Vietnam

Travelling by Buddha Bike A Vietnam Vet and Thieves in the Temple tonight

Mr Hue picks me up at a sprightly 8am for my motorbike trip from Hue to Hoian. I 've been deliberating whether or not to do it – it costs $63 which is well out of my budget and the local bus only costs $5 to get there in half an hour. Having said that this may be the last part of proper travel I do in Vietnam and as motorbikes seem like they outnumber people 2:1 in this country – what better way to see the country??? The scenic route will stop at blue lagoons, waterfalls, wind up a mountain path, beaches and tomorrow take in the Cham ruins at My Son. 

Plus - I'm happy to pay a little more for a driver I trust with a good bike as I have an exceptionally bony bottom! 

 

Mr Hue has a bright red Honda with a lady buddha sticker on the front of it – its the Buddha bike! I watch with trepidation as he manages to strap The Bastard (my backpack) to the back of it and then we get going. Our first stop is the Blue Lagoon where villagers live on boats. They rise at 1am in the morning to go out and cast their nets and they are just returning as we arrive around 10. 



Although people keep telling me its rainy season in Central Vietnam the clouds have parted and both the sky and the lagoons are a deep navy blue. The water is split into a little patchwork divided by grass paths as far as the eye can see. I ask a couple if i can take their photo and they precariously balance themselves in the boat and beam at me with great toothless grins. In the background paddy fields filled with water glimmer under the sun, strewn with lilly pads and the brown fingers of rice at the end of its season. The great grey shimmering flanks of buffalo slowly wade through them. 

We take off again and wind up a hill stopping for a view over the motorway that curls down the hill in a grey ribbon to the beach. Its a much needed break for my bottom. Mr Hue tells me about how much they hate the Chinese. I ask him if its the people or the history and he says “both!” 

Vietnamese find the Chinese rude and arrogant. But also China recently invaded after the war with America when Vietnam was its weakest. 

He talks again with gentle sadness about the war – how Vietnamese were killing each other (North and South) and how he doesn't receive any money from the government for his losses its only the people in the North that compensation. 



Our next stop are the Elephant Waterfalls. In the pictures he's shown me , taken in peak season, they look packed with locals and tourists alike but blissfully – I get the place to myself. They are set high up in the mountains amongst shady pines. A rock shaped like a large elephant sits at the water's mouth and more great smooth stones collect into a series of pools of crystal clear emerald water. I strip off surreptitously... and go for a swim. The water is cool and fresh and the current strong. A gorgeous and tranquil way to relax and refresh. 

When we get to the highest point of the mountain we stop to take in views over Langao Beach – a golden crescent moon of sand far below, and admire the deep blue of the south China sea. 

 

At the highest point are bunkers that were used in the civil and American war. The strange slitted towers are pocked with bullet holes. From one side we can lok down to Hue and the other side the town of Danang. 

We start to make our descent down the spriralling road until we get to South China Beach at Danang. 

"Wheeeeeeee!" i scream and then "um can i hold onto you?" 

"Why not?" he says affably. Far out to see is a white Buddha on a hill. I go for a dip. There are a group of teenage boys doing backflips – showing off for my benefit. I wade out into the surf which is warm and frothy then make my way back. 

Mr Hue is talking to an older man who has pulled up along side on his motorbike and stares out to sea with solemn eyes. He looks younger than his sixty something years - on the white streaking through a wiry goatee gives away his age. He tells me that he lives in Ho Chi Minh and that he fought in the American (what the Vietnamese refer to as the Vietnam war) as a 19 year old Marine. This is the first time he has been back since the war. He has come to remember his friends and family that he lost in the war. His eyes fill with tears as he tells me about the friends he lost in combat - some who took their own lives. 

“We were without food or drink, without ammunition. Some of my friends killed themselves with grenades, because they were without hope.” 

He apologies for getting upset. I thank him for sharing his story. Again - with such a bloody and savage recent history I shouldn't be suprised that I have met people still nursing the wounds. It is a sombre end to the afternoon. 

We finish the day visiting the Marble mountain. As the sun is setting I head up the hill past a windy village filled with marble statues. There are a tour group from Mauritious with me in sensible travel sandals and pleated shorts. I tag along with them to go in the various caves as the damp, the dripping and the darkening light is beginning to un -nerve me. The buddha cave is eery -the walls and ceiling drip with globules of unseen condensatin, its filled with bats and the smell of incense. Someone I think is a guide shows me where to go, helping me up a stone. I don't feel comfortable as the stones are wet and slippery and i'm in flip flops – he has also brushed his hand against my arse one too many times for it to be an accident. I back off and bark at him. He asks for a tip. Not likely mate. 



The rest of the mountain is also set with caves of differing sizes – some filled with Budhha statues. I go into another cavernous one and another “guide” also chats me up whilst handing me incense sticks to light and offer to the statues. I do but i'm feeling uncomfortable. The sun has almost set. Its dark and cold and i'm in a strange shadowy place with men that don't know how to keep their hands to themselves. 

I make my way back down the mountain and find Mr Hue and we head into Hoi -an. 

He takes me to the hotel where he stays and the staff greet me with a complimentary cup of green tea, macaroons and face wipes. It's needed to get the grime and dirt off the day. I'm given a room next to reception which they assure me will be quiet. 

The next day I go upstairs to the roof terrace and take my obligatory banana and chocolate pancake and coffee. When I come down 20 minutes later the cleaners are doing my room which I find suspicous but I pick up my purse and Mr Hue and I get going. 

We arrive about an hour later into My son. These ancient ruins are from the Cham civilisation that ruled Vietnam from 200 ad, its a World Unesco Heritage site and its been compared to Angkor Wat – but as i'm heading to the latter in Cambodia I kind of wish i'd saved my time. Entry fee is 60,000 (about 2 quid) and just as I arrive there is a show put on in the cultural centre. A mix of women in exotic sequiny straps make langorous dance moves slowly and listlessly lifting their legs and curling their arms to forms their many handed goddess shapes. Another man comes on – he is a big hit in the local village apparently and plays traditional Cham music on a kind of kazoo through which he manages circular breathing – enabling him to hold a particularly loud raspberryish note for an excruciatingly long time. I can feel the women in front of me clench their cheeks as they smile through gritted teeth. Sitll its only half and hour – which always makes a good show in my book. The rest of My Son is a series of temples that are categorised under letter headings. Some are undergoing restoration. Its a scorching day and the ruins are packed with tourists in their groups with tour guides explaining the history......i go into a cube shaped temple which was used as a tomb. Its pitch black inside and cool. Suddenly a guide outside starts screaming: 



“Get out of the temple, everyone out of the temple NOW!!!!” 

“Snaaakkkkkeeeees!!! there are snakes in the temple – everyone get out.” 

There is a mildly concerned push for the exit until we are outside and can see small green and black stripey snakes winding their way through the brickwork. 

Is it worrying that my very first thought is: This would be such a cool way to go... 

