Category Archives: Vietnam

North from Saigon to a guesthouse…somewhere, via Cu Chi tunnels

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So, the thousands of Santa Claws on motorbikes didn’t materialise, however tens of thousands of people did come into the city center for the evening, all on motorbike – apparently “just to look around and see the christmas decorations” as the owner of my guesthouse said. When even the locals are taking pictures of thousands of people on motorbikes, you know it’s busy…

Quite the experience crossing the road I can tell you...

Quite the experience crossing the road I can tell you…

Having seen/heard/smelled enough scooters, I returned to the area I was calling home for a few days and got chatting to a bunch of europeans/Mexicans/Columbians. This was the bar of choice on the street as it was half the price of anywhere else. I say bar, it was just a load of children’s plastic chairs set out on the road, but it was a cracking atmosphere. The normal street vendors selling you sunglasses and ripoff books were replaced by ones selling santa hats and fake snow in a can (the poor girl selling the snow ended up covered in chemical ‘snow’ every time she sold one, much to the amusement of, well, the entire street. Mexican waves, a countdown to christmas day, all very jovial.

Sore head the next day. Not a lot to say about that really….Oh, it was Christmas Day!!

I set off today (boxing day) towards the Vietcong tunnels at Cu Chi, and somehow stumbled upon the quieter of the two complexes (there can’t have been more than 10 people there). Quite interesting, though really set up for mass tourism, which takes away from the whole experience. I passed on the opportunity to fire an M-16 machine gun at 1GBP per bullet, and headed north hoping to get to Tay Ninh, though managed to get completely lost instead – a mother and child of 6ish (child with exceptional English) pointed me in the right direction though – they even drove out of their way to show me the correct road.

Not really many interesting pictures at the tunnels, though this in the gift shop caught my eye...  All rather strange.

Not really many interesting pictures at the tunnels, though this in the gift shop caught my eye… All rather strange.


I stopped just as the sun went down at some place, well, I’m not quite sure where it is. I think it’s near Tay Ninh, close to the Cambodian border. Looking it up online, there appears to be a good temple to visit there, which I’ll try and hunt down tomorrow showing a picture of it to random people and pointing in various directions with a confused look on my face.
Finally, here is a conversation I had with the owner of the guesthouse (and brothel by all appearances, though very clean) tonight over Google translate which was rather entertaining, and a bit uncomfortable towards the end – for me that is, she was perfectly happy.

are you asking what country i am from?
i live in Scotland. Do you know Scotland?
It is part of the United Kingdom
North of England
What country
Scotland
35
Chassis human
this is very funny to me ….
you said “frame of a car, person”

OK, Thank you very much
No Chilli though … no hot spice

I am cycling around asia for 3 months.
 Where Bicycles
I started in Thailand, down through Laos, to here, then back to Bangkok via Cambodia. Then I fly to New Zealand and spend two months there cycling
Where is Bike to o
Tomorrow? II cycle to Cambodia
eat delicious mi

How long have you lived here?
 locker
That makes no sence … You said locker, closet.
Have you lived here all your life?
You must have lived here through the war, yes?
miss
You are to young!!! sorry.
miss
you were born after the war?
but first Go online 55
I do not understand – you first use internet at 55?
55 years
You are 55 years old.
 Previously
you were born in 1958

The war was not over by 1958 …

miss
Because here was safe?
No fighting here? No bombing here?
safety
khong

I understand

At this point for some reason I felt uncomfortable, following the sights I have seen in the last couple of days thinking I shouldn’t have brought up the subject of the war. Khong, I’m guessing refers to the Vietcong.

Tomorrow I think I’ll head into Cambodia. I just checked in a panic that I can actually get a visa-on-arrival at the border crossing I plan to use!!

