A Tipple with the Tribes

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England is a place where roads roar and people rush by you as if you are totally insignificant. We do like the country, but as travellers, my friends and I are always searching for the satisfaction we have previously felt during months of trekking through some of the world’s most tranquil countries.

We miss the sheer vastness of Tanzania with its extensive plains and wondrous sunsets. We miss the exquisite beaches of Zanzibar, but most of all we miss the country of Vietnam.

As we long for the characteristic sounds of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, we recall the acceptable discordance of tinkling bicycle bells and squawking scooter horns. We miss the little town of Sapa in the highlands, with its chaotic mish mash of vegetation and the open friendliness of its tribal minorities.

Since our last visit to Vietnam, we have developed our opinion of the country from that of “a big mud pot”. We have previously experienced what it is like to venture into the wilderness, and detach ourselves from a life of television and microwave meals. We remember the scenery that developed before our eyes on our last visit. Lush, mountainous valleys full of blazing green paddy fields, so vast and extensive that they seem to disappear almost interminably up into the clouds. We remember the small children tending to huge water buffalo, and can clearly imagine them playing acrobatically in the streams. We can picture the millions of dragonflies as they dart to and fro in front of a backdrop of little wooden houses surrounded by people milling around tending to their daily business.

It was these memories that led to our return to South East Asia in July 1999. With backpacks in tow, three friends and I departed for Thailand, and landed a day or so later in Bangkok international Airport. The summer’s adventures had now officially started! The airport is huge, and its two runways were oddly separated by a golf course. Tiny white balls littered our runway on landing, which seemed at the time to be both a strange and dangerous way to start the trip!

Bangkok is one of the most bizarre cities that I have ever visited. It is also one of the most amusing. Its streets are awash with people, and the city constantly buzzes with a unique, mellow ambience. We spent a day or two around the infamous Khao San Road area, simply as a way of easing ourselves into Oriental culture.

After this, there was no stopping us. We made our way to Khao Yai, Thailand’s largest National Park, and did ourselves a bit of Tiger watching! The fact that we didn’t see any tigers, elephants, or anything else for that matter didn’t really make any difference. We did however, manage to catch a glimpse of the world’s ugliest “ladyboy”. She…erm, no he, really fancied my friend Adam, and that was amusement enough for our whole stay there.

We did have an amazing time in some of Thailand’s greatest rainforest. It was a place where the trees were kings, and epiphytes and beautiful orchids rioted rampantly over them like marvellous jewels. Peering up at the canopy high over head was like looking at the Garden of Eden. It was a lush, sprouting and impenetrable obstacle of primeval magnificence.

After a short time in the nearby city of Pak Chong, we headed back to Bangkok for a flight to Vietnam. A two-hour plane journey later and we were in Hanoi, my favourite city in the world. Like Bangkok, it bustles with life, but it isn’t over populated, and doesn’t have the same dodgy reputation if you know what I mean! For sheer atmosphere, you can’t beat it.

Hanoi is located on the banks of the famous Red River, and three huge lakes dominate it’s core. Thousands of trees and scores of pagodas seem to dissipate any stresses, making the city centre both an elegant and hospitable place. Hanoi’s old quarter is particularly unique, with narrow streets that all maintain their ancient names. We saw culture and tradition erupt from every doorway as we walked lazily down Silk Street, Wood Street and even Gravestone Street!

Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin is a relatively short bus drive from Hanoi. A little over six hours and we had arrived in Halong City. We rested and ate before making our way to the waterfront to charter a boat. Magnificent Halong Bay is comprised of over 3000 islands that upsurge steeply from the clear emerald waters of the South China Sea.

We certainly thought the magical landscape was some of the best in Vietnam, each island with its own array of wave borne beaches and grottoes. Our boat transported us casually through the endless labyrinth of waterways, stopping only when we reached an interesting grotto. Ancient stalactites and stalagmites hung majestically from the roof of the deep, limestone chasm, and eerie echoes were emitted as waves lapped against the rocky entrance. We swam in the warm emerald lagoons before floating off in the direction of Cat Ba Island.

Cat Ba is the largest island in Halong Bay and is sparsely inhabited with a spattering of small fishing villages. Its terrain is rocky and poor for agriculture, and as a result, subtropical evergreen forest still dominates much of the islands inland sections. The island also has freshwater swamps and coastal mangrove forests, and this diversity has led to the formation of Cat Ba National Park.

