Day 23: Hue (pronounced Hway)

Saturday in Hue (pronounced “Hway”). It’s slightly above the normal amount of sweltering as there’s very little haze today so the sun’s almost fully out. If it ever DID actually came out, I imagine we’d all simultaneously burst into flames, demon-style. Scorchio. Done.

Hired a bike from my hostel for less than a pound and spent all morning pootling up and down the Perfume river to pagodas and other assorted Points Of Interest. The way you know that they’re points of interest is not because they’re pointy or – sometimes – interesting, but because they’re marked out on a badly-drawn map, and they’re teeming with tourists and people trying to sell stuff to tourists, such as embroidered conical hats and Lipton’s Lime iced tea. Tried to explain roller derby to a Vietnamese girl who kept smiling and saying “Yes, yes” even though she had no idea what I was talking about. Ate mostly in restaurants in the main backpacker area, or back at my hotel where they served cheap beer and even cheaper ice cream.

I’m staying at the Google Hotel, a 10 minute stroll to the backpacker area. The staff are friendly (I get high-fived every time I come back) and my upgraded room’s a dream, so long as the dream is of a neat double room with clean linen, antless walls and a warm shower. There’s even a mini fridge to keep my water cold, except that the electricity turns off to save energy when I leave my room. I like the idea, but maybe I like cold water on a hot day even more.

Cycle hire is cheap and a good way to get around, even if it means risking death by using the terrifying roads. The driving in SE Asia is entirely outside-the-box. There are rules, but they’re often deemed not to apply. You drive on the right, for example, but that’s unless it’s more convenient to drive on the left into oncoming traffic, or on the pavements into unsuspecting pedestrians. At traffic lights red means stop, obvs, but not if the road ahead is clear, or if you think you’ve got a chance of punching through the flow of traffic, or if you’re in a rush, or if you don’t really want to stop. Motorbikes drive 3 abreast in each lane which makes crossing the road a real adventure. There’s a knack to it: you’ve gotta be assertive, step out into the road, own your spot. The traffic parts to accommodate you, the red sea motorised and terrifying. But it DOES part. They may drive in crazy paving ways but also this driving style is normal and everyone’s used to it. They’re not over-fast or aggressive drivers like in Thailand or at home and they’re always ready to swerve out of the way should anything go amiss (unless they’re texting or cooing to the baby on their lap or chatting to their mate on the adjacent motorbike). I saw a tshirt in Hoi An that had traffic lights and the slogan “Green = I go. Amber = I go. Red = I still go.” Sums it up.

Hue (still pronounced Hway) has a lot to recommend it. It’s the honeymoon capital of Vietnam. It’s got a pretty river, a crumbling citadel and a buzzing night market that catera mostly for Vietnamese tourists. It also has Matthew, high-powered banking type with a flexible budget, a wheeled backpack and a taste for valium (you can buy it over the counter here, apparently). Matthew is concerned that his Clinique facewash will run out before he can replace it in Singapore, is troubled by the bastardisation of the English language, and can give you a step-by-step breakdown of your personality into Myers-Briggs categories at 20 paces. Makes for interesting conversation. And people-watching.

Hue was a nice place to be but for the traveller with time constraints, it’s a two-day kinda place. A city is a city is a city, right? The citadel – a walled complex of the remains of the old royal chambers – is interesting and atmospheric, but it only takes a day and us tight-on-time people can’t be hanging about, especially when we’ve got PHONG NHA FARMSTAY waiting for us!

Day 21: Lactating Ringer’s

I’m in Hue and I’m back on form.

Being too sick to explore Nha Trang was the low point of my trip. In fact, the whole sicklikedeath thing kinda threw me off-kilter for a while there. If it wasn’t for Ross Kemp’s understanding smile/grimace, I’d’ve been on a plane back home before you could say “Where’s Phil?”. But it wasn’t all bad – it meant I got to do a bit of outside-the-box Hospital tourism.

I wasn’t dying or anything, I promise. They shot me up with mystery drugs and an IV, and laid me up on a bed next to an enormous Russian. The IV bag was labelled “Lactated Ringer’s”. LACTATED?!?! I dread to think. So now I’ve 3 puncture wounds in my right armwristhand and am on enough different types of drugs to irradiate a primary school. They didn’t even ask me if I’m allergic to anything. I’m not, but still: it’s a concern. Doctors DO know best right?

When I finally did an OUTSIDE in Nha Trang, I discovered that the beach was about a 3 minute walk from the door of my guesthouse. So I wandered down, lay in the shade, chilled out. Saw a guy being pulled out of the ocean, having CPR, being taken away in an ambulance. Just the everyday stuff, y’know.

