I’ve started a couple of previous travelling pieces with fairly grand – and probably a little pretentious – introductions about a desire to travel some unexplored corner of the world, soak up new cultures, bla bla bla. So for Southeast Asia I could go on about the quest for adventure and getting a taste of a radically different taste of life in the “lands of the rising sun” (technically Japan is the land of the rising sun, but it’s a romantic description).
Now – because thankfully I’ve travelled a bit, I’m not really the type to travel for “spiritual awakening” and simply because of rapacious march of globalisation and the “Gap Yah” – three weeks in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, is kind of just a ‘holiday’, albeit a quite intrepid one, rather than an ‘adventure’. Though we (me, Graham, Chris, Sam and, later, Dylan, James and Stephen) did pack a lot in, from bustling cities, to jungles, beaches, islands, temples, and more…
With that in mind, I’ll start on a (very tired) taxi journey from Bangkok’s main airport, Suvarnabhumi, to our hotel in central Bangkok, Lebua at State Tower, the 5-star one from the Hangover 2 with the rooftop bar. It’s some hotel, which my friend Sam miraculously got a really good deal on it – just 37 quid a night. Nestled right in the heart of Bangkok, it shoots up from the ground and offers air-conditioned luxury with spectacular views over the city. Meanwhile, right at its doorstep down below, people and vehicles resemble ants scurrying around as the ‘real’ Bangkok pulses with life – the street food, the heat, the intoxicating (or just plain filthy) array of fumes, the people trying to hawk their wares at everyone, and the traffic. It’s a dichotomy that would have your average Guardian writer soul-searching for metaphors of the high-rise hotel representing global hierarchy. But thankfully (in this sense) I’m not completely wracked with Western guilt at such things, so I loved it. The 64-floor-high Sky Bar, in particular, is stunning….
The only minor drawback is they strictly police the stairs to stop people dawdling on them, even though there was loads of space, meaning we couldn’t recreate the film’s famous image…
As for Bangkok itself, it’s an intoxicating place, a rapidly changing melting pot of East and West – shopping malls and street markets; modern monorail and tuk tuks; skyscrapers and shanty towns. The best example of this is a big sign at the holy Golden Mount (Wat Saket) temple advertising the free wi-fi – while you’re among monks in bare feet praying and burning incense, who presumably take vows of chastity against mobiles and other ‘decadent modern mores’. I guess nowadays even sacred Buddhist places of worship can do with those Facebook check-ins. Everybody’s gotta eat, even monks.
The food, like the rest of Southeast Asia, is incredible. Street markets line every busy road, offering snacks at just five or ten baht (about 9p to 18p) and bigger offerings for about 50p to a pound, all of a great combination of flavour, spice and colour. The downside, though, is ‘Delhi Belly’. Thankfully, I was pretty unaffected, but unfortunately Sam, in particular, was.
Due to Bangkok’s sheer energy, the way it’s moving up in the world while still retaining a strong sense of itself, it’s easy to admire. It’s a little harder to truly love, though. Because that same energy also makes it hard to really connect to it. Walking the city streets, we all felt, to varying degrees, a mix of intrigue, or even awe, at all of it and mental/heat exhaustion.
Even being taken around is exhausting. We’d agreed a (very cheap) tuk tuk journey to a few temples while the drivers waited for us, with a brief mention we visit their ‘friends” shop. Turned out it was two shops and, in the second especially, we were basically locked in the shop and harassed into buying something. It was a back alley place selling clothes, including suits they’d export to the UK. I know people have got to put food on the table but it was a bit much – the staff in this small place outnumbered us four by at least two to one and one of them even physically restrained Sam (a bit) and told him to buy something. We worked out it was so cheap, around 30p each, because the drivers got fuel vouchers from the shop owners for supplying them with new customers…or prey.
There are some good ways to escape it, though. One is the speedboat you can take on the Chao Phraya River – driven fast enough to send jets of refreshing water splashing up at passengers. Another is the SkyTrain – a monorail system covering much of Bangkok. It’s a stunning feat of engineering. Just imagine the difficulty and protests if you were to build, essentially, a network of several-mile-long bridges running right above the roads in central London today – it’s pretty similar to that. Not only is it really efficient, it offers a great way of looking at the city – at around 30m high, high enough to escape the madness below but low enough to see the city in all its colourful details. It’s also really cool to have a city built in upwards layers, like a real-life Escher maze, yet more easily navigable, with some walkways and shops elevated to fit into the Sky Train network.
Next up was Koh Chang, an island about five miles off the Southeast coast of Thailand, which from the ferry over reminded me of the island from Lost (the TV show) – steep, heavily forested hills towering up into dark, forbidding clouds. The island basically divides into villages and resorts around the small northern tip and along the eastern and western edges (about 10 miles long each). We were on the west, at a place called Elephant Bay in Bailan Bay, to where we got a very rickety, hilly minibus ride.
The place was great – with a bar/restaurant/games area and swimming pool which led right onto the beach (admittedly, the beach was really rocky but how many hostels have a beach?) and a friendly atmosphere even by hostels’ standards.
After a messy night (I’ll say no more, partly because I can’t remember, though I did film this fire-waver who was awesome), we were up, if not bright then certainly early, for a trek in the jungle. It was pretty hellish at the start I’m not going to lie. I was suffering from one of those hangovers where even walking to the shop for a coke feels is an ordeal – let alone a trek through the jungle in 30+ degree heat and 60% humidity (it’s so humid in South-east Asia that the forecasts often have a feels like temperature, which is often about five degrees hotter than the official temperature). A dip in the plunge pool of the waterfall an hour or so later helped, though, and after a couple of minutes of torrential rain I was feeling really refreshed. It became wearying well before it finally dissipated four or five hours later, but we’d have been sodden from the sweat and waist-high river crossings anyway – and it was worth it. After all, this is hardly the kind of thing you can do in the UK…
The next day we went to Bang Bao, with an American girl and a German-Thai/English couple who bred huskies in northern Sweden (you meet all sorts travelling). More of the village seems to be on the pier than on the mainland. Along with all the usual shops, there are loads of restaurants (with seafood so fresh in some it’s alive on arrival), a medical centre and even a snooker hall. I had a great seafood soup with an even better view….
Siem Reap/Angkor Wat
In the morning, we were headed for Siem Reap, Cambodia, a trip which I’d read on the internet involved a pretty hellish border crossing, over a 300m stretch of the border town Poipet colloquially called ‘no man’s land’. The internet was not wrong. Two-and-half-hours at the border (of a 12-hour journey involving seven different modes of transport); in the baking 35 heat; feeling like a criminal with various visa, health and passport checks; and getting mugged off of about 15 pounds in a scam by a savvy tour guide. (He told us, and others it transpired, to change money to Cambodian riel because it works out cheaper than US dollar – not true, in fact dollar is probably preferred – and then people, flustered by the heat and confused by getting hundreds of thousands of riel, unwittingly pay about 17% commission. Very clever in fairness.) And to add insult to injury, Graham paid about eight pounds for a standard bottle of water, as he gave ten times too much riel, and the woman, I think feigning misunderstanding, would not give change.
It set the scene for Cambodia to be honest. As soon as were there we were dropped off at a taxi rank where about a dozen taxi drivers were aggressively competing for our custom. And then when we agreed to go with one he still spent about five minutes trying to sell us his Angkor Wat tour the next day despite us telling him approximately a dozen times, with increasing bluntness, no/we’d decide later. It was the same in Siem Reap, where you’ll walk for a minute down a busy street and probably have near enough twenty people try to sell you anything from souvenirs, toys, food, drink, fish foot massages, massages, “massages” or “poom poom”. That night, a young girl, with a young baby on her arm, came up to Chris, giving him a sob story of how she “NO WANT MONEY, JUST MILK FOR BABY!” Then she grabbed him and basically dragged him to a newsagent and refused to accept the standard $2/3 milk, which Chris was (reluctantly) prepared to buy, instead demanding the $20 formula milk. Especially because of the smirk on the shopkeeper’s face which Chris noticed, he figured the girl would probably, if bought the formula milk, go straight back to the store and sell the milk back to the shopkeeper, who take a dollar or so cut in the ploy.
I appreciate Cambodia is, in material terms at least, a relatively poor country, so mostly I don’t begrudge this kind of thing (except stuff like the milk scam). Indeed, I kind of enjoyed it in general. After all, it’s Asia – it’s part of the experience. But it really was full on in Siem Reap, far more so than even Bangkok, and it reaches a tipping point where you stop politely declining people’s offers or requests, or even having some banter, and you start issuing very firm, rude “NO!”s (and thinking very firm, rude “FUCK OFF!”s). Or I did anyway. If you can take it all with good grace, you’re a better person than me.
Still, Angkor Wat, the world’s biggest religious monument, was stunning, even more so than I’d imagined. We got a brilliant tour guide who explained the temple complex’s history – originally built in the early 12th century as a Hindu temple for the Khmer Empire for King Suryavarman II (the internet helped with things I’d since forgotten). It took more than 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants about 37 years to build it – but it’s that immense and impressive that you think, in fact, 37 years is not bad going really, given five million tonnes of sandstone, collected from the holy Mount Kulen, were imported for its construction, on a mixture of canals, elephants, ropes, pulleys and bamboo.