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Happy Christmas from Saigon, Vietnam

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Since Bao Loc, I have enjoyed a couple of reasonably easy days down to Ho Chi Minh city, or Saigon as it is still often referred to. One day down to Dau Giay where the road I have been for the past couple of days meets highway A1, then another into Saigon via back roads (many thanks to a blog on www.crazyguyonabike.com which took me along route 769 into the south east of the city). This entire area is undeveloped due to there being no bridge/tunnel to the area. I was cycling in open countryside with nothing but scooters until the last 8km or so, which for a city of 8 million people was a huge relief.

There were several of these road side drink stops among the rubber plantations approaching Saigon

There were several of these road side drink stops among the rubber plantations approaching Saigon


Google maps combined with my digital camera for quick reference during the day provided me a map of the route to take and I only got lost once. After a short ferry ride over the river (which cost all of about 3 pence), I was only a few km from the city centre and only hit real traffic in the last 10 minutes.
Downtown Saigon - exactly where I was wanting to get to, though I had to take a detour (a security guard prevented my going through the tunnel under the river).

Downtown Saigon – exactly where I was wanting to get to, though I had to take a detour (a security guard prevented my going through the tunnel under the river).

The tourist district of Saigon is much like other that of other cities, though due to it’s size and sheer number of people, Saigon doesn’t feel as touristy as other places. As expected, there are a ridiculous number of scooters – restaurants even employ people to squeeze them together when parked up to enable more people to stop and dine there. Most of the hotels in the backpacker area are no more than 10 feet wide and can tower up to 9 stories high. As a result, finding accommodation was a slight problem – not for me, but for my bike! I eventually managed to find one which would allow me to lock my bike to the bottom of their stairwell, squeezed between their reception and kitchen.
Today I walked out to the more affluent business district and sat outside an expensive coffee shop (by western standards even) people watching. Nearby were 2 of the city’s main attractions – Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica which amazingly was built only using materials imported from France. Adjacent to that was the post office – a tourist attraction in it’s own right, and quite deservedly so. If this were the UK, it would have been sold to a developer. I’ll give it 10 years.
Next was a trip to the war remnants museum (quite the tourist today huh!!). I had some idea of what to expect, having been to a similar museum in Nagasaki, Japan, in memory of the nuclear bomb, however this was on a different level altogether. Set on 3 floors, the higher up you get the more powerful the images become, and by the end, I was truly overwhelmed. Perhaps it was because the Vietnam war was fought more one on one, perhaps it is because I cycled through many of the towns effected in the past couple of weeks. It could also be down to the fact that walking about the city, you still see people who have suffered from the effects of agent orange which was sprayed all over the country 40 years ago.
Post office with newly married couple posing for their wedding album.

Post office with newly married couple posing for their wedding album.

Tonight, being Christmas eve is apparently celebrated with most of Saigon descending on the center of the city on scooters dressed as Santa driving like madmen. Should make for a good night.

21st century propaganda poster.

21st century propaganda poster.

Finally, to pester once more, seeing as it’s Christmas – the time for giving – please remember to donate to my charity if you have not already done so. http://www.justgiving.com/JohnnyMcManmon Any amount is much appreciated. My blog tells me who is viewing on a daily basis, so I know who you are!!!

Go where the wind takes you.

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The plan to cycle up to Dalat was a bit ambitious I found. I wasn’t feeling 100% anyway, but to be honest there was no way I would have made it even if I was. After 70km or so there was a road junction with a small town – perfect place to find a bus. After chatting to a local who had some basic English, I established there was only one bus per day up to Dalat, and it had already left. In the process of trying to establish where the truck drivers stop for food (in hope of finding one willing to give me a lift), a Ford Transit mini-bus screeched to a halt and someone jumped out. The magic letters ‘’DA LAT’ displayed on the dashboard prompted my to hurry over before it shot off again. Two minutes later and I was bouncing along what would turn out to be the worst road I have ever seen. The entire mountainous switchback road was full of roadworks with the bus having to drive over boulders and pot holes that sent all the passengers airborne. There were very few scooters up this road as it was so rough. It made me very glad I had taken the bus. The bus I was on didn’t have a working horn (essential in Vietnam – at least the driver attempted to fix it, by hitting the fuse box with a hammer. At another town, I was transferred to another bus, which appeared to be the local school bus, full of giggling children wondering what on earth this white person was doing on their bus.

