Uncle Ho Can’t Go, Lesbians and Threesomes

30 01 2011

After hearing so many horror stories about the “death” bus to Laos I decided to book a flight straight to Luang Prabang. Unfortunately the first available flight was not until the 2nd so I still had a few days to kill in Hanoi. I decided that the only thing I really wanted to do was visit Uncle Ho’s mausoleum. The Vietnamese pay the Russians a ridiculous sum of money each year to maintain their previous leader in pristine condition – this is at the expense of health or education budgets where the money might be better spent; especially for such a poor country. Ho Chi Minh had even specified in his will that he didn’t want this sort of deification.

Unfortunately it was only open early in the morning: I missed the window of opportunity the first day, the second day (after walking most of the way there) I discovered it was always shut on a Monday and after that it was shut for Tet (Vietnamese new year). Uncle Ho and I were not going to meet on this trip. The rest of my time I hung out on my laptop and tried to get my blog up-to-date.


The busy streets of Hanoi - with all the markets selling Tet decorations

On Sunday I hung out with Nick – he was Dutch but his English accent is so good I didn’t even realise he wasn’t British until I was chatting to some Dutch girls and he suddenly joined in speaking Dutch. The mystery was solved when I realised that he had grown up in the UK. In the evening I arranged to meet up with Greta. She was the last remaining person from the Sapa and Halong Bay trips – everyone else had moved on. We went and grabbed a bite to eat and then went for a few drinks in Hair of the Dog. I didn’t see any one else from the hostel that I knew and eventually we called it a night. After hearing so many horror stories about people getting mugged on motorbikes, I was worried about Greta getting back to her hostel so I made sure she got a taxi back – this worked out okay.

Despite the fact that everyone I’d known from my earlier trips had moved on, it was very easy to meet people in the hostel. I often chatted to three Australian girls who had come back from Halong Bay with us –Angela, Paige and Kate; and a Scottish guy who was eponymously named Scott. He was hanging out with Kiwi bogans quite a lot and before he left I suddenly noticed that he had a similarly shaved and yet long haircut. I spent most of my time, however, hanging out with Nick, Swiss Sarah and Brigitte, an American girl in my dorm who had come over to Hanoi with her brother to teach English. They were still looking for a job and staying in the hostel until they were sure that they could sort something out.

I wouldn’t normal publish deeply personal stuff in my blog but for the purposes of the next anecdote, it seems necessary. Basically I’d overheard Angela on the bus coming back from Halong Bay telling one of her friends how she lost her virginity: at the age of 15 she’d had a threesome with a 22 and a 27-year old guy (I believe this would be called statutory rape in most countries!). I’d not let on that I’d overheard the conversation but since it was such good gossip I happened to mention it to Nick. At one point we were outside chatting to them and I could sense that Nick was about to mention that he knew how she’d lost her virginity so I preempted him. “Oh my God! You overheard us?” Quite why this was a surprise when I was sitting one seat in front of them and their voices weren’t that hushed I’m not sure.

A bit later on in the evening Nick and I were sitting with Sarah and Brigitte chatting away and Nick mentioned ménage à trois (I have no idea what we were actually talking about – normal lad’s talk I expect). “What’s a ménage à trois?” Sarah asked. Brigitte also didn’t know and I spotted an opportunity for some mischief. We dared Sarah (who has a very innocent air about her anyway) to ask someone in the bar if they’d like a ménage à trois tonight. We dared her the cost of a beer. And then I saw Angela at the bar and said, “No. Wait! We’ll dare you two beers to ask Angela”. Sarah wasn’t going to ask “It must be something rude otherwise you wouldn’t be offering money.” In the end, I called Angela over and told her that Sarah wanted to ask her a question. The dare got even better when Angela was also ignorant of the expression and went up to the bartender to ask “What’s ménage à trois?” At this point, Nick and I were pissing ourselves laughing – even more so when Angela came back saying “Ha ha! Very funny!” We paid up and the two girls went up to the bar to spend the spoils. I’m not quite sure what it says about the American, Australian and Swiss education systems that they don’t know these basic phrases.

In the evening we ended up in Hair of the Dog once more a had a great time dancing away. The next day, I finally managed to get my camera fixed. The streets of Hanoi were strangely quiet – most of the locals had already left to go and visit their families out-of-town for Tet. I said goodbye to Sarah and Brigitte as they headed off on separate trips to Sapa and I didn’t see Nick all evening. I needed to get some new drinking buddies and struck up a conversation with some other people who had also returned from Halong Bay with us – Fiona, Shelly, Cam, Nik and (I think) Alex. They were playing a Laotian card game called Sabidee. You played in pairs and everyone was given four cards. The dealer then drew another four cards and threw them face-up on the table. The idea was to replace the cards in your hand with those on the table until you had either four of a kind or a straight of the same suit. There were supposed to be four cards on the table at all times but in the scramble to grab them this often didn’t seem to be the case. Every so often no one would want any of the cards that were remaining and these would be put aside and another four cards were drawn. Once you had a winning set of cards you had to signal your partner so that they could say Sabidee (Laotian for “Hello”). If the other team worked out what your signal was they could call you out on it and if they were correct you lost a point. Otherwise they lost a point for guessing your signal incorrectly. In addition the winning team got a point – the first team to 10 was the winner.

I watched the game for a while before Fiona dropped out and I had a go. Our secret signal was just to tap the other person’s foot – since most people expected a facial or hand gesture this completely fooled everyone and we were also able to throw up a smoke screen of fake gestures. It was a lot of fun!

Out in Temple Bar

When the bar shut we all headed off to Temple Bar where two of the girls shocked us (and a lot of the locals) by making out on the dance floor. I hadn’t had any inkling that it might happen. We stayed in Temple Bar quite a while and I got quite drunk before finally calling it a night and heading back to the hostel. The next day I was feeling quite rough and spent most of the day watching films in the lounge area. People had been watching Get Him To The Greek all week but it was the first time I’d actually seen it all the way through – I laughed my head off, it was perfect hangover fodder. I did see Nick briefly, although in my hungover state I wasn’t my chattiest ever – he’d taken a night off the previous night. Finally, it was time to say my farewells and I headed off to the airport for my flight to Laos – Luang Prabang beckoned.