Since, it’s been subject to fierce battles over its ownership along religious and political lines. After initially being built as a Hindu temple, and dedicated to the Hindu god of preservation, Vishnu, by the 14th century it had been converted to a Buddhist complex, which it is today, and statues of the Buddha were added to its already rich artwork and sculpture. Sadly, in recent years it has been the source of much political tension, and even armed conflict between Cambodia and Thailand – a consequence, I suppose, of what a wonder it is.
You start at Angkor Wat. Vast and ornate, it doesn’t disappoint. As well as the huge, majestic spires – recognisable from countless photos – there’s interest and intrigue in every pocket of the huge temple, including golden statues of the Buddha and magnificent stone murals. These tapestries depict, in extraordinary detail, weird and wonderful tales from religious mythology; boats, elephants, gods, musical instruments, heaven, hell and much more. One mural takes up a wall nearly 10m high and about 30m long, with about three different levels to represent the different stages of the reincarnation process. One section depicts an epic tug of war between one set of gods on the good side and another on the bad. Anyway, without wanting to unduly trivialise the religion, it was pretty fucking cool.
But what astounded me the most about Angkor Wat is that the Angkor Wat temple itself is only a part of it. In popular usage, Angkor Wat is actually a synecdoche, which does a bit of a disservice to the array of other wonders all within easy walking distance of it. There’s also Ta Prohm (which does have some limelight) – a temple which was abandoned after the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 17th century but, through happy accident, has found itself all the more spectacular for it, as huge silk cotton trees have grown into the temple and protrude high into the sky; a mix of nature and sculpture made all the more beguiling by its sheer serendipity.
Shockingly overlooked is the temple of Bayon (if that doesn’t ring any bells with you, that proves my point – I didn’t really know of it before I came). It sits in Angkor Thom – technically another complex from Angkor Wat – and is a massive, vaguely pyramid-shaped temple containing 54 huge Buddha heads which would not look out of place in Mexican Inca ruins. It’s like the very good footballer relegated to the bench and half-forgotten about due to the world-class player playing in his place.
And there’s another temple, Phnom Bakheng. In itself, it’s not that impressive (purely speaking in relative terms), but being the highest point in the area – and actually for miles and miles around (geographically Cambodia’s flat as a pancake and frankly pretty dull) – it offers stunning views of the sunset and sunrise. We went for sunset; not the best of sunsets – quite cloudly – but still pretty special, especially when the sun crept out from behind the clouds to create incredible light effects across the landscape or when there was a golden glow to the whole panorama, like a sepia photograph.
Thankfully, the journey back to Thailand was a lot less stressful than the one there. Graham and Sam were so stressed by that – or more accurately Sam’s bowels were – they decided to fly, while Chris and I got an ‘express’ bus back to Bangkok. ‘Express’ is overdoing it, but it was quicker and the border stuff took about half-an-hour rather than two-and-half-hours.
We flew to Chiang Mai the next day, after a pretty boring night in a dead-end motel (I chose it because it’s next to airport which is well out of town, but it turns out there’s a really good tram link to the airport from central Bangkok anyway). As the short, hour-long flight progressed, the landscape gradually changes from flat farmland to verdant, green hills. Chiang Mai sits splayed out in a wide valley; a nice change from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, while still buzzy enough to be interesting. It sits on the first (ie most southern) point of the well-worn backpacker path/area known as the Golden Triangle, which also includes Pai, which we didn’t have time for, and Chiang Rai.
We got talking to this girl and these two Essex lads that evening. I know it’s very reductive to label someone based on where they happen to be born, but even from the first 30 seconds of chatting to him it was clear he was the worst Brit abroad stereotype – loud, arrogant, and somehow simultaneously narrow-minded and while also fond of the usual hippy bullshit of people “all being the same really”. We – and the whole hostel I’m sure – were awoken to a fight with him and someone else at around 3am. It transpired he and his mates had a bust up in the club, he passed out in a corner and had been picked up (in both senses) by a local ladyboy prostitute, who wasn’t happy when s/he came back to his hostel and he ‘no longer’ wanted his/her ‘custom’. To be fair, the ladyboy was probably responsible for much of the confusion, but judging from earlier I’d say he was far from blameless.
The next day we encountered some creatures with, frankly, probably a little more intelligence than Mr Essex – elephants. They were two families living on separate hilltops – grandmothers, mothers and children, and all women apart from a boisterous one-year-old male. The guide, Robert, an eccentric local with idiosyncratic English very fond of shouting “HAPPY ELEPHANT”, told us the males lived a few miles away and came down once a month or so, had their way with the women and then disappeared – “just like human!” laughing a very hearty laugh.
