I travelled to Vietnam in late July of 2013 as part of a World Challenge Expedition which also incorporated Cambodia. I travelled with two colleagues and a party of 11 sixth formers. It was their task to organise the accommodation and book transport, source provisions, budget finances etc. Our job was to make sure they did not get into scrapes.
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City and were taken to our back packers hostel conveniently located near to the city centre. Jet lagged as we were we needed to keep awake to got our bearings and headed for the centre and the local market. As we approached the market I was asked if I wanted to so an interview for Vietnamese TV. I agreed – but I really could not make any sense of the interviewers question. I doubt my answer was ever shown though I made the best of it – maybe there is a clip of a very confused Englishman trying to answer a vague question on the rights of children in Britain.
Having met up with the in-country agent and had a typical lunch (a hot spicy noodle soup) we set of for the War Museum. Here we got the Vietnamese take on the War and a hefty dose of propaganda – even so I reckon we also get a lot of propaganda in the West so it balanced things out – the truth lies somewhere between but I guess closer to the Vietnamese account. We learned about the French influence and the later American interventions and the ultimate victory for the North Vietnamese over the South.
Leaving the museum we headed into the Business District and on to the Mekong. On the way back we passed people in the parks performing exercise routines and we also had a go on some of the gym equipment which is left out for people to use.
We took a trip to the Mekong Delta, to the South of the capital. It was an organised tour – complicated by the fact we were required to wear life jackets at all times (UK rules) whereas the boat company did not require this – a lot of negotiation ensued and eventually we got all the life jackets. It was good to see rural Vietnam and to sample some of the produce and culture.It encompassed a boat trip amongst the islands – then a trip on a canoe through the canals which criss crossed between the islands which make up the delta – back on the boat to our lunch stop which included a trip to various outlets where people tried to sell us goods. After lunch we were able to wander freely for an hour or so. However, it was a rainy day – the start of monsoon season and a taste of more to come later. In the afternoon we were treated to a performance by local singers / dancers and a chance to sample exotic fruits.
First thing in the morning I snuck out of the hostel to have a look at the nearby market. This had not been possible on earlier days – partly because the students had no interest and they were calling the shots. The general rule of such trips is that we all stick together, which can be frustrating. After breakfast a trip to the Cù Chi tunnels was the plan for the day, via a factory outlet which sold artifacts produced by war victims, which was less interesting for me. I suppose all of this tourist income helps those who have been affected so we looked around. Eventually we left and headed for the tunnels. These are a vast complex of extremely narrow tunnels dug into the clay soils of jungles north of Ho Chi Minh which were occupied by the Viet Cong rebels during the War with the South. Here we they showed us the traps laid for American soldiers and were able to crawl along an enlarged (but still immensely narrow) tunnel. Whole platoons lived down there for months at a time only coming out at night. The Americans attempted to bomb them out and dropped Napalm – the heat however baked the clay soil making it even tougher – or so we were told. The tunnels themselves were built around the much slighter physique of Vietnamese soldiers over Americans. Apparently they were also designed to get narrower as you got further in – their aim to trap enemy soldiers making them easy targets. There was a lot of propaganda again that day, but as with the museum some just cause as well. As we neared the end we were absolutely soaked in yet another downpour. A swift return because we were catching the overnight train to Nha Trang. We needed to unpacke ready to board the train at 8:00pm – we were there in plenty of time but had to wait for ages. A lot of Vietnamese wanted pictures taken with our blonde students – it is a rarity in Vietnam. When we got on the train we were divided into three carriages of 6 bunks – there were six girls and 5 boys, two male staff and one female, which ultimately meant I had to share with the boys – no choice, though against protocols. The beds were as thin as chip board and I hardly slept or so it seemed.
An overnight train arrived in Nha Trang early (5am) and we needed to source transport to our next destination of Buon Ma Throat. Luckily the in country agent put us in touch with a local bar owner who could help us. The best thing was we could have the use of his upper room to store our belongings and could then go off to the beach for a few hours. A chance to swim in the warm waters of the South China Sea was a real fillip and we returned for breakfast at 9:30am.
Whilst in Ho Chi Minh I had my wallet stolen and lost most of my remaining Vietnamese cash. Although spending money was not a need, as the Expedition was already funded to provide accommodation, food, treks etc, I needed to get some and so had got Anita to wire some across via Credit Union. So on arrival back at the bar I was taken via moped by the bar owner to the local branch. This was an amazing experience by itself – luckily I had a helmet to wear – it was exhilarating dodging cars and buses and people (we even went up on the path at one point!).
When I got back I had a late breakfast and then we were all off to the market for bargains – I now had some cash 🙂
At midday we got on the hired coach and headed off into the hinterland of Vietnam on route to our next destination.
The journey to Buon Ma Thuot took us along the coast before turning inland and up into the mountains. Sadly there were many signs of deforestation.
Buon Ma Thuot is really off the tourist trail and we saw no other Europeans. A very frustrating evening spent searching for a suitable place to eat (lots of fussy eaters making this doubly difficult). We finally ended up in a very insalubrious eatery. No English menu or waiters resulted in a lot of pointing.
Having stayed one night in Buon Ma Thuot it was off to Yok Don for our first acclimatisation trek. We boarded our coach for the short trip having dropped our excess bags at the tourist office. Disembarking it was a short walk to a river crossing via dugout canoe and into the Yok Don National Park. Our afternoon trek in the humidity and heat was draining but the guide kept us informed about the local flora and fauna. We were now in Malaria country and so liberal application of repellant was needed. We stopped over night at a Ranger Station where we saw all manner of interesting bugs.
Our trek continued leading to the highlight of the expedition an Elephant Trek. These elephants were well looked after unlike some others and we had a hour or so in pairs wandering through the undergrowth on the back of these gentle beasts.
Afternoon took us further into the jungle and across a river until we reached a second motorised dugout that took us to our second night’s accommodation. This was an Ecotourism complex complete with long houses, river rapids and suspended walkways. Adults had their own shared cabins and we slept well.
A short morning walk back to the coach and then back to Buon Ma Thuot for a second stay. We had lunch with our guide (part of the package) and some good Vietnamese food. Back to our hotel and this time thanks to our guide some better restaurants in the evening. We even bumped into other British students. It appeared that the first night we had only been a few streets away from the real centre. However, the hotel room was worse this time 😦 though I would think it luxury by tomorrow!
With the help of our Yok Don guide students had secured passage to Pleiku our last stop in Vietnam. This was a long and I eventful journey with very little to recount. It did seem at this point we were spending days travelling compared to doing things but such was the program the students had followed. Pleiku itself was even more off the tourist trail than Our previous destination. The city itself was modern enough. I accompanied some students to a nearby hotel where we met with representatives of a bus company who could get us across the border into Cambodia. They wanted payment up front which we were obliged to make. We left and had a quick look around town. Our hotel was not impressive and the room was worse. The bed had an ants nest in it as I found in the middle of the night when I was been bitten – not fun.
Our last in Vietnam – up early to go to the market for provisions then onto the bus we’d booked to cross the border. The border itself was a strange place, a building in the middle of nowhere. We waited for about an hour to cross over (we were lucky – it can take much much longer)
To be continued in Cambodia