A Travellerspoint blog

Mountain Roads

Two days on local buses will take me along the spine of the western mountains of Veitnam & down to the ancient capital of Hue on the east coast...


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The "local buses" In Vietnam are small minibuses, generally 70's beige in colour & covered in dust and rust. Once one is mostly full it will leave the bus station & prowl the streets for more customers, the driver's assistant leaning out of the side door and exhorting passers-by to do what they've never realised they wanted to do and get the bus to [insert destination]. When the mini bus is 1 or 2 people over capacity it begins to leave town, picking up more passengers along the way.

The first days travel was mostly flat; the surrounding countryside shallow hills covered in agriculture and coffee plantations. By 10am it had started to rain, by midday it was pouring, bucketing down; the sky gathered as much heavy rain as it could find and dropped it all on us. Sheets of water spears hurled themselves at the bus, but the driver carried on liking he was driving in a rally. Peering through the waterfall covering his windscreen, he dodged the surprisingly nippy little vehicle around trucks and past mopeds as we sped into a forest of neatly spaced rubber trees...

The second day was thankfully dry while the road wound down the mountains and out again to the flat coastal region. This didn't stop me having to hold on for dear life as rally driver number two raced his way down the narrow twisting roads. The chorus of vomiting that is the background to any bus trip in south East Asia had already begun by the fourth bend and we hadn't even begun to descend yet. For some people on the bus this was going to be a very long trip.

The road left the plateau behind and the mountain in front of us opened up into a huge valley stretching as far as the eye could see and bottoming out in a tiny river far below. Slowly we worked our way down around hairpin bends & stomach wrenching sheer drops until the river was no longer a distant shimmering ribbon but a wide churning tumult of brown.

It was early evening when I reached Danang, 10 hours after I set off, and by the time my bus to Hue began to crawl out of town the last dregs of light were being dragged from the sky.

It was, therefore, pitch black by the time we reached the half hour mountain pass that lies between the two cities. The road, slick and shiny from earlier rain and continuing drizzle reflected headlights as a blaze and as the traffic built up so did the competition to be the bus at the front of the line. As we twisted and turned upwards into the rocky outcrop the exhilaration of the race masked any fear as we overtook slow moving lorries on blind uphill corners with only the narrowest gaps to squeeze through.

We arrived in Hue unscathed, however, and, I like to think, in the lead.

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Posted by Bimbler 20:26 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hoi An to Dalat

Tailors & Mountains...


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Tired of long distance buses, I get the night train to Hoi An, taking in beautiful coastal scenery and a stunning palm-lined sunset en-route. As both sides agreed to leave Hoi An untouched during the war, it is officially the place to go to see "old buildings". It is still a very quaint, pretty and small place, despite the influx of tourist trade over the last decade, and while tailor shops inhabit almost every building in the old quarter, it means the buildings are renovated and restored without losing any of their charm. In celebration of the full moon there is a lantern procession, and the twinkle of the flames suits the peeling colonial buildings very much.

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An hour out of Hoi An lies My Son, the ruins of Hindu temples built by the Cham Kingdom between the 4 - 14th century AD. Though not as impressive as Angkor Wat, the tumbledown red brick ruins bask in the bright morning sunlight and green moss and grass sprout prettily from its walls. Some of the temples are more intact than others, though bombing during the war means all are fairly far gone. One looks like a giant treasure chest, another has its wall carvings still intact, while another is really just a pile of bricks being held together with supports. Oh and there are large stone penises dotted about. (Sorry, that should be "Phallic symbols", right?).

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I'm back on the buses as I work my way down the coast, stopping for a couple of nights in Nha Trang before moving on into the mountains of eastern Vietnam.

The road to Dalat slowly winds its way through surprisingly European-like forests, with glimpses of hilly vistas as we round treacherously steep corners. Dalat itself is pretty-ish, the jumble of roofs on different levels making up for the grey sky and a mist more atmospheric than dampening. Vest tops and shorts are exchanged for trousers and jumpers as I adjust to the more familiar cold climate. A hot coffee is now more than welcome & a brisk walk no longer leaves me drenched in sweat.

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I get a days tour of the surrounding area with one of the many Easy Rider motorbike tour guides & head off into a countryside dominated by coffee plantations. I see rice wine being made; cooked rice ferments in earthenware jugs and is then distilled, the discarded husks of rice used as fuel, nothing wasted. I visit a flower farm, small fields of bright colours under plastic roofs, and a silk factory where a pile of rattling silk cocoons are boiled, teased and unwound before being intricately woven into patterned silk by huge noisily vibrating machines. Elephant waterfall, now devoid of elephants, is nevertheless impressive and at its base there is scrambling to be done amongst the chunky roots of the water drenched trees. I stand beneath the fall of the water, a little to one side, and brace myself against the spray thrown up as it pummels the rocks alongside me. It is amazingly powerful. The last stop is Dalat's very own "Crazy House", built by artist/architect (And local governor’s daughter) Ms Dang Viet Nga. Originally a labour of love and now an ever growing tourist spot, nothing about this guest house is conventional. The walls and windows curve, giant animals guard the bedrooms and the three buildings are connected by Escher-like staircase-bridges.

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Posted by Bimbler 00:08 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Saigon

And War.


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The hive of activity that is Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is a long way from the peace of the river & the backpacker area hums with activity at all times of the day and night. While the sun is up it is the roar of hundreds of moped that echoes around the tall thin buildings, by night it is the thump thump of the bars on the street below. Much the same as backpacker areas everywhere.