My god, can elephants eat! Before we met them we were warned to hold our bananas behind our back with one hand so they don’t see them and half assault you to get them (half assault because they are very gentle creatures – albeit very hungry, gentle creatures). They’re still all over you, but in an adorable way, because, all joking about their appetite and their sex life aside, elephants are such graceful, majestic, friendly, intelligent animals, with so much soul and personality. They were probably already my favourite animal before seeing them for the first time, at least in the wild.
You may be thinking now, and reasonably, how ‘wild’ they really are if white Westerners like me were there feeding, touching and photographing them. But the description is fair, because firstly this place was truly in the middle of nowhere (the road up to it was the bumpiest I’ve ever been on), and secondly there was a good arrangement where the elephants were completely free to go where they want, but had come to learn feeding time was at about 11 and bathing time after that. And from there they had obviously developed a good relationship with Robert and the other guides/villagers and, in turn, all those they brought along for four or five hours each day.
After feeding the elephants, we fed ourselves with some superb homemade food on a terrace by the river, before washing the elephants first in the river, then in a mud, then the river again to wash off the mud – a great, bucket list experience. I could be wrong of course, but elephants are so expressive it seemed fairly clear they were loving it too.
We met up with three girls from the elephant walking for dinner that night at this cool food market place, food stalls round the outside and hipster-y hay bales to sit on in the middle – a Shoreditch kind of place. There was also a brilliant night market, offering everything under the sun. This is true of a lot of Asian markets but there was a lot of good quality stuff in this one and you weren’t being harassed to buy something every five seconds (although that’s part of the fun). I got three football shirts for a total of about 20 quid. Probably fake, but they looked indistinguishable from the real thing.
The food court, market and conversation were good enough that we completely forgot we were meant to go to a ladyboy show. But judging from a video from someone else in the hostel we saw the next day, which showed a load of camp dancing to I Will Survive and such like and a white British (I think) lad being grinded on by a ladyboy, perhaps it was a lucky escape. To their credit, most of them look amazingly feminine. If they weren’t in a show, you’d never know (until it got intimate at least).
The next day, north on a minibus to Chiang Rai. Turned out the minibus stopped for 20 minutes at the White Temple, the main reason we’d decided to visit, before taking everyone else on to the Thai-Laos border. The temple was very impressive – striking in all white, beautifully ornate and endearingly weird and dark in places – pits of outstretched hands reaching up and an alien figure in the grounds.
But it was small enough that 20 minutes was enough time there. So at this point, with no one else staying in Chiang Rai, it seemed the decision to stay might have been a mistake. But after finding our B&B and chatting to the owner, we decided to rent mopeds and ride up into the mountains the following day – Chris, an experienced rider, with a proper motorbike and Graham on the back, me and Sam with smaller ones on our own.
That evening we went to the local market, because even if they’re not that great they’re always very busy and great for getting a sense of place. Here, we found out that Chiang Rai-ians love doing a weird Thai version of a Ceilidh (to be fair, Ceilidhs are pretty weird anyway) round a maypole, and massive car soundsystems, with sub-woofers which literally make you vibrate when you’re near them, and scantily clad girls dancing on top of them, like you would find in a Fast & Furious film.
Riding the mopeds the next day was an absolute joy. God knows you have to have some rather large testicles to ride one in Bangkok, but even the urban Chiang Rai was comfortable to scoot around as a moped virgin. The motorway – more like an a-road in Britain – was also easy to ride on, quiet and with a big hard shoulder which mopeds, and occasionally cyclists, tend to stick to. Out in hills it felt like a proper adventure – open road, wind-in-the-hair, Hollywood type of stuff (or Top Gear special at the very least). Surprisingly, for a remote region, the road was flawless too, so our eyes weren’t glued to it and we could enjoy views like this…
We stopped in Doi Mae Salong, a village/town sprawling out along the road with the slightly untouched air of Nepalese villages you see adventurers setting off for Everest from. Unlike the rest of Thailand we’d seen, most signs were not in English, and the waitress at the restaurant we stopped at spoke only very basic English – a sure sign we were off the beaten track. This was refreshing, though – this part of the world, like many others, is so well trodden now it’s nice to have a part you can (kind of) call your own. (That’s not a big complaint about the ‘commercialisation’ of places like Thailand – of course it can take the soul out of places but it can also foster understanding and provide much needed money. Also, popular places are usually popular for good reason and we were tourists after all.)