Halong Bay After Some Delay

27 01 2011

Due to the late arrival of our train back into Hanoi we’d missed our trip to Halong Bay. It didn’t matter to me – I still had time to go on my visa and wouldn’t ordinarily have done both trips sequentially – but Michele had to get her flight in 2 day’s time. I rebooked for the next day and, after some deliberation, Michele did too. We then had a whole extra day in Hanoi so we decided to visit the Hoả Lò prison. This was nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War – many American POW’s were imprisoned here – including some guy called John McCain.

The museum had no special resonance with me – the first section dealt with how the French had imprisoned political prisoners here in appalling conditions; the second with the American inmates and told how they were treated exceptionally well in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Since I’d not heard of the prison before and was unable to distinguish between the truth and communist propaganda (a lot of the words used were inflammatory and presumably were scribed by members of the Vietnamese politburo), I came away not knowing what to believe. Subsequent online research showed that the prison was notorious for torturing GI’s and thereby flouting the Geneva Convention; hardly the Summer Camp image that the Vietnamese were promoting.

The band at the water puppet show

Afterwards we decided to check out one of the water puppet shows that Hanoi is famous for. We had half an hour to wait until the first showing so, in typical fashion, we went for a quick beer at Le Pub (another chain of bars in Vietnam). The water puppet show was kitsch and bizarre but it was fantastic and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Even just watching the band was a lot of fun – let alone watching the puppets (the controls hidden beneath a shallow pool of water) as they played with fire or were chased by dragons and buffaloes. I spent a lot of the performance cussing my camera which was steadfastly refusing to focus on anything. It’s never been great at night photography but I seriously needed to get it fixed.

Water puppets

After the show we decided to head back to Le Pub where we got chatting to an English couple, Ben and Krista. We had such a good laugh with them that we headed off out to dinner with them at the market. This was a Vietnamese hotpot where you cook all the noodles, vegetables and meat yourself in a boiling broth – there was a bit more chicken in the chicken than I was used to. The others all claimed they were going to eat the head but they all bottled out when it was actually cooked.

Chicken hotpot

We’d signed up for beer pong at our hostel as we went past but dinner took us longer than we expected so Ben and Krista headed home for bed and we were too late back to join in. As was becoming my normal itinerary I hung around the hostel until the bar closed and then ended up in Temple Bar for a few; but since it was an early start the next day I didn’t stay too long. We kept seeing some of the English lads from Sapa from time to time – their friend Mike had just arrived from England and they’d managed to lose him somewhere and kept scouring the bars in the area in the hope that they’d find him.

The next day I was up bright and early ready for the Halong Bay trip. This was a chance to see the fantastic UNESCO World Heritage Site where thousands of impressive limestone karsts spear the sky – jewels spat from the jaws of protective dragons according to local legend. Since the boat trip was organised by the hostel and everyone was of a similar mindset it was also a chance for a booze cruise. It was extremely busy that day – two days beforehand it had been Australia day so any Aussies at the hostel had taken the previous day off to recover and joined today’s trip – and we filled two boats (there were more than 50 of us). These were linked together at the side and we set sail into the heart of Halong Bay. I always knew that the English lads from Sapa were going to be on the tour but it turned out that Greta and Sophia also came. Apart from Scottish Andrew, the whole Sapa crew was present which was awesome! And Andrew had been replaced by Mike, who the boys had finally found back at their hostel at 2am the previous night.


Halong Bay


It was cold on deck and I actually put a glove on my beer hand so that I could keep my hand warm. This turned out to be a useful reminder since Simon, our tour rep, informed everyone that no right-handed drinking was allowed – it was going to be that sort of trip! After a fantastic lunch it was time to go for a swim. I’m not a huge water baby and having seen people coming back onto the deck shivering away there was no way I was going to get in the water so I opted out. The boys and Michele all leapt off the side of the boat into the icy water below. The rest of us huddled in our coats and watched on.


The boys swimming in the bay


With the swim concluded it was time to go kayaking. I was quite happy to stay on deck drinking but I decided to compromise by drinking in the kayak. We kayaked around for a bit and then Simon led us to a cave where we parked up and went for a wander inside. It was fortunate that me and one of the other guys remembered to bring our flashlights – it was pitch black and potentially dangerous at some points. I would often wait by danger spots and guide the other people through behind me.


All the kayakers outside the cave


When we got back to the boat it was time for showers – unfortunately mine was bloody freezing so I didn’t stay under too long – and then it was time to resume the drinking properly. I chatted for a while to some Kiwi bogans – despite their weird partially shaved haircuts and the fact that they’d been drinking since the bus left Hanoi that morning they weren’t that bad – and once everyone else was assembled we played the drinking game 21 (one day I will put the rules up on my blog). This went fine until Greta decided that vodka would be better than beer – after that my memories of the evening become more sketchy. I do remember playing an absolutely massive game of Ring of Fire where one of the cards meant that you had to act like Stephen Hawkings (very PC I know). I managed to pick this card and since I was probably already losing full control of my limbs it didn’t actually take much in the way of acting ability. Eventually I decided to head off to bed whilst the party was still in full swing – I clearly wasn’t going to be able to drink much more that night!

Despite everyone saying to me the next morning “How the hell are you today?” I didn’t actually feel that bad. At one point some of the guys on the 3-day Halong Bay trip disembarked and headed off to Cat Ba island and the people who’d stayed on the island the previous night joined our boat. I played Shithead with two of the new arrivals, Veronica and Craig – at least they were playing with the normal rules which was more than the English lads were doing.

When we got back to the hostel Michele left for her flight back to Hong Kong and I was once again in search of new drinking buddies. I chatted to a Dutch guy, Nick, and his friend (whose name now eludes me) for a while but they were off to Snake Village for the evening. They tried to persuade me to come too but I had no real interest in a place where they skin live snakes in front of you and give you the opportunity to eat the beating heart from their chest so I passed up on that and stayed in the hostel. There I met up with an American girl, Nicky, and her Swiss dorm mate, Sarah. We drank at the hostel until closing and then Nicky and I went out to try to find where everyone else from the hostel was out. It turned out that everyone was in the Irish bar over the other side of town and our brief bar hops to Hair of the Dog and Temple Bar didn’t find much in the way of a party. Still, we had a good night before heading back to the hostel.

