Category Archives: Vietnam

My Ten Favourite Things About South East Asia

South East Asia is mad. It’s also very diverse. It can be ugly. It can be challenging. But I love it.  Here are my ten favourite things I have encountered whilst travelling around South East Asia. Have a read, and let me know yours.

Thai Minibuses of Doom

If you have ever travelled around Thailand in an economical fashion you have probably sat in one of these. You have also probably clenched your buttocks in fear and held on for dear life. And you have probably scratched your head in confusion as you were dumped at the road side and told to wait in the middle of nowhere for no clear reason.

If you have no idea what I am talking about, it is probably best that you can recognise these vehicles. They tend to look something like this. With varying amounts of chrome accessories.

Thai Minibus

I have no idea how the whole system of Thai minibuses work. Without doubt they are vital. They are used by backpacker and locals alike and they seem to ply every possible route. There is no evidence of a timetable and they seem to set off once they are full. And when I say full, I mean stuffed to the ceiling with people, bags and whatever goods the locals want to transport.

That’s me below with the ginger facial hair. And those two guys had never met until the point when they realised that they had to share a seat for an uncomfortable few hours. It was a big seat, stretching the width of the minibus. But, in Thailand the back seat is always used for storing rucksacks and boxes of mysterious Thai cargo. The driver excavated that little alcove for them to climb into.

Inside a typical Thai Minibus

You will find one of these things very easily. Somebody will happily tell you which bus is the one for you, and the owner, who will look and behave like an Automobile Pimp, will happily sell you a ticket.

Some time later, when you depart at the speed of light, you may well think your next stop will be your destination. But not necessarily.

During more than half of my Thai Minibus adventures I have been dropped off in some random dusty location and told to wait along with most of the other equally confused passengers. The parting shot of the driver is to slap a coloured sticker on the clothing of the passengers who are being ejected. Then he will speed off.

Everybody looks at each other and gradually they start to discuss the situation. Eventually somebody goes to ask the only person around, the man selling ice creams, and he says to wait. Because he knows how the system works.

At some point later, another minibus will appear and collect whoever is wearing a particular colour sticker. This minibus may well not really have enough room, which is what happened to the two guys up there.

The minibus drivers are clearly on a bonus of some sort to arrive on time.  I once had to counsel a Scottish chap who had sat in the front passenger seat of one of these things. His eyes were unblinkingly glued on the road, aside from frantic glances at the speedometer.

But despite all of this, I have always arrived safely and only a little shaken, dehydrated and hungry. And with hindsight each trip has been enjoyable in it’s own special way.

Pad Thai

Oh wow! I already loved Pad Thai, the national dish of Thailand, long before I first set foot in The Land of Smiles. But when I first tucked into a genuine Pad Thai, in 2010 in a dark and dingy Thai alleyway, I knew I had found my perfect food.

Chewy noodles, fish sauce, egg, crunchy crushed nuts, tofu, bean shoots, tamarind, garlic and few other ingredients come together in perfect union with a squeeze of lime. and some meat or prawns.  This one here is wrapped in a clever egg omelette net.

Pad Thai

It is cheap, incredibly satisfying and available absolutely everywhere in Thailand. Make sure you try it when you get there.

Temples in Cambodia

The Temples of Angkor, the only remaining remnant of a once great empire, is the very reason I first set foot in South East Asia. The awe inspiring photographs of Angkors Wat and Thom had been calling to me for many years.

To stand and behold the behemoth that is Angkor Wat is enough to make you question whether humans have actually moved forward in the past 900 years. Angkor Wat was and still is the largest religious building in the world.

Angkor Wat

When the French “rediscovered” Angkor in the mid 19th Century the French Explorer Henri Mouhot was taken to say…

 “At Ongcor, there are …ruins of such grandeur… that, at the first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilized, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?”

In fact they were so sure that the Cambodians of the 19th century could not be descended from the builders of this astonishing city that they toyed with the idea that the Egyptians must have been responsible. Which probably prompted a knowing Cambodian farmer to smugly mutter…

“Good work Frenchy!”

Angkor Wat is the biggest single temple at Angkor, but for me it is in fact not the best. For starters it is intact, having actually remained in use over the centuries. I prefer my temples to be crumbled. But Angkor has many other temples, many of which were lost to the jungle for many centuries. Some retain this mysterious lost atmosphere, and for me there is not much I like more than clambering over the moss covered ruins of the temples Ta Prohm and Beng Mealea. Or gazing in wonder at the amazing detail of Banteay Samre.

Beng Mealea in Cambodia

It takes time to tour these astounding monuments Not least because the daytime heat in Cambodia is very draining. I would recommend 3 days if you are visiting. And prepare to be blown away.

Mango Lassi

Talking of the heat, nothing pleases me more when I am hot and tired than a cold, refreshing Mango Lassi.

Mango Lassi

Vietnamese Tourist Tax

Any well travelled person will agree that extracting lots of money from tourist is a trade that crosses all international borders. I’ve been ripped off and guilt tripped in most countries, but the worst and in turn most entertaining is Vietnam.

