Monday, 18 May 2009

Vietnam: Nha Trang and Central Highlands motorbike trek

I had enjoyed the natural splendour of Phu Quoc Island but it was now time to move on and begin the next part of my Vietnam tour. Despite the beauty and serenity of the Mai Pheung beach resort, I have to admit the evenings were becoming quite dull. The absence of any bars or tourists was fine for the first few days, but after a while I found myself in need of some people, some atmosphere and some action. Plus I found it quite difficult to sleep in my beachfront cabin. Insects, spiders, frogs and geckos seem to be on a deliberate mission to prevent me from getting a good nights sleep. Animals were everywhere. The only way it would have been more difficult for me to get to sleep would be if there was a fully grown mountain gorilla in my room, leaning over me as I slept, flicking me repeatedly on the nose.

Nha Trang is a large, highly westernised beach town located half way up the east coast of Vietnam. It has the Marmite effect on most of its visitors. You either love it or hate it. If you’re the kind of person who holidays in European beach resorts like Marbella, Tenerife, or Majorca then Nha Trang offers you the same and a whole lot more for a lot less spending money. Beautiful long pristine beaches and clear, warm, clean waters. There is a massive variety of bars, clubs, restaurants and activities, there is an electricity in the air and a party is just around every corner. Plus it has the added exoticism and edginess of being in Vietnam, with the same quirky and unusual differences from Europe that will have you staring, pointing and getting out your camera at every opportunity.

If however you are a serious traveller who wants to experience Vietnam, see how real Vietnamese people live and come away having sampled a meaty portion of genuine Asian culture, then avoid Nha Trang like the plague. Its is the Marbella of Asia and there are more western tourists here than anywhere else I’ve been in Vietnam.
Now I’m no snob, so I quite liked the place and hung around for a few days. But that’s because I have the luxury of a year away, and can enjoy thick slices of culture and traditionalism lightly garnished with the odd tasty morsel of complete tackiness.

Here is the main beach, clean and relatively empty compared to Thailand’s Kho Samui.

There are many pristine resorts offering white sand, swimming pools and cheap food and drink.

I head out on the “Mama Hahn Boat Trip” which came recommended from my friend Steve who did a similar tour to me in the 90’s.
The boat trip was great fun, essentially a tour of 4 nearby islands, with snorkelling, swimming and of course, more booze than it is humanly possible to consume, served to you as you float in a rubber ring on the sea. The tour leader tells us he can sing a song from any country and goes around the boat asking nationalities. Russian, Chinese, English and New Zealand. Out of no-where a small band appeared complete with drum kit and electric guitar and started playing. I was thoroughly impressed that the guide, (who was no more than about 20), did indeed know a song from every nationality on the boat in the native language, even more impressively the band, (who were no more than about 16), knew how to play the songs. The Russians first energetically jumped up and sang their song with the guide. At one point a pony tailed guy in his 40’s who looked like a member of the Moscow Mafia on a two week holiday from breaking fingers and collecting brown envelopes, jumped onto the table. He then proceeded to demonstrate his dancing skills, a collection of random manoeuvres which was a like a grotesque hybrid of Ricky Gervias from the Office and a drunken uncle at a wedding. I have to admit I was embarrassed just watching it. Next it was the Chinese who got up, being natural lovers of karaoke they revelled in the experience. So well rehearsed in the art of spontaneous singing in front of a microphone were these people it was like listening to a Chinese barbershop quarter.
Next it was the turn of the reserved English and thankfully there were 5 of us. I despise karaoke normally and was the most reluctant to get up. But with the safety of numbers and the several beers inside me I take to the stage and pray for an easy song.

My prayers were answered. The song was Yellow Submarine we rattled it out in front of everyone, it was great fun and the perfect way to make some new friends. The two stunning girls from New Zealand wondered what he would come up with… bizarrely they played Eternal Flame by the Bangles. Not entirely sure if they’re from New Zealand.

