Beaches and guns!
25.02.2012 - 01.03.2012 -29 °C
All 4 of us decided that leaving Hoi An by sleeper bus would be the cheapest way to take the 17 hours from Hoi An to Mui Ne. Mui Ne is a quiet beach resort with lovely beaches and less touristy than Na Trang so we booked the sleeper bus and were reliably told that we would be guaranteed front seats and the bus would take us all the way to Mui Ne.
Vietnam yet again managed to disappoint us, it is almost comical now. The bus turned up and there were no allocated seats as promised, so we barged to the front of the queue and grabbed a couple of seats near the front and away from the toilet. I say seats, basically there were 3 rows of laid down seats on 2 levels (like bunk beds) and they had even squashed some beds into the space in between them. You couldn’t sit up properly and your feet are squashed underneath where the head of the person in front of you goes. It was like being in a mobile coffin! I instantly felt very claustrophobic and wasn’t sure I could stay in the ‘seat’ for 17 hours! I tried to go to sleep but the constant loud beep of the bus horn as he raced through traffic and the wobble of the bus as he swung it around dark corners made it nearly impossible.
I was glad when we stopped for a comfort break at midnight and were allowed off to stretch our legs. We didn’t buy anything but were glad to use the toilets, even if they were the most disgusting ones we have found in Asia so far! Back on the bus everyone now thought they would try and get some sleep but to our amazement the driver put on very loud party music! WTF! Everyone started shouting at the driver to turn it down or off and he reluctantly after several tracks turned it off and let us try and sleep. It was a horrible night with not a lot of sleep that left me yearning for a cabin on a night train. Jayne had a better night as she somehow fitted better in the seat and felt quite comfortable!?
7am we arrived in Na Trang and as we sat in our ‘seats’ waiting for the people who were getting off at this stop to leave the bus, we saw our bags appear on the pavement. Not wanting to leave them behind Jayne jumped off to see what was happening and to our amazement they said we have to leave the bus? At this point we are 6 hours from Mui Ne, the destination we had paid for, and were bewildered as to what was going on. We tried to talk, then shout at the ignorant bus driver who just stared the other way ignoring us. We have found that they do that a lot in Vietnam, if they do not like what they hear or are in the middle of a scam they totally blank you. We continued shouting at the driver along with other people who were bound for Mui Ne with no success until a local man said ‘Wait here, new bus coming’. OK we thought, maybe a change of bus and driver for the onward journey. It was pouring with rain and Na Trang looked like a shit hole so we were glad we had chosen not to stay here. A man arrived on a scooter and opened the nearby office for us to shelter in and await the new bus. We were then told that the new bus would be a normal one (not a sleeper we had paid for) and would arrive in 2 hours. Typical Vietnam stitch up once again!
Eventually a bus did turn up and they tried to squeeze us in the back of it with all the other foreigners and we refused. We sat in a seat at the front and all four of us refused to move. They shouted at us that we could get off the bus if we didn’t move to the back, but we held our ground and played the ‘ignore them’ game for once. It seemed to work and they reluctantly left us sat there and put two local old people on plastic chairs in the isle!
All said and done I actually preferred the normal bus and drifted in and out of sleep for the 6 hour journey to Mui Ne.
Mui Ne is a lovely place, the centre is totally full of Russian tourists but if you stay outside the central beach area it is actually quite quiet and chilled. It is a one road town with the houses on one side right on top of the beach and across the road if they are tall enough still have a sea view. Martijn and I left the girls in a restaurant with the bags and wondered into every hotel for about half a kilometre to see what the best deal was. We saw some amazing apartment style rooms with sea views and although they are relatively cheap opted for a room with 2 double beds in, a/c and a pool for $20 a night. Bargain!
The girls liked the room so we unpacked and went out for some food at a typical beach side Vietnamese restaurant. These consist of a large tent looking affair with a barbecue and lots of different fish crammed into tanks for you to choose from. They also always seem to have their bed in the middle of the ‘restaurant’ amongst the plastic patio furniture. We nicknamed the woman in our favourite restaurant ‘Old Lady Pyjamas’ as she appeared to be in her PJ’s and in between serving people laid on her bed, semi passed out. It was nice to be out of a main town for a while so we enjoyed the ambiance of old lady PJ’s place for the night.
The next day we got up late and walked to the Main beach which was about 2km away. It was nice to get some beach time in and we chilled out for the day with a few beers next to a Russian kite surfing school. The evening was spent in a local Kebab place with the best gourmet kebab I have ever tasted, in fact it was barely recognisable as a kebab!
Couple of hours by the pool before grabbing some of the ropiest looking push bikes yet to get us to the nearby fishing village and the famous sand dunes (approx. 5km away from Mui Ne centre). The bikes were super cheap at less than 30 pence for the whole day so it was going to be a cheap if not very hot way of getting around.
It was a nice ride to the fishing village where we were treated to some fantastic views of the whole harbour.
After a brief stop we carried on to the sand dunes (only getting lost once and having to back track for a km or so). We knew we had arrived at the sand dunes as we were instantly stopped by hords of young children trying to sell us the use of their plastic sheets for sandboarding on the dunes. Jayne and I decided to decline but Beer and Martijn parted ways with a few thousand Dong and were rewarded with a 3 foot long plastic sheet. After several failed attempts we found the steepest slope we could and at last Martijn was able to slide (albeit very slowly) down the sand to the bottom.
It wasn’t the most exciting sport ever but good fun all the same. Jayne decided she needed some exercise (of course!) so we divised a plan to write something in the sand. We would all stand on a nearby dune and shout directions to Jayne so she would know when to go up, left, down, right etc until it was finished.
Pleased with the outcome, but Jayne still having energy to burn, we sent her back to the dune to add a little bit more.
It was seriously hot so we all decided we had spent enough time playing in the sand and should head back to the town. This is where another scam smacked us in the face… again.
Returning to the bikes we unlocked the padlock only to find that there was another lock on two of the bikes which we hadn’t noticed. While we had been gone, someone had locked them up and taken away the keys! It was a kind of disc lock which held the rear wheel in place so it couldn’t be turned. Great. Walking along dragging the bikes behind it wasn’t long before a very helpful local spotted us and offered his help. How lucky we thought, someone locked up the bikes and he happens to be very nearby with tools to remove the lock by chance… yeah right! Anyway, we let him remove the locks and then funnily enough, he wanted us to buy some beers off of him for his time and effort. This would have been fine if the price of them wasn’t way over the normal price, all part of his plan I guess. We had a bit of an argument and refused to pay the price of the beers before riding away quite quickly (once we had detached several small children from the baskets of our bikes!). Oh well, just another day in Vietnam I guess.
The cycle ride took us back past the amazing viewpoint of the fishing village so I suggested we stop to grab some reasonable priced beers and watch the sunset. It turned out to be a great choice. We drank a few beers and I helped out a local old guy trying to carry about a ton of small shrimp down a steep slope.
They sift through them to remove junk and then leave them to dry for a day or two before packing them back up and selling them. Jayne offered to help with the sifting but was turned down, you obviously need a little skill for that part of the job!
She then managed to find a bunch of local kids who were all very friendly and loved having their picture taken (although they did ask for money at the end! Lol).
The sunset was magnificent with the multi coloured fishing boats slowly turning into silhouettes as the bright red ball of the sun disappeared over the horizon like a scene from Apocalypse now.
The ride back was a little scary at times as it was quite dark and Vietnam traffic is scary enough in daylight, but we all arrived back safely and had an enormous meal at our favourite place followed by beers at Lady Pyjamas place to end the day.
Leaving Mui Ne
Reluctantly we took the bus @2:45pm the next day (it was due at 1:30 but … NO RULES!) which would take us to Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City as it is also known). The Journey was long and boring with only a brief stop at an overpriced road side café as normal.
It eventually deposited us on the main road in Saigon called Pham Ngu Lao which is where most the hotels are situated. After a brief look around we found a superb room with 2 double beds and a nice ensuite for only $20 total. A quick shop around got us booked on a tour of the Cu Chi tunnel system tomorrow which is a village famous for its 250km long tunnel system used in the Vietnam war (only $4). The woman suggested a local café called ‘Kims’ for a bite to eat and we were impressed with the quality and massive size of the portions we got, I think we are going to like Saigon!
Cu Chi Tunnels
It was great to spend a nice cool night in a huge room with Martijn and Beer and we all felt ready to take on the tunnels. A minibus picked us up from near our hotel and we set off towards Cu Chi after grabbing lots of pastries from a delicious (and cheap) bakery next to our hotel. It took around an hour before we stopped for a comfort break in a place where people who have been affected by Agent Orange* make unique art out of crushed sea shells.
- Agent Orange is a chemical used by the Americans in the Vietnam War. It was a toxin designed to destroy large areas of forest in order to remove anywhere for the Vietcong to hide. Unfortunately the chemicals used were also incredibly harmful to human life and many people were scarred permanently. It also affects human genes and therefore anyone exposed to the chemical has a very high potential of having severely disabled or deformed children.
Some of the artwork was beautifully done but unable to fit anything else in our rucksacks we left empty handed and continued on to Cu Chi.
Our guide rushed us off of the bus and through a large modern underground tunnel into the centre of the Cu Chi forest. After a brief propaganda film we were shown the many ways in which the Vietcong used their own ingenuity and discarded American munitions to make everything from bamboo spike traps to tank killing mines. It was really interesting but a shame that there were hundreds of tourists there with many guides all trying to shout their information at the top of their voices.
The next stop was the firing range. (YAY! BIG BOYS TOYS!!). Here they had a large wooden cabinet with most of the weapons I have ever heard of (and some I hadn’t) for you to choose and shoot! (Including RPG'S!)
The cost was different for each weapon but generally the average was around £1 per round (I think the budgets out the window for the next 10 minutes!). This next bits for the boys, sorry if it’s a bit geeky!
I was really tempted with the M3 and M1 – especially wanting to hear the ping when the last round is fired – but opted for the M16 (classic US army version), the AK47 (Standard VC weapon) and the M60 (Rambo eat your heart out!). 10 rounds was the minimum for each so I started with that.
A guy took the rounds from a large locked storage area and gestured for us to follow. He took us down a concrete walkway to a large caged area with all of the weapons lined up facing a large mud mound and some targets about 100metres away.
The M60 was first so he loaded it up and I took position. I was pretty nervous and the adrenalin was pumping but I pressed my shoulder into the stock and squinted down the sights.
It seemed to take forever as I slowly squeezed the trigger and waited for the shot to fire, then all of a sudden BOOM BOOM BOOM 3 shots rang out across the fields. We were wearing ear defenders but it was still so loud it almost hurt my ears and the kickback was immense. A huge grin crept across my face as I realised what I was doing and I fired off a few more rounds aiming at a target that had a picture of an elephant on it. Over excited I fired off the remaining rounds forgetting I had offered to let Jayne have the last few shots.
Next came the AK47. In went the rounds and I grabbed hold of it like a kid with a new toy at Christmas and looked down the sights. This was not quite as loud as the M60 but still an unbelievable noise and the feel of it was much lighter and more accurate. This time I remembered to stop a few rounds short and let Jayne have a couple of squeezes of the trigger!
Last was the M16. I have always like the M16 and to fire it would be a personal goal of mine, however I knew it was a much hated weapon by those who use it. The weapon is famous for being difficult to use and also jamming a lot, which it did several times. Imagine that happening in the heat of battle! Despite the setbacks it was an awesome experience and I can see why you wouldn’t want to be fighting with one of these. It was heavy, felt awkward and the kickback was ridiculous! All this made for probably the biggest smile yet though
and we even managed to pick up some of the empty shell casings we had fired when the guard wasn’t looking!
After all that excitement we were led in the direction of an entrance to the underground original VC tunnel network. The tunnel was stupid small. It was around 90cm by 60cm and looked like something a giant rat had dug, not made for a human being.
Jayne dived in and with a little trepidation and my palms sweating I followed after. Because of the size you were forced to squat onto your heels and shuffle through in that position, I can see why the Americans didn’t bother entering many of the tunnels when they found them and instead threw grenades in to seal them up. Even if they could fit, fighting would be impossible once inside and the heat was unbearable. There were 3 exit options in the section we had been sent into. The first was 30 metres long and 5 metres deep, the second 50metres long and 7 deep, the last was 120 metres long and over 10 deep. We saw the first exit and all decided to duck out at that point, climbing a ladder to the surface and popping out of a bush. Deciding we could all take a bit more we ran back to the first entrance and went in again, this time determined to do the full 120 metres. It was very dark in places and you had to drop down to lower levels through tiny holes in the floor, but we all squeezed our way through and popped out of the third exit, pouring with sweat from the effort and heat.
We were then taken to a row of tables to enjoy Tapioca (a potato-like substance that is boiled for 4 hours to be edible) and Vietnamese tea.
Heading back to the tour bus we all decided we had learnt a lot about the conditions the VC had lived and fought in during the war and admired them for their ingenuity and determination.
On the way back to the hotel we asked to be dropped of at the war museum for a look around…
Jayne – we looked at some big tank/gun thingys and big huge helicopters outside the war museum before heading inside.
We were greeted by some local live music by a band of Agent Orange victims who were awfully deformed and all missing limbs or eyes – we read about their personal storeys later on in the museum.
I found the guys marvelling at the rows and rows of childrens’ drawings of war and peace in a side room (BTW, I am about 99% sure none of these have been produced by children aged 5-7 as claimed, but by a couple of illustrators - based on childrens’ drawings!).
Anyway, we passed a hall full of propaganda posters - dubious content but l love the designs and style.
We then made our way upstairs to the photography which showed soldiers, men, women and children victims of bombs, shootings, torture and agent orange in graphic detail. Not nice viewing and very 1-sided but compulsory viewing if you really want to know what the war did to some of the people involved. Also saw some very famous media photos which I have seen before, but didn’t appreciate the context in which they were taken, until now.
After leaving the museum, we wondered around the nearby streets for a bit, picking up an Auzzie called David who was on his way to find the Sky Bar (a bar at the top terrace of a tall office building) so we said we would join him for a small beer and some photos. It turns out the bar was VERY posh and we were VERY innapropriatly dressed. However the nice waiter did let us outside for some pics, but we were frankly not welcome for drinks.
Slightly relived we didn’t have to empty our bank accounts for a drink, we all shuffled off back down the elevator!
It was our last night with Martijn and Bier, so after eating a bit of local food, and meeting back up with Auzzie David and his Dutch friend, we walked down a popular drinking street, found ourselves a small plastic chair and sat in the middle of a busy road with a couple of hundred other travellers to enjoy and cheap beer, be harassed by locals and kids selling crap and watched the world go by. There was also a couple of impromptu acts by street kids such as the Michael Jackson impersonator (who played really loud music and moonwalked in and out of the traffic) and the 10 year old fire eater who nearly set fire to a passing motorcycle!