In the defence of Vietnam, when I visited I was pretty naive. But they knew it and tried to milk me dry. Just to be clear, you can find a list of some of the Vietnamese scams here.

Having read that I came off lightly actually . But I still paid for a first class train ticket and ended up in a really nasty bunk. And I paid for a wonderful tour from Ho Chi Minh City to Cambodia and got not much in return. And every single shop, which is a lot as every house seems to be a shop in Vietnam, does not show prices. You can almost see the shopkeeper’s eyes brighten as they think about what price they can get away with,

But I still loved Vietnam. I would go back, though a quick Google search suggests many don’t.

The Horn of Corn

“The what?” I hear you ask. Well, that is in fact the name I gave to a tasty Thai snack because I can’t read the packaging. They look like this.

The Horn of Corn

These crunchy corn snacks have seen me through many a tiring journey. They are so bloody morish that I have to eat a whole bag, and they only seem to come in big bags. Even better, I discovered that the Thai shop close to my home town in the UK imports them! Woohooooo!

Smiles

The people of South East Asia really do know how to smile. They don’t smile all the time of course. That would be weird, and probably annoying. But they just seem to have a happy outlook on life. Even these kids who live in the middle of nowhere in Cambodia at a brick kiln.

Battambang Kids

Dodgy Counterfeit Gear

It’s everywhere in South East Asia. Most notably, at least as far as I can tell, in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. And the shopkeeper will swear blind that the $5 pair of Oakley Sunglasses (negotiated down to 3$ of course) are completely genuine.

The whole situation left me in a bit of a quandary. If I was planning on bringing a load back to flog on eBay I would be a crook. But I just wanted a cheap rucksack, and the “North Face” offering seemed to tick all the boxes.

My North Face bag

And the “Ray Bans” were only cheap but they did a job. I’m not so sure about the “Tag Heur” watch though – it can’t always be 6.30!

Tuk Tuks

Yep. Those three wheeled things that are nothing but a novelty in the west – they seem to stitch the very fabric of the rest of the world together. I’ve ridden them in Asia, South America and I even saw one in Morocco.

They come in many guises, from the slow relaxing variant in Cambodia to the crazy, mental version that tears up the streets of Bangkok.

A typical Bangkok Tuk Tuk

They are most famous in Thailand I would say. Putting the terrible traffic congestion aside, a Tuk Tuk is a very quick way to get around Bangkok. The drivers can weave them in and out of traffic with great skill, and seem to take great delight in extracting screams and whoops of joy from their passengers.

The drivers also like to drive a hard bargain. They could teach the Vietnamese a thing or two, but I always seem to reach an agreeable price. Oh, and don’t forgot to tell them you are not interested in their brother’s suit store or their friend’s shop.

Beaches

I’ve saved the very best until last. South East Asia has lots of incredible beaches. Some of my most relaxing times have been spent on Ko Lanta in Thailand and on the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia.

But finding a good beach that suits your requirements is not easy. I like a quiet sandy beach with good swimming, low key infrastructure and plenty of Mango Lassis.

A Beach on Ko Lanta

That up there is a great little beach on Ko Lanta in Thailand. Note the clean sand, calm waters, forest back drop, and of course the dodgy North Face bag. And when I was dropped off by boat at this beach on the Perhantian Islands in Malaysia I knew I had found my kind of beach.

Perhentian Islands in Malaysia

So, what about you?

This is my top ten, but you most certainly will disagree. So what do you love about South East Asia? Add a comment, or a Tweet, or even a Facebook comment and let me know.

Travel Baptism of Fire – Ho Chi Minh City

If you read my last blog entry here you will know that I was once rather scared of overseas travel. A 7 month trip around the world put paid to that though and I know enjoy being immersed in foreign cultures and get a strange satisfaction from the problems that travel can throw my way.

But this transformation wasn’t an overnight thing. It took time. And during this period of metamorphosis I made many mistakes and endured various sticky situations. So what better place to start the journey. Hi Chi Minh City in Vietnam. What could go wrong?

So this is how they roll on the other side of the world is it?

The temperature once hit 35c in the UK. I hid in the coolest room I could find and drank lots of cold drinks until the sun went down. So the minute I emerged into the oppressive heat of HCMC, backpack weighing me down, I was worried. “How could anybody achieve anything in this heat?” I muttered to myself, as a handful of taxi drivers rushed over to prove I was being melodramatic.

Fortunately my paranoia had led me to research how much a taxi should cost. So soon enough we were in a taxi. It had no air conditioning, but nevertheless I relaxed.

Then I noticed the motorbikes. “Look at all the motorbikes” I said to my worryingly calm girlfriend. “It must be some sort of procession.”

Anybody who has been to Vietnam will probably be smiling to themselves at this point. It was not a procession. Everybody in Vietnam seems to ride a motorbike. Often with their entire extended family along for the ride, hanging on for dear life as the  husband and father of the family weaves in and out of the few cars that dare to venture into the sea of bikes.