That night there was a big party on the beach at the Sailing Club, a large flashy resort in the centre of town. Local TV was filming the event so it was kind of a big deal for Nha Trang. Armed with my new friends we headed off and partied until the small hours. At one point I meet a solo traveller from Ireland called Niall. Always wanting to help a fellow lone traveller out I invite him to come and sit with us. Big mistake. Niall isn’t one of these funny, charming, witty Irishmen. He someone who thinks he’s funny charming and witty but is fact a complete prick. I’m trying to enjoy myself and chat to the New Zealand girls and he keep telling me stories involving fighting and stabbings he’s seen and such. He was really killing my buzz and I just wanted to get rid of him. In addition to his boring and boastful stories he also kept prodding me to emphasise his points. He must have prodded me in the leg or arm about 40 times and said “and annudder ting..” before going off into another inane yarn. After a while I’ve had enough and tell him to stop prodding me and that he’s starting to annoy me. He looks around the table and its clear that he’s getting the cold shoulder from everyone. He looks up at the stage where an attractive busty blond German girl has just won some competition and is receiving her prize. “I’m off to pull that bird lads” he says to us in a cocky way , indicating the attractive blond on the stage. “Yeah good look mate” we say anxious to get rid of him. He had no chance. He was skinny, ugly and lacking any charisma. Glad to be rid of him we continue our eating drinking and having a good time. An hour or so later Niall reappears at our table with a smug grin on his face. “Check it out lads” he says, “feckin twins!” He then produces the beautiful German girl on one arm and her identical twin sister, on the other arm. WHAT! As he walks off with them arm in arm, he turns around and gives us a little wink. I was totally gutted. I learned two lessons here; One, sometimes there is just no justice in this world and two, never underestimate the Irish.

Like many people I was inspired by the recent Top Gear episode where Mr Clarkson and his crew rode motorbikes along the East Coast of Vietnam. I wanted to do something similar, so I take the plunge and purchase a 4 day motorbike trek from Nha Trang to Hoi An. The tour will take me inland into the central highlands of Vietnam and through the Ho Chi Minh trail. After several days of tourist traps I feel the need to absorb some real Vietnamese culture and the bike trip seemed like the perfect way to explore this beautiful country. My driver is called Bamboo, its just going to be him and me, alone on the road for 4 days. He straps my backpack onto the back of his bike which he tells me is a Harley Davidson. It is in fact a Taiwanese bike with some badly fading Harley Davidson stickers on the side, despite this it was a seemed to be sturdy vehicle and apart from some restriction from the ridiculously tight underwear I was wearing from an ill advised purchase in Beijing, I was remarkably comfortable sitting on the back.
Nice Harley eh?

The tour consists of about 5 or 6 hours riding a day. Bamboo will take me to many minority villages where the locals have a totally different language and I’ll see how real families live and farm and survive away from the thriving tourist industry on the east coast. We pull over for coffee and noodles early into the trip and its obvious that he is sizing me up and try to work out if I’m an honest or decent guy in exactly the same way that I’m doing the same to him. I’d had momentary flash-like daydreams of being taken into the mountains hundreds of miles from civilisation and something horrific happening to me. But then I have to put my faith in human nature and my instinct and I’m pretty sure I’m in safe hands, any initial hesitations where swiftly relieved. Every few miles Bamboo pulls over and gives me information about the area we are in. Sometimes this will be informed historical information and sometimes it will be legend and folklore. Both were fascinating and I loved every story regardless of obvious embellishments and exaggerations, Bamboo was a excellent story teller.

We drive through many ridiculously picturesque mountain passes and stop off many times at different farms and plantations ranging from pepper, rubber, coffee, cashew nut, rice and even chocolate.

The pepper is stripped from the plants and then laid out in the sun to dry.

This is what it looks like before Mr Wonka gets his hands on it.

Ladies gutting the fish ready for market

A small brick making factory just 3 women. 0.04p per brick.

Some of the towns were so remote the youngsters had never seen foreigners before. This lad came running up and wanted to see my camera. He was scared at first when I tried to take his photo, then he posed when he realised what it was I was holding. Another much younger child burst into tears and terrified screaming when he saw me. I really was the first white man he’d seen and I must have looked like I’d just arrived from out of space. One of the best aspects of this mountain tour was that there was nobody selling you anything. People spoke to you out of interest or intrigue but not as a way to extract money from you. This was a refreshing change from the rest of Vietnam.