Back in Chiang Rai, we exchanged our mopeds for our passports (phew!) and got ready for the taxi to the Chiang Khong on the Thai-Laos border. The scenery on the journey was pretty if not spectacular, and improved by a stunning sunset; there’s something really evocative about chasing the sun as it sets.
Slow boat on the Mekong
Chiang Khong probably underwhelmed even my low expectations – no streetlights and barely any more people or cars. It was about nine when we arrived but felt like 3am. Walking down the alley to our B&B, Graham said he felt like he was going to be murdered – and I think he was only half joking. And the balcony of the B&B was like a scene from A Bug’s Life. Still, it was only for one night.
Despite being able to see the boat directly opposite, over the river, from our balcony, we had to take a taxi about ten miles to south to the recently-opened Friendship Bridge. The immigration process certainly wasn’t very friendly, though. It took about an hour-and-a-half in total and included quite UKIP-esque statements on the visa document and poster on the wall – ‘our tax, our country’ and ‘smart immigration, strong nation’. It’s not that I particularly resent this (especially writing this after the Paris attacks). It’s just I found it a bit odd from Laos; it’s only got about seven million people in a country the size of the UK and a quick google suggests they have slightly more leaving than arriving. Any migrant would be unlikely to find much greater riches there than in any of its neighbouring countries (Thailand, Vietnam, China, Cambodia and Myanmar). And I struggle to think why any terrorist would attack a peaceful, relative backwater like Laos. Anyway, the laboriousness of the immigration served to remind of the small luxury of being a white man with a British passport, in that many other places I’ve been I’ve had to do little more than flash it to get in (thank you, colonialism!). Plus, it was a Sunday – and as we’d come to realise Laos’ modus operandi at any time is, for better or for worse, slow (s-laaoooos, even).
Getting on the boat was a bit of an ordeal. Imagine the rush for a busy, long-distance train from a London station when it appears on the board – and then times that by about ten. The baggage storage was at the back so some were going that way while others were coming back the other way scrambling for a seat, but the gangway only really allowed for one person. One of the locals even got a motorbike on the front, despite there being so little space the back wheel was hanging off the edge. I didn’t have a seat for about five minutes and was propping up the tiny snack bar, constantly moving to let people past. I pride myself on the British attitude of ‘mustn’t grumble’, but the prospect of doing this for up to another seven hours didn’t appeal and I’m sure my demeanour betrayed that (I wanted it to). Thankfully, the captained magicked up a little stool and sandwiched me between two benches at the front at the expense of a local who went back to the engine room. My slight guilt was appeased when I learnt the locals – probably – paid nothing for the journey (I’d assumed they paid but less than tourists), which seemed fair to me. All in all, it probably took an hour from boarding until departure. It should be used to teach a lesson to those who moan endlessly about UK transport.
The journey itself was great – a true adventure on one of the world’s great rivers through the heart of the jungle; a great space for, if you’ll excuse the pretentiousness just a second, sitting back with a Beerlaos in hand, heaphones in ears and thinking about life. There really was next to sign no sign of civilisation for most of it. At one point a local, carrying a huge sandbag, got off at a tiny beach with only hundreds and hundreds of trees around, yet proceeded to take out his mobile and start talking to someone – impressive network coverage! You’d see groups of just a dozen huts with no apparent link to the outside world; as amazing and eye-opening as it was baffling to think about how it would be to grow up in such a place with (presumably) so little contact to anything else; do they do the basic childhood things like going to school, watch TV, play football?
The stopping point for the night was a place called Pak Beng, a small town, seemingly all of which had arrived at the pier to greet us…and offer us ‘luxury’, ‘top class’ rooms for the night and all manner of goods. We had to politely decline around a dozen people on the accommodation front (one bloke said “next year, then!” – fair play for the ambition), because we’d already booked. It was hardly luxury – the beds were hard and the whole bathroom got soaking because there was nothing separating the shower – but it did have a good balcony with a stunning view of a bend in the Mekong and the adjoining valleys.
We ate at the place next door, a quaint family-run joint, where we were served by a girl who couldn’t have been older than ten. I mean, if you thought too hard about it’s arguably a bit depressing that a pre-teen girl is working rather than enjoying her childhood, but then again she’s learning English, maybe she enjoys it and it was cute. And the food was very good too – first time I’d had buffalo.
After another, predictably hectic, start, the scenery the next day on the boat, while still impressive, had frankly lost a bit intrigue, after having seen seven hours of it the day before. But I ended up chatting to some other travellers and getting mildly pissed on drinking games, which was a good substitute.