I spent the first 5 minutes becoming more and more amazed that none of the bikes seemed to be colliding with our taxi. Or each other. So much so that I reached for my camera. Sadly I deleted all of the shots I took, because they were blurred and wonky. By the time we reached out hotel I realised that all these motorbikes were perfectly normal.

After a few hours sleep, somewhat aided by the air conditioning, we decided to venture out into the city. It was dark by this point so I lathered on the 100% Deet spray, put on some long trousers and a long sleeved top and headed out into the unknown.

Heading Out Into The Unknown

Spurred on by the fact that we managed to book a tour with the hotel receptionist on the way out we ventured all the way to the main road. It was wider than the widest motorway/freeway I had ever seen and was filled with speeding, weaving motorcycles. We tried for 15 minutes to cross, but despite seeing some locals and even some westerners make it to the other side we gave up. It was like this but with bigger penalties for failure  and the lily pads.

Like Vietnam but without the hospital visit

Luckily we found a food market around 120 seconds walk from our hotel and decided we had ventured far enough. It smelt nice so we sat down and I enjoyed the feeling of achievement that was washing over me.

The food was great. The culinary options would plum to unprecedented depths in the days that would follow, but on that first night it was superb. I ate the lot and ordered more. Then we headed back to our hotel, which was easy as we never really lost sight of it.

Another thing that had worried me prior to departure was the thought of being robbed. In my mind the robber would have a weapon to my throat and a crazy look in his eyes. What I wasn’t expecting was the opportunistic Vietnamese with their impressively efficient way of extracting money from tourists. I suspect they drew lots for the pleasure of relieving me of my cash.

This started in HCMC when I bought a hat. It would have cost less in London, and probably would have been genuine too.

Taxi Trickery

When we arrived in Hanoi the taxi driver from the airport drove a hard bargain. Strangely he seemed to speak a fair bit of English but then forgot and reverted to Vietnamese when we realised we were being ripped off. I didn’t cotton on to what he was doing until it became a little unusual that every 3 minutes we drove down a road where every single shop sold bamboo ladders. I started taking photographs on the third lap, amazed that Hanoi had such a need for ladders, but by the fifth I realised what he was doing. Despite his sudden inability to speak English (we had been engaged in a rather detailed conversation about Manchester United at one point) we suddenly arrived at out Hotel.

I did get this great shot during the taxi journey which I think sums up Vietnam perfectly. Yes that is a fish tank on a bike, but also check out the phalanx of motorcycles about to run down the posing tourist in the background!

CHARGE!!!!!!!

What Happens When You Try to Cross the The Language Barrier? A Child Rides off on a Motorbike Of Course.

My confidence levels were soon sky high. Aided by my girlfriend’s experience of South East Asia we managed to complete a walking tour of Hanoi and even ate in the most surreal cafe I had ever visited. No menus, no cutlery and only one dish that was plonked unceremoniously in front of me whilst I tried to establish where the menus were. It all went fine though, The food, Vietnamese Pho, was excellent.

That didn’t stop my girlfriend from blaming the pho for her horrendous stomach problems that started during the night though. By the end of the next day we had nearly run out of re-hydration solution (i.e. we didn’t pack enough) and I was faced with the challenge of venturing into Hanoi at night searching for a chemist. Most of my worst fears were being realised.

But I am pretty good in a crisis. So I reached for our trusty laptop and translated my needs into Vietnamese. I wrote the words onto a piece of paper. In English it said something like this…

“My wife is sick and I need something to stop her diarrhea. Please. Thank you.”

I climbed down the four flights of stairs to the reception and then had a brainwave. If the happy smiling man who spoke no English on the desk could understand my amateurish scrawl I was in with a chance.

I approached and handed him the piece of paper. He read it and laughed. Then he called his young son of about 8 years of age over. He read it and laughed. Then the man pointed at me and then pointed at his arse.

Success! He understood! Kind of. “No not me!” I protested, provoking more laughter from the boy. “My wife” I said, pointing upwards.

Then the man asked me for some money. Hoping he had the medication I needed I handed over a handful of notes. The man gave the notes to the boy along with some speedily spoken instructions – possibly “steal this stupid man’s money” – who then ran outside, started up a motorcycle and rode off into the night with what may have been a large amount of money.

That Child Took My Money!?

I sat down on the comfortable seats and waited. The man showed no more interest in speaking with me. Just as I can was beginning to think that I had experience the most relaxed of robberies the boy returned, clambered down off the bike and ran inside. He handed me the plastic bag he was carrying and what looked to be all of the money I had given him. He reached into the bag and handed me another piece of paper upon which were dosage instruction in English. The bag was laden with boxes of French medication.

Somewhat confused but with a happy feeling in my heart I returned to the room and my sick girlfriend. For a while I considered letting her think that I had ventured into the city alone but I couldn’t be bothered. Though I soon wished I had when she found out that the hotel staff all found her predicament hilarious.

Something to Say? Does This Ring Bells With You? Get In Touch and Tell Me….

Do you remember your first foray into the world of overseas travel? Was your deep end deeper than mine? Let me know, because I like nothing better than to hear people’s travel tales…