Rolls, Rubber Rings and Returns

December 12, 2010 - Wokingham, United Kingdom

10th December 2010 – Laura has an emotional reunion with a tub of Pure soya spread.

Pure – “I soya bean cheating with that slutty butter”

Laura – “Oh Pure one, it was butter fling”

My holiday romance ended and I’m back on the lack of dairy – very excited about this.  So you can imagine my annoyance at the Stansted airport smoothie stand when the smoothier tried to tell me it wasn’t possible to make the requested muesli concoction without yoghurt.  It turned into a bit of a row actually, ending with a defiant “well that’s just a milkshake then” as she slammed the cup on the counter.  I think you’ll find it’s a soya milkshake actually, if you want to be pedantic about it.

So as you can tell I wasn’t in the best of moods after my twenty three hour transit.  It actually ended up a humungous thirty thanks to some sort of engineering fault with the plane.  I believe the problem was that budget fiends Air Asia were trying to cut back even further and remove a wing, but realised at the last minute that this was quite a crucial piece of equipment... they gave us all fruit cake for our troubles anyway so I was reasonably appeased.  They kept moving us around – on the plane, off the plane, in the lounge – and in each location I fell asleep like a narcoleptic after our grand finale on the Koah San Road the previous night - I was completely shattered after a mere one hour’s sleep.  But I need to hold my horses here as I’m jumping ahead with the stories.  Oh the repercussions of slacking off with the blog... let’s get back to chronological order.

After a snotty start Vietnam turned out to be another hit.  It was marginally more expensive than Cambodia but not as much as expected considering the foreboding of the whopping $48 visa.  We still managed to attain some pretty bargainous accommodation and food – dabbling between guest houses and hostels and restaurants and street food to keep costs down.

It was much more modern and remarkably built up considering the destruction that it must have suffered during the war.  I can’t tell you much about that though because my stupid cold prevented me from making any war-related excursions in Ho Chi Min.  I had a good peruse through the girls’ pictures when they came back and although the war museum looked interesting the highlight of the palace seemed to be a collection of vintage phones in various pastel shades (apparently I didn’t miss that much).  All I can really say about that city is that it has a million billion mopeds swarming around like flies and crossing the road is like a danger sport.  A lovely girl that we met, Daisy, said that she quite enjoyed the thrill and while waiting for a bus one day spent an hour just crossing backwards and forwards just trying to master the skill.  She was indeed quite the pro’ when we met her.

Ho Chi Min also introduced me to the wonder that is the Vietnamese roll – like a spring roll but not deep-fried and in some sort of rice paper (I think).  It looks a bit like it’s wrapped in a womb which sounds a bit gross but it genuinely is really nice and made up a substantial part of my diet for the duration of the trip.

So after our fleeting visit to HCM we braved another night bus to Nha Trang (we purchased another bus ticket for the whole of Vietnam – allowing travel from the south to the north whenever we pleased, this was cheaper and more flexible).  Another beach town, Nha Trang reminded us of a more modern Sihanouk Ville and the girls said the beach was pretty much a replica of the Gold Coast – a huge expanse of white sand stretching as far as the eye can see.

Lots of people recommended that we do the Easy Rider tour – where mopeds take you on a two/four-day excursion to get back to basics with villagers and down and dirty in jungly places.  Although it did look like it gave a good insight into rural Vietnamese life (and was apparently pretty entertaining when featured on Top Gear) it was a lot of money for what it was and I think there’s something a bit cringey about the shout “meet real village folk”.  It conjures up images of big groups of Westerners goggling these poor villagers as they go about their daily life.  All a bit too organised perhaps?  We did deliberate but the deciding factor was time that was of the essence so we opted instead for a fail-safe booze cruise(!)

I exaggerate; it was actually a trip to see some islands, a fishing village and an aquarium with a bizarre floating bar experience on the way back.  It did so happen that we didn’t actually visit the aquarium or the fishing village because they sneakily tried to charge us extra for these so the main part of the trip was pretty much floating around in a rubber ring while a crazy Vietnamese man handed around plastic cups of sangria, while shouting things like “up yer bum, don’t tell yer mum!”...  We also enjoyed a delicious Vietnamese lunch and made friends with our awesome fellow sailors.  The evening we all went to the Sailing Club and boogied the night away to a crashing ocean backdrop and pumping disco beats.

Next stop Hui An; really pretty little place, perfect for couples.  We rented bikes and battled through the hectic traffic to spend a morning on the beach.  We enjoyed a romantic meal overlooking the river and an evening stroll amidst the lanterns.  Oh the romance!

Hanoi was a lot of fun, mainly due to the Backpackers trip to Halong Bay.  Again verging on a booze cruise but we felt that we saw enough scenery and participated in enough wholesome activities and water sports to justify it...  We boarded a big wooden boat and sailed off into the sunset, through the clusters of big pointy cliffs jutting out from the still water.  They looked a bit like jaggedy teeth and were really quite spectacular (as usual the photos don’t really do them justice).  We ventured out on an evening kayak expedition after indulging in our smuggled vodka that tasted of malt – gross – exploring around and underneath the teeth and then headed back for dinner and drinking games.  Cringe!  Hate drinking games.  Organised fun, meh.  They were fairly amusing though and soon turned into a disco so not so bad.

Day Two we boarded a smaller boat and headed to Castaway Island; one of the jagged teeth with a little bay of white sands, it was like something out of Shipwrecked.  Here we sunbathed, played badminton and boarded a sea biscuit for an exhilarating rollercoaster ride...  With little upper body strength it was hardly our forte but a lot of fun nonetheless, also for our guides who were continually amused by our attempts to stay on and spectacular failings.