Luang Prabang was the boat’s destination (well, the pier for it is about ten miles outside – probably a ploy so tourists basically keep the local taxi service afloat). Its Laos’ second city, but only has a population of 50,000 so still has a pretty rural feel. Mere metres from the main street, on the one side there’s the Mekong River and on one other Mount Phousi (“mount pussy,” as a South Korean we met called it, with a complete straight face). Its superb by night. Firstly, there’s a food street, a huge array of food crammed together in a small, sheltered alleyway, creating an intoxicating assault on the senses. And the main street becomes a tented bazaar of all manner of weird and wonderful gifts, garbage and goodies.
The next day we went Kuang Si waterfalls, well known and for very good reason – around six or seven cascading plunge pools of luminous blue between little falls and streams, in front of a massive waterfall around 60/70m high, which you can climb. You’re not allowed in the main pool which was a bit disappointing, but you’re allowed in and between all others. Back in Luang Prabang, we climbed Mount Phousi for the sunset – a spectacular scene of the sun reflecting on the Mekong and descending past the hills beyond.
We went to this bar later which had been recommended (in hindsight, possibly because it was the only real bar there). Weirdly, the cab stopped in a nondescript residential street and we were pointed down this dark alley, in which it felt a little like we were going to get stabbed in truth. But out of nowhere, a huge, spacious bar emerged. ‘Asian garden party’ probably best describes the theme – a huge room leading on to a tropical garden, with a pleasantly hippy feel – you have to take your shoes off and there’s loads of cushions and yoga mats lying about. There’s even a beach volleyball court! Alas, I didn’t get to have a go.
Then suddenly at 11.25pm a bell rang and people started heading for the door. It turns out that all licensed drinking in Luang Prabang stops at 11.30…Well, nearly all drinking, because lined up outside on the road was probably the entire fleet of Luang Prabang taxis bidding to take people to the ten pin bowling alley, where it turns out you can drink. I guess the law is such because of socially conservative custom (Laos is broadly Buddhist), but there’s an exemption for drinking done as a ‘secondary activity’ to, of course, everyone’s favourite sport of ten pin bowling. Whatever…it was an enjoyably novel experience. Turns out I’m a terrible shot drunk – though I’m not very good anyway in truth. Others were pretty damn good considering, though. One bloke on my lane was absolutely caning his throws through the legs. I was having trouble avoiding the gutter.
…Which is incidentally where I felt I’d slept, come the next day. I wasn’t even that drunk; it must have been some combination of the heat and humidity and the early start. I’d got up at about 7 30 to go on a boat trip to a cave of 4,000 Buddha heads (the others had booked on an earlier flight to Vietnam). It was a lot less impressive than it sounds truth be told, and I’d seen the same scenery from the boat, but a cruise down the river was a relaxing way to get over the hangover.
Hanoi and Halong Bay
The flight to Hanoi went ok – apart from an awkward journey in a taxi where me and two Germans who had agreed to share a cab had to speak to the drivers for 30 minutes before they understood or agreed to take all three of us, and then I really needed to….errm, relieve myself (we ended up stopping at what turned out to be a motorway patrol office, where the officer, although understandably bemused, kindly let me in).
Hanoi is a truly mad city, even busier than Bangkok, and the Old Quarter, where we were staying, is the maddest of all; a “permanent carnival of food vendors and sidewalk cafes accompanied by the constant whining chorus of internal combustion engines,” according to Thomas Fuller in the New York Times. Pedestrians zigzag between each other and the various goods from shops spilling out onto the tiny pavement, while all manner of vehicles, mostly mopeds, battle it out for the tiniest gaps of space in the road. The sound of car horns is so persistent it almost becomes a single, uninterrupted drone. And words really cannot do justice to how chaotic the crossroads are. There are no traffic lights in the Old Quarter, so each crossroads is basically a Battle Royale between vehicles of all descriptions, going in any directions. If that wasn’t enough, some motorcyclists carry big cargo like goods and furniture (only the rich drive), inevitably affecting their concentration and balance. You learn the trick of pedestrianism is to walk coolly, calmly and confidently, and the traffic will filter around you; but it’s quite a step – literally – to be confident in walking in a way which would, if you’re lucky, only result in injury in one’s home country. The sheer quantity of road users means vehicles rarely get up enough to speed to cause deaths, but injuries are very common.
Also, the huge use of motorbikes and mopeds, while useful in being nimble enough to keep the traffic flowing reasonably well considering, means the city is plagued by dust and pollution (it’s the most polluted city in Southeast Asia, and increasingly so), especially in the Old Quarter where the narrow, fairly tall terraced buildings hem in all the craziness.