The Legend of Poo Sue

25 01 2011

Our train arrived early in the morning in Sapa; we met up with the boys on the platform and headed out of the station to find someone brandishing our names on bits of cardboard. I was pleasantly surprised by the weather. Ever since I’d started heading north the prevailing comments about Sapa on the backpacking circuit were that it was bloody freezing – “It’s SNOWING up there!” was something I heard a lot, mostly from people who hadn’t actually been. As is the way in the 21st century, I ignored the babble of the ignorant masses, followed the mantra of DYOR and JFGI’d it: the interwebz told me it was as warm as 12℃ and it didn’t drop below freezing even at night; snow did not seem very likely.

The sun was shining and there was no real wind: this trek is going to be fine, I thought to myself. How wrong could I be? What I failed to take into consideration was the hour-and-a-half bus ride from the train station along high winding roads to the actual town of Sapa. I’d love to be able to describe the mountain town of Sapa to you but I can’t: a dense bank of chilling fog shrouded everything; our visibility was less than a metre.

We clambered out of the bus into the meagre warmth of the tour operator’s office. The sliding doors were often left open and the small electric heater (commandeered by a mother cat and her two skittish kittens) did very little to alleviate the chill of the outside world. There were a few computers in the office; so, as is my wont when I’ve been deprived of Internet access for half a day, I quickly jumped online and updated my Facebook status. In the office we met Sophia, a French Canadian girl who was teaching in South Korea, she wasn’t going to be doing the trek with us; she’d opted to stay in a hotel instead of a home-stay so her route would be different. A few minutes in our charming company, however, and she changed her mind – she decided to join us on our trek instead. I’m sure she rues the day.

After breakfast up the hill in a little restaurant – we were lucky that our table was right next to the fire – we had the option to take a shower. Greta was first off the mark but when she came back and said the showers were freezing cold I decided to opt out. It was waaay too cold for a cold shower. Everyone decided to head over to the market to buy some warmer clothes. Our first mission was to actually find the market – we were told it was right next to the church, but we couldn’t see the church through the fog until we were right underneath it. I bought myself some gloves but apart from that I was relatively well kitted out for the climate – the advice from trekking in Patagonia still stood me in good stead “Be prepared for any weather conditions”. Then it was back to the office for a short bus ride to the start of our trek.

We’d been accompanied all morning by the local indigenous women and when we got to the start point a huge gaggle of them were waiting for us. Whether they were the same women who had been walking around town with us or another group I’m not sure. We set off down the steep hill and pretty soon the trail became a slippery, muddy quagmire. Mud began to cake our lower legs and it was hard to maintain your balance. Some of the women, who were now accompanying us on the trek, decided to help keep us upright by clutching our arms. I wanted to do it on my own (I knew there would be an eventual cost of some sort for their assistance) and a little way down the hill some locals sold us a bamboo pole for half a dollar. This was far and away the best 50 cents I’ve ever spent: it helped a lot and I was able to get down the hill without going completely arse over tit – although it was often a close-run thing.

One of the bridges we crossed on the trek

The fog lifted a little as we headed down the hill but stayed with us for most of the day. As did the treacherous, slippery, sucking, oozing mud. It would probably have been a very easy 13km trek had it not been for the mud. At least all the extra movement kept us warm and pretty soon we were all shedding clothes. And the occasional lessening of the haze gave us a good impression of the fallow paddy fields (due to the climate they can only grow rice once a year in Sapa) that we were walking past on all sides. I could only imagine how beautiful it would be in the summer with unimpeded vision and people working the fields.

The foggy paddy fields of Sapa

At one point on the walk up the hill we encountered large group of small children. Greta decided to get a photo of them and show them it to them on the camera. They gave beautific, radiant smiles and it looked like butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. “Ah, how cute,” we thought to ourselves. Then one of them stuck out a hand and uttered the only English word he knew: “Money”. The cry was soon taken up by the rest of the group and we were assailed on all sides by the discordant mantra of “Money! Money! Money! Money!”. They sounded like a flock of seagulls clamouring for a single piece of fish. The angelic creatures had, with seconds, transformed into evil, possessed brats like something out of a horror movie – perhaps Children of the Corn. We quickly left them behind and moved on.

It wasn’t far to walk after our lunch at a local restaurant and before we knew it we were at our home-stay for the night. Once we’d kicked off our muddy boots we were all thrilled to discover that there was a pool table there. Until we actually played on it… it was so bad that I don’t think anyone actually finished a game; we all got fed up with the table’s vagaries and the awful cues before anyone got on to the black. Our home-stay family were friendly enough but they never really mingled – perhaps it was because we were such a large group and clearly able to entertain ourselves.

Some of the farm animals we passed on the way

We sat around the fire to begin with – trying to get some warmth back into our feet – and told a few stories to get to know each other. Sophia asked the English boys if they were full-time lads. They quite liked the term but I don’t think any of us had heard it before. “You know?” she continued. “Full-time lads.com. My English friend is always going on about it.” More bemused looks and, after a Google search, I can confirm that this domain doesn’t actually exist on the Internet – although there is a page on Facebook. We’d also been talking about how the South Koreans always travel in huge tour groups and Sophia explained this by telling us that they’re very family orientated and will all go on holiday together. She told us about one of her trying experiences in Korea when she tried to buy a single bun from the bakers but he kept telling her that she had to buy five. “No, I just want one,” she said. “You mean five,” he said. In the end she gave in and had to leave the store with five buns even though most of them would end up in the bin. It took Sophia 10-minutes to tell us this story because we kept interrupting her with silly questions and asides. I think the beer that we’d been drinking was starting to kick in.

We were playing some music on my laptop when Sophia proclaimed that Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem was music for old people. “No they’re not,” I started to argue before I suddenly realised that, by any yardstick, I actually was an old person in the eyes of anyone else around the table. It was a sobering moment.

Another story told was about a Chinese girl called Sue who’d been at a party that a friend of Andrew’s friend had been attending. (Yes this totally has the ring of an urban myth!) At the party she went to the toilet upstairs but when she’d finished her business it wouldn’t flush. At this point there were other people waiting for the bathroom. Embarrassed by the colossal size of her bathroom offering and not wanting to leave the evidence behind she decided to scoop it out of the bowl and throw it out the window. With the problem solved, she washed her hands and rejoined the party. Most people were gathered in the conservatory and as she mingled amongst them everyone started crying out in surprise and pointing up to the glass roof: where Sue’s sizeable excreta was prominently on display; gradually sliding its way down.

