One of my favourite stories from Vietnam was a random article i read in a newspaper somewhere along the line. In it, a bus driver had been arrested for overloading his bus. He had 120 passengers in it, plus 13 who were tied to the roof and covered in a large tarpaulin to prevent detection by the police. You can at least understand why more and more locals are forgoing the occasionally overloaded local bus system, in favour of the almost equally cheap, but much more comfortable and non stop open tour buses.
At this point I was still not necessarily in the most amazing states of mind, but being alone and going into the unknown helped. My mind wandered, and as we started the approach to Da Lat (about 80km out), but climbing up a whopping great mountain pass, including past a handful of roadies - 2 of them going extremely well indeed - I finally started to relax and try and put some of the chaos of the last week behind me.
I liked Da Lat instantly. An old French hill station, it has long been a place to relax a bit, being high in the mountains, and thus a darn sight cooler than anywhere else around or in South Vietnam. More or less by unspoken agreement, it was left untouched during the war, and rumour is that the large old colonial villa's in the surrounding hills were used by both North and South Vietnam senior military figures as getaways and for planning purposes etc. The other big plus about Da Lat is that it is more off the tourist trail (most people seemingly go via Mui Ne or direct to HCMC), meaning it is much more relaxed than anywhere I've previously been in Vietnam, and an almost entire lack of hawkers harassing you at every turn was just what was needed.
I didn't have time to be able to take a 2 or 3 night trip with the infamous and legendary easy riders, a group of local motorcycle riders who have turned into tour guides of high repute, especially in backpacking circles, but although ity would have been nice, I wasn't desperately gutted. I did the only thing I could (and only thing I really wanted), and hired a bike.
I spent a day bashing around the local countryside, loving the somewhat lumpy countryside as a way of working out my stresses and efforts of the past few days, and just enjoying being on a bike and free again. On 3 occasions i even turned around at the top, in order to head all the way back down a long hill/mountain, just so I could climb it again. I know you all think I'm nuts, but in fairness, that's rarely been in question.
Part of the attraction of the area is the basic countryside itself. A couple of lovely lakes/reservoirs, numerous forests, streams, waterfalls, mountains and inclines to enjoy, and a generous spotting of temples, pagodas and small villages to visit. I mostly wandered
at random, although did make an effort to visit a couple of Pagoda's (I just had to visit the Big Buddha at Cu Sy Lam, the Chinese Pagoda, partly because it was half way down the mountain, and partly to compare it with the ream of other Big Buddhas I have seen on this trip in Korea and Japan). I cycled out to the village of Trai Mat, an invigorating ride of about 12km, where i saw the perhaps overly ornate, but wonderful Linh Phouc Pagoda. If you are in Da Lat, try and visit it. I ended by way of a waterfall, surreal hotel and gallery and 3 laps of the lake for good measure, with a chaotic death defying dash through rush hour traffic, which was significantly more fun than it really should have been.
Thus happily tired, finally relaxed and sweaty as hell, i showered ate and i retired hoping to sleep. That failed yet again. More or less since we left Hangzhou, I've been struggling to sleep. 3 hours has been a rare and extremely fruitful night for me, the majority being a couple of 20minute dozings, and much restless pondering/rolling around. When I used to be a proper insomniac, I had no problem. It was useful, and I managed to use the time very productively. Now whilst traveling, it's plain annoying. I want to sleep but can't, and there's very little I can actually do with the time. Sometimes I wander around the town, but most of the hotels etc are locked at night, so going out means disturbing the sleeping staff (twice, if i come in). I'm not a huge TV person, especially when i can't understand all that much and it's just plain bad; don't have many books or other distractions so invariable I end up sitting or lying in a dark room just thinking and listening to music.
In Ho Chi Minh the next afternoon, it was again sweltering. I've read somewhere (although no idea if it's true or not) that the lowest temperature ever recorded in Ho Chi Minh City in any month (or Saigon as it used to be called - Saigon is now only the central district) was 14degrees Celsius. It wouldn't really surprise me, but it still takes a little comprehension at a time when the UK is partly covered with snow, and home in Sweden is an unseasonably warm minus19 at night.