“Ooh its like Indiana Jones!” I say to the French middle aged women next to me as they elbow past 

At the end of the day I get back and go to pay Mr Hue. I realise that 2 million dong (about 60 quid) has been taken from my wallet. I immediately think back to the cleaners who were doing my room whilst I was at breakfast and wished i'd checked it then. I start to doubt myself – the hotel seems very good and the staff are all really nice. Maybe it wasn't 2 million dong maybe i'd spent some of it. Maybe I got short changed along the way . I go back to the hotel and confront them. I've thought to myself that morning “i shouldn't travel carrying all of this money” I just wish I'd checked my purse to see how much exactly I had. Then I could have had it out there and then. I speak to them and the cleaner when I get back and she denies it. There was another middleaged women with her that thinking about it was maybe only pretending to be with the hotel. I'm angry at myself for leaving my wallet out. But i'm still now doubting how much was taken and when. I'm pretty sure when I got my wallet out at My Son I could see the blue notes of the 500 bill in my purse. And i'm pretty sure nothing dropped out and was taken then. Ah well. Its gone. I can't do anything about it now – I just need to learn the lesson. I've become complacent in Asia because its so much safer than everywhere else i've been but the moment your guard goes down this is what happens. And it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

CuCHi Tunnels and Saigon

“Cuuuuu Chi..." A soothing female voice intones... 

"Land of plenty and land of bountiful” 

“Cuuuu Chi – gentle, rural, folk...” she coos, over images of women in long silk dresses elegantly plucking mangoes from the trees. 

“Cuuuu Chi ...” Her tone takes on an abrasive edge ... 

“Now this innocent town of simple farm folk must pull together to fight the American imperialists...” 

The footage changes abruptly to grainy sped up black and white footage of Amerian B52s carpet bombing the land and a petite female Viet Cong fighter crouched behind a hill with a rocket launcher. The voice crescendoes, jubilant with praise: 

"Everyone can fight in war effort, this brave, young girl has already killed seven American imperialists." 

Today the Argentinos and I are doing a day trip to CuChi - a small rural village on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh where the Viet Cong lived in an immense connection of underground tunnels during the Vietnam war. 

CuChi Tunnels



Living underground in the jungle the Viet Cong would only come up at night time and the US Army tried for years to unsuccessfully bomb them out. They totally underestimated the length and breadth of the network and the tunnels were ultimately a contributory factor to North Vietnamese eventually storming Saigon and winning the war. 

We start the tour by watching this promotional piece of black and white propaganda about Cu Chi encouraging people to support the war effort. 

They had a saying: “One hand on the gun, one hand on the plough.” 

After fighting during the day, the VietCong and villagers would plough their fields by night to make sure that there was enough food to keep the army and town going. You get a flavour again of the sheer resilience and bloody minded determination of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army to defend both their land and their independence against what they saw as US agressors and a South Vietnamese American puppet state. 

Ho Chi Minh was quoted as saying: 

“You will kill ten of our men and we will kill one of yours. And in the end you will be the ones who tire of it” 

and

"We have a secret weapon. We call it Nationalism." 

America massively underestimated the fierce mental fortitude that the North Vietnamese belief in their independence against what they saw as outside aggressors, gave them. As one US general noted – they had been fighting for their freedom for some 30 years against the French before the Vietnam war: 

"If America wants war for twenty years we will give them war, if they want peace for twenty years we will give them peace," said Ho Chi Minh. 



What is remarkable about this kind of guerilla warfar was the barbaric yet ingenious simplicity with which the Viet Cong both killed and defended themselves. They took to living underground in a complicated honey comb of tunnels. The entrance to the tunnels would be small squares cut into the earth of the jungle carpet – and covered with dead leaves... practically impossible to identify with the naked eye. They hid the ventilation shafts to the tunnels in massive natural termite mounds and the kitchens were designed within a series of dummy passages and dead ends away from living quarters so that if smoke was detected from them it wouldn't lead soldiers to their inhabitants. They would only cook once a day in the early hours of the morning so that the smoke from the food would mingle with the jungle mist rising over the canopy of the tree tops. 

When US forces tried to discover and then either posion or bomb ventilation shafts through the use of tracker dogs they would put chilli pepper on the entrances to throw the dogs off the scent. When the US realised that their dogs sneezing indicated a ventilation shaft the Vietcong changed their methods and begun soaking laundry rags wrung in American soap so that the tracker dogs smelt a familiar and “American” smell which then threw them off the scent. 

The Viet Cong booby trapped the jungle floor with a gruesome variety of techniques that they had previously used to capture wild tigers. False panels would be cut into the floor that when stepped on would rotate round to let the victim fall into the shaft below onto steel metal spikes. Horrendous medieval looking devices would puncture victims feet, ensnare their legs and ankles, puncture their head or groin area and leave them to bleed to death or be captured. 

 



The final part of the tour allows you to crawl through 100m of the tunnels that they lived in. It has been made into a 'European Tunnel” in order to incorporate our larger body size and there is a “get out” exit half way in incase you suffer from a nasty bout of claustrophobia. 

Even though i've done worse things on this trip I wasn't expecting to have to “duck walk” (crouch down to squat position and shuffle along on my ankles) the 100m. The hot, humid, dusty tunnel feels like it takes half and hour to navigate not 10 minutes – and I can only wonder at the people that managed to live down here for years at a time. Not only did they have to endure being cramped into tiny dusty dirt tunnels with scorpions and poisonous centipedes for company but disease (particularly) malaria was rife. 



The US simply weren't prepared or educated in this kind of tunnel warfare – and were unable to find a way to successfully oust their enemy until it was too late. The CuChi tunnels kept their enemy at bay for long enough to allow the Viet Cong to “fight another day.” 

At the end of the experience you are able to pay to shoot a variety of weapons of your choice, AK47s. The Argentinos and I are broke - i figure it might be something boys want to do but they are pleased not to as am i. To be honest after all the torturing, death, maiming and warfare we've seen first at the war museum and now here i can't think of anything i'd like to do less than play at killing people. . . 

Back in Ho Chi Minh city - Martin and I pay a little visit to Saigon's version of Notre Dame. Its not open to the public on the day that we are there – so we wander around the outside. It looks like a pristine replica of its soot- swept, gothic, Parisian doppleganger. Apparently it was constructed in the late 19th Century – but must have been restored since – – the bright red bricks glow against the blue sky and burning sun. In front stands Regina Pacis – a large and striking white “Peace” statue that was reported to have shed tears down her right cheek in 2005. Having grasped a better understanding about this country's bloody past - I can only imagine she has a lot to cry about. 

Close to the cathedral is the up market bit of Saigon – and I feel myself unavoidably wafting over to look at the big black Double C of the Chanel sign. Next door is Cartier so I have a little glimpse at the necklaces twinkling in the window. 

“Eeeey bonita...you look like a puppy!” says Martin. 

Short of whimpering and pawing at the window I probably do! I'm reminded i'm not always the best of budget travellers. As much as i'm grateful to learn how easy it is to live well on very little on this side of the world and how much more abundant I feel being time rich and cash poor and not the other way around - I have not managed to completely expunge the decadent “glamour gene” in me that wants to be able to afford and wear Chanel while i'm still young enough to make it look good. Ah well. I'm a work in progress... 