The tourist attractions of Saigon are dominated by war memorials of one kind or another and on my first day there I visited the Cu Chi tunnels, a visitors centre 2 hours outside of Saigon telling the story behind the 250km of tunnels the Viet Cong dug to maintain their guerrilla war. It was raining quite heavily when our tour group arrived and the mud tracks through the forest were both slippery and sticky in turns. Despite the tunnels being "widened to twice as big" for the tourists they're still tiny and claustrophobic, but far more terrifying are the ingenious and horrific traps they would lay for ground troups tramping through the forest. Think tiger pits crossed with the Saw films... After our tour we were taken to a shooting range where we could fire weapons of the kind that were were used in the conflict. I choose an M16 and as my shoulder kicks back from the recoil my ears ring and silence everything else around me. Coupled with the still driving rain it is as atmospheric an experience as gun range shooting could be.

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Back in Saigon the war tributes continue. The War Remnants Museum was once called "Museum of American War Crimes" and from the exhibits you can see why. An entire section of the museum is dedicated to explaining why the war was illegal, and two more sections to the appalling after-effects of the chemicals chemicals dumped over large portions of Vietnam. Everywhere there are horrific photos; a soldier holding a severed head, the entrails still hanging from the neck, mutations caused by Agent Orange, a well filled with the bullet ridden bodies of children. It is very difficult viewing.

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Even "Reunification Palace", used for conferences by statesmen even now, is filled with relics from the South Vietnamese government, along with reminders that they were crushed by the north. In fact, the only tourist sight I visit that is unrelated to war is the Cao Dai temple, called "Tay Ninh Holy See". A fabulously gaudy interior inhabited by monks and nuns, we arrive in time to listen to the chanting of the morning service. It reminds me of assembly in Infant School.

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Posted by Bimbler 03:47 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Mekong Delta

Where the river and land begin to merge

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I spend four days in the Mekong Delta, each day exploring the river in the morning before catching a local bus onwards in the afternoon. My first stop is Chau Doc, a small town on the edge of Vietnam with a considerable population living in floating village just off the banks of the built up land town. Being rowed amongst the homes, they look not unlike the houses seen in the countryside and small children skip along their narrow porches and moored boats with no consideration for the murky brown river that they are a foot slip from falling in. Underneath some of the boat buildings there are fish farms - sunk nets where fish are bred to be sold on in town. Further in there are slurry making plants to feed the fish & there is even a floating petrol station, so engine powered boats can fill up. On the far bank of the river, where the vegetation is more wild, the floating village merges almost imperceptibly with land based swellings; first stilt houses with rickety connecting bridges, then more and more grounded houses until the path reaches the road again.

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My second stop is Can Tho, further down the Mekong and deeper into Vietnam. I arrive late in the evening & book myself straight onto a sunrise tour of the floating markets and backwaters of this part of the delta. My short nights sleep is rewarded with a beautiful sunrise that colours the sky and river a brilliant gold while dusting the waterfront buildings and moored boats a lovely husky pink. For 2 hours we are motored around the bustling river markets; the sellers with fruit and veg piled impossibly high on their narrow barges, tall poles sticking up from the end of their boat holding an example of their wares. We stopped at a family rice noodle making business, the pre-noodling rice pancakes drying in the sun, then it was on to the lush green over-hangings of the backwaters.

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After a total of 8 and a half hours on the water over the previous 2 days I decided that my day in My Tho would have (for the sake of my inner balance) to be land based. I set off to the snake farm, naively expecting to see snakes & how anti-venom was made. There was anti-venom being made there, sure, and snake face cream, but no explanation of how. There was snakes there also, in too small cages, but also bears (in too small cages), birds (in too small cages) Sloths (In, yup, you've guessed it) and monkeys... chained to trees. I didn't stay long and the next day I headed to Saigon, in the hope of making more sensible visiting choices.
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Posted by Bimbler 05:12 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Kampot

And The Hill Town of Bokor

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I arrive at 10am - a time of day not seen for 8 days - and proceed to pass out in my beautiful burgundy hotel room until about 4:30, when the sun is just beginning its decent. I find myself in a small town largely unconcerned with and unchanged by visitors, a distinct change from Sihanoukville. I get some dinner and visit an internet cafe, but beyond that there really isn't much else to do.

The next day I hired a moped and after one minor spill in the back roads of the town (A woman and her baby pulled out in front of me - not my fault!) I drove down to Kep; an even quieter seaside town. So quiet, in fact, that I didn't even stop, continuing round the circle road along a partially made gravel road that it was tortuous to keep my balance on.

Bokor was a French colonial outpost on the very top of the hill that overlooks Kampot. Built in the 30's and abandoned in the late 70's only the shells of buildings remain. It's a spooky site, especially as the fog rolls over and into the husks of houses left behind. At the very top of the hill, with views that stretch down to the coast and the twinkling blue sea sits a grand hotel once used to entertain the French colonials missing their home luxuries. Downstairs the ballroom is mildewed and bullet holes peppering the wall remind you why the building was abandoned. Continuing upstairs it is difficult to make out which room belongs to which and everywhere there are tears in the plaster of the walls where cables have been ripped out. The smashed glass in the window frames is still sharp and the building feels very haunted. It feels like the hotel in The Shining.

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The next day my visa for Vietnam becomes valid & I can escape; a buttock crunching 2hour moto ride to the border through stunning rice paddies and out of season salt flats and I wave Cambodia goodbye.

Posted by Bimbler 22:12 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

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