Leaving Saigon was a relief, but I quite liked the place – it’s not so different from being in London. The place does your head in but it’s fun at the same time, you’re one of many anonymous people, everything you want is at hand, and everything costs more than it should. Just like temples, after a while many cities start to seem the same. At least in Saigon, unlike London, people don’t look at you like you’re about to suggest eating their child when you say hello. I have been getting better at saying hello to strangers since I’ve come away, partly because people are generally much more receptive to contact here than I felt at home. Gavin, a butcher and a nice bloke I met on a camel safari in Rajasthan, said that he had become less and less patient with people being standoffish when he greeted them, so he’d adopted a policy of shouting “Well f*** you then!” at them if they didn’t respond. I haven’t got to that stage yet, but some people can be very rude (some people have looked at me like something they just scraped off their shoe when I smiled at them), and it often seems only fair to return the compliment.
When you do get talking to people, two things usually always happen. You can be talking with the same people for hours, go for dinner with them, make travel plans, discuss life, the universe and everything, without knowing their names. Usually in this rather backward way of doing things, you’re introducing yourselves as you say goodbye. The other thing that happens is that e-mail addresses get swapped all over the place, written on receipts, in diaries and match books, on the backs of hands and occasionally even in address books. When people write their e-mail addresses they’re always accompanied by where you met them, as the simple fact is that much of the time, two weeks later after you’ve met ten more people, you’re stuffed if you can remember who email@example.com was and how you met them. This is all part of the ‘single serving’ friend phenomenon (see Fight Club) that Nick talked about in his blog a while ago – nicely packaged short-term relationships formed while travelling, that can extend to travelling together and becoming closer friends, or usually be as simple as having some company for a few hours.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt since I came away, it’s that beaches and me don’t mix. After a brief period of enjoying the swaying palms and the frothing surf washing over my toes, sitting with sunglasses on reading a good book and drinking a banana milkshake, boredom sets in. This usually takes about forty-eight hours, after which time I realise that all of my possessions are damp, I have sand in my underwear, no bugger is interested in saying hello and that frothing surf is just an annoying racket – it’s a bit like Shirley Valentine sat drinking wine and looking at the sunset, and feeling it’s all a bit rubbish after all. With this in mind, I chose to avoid the Sinh Cafe (after a travel company that organises much of the tourist travel in Vietnam) tourist trail up the coast and take a different route, heading where I hadn’t decided yet.
I left Saigon for Dalat, in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, after reading some promising stuff about it in Lonely Planet, and having good memories of similar places in India and China (i.e. hilly, cooler, a bit off the beaten track). I wasn’t disappointed – Dalat is green and lush, cool and relaxed. The town is surrounded by greenhouses and coffee plantations, so a major fix of fresh vegetables and salad and good Vietnamese coffee was possible after the greasy noodles of Saigon. As soon as I got off the bus, I was met by a man with a big smile on his face who introduced himself as an Easy Rider. I had read about the Easy Riders in Lonely Planet – a group of motorbike tour guides with good English who conduct tours around Dalat and further afield, with you riding pillion and them telling you everything you need to know. The next day I arranged to go on a one-day tour of Dalat with Binh (a.k.a Dunhill on account of his predilection for Dunhill cigarettes and his Dunhill baseball cap).
After our one-day tour around Dalat, to see waterfalls, coffee plantations, silk farming and production, minority villages and other sights, I decided to take Binh up on the offer of a five-day tour up through the Central Highlands to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, ending in Hoi An. I’m in Hoi An now, having got here a few days ago after a fantastic trip. We covered over seven hundred kilometers on the back of Binh’s bike, with all of my baggage strapped to the back, in all weathers, mostly rain.
The first leg of the trip, from Dalat to the village of Lak, took us through green hills and a succession of quiet hill-tribe (montagnard) villages, stopping along the way to peek into people’s houses and shops, and take rests from the arse-numbingness of the bike ride to note points of interest or grab a toe-curlingly strong Vietnamese coffee. Many hill-tribe villages were established along main roads by the Vietnamese government in the wake of the Vietnam war, ostensibly to ensure access to services for these communities. While they have for the most part been ‘Vietnamised’ – i.e. they now speak Vietnamese, they have their own characteristics, dialects, dress and customs, though it can be difficult to tell different tribes apart.
Sitting on the back of a motorbike for long stretches presents certain complications and frustrations; you have to be sure to align your arse cheeks centrally on the seat as rearranging yourself when doing sixty kilometers an hour is not ideal – shuffling bottoms might bring you both off the bike. You have to look around the head of the person riding the bike so you can anticipate bumps in the road, lean into corners, and also get a better view, so you’re leaning back and forth while trying to keep your arse central. You may slip forward in your seat and end up hugging your rider, leaving him with less space to sit on himself and ultimately pushing him off the seat, much as dogs tend to end up owning most of their owner’s bed space during the night. And finally, you have to ignore when you can no longer feel your own bottom, and wait for a break so you can walk about a bit and bring the circulation back. Fortunately, Binh was great at anticipating these breaks, hence frequent stops accompanied by the line “OK, now we stop and rest your bum”.