Martin and I have our final dinner together in Saigon. Banana flower salad, fresh spring rolls, and grilled pork cooked in a flaming bamboo pot. Its delicious. As is he. So we make plans to meet up again in Cambodia. 

But enough of all this budget traveller talk anyway! – its time for a short 5 day pitstop of abject luxury with the indomitable Louise a.ka The Duffmeister General – who happens to be holidaying in Asia and is requesting a little girl time at a fabulous resort in Phuket. . .Oh well if you insist....

A river of perfume and "get a room" in Vietnamese

I transfer back to Hanoi and then its another nightbus to Hue. I arrive into a town soft and grey with drizzle at 6am in the morning - having been sardined into a slot the size of a baked bean can all night. Because of absolutely no preparation on my part i'm easy prey for a persistent man on a motorbike. Mr Thien gradually persuades me to part with 180,000 (just under a fiver) to take me around the sights of Hue for the day. As he also manages to find me a guesthouse for under 6 dollars a night I don't begrudge it him too much...but on checking in I suddenly realise that although I am now in Central Vietnam - my underwear is still holidaying in North Vietnam. I've managed to leave my laundry at the Little Hanoi Hostel. Bugger. 

I wanted to visit some of the DMZ (Demilitarised zone) to see a part of Vietnam's war history. As there is still UXO – Unexploded ordinance in this part of the country i'm a little relieved when Mr Thien and I get our wires crossed and he ends up taking me to Chin Ham or 9 Tunnels instead. 

This is a memorial and series of nine trenches around 6km oustide of Hue that used to play prison to Vietnamese under the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dien Dinmh and garnered the moniker “hell on earth.” The tunnels and cages are complete with grotesque mannequins again, one forced to lie face down to drink with a rat scrabbling its paws beside his head, another clutches the bars to his ceiling - his emaciated ribs poking through his rags. The surrouning countryside is eerily calm and provides a cool canopy of fragrant cedars in the heat of midday – belying the horror that its seen. 



The royal tombs of various Emperors and Empress line the Perfume River that runs through Hue. I visit two of them. The tomb of Khai Dinh is located away from the centre of town and up a steep hill in the Chau Chau mountains. Khia Dinh reigned in the early 20th century and was not by all accounts a particularly popular chap – as he kow towed to the French imperialist overlords and raised taxes by some 20% in order to pay for the kitting out of his lavish mausoleum! It does however have the largest stone dragons up its staircase in all of Vietnam. Minh Mang's tomb is in a shaded and calmer area away from the others. I don't think he was particularly well liked either but that didn't stop him from investing in his dying space.

There is a lake filled with large lilly pads decorating its perimeter in front of green and wooded hills. There are more Bodhi trees, their long and curling roots branching through the concrete paving of the square and set in little nooks and crannies amongst the branches are incense sticks.

 

These are holy trees – where Budhha himself found enlightment and provide a lovely tranquil shade where I can contemplate life whilst eating a strawberry cornetto. I finish my little tour by visiting its most famous, oldest and prettiest sight – the Thien Mu Pagoda. Built in the 16th century on the banks of the Perfume river, the pagoda is a creation of dusty pinks and golds. Fearsome temple guardians with mad staring eyes and pointy beards guard the gates. Inside the temple there are monks in grey robes tending to the gardens whilst tourists surrepitiously take their photo. There is also another more shocking sight– an old rusty car responsible for taking monk Thich Quang Duc to the site of his self immolation in the 1960s. 



I part ways with Mr Vien and pay 100,000 for a 45 minute boat ride on the Perfume river. In the heat of midday its nice to have an old blue wooden boat to myself. We pass villagers at the river banks and on the little islets in stream inadvertently creating picture postcard scenes of Traditional Vietnam - fishermen in long blue overalls and triangular straw hats casting their nets. The boat drops me off at the local market where women line the street selling bananas and other tropical fruit along with live crabs and frogs. Then i take a walk to the old town – the Citadel. A rickshaw driver calls out to me: 

“Where are you going????” 

“I really don't know!” I say. Its true, I have no map or any idea what the sights are. Luckily he comes to my rescue and offers to take me around the old town for 100,000 dong. 

My driver is called Mr Hue (easy to remember) and he, like Mr Thien, has a little notebook of recommendations from tourists of different nationalities. He has a very warm open smile, bright eyes, deep brown skin and a gentle air. 


We go to a couple of temples –in one a monk in saffron robes is giving a sermon to nuns who crowd on the steps in their grey shifts, to listen. I ask Mr Hue if he is Buddhist and he concurs - showing me the dharma wheel he has tattooed on his heart. We visit some pretty gardens where fat fish swim and song birds sing from the trees ad then a Unesco building on the outskirts of another temple. We cross a moat to get to the building and watch a woman who is thigh deep in the thick green water pulling at lotus flowers. 

“I no like do this!” exclaims Mr Hue... “Snakes!” 

There is a tree heavy with goldenn coloured blooms on the banks with an incredible creamy rich honey suckle scent. On the waters edge opposite is an old and crumbling deserted house. It was occupied by families until recently when Unesco decided to list it as a world heritage site and protect it. 

“They very lucky!” says Mr Hue

“They get new house for free from Unesco!” 

I finish my day having a look around the Forbidden City. Emperor Gia Long took control of Vietnam in 1802 and set about building himself a palace and citadel protected by a moat with water taken from the Perfume River. The main building was the palace and throne room but many more courtyards, gardens and rooms were added. In 1968 Hue underwent 26 days of bombing inflicted by the VietCong and North Vietnamese army against the US and South Vietnam. Much of the beautiful ancient architecture of the city was destroyed. Out of 160 buildings of historical importance only 10 remain. The brick work of the city walls that ring the old town are pocked with bullet marks. Much of it is has been restored only recently . 3000 people were killed in what is referred to now as The Battle of Hue. 

“ I don't know my father.” Mr Hue tells me. 

“He die in war when I am born. My mother die of heart when i'm 14. Then I live with grandmother.” 

His grandmother at 93 is still alive and can't see very far or hear very well so now he looks after her. 

His eyes are filled with sadness as he watches me make my way down the staircase to the old wall. I guess the Vietnam war is so recent in our history its not suprising that i've already met one of its living victims. 



That evening – i've found a great little thriller at a book exchange and decide to take it with me to dinner at the local restaurant and have “a quiet night in.” I order a beer, some “white rose” (the local speciality – little flowers of shrimp dumpling ) and a Ban Xeo – a deep fried pancake stuffed with prawn, pork, bean sprouts and served with a peanut dipping sauce. I'm just settling in when I catch someone in my peripherhal vision sit down near me. I turn to look – and then (subtle as always) do an ENORMOUS double take as I realise its an incredibly gorgeous guy. I've been so obvious (absolutely no poker face remember) I can't really do anything now except say hello. He asks what i'm eating and explains his friend is back at the hotel. 

