Days 643-644: Back in ‘Nam

05.10.10-06.10.10:

I arrived in the Chinese town of Nanning exceptionally early in the morning and looked about for transport to the border.  I honestly can’t remember how I got there, but I did and was one of the first people that day to cross into Vietnam.  I’ve got to say: nice border post: it seems to double as a national park.  After being stamped out of China and being stamped into my ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY THIRD country (WOO!) I took a free ride on one of the large electric golf buggies that take you to the nearby minibus park.

I arrived just after nine and was gutted to be told that the next minibus for Hanoi wasn’t going to leave for another hour.  That was until I saw that the nine o’clock minibus hadn’t made it out of the bus park yet. Arms flailing and bags akimbo, I whistled the minibus which ignored me and was just about to make off down the highway before my banging on the back window slowed it down long enough for me to clamber aboard.

‘Hanoi?’ I asked, gasping for breath.

‘Hanoi!’ said the driver and welcomed me on board.

The minibus arrived in Vietnam’s capital city around one in the afternoon and it wasn’t long before I was at the southern bus station looking for a coach to Saigon (now called Ho Chi Min City, but not by the people who live there.  Or me.).  There was one leaving at 3 o’clock that went direct and would take 48 hours to get there.  Another two nights on buses: that would be five in a row.

It seemed simpler than changing in Danang, so I went for it.  It was only when I got on board did I see the error of my ways.  Mollycuddled by the splendour of Chinese buses, I had forgotten just how back other countries (like the USA) treated their coach-going public.  There was cargo everywhere: in fact the back seats had been removed to make way for more cargo and there were people making beds on the cargo.  All the overhead shelves where full of cargo, as was the cargo hold and even the spaces under the seats were jam packed with cargo.  The passengers seemed a minor concern.  The reels of electrical cable on the floor at my feet meant that my knees where up by my chest, but that’s okay, because the seat in front of me was so damn close I couldn’t have sat with my knees out straight anyway.

In a fit of bugger it, I bought the seat next to me, but before we got going a bus pulled up alongside: it was a bed-bus, the kind you get in China.  Within seconds I was off my bus and asking them were this luxury liner was going.

‘Danang.’

Danang.  Halfway to Saigon.  That would do.

I charged back into the ticket terminal and demanded my money back, using the (fair) point that I wasn’t cargo, I was a human being.  I’d be prepared to put up with these kind of shenanigans in Africa were there was no other choice, but to sit and try to sleep scrunched up for two nights in a row when I could be laying horizontal on a bed of swan’s feathers FOR THE SAME PRICE would be nothing short of insanity.

They were a little reluctant to give me my money, but I was in no mood to play that game, so I did what I always do in these situations, whipped out my phone and started dialling the tourist police.  Works a treat 😉

With my refund in hand, I jumped on the bed-bus to Denang.  What’s more, this bed-bus had fully adjustable beds, so unlike the Chinese ones, you could put the back completely upright!  Oh happy day!  Even better, it left before my original bus, and if all went to plan, I’d get into Saigon six hours earlier, even though I’d have to change buses in Danang.  RESULT!

As we departed, I saw that it was Hanoi city’s 1000th birthday this year.  Happy birthday Hanoi!  I have wonderful warm memories of this place from when I was last here, it’s a cracking town: billions of scooters buzzing around like benign hornets, a beautiful central lake, sensational food and lovely people.  I pressed my hand against the window.  Sorry I can’t stay Hanoi, I’ve got a promise to keep with an old friend.

Wednesday’s blog can happily be tagged on the end of this one.  What happened?  Well I got off the bus in the morning in the city of Danang, had breakfast down by the river and then returned to the bus station to take the FIFTH overnighter in a row to Saigon.  I looked out of the window and watched Vietnam go flying by in the pouring rain.

Brief and to the point, I don’t think it warrants its own entry, do you?

Day 645: Charlie Don’t CouchSurf

07.10.10:

Arrived Saigon at about 9am and scooted over to District 1 to meet up with me auld mucka Stan, here in South East Asia on holiday with his soon-to-be better half, Helen.  My backpack which I left in the luggage storage under the bus had got soaked on the way down here (apparently the middle of Vietnam is currently flooded), and I was in desperate need of the three ‘s’s: a shower a shave and a s—.  Stan and Helen graciously allowed me to abuse their hotel bathroom and before you could say ‘doesn’t he smell nice’, I was fresh-faced, bright-eyed and bushy tailed.

Also here in Saigon (having lived here for the past three years) was an old friend of Mandy’s and mine from Australia, Thro.  Thro (pronounced ‘throw) is here working as a teacher, has got himself a tasty young Vietnamese girlfriend and has (understandably) fallen in love with the place.  Well, how could you not?  It’s just brilliant: tons to see and do, the traffic is manic, the nightlife is electric and joy-of-joys, beer is 30p.  A pint.  WHY AREN’T YOU HERE?

Thro was putting me up for the night, negating the need for me to CouchSurf, and at lunchtime I went downstairs from Stan n’ Helen’s guesthouse to meet him.  As we said our hearty hellos, a British guy said ‘It’s Graham, isn’t it?’ and shook my hand.  ‘Hi.  Are you Thro’s mate?’ I asked.

‘No I just randomly saw you – I’ve been following your blog.’

Holy monkey guts!  I thought the only people who read this drivel was Mandy and my mum.  I better stop being mean to awful places like Cape Verde (and find a way of checking the webstats), just in case, you know somebody takes offence and then meets me in a dark deserted alleyway in Timbuktu…!

So me, Stan, Helen, Thro and this guy Sam set off to find some lunch, which we did at a smashing bakery around the corner.  While I was stuffing my face with pies, Stan and Helen organised an afternoon’s trip down the Cu-Chi tunnels – the secret network of underground burrows that kept the Vietcong one step ahead of the yanks during that episode of madness we call the Vietnam war.

Thro couldn’t come, he was working in at four: but he did take my soaking wet clothes to chuck in his washing machine (Thanks Thro!!) and after saying goodbye to Sam, I set off with Stan & Helen (and their Italian friend Emilio) to go for a jog down the tunnels of doom.

I’ve been down these tunnels before, but I wanted to get some fun footage to make up for the two weeks I missed out on when Javier the camcorder was up on blocks.  So we watched the hilarious 1967 propaganda film, squeezed into a hole in the ground the size of a postage stamp, breathed in sharply through our teeth as the various deadly booby traps that the VC used were shown to us, I got to shoot a M-30 (LOUD!) and then Stan and I legged it through 200 metres of tunnels not wide enough to swing a kitten.

After we got back to Saigon, the Cu-Chi four grabbed a (superb) meal at the Indian restaurant over the road from their guesthouse, I then dropped my gear off at Thro’s and the five of us headed out for drinkies, drinkies and more drinkies.  We popped into the Apocalypse Now bar (the Heart of Darkness is sadly no longer with us), but a surprising hatred of dancepop amongst the troops (I hate it too, but tolerate it on the grounds that I haven’t been to too many Heebie-Jeebies in the last two years) led us back to District 1.  We stayed up drinking and talking bollocks so late that I was thankful that the battery in my watch is dead – old friends aside, I had a bus to catch in the morning.

The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd...