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When I Was In 'Nam

When I left you last, I was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Here's the tale of how I got from there to Dalat in Vietnam.

My four-day tour of the Mekong began from Phnom Penh, with a ride in a clapped out minibus driven by a maniac. After a couple of hours on appalling roads - with me spending more time hovering above my seat than sat in it - a man with a wonky eye ushered myself and the three other passengers out of the vehicle, through a building site, and into a boat. We puttered along the Mekong for a couple of hours until we reached the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. Here we alighted, and were stamped out of Cambodia before rejoining the boat an continuing a short way through no-man's-land - or no-man's-water, I guess. Back on dry land, the wonky-eyed man took our passports away to be stamped, and sent us to eat lunch. I asked him to get immigration to use a page that already had stamps on it, but to no avail; my passport now only has two blank pages left. I've checked up, and you must have a full blank page for your passport to be valid, which means that I can either forget about going to Myanmar (Burma), and hope that no one stamps either of the two blank pages between here and India, or shell out 58 quid for a new passport and hang around in Bangkok a week to get one.

Once we had officially entered the country, we swapped our grumpy old Cambodian guide for a lovely Vietnamese girl and boarded a cute little boat for the rest of the trip to Chau Doc. The first hour and a half were uneventful, as we chugged along the wide Mekong River, but then we turned into a narrow canal that was heaving with activity. The bank was lined with stilted houses, and kids would come running out from these, waving and shouting hello. We shared the water with a multitude of tiny boats, steered by men and women in coolie hats, and larger boats with good-luck eyes painted in the front. These were ingeniously designed to carry vast quantities of live fish, and had deep hulls with mesh panels, that disappeared below the water when the boats were fully laden. The fish were being transported between the many fish farms that are anchored on that stretch of water - they looked like floating houses from the surface, but underneath were cages, six metres deep, where the fish were reared - in nurseries for the first four months, and then in different farms for the next six months, until they are killed and eaten.

The journey was hectic and beautiful, although the stench of the fish food - made from boiling up spinach and seafood - was overpowering at times. We went to visit one of the farms the next morning, followed by a trip to see a Cham minority village, where the Muslim population makes money from weaving. Neither stop was particularly inspiring, but it was a pleasant morning all the same - just to be on the river, witnessing the everyday life so different to my own, was exciting enough. Afterwards we said goodbye to our friendly guide, and continued the journey by minibus - a plush, air-conditioned one this time. The driver had an odd taste in music, and we were treated to some country songs, Those Were the Days, My Way, and No Milk Today (My Baby's Gone Away). I looked out of the window, and pondered on how different Vietnam seemed to Cambodia: the roads were in much better condition, in fact the whole country appeared much more modern, and cleaner too. The writing was noticeably different as well - instead of the (unintelligible to me) squiggle writing I'd seen in Thailand and Cambodia, here they use the western alphabet . . . well, kind of - there are marks to distinguish the numerous different vowel sounds, and further marks to indicate the inflective tone, which of course changes the meaning of the word; it is a monosyllabic language (I guess diphthongs and inflection doesn't count), hence over here the country's name is written Viet Nam.

Vietnamese has eleven single vowel sounds, plus 26 different diphthong sounds and 18 tripthongs; add these to the 25 distinct consonant sounds and the six different tones, and you can see that it is not an easy language to pick up. I've bought a phrase book to assist me - you can buy many knock-off books here, reprinted reproductions at a fraction of the price of the real thing. There are some unusual choices of translations in the book, for example it tells you how to swear; how to say, "I am a heroin addict, do you have a methadone program in this country"; and "politicians can never be trusted", although it does advise you not to use this last. Of more use to me, I can now ask for the toilet, and tell people that I am vegetarian. Annoyingly, I still haven't got the hang of numbers yet; this is very frustrating, as it is a matter of personal pride that I learn how to count to ten in every country I visit, but here they just aren't sticking in my head. I am determined to master them before I leave.