The evening we had a barbecue and more music, culminating in a dip in the ocean amidst its luminescent waters – as you move little lightning bolts of luminous turquoise jut out around you.  Really cool.  We all slept in wall-less huts with bamboo roofs, on a big communal bed of mattresses and duvets and thankfully mosquito nets...

Loved Laos.  Although everyone had said it would be super cheap and it wasn’t – it was on a par with Vietnam.  But that’s probably because we went to the main touristy places.  We passed some really remote-looking villages during our bus treks which looked almost as basic as India but unfortunately we didn’t have the time to visit any of these.

We spent a couple of nights in Luang Prabang – a really pretty little place with some lovely intricately decorated temples, doused in gold.  We clambered up to a hilltop temple to watch the sunset and marvel at the view, then indulged in a Laotian massage.  Not quite as relaxing as we had anticipated it turned out to be a bit of a work-out.  Like the traditional Thai, they pull you into all sorts of contortions to stretch you out and they don’t use oil so it’s quite hardcore.  They’re quite forceful, getting right into the knots and making me flinch (I’m pretty sure it worsened one of the bruises on my leg).  Laura C actually had a masseur whom I imagine was even stronger and even more severe..!  The evening we wondered around the night markets and dined on delicious noodle soup street cuisine, perched on a bench in amongst all the madness.

And so on to Vang Vieng...

They told hazardous tales of malaria and rabies and such like but they failed to warn us against the real problems in this country – the Too Much Fun disease.  It’s contracted from cocktail buckets and “happy shakes”, buzzing around the river.  Symptoms include compulsive dancing, singing and acrobatics and in more severe cases nausea, vomiting and temptation to tackle the Death Slide.  If symptoms persist I recommend you consult your passport and vacate.  Otherwise you could end up like Life Jacket Boy and stay there for three years... or worse still forever if you fall victim to the clutches of the Death Slide.  Dark.

Vang Vieng was incredible though; I’m not sure I can put into words how much fun was had there tubing.  This basically involves taking to a giant rubber ring and floating down the river, stopping off in each of the bars that align it to drink and dance and chat to fellow travellers.

We were all really looking forward to tubing but Laura C especially so.  When someone told her it might be off because the river was too low she almost cried; it was the highlight of her trip.  Unfortunately poor Laura C got so excited the first night we arrived that she managed to give herself alcohol poisoning and couldn’t make it out of her room the following day.. .  Day two she still couldn’t drink but soldiered on regardless (impressive strength).

Although it’s called tubing there isn’t really all that much tubing taking place.  It’s mainly about the socialising and although there are (I think) about seven bars along the river most people only seem to make it to the first few.  I suppose if you stay there a while the novelty wears off and it’s not worth the risk of losing your deposit if someone nabs your tube/you don’t make it back before the curfew.  We were warned about this and advised not to bother getting a tube – numerous people said you can easily “borrow” someone else’s and return it at the next bar without the worry of someone thieving yours.  If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em kind of theory I suppose... so the first day we thought we’d test this out.

At the first few bars they’re quite strict and have a tube attendant checking your stamp and standing guard against pilferers but further up the river they’re a little more lax.  So if you can make it swimming that far then there are tubes to be had.  But I shan’t condone this as thieving is wrong (as karma was to remind us...).  Anyway we found a nice boy who let us catch a ride on his tube – clinging onto the sides as he sat in the middle the current took us down the river, and it was all going rather swimmingly... until we hit upon some rocks.  At the rear Karly managed to save herself and precious cocktail bucket and let go, whilst I at the front became increasingly wedged underneath as the relentless current dragged us forward, etching some pretty impressive war wounds into my back and bum.  I finally managed to hoist myself up onto the tube and then clamber onto the bank to safety.  Karly and cocktail were marooned in the middle of the river for a good five minutes more, until someone gracefully volunteered to wade through the rapids to save them.  Moral of the story: do not steal.  It is quite simply wrong (although in this case our commandeering of the tube was consented we had entertained the thought of thieving one, tut tut).  

I think we made it to three bars that day before we developed too many Too Much Fun symptoms and headed home to join Laura on the bathroom floor...

Day Two we rented tubes.  And made a big effort to make it to as many bars as possible, reaching I think six of the seven and getting to watch madmen dice with death on the giant slide.  Floating down the river in the glorious sunshine, cocktail bucket in hand, really was quite idyllic.  Especially in the earlier hours when the bars play reggae and everything is super relaxed.  Each bar you pass throws you a rope and if you want to stop you just grab it and they pull you in.  One of the later bars had a huge pit of mud, into which our new-found friends kindly picked us up and hurled us.

The lake is also adorned with numerous swings and zip wires – sort of like a third-world, alcohol-saturated Go Ape – and my favourite part of the day was taking to the giant trapeze, top-to-toe in mud, and swinging backwards and forwards before plunging into the river.  Epic.

The evening was quite a tame affair after all the day’s exertion so after a few quiet drinks and a baguette we headed back and sought comfort in our three-person spoon.

Tuesday morning we bid an emotional farewell to Vang Vieng.  One tuk tuk, two buses, one night train and a taxi ride later we were back on the Koah San Road and ready for some relaxation.  We did some last-minute shopping, indulged in a £2 mani/pedicure combo and took a substantial Nana nap.

And it ended just as it had begun on the Koah San Road - our final evening equally as raucous as our first, flitting between bars and clubs.  I ate a grasshopper; fried and marinated it’s actually reasonably edible if you can avert your eyes to its eyes staring beadily up at you... crunch squelch mmm.

So then we went our separate ways – I to London and the girls to Melbourne (sob).  And now begins the big save for Indonesia in Feb’...  Bring it on.


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