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Backpacking in Vietnam: I proudly presented my Dong to the hotel reception...

By Carl Pritchard

Having stepped onto the runway in Nha Trang in one piece, I was obviously under the mistaken impression that I could do anything.....

Vietnam in 1994 was still considered a dangerous place for tourists, definitely "off the beaten track" ; my employers in Japan were apopleptic with worry on hearing my chosen destination for the first holidays I'd had since my arrival.

"What's wrong with Japan...?" they all asked..."Why don't you go to Hokkaido?" ..."What about Okinawa?".

"No, really, I'd rather not (I'd rather die)..!".

So, off I went, into the great unknown, happy in the knowledge that I had at last asserted my individuality. Arriving at Hanoi Airport at 9pm on a Sunday with nothing but Yen in my pocket was perhaps just a tad naive, but after a couple of minutes dodgy dealing in the street, I secured myself a dreadful rate of exchange and proudly presented my Dong to the hotel reception. (where else could you say something like that and get away with it!?)

Hanoi was superb... very few cars and millions of bicycles; sheer madness! The only way to cope with it all was to join in, so I rented a bike and pedalled happily around the city for 3 days. I had, of course, considered stopping, but it was finding a gap in the flow that was the difficult part...!

I spent Christmas Day by the lake eating gorgeous French bread and jam, drinking coffee and merely chilling out... one of my best Christmases ever (alone!) . Better, by far, than the following year, when I was stranded in Singapore for 3 days (not a place to be stranded, let's face it! ), sitting alone in my hotel room eating Mr Kipling Mince Pies bought from the 7 Eleven ! And indeed, the year after that, when I was harrassed, harangued and generally stalked by some nutter in a motorway service station somewhere on the M6; but I digress...

The highlight of Northern Vietnam was Halong Bay, with its limestone out-crops, piercing the waters like the horns of some mythical beast.

Close your eyes... .now just picture the scene... lying back on the decks of a boat, the jade-green rocks looming above the shimmering sheet of sea, red-sailed junks drifting slowly past... ..ahhhh, the tranquility, the romance.

And on to Hue... (and Cry ?) . Pronounced Hooway (the lads..?), this was the once capital of Vietnam, with the subsequent royal enclave etc etc, and as far as I was concerned, a very laid back atmosphere and some bloody delicious food! I stayed in a yellow place on a corner somewhere (helpful, I know... ), in a huge, colonial-style room with carved wooden lattice screens, a four-poster bed and chesterfield armchair!! Only $20 a night (please remember my pocketful of Yen had made me a Dong multi-millionaire ), with a restaurant serving excellent noodles and to-die-for banana fritters... ..Heaven!

I caught a share-taxi from there to Hoi An, with a couple of Dutch girls and perhaps the single most irritating girl I've ever met - worked for Shell, lived in Amsterdam, fluent in Dutch, lots of dope-smoking friends, life's so different on the continent, isn't Holland so cultural, and I'm so much better-off, isn't Vietnam super ... SHUT UP YOU BORING MARE !!!!!

The scenery between Hue and Hoi An was stunning - lush green paddy fields tended by conical-hated locals, young boys standing on the backs of water-buffalo, mountains, forests and gorgeous, deserted, palm-fringed beaches. So not Hokkaido! Hoi An was a dream. So laid back, so friendly, so picturesque... At the time, there was only one hotel to choose from, namely the imaginatively named Hoi An Hotel, where I almost had to wrestle the receptionist to the ground to get her to admit not only that there was a dorm, but that it was also available ! A veritable bargain at $5.

It was a gentle, very pleasant cycle from there to the beach, around 5km away; never before had I experienced such genuine warmth from total strangers, as I pedalled through the countryside - waves and shouts and smiles.

The indoor market was also great, the sounds and smells, the hand-made silk clothing , the pot-smoking old ladies, the cheeky children. I came away with four pairs of silk boxers, a suit for my Sister and two shirts ( none of which has ever been worn, admittedly ) and a wallet still crammed with Dong !