I spent my second night in Vietnam at a town called Can Tho, and at the restaurant where I ate my tea, I noticed that bird, frog and snake were on the menu - yum! That got me thinking about the whole dog-eating thing, so the next day I asked my approachable guide. He told me that dog is eaten in North Vietnam, but only one particular breed of dog (I omitted to establish which breed, but I'll let you know if I find out). I was also able to ask him about something else that I had noticed: a proliferation of graves. The only ones I had seen in Thailand or Cambodia were the mini-hills of the Chinese graveyards, the war cemetery in Kanchanaburi, and the mass graves of the killing fields. He told me that in the country it is common for Vietnamese farmers to be buried on their land, where they have spent their lives. Many have an ulterior motive in choosing to do this, which is to ensure that the land stays in the family, stopping the children from selling up and heading for the cities.

As well as answering my impertinent questions, our guide took us to see the bustling floating markets. The farmers turn up in their small boats to sell their produce to the family businesses, who buy from their larger barges. To show what they are in the market for, the bigger boats have a long stick of bamboo raised aloft, with an example of the fruit or vegetable that they are looking to buy attached to the end of it. Some boats had just a single item, like a squash, or a turnip, others had a whole array: carrots, pineapples, onions, potatoes, cabbages, and so on. It was great fun to weave in and out of the boats, and the locals didn't seem to mind a whole heap of tourists snapping away at them. An added advantage of this water-based sales venue is the ability to avoid paying taxes - if the tax men turn up, the market simply melts away.

We spent the rest of the morning visiting a small rice-noodle factory (where some of the noodles were rested on the gravestones of the family's ancestors to dry in the sun) and a rice mill, and exploring the small but busy tributaries - where the only way to cross the river was by Monkey Bridge - a thickish piece of bamboo, with a thinner stick slung above it - most precarious. We left the water behind us, and had lunch before setting off in a minibus, stopping at a local market along the way. Not far from my the town of My Tho, where I would be spending the night, we stopped at an incense factory - you don't think of joss sticks being made one by one, by a roomful of women working simply hand-turned machines, but that was what I saw - and when you consider that on an average day (excluding holidays), Vietnam gets through an estimated eight-million incense sticks, there is plenty of work to go around.

I had one more day left on my tour and, although I saw less than I had done, I was certainly fed well. It began with a visit to a coconut candy factory, where we got plenty of free samples. The second course was at a "bee farm", where we got Vietnamese tea and nibbles, and the chance to hold a large python - quite random, but I'm always up for the chance to get my hands on a big snake (get your minds out of the gutter - I really do like snakes). Next was lunch, including veggie spring rolls and rice, and lastly we stopped at Unicorn Island, where we were treated to some traditional Vietnamese folk music and singing by the inhabitants, whilst we tucked into fresh fruit and tea. We had one more stop before heading to Ho Chi Minh City . . . but I think we were unanimous in wishing we hadn't bothered. The place was meant to be a bonsai garden, but I didn't notice any bonsai trees, just the monkeys in too-small cages.

The tour ended in District 1 of HCMC, which is still known as Saigon. The city has a population of 11 million, and over 3 million motorbikes - the roads were full of them; I've never seen so many. I was able to leave my pack at the tour office whilst I set off in search of a room. After turning a few down, I came across a spotlessly clean room above a laundry (rather than hotels or guesthouses, most of the accommodation in this area is above shops). It had a hot shower (not that I used it - a cold one is much more refreshing), TV, fan and a balcony overlooking the chaos below, all for $6 a night - not a bad deal. The owner's children cleaned the room each morning, and I don't think I've ever seen such neat tidying up - they even washed my flip-flops, which were getting decidedly grubby. Yep, I'd certainly landed on my feet.

It didn't take me long to realised that I really liked the city - and the country too, for that matter. I'm not sure why, but I'd not expected to be so taken with Vietnam, but I'm absolutely loving it - it's having the same effect on me that Thailand did the first time around. I'd got the impression that I would get the hard sell wherever I went, and be dogged with people trying to sell me things, but it's not like that at all; I don't know whether things will be different in the North. In Cambodia people were very persistent, but here people ask you once, and take "no" for an answer. I was aware that there is a crime problem, in HCMC particularly, but I was just extra careful with my stuff, and had no problems. The food's good too - I still prefer Thai food (I could murder a pad thai right now), but there's good veggie offerings here . . . and the iced coffee, mmmm hmmmm - Vietnam has the best iced coffee in the world, I reckon!