Cheating by getting a lift on a bus.

Cheating by getting a lift on a bus.

Dalat is a bit of a strange city. It is the honeymoon capital of Vietnam (for the Vietnamese) and as a result is packed with cheesy hotels and has a lake with oversized swan pedalos (which appears to be the main attraction of the city). It’s significantly cooler at Dalat due to the altitude being 1500m – dare I say it, I was almost cold while sitting outside a cafe last night enjoying a beer. I managed to score a hotel with a bath which having not had one for several weeks was absolute bliss. The bed with it’s bright pink bed sheets and matching pillowcases weren’t exactly to my taste, though I’m generally more concerned about how bad the pillows smell than their colour.

Fantastic place for a puncture - an empty road on a sunny day.

Fantastic place for a puncture – an empty road on a sunny day.

Today I enjoyed another tailwind which was blowing me to Bao Loc, 110km down the road, including one section which was totally deserted (a new toll road). The only thing that slowed me down was my second puncture of the trip.
Finally, I have seen quite a few locals getting into Christmas, including this local petrol station, who has put quite a bit of work into his nativity scene!!

Vietnam Christmas nativity scene at a local petrol station

Vietnam Christmas nativity scene at a local petrol station

Nha Trang to Cam Ranh via somewhere I’m not sure of.

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Nha Trang is the most ‘touristy’ place I have seen since I arrived in Asia. As a result, being the tourist snob that I am, I departed and headed south. After a couple of banh mi of course. A couple of days ago I mentioned that I had a banh mi served on someones maths homework. Amazingly, exactly the same thing happened today. Twice! From different vendors who were at least 2 streets apart!

This kid caused serious confusion when the train to Nha Trang arrived.

This kid caused serious confusion when the train to Nha Trang arrived.

And this wasn’t just some long devision – this was really heavy maths. The only thing I can think is that Vietnam has a really good education system and the kids are rattling these equations out every night until their pen runs out.

Vietnam coastI managed to find a road following the coast south of Nha Trang which was totally empty and had the bonus of giving me a huge tailwind – much of the time I was cruising along at 35km/hr on the flat. There was a bit of confusion as to which town I was in at one point, even when asking locals. Most people don’t seem to know, even when you show them the place name on the map. I’m wishing they studied more geography at school and didn’t spend so much time on maths making banh mi wrappers.
IMG_2867
This afternoon after stopping at a hotel just outside Cam Ranh, I went for a wander around the neighborhood. I’m pretty sure it’s the first time a white person has been there for a while. I ended up being invited to sit down with 3 generations of family for a good half hour communicating using basic sign language which was quite the experience. OOH, I just felt a little earth quake..

Boats at Cam Ranh

Boats at Cam Ranh


For dinner I took the advice of a Vietnamese staying at the hotel. “Cross the bridge and it’s about 200m – you can’t miss it” He was right enough – there must have been 10 places that looked like they could serve food with nobody in them, and one that had so many people crammed in that I had to squeeze on the end of a big group. Fantastic fish soup with rice.
I screwed up the picture posting a bit – the one with the beach is the amazing empty coast road to the Nha Trang airport, the other one is from the roof of my hotel/clothes drying area. The road in the foreground is the main A1 road that goes down Vietnam. Amazingly, the hotel has solar powered hot water tanks on the roof – having a shower with hot water was a nice surprise!!
Tomorrow I plan on heating up to Dalat which sits at 1500m altitude and is about 120km away. No prises for guessing how much climbing I’ll be doing tomorrow then! A long day ahead.

South to Hue

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I had the intention of having an easy 70km day and stopping off at a beach today, but didn’t feel like stopping so I carried on to make it another big day at 140km. Actually, I think what’s ‘normal’ and what’s ‘big’ seem to be changing. It feels perfectly normal to go 140km in a day now. Having flat roads helps a great deal.