After catching a bus to Danang, I flew to Nha Trang... having stepped onto the runway in Nha Trang in one piece, etc etc.

It was here in Nha Trang that I first noticed a difference in the character of the North and South Vietnamese; I found people in Nha Trang to be grabbing, rude and demanding. It could have been bad luck, or I could have just brought out the worst in people, I don't know, but either way, I wasn't overly enamoured of the place! Sure, the beach is nice, and a trip out on a boat for some snorkelling and huge lunch is well worth it, but...

So, feeling invincible after my Vietnam Airlines domestic flight ( 2 propellers, good; 3 wheels, bad... ), I broke out and rented a moped from some guy on a street corner . To this day, I'm not entirely convinced it was actually his, but nobody came chasing after me, so off I dashed... After an hour or so tootling around a local village and watching the fishermen in their corracles, I decided to head back to town. The traffic was horrendous, so I knew I was just going to have to risk zooming out into the main road.

Zoom I did... ..straight across two lanes of traffic and into a pile of sand, over the handle bars and onto my arse - right in front a bus-stop full of school kids!! Oh how we laughed... Nursing my bruised pride, and nonchalantly removing sand from every part of the scooter, I walked away over the bridge and into town . Once I was out of sight of my little witnesses, I hopped back on board and continued on my merry way... only to be side-swiped by a truck, which resulted in my horn getting stuck to "on"... so there I was, a bloody great big foreigner on a tiny red moped deafening all and sundry with a constantly honking horn!! Luckily, I then hit a bicycle which pulled out in front of me, and the dreadful noise stopped. Phew! However, I later discovered that the horn no longer worked at all - and of all things, a horn is essential for driving around towns in Vietnam - so, realising my life was in mortal peril without the aid of such an instrument, I then began to make my own horn sounds - verbally!!! "Beeeeeeep!!!" I would shout out, pretty much every minute or so..! Madness, or self-preservation? It's a fine line.

After the joys of Nha Trang, I dabbled with rail travel, and took an overnight train to Ho Chi Minh, sharing my 2nd Class 4 berth non-air conditioned, no-door compartment with a posh English couple (surprised that there were no "facilities" ) and the noisy offspring of the entire Viet Cong! However, trains are my favourite form of transport, so nothing could dampen my enthusiasm... .

Arriving in Saigon sure was a shock; compared to the other cities I had visited, it was a huge, dirty, noisy hole!! I stayed very central in a suite of rooms in some guesthouse or other (again, not very helpful with the details here) for $25 - sheer luxury. Politely turning down the T-shirts and prostitutes on offer, I made my way to the former US Embassy, scene of one of the most dramatic political evacuations witnessed by the free-thinking world. My experience was marred, however, by the constant attention of an old cyclo driver... .I swear he didn't shut up or leave me alone for 20 minutes!! Every time I tried to take a photograph, as well, he was there, in my face!! "No, thank you." becomes increasingly difficult to say in such situations, when in reality, your insides are wound up in knots, your hands are forming fists so tight as to turn your knuckles white, and all you really want to say is "F#*% OFF!!!!!"... ...

I dealt with my Saigon Experiences by dining on the roof terrace of the Rex Hotel in the centre of town. An old colonial building, the Rex was the place to stay, apparently, but if your budget wouldn't allow for that, then the small extravagance of dinner was a must. I really went for it big time... .cocktails, wine with dinner, cognac (which I actually detest!) and 3 courses of utterly divine Vietnamese food. I can still taste those garlic prawns and vegetable spring rolls and chili noodles and banana fritters and... ..!!

My experiences in Vietnam were all truly amazing; and the genuine curiosity and open-smiled friendship of the majority of the people I met will stay with me for a long time. I understand that things have developed at quite a pace in the last few years, with many people comparing it to Thailand; so what? We all know that Thailand still has a great deal to offer. And who are we to suggest that Vietnam should remain in the Dark Ages, merely so we can have what we laughingly call a "genuine" Vietnam experience? It is the only country I have visited that still gives me 'the warm fuzzies' whenever I think about it !

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