I’m dropped off at a small guest house in a tiny town at about 6pm. Bamboo drives off and tells me he’ll pick me up at 8am the following morning. I go off to my room for a sleep. At about 8pm Bamboo knocks on my door unexpectedly and shouts “Joo… come on, you me party with my family, we go now”. I get myself together and we drive off into the hills for about 15 mins and arrive at a small village consisting of about 4 small houses.

We are at Bamboo’s brothers house, who sells tractors like this to local farmers.
I am ushered into the house past a shrine to Bamboo’s father who was shot and killed during the Vietnam war, and into the kitchen where a host of smiling faces are waiting for me. Its clear that only Bamboo can speak English and I am in a room with about 10 people, this should be an interesting evening. We sit on the floor and I’m poured a tall cold beer. Then a plethora of delicious local dishes are laid down in front of me.

Spicey sausage, tofu, fried pumpkin, and all sorts of other foods I’ve never seen before were spread out in a colourful display. I had no idea how to eat at first so I just copied them. It mostly consists of taking some leaves first, then adding meat, spices, veg and then rolling it into a little parcel before dipping it into chilli or soy sauce before scoffing it down in one satisfying bite. I pray that both my stomach and my sphincter will forgive me in the morning. Every time my glass got anywhere near half full it was immediately refilled, any attempt to protest at the rate at which they were refilling my glass was resolutely ignored.

The ages ranged from 8 to 88 including Mama sitting on the stairs who had mothered 13 children. It was a fantastic evening and despite the language barriers we were about to communicate either through Bamboo or by mime. I staggered out of there well fed and well watered knowing that we’d all had a great time and I was one of the many highlights to have sampled a small slice of traditional family life in Vietnam.

The following day we head of on the famous Ho Chi Minh trail to continue our journey to Hoi An. This section of the trip was definitely the most scenic part of the whole tour. Dense rainforests with winding cliff edged roads soaring up into the mountains. It was green and luscious and totally tropical. It reminded me so much of all of the jungle shots from Vietnam war movies. Hamburger Hill was one of the many spots we passed.

Unfortunately at this point it started to rain torrentially. This was fine as it was still warm, but meant that photos of the stunning landscape were impossible.

Bamboo has a touch of the Oompa Loompa about him in the raincoat.

We stopped when we could for waterfalls and sightseeing, for coffee and long chats and it was a thoroughly enjoyable being outside in that beautiful scenery despite the weather.

Later we arrive at another town for the night. it’s a minority town with friendly locals and interesting architecture.

This is the meeting house for the local village.

A few miles away and we pass this beautiful wooden church which stands at the entrance to a local orphanage. During the war Bamboo himself was orphaned when his father was killed, he was 6. His mother couldn’t cope with the amount of children and had to send them to an orphanage. Bamboo takes me to the orphanage and shows me around. It was a really uplifting experience.

The children are really well looked after and they seemed really happy. There is a school and an area where they can learn basic skills like cooking bread. Ages range from babies to about 14 year olds. There are 210 children living there when I arrive, and the orphanage survives on local donations and funding from charities.

The kids are so affectionate and its impossible to stop them from climbing all over you.
They just want you to pick them up and play with them, it really was quite heart melting.

I loved hanging out with the kids and playing with them and it added to another wonderful experience on the tour.

The following day I’m taken to a lovely volcanic creator that’s now full of water, and then enjoyed the long scenic drive into Hoi-An.

The central highlands of Vietnam were spectacular and I’m so glad that I got off the tourist trail for a few days and saw something of the real Vietnam. It had been a long time since I’d seen a westerner. After an unforgettable trip with Bamboo I arrive back in civilisation.
Next stop Hoi An and Hanoi! Where I will kayak through the stunning limestone karsts of Halong Bay and consume and entire snake….. Including its still beating heart! Stay tuned.