That afternoon, I did not allot. I barely managed to leave the main tourist area, instead preferring to just veg out with fresh fruit juices/smoothies (I'm really going to miss Vietnam for the fruit shakes/smoothies which are delicious and everywhere) and the occasional cold beer with Paul. The following morning though, in a rare case of me actually achieving anything, I sprang into action. OK, so action may be pushing it a bit much, but by my standards it was impressive. By 10am, I'd trawled the area for accom. (Paul was heading on tour, and I wasn't going to pay 10usd a night solo), found a dorm and moved in, got my washing sorted, made assorted phone calls around the globe, arranged to meet a local based CS that lunchtime, booked a tour for the following day and after confirming that I had delayed my flight for a couple of weeks and with no new developments, booked train tickets back to Ha Noi (whilst discovering that Vietnamese railways isn't entirely integrated, so that the south had no idea that there even were lines North of Ha Noi, let alone any time or price information). And even gone on a bit of a wander. That may not sound allot, but it's more than I normally accomplish in a month working at T-Kartor, as the staff/management can probably attest to. And this time, I'm not even being paid.
I hadn't met up with a locally based CSer since leaving Jeff's in Dongguan in late December, and was keen to get back into the swing of things. I had been gazumped by another CSer (who after that, never showed), but Kelly - an American Pilates teacher and musician -had happily agreed to meet up and spend some time showing me around. We met at the cafe of one of her friends (if you are ever in HCMC and need travel advice/tours etc, instead of any of the main chains who fall over each other to try and grab your custom, I can highly recommend visiting Quan Ngyuen, friendly owner of the #5 cafe on Bui Vien St. And no, I'm not getting a commission on any referrals).
We headed by motorbike over to the Reunification Palace, seen of the South Vietnamese surrender, and famous footage of tanks crashing through the gates and North Vietnamese rushing out onto the balcony waving their flag as the South disintegrated. I'm really starting to enjoy this motorbike/scooter culture. Hanging on the back of one whilst zooming around a city with 3million other scooters all intent on getting there before you is a strangely enjoyable and liberating experience, and an astonishing show of skill (READ: includes a sh1t load of luck) due to a surprisingly small number of accidents. Yes they happen, and lots of them, but in relation to the number of bikes and way they travel around, very few, and even fewer serious ones.
The Reunification Palace was a strange building. It had once been a lovely building, but at some point in the 60s after an attack, had been rebuilt using excessive amounts of (oddly communist style, when at that point they weren't at all) concrete to create a strange looking semi-dated, semi-space age building. Most of the Palace was either empty or left exactly how it was at the time of surrender, meaning lots of 60's and 70's interior decoration and furniture. And yet the building is still used quite regularly to receive guests and hold conferences, and how (or where) that is done around all of the old stuff remained a mystery. After a trek to the roof past a helicopter, the route led us down into the basement, which had significantly more of interest. The former South Vietnamese HQ, it told a story, and also enabled us to see stuff like all the old Comms gear, maps and stuff as it had been. Not a large place for many people to be, and the presidents bedroom was a hole off the corridor which would have allowed him only limited privacy. There was also a great propaganda film shown, which obviously was twisted to tell a tale from a specific angle, but interesting to see. I'm a big fan of communist/political propaganda materials, and was quite happy.
Leaving, we met up with Kelly's husband, Will, a quarter Chinese, quarter Vietnamese American musician (formerly with SecretAgent8 for any Ska people out there), and for a change of pace, went to the zoo. HCMC zoo is strange, in that certain species are overly represented whilst others don't exist at all, and despite being sectioned, some animals were either very confused as to their place in the hierarchy of Mammals, Reptiles, Amphibians Birds etc or had been wrongly placed. Sadly, many of the animals were in depressingly cramped quarters, whilst even at feeding time and with large chunks of meat thrown at them, none of the large cats - most of whom not actually so large - seemed to be even vaguely interested in their proffered free meal. Some of the monkeys had worked out how to escape their cage as well, and amused themselves by running riot and (literally) scaring the cr*p out of little kids.
We went for a great Indian, and then headed back to their spacious flat (via a quick side trip to see a fantastic church, which had a large Chinese Pagoda with a Christian cross on the roof next to the main chapel) to meet with some friends for a night of musical extravaganza. Yet more fantastic surfers.