Martin is a 24 year old Argentinian from Patagonia (the same city as Nico – my taste in men has definitely become a little niche recently...!) He flew out to follow the Rugby world cup in New Zealand before staying on the working visa and is now travelling around Asia with his friend Juan - before heading home for xmas. He has thick black hair, caramel coloured eyes fringed with very long lashes, 5 days of stubble, a husky Argentinian/ Spanishy sounding accent and the ugliest flip flops i've ever seen in my life. It later transpires he's nicked the free ones you get in guest houses all over Asia because he likes them. Juan can only shake his head in despair. Nonetheless - horrendous footwear aside he looks exactly like like Enrique Inglesias' prettier, less manicured younger brother. I take an executive decision and immediately put my book away again. 

We carry on chatting - he's very easy to talk too, funny and outgoing with a sunny disposition and eventually Juan joins us and we move onto another bar and play Jenga. Its a clubby tourist trap called Brown Eyes whose idea of a some good tunes is the Grease Megamix and La Bamba and its filled with my countrymen. A sight that normally fills me with dread. Nevertheless the absolutely terrible music can't stop Juan and Martin from kicking off their flip flops and beginning to dance. That is definitely the difference between Latin American men and their Northern hemisphere counterparts. Most British men i've met would be resolutely clinging to their beer and probably be just about building up to a non commital head nod in time to the music about now rather than taking to the dance floor. So its fun to be with boys that know how to party. 

Eventually Juan ducks out early and Martin and I go grab a beer at a little street food cafe that's open late. When we start to kiss the locals start screaming, making puckering up noises and pushing our heads together. Then they start to take photos! We've been pretty chaste but I explain that in Laos public displays of affection are frowned upon and they have signs up on the do's and don'ts for Westerners. Maybe its the same here... 



“mmmm I don't see any signs up do you bonita?” he shrugs... 

Well when you put it like that... 

So we carry on until the Vietnamese owner – a woman in flipflops and a butchers apron – screeches 

“HOOOOOOTEL!!!!” which I think could be interpreted as “ For Christ sake - Get a room you two.” Her husband is already asleep – sprawled prostrate on a mattress just inside their house. 

So Martin walks me back to my guest house and we swap details in case our paths happen to cross again. 

Tomorrow my adventure continues – via motorbike! Mr Hue is one of the so called “ Easy Riders” of Central Vietnam and has persuaded me to part with even more cash to take the scenic route on the back of his bike – from Hue to Hoi An. Its 3am and I need my beauty sleep as he'll be picking me up at 9am so i'm climbing the steep stone stairs to my room alone...! But hey ...I manage to drift off with a smile on my face

An Art Lesson in Hoi An Vietnam and the essence of Creative failure

Hoi An, Vietnam

When I was last on the road I had the bright idea of documenting my long term travels in a slightly more interesting medium than the upload of a gazillion facebook photos.

I'm tempted to buy an old note pad and some paints and have a very amateurish go and sketching my locations as an alternative. However coming upon artist materials travelling through south east asia is easier said than done, until that is i had an impromptu art lesson courtesy of Mr Wan...

There is nothing like being somewhere heart breakingly romantic to remind you how unutterably alone you are.

On one such evening in Central Vietnam I took a stroll into Hoi-Ann. A picture postcard of how I like to think Vietnam looked in the 18th century.

A little golden bridge arcs a milky green river strung with different coloured lanterns. In the water villagers offer rides from old wooden rowing boats, and crouching on the banks they sell paper lanterns with lit candles inside for people to float down the water for luck.

I sigh audibly. I can't remember when i've ever been somewhere so pretty, I can't remember the last time I missed being in a relationship so much and wished I had someone along side me holding my hand. The water is awash with the gentle amber glow of the floating paper lanterns. I go for a meal on the water's edge and have another speciality to Central Vietnam. Succulent (for a change) grilled pork with rice paper rolls and a sweet broth with peanut sauce, washed down with some beer

The old town is filled with tourist shops hawking Vietnamese cloth, little figurines and ink paintings on rice paper. I stop in one little shop that sells the latter and ask the man inside if he knows where I can buy any paint and paper. Instead he shepherds me inside. 

“I don't want to buy a painting just paints” I explain. 

"I understand" he says " Sit down." 

I sit down at his work table in a dimly lit backroom - the outline of his mother (?) is just visible lying horizontal on a mattress further in. He gets some scraps of rice paper out of his newspaper. I start to look around the shop – outside he has brightly coloured acrylic and oil canvases in sunsetty colours of traditional Vietnamese scenes - women in their elegant long flowing shifts and trousers, and conical hats wading through paddy fields. 



He dips his paint brush in the black ink and starts to paint on the scrap of paper. A sea, some bamboo in the foreground, a little rowing boat with the pointy hats of the men just discernible and a fishing line.

“Now you!” He says handing me the brush. 

“Oh no!” I protest. But as i've asked for artist materials and he seems to think i'm a painter – I can't really refuse. I take the brush and diligently start trying to paint a similar scene: sea, bamboo, boat, people. 

“Quicker!” he says. 

“No wrong...” he says taking a brush again and deftly pushing the fat body of the bristles down to make a bamboo stem in record time. 

Then he does a lady – with three or four simple quick strokes. 

“Easy. Do quicker. No wrong." 

He means there is no such thing as wrong. I try again, making just a few confident bold strokes and get a little better. Then he takes some more paper and shows me the symbol for LOVE in Chinese and Vietnamese – and then how to paint the characters – the numbers. 

At first i'm still holding the brush like a pencil but he encourages me to push it down flat and make big fat strokes. After a happy half an hour painting with him he gives me one of his sketches as a keepsake and I leave for some food. 

I used to love art – it was always one of my best subjects at school until the glacial Miss Sage put me off it for the next two decades. 

“Is this o.k?” 

I'd ask her – not sure if i'd got whatever technique we were learning, down correctly... 

“ well that's about all it is, isn't it” she'd say with about as much warmth and humanity as an arctic wolf. 

She had a penchant for stripey parisian style cardigans and culottes, one hazel eye and one blue (both able to pierce you to the spot along with the froideur of her ice cold sarcasm) along with a nasty case of short (wo)man syndrome. 

Don't choose your subjects because of your teachers -they tell you. Well I did – and subsequently left my art career behind at 15. 

If there is one thing i've learnt since about creativity and how to nurture it back to life – its this. Failure is essential. We don't get anything right first time and we don't learn anything by trying to be perfect. Contrary to everything Miss Sage might have thought – Wan my Vietnamese artist friend has it right – there is No WRONG. 

Now where did I put those brushes…

 

Hoi Chi Minh, War Museum

Today we are visiting the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. 



It's within walking distance from the hostel so with Martin leading, Juan dragging his malarial heels and me screaming everytime a motorbike whizzes past, we set off. I've just bumped into Christine (the French woman I travelled the North of the country with) back at the hostel. She says: 

“I'm relieved to see you've found someone else to protect you from the motorbikes!” 