I spent my first full day in the city walking around, and managed to visit the market, an art gallery, two museums and four different religious centres (a Buddhist pagoda, a Hindu Temple, a Catholic cathedral and an Islamic mosque). It didn't take long to master the art of crossing the roads - you just walk really slowly, and resist the urge to freeze like a frightened rabbit at the sight of all the bikes heading your way. One tip, though, is that cars will not try to avoid you like the bikes do - you're best not stepping out in front of them. I was expecting to feel quite stiff in the morning, as I'd covered around ten kilometres the day before, but was surprised by feeling fine, so I set off on foot again, this time to Cholon, the Chinese district, for a look at some more pagodas. Annoyingly, on my arrival I realised that I'd stupidly put dead batteries in my camera, instead of recharged ones. I got over this, though, and just enjoyed the calm atmosphere and soothing smell of incense, admiring the intricate carvings and watching the devotees in prayer. Outside one pagoda, I bought a packet of incense myself, having observed how it was done. The woman asked for 10,000 dong (around 30p), which was probably way over the odds, but I didn't feel like I should barter. I handed her a 50,000 note, and she smilingly handed me several notes amounting to 20,000 change. "No," I said. "I gave you 50." She happily took the notes back, and handed me some different ones . . . this time it added up to 30,000. "No, " I said again, and she did another juggle with the notes and gave me the right change, smiling all the time. My experience is that the Vietnamese are nice people, but they see no harm in trying it on - you must always check your bill and your change. It's not a malicious thing, it's just the way it is.

I walked back to district one for lunch, and fully intended to walk to the Jade pagoda afterwards, and visit the War Remnants museum as well. While I ate I was approached by a cyclo (?driver, pedaller?) guy, who showed me a book full of recommendations by satisfied customers, so I thought, what the hell, and agreed on a price with him. He waited outside for me to finish my meal. While I was still eating, a woman ran over from a tour agents across the road. She showed me a passport, asking if it was mine; it was for an American woman in her forties, so I was doubly insulted! Once I'd finished we set off, cutting across the noisy traffic, stopping first at the museum. It used to be known as the Museum of American War Crimes, but the name has been changed to avoid offence; the contents remain rather damning though. Of course the war known as the Vietnam War to the Western world is known as the American War here. My guide at the Mekong told me that out of the three most recent wars, that of independence from the French, the American war, and the one against the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, the latter was the most bloody, as prisoners were not taken: both sides fought to the death.

The following day I was to see more war memorabilia, as I had booked to go on a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, 50km from the city. I opted for a full day tour, which meant that in the morning I went to the town of Tay Ninh, which is the equivalent to Rome for one of Vietnam's home-grown religions, Caodaism. The Cao Dai religion is an interesting (some may say confused) mixture of all of the world's major religions. As well as a number of gods, followers also worship three saints, one of whom is the French poet Victor Hugo. The religion is the third most popular in Vietnam, boasting around 2,000,000 supporters (the majority of the population are Buddhist, although there are also 8,000,000 Catholics, 500,000 Protestants and 400,000 Muslims). We arrived at the Great Temple a little before the twelve o'clock mass began, and had time to wander around the cavernous building, and photograph the colourful decorations and depictions of the all seeing eye. We were then ushered up to the balcony to silently observe as the devotees - dressed mainly in white - filed into the temple and knelt on the floor singing moving songs.

We left the temple along the road where the famous picture was taken, of the small girl running naked and crying, having just been napalmed. After an hour or so we arrived at Cu Chi, and were told something of the situation there during the long war, before being shown a documentary. The film was in black and white, and resembled a 40's newsreel; the commentary was very jingoistic - I'm no fan of American foreign policy, but even I could see it was pure propaganda. Our tour took us to some of the tunnels - which have been doubled in size to fit your average fat foreigner, but are unbelievable snug even so. We were shown traps made from wood and nails by the Cu Chi guerrillas - local people that supported the Viet Cong, the communists from the North - and weapons, such as land-mines made by cutting up unexploded American bombs, and utilising the gunpowder therein. You had to admire the ingenuity of the fighters, the resourcefulness they showed in countering modern weapons by whatever means they could. On the way back to Saigon we got stuck for a while in traffic - a gridlock of motorbikes, where the only ones moving were those that had mounted the pavement - more resourcefulness at work.