Our walk through the national park took place in the pouring rain. We were soaked to the skin, muddy and exhausted yet we persisted on our trek. Our reward was the grand spectacle when we eventually reached the mountain summit viewpoint. Deep valleys and tall peaks dominated the island, and we were surrounded by rainforest on all sides. It was another memorable scene, and one well worth all of our exertion.

From Cat Ba, we made our way to the mainland, and back to Hanoi. After another few days there, we were on the road again. This time we endured a hellish 12-hour train journey to Lao Cai City on our way to Sapa. The hard seats we opted for on the train are just as bad as they sound, but the views from the windows were breathtaking, and went some way to distract from the mounting discomfort.

It was on this epic train journey that we first met the mighty Peter Rosenboom. Pete was an independent traveller notable initially for his shear size. His 6’7″ frame made him a giant in comparison to us, never mind the locals! From Ubachsberg in the Netherlands, Pete was tremendously entertaining, and we had soon formed a friendship that was to last for the remainder of our trip.

Sapa is one of those mystical locations that you often hear travellers conversing about. It almost has an underground reputation as being one of those places that you just have to visit, and after spending three months in the town on my first trip to Vietnam, I could hardly disagree with that! We wearily arrived in Sapa with mixed feelings; hesitant to see what had changed in the year we had been absent.

The Muong Hoa Ho River wound and snaked its way down the valley, but this time with an extra hotel or two. Its cool, rocky waters still played the most soothing tune as they manoeuvred and eddied their way down the channel. The town has earned its mysterious reputation not only because of its immense beauty, but also its rich ethnic diversity. Over 12 minority groups live in the communes around the town, each with their own language, culture and traditional costume. This makes Sapa one of the most colourful and culturally diverse places in all of Asia. The Hmong tribal group is the largest in Sapa, but the Dao, Giay and Tay also visit the town in vast numbers on market days.

The great Mount Fansipan and the Muong Hoa Mountains tower above the town, their steep slopes providing an abrupt yet spectacular backdrop to Sapa’s swarming streets. Tiny mountain streams and the awesome Thac Bac waterfall coagulate to produce a meandering river that flows briskly down a narrow steep sided valley. Small huts are littered in sporadic fashion along its banks, and great swathes of rainforest lie under the clouds that carpet the peaks above.

The river at night takes on a mystical appearance, with glistening stars that blaze mightily in the black sky. Thousands of luminous fireflies flutter silently by, and shooting stars continually slice open the darkness. Gibbons shriek, and vast numbers of toads gurgle deeply on the banks. The river provides a wonderful place to relax, talk and think.

Our first night in Sapa was spent revelling in the delights of a wonderful little cafe called the Camellia. There we indulged in the potent alcoholic delicacy of Vietnamese Snake wine. The liquid is produced by fermenting rice, and varies between 30% and 60% alcohol. A selection of coiled snakes was pickled in this particular variety of wine, with any venom being absorbed by the liquid. This produced a rather foul tasting and potentially lethal exotic refreshment! The wine has medical origins, and is thought to induce resistancy to venom, thus immunising the drinker from natural snake bites!

I suppose we were actually enjoying the novelty value of such a beverage until the lovely restaurant owner forced us to try his leaf variety. He followed this with beetle wine, and finally his rancid bear’s foot specialty. What on earth were we thinking?

Swimming in the transparent river waters is another wonderful memory, and the walk down to the river from Sapa was pretty spectacular too. Numerous fields of Marijuana preoccupied Pete, while Matt took more photographs than was necessary. Four films in half an afternoon, I think! We got to hear the “animal orchestra” again too. That’s what I call the fusion of insect, amphibian and bird song, with the occasional kingly cry from a hidden mammal of exotic description that we often heard by the river.

Although an enormous pair of water buffalo occupied the water, we were not deterred and went for a swim anyway. We played and swam with some tiny tribal children, and whiled away the day just relaxing and just messing around.

The next day was just as eventful as we woke to see an awesome rainbow spanning the valley below us. It was like an enormous watercolour palette, used by nature to enhance the already immense beauty of the Muong Hoa Ho Valley. The rainbow seemed to provide the most stark and colourful contrast imaginable when compared with the luscious greens of the terraced paddies.

After breakfast, it became a day for motorbikes, and we hired a selection of Russian Minsk’s and rode off in the direction of some of Sapa’s surrounding communes. The communes are places where ancient traditions are still in force today, and for that afternoon, it was almost as if we had stepped back in time. On our return to the town, we sauntered idly around the market, and met some of the local children. Dressed in shimmering indigo decorated with delicate embroidery, the girls showed us around the town. Shu, Ti, Tu, Mu, Gð, Ju and the rest of the girls each gave us wonderful friendship bracelets, and I have kept in contact since.