If Hanoi was a maelstrom of whizzing, smoky scooters then I think Ho Chi Minh is a hundred times worse. I can feel my blood pressure begin to soar and my heart is palpitating. 

Incredibly; we get there in one piece - and yes i'm very grateful I have someone looking out for me,; outside they have a collection of American and Vietnamese tanks, helicopters and planes. 

There are two sections: the first is a recreation of the prisons that were used by the South Vietnamese and also the French to keep Northern Vietnamese revolutionaries in; the second houses exhibitions. 

Did you learn about the Vietnam War in school? Have I ranted recently about how useless and sporadic my own history knowledge is which seems to consist of what Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn wore when his divorce came through (yellow) and the second world war. I never learnt beyond 1945 at school so was entirely ignorant of the lead up to and subsequent Vietnam war. In a nutshell -France colonised Vietnam from the late 19th Century until 1955 when North Vietnamese revolutionaries under their leader Ho Chi Minh fought and won their independence briefly before America joined forces with South Vietnam to try and prevent a communist takeover. There then ensued a twenty year war (the start date of the war is under debate with some arguing it should date from 1955 – others from 1959) between the mainly communist North Vietnamese army supported by their guerrila faction in the south – the Viet Cong (and the support of various other communist countries) and the South Vietnamese government supported primarily by the United States who were keen to stop a communist takeover as part of their policy of “containment.” Neutral Cambodia and Eastern Laos who have the misfortune to border Vietnam underwent heavy bombing and saw fighting as the Viet Cong took cover in these countries encouraging America to (for want of a better epression) bomb the shit out of them.

 

In the prison they have replicated tiger cages – the horrible 2m x 3m bamboo cages covered in barb wire formerly used to trap wild beasts that the prisons used to torture their captives in. There are also small stone cells and shackles that were used to incarcerate their vicitims. Food for the prisoners would be maggoty and minimal and showers even rarer. Women as well as men were imprisoned here with up to 40 women confined to a cell at one time. Showers would be withheld when they were menstruating just to increase their degradation and sordid living conditions. 
 


This exhibition is not for the faint hearted.There are graphic photographs and detailed text that describes in no uncertain terms the various torture methods used on prisoners: amputation of limbs, removal of fingernails, electrocution of genitals, burning, cutting and beating with a pestle – even letting loose snakes down trousers. 

There is also information on the infamous prison camp on Phu Quoc island – that garnered the misleadingly chirpy moniker – Camp Coconut. It was used by both the French and then the United States of America to house Vietnamese revolutionaries in the 50s and 60s, and was overseen by 20 US oficials during The Vietnam war. Here, according to the exhibition, the same extreme and barbaric methods of torture were used against the prisoners. Men were crouched into tiny tiger cages made of barbed wire, and tortured with long rusty nails. It is claimed that three prisoners were boiled alive. 

I'm naively shocked that the United States both knew and oversaw the camp. When I was a little girl I aways remember my mother taking about "the cruelty of the Asians." I suppose it was a fear of the exotic unknown - the “them and us” mentality bred in the baby boomer – post war generation after Pearl Harbour, kamikaze pilots, horror stories from Japanese POW camps and Allied propaganda had had its way. 

I suppose we want to cling to the fact that we are different – because what? we live in a democracy? our Christian morality? Maybe it's human nature or just the fear of the unknown fuelled to racisim through propaganda that means we try and reassure ourselves that “Our people could never do what they were capable of – those people on the other side of the world with their dark skin, their strange gods.” 

But of course nowadays we know exactly what American and British troops are capable of thanks to stories from Guantanamo Bay and the like and that dark flame can be fanned within all of us, to grow, consume and destroy. 



There is a photographic exhibition commemorating the photo journalists that risked their lives to prevent coverage of the Vietnam war and then upsetting details on the notorious My Lai Massacre. 

The My Lai massacre refers to the village of unarmed civilians that American soldiers invaded in 1968 in an attempt to kill members of the Viet Cong. This was not just the extermination of around 400 unarmed civilians (the majority of whom were women and children.) This was the torture and mutilation pre death of those children, the vicious gang rape of women in front often their children, and according to some reports the sodomisation of young girls and use of babies as target practice before slaughter. One U.S Senator later confessed to his part in murdering a pregnant women and killing a five year old boy by disembowelling him. This event typified the culture of conspiracy and cover up that went hand in hand with the way that the US communicated the details of its war back home. For years the facts surrounding the My Lai Massacre were concealed. Initial reports stated that there was bloody fighting with up to 118 Viet Cong killed on the first day, it was later revealed that only 3 or 4 Viet Cong were killed in total and that the soldiers were met with unarmed civilains and no open fire. It highlighted the capacity to commit the unthinkable that must reside in all of us. 

Another sinister method to try and achieve victory by the U.S was to spray acres of the country with Agent Orange, an insiduous and highly carcinogenic toxin. The aim was to poison the countryside to force the Viet Cong out into the open and the peasants that provided their food – out of rural areas and into the cities thereby leaving the North Vietnamese armies without support. For just under ten years America sprayed 20 million gallons of Agent Orange across the country which is predicted to have led to the deaths of 400,000 people, giving birth defects to around half a million people and leaving a legacy of a further one million people who are disabled, crippled or have serious health defects as a result. What this exhibition makes clear is that the random and indiscriminate spraying of this poison didn't just wipe out one generation of Vietnamese, it created defects and health problems in the subsequent second and third generation of children to be born as well. There is a further photographic exhibiton of black and white shots of children that have been affected by Agent Orange. It is heart breaking, i realise i've been walking around with what feels like a rock stuck in my throat. This is very difficult viewing, looking over at the Argentinians i can see that they are teary eyed too. 

The War museum has come under question as being heavily biased against the U.S – and in instances written off by some quarters as pure propaganda. Certainly some of the wording of the exhibitions focuses heavily on gentle Vietnamese forces requesting peace against the evil American Imperialist overlords. But some of the most disturbing and upsetting details about the war showcased here – the My Lai Massacre and indeed the use of Agent Orange are now widely known and accepted as fact along with the culture of coverup and lack of transparency that dominated the US governments communication of the war effort. This gradually led to massive wide scale protests for peace from citizens around the world including America. It is this global outcry that the exhibition finishes on as well as a plea to Barack Obama to acknowledge the damage done to subsequent generations of Vietnamese children through the use of Agent Orange and to provide some form of compensation – a process that has already started for U.S veterans affected by the chemical.

Karst Climbing and French Kissing - Halong Bay, North Vietnam

The Magnificent Karsts of Catba Island, North Vietnam, Halong Bay

Travelling with Christine has been an interesting experience although one that has led me to the conclusion that as I probably wouldn't go on holiday for 10 days with many of my closest friends suddenly joining someone you've known for less than 3 is a fairly high risk strategy. 