This story had extra resonance because our guide, who was sitting next to fire knitting away, decided to give the others some animal names. When she got to David she decided that he wasn’t an animal but that he was Buffalo Poo. Clearly she had the measure of him but none of us could have imagined what Buffalo Poo (or Poo Sue as he was quickly rechristened) would do later on that night.

After a fantastic spread of Vietnamese food – washed down with beer and what our host called Happy Water (a rice whisky/wine) we decided to play some games. I taught them all Paper Telephone which was a huge success: although, much like the guy in Superbad, James seemed to have an unhealthy obsession with drawing penises on whatever sheet came his way. Afterwards we played the game where you have a famous person’s name stuck to your head. Unfortunately one of them fell off straight away so we quickly whispered a new one around the circle that only the rest of us would know. It was much later in the game when we realised that “Adolf Hitler” which had been whispered around the circle quite successfully until it got to James, was understood by everyone past him to be “Mickey Mouse”. We were all so drunk at this point that everyone got their name because someone else inadvertently gave it away.

Some of the guys decided to hang their socks on a pole over the fire which was fun until one of David’s socks fell into the blaze and became little more than a charred mess. He was quite drunk at this point and someone said that maybe he didn’t need both his zip-off trouser legs either. He decided to burn the right one and grabbed it from where it was hanging over the balcony and prepared to throw it into the fire. “Wait!” I said, “That’s my trouser leg!”

Poo Sue then decided that a game of beer pong was in order but the penalty for losing was to finish off the rice wine. He lost, so the penalty was his: he duly swigged the wine back and almost instantaneously became a mumbling, gibbering wreck. Connor and Alex took him to the bathroom and left him in there. By this point we were all watching more Inbetweeners on my laptop. 10 minutes elapsed and they decided that they probably should check on him. When they got there the bathroom was empty and as they walked past the kitchen our hostess handed them a big bowl of water – this could not be a good sign! They found Poo Sue upstairs in his bed where he’d proceeded to throw up on the slatted floor – some of which had dripped down to the floor below, near to where our host, Mr Chin, was busy watching tennis on the television.

Michele got up out of bed at this point (she’d gone to bed early) and helped clean up Poo Sue’s mess, whilst the others posed for pictures with their unconscious friend. I’m not sure we set the best example for future home-stayers. After the Poo Sue pandemonium was over and he was passed out safely in his bed, the rest of us watched a few more Inbetweeners on the laptop before finally calling it a night and heading up to the loft to sleep.

The next day was only 7km walking but this time it was mostly uphill and the loathsome mud never left us. This time I did use the services of one of the indigenous women to help me up the hills. I couldn’t believe how strong she was for such a slight woman. The good news of the day was that the fog was not so severe down in the valley and we were able to get some decent views of the valley. Unfortunately my camera really wasn’t behaving well that day – I really needed to get it repaired – so I didn’t get many photos.


The full-time lads and their helpers


The end point of our trek was a waterfall but it was too cold for any of us to contemplate swimming so we all just sat in the restaurant and tried to ignore the annoying attempts of the locals to sell us more of their wares. I did have to give my helper “mum” a tip though for her help. Back at the main village, we all had a shower this time (luckily it was hot this time around) and then chilled out in the office on the Internet and playing with the mother cat and her kittens before having a last meal together.


The cat and her kittens at the tour operator's office

Then it was back to the train station for a short wait before our train back to Hanoi. At one point Greta came back from buying some supplies for the trip, looking a bit white. She’d just seen a pig being killed in the street. It was not an uncommon sight to see the sacks of pigs squealing away at the side of the road but to actually witness the slaughter must have been an uncomfortable experience.

On the train we hung out in the boys’ room and watched an entire season of Inbetweeners. This was interspersed with a few trips to the buffet car where we were paying varying amounts for the same beer – dependent on whether they actually applied the tourist tax or not. Something that I also noticed, which hadn’t been so apparent on the way out on the train, was just how many staff there were on the train. I suppose it was the first clear indication to me that it was still a communist country – with jobs just given out for the sake of it rather than for reasons of efficiency. Finally it was time for bed – although I didn’t sleep as well as on the way out – possibly because we stopped so often and eventually ended up with a 4-hour delay. Which was a shame because it meant we couldn’t make it on time for our trip to Halong Bay that morning…


Hanoi – City of Thieves?

23 01 2011

Hanoi – the pearl of the orient or another dirty, traffic-choked Asian city? I never really could tell. I kept trying to like the city but after getting lost for the umpteenth time on the rabbit warren of twisting narrow streets (this was particularly true of the old quarter where my hostel was based) and stuck behind yet another motorbike that first blocked my way down the pavement-less streets and then inexplicably decided to park in the middle of the street; it was hard to maintain any feelings of equanimity.

Our introduction to the city hadn’t exactly been favourable either. We arrived at the bus station at 8am, not particularly well rested, and caught a taxi to our hostel. The taxi driver had a clearly rigged meter – it would clock over 3 times within 2 seconds – and we spent a whopping 170,000 dong just to get to the hostel. We decided just to pay it rather than get out in the middle of nowhere and hope that the next cabbie was honest. I later heard numerous stories of people getting mugged on motorbikes when they were drunk. One guy from our hostel (for some inexplicable drunken-logic reason) got on a motorbike at Temple Bar, a mere 2-minute walk away – the next thing he knew someone else jumped on the back, they drove to an alley in the middle of nowhere, and he was robbed. A similar, but worse story, came from one of the Aussie girls that I knew. She had been put on a bike by someone from the hostel (she assumed he knew the driver) and then the motorcyclist’s girlfriend jumped on too. This seemed okay until she started trying to grab her purse. Further along the way, another two motorbikes came along on either side and when they got near the other hostel where she was trying to go to she handed him the money quickly and jumped off. The girlfriend chose this moment to grab the purse again – causing all the contents to spill on the floor. They were then scrambling around on the floor fighting over the contents when the girls on the other bikes decided to join in. It was the girls not the guys who were particularly adept at groping her all over and she really wonders what would have happened if a Swedish couple who had been making out in the alley hadn’t come to the rescue after hearing all the commotion.