Camaraderie and friendship is at the core of all the best adventures, and making friends with these minority children is undoubtedly the most prominent and fond memory of any of my travelling experiences to date. I will retain the memories of our short-lived fellowship forever.

We left Sapa hesitantly because we were leaving good friends and a place that we love. Our time in Sapa yet again proved to be one of tremendous happiness, and I will certainly make it my ambition to return once more.

We still had four weeks of travelling to go, so we headed back to Hanoi, and on to Hué, Vietnam’s Imperial Capital. Hué is situated on the exquisite banks of the Perfume River, about 450km south of Hanoi. Hué was traditionally Vietnam’s cultural, religious and educational centre, and is home to the splendid tombs of the Nguyen emperors. The city also has several pagodas and most notably, a colossal Citadel.

The streets of Hué gave all us a deep-rooted sensation of history and far off grandeur could be felt everywhere. This grandeur was personified when we met Pete once more. After saying our good-byes in Sapa, we really did not expect to see him again. Much to our amazement, we met Pete ambling down a side street on the city outskirts. He had become somewhat mesmerised by Hué charm, and unsurprisingly he was finding it difficult to move on.

The city is certainly peculiar in its individuality, but a young girl who went by the name of Banana contributed to making it even more extraordinary during our stay. Banana was a nine-year-old girl who worked in a restaurant by the Perfume River. She was the best English speaker we met on the whole trip but that’s not what was so strange about her. On our first night in Hué, we ate and were subsequently led by Banana for a game of pool in a friendly little bar. After introducing us to a selection of her friends, she initiated a boat trip for the next day.

I must say that I wasn’t shocked by a nine year old organising our itinerary, but looking back, it was perhaps some of the most bizarre circumstances that I have ever been in. Banana basically spent the week with us, taking us on various trips with visits to temples and pagodas. The hospitality shown to us by Banana and her parents is what we had now come to expect from Vietnam. They certainly went along way in making our stay in Hué so enjoyable.

We were able to hire motorbikes again in Hué. At less than $3 a day, they are certainly an affordable way to see many of Vietnam’s secret wonders. We had heard rumours of a small beach resort between Hué and our next destination, so we decided on a day trip to Lang Co Peninsular. Lang Co itself is a small fishing settlement located on the lowlands beneath rolling green mountains. With miles of palm fringed sandy beaches on one side, and an attractive shallow lagoon on the other, we were really able to enjoy some peaceful relaxation away from the crowds. Its small selection of hotels and restaurants means that the town remains an unspoiled gem. We had a fantastic day of rest before returning the motorbikes to Hué and catching a bus to our next destination.

Hoi An was our next stop. 100km south of Hué, the town was one of South East Asia’s major international ports during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese traders frequented the port in it’s heyday, and influences from these diverse cultures are evident today. The modest settlement is located on the shores of the Thu Bon River, with narrow, maze-like streets to the rear the harbour. The South China Sea is just a few kilometres from Hoi An’s centre, and miles of pristine beaches line the waters edge.

The town was another fantastic place to hire motorbikes, and we did so for our entire stay there. I had the ingenious idea of riding to the beach really early one morning, so the four of us set off at 3am, and were at the beach by half past. Another traveller had told us that the sunrise was unmissable, so we had a quick swim on the deserted beach, and sat waiting for the first rays. When light began to shine on the beach, we were astonished to see thousands of people on “our” deserted beach – at 4am for goodness sake.

Where the waves were breaking on the sand, we noticed scores of people buried in the sand, with only their heads poking out. We left Hoi An still unsure as to why they were there, but it is presumably a traditional cure for some oriental ailment or other.

Nha Trang took us a fair few hours to get to by bus. The journey was made bearable by its peculiarity. We all sat at the rear of the bus, and became somewhat disconcerted by four girls who persisted in staring at us constantly. Even more peculiar was the fact that we vaguely recognised them. It turned out that they were teachers in Halong City, and we had briefly talked to them a year previously! These random circumstances led to a speedy friendship, and during our stay in Nha Trang, we hired motorbikes and visited bars and beaches together.

Nha Trang itself was fairly loathsome, and our hotel was worse! The city is focused around one main coastal road, with a few other roads that run parallel to it. All have their share of tasteless high rise buildings, and this gives the city a modernistic feel that really doesn’t suit Vietnam. The unnecessarily wide main road filters into a muddy track at one end, and leads to a tiny port at the other. The road seems to sum up the city really, ambitious, but going nowhere!