Christine is an eager, French, forty something, Management Accountant from the home counties with a line in sensible travel skirts. She briskly guides us through the streets of Hanoi and organise our excursions. I am terrible at lazily taking a back seat in situations like this if someone else shows a modicum of interest in planning. As a haphazard marketer have a feeling she finds my total lack of logic and practical forethought immensely frustrating. She watches bewildered as I roll up notes and stuff them in my purse until the day I buy a wallet that can hold them flat ….only to keep rolling them up and stuffing them in! She is animated and sociable and always eagerly looking for the next person to talk to - whereas I, on the other hand, can retreat into my own little world even surrounded by crowds of people. Its a hard lessonbeing told by her that she thinks i'm "cold and aloof" but its not the first time someone's rallied that criticism in my direction and I know that i really need to work harder to make an effort with people when I have activley made a chosen to put myself in their company. 

She has the strange habit of stopping at every photograph I take to get the same angle and a tendency to order the same dish as me in restaurants - until we decide to budget better by sharing everything - which I find baffling. I can't help feel she is more than a little "glass half empty" - constantly voicing her negative opinion if she is less than satisfied. 

However we do have one big thing in common - we are both the daughters of oppressive Turkish fathers and western mothers. "They fuck you up your mum and dad" as Larkin said. But it is peculiarly specialist form of fuck wittery to grow up as the only daughter of an Arabic and very lapsed Muslim father. A relief when you meet someone who has been there too. 

Christine and I say our farewells this morning and I give her a copy of “Awakening the Buddha Heart” a book that I picked up in Nong Kiaw. Sometimes my Buddha Heart just doesn't want to awaken, it sits there angrily stamping its feet and shouting “fuck off” to the world instead. She gives me her copy of One Day and a stinking head cold. Splendid. 

Today I have decided to get up close and personal with the fantastic landscape of Halong Bay and climb up the thing! I'm very very excited – i've never done rock climbing before but scaling 20m up the grey and white jagged karsts of Halong Bay that sit in a pearly blue sea overlooking golden sands sure as hell beats the indoor climbing wall in Mile End, East London. 

I'm going with a company called Slo Pony / Asia Outdoors who are recommended by Lonely Planet as the best for beginners. We take a van and then hop aboard another big sailing junk where I while a happy couple of hours jumping from the boat into the deep green sea joined by a couple from Aberdeen who delight in telling me that its snowing back home. 

We get a little speed boat over to a secluded bay that sits in the shade and the two experts we have with us -Chris and Meeka from Germany set to work fixing the anchors and the cable and setting up the first three runs. 

We 've already been kitted out for climbing shoes which are incredibly painful as they should be too small and scrunch up your toes with their hard plastic. 

Chris is a small wiry boy in his early twenties with a strangely highlighted mullet - German...remember ;) -  who suddenly shimmies up the cliff face in nothing more than his flip flops. 

 



I'm a little thrown by the sight of two Australian women in their 60's - Jean and Mel get off the boat with us. Clad in elasticated slacks with steamed up specs and heavy duty blow dries, they start shaking out a rug and settle down. 

“Ummmm are you doing the rock climbing??” I ask tentatively. 

“aaaah no daaaarl we'll just watch.” 

Jean leans in and says: “ – I think we've been a little missold actually – our travel agent didn't say there'd be any of this stuff in it!” 

"Oh no" I think! Poor things – they've inadvertently found themselves on a 2 day kayaking, boat jumping, rock climbing adventure holiday..... 

“Come on!” shouts Meeka – our other expert – with short blonde bob, perfectly straight teeth and hockey player calves. She fixes me with her bright blue eyes: 

“Dominique!...You can go first!” 

Great. 



They have set up two routes – the easiest one for beginners has lots of craggy rocks and crevices which apparently makes it easier and you have to touch the two anchors that hold the cable at the top of the climb to show that you've made it.( I do not admit to anyone later that for ages i'm looking for ships anchors...not the hooks that hold the cables. I can imagine Christine rolling her eyes ...! ) 

I start scrambling up and immediately get stuck. 

“where do I go from now!???!!' 

Meeka hangs on to the other end and I need to shout “slack” for her to make it

to the left, to the right, and where I need to put my feet. 

Its harder than I thought (although why I thought scaling 20m up a cliff face should be a walk in the park I have no idea.)

 

Like most things I don't bother to think about the detail until i'm already half way into doing them. Now the thought of falling off the side even though i'm attached by a harnass – is ridculously scary, I can feel my hands begin to shake. 

 



Gradually Meeka coaches me up the last bit of the climb until i'm balanced precariously on a little soil ledge. But then I have to come down. .. 

"Right stretch one leg out and rest it on the cliff face opposite you, then swing out and let the other leg join it.” says Meeka calmly. 

“and then enjoy the view!!!” says Meeka optimistically as if this stepping out and suspending myself into thin air 20metres above the ground would be the most natural thing in the world. 

After much hesitation I realise there really is no other choice and swing myself out so that Meeka can begin to pull me down. But just for a moment -I clumsily rotate myself round so that I can take in the view. Halong Bay is stunning – the bay is lit up silver from the afternoon light. 

The thought of taking this up back home in the cold and gloom of London doesn' do much to motivate me but nonetheless I can add it to my list of "Sports that I don't ABJECTLY HATE with every fibre of my being" - and therefore might try and do again for the sake of ...you know...exercise. 

When my feet touch solid ground again I think – “I've done it once and that's enough.” 

I can feel the adrenaline pulsing and my knees are wobbling. But then gradually I think – "No i've paid $63 dollars I should definitely give it another go" – so I do the same run again: 

“You will be surprised how much easier it is” says Meeka encouragingly. And she is right – I crawl up it in half the time and don't feel nearly as scared. 

Then she takes it a step further – pointing at the sheer grey cliff face where the second more intermediate run has been set up: 

“You should give that one a go – she has just done it and she never did any climbing before...” 

“But I couldn't do it “ I say... 

and as I hear myself say it I know that means i'm now going to have to give it a go. 

Might as well get my money's worth... I suppose... 

This one is a lot harder – hell I can't even get up onto the cliff face as the first little ledges and crevices are quite a way up – but after Chris and Meeka have come and manually shoved my arse up – I manage to get a hold. And then it really isn't too difficult. I seem to find my way right until the very very top. I'm more than 20m up and the drop is sheer. But the end of the cables are anchored at the top of a large slit in the rock. I have no option but to wedge myself into the crack. There is absolutely nothing to put my feet into and I'm worried about sticking out and then falling away from the rock. But its tantalisingly close – so after thinking: “Oh well you almost got there thats not bad” The little Seargeant Major voice in my head that was so often present at Chinese bootcamp chips up and says: 

"There is NO way you are giving up right at the last hurdle. You are stronger than that.” 

So with sheer bloodyminded will power and the decision to once again sacrifice the skin on my knees for the greater good I haul myself up with what little upper body strength I have left, scraping a series of colourful bruises on my poor legs once more. But hey I get to touch the anchors and I make it. This time i'm quite fearless in swinging round and enjoying the glorious view and even quite enjoy being pulled down as I kick my way back down the mountain. 

Chris high fives me at the bottom and I feel great. So correction - I LOVE doing things I didn't think I could do. Once again I am reminded that the mind leads and the body follows. 

Back on the boat I go up onto the top deck to take some more photos of the sun setting behind the rocks. Everyone else has had the same idea so there is literally no where to sit unless I want to share the comfy cushion of an incredibly good looking Frenchman who seems to be on his own... Oh hang on a minute....of course I do! 

 



I politely join him and he starts to chat to me whilst I just generally drink in his beauty. He has that deep rich tan that only French men who have spent half their life lying prostrate on beaches at Le Croisette in Cannes seem to have, with dark navy eyes, and a smile that reminds me of Jude Law. All in all not a bad combination...As luck would have it he also turns out to be very sweet and very funny. 

Max is a 26 year old Parisian who does the retail marketing for Tour de France. As I was doing the retail marketing for Arsenal we have a bit in common. He seems to work 7 months of the year (such is the nature of the event) and has the other 5 months off but still gets paid... (gotta love the French government.) When he asks if I would like to join him for dinner I think to myself rather smugly “well this day just gets better and better....” 

We meet and have a little walk around Cat Ba's seafront which is a string of touristy restaurants and then opt for a little street food place behind the main road where noodles and beef are just under a couple of quid. The Slo Pony crowd are eating there and as they are long term locals I take it as a good sign. 

We leave and go for a final beer on the seafront - wherever you walk on the island there is often a Vietnamese woman trying to sell you a beer or a coconut. 

“That is my hotel” Max jokes pointing at a building site as we pass .. “they are just building my room.” 

At 11pm at night it is still in full swing – sand shovelling and concrete mixing. They work very strange hours - the Vietnamese – you can bet at 9am tomorrow moring it will be deserted. 

Then we do get to his hotel and I go up to ….. “look at some of his travel photos”....(I think this must be the modern day travelller equivalent of “would you like to come up and see some etchings..”) 

At sometime around 12.30am  he disappears to find some water to make tea and comes back with a sheepish look on his face: 

“I am really sorry Dominique...It looks like they have closed the hotel, it is locked and there is no one downstairs... think you will have to stay the night.” 

I summon all my strength and draw on all my previous acting skills to try and muster what I hope is a look of genuine sincere concern on my face an then say" “Oh well I guess that will have to be o.k...” 

That's the thing about Laos and now Vietnam -they do tend to have curfews so it is best to always check with the owner first about what time you need to be back by. I have already done this and am fully aware I needed to be back at least 2 hours ago to get into my guest house (ahem) although Mr Cahn did give me his mobile number in case of emergencies... 

I''m pretty sure “I was with a gorgeous Frenchman and he took ages to kiss me,” qualifies for said emergency. 

Even though I feel absolutely terrible; the head cold Christine gave me is coming out full swing; I do manage to gather up enough energy to sit up and watch him as he undresses . 

He has spent the past month doing Thai boxing in Thailand and its what he does back home. So his body is...well ….incredible. 

The next day and it is my final day on this lovely island. It has been a perfect place to recuperate from my illness and have a little holiday. I get my guesthouse owner Mr Cahn to give me a motorbike ride to the Cannon Fort at the top of the hills. It is a 177m at the peak of the island and has, according to Max, some of the best views in Vietnam. I think he may be right.


The views from the top of Catba island

It was used as a fortress, bunker and ammunitions depot in the French and American wars but it also looks out over the most beautiful views across Lan Ha Bay and the rising green peaks of the hills in Cat Ba National Park. From this perspective you can look down on the entire bay bathed apricot in the light of the setting sun and see the deep lavender of the rock islands that rise out of the water. I'm lucky – a gay German couple stop to offer me a lift back down the hill on their motorbike and I finish my time on the island with a delicous meal of fresh stuffed squid and banana flower salad. 

Sadly i've already said 'Bon Voyage' to Max as we are moving in opposite directions and today he is making his way up to the North of Vietnam to bike around Sapa. So there we are – a perfect evening together but as is often the way when travelling – nothing more than mere bateaux that pass in the night...

 

Mongolian Vodka swilling, Monkey bottle swigging, Halong Bay - Vietnam

Halong Bay

As we know by now me and boats are not a marriage made in heaven so i'm somewhat relieved that our little tour of Halong Bay gets cancelled two days in a row thanks to an ENORMOUS TYPHOON. I'm happy to wait it out i'd much rather do kayaking and sunbathing in er sunshine! than be dragged round a grey swilling bay on a rocky boat with a bunch of green faced tourists. Finally on the tuesday the storm has passed and we take our bus transfer down to Halong City harbour and then our boat. Our guide on the bus takes care of formalities and asks who amongst us are “monks” 

“Yeeees!“ says a wiry 32 year old Thinh – our tour guide … 

“not eating the pork or the chicken..” 

Oh he means vegetarian! ...I quite like the term “monks” though! 

“My name is Thin but I say it short for “DestTINhy - because a snake bit me once but I survived." He explains. I wonder how many times he's made that comment to his groups... 

When we arrive at the harbour we are divided into groups and some stay with Thinh but we are given Binh a chubby faced chap with dimples and short spiky hair. 

He leans forward conspiratorially and raises his hands - pausing for dramatic effect. We crowd in, in anticipation– then he says: 

“We are getting boat, we are checking , we are lunching, we kayaking.” 

Oh. 

“I would have rather a tour guide that can speak English!" says Christine. 

All the brochures show off the Halong Bay cruise ships as great mahogany varnished sailing junks with bright yellow sails traversing the emerald seas. Someone has taken the unilateral decision to paint them all white. They don't look nearly as pretty. Never mind - they have been “decked” out (sorry) with pot plants and the rooms are lovely. The beds are close together but the walls inside are a deep rich varnished wood with pristine cream sheets and maroon silk throw overs. There are loungers on the top deck and a restaurant and bar area below. 

We have a welcome lunch of king prawns, squid in spicy sauce, deep fried pork, and various vegetable platters. The group consist of two tanned very good looking Italian boys from the Dolomites, a couple of English girls who speak in hushed and giggly northern accents and a Mongolian family - a husband and wife in their early thirties who have a 2 year old son who is very very cute and a great ice breaker.

Halong Bay
Floating Market Stalls, Halong Bay

 

No one has touched the plate of prawns – and although i've generally given seafood a miss on my travels I say i'll have one. Everyone watches me expectantly... 

“they are prawns I think” says the Mongolian - “but I don't know how you undo them...” 

Oh I see. Its funny the thinks you take for granted coming from a comfortable middle class background in London. Why should they know how to peel a prawn ?– surrounded by all those mountains in the middle of a desert. So it is left to me to demonstrate -ripping the head and the tail off then peeling back the shell that covers its body.

“I can't believe you are English Dominique” says Christine “You know how to peel a prawn...!” 

Well I think food, ingredients and awareness of both has come a long way in Britain since the 1980s but the French never miss an opportunity to berate us on our terrible cooking. Having said that I did actually learn how to peel a prawn sitting on my nan's lap at my parents' flat in the South of France! 