I left that night. A monstrosity of a sleeper coach (coffin-like bunks, garish disco lighting) took me from Nha Trang to Hoi An in a cool 11 hours. No toilet on board but we made a quick pit-stop for an al fresco wee, and later the Vietnamese woman a few rows back had an extended and noisy vomiting fit. I doused myself with tiger balm to counteract the smell, tried to ignore the precarious swaying of the coach, and went to sleep. As uncomfortable as it was, there’s something a bit brilliant about dropping off knowing you’ll be speeding your way through the darkness while you sleep, and something even more brilliant about waking up to find yourself in a different city than before. You don’t get the same sense of movement, of things changing, when you travel by aeroplane. It’s a loss.

So I woke up in historic Hoi An, UNESCO World Heritage site and all-round Ye Olde Worlde charmer. Famous for making lanterns, appazza, and tailoring. The Japanese built a well good covered bridge in the Old Town. It’s got old museums and new restaurants, alleyways stuffed with souviner shops, a beautiful Chinese Assembly Hall, and is chock-full of all this French Colonial Architecture that people seem to like. I can see why – it’s all quaint and charming, and harks back to a time when everyone was polite, the weather was always fine, and baguette bushes lined the railways. I did some sightseeing and some photographing (everything was so picturesque!) bought some clothes, sent some postcards, ate. Can’t tell you how amazing it felt to EAT REAL FOOD again! Yeah, I felt a bit sick for a while afterwards but only a BIT sick – nothing that a good ice cream couldn’t cure.

As beautiful as it was, I woke up the morning after I’d arrived and decided to leave. I felt healthy for the first time in bloody ages and had the itch to get going, no more hanging around, engines to warp speed. So I went for breakfast (banana pancake and hot ginger tea) and headed off.

CH2: Goes on public transport, has a Moment

Getting from one place to the next has, so far, consumed the most amount of time. It’s not just the actual travelling but the planning of the actual travelling. When you’re tight on time like I am, the first thing you do when you get to a new place is to start thinking about how you’ll leave. And because the route is pretty well-used, and because it’s usually quicker and more convenient, you find yourself going with bus tour companies more often than not. There’s nothing wrong with the bus companies, obvs, but tell ya what, there’s a helluva lot to be said for the out-and-out ADVENTURE that is negotiating your way around via public transport.

First up, you have to find the bus station or train station. The angry guesthouse girl gave me directions that didn’t lead anywhere. I approached a guy in a shop to see if he could direct me but he eyed me for a second, then shook his head and said “No bus station”, then wouldn’t look at me again. I had more luck at the phone shop: the girl tried to give me directions but I couldn’t understand. Then a French woman came in, the girl explained in French and the French woman explained to me in English. Adventuresome.

Just outside the bus station I’m stopped by two Brazilians – that sounds like the start of a shit joke – who wanted confirmation they were in Hoi An. Yes, am I at the bus station for Danang? Yes. There’s someone shouting but I don’t pay any attention – people are CONSTANTLY shouting at you over here, mostly because they want to sell you stuff. As I go into the bus station, the shouting gets louder. I finally realise that there’s a woman hanging off the back of a bus, shouting directly at me and giving me the old palm-down wave. Humans, I believe I have found my transportation. I run to the bus, am practically thrown on by a guy whose job it is to stand at the back door and throw people onto the bus (and help them off, let’s not lie). First leg: done. I sit back and enjoy it.

As we come into Danang, the waving woman comes to the back of the bus and shoves a map under my nose. I point at the train station, as that’s where I’m headed. A few minutes later, I’m unceremoniously dumped on the side of a busy road with my bag. The bus speeds away, Waving Woman gesticulating vaguely in my direction. I walk to the nearest crossroads to get the street names and – lo and behold! – I’m just down the road from the station. I head on.

At the station a toothless, grinning tuktuk driver tells me that the next train isn’t for two hours. I go to the ticket window to get my ticket – no queuing, everyone just kinda calls out what they want from the teller and she sorts it. Turns out, my train is IN the station, about to leave. Could my timing be any better? I quickly pay, grab my ticket and trot across the tracks to the metal BEHEMOTH that’s waiting. This thing is ENORMOUS, the biggest train I’ve ever seen in real life. I almost can’t haul myself up into the carriage.

The train journey is spectacular. Mountains and jungle and wide bays and beaches and rice paddies and tiny shacks and little towns. The train makes the most incredible noise as it goes, clattering and clunking and groaning along the tracks. The window by my seat doesn’t open so I go out into the walkway and open the windows on the doors, one on each side, and try to take photos that reflect how stunning the scenery is. I fail, obvs, but I don’t mind. Got the wind in my hair (air con, schmair con) and the world rolling by. All is good.

Next thing you know, I’m here. I find my way into town easily, my first-choice guesthouse practically throws itself on my lap, and then I get a room upgrade because there are ants in my bed. SHUDDER.

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Hope you’re enjoying the snow, UK-dwellers!