Another story I heard whilst there concerned “Jamie” – an English conman. He’d just been recruited by the hostel to be a tour operator for some of the Halong bay tours. He’d been travelling with 4 Swedish girls and some other blokes that they’d picked up along the way but pretty soon it was just going to him and the girls. Apparently his modus operandi was to befriend female backpackers and slowly defraud them of money before eventually stealing their stuff and running off into the night. Fortunately someone recognised him (apparently he’s wanted by quite a few police agencies) before he had time to do too much damage to the Swedes and he was immediately evicted from the hostel.

Apart from the dishonest taxi-driver, I had no real problems in Hanoi and I was there a long time – and often out late and mildly tipsy. After I’d completed my mission to buy some new boxer shorts to replace those lost in Hoi An – apparently in Asian sizes I’m an XL; maybe I’ve just put on weight – we spent most of the day playing pool on the excellent 5th floor lounge area of the hostel. The hostel – the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel Ma May – is one of the best I’ve visited (certainly in this region) and gets the coveted Barry Seal of Approval. Apart from that and booking trips to Sapa and Halong Bay we didn’t do a lot all day. Towards the end of the day we had a surprise visit from Dan – he was going to Sapa that evening but it was cool to catch up with him and a shame that our paths were unlikely to cross again.

It was Sunday – or Fun Day as it was branded at the hostel – and they were giving away free beer. I repeat: they were giving away FREE BEER. The poetry and juxtaposition of those wonderful words should never be under-rated. It was just bia hoi (a weak tasting fresh beer that they brew in Vietnam) and there were only two kegs of it but obviously I did my best to get my fair share. After dinner at a reasonably cheap and very tasty restaurant down the road, we met Tegan – a loud, sometimes abrasive Australian girl – and headed to Temple Bar after the hostel bar shut at 11pm. The bar was absolutely chock-a-block – a mix of tourists and locals – and we had a great time boogying away. We also ran into Chris and Vic again from Jean’s birthday celebrations in Hoi An.

Tegan dancing with the locals at Temple Bar

The next day was similarly uneventful – I had lots of time in Hanoi and didn’t feel the need to rush any tourist activities – and we just bided our time before the night train to Sapa. We did get a final visit from Audrey at the hostel – it was the last time I saw her; she’d be gone to Cambodia by the time I returned from Sapa. I’d met her almost a month beforehand: it seemed strange to think that I wouldn’t have her acerbic wit poking fun at me any more. At the tour’s appointed hour we waited at reception but nothing seemed to be happening – eventually Michele went up and enquired, it seemed like they’d forgotten us. They eventually bundled us into a taxi who dropped us off at the old Backpackers Hanoi hostel. That was the plan at least but his vague directions as to where it was when he dropped us on the main road were far from helpful. Fortunately the hostel was old enough to still be in the Lonely Planet so after a few enquiries for directions to match up with our poor map reading skills we finally found it.

There we were introduced to a big group of English lads that were on our tour – Connor, James, David and Alex, a Scottish guy, Andrew and an Aussie girl, Greta. The English boys were only 19 but as usual I seemed to fit in quite well with people nearly half my age. I’m never sure if that is a good or a bad thing! At the other hostel, they also seemed to have forgotten about us so we all ended up walking to the train station to pick up our actual tickets. It all seemed very chaotic. Greta, Michele and I were sharing a compartment together. The boys were all at the other end of the train and we didn’t see them again till the next day. Our 4-berth compartment was also being shared by another TWO Vietnamese – we assume the elderly woman was the man’s mother and they topped and tailed on their bunk.

We spent a lot of the early part of the trip watching the Inbetweeners – it was part of Greta’s essential introduction to English culture. The Vietnamese guy could see us laughing away crazily but it was clear that he couldn’t really understand it without the subtitles. At one point he  went off and came back with a beer for me. The girls thought this was a bit sexist that he only offered it to me – but I’m sure they were just jealous. Besides he could hardly have afforded another 2 beers as well. I gave him a few Yo‘s back for the gift and eventually returned from the buffet car with beers for the girls and another one for my new Vietnamese friend. It seemed it was too much for him – he didn’t finish the second one.

Finally it was time for bed and I was rocked to sleep by the movement of the train. I needed a good night’s sleep to be ready for the next day’s trekking.

Huế and Cry

21 01 2011

Michele, Audrey and I had all been on separate buses to the old imperial capital city of Huế; Sod’s Law meant that my bus was 2 hours later arriving than their buses. My bus was late leaving Hoi An itself and then we stopped so that the driver and his assistant could get a motorbike out of the luggage storage. They then spent half an hour fixing the wheel back onto it so that the motorcyclist could go on his way – it seemed a bit above and beyond the call of duty with so many other passengers on the bus. A few more random stops in the middle of nowhere and a random police check were all it took to really delay us. Although the bus journey was during the day, it was actually a sleeper bus (probably because it was possible to continue all the way to Hanoi) and I had the pleasure of sharing a 3-person bed with 2 cute German girls. They were a bit young though so I barely exchanged any words with them. Maud had been on my bus too so we set off on foot towards the main hotel area.  After a few wrong turns and asking directions I made it to the Tran Ly hotel for my reservation and Maud tried to check into the backpackers hostel around the corner.

The weather in Hue was bleak. Whilst Hoi An had raised occasionally, here it was unrelenting and it was a few degrees colder too. In the afternoon, Audrey went off on a mini pilgrimage to find the meditation temple of the guy whose book she was currently reading; whilst Michele and I headed to the citadel north of the Perfume river. A lot of the buildings were heavily bombed by the Americans in 1968 so it was hard to gauge the full scope of the citadel but it must have been very impressive in its day. On the way in the woman on the gate managed to give me 10,000 dong change instead of the 100,000 that I was due. Quite how she managed this when I’d been in the country so long I’m not sure – still, a bit later on, I then found 3000 dong (less than 25¢). It wasn’t a wasted day after all.


Hue citadel

We braved the incessant rain for a couple of hours and then decided to head for a drink in the Backpackers hostel. The bar was a lively place and it was like some of the better hostels that I remembered in South America. I hadn’t seen any decent modern hostels since my first Asian stop in Siem Reap so I was quite excited to hear that there was also a brand-new one by the same people in Hanoi. The hostel had a lot of fun features too – the flavoured vodkas included arse and el whacko (a lethally hot chilli vodka) and there were clocks showing the time in places across the world such as Sex Moan in the Philippines and Twatt in Scotland.