Nha Trang’s only redeeming feature was its bars, restaurants and beautiful beach. The town’s food was very diverse, and its bars were almost worth the accolade of being described as perfection! We had a great night in a glorious place by the beach, but Sean’s need for sleep as a result nearly made us miss the bus to Saigon!

After a slight delay waiting for Sean, we set off south by bus for Ho Chi Minh City. The city is very different to others in Vietnam. Being the focus for American soldiers in the war, Western influences are obviously far greater in the south of the country, but none of us realised how much Saigon would contrast to Hanoi! Unlike Hanoi’s focus on tradition, Saigon emits a sense of enterprise, and is certainly striving for development in a similar way to Malaysia. The standard of living is unquestionably better in Saigon, but we couldn’t help feel that capitalist ideals have detracted from the city. I for one prefer the hardworking yet relaxed attitudes in the north.

From Saigon, we organised a short tour to Can Tho and the Mekong delta. We travelled to the delta by bus, a 6-hour journey from Saigon. There were 18 people crammed in a 9-seater minibus, yet the death trap still managed to travel at over 90 mph the whole way. As we came across other minibuses even more overweight and overcrowded than ours, we cruised by without hesitation. Often this involved travelling for great periods on the wrong side of the “dual carnageway”. Oncoming vehicles were warned of our presence with our headlights and a selection of the on board horns. Our driver was obviously very adept at avoiding head on collisions! Against all probability, we didn’t crash once!

The delta is a meandering myriad of river channels that spans over South Vietnam and Cambodia. Can Tho is the unofficial capital of the delta and as a result is the best place to organise a boat excursion. A long boat is the only way to see the delta, and our tour not only showed us some spectacular sights, but also gave us a real insight into another of Vietnam’s varied lifestyles. The people of the Mekong are reliant on the river not only for fish, but also irrigation. The islands interwoven between channels have very fertile soils, and are ideal for fruit growing.

We set off on our boat trip at 4am, and saw the spectacular sunrise over the mighty river. At this early hour, the river people were already awake and working to avoid the scorching sun. Floating markets bobbed busily by the banks as fruit pickers combed the island orchards. These sights provided a stark contrast to the typical rice paddies, and again exposed the unmistakable differences between north and south. We had an enjoyable few days before heading back to Ho Chi Minh City for a flight to Bangkok.

Once in Bangkok, we organised the essential pilgrimage to Thailand’s famed beaches for some much needed rest and recuperation in paradise. We chose Koh Phangan Island, a small island on the East Coast of the Malay peninsular. With a week of travelling to go and nothing to do but relax, I was most definitely expecting to better the tan, and make the most of the good weather.

Once on the island, we found a small beach called Bottle beach. It was exceedingly isolated, and had no road access. The only way on and off the beach required catching a boat from the village around the coast. The sense of seclusion was truly incredible. We slept in a little shack on the beach that was surrounded by palms, and the beautifully clear sea concealed belts of coral reef just a short distance off shore.

Koh Phangan is also famed for its full moon parties. Every full moon, about 40,000 people congregate on Had Rin beach for a bit of a laugh. It’s a 24-hour affair, and the stretch of sand was awash with multiple temporary bars and food stalls in front of the beaches many clubs. It was all rather surreal, but in one night, we manage to meet 11 people that we knew. It really is a small world! Whether it was the location, atmosphere or the people, I can’t say, but it was certainly the best party that I have ever been too!

The journey back to Bangkok on the other hand was appalling. As the dual carriageway turned to winding tracks, it became impossible to attempt speeds of more than 30 mph. Nevertheless, our bus driver proceeded at a steady 90 mph, and rounded a bend to see a small hunk of matter in the road ahead. By the time we got close enough to identify the shape, it was too late. The hunk of matter was a dog. As I turned to examine the driver’s road kill, I saw another scruffy looking canine run out of the bushes towards its friend. It paid no attention to the bus behind ours, and also got unluckily crushed to death. When a third dog did the same, I was overcome by shock. As we continued on our way, I turned again to see a much larger hunk in the road.

Our arrival in Bangkok was a time for feasting and shopping sprees before our flight home. The bright lights and party atmosphere of the Khao San Road again readied us for western culture as we whiled away our final hours in the orient watching a Manchester United match in one Khao San’s many tourist hangouts. We left Bangkok to its mellow and ambient ways as we reluctantly headed to the airport. We succeeded in dodging the tiny white balls on the runway once more, and left South East Asia how we found it.

After a sensational and enlightening couple of month’s travel, we departed Asia with a realisation of all that we have yet to see. Ah well, I guess we will just have to organise a return trip in the near future!

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