It’s so manic that pretty quickly it got past ‘intoxicating’ and just became….Hanoi-ing (I was quite proud of that pun if I say so myself). I’m fully aware this may well sound like the petty whining of the western tourist. It’s true, to some extent at least, this is all part of the fun of Asia – and I liked Bangkok, hardly a tranquil place, for that reason. But being a London cyclist I’m hardly a shrinking violet, and there’s a tipping point – when you’re more concerned for getting from A to Z in one piece than enjoying the scenery and soaking up the atmosphere.
Thankfully, the hotel was very welcoming; a clean, modern, air-conditioned oasis in the hustle and bustle. Frankly, Hanoi had me beaten and, despite it being the first night Dylan, James and Stephen were there, I just wanted to crash on the bed and watch Wimbledon. (James and Dylan are childhood friends who had, separately, both long left for Australia, and James’ friend Stephen an Irishman who’d done the same.) But Graham – rightly – stopped me being a pussy and we headed out.
Now, without heavy luggage and a place to be going and with good mates, Hanoi was much more enjoyable. I love cities that are functional by day and buzzing by night (a bit of both if possible). Hanoi pretty much fails at the former but definitely succeeds at the latter. We went to a small area of the Old Quarter, where the streets are basically pedestrianised, with a great atmosphere of both families and revellers walking around, street markets, restaurants, people drinking outside, food vendors, street performers and shisha bars. We had a great ‘pho’ – the national dish of Vietnam, a rich beef stew – then went to one of the shisha bars.
The next day, we strolled to Quan Thanh, where thankfully there’s a bit more space (if you have a minute or two, google the city map and see how much more dense the roads are packed in the north-east of central Hanoi). West Lake was rather disappointing frankly, but near there was a park with various government and political buildings. I was by no means completely ignorant of Vietnam’s past and current politics, but it was very striking how socialist, even communist, the place is (I’ve heard south Vietnam is much less so, politically and culturally). You see various hammer and sickle symbols; red and yellow insignia; austere brutalist architecture; and ‘struggle of the people’-type statues that resemble Stalingrad.
All that was certainly eye-opening, but it was a shame we weren’t actually allowed in the park. At one gate we tried and were very sternly told by the armed guard we were not allowed – the reaction you’d expect if we was guarding a different country not just some greenery. Security is even tighter outside the gate to the Presidential Palace on the edge of another bit of the park – in its yellow grandeur and neoclassical style, a marked contrast to much of the other grey socialist architecture. You weren’t supposed to take photos, but, being the great rebel and freedom fighter that I am, I sneaked in a couple. Then there was a massive, unused strip of road, about 200m long and a dozen lanes wide, which we were strictly told not to walk on, meaning we had to walk about twice the distance. It was a bizarre contrast to the madness of the roads just half a mile away in the Old Quarter.
Just on from this is the National Assembly and the the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the memorial for the Chairman of the Communist Party of Vietnam from 1951 until death in 1969, marking the spot where he read the Declaration of Independence in September 1945, establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (‘North Vietnam’) and becoming independent from France. His embalmed body is preserved in the central hall, in a glass case with dim lights, guarded by a military honour guard.
The queue snaked all the way down to the road and round the corner, maybe 200m in total, so we didn’t bother going in, but it was worth seeing. CNN International recently declared it the sixth ugliest building in the world, although I think that’s a bit harsh. It’s stark marble brutalism is certainly arresting, the type of building you won’t see much in the West.
Also, it’s a fascinating insight in the country’s culture. The hotel we were staying had mentioned how busy it gets, especially on Sunday, and a TripAdvisor review I looked at described masses of schoolchildren visiting it, praising the ‘father of our nation’. With no organised religion dominant in the country – according to Pew Research findings 45% follow Vietnamese folk religions, 16% Buddhism and 8% Christianity – socialism has seemingly taken on this mantle to some extent, in a not dissimilar way to North Korea, although to a far lesser extent obviously. And the country’s relative openness suggests much of the population is generally content, if not passionately in favour, of Vietnam’s political culture. I’m intrigued to see how and how much it – and other Asian countries – will change in my lifetime.
Then we took a bicycle rickshaw to the Vietnam Military History Museum, an interesting look in particular at the Vietnam war, on which, to my mind at least, there was at least a touch of triumphalism in the way it was presented (though in fairness it is a museum in Vietnam). The description by the incredible remains of a US bomber plane, for instance, seemed to take some glee in describing how it was shot down. Or maybe something was just lost in translation.
Me and Chris went on Hoan Kiem Lake, much prettier than West Lake it turns out. Chris had returned, after visiting about four years earlier, to see if this legendary turtle living there was still alive. It was thought to be about 95 at the time, and, if I remember rightly, someone we asked said she thought he was still alive. What a trooper. There was, though, in the scenic middle part of the lake reached by a pretty, arched red bridge, a lot to commemorate turtles, including a pagoda-like ‘turtle tower’ and a life-size turtle in a glass box.
In Vietnamese, the name of the lake is ‘lake of the returned sword’, because – according to legend (which is to say, this is mostly bullshit, but more importantly entertaining bullshit) – emperor Le Loi King came across a shining metal bar which he had moulded into a sword and imprinted with the words ‘Thuan Thien’ (harmonious with heaven). He used it in a war with a neighbouring country and, when peace prevailed in 1428, on a trip to the lake, a tortoise rose from the water and shouted: “Please return the sword to the Dragon King!” Le Loi duly did, throwing the sword to the lake, and the tortoise took it and dove down, returning the sword to the Dragon King, a local god. And so Le Loi renamed the lake to commemorate this event.
Oh, and Stephen saw a dead dog being barbecued on the street (he showed us a picture). That was pretty eye-opening too.
Next morning it was off to Halong Bay, an incredible area just off the coast of northeast Vietnam with around 2,000 karst limestone islands, rising out of the water like sea monsters from a cheap 80s B movie. You may know it from James Bond or the Top Gear Vietnam special which ends there with Clarkson sipping a tequila with the locals while watching James May negotiate the sea with a broken swan pedalo (It turns out the locals have since been removed and given compensation to move back to the mainland, as part of environment legislation included in Halong Bay’s recent UNESCO World Heritage listing, which seems a shame as, according to our tour guide, most are not that happy to have been moved and still fish out there a lot, and the tourism surely could – could – have been made to work sustainably with the small communities.)
But first, some pearl-making factory, which the tour company presumably had some kind of deal with. To be fair, it was mildly interesting, learning the complicated process about how oysters are farmed to create the pearls and then the technical process of extracting the pearls from the shells. But six twenty-something lads were not exactly the target market for that kind of thing. I enjoyed a comment from Stephen in the room with portraits of various high-profile figures with pearl necklaces on: “All these glamourous people… and then Angela Merkel. She’s hardly the height of elegance, is she?”
After the slight madhouse that is Halong City harbour, we were welcomed on board the Fantasea Cruises boat by Binh and his crew (all brilliant) with drinks and a superb buffet lunch of Vietnamese food as we cruised over to Sung Sot Caves – a huge, spectacular cave network lodged about 50m high one of the islands, illuminated in green and yellow by the lights. Binh was quite funny pointing what the different rocks looked like. There was one that couldn’t be anything other than a dick, but some of his comparisons were very dubious, like the slight recess ten metres from the dick he claimed was a vagina the dick was….errrm, aiming at. A Dutch bloke said: “He must be schmoking zee pipe.”
The caves also gave a great view of an inlet formed by a few islands, and Binh told ‘Halong’ means ‘descending dragon’, referring to the myth of the islands being formed by a great dragon falling from the sky and crashing into the land in a snaked position, leaving only bits of land above water. There is a formal explanation, involving uplift of tectonic plates, but it’s far less interesting.
After that, we kayaked around the islands – and even straight through one bit where a cave had gone all the way through the cliff face (not my video). Here, you could escape the many other ‘junk’ boats and cruise boats and find the uninterrupted views such a wonder of nature deserves (I don’t want to moan too much, because we were tourists after all).
The evening held another great meal; drinking; fishing (I had no luck and gave up after a few minutes); chatting to the Dutch family also on board, who were commendably adventurous in bringing three young girls to the other side of the world; and a cracking game of chess with Binh (I won but he probably would have if not for a single bad error).
We were up bright and early to probably the tallest island, which has a radio tower on top with steps up to it, offering a stunning panorama. It’s also one of the only islands with a beach and a place you’re allowed to swim – and a great little 5-a-side football pitch on the beach! We had a four-on-four game with a Kiwi bloke and his son, who, fair play to him, for a ten-year-old was absolutely throwing himself into challenges against men he didn’t know. The whole game in fact quickly became pretty mad, with diving tackles everywhere and one of those last-goal-wins periods which, despite people banging one in every minute or so before, lasts at least five minutes, as everyone defends a lot more frantically and people semi-bottle it in front of goal. I think the kid won it for us in the end – hero. It’s got to be the most scenic place I’ve ever played football. Sorry, Taribo West Rovers, it certainly beats under a railway line in Shoreditch…
We then headed back to the harbour, while doing a spring roll cookery course, and back into the minibus to Hanoi for basically the end of a great trip (aside from a monumental fuck up with Graham accidentally swapping passports with James and missing his flight).
There are many amazing places on people’s bucket lists, but Southeast Asia should definitely be up there near the top of them!