Times from around the world

We met up with Audrey again for dinner – somewhat average sushi in a Japanese restaurant around the corner from my hotel – and then she went home. Michele and I went for a few drinks in the Backpackers and then moved on to the Why Not bar. Here we ran into Maud again. She was drinking bottles of vodka with another French guy, Jan. As we left there, Jan seemed very much the worse for wear and we had to take turns carrying him down the street. Eventually we decided to put him in the back of a cyclo; gave the driver the instructions for his hotel and paid him upfront. I’m not sure if this really worked; Jan said he had no money left the next day so it’s possible he paid him again and well over the odds or even that he passed out and got all his money stolen! The girls and I went for a few more drinks in the DMZ bar and even did a bit of abysmal dancing but when they closed the bar there it was time to head home for the evening.


Maud and Michele dancing in DMZ


The next day was completely uneventful; the weather hardly engendered the desire to explore further. We met Maud and (a sheepish) Jan for lunch and then spent the afternoon biding our time for the night bus to Hoi An. At one point we went to the Backpackers bar (ostensibly to book a dorm for the next night in Hanoi but also because they sold beer) and ran into Chris and Vic from Hoi An again. We shared a few quick beers with them before it was time to head off. Audrey was going to stay behind an extra night – I think I’d have topped myself if I had to spend longer in Hue – but we were due to meet her the day after in Hanoi.

A little minibus picked us up and dropped us off at the bus offices; after everyone had assembled there we were all frog-marched another 100 metres to a completely random spot in the road. Quite why the minibus hadn’t dropped us there in the first place is truly a mystery. Eventually the bus turned up and we headed towards Hanoi. I decided to watch Scott Pilgrim versus the World on my laptop to pass the time – it has to be one of the most bizarre films I’ve seen in a while but it was very entertaining.


Another Birthday and Finally Exploring Hoi An

19 01 2011

The last two days in Hoi An weren’t hugely eventful. The biggest trauma was getting my laundry back at the hotel and discovering that nearly all my boxers shorts were missing and lots of expensive hiking socks. Despite asking my hotel repeatedly to sort it out I knew that I would never see them again. Lack of clean underwear is normally my indication of needing to wash some clothes;  I was going to need to buy some new ones somewhere.

I didn’t really do a lot during the day but Michele decided to head off to the My Son ruins on another scooter and check them out. She was supposed to meet us at my hotel at 5pm and (unlike Audrey!) was normally on time but she turned up more than half an hour late brandishing a water bottle full of petrol. There was clearly a story here. On the way back from the ruins her bike cut out and it turned out that the fuel lines were blocked – Michele had to rush off to a mechanic and then ride back in the dark (since a lot of Vietnamese think that lights are optional at night time, this was quite a stressful trip). Michele tried to get her money back for the rental but that was never going to happen; the woman even tried to tell her that she was responsible for half the repair costs. When it was clear that she wasn’t going to get any money back, Michele demanded the money for the petrol and when this wasn’t forthcoming she convinced them to siphon the petrol out of the tank. This they did agree to.

Japanese covered bridge, Hue

We ended up in Treat’s as usual to play pool but Audrey went to bed extremely early, so Michele and I decided to head off for an Indian before meeting up with Jean for her birthday celebrations. Jean was the very first person I met on the Southeast Asian leg of my trip and we were supposed to have celebrated her birthday the previous day; unfortunately she’d been ill and called it off. The curry was pretty tasty – my first for quite a while – but it was probably all the questions about the incongruous bottle of petrol that provided the most fun during the meal. That and Michele’s continued attempts to give it away to anyone who might be renting a bike in the future.

Eventually we left, bottle of petrol in tow, and found Jean in Laugh bar. Here I met Idiet (Dutch), Kate (US), Vic (US – although you’d never guess it from his warped accent), Chris (Canadian), Ellen (Dutch) and Dante (Swedish). I ran into nearly all of them again by chance in different places later on on my trip except for Jean and Dante. We were the only customers in Laugh so after drinking a few bia hoi (fresh beer) we decided to head somewhere more lively and found ourselves in the Before And Now bar. I’d wanted to go to Treat’s (just for a change) because it was a lot cheaper but it was hard convincing such a large group of the merits of walking 30 metres down the street. Especially when the music was loud and it sounded so lively.

Chris and Jean in Before and Now

We had a great time in the bar; the source of a lot of the entertainment was Jean’s big sandwich board around her neck saying “Happy Birthday” with a check-list of various dares that she had to perform. These included kissing a stranger, having a shot with a bartender, singing her national anthem with a mouth full of crackers and drinking a “birthday cake” shot (some concoction that only Kate seemed to know the recipe for and whose ingredients weren’t available in Hoi An). When this bar shut though I really couldn’t face moving on to another bar (it was already 2am and I was still exhausted by my late night the previous night) so I said my goodbyes to the group and headed home to bed. I expected to see everyone the next night or, failing that, in Hanoi. As it turned out neither happened.

Me with some Chinese dragons

For our last full day in Hoi An we decided to visit some of the many Chinese buildings that the city is famed for. The other thing the city is famed for is tailor-made clothes but I decided I didn’t really have the room in my rucksack for more clothing – unless they’d made boxer shorts! Although the buildings were interesting to begin with, and some of the details were extremely intricate, after a while it all became a bit same-y. We finished our little tour in the mid-afternoon (after an appallingly bad museum) and then arranged to meet later in our usual stomping ground Treat’s. Audrey met up with a Dutch couple that she’d met earlier on her travels whilst Michele and I played pool with various Brits including Katy and Tom; Eric and Kayleigh. I also met up with Maud (French) who Michele knew previously. At around 11pm I decided to call it a night; two hard day’s drinking and very little sleep were taking their toll but what shocked me the most was actually leaving Audrey behind in the bar – she’d always gone home to bed before 9pm when she was out with me. Now all of sudden she was out later: I tried not to take it personally.


Some of the fretwork in one of the temples

You ‘Ave Sexy Bull

18 01 2011

It was one of those great days backpacking when you do something completely unplanned and it turns out to be one of the best adventures of the trip. We (Audrey, Michele, Dan and myself) met at Re-Treats for breakfast. This proved to be our regular breakfast joint for most of my time in Hoi An. Dan was leaving that day but hopefully I’d meet up with him again in the cold North. Michele suggested that the rest of us rent some motorbikes and head on over to Marble Mountain. “Marble Mountain?” Audrey and I exclaimed. “What the hell is that?” (Sometimes I really should do some research on the places that I’m visiting).