I was loathe to leave Saigon, but felt I might regret spending an extra day there once I got further up - I had been in the country for a week already, and still had an awful lot of ground to cover. My next destination was Mui Ne, on the coast . . . where my dreams of lying in the sun were dashed by a multitude of sandflies. The place had way more than it's fair share of mosquitoes too - clever little b'stards that could manage to sneak their way into my mosquito net. I'm still scratching my souvenirs from the place. I stayed two nights, to give me a chance to do a tour of the nearby sand dunes - a little splash of desert, by the sea. I set off at half past five, on the back of a motor bike, and we stopped first at the red dunes for the sunrise . . . only the sun had already risen. The place was swarming with tourists, mostly Vietnamese tourists, and a depressing amount of rubbish could be seen poking up through the sand; I didn't linger too long. Next up was the white dunes, where I'm afraid all the good karma I'd built up by being nice to children so far on the trip went out the window, when I well and truly lost my rag with three little boys, who would not sod off and leave me alone . . . unless I paid them. Shouting at them just made me look and feel stupid, and did not deter them - in the end I got rid of them by raising my camera and taking their photograph - they scattered then, hiding their faces. I've never claimed to be morning person!

The dunes were nice, but our next stop pleased me more: it was at a fishing village nearby, where fishermen paddled their round, rattan coracles from the shore to their boats, and women sat on the sand pulling cockles from their shells. There was a strong wiff of petrol, mixed with the smell of fish (not surprisingly), and the flies were having a field day, but I really enjoyed my encounter. From the fishing village we went to red canyon, eroded sandstone in shockingly bright shades. Last up was the fairy spring, where I walked along the sandy bottom of a stream, past more interestingly eroded rock. I found out afterwards that there was meant to be a waterfall after a couple of kilometres, but I hadn't known at the time, and therefore didn't get that far. I did manage to get my boots soaking wet, though - they are currently shut in a cupboard, as the smell from them is most unpleasant!

So I'm now in the highland town of Dalat, where the air is decidedly chilly. The place was a favourite of the French colonialists - they even built a replica of the Eiffel tower here. The town is also popular with Vietnamese honeymooners, hence a glut of tandems for rent. I gave the nearby Love Valley a miss - it's said to be unbelievably kitsch, but you can get your photograph taken with an over-the-top Vietnamese version of a cowboy. I planned on a lazy day yesterday - just as well, as a return of my toothache had me up most of the night. Today I went on a motorbike tour to some of the local points of interest: a waterfall, the disused railway station, a (Swiss made) gondola ride above the forest, a minority village. At the village I spoke to a very interesting elder, who had been a nurse during the war and spoke four languages (English, French, Vietnamese and his own dialect), despite only being primary school educated. This meant that his wife had to pay four cows to marry him - the customary price for most men is just one. I got to try a potent-tasting wine, and listen to him playing an instrument made from a gourd, and also he sang "Ode to Joy" to me in French. It was very nice to actually learn something at a minority village, rather than just look at the inhabitants - that never sits well with me.

Another of our stops was at the bizarre Crazy House, designed by a daughter of an ex-president, who studied architecture in Russia . . . although I would imagine that this is a fact the Russians would prefer was kept quiet. The place was started in 1990, and is due to be completed in 2010, and contains a number of oddly themed rooms, like the ant room. Each is shaped and decorated in unusual ways (all with mirrors over the beds), and narrow steps and winding pathways connect them. It is described as having an Alice in Wonderland feel to it, and I would imagine that had one been munching on one of Alice's mushrooms, the whole experience would be greatly enhanced.

I'm off to Nha Trang tomorrow, back to the coast, where I hope to go diving - I've not been under the water for six months, so I can't wait. I'm hoping that the sandflies and mosquitoes are absent, and if so, I may well hang around for a wee while. From there I plan to continue my journey by train - I've been on an "open bus ticket" this far - basically a tourist bus, full of fellow foreigners - enough of that!


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