker. All good. We went to a weird little restaurant where their speciality is a soup that you make yourself called chnnang dei. They're supposed to bring the raw ingredients over and a big clay pot is put on a stove and you just mix it all in however you like. We obviously looked like a couple of clowns that that was going to be beyond, so all the staff came and watched as one of the girls made it for us while we sat and watched. They were all pissing themselves. Was quite funny.
From Phnom Penh we travelled to the south coast of Cambodia and Sihanoukville, where we've been relaxing by the sea on the beach for the past week. Don't have time to update about that but will in due course. We are heading back to Phnom Penh tomorrow for a night before venturing over the border to Vietnam.....