Marble Mountain, it transpires, is a mountain absolutely honeycombed with Buddhist shrines, pagodas and caves. It sounded interesting based on the Lonely Planet description so Audrey and I decided to do it (in any case we had nothing else planned). It was my first time ever riding a motorbike; at least it was an automatic so I didn’t have to think too much – and it proved to be a lot of fun motoring along down the smooth, relatively empty roads. It was quite a low cc and, for some reason, even though Audrey and Michele were on one bike; I sometimes struggled to keep up with them at full throttle.


Pagoda on Marble Mountain

We saw the mountain from the main road and it looked very impressive – already we could see a huge pagoda jutting out of the hill. A woman let us park our bikes near her shop – we offered her some parking money but she told us just to visit her shop when we were done with the mountain. I had very little intention of buying any souvenirs but I know that Audrey is always a sucker for such things and feels obligated to buy something so I figured that she’d do all right out of it. I would rather just have given some money.


One of the many Buddhas in the caves of marble mountain

I lost count of how many Buddhas hidden away in caves and ornate pagodas we actually saw but the other fun thing about the mountain was just setting off on some random uphill path and then clambering down through some rocks until you ended up in the back of yet another cave with a Buddhist shrine. We did a lot of walking that day and there were a few times I wished I was wearing better footwear than flip-flops. From the top of the mountain we often got some great views of the nearby China Beach – although most of it seems to be a building site at the moment; resorts are being built everywhere. I remember once looking down through a gap in the rocks and seeing a cavern shrine far, far below us bathed in candlelight: it was magical.

Possibly the most bizarre Buddha of the day was one of the last. He had lots of tiny Buddhist helpers clambering all over him – one was possibly pulling the fluff out of his belly button whilst another tweaked his nipple. If anyone knows what the religious significance of this is, I would love to know!


Bizarre Buddha

We ended up coming off the mountain quite a long way from where we’d parked: I’m not quite sure how and no other tourists seemed to have gone this way. This was a shame because the pagoda there was quite impressive and very different from the others; it was clad in pebbles and had lots of strange fighting scenes: again, I’m not quite sure what they meant.


Last pagoda

We reclaimed our bikes (as expected Audrey did purchase something from the woman’s shop) and headed off back to town. Rather than go straight into town we decided to head down to the beach again where we got ourselves a very late lunch. I can’t even remember what the hell we were talking about but at one point Audrey made a comment (probably facetiously) “Ah, but Barry, you ‘ave sexy bull”. Michele and I looked at her blankly. “What? That’s a word in English, non?” “Sexy bull?” Sexable?” More blank looks. Finally we realised that she was trying to say “Sex appeal” but by this point the die was cast. From then on in – as well as being Audrey’s furry friend – I was now also a sexy bull. I even did little bull impressions in the sand to live up on to my new moniker.


Fisherman boats on the beach

We dropped our bikes off back in town and then went to play pool in Treat’s. This was 3-person killer pool: we each picked 5 balls (1-5, 6-10 and 11-15) and you then had to knock the other people’s balls off the table – this involved a lot of ganging up on other players: mostly (it seemed) the two girls against me. Audrey, as is her wont, went home early but Michele and I stayed behind and played lots more games of pool against other people: eventually an extremely drunk Australian couple, Ellen and Rory. The bar shut early at around midnight and I was ready for my bed, but the others convinced me that we should carry on. We ended up on the other side of the river in a really grimy dive bar called Sun. I got hustled for a pool game by one of the local guys – it cost me the cash for two beers – and Rory spent most of the evening drunkenly trying to find vacant spaces on the wall to scrawl some more graffiti. Finally around 3am, even this place shut and it was time to call it a night.


One Day My Son All This Will Be Ruins

17 01 2011

I’d booked the trip to Mỹ Sơn with Audrey but because we were at different hotels our pick ups were from different places. I kept expecting us to pick her up but before I knew it we’d left Hoi An behind and Audrey was nowhere to be seen. I was stuck right at the back of the bus behind lots of people sitting on jump seats and I couldn’t easily ask the driver where she was. Either the bus had not picked her up, she’d overslept, or there was a second bus: in any case there was nothing I could do about it now. An English guy, Dan, had been dropped at the same intermediate pickup point as me and we spent most of the journey to the ruins trading travel stories. When we got to the ruins Audrey appeared from another bus and was shocked that I hadn’t even asked the driver about her whereabouts – she’d known there were two buses  and apparently I didn’t even look around for her when I got off. “I was worried about you,” I said. “Ask Dan.” I had mentioned to him once that my friend was supposed to be on the same bus…

What can I say about the ruins without sounding like a jaded traveller that has seen too many ruins? Probably not a lot – I’m a jaded traveller that has seen too many ruins. They are one of the few surviving Cham buildings – most of their structures were made of wood. And what is there has been badly destroyed by wars – like most places in Vietnam they made a big point of showing us the B52 bomb craters from the Vietnam war. To me it always looks like a big dent in the ground. There were also way too many tourists there – the buses all arrive at the same time – so that never helps my perception of a place either.


My Son ruins

After the ruins, Audrey went back to her hotel to relax and Dan and I went to Secret Garden, a really cute restaurant hidden away from the main road. They do gourmet Vietnamese food: it was delicious. In the evening we arranged to meet in Treat’s bar for happy hour. We spent most of the evening playing pool and at one point we were joined by Michele from New Zealand. It was probably a good thing that we met her – I now had 3 days to kill in Hoi An whilst I waited for my Vietnamese visa to be extended – and since Audrey doesn’t like to drink much and kept going to bed early I needed someone with similar drinking habits. It also meant at least sux to tin hours of entertainment each day taking the puss out of her accent.



Pool Party

16 01 2011

It was Audrey’s birthday on the 16th – we decided to celebrate it by having lots of big pool tournaments. Our first problem was finding a bar with a pool table – we hadn’t seen any up until now. I asked in my hotel and he gave me a few suggestions but we couldn’t find the first bar so we landed up in the more expensive Before and Now. The table here was quite dire and there was no black ball so we used a second white instead. The white that we were using as a cue ball would probably have served just as well in a round of golf – it had so many dimples in it – and it often tottered around in weird and wonderful directions. Not that either of us are particularly good at pool anyway.

