South East Asia is a magnet for backpackers and for good reason. It’s very cost effective; your budget doesn’t need to be royal to be treated like royalty. It’s full of fascinating places that can keep you occupied for months. It’s easy to get around with a strong network of buses. And lastly, it’s surprisingly approachable as there is a strongly developed tourism industry that caters to English speakers.
Vietnam is a busy country with a difficult past that’s never far from the surface. We traveled through Vietnam around Christmas time and spent 22 days in the country starting in the south at HCMC and heading north to Hanoi before crossing over to Laos. We stopped off at places like Hoi An, Mui Ne and Hue where we took a tour of the DMZ as well as Ha Long Bay.
The trifecta of mass transit – flight, train and bus – are all available to you in Vietnam. While the first is easily the fastest, it is also by far the most expensive. Trains may be available to you depending on your destination. If neither of the first two options are available and you want cheap travel, you are on the bus.
The sleeper buses in Vietnam are relatively new. But that doesn’t make them luxurious. They are a three row, two level reclining chair affair. If you find yourself on these buses, here are a few tips that may be helpful.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a traveller undertaking a tortuously long bus journey must be in want of a few marbles and in possession of a good deal of patience and humour.
“Patience and humour. Patience and humour.” I repeat to myself as we steel ourselves for the oncoming 24 hour endurance feat to Laos.
As promised, we are picked up at 5pm at our guesthouse. Although picked up is perhaps not the right phrase as we’re led away on foot along with a troop of Korean tourists like a brood of chicks through the narrow lanes of Hanoi and deposited on the side of a street.
Islands puncture the green waters like dragon teeth, stretching high above my head. Pointy canines, massive molars and expansive incisors complete the jaw. Some are bare while others are covered in vegetation like the remains of some ancient meal. Rock surfaces are stained yellow in parts, deep scratches carving diagonally along their sides.
Our tour boat, a guppy in the mouth of this beast, casually swims with a school of others from tooth to tooth. Despite the crowd, silence mercifully dominates the audio landscape. I listen attentively, imagining the winds that wash over me to be the breath of the creature that now holds us in its mouth.
Let me tell you, when I took my first steps on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, I swear I could hear the screeching tires of ambulance chasers everywhere. Hell, during rush hour, I didn’t even need to stick a leg out into the street to risk it, the motorbikes came to me! Right there on the sidewalk! You can imagine my excitement. I read before coming that Vietnam experiences 30,000 injuries a year due to motor accidents. I wanted a piece of the action!
It must have been terrifying. Entombed in constant darkness of the tunnel, slowly crawling inch after agonizing inch, hands outstretched feeling for any clue of a trap. There were of course countless to look out for. The Viet Cong were creative and effective in their trap building. Home made grenades made of coke cans. Vipers stuffed in bamboo rods hanging from the roof. Hornets nests. Fake walls with Charlie waiting behind, spear in hand, peering through a peep hole. Countless nests of spiders and dens full of scorpions. The life of the Tunnel Rats – the proud, slightly insane men that explored and occasionally found the enemy in the tunnels of Vietnam – was the most danger filled and least glamorous of the US soldiers that fought in Vietnam.
Driving down the coast of Mui Ne in our bare bones jeep, the trees to my right open up to reveal the bay below. Basic life boats and larger fishing vessels bob in the waters. The popular and purpose built round boats used for fishing always amuse me. Watching a fisherman try to paddle a round boat gracefully always makes me laugh at the futility of it all.
Vietnam has a long history of throwing out colonial and imperial forces. Most famous is the Vietnam War of the American imagination. But even before the Americans, Vietnam had to throw off the colonial French, finally doing so in the victory at Dien Bien Phu. In the process of defeating first the French then Americans, a lot of artifacts of war were left behind. A few of them can be seen now in the War Remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh city.