If you take a tour in South Vietnam, being on a bus with working Air-con is a definite bonus, if not an outright necessity. So it was that I took a day trip to see Tay Ninh and Cu Chi. Tay Ninh is wonderful. It's home to Caodism, a religion that I had previously never heard of, but which I will certainly investigate in further detail now. A brief overview can be seen at http://www.religioustolerance.org/caodaism.htm. Basically, it was formed in the 1920s as an attempt to create a kind of perfect religion, and takes bits from Catholicsm, Busshism, Taoism and Confucianism amongst others with a mix of traditional Vietnamese heritage and beliefs. The result is a strange mix of things, a religion for whom 2 of the 3 saints are Victor Hugo and Sun Yat Sen, and one in which its Pope and all 7 cardinals are now dead, but oddly haven't been replaced, kind of leaving an odd vacuum at the top.
Caodism. The Holy See, The All Seeing Eye, Centrepiece of the religion, and midday worshippers
The main church/temple/synagogue/Holy See/whatever is wonderfully colourful and artistic, and on a slight slope (people go higher, the further up the religious ladder they climb). A lovely building, and one which kind of feels familiar and almost comforting, whilst also giving you a strange idea of the bizarre. The service which we got to see included a large number of white robbed people, plus handfuls of worshippers in White, Red and Blue (although a few had turned into orange or other shades), and was characterised by bowing to the all seeing eye, occasional chanting and traditional music being played. There was no sign of any holy book or scriptures. There wasn't even anybody leading the service. Most of the people were elderly. The most amazing features for me, were (a) just how low down the ladder everybody was, with the top few levels being deserted, and the vast majority being at the lowest level and (b) that despite worshippers taking part in the ceremony 4times a day, every day of their lives, it was necessary for 2 or 3 enforcers to patrol the lines of people, and physically move them a few inches (or in cases metres either way) so that they were perfectly aligned, had no knees showing etc. It was most odd to see the force with which these enforcers (i have no other name to give them) moved decrepit looking old ladies who were maybe an inch out of the line the enforcers thought they should be in. But despite all that, it was great to see a minority religion thriving, despite great problems and which barely 20 years ago had been banned and their land/Holy See confiscated by the communist government. If you ever get the chance to visit the home of Caodism, you should take it, for the spectacle alone.
Somewhere between the service and lunch, 5minutes away, we managed to lose a Korean. He's probably now on his way to be the next high priest.
The afternoon was spent in the Cu Chi tunnels. In fairness, it wasn't the most exciting of excursions, and the tunnels - despite a couple of crawling sections - were even reproductions for tourists instead of originals which people aren't allowed into. The grounds had a fair splattering of exhibits, and our enthusiastic guides did their best, but it seemed very much a put up show, as opposed to having any real life and history behind lit, like the ones we had seen in the DMZ. Probably the point of most interest to the majority were the shooting ranges, where for 1USD a bullet, you couple fire any number of assault weapons, including the venerable AK-47.
A sweltering journey back was followed by a decent evening with a group of about 12 including Paul, Anna and Tania and the first Geordie's I've met in ages, and another Welsh feck up in the rugby. And with that, there was just time for me to spend a pleasant if hot morning walking randomly around the city, taking in chunks of the old architecture, Notre Dam cathedral and hoards of zooming motorcycles amongst others.
Viet Nam has been a strange one to me. The food, after an average start proved wonderful in places (Da Lat had some of the best vegetarian food I've had outside of Hue in my life. I didn't even eat meat once, which tells a story), and several places were nice enough that i'd be very happy to return at the very least. Some bits I was annoyed that i hadn't been able to get to (Halong Bay, Mue Ni, Dien Bien Phu and the Mekong), whilst Da Lat and HCMC definitely needed a chunk more time than I could give them, and leaves me kind of wanting to return to do it justice as soon as possible.
Yet despite all that (and even ignoring personal problems), Viet Nam is one of the few countries and territories that I have ever been to (and I guess there's roughly 80 or so of them) that I wouldn't be overly disappointed never to return to. Chunks of it were too touristy and fake to me, and I fast tired of the sheer amount of efforts and concentration needed to avoid being constantly conned/ripped off or pick pocketed. In the end I was delighted to finally leave and without having lost anything and not been ripped off too badly, too often. And to me, you should never be leaving anywhere with such a feeling and perspective. It's just not good, but unfortunately that's how i felt. How/if this feeling changes in the future, and whether I return or not, only time will tell.
But for now, I have a train to catch. I'm going to Lao, which I have also been looking forward to greatly, and have had numerous great reports/stories about. But in my own typical and entirely illogical style, it's not quite that simple. I have to go via Beijing, which for a surface traveller means about a 10 day detour.
See you there