We went to Good Morning Vietnam for lunch – it’s a big chain of Italian restaurants dotted throughout Nam. It was relatively posh I guess – there were napkins with accompanying rings on the table; Audrey and I modelled these as bow ties; this, and our continual sniping at each other (in a well-intentioned humorous way), had the middle-aged Australian couple on the table next to us laughing out loud. “Are you guys together?” they asked. “God no!” we replied simultaneously with a synchronised look as if we were drinking curdled milk.


Audrey on her birthday

After lunch we found another bar with a pool table. We must have stayed there for four hours playing round after round of pool. I think that we were the only customers the whole time. I suppose, since it was her birthday, I should actually have let Audrey win but since I suck at pool anyway I’ll do anything to gain some pride so I didn’t let the birthday girl off. Audrey ordered a cocktail which she didn’t really like (I didn’t hear the end of it!) and then it was dinner in Re-Treats cafe. It was only 9pm when we finished eating but Audrey decided enough was enough (her alcohol tolerance is not very high) and headed home to bed. I decided to check out the sister bar, Treat’s, which Lonely Planet had mentioned as the place for backpackers to meet up. There was a big football match on so most of the guys were watching that; having zero interest in club football it didn’t exactly lend itself to me being sociable with the other travellers. Ironically there were two pool tables here – I’m not sure why my hotel hadn’t recommended it. After just one drink there I headed home to bed; I had to be up relatively early the next day anyway for our trip to the Mỹ Sơn ruins.

Walking in the Rain

15 01 2011

I’m so used to travelling in warm climes that I sometimes forget what cold weather can be like. Whilst being drenched in a heavy downpour walking up a volcano on Isla de Ometepe can put a dampener on your mood, it is hot in the jungle so it didn’t matter too much. Northern Vietnam in January, as I was about to discover, is quite cold and Hoi An was my first introduction to that. It also tended to rain a bit – and cold rain is not fun.

My journey to Hoi An hadn’t been easy. I’d left Dalat early in the morning and arrived in Nha Trang at lunchtime. I actually ran into Audrey as I was walking up the street towards her hotel; she was heading off to the post office to send some stuff home and lighten the load of her backpack. I dropped my pack off at the hotel and then we went to the sub-post office. The woman quoted her a price that was more than what she’d been offered the day before and when she took out a kilo’s weight the price seemed to go down by more than we expected. It seemed like quite an erratic pricing structure. With that errand done we set off to the bus company to purchase my ticket for the sleeper bus to Hoi An that evening – there were no more tickets available. “Do any of the other companies have buses tonight?” we asked. “No. Everyone is full,” she replied. My plan to travel on the same bus as Audrey was in tatters; my plan to go straight to Hoi An without spending any more time in Nha Trang was looking extremely unlikely. Undeterred, we went to another agency and I managed to get the last available ticket on the bus. The time was similar to Audrey’s so we should arrive in Hoi An around the same time.

After lunch (I had a desire for some Western food and tucked into a pizza) I chilled out on the roof terrace of the Ha Van hotel for the afternoon. Audrey on the other hand got into a panic about her parcel. She hadn’t signed a declaration form to show what was in it. Eventually she recruited the hotel owner to her cause and returned to the post office. The woman told her she didn’t need a declaration form but Audrey was convinced she did so she got the package and her money back and went to the main post office. Not only did she get a declaration form this time around but the price was a lot cheaper.

We got picked up separately so we arranged to meet at Audrey’s hotel the next day (I was going to stay elsewhere – I thought hers sounded too expensive) at midday. My bed on the nightbus was right at the back; the middle of 5 beds – I had to clamber across one of the beds either side just to get to mine. On the one side I had a Vietnamese family of 4 sharing 2 beds; on the other a Kiwi couple. The Kiwi guy was impossibly tall but at least, unlike me, he could stick his feet off the end of his bed – mine was truncated more than the others for some reason and I couldn’t stretch out fully. My bent-kneed sleeping position meant that I spent most of the night being jabbed by one of the men either side me, or one of the little kids would wake me up by moving their hand on my leg. Apart from the novelty of hearing the kids singing Frère Jacques and familiar nursery rhymes in Vietnamese, it was not a pleasant journey and I slept very poorly.


Hoi An

I arrived in Hoi An at around 8am and after a few false starts eventually found a room for $15 – more than Audrey’s after all! Although I couldn’t check in for a few hours. After whiling away some time on my computer and drinking some iced coffees to try to keep myself awake, I went back and got some much-needed sleep. Too much in fact: I was late meeting Audrey.

A convoy of tourists in rainproofed cyclos

We wandered around town for a while: it was really picturesque – an impressive mix of Chinese, Japanese and Cham architecture; possibly some French and Dutch in the mix too – but was cold and it kept trying to rain. Audrey decided that we should walk to the beach – it was 5 kilometres away and, as soon as we made that decision, the rain really decided to arrive. By this point we were too far away from town for me to go back for my jacket – luckily my fleece seemed to be water resistant. The walk, along straight roads past big riverside resort hotels and the occasional paddy field, seemed to take forever. The combination of walking to an objective for which I had little desire to see, the rain and the interminable walk meant that whingeing Barry came out to play. For those who haven’t experienced the pleasure, imagine a petulant child asking “Are we nearly there yet?” or “We must have walked more than five klicks by now” on a repetitive loop. Finally we arrived at the beach and it was just as I imagined: deserted; wet; huge crashing waves. There weren’t even any bars open for me to get my promised beer from. We immediately got a taxi back to town and chilled out at our hotels for a while.

I really want to know what picking one's ears involves

In the evening we crossed the river and went to a local restaurant amidst a long line of similar eateries. The proprietress dragged us from one end of the stretch to her little row of tables; we were the only customers. The food, however, was really good and the beer was cheap so I was happy. Whilst there I got a big lecture from Audrey about using the bamboo chopsticks; apparently I was single-handedly responsible for the demise of the panda. My attempts to point out that bamboo grows really quickly and that there are no pandas in Vietnam fell on deaf ears. We were both tired after all the travelling and Audrey isn’t much of a night owl, so after walking her back to her hotel I hit the hay.