Bánh mì - a breakfast baguette.  I had 4 this morning, one of which was served on someone's maths homework by the looks of it.

Bánh mì – a breakfast baguette. I had 4 this morning, one of which was served on someone’s maths homework by the looks of it.


I have stopped off at a small hotel on the outskirts of Hue where there doesn’t seem to be a lot else around, and when I managed to ask where I can get some food (using sign language), the family who runs the hotel insisted I join them for dinner. A very kind and much appreciated gesture.
It was only another 16km into Hue the next morning where I managed to get totally lost. I eventually saw someone clutching a Lonely Planet Vietnam book who managed to point me in the right direction. I had been trying to do without Lonely Planet, but it appears I can’t!! I spent the next 3 hours trying to buy one, and eventually managed to get my hands on a good ‘copy’ for a couple of quid. It’s in French though. Still, I think I can work it out. All I need to do is keep my ears open for someone french with an English version!
I’m just taking it easy today after a long few days in the saddle. It appears the powers at be in Vietnam have blocked access to my blog, so updating it involved getting my hands on some funky software. It’s a shame though as I had been showing it to locals in Thailand and Laos who really enjoyed it.
I’m planning on heading down south on the train (I’m sure some of you will be glad to hear), as the main A1 road is a bit crazy and dangerous. Perhaps Nah Trang or Quy Nho’n. If anyone has been round there let me know what’s worth stopping off at. Tommy – what was that place you ‘borrowed’ a towel from again?

Crazy Vietnam

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Another big day down the coast of Vietnam (though strangely I’ve only had one glimpse of the sea). 147Km to be exact. Today was mostly flat, with only a headwind in the afternoon to contend with. I’m really enjoying the time in the saddle (almost 8 hours today), and the delights that the main highway A1 in Vietnam have to offer. It’s what can be carried on the back of a scooter that amazes me the most. I’ve seen, strapped to the back of a motorbike:

A bundle of chickens (alive as well as dead)
A 6 foot mirror
A 20 foot bamboo pole
2 mattresses
A kitchen sink (yes really)
A pig. A live one. Just to prove it I have a picture for you.

Pigs might fly... Not this one though.  He's tied down!

Pigs might fly… Not this one though. He’s tied down!

I have made it down to Dong Hoi, stopping about 4.30pm and had some dinner with a German/English couple as well as an English/Vietnamese couple – the first white people I have seen for several days. I think tomorrow I’ll take it slightly easier as I’ve had a couple of big days in a row now (I’ve also passed the 2000km mark).

I watched this guy drive over several hundred cans dozens of times  with his van while I stopped for a coffee.  Who needs a can crusher when you have a van!!

I watched this guy drive over several hundred cans dozens of times with his van while I stopped for a coffee. Who needs a can crusher when you have a van!!

East through Laos to Vietnam.

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The last couple of days have been a change – pretty much flat, though I have had a relentless headwind. I can tell I am getting closer to Vietnam – the trucks are honking their horns quite a bit more. Also, there are significantly fewer stray dogs – today I saw something which made me feel a bit sick. I had read about it last night, so quoting the Lonely Planet guide for Laos –

Dog truck which overtook me.

Dog truck which overtook me.

The dog trade begins in north eastern Thailand, where stray dogs are caught on a daily basis by what locals and journalists consider a local mafia. The vast majority of Thais actually eschew the idea of eating dog meat, but contribute to the trade nonetheless, alerting dog catchers of stray dogs in exchange for cash or plastic buckets. The trade is technically illegal, but local police choose to look the other way, claiming that stopping the drug trade or illegal immigration is a better use of their resources.

A typical truck can hold as many as 1000 dogs, with five or more crammed into each cage. The dogs aren’t fed or given water during the trip, and many die along the way. We encountered one of these trucks during our research and the sight of dead dogs and the smell of fur and excrement coupled with the constant howling and fighting was disturbing.