Lak village was very beautiful, skirting the sides of a large lake in a green valley, home of the M’Nong minority. The houses of the village are built on stilts, similar to village houses in Cambodia – long, open-plan places for sleeping, eating and socialising. Lak was a very tranquil place, welcoming to the ten or so tourists there, but hardly making a fuss about it. Dogs and pigs wandered the street, kids played around in the lake, and the rhythmic thump-thump-thump of rice husking competed with the concussive sound of techno music from one of the houses in the evening air. Binh and I stayed in a large open room in a modified tribal house, and were brought a fantastic dinner of barbecued pork, noodles and rice. I was told that the Vietnamese are early sleepers and early risers – but while Binh was in bed by nine, I heard people footling about until the early hours outside.
From Lak we headed to Buon Ma Thuot, a big town and site of a major North Vietnamese victory during the Vietnam war that precipitated the defeat of the Southern Vietnamese forces. The town was dominated by a large war memorial. During the trip I saw many war memorials, commemorations of the fall of Saigon thirty years ago this year, and the omnipresent image of Ho Chi Minh. I’d been thinking once in a while that Ho Chi Minh looked a little like Colonel Sanders, when I read a story about a Kentucky Fried Chicken rep who made the same remark to a Vietnamese official when setting up the first KFC franchise in Vietnam – the deadpan official apparently said “No. Ho Chi Minh was a general, not a colonel”.
Moving on from the busy, industrious and rather charmless Buon Ma Thuot, we headed for Kon Tum, a town inhabited by seventy percent minority hill tribes, and saw some of the villages on the outskirts of the town, as well as a Catholic church (Catholicism was introduced to Vietnam by French missionaries) and traditional tall Rong houses.
I do think about more than just food, but the meal we had in Kon Tum was outstanding, and on the trip in general I had the best food I’ve eaten in Vietnam, some of the best I’ve ever eaten. A meal is not just about the food. It’s the place, the people, what you’re drinking, how hungry you were to begin with, what you’d been doing that day. The meal in Kon Tum was based around fantastic fresh wild meat, caught by local hill-tribes, barbecued on the table top and eaten with a sharp lime and chilli dip, chewing fresh lemon grass, and drinking cold beer from an ice bucket. The people that ran the restaurant saw few enough tourists that when I started to eat, I had four people sat looking at me, or the other Western couple also touring with Easy Riders. Smoke from the barbecue formed a cloud below the ceiling and the rain fell outside, while in the back of the restaurant, a quiet chatter came from about fifteen tables where everyone was eating the same.
Maybe it’s because eating occupies all of the senses that a good meal forms such a vivid memory. Some of my strongest memories from this trip include eating phenomenally good potato and aubergine curry in the Lonely Planet restaurant in Kovalam, pink bananas on the train across the Western Ghats to Tamil Nadu, grilled fish in Goa, dahl and rice and banoffee pie in Bhagsu, five different dishes on an empty stomach in Lijiang, Khmer curry and chicken with cashew nuts in Siem Reap, and most of the things I ate on this bike tour. Food is brilliant isn’t it?
So finally, from Kon Tum, Binh and I headed for Phuoc Son on the Ho Chi Minh Trail for a night, and then on to Hoi An a few days ago. The stops themselves paled into insignificance next to the journey. Binh was great company, highly knowledgeable, and very charming – to me, and to the numerous people whose houses we invaded so I could take a look around. Binh would sweeten people with gifts of cigarettes or food, translate my questions, and offer background on places and people, pointing out in numerous cases the improvements that have been made possible to people’s lives since the Vietnamese government’s loosening of restrictions on private enterprise in the nineties. While some of the people we met were very poor, mainly the hill-tribe communities along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, most people own and can buy and sell land, most appear to own their own vehicles, and, at least according to Binh, many Vietnamese are better off nowadays than they have been for a long time.
It’s only by doing a trip like this, and particularly with a Vietnamese guide, that I was able to meet some of the people I did. I’m not claiming for a moment that I was entering uncharted territory for Western tourists – the places we saw were mostly in Lonely Planet, and we saw other tourists along the way, though very few. This tour was the closest I got to the experience of the Aidcamp in February, when we were in rural Tamil Nadu – people were curious and bemused, though friendly and open, and on arriving at the much more touristy Hoi An a few days ago, the feeling of being like some rock star getting rapturous welcomes everywhere I went was replaced by the standard feeling of being just another white guy.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a strange experience at times – riding along the new road that has taken the name of its dirt track predecessor, in hard rain and through sometimes threatening-looking mountains, felt a bit other-worldly. The road, only a couple of years old, cut a path through the Central Highlands, sometimes criss-crossing with the original Ho Chi Minh Trail, sometimes overlapping, always taking a more direct route – the original trail was hand-made, this new one was helped along with heavy machinery and explosives. At times in isolated areas we saw villagers walking the roads, one teenage boy was walking on all fours – I heard dueling banjos in my head.
The word Vietnam, for most people, is synonymous with the war that happened here. I never knew too much more than what I’d seen in the American movies – undoubtedly a biased perspective on things, even though Binh assured me that Platoon was accurate. Even though Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces thirty years ago now, signs of the war are still everywhere, from the numerous memorials, through the amputees, to the scrap bombs and shrapnel still being dug from the land, to the very land itself. The landscape of Vietnam is a hotch-potch of original old forests and newly planted coniferous woodland, after extensive re-planting of trees to cover the ground that was scorched by napalm. Perhaps most interesting has been that coming to Vietnam I have learnt how its history is intertwined with French colonialism in South East Asia, Communism and the country’s relationships with the former USSR and China, US political interests, and the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. While its been great fun, its also been a great history lesson.