We are kayaking first – which fills me a little bit with dread. I sympathise with Helen from Doncaster – who is also nervous and wants to try and avoid doing it. 

“Oh don't worry” I say, “ you'll probably just see me paddling around in a great big circle!” 

We go in twos - so Christine and I share a boat – which is just as well because even though I and several of the others are complete beginniners we have been given absolutely no instruction on how to row the bloody thing. 

I am in front (yes – clearly a mistake) and we are pushed out into the water. Christine instructs me in in school mistressy turns – paddle left, push forward, paddle right and eventually I begin to get the hang of it. 

“I should have gone in front “ says Christine

“Its ok you can be my Cox and should instructions from the back” I say over my shoulder. The bay is filled with hundreds of boats and as we veer towards one I am shrieked at again: 

“NO!" Says Christine exasperated. “Can you just stop paddling as its undoing the work i'm doing. Its easier if I just do it on my own..” 

“ Or you could just explain to me what i'm doing wrong and tell me what I need to do “ I say. 

 

Halong Bay



I think its fair to say the old Entente Cordiale is becoming less well...cordial... the more days we spend together. 

So she explains how I need to hold the oar near to the paddle and scoop under the water deep and pushing it out and eventurally we fall into some kind of rhthym. 

Once I can relax into a bit, I begin to realise that kayaking is a beautiful way to see the landscape. 

I'm so delighted we've waited for the sun to come out – there is nothing more dreary than a beach in the rain. And now that its shining its really gorgeous. The sea is heavy in salt and a deep milky green color. The strange lumpen shapes of the rocks that give Halong Bay its distinctive sky line rise up out of the water like so many jagged teeth and are bleached with white stripes from the limestone and chalk that typifies Karst formations. We follow our guide Binh who has jumped into a kayak along side us. One of the great karsts has eroded away leaving a little cave of light between its undercarriage and the water – so we can kayak through it into another secluded little bay. We come to a beach front where some boats have stopped and float silently up. Little brown monkeys with scrunched up red faces and bottoms sit tamely on the rocks, one nurses a baby. 



We go back to the boat for our next stop on an island. 

A walk around a cave followed by a swim and a climb. 

After the beautiful natural phenomenon of the jewel cave in Western Australia this is a tad of a let down. It looks like they've concreted over most of the ceiling - as it hangs down in great puttyish dollops. Nevermind. By the time we get to the shoreline again the its 5pm and the sun is setting. 

“Why are we going for a swim at night?” ask the Italians bemused. 

All of the other boats have stopped here and everyone is cramming themselves into the sea. I decide not to join them. 

Christine and the Mongolian vodka



Back on the boat and we have another good dinner and everyone makes for the top deck for a night cap. The big hazy moon is ringed with an amber halo and the Italian boys have bought a bottle of Vietnamese vodka for 140,000 dong ( around 4 quid) from a woman in a boat who has hauled it up to them in a fishing net. However the Mongolian has trumped that by bringing his own bottle of Mongolian vodka and insists that we all share it with him. He grabs a set of little green tea sized china cups and starts to pour a round. We are all given a shot each – Chingis (after Genghis) Khan vodka is an uber premium brand that uses wheat from the Mongolian steppes. I'm no vodka conoisser – I've always been slightly suspicious of clear liquids- but this one tastes like fire water , it punches the back of the throat and leaves me gasping. But it's also smooth and doesn't have that chemically after taste that cheaper spirits have. It is, shall we say, slightly better than the Vietnamese vodka that even when mixed with coke has a weird slightly malty sour aftertaste. The bottle goes around again for another shot and then we leave the couples to it. 



The next day we visit Monkey Island for a swim. Unlike the previous stops this one is blissfully free of any other tour groups and we have the pale gold sands to ourselves. We swim in shallow sea water that is deliciously warm until monkeys are spotted running onto the beach. One of the girls rushes out of the water to guard our bags – they've been known to thieve. 

They are incredibly tame. One strolls nonchalantly along beside me before stopping to sit on a rock, looking for all the world like a chav with an asbo. He picks up a plastic bottle, chews the top off and then spits it out fixing me with an insolent glare before sloping off no doubt to see if there are any handbags to snatch further down the beach. 

Next stop is Cat Ba Island where we will be staying overnight. Cat Ba is Unesco protected site and has a national park that plays home to a huge number of different species including the Golden Headed Langur which is native to the park. The island is flanked by wooded limestone hills and the harbour is filled with fishermen casting nets for pearls and for shrimp. They jostle side by side with the cruise ship sailing junks on 2 and 3 day excursions like the one i'm on and next to single women on floating market stalls selling travellers essentials such as bottled water and packets of oreos. 

The harbour shore line is built up - and the Vietnamese seem to be constantly building more of their stange and thin tall storeyed hotels. Seafood is popular here as a result - the squid and shrimp are fresh and a local speciality is the Sea Mantis -a rather sinister crab with a dark curved helmet shaped shell. 

We go for a trek into the National Park; climbing the 200m to the top of the hill for views over the wooded limestone hills that rise in regular trangular peaks . Its incredibly peaceful – amazing how a beautiful natural view has the power to silence a group of people. That is - until a group of girls behind me decide to strike upa conversation about Holly oaks. Ah well. 

Binh stops to explain some interesting details about the species we can see here: 

"This is called Happy garden where there are many trees...” 

“Did he say Cheese!!!???” exclaims a baffled woman from Croydon to my right. 

“er no I think he probalby meant “trees” ' I say. 

“Oh YES! Of course hahahahha!” 

Binh has already confided in us: 

“Please i'm sorry..but I would like to be a tour guide...you help me practise? I am still learning English...” 

Well he's very sweet but call me picky I quite like my tour guides to already speak good English when I pay for them. As a result not many details about the island are imparted and when they are the entire group turns to me for a translation as I seem to have the dubious talent of being the only one that can deciphher his thick Vietnamese accent. 

“You shecking, you come for luncshink, you schimming shoot” 

“we have to go and check into our room, then come back for lunch and then change into our swim suit” - I translate for the group. 

"ooooooh" says everyone. 

What kind of one or two night experience you get on a boat on Halong Bay very much depends on how much you pay and what company you go with even though on the surface - it seems as if everyone is offering the same thing. Here the Pan Asian expression "same! same! but - different!" really comes into its own. Our guide has a a tenuous grasp of the English language at best- and there have been a couple of annoying moments - such as being asked to go for a swim at 5pm and having another group come onto our boat and take all our sun loungers for the morning journey to Catba. However i have heard a lot worse from other travellers - including rooms filled with engine fuel, boats only making swim stops at 8pm at night or 5am in the morning and even a demented kitchen chef threatening travellers with a butcher's knife when they dared to complain. On the whole our boat and the food was excellent. So make sure you book with a reputable company or via a good hotel - like the one we did - Little Hanoi Hostel. 

Tomorrow the group head back to Hanoi but i remain on Catba island. I am getting up close and personal with this fantastic scenery and trying something i've never done before....rock climbing!