Arriving in Vietnam, the dogs can be worth 10 times the price for which they were obtained in Thailand, making the trade highly lucrative. It’s estimated that this particular trade in dog meat is worth US$3.6 million a year.”

It was one thing reading about it, but seeing/smelling/hearing it is quite another. I think I’d better learn the Vietnamese for “No dog meat”!!

Like normal I have been getting up early to start riding in the cool of the morning, though thankfully the days are not as hot as the last few weeks. Early mornings in Laos are a lot quieter than in Thailand and as a result it is harder to get some food, even after 2 hours of pedalling at 8 am.

The most common method of transport in Laos.  Doubles as a rotovator.

The most common method of transport in Laos. Doubles as a rotovator.

It has been interesting seeing the significant amount of development along route 13, though almost all of it is Chinese (the Chinese script is totally different from Lao). This is obviously benefiting the local economy, but I can’t help thinking China is exploiting the developing country that is Laos. The big news in S.E. Asia in the past few days has been that newly issued Chinese passports include a map of China’s territory, which includes disputed waters off the coast of Vietnam and the Philippines. As a result, both countries are refusing to stamp these new style passports, instead issuing visas on separate pieces of paper.

I stayed a night in one of Laos’s hydro-electric boom towns – Khoun Kham which seems to have a ridiculous number of guesthouses, as well as several ‘work camp’ settlements which popped up for the hydro workers. I got chatting to a couple of locals outside their shop (where a glass of Beer Lao was thrust in my hand for the third time that day) who were civil engineers on the hydro project. After a while chatting about the local area and Laos’s plans to turn itself into a hydro electric nation powering S.E. Asia, I got accused of being an NGO which I found quite quite amusing.. “You are not like other tourists…” I think that’s a compliment. I’ll take it as such anyway!

Petrol Station

Petrol Station


The next day was nothing short of spectacular scenery passing between two high jagged ridges. The whole area however was full of fenced off sections of land – pretty much everywhere that wasn’t road or a village. Unexploded bombs has basically made the entire area a no go area. It certainly made stopping at the side of the road for a pee a bit more of an adventure than normal….

Most likely the last night I am spending in Laos is in a town called Lak Xao (direct translation 20km, which is rather confusing as it’s not 20km from anything significant). It’s another dust bowl town with a thriving market and something not seen for several days – a roundabout. By the way it is navigated though, it looks like most people have never seen one in their life…

"Bomb boats"  These are actually old aircraft fuel tanks left over from the war which have been turned into boats.

“Bomb boats” These are actually old aircraft fuel tanks left over from the war which have been turned into boats.

For dinner I opted for the tried and tested method of going to somewhere that looks busy. Getting my phrase book out resulted in much confusion until I realised everyone was Vietnamese, not Lao. Showing an interest in the dish that was on one of the tables, the family of at least 8 insisted I joined them (I have a feeling it was dog meat – It certaily didn’t taste of any red meat I’ve had before). Much frustrated communication and laughing followed and at the end they refused to take any kind of payment. I bought a bottle of water and refused any kind of change. Another random night with fantastic people. They were very different from the Lao people – more forward and direct, but still friendly with it.

The next morning I headed up to the Lao border with Vietnam where I was pretty much the first one through, as everyone else had to get their vehicles checked. Amazingly, I managed to get through without forking out any bribes. I think they must have cleaned up their act following the slating the border crossing gets in the Laos Lonely Planet.

First impressions of Vietnam are good – friendly people, not getting ripped off like I expected (perhaps that’s just the touristy places). I can’t seem to exchange my Laos money (kip) for Vietnam money (dong) though.

Vientiene's trying to mimic the arc de triomphe?  It was built using concrete donated by the USA which was intended for building a new airport runway after the Vietnam war.

Vientiene’s trying to mimic the arc de triomphe? It was built using concrete donated by the USA which was intended for building a new airport runway after the Vietnam war.

I can buy it using over 10 currencies, but can’t sell anywhere! So if anyone know’s what I should do with half a million Lao kip, let me know.