Nha Trang, Dalat, Hoi An, Saigon, Can Tho, Rach Gia and Phu Quoc
19/8/15 20 °C
After four nights in Saigon I decided to head back north, taking a bus north to Nha Trang where I hoped to find a small and relaxing sea-side town where I could spend a few days on the beach. Unfortunately, Nha Trang is a fairly large city and its beach is the sort that is packed with sun loungers and parasols. It is also full of Russian tourists and try as I might I find them very difficult to warm to them. Nevertheless, for the three days I spent there I hired a sunbed and stretched out in the shade and took the occasional swim.
Nha Trang beach with storm approaching
I had hoped that the seawater would help to clear up the sores which have appeared on my lower right leg. I'm not entirely sure where I picked them up but over the last few days what started as mosquito bites have become infected and developed into tropical ulcers which are extremely painful. I thought about putting a photo of them on here but they really aren't very nice to look at. They are about an inch and a half in diameter where the skin has been eaten away exposing raw flesh. They constantly exude a nasty, sticky pus and refuse to form a scab that stays on. Sorry about the gory details. Anyway, the salt water didn't help and so I decided to come to Dalat which at 1500 metres above sea level has a climate similar in nature to an averge English summer. In fact, it's so cool that most of the locals wear jackets even during the day and in the evenings so do I!
I managed to hobble around the town for the first day and do a little sight seeing and buy some new sandals but it soon became apparent that the ulcers weren't getting any better and so the next morning I pitched up at the local hospital's emergency department . I had come expecting a long wait, but immediately was seen by a very attractive nurse who whisked me off to see a doctor, where another nurse cleaned and bandaged them, and then to the pharmacy to pick up the three different antibiotics and the iodine, swabs and bandages that he prescribed.
Two days later the wounds seem to be a little better, but are still very painful. Further bulletins to come.
Avocados 3 to 4 times bigger than you get in Sainsburys
Health bulletin: Four days later and I'm delighted to report the antibiotics and the iodine have done the trick. The wounds have dried up and are healing nicely. The only downside is the pain I have just below the calf in both legs which makes walking any distance impossible. I can only think it's a side effect of the abs. As the days pass, though, the pain is easing and hopefully in a few more days I'll be back to full fitness.
After a four hour bus ride back to Nha Trang and then a twelve hour overnight sleeper bus I arrived in Hoi An at six in the morning. It seems that whether you travel by bus or train average speeds only reach 20 to 25 miles an hour and journey times are therfore very long. Travelling overnight is very popular but the downside is that you often arrive at your destination in the very early morning. Unlike me, however, the Vietnamese like to start their day early and by 6.30 am or so things are usually in full swing. It is usually possible to check in at a hotel soon after you arrive and this I did, falling into bed and catching a bit more sleep. Sleeper busses are OK but they have been designed for the generally rather small Vietnamese and it's impossible to stretch out fully. The berths are also on the narrow side. and getting a decent night's sleep is not easy.
Hoi An is an absolute delight. It sits on a river a couple of miles inland from the sea and was once a very important trading port with a large Chinese community. However, as it's harbour began to silt up it lost its prominence and became a forgotten backwater as other towns along the coast took its trade. As they began to develop into modern cities, Hoi An remained unchanged, retaining the architecture which contributes so much to its character. Today it survives on tourism and although most of the buildings in the old quarter are connected to the tourist trade there is still plenty of authentic local life such as the market and food hall to give it a lived in feel. Another huge plus is that all motorised traffic, including the confounded motorbike, is banned from the old quarter for much of the day, thus making walking the streets, where soothing piano music is broadcast over the PA system, a pleasure.
Hoi An has a reputation as one of the best places in the country for food and so far it has lived up to its billing. Sad to say I have found the food in Vietnam a bit disappointing. Perhaps I order the wrong things or am not being adventurous enough, but I have had very few really enjoyable meals so far. Hoi An has been a different story though, and I seem to spend most of my time wandering from cafe to restaurant and back again sampling the fruit juices and goodies, especially the seafood. The food hall is especially rewarding. Next to market, whose traders it mainly caters to, it contains a couple of dozen small open kitchens where one sits at a metal bench to eat the cheap but delicious food on offer. There are a few dishes that most of the stalls have in common but some kitchens will have dishes that are not sold by all and it's possible to order from different stalls and they will bring your food to wherever you are sitting.
There is also a beautiful beach just two or three miles from town and I reach this in 20 minutes on a hired bicycle. The Banyan is the penultimate beach shack bar/restaurant before the beach becomes undeveloped and it is here that I lay my weary body down on a sunbed in the shade of a parasol, occasionally venturing into the water or to the bar for a beer. This area of the beach only becomes busy in the late afternoon and so for most of the day I share yards and yards of sand with just a handful of others.
I could quite happily spend longer in Hoi An but feel that I must see more of the country, especially the Mekong Delta, and so I make plans to travel back to Saigon. The sleeping bus leaves at 6.00 pm and, I am assured, is direct to Saigon and takes 21 hours. In the event the journey takes 25 hours and I have to change buses in Nha Trang where with a few others I spend four hours, from 4.00 am until 8.00 am, waiting on a pavement for the connection. I do however manage to grab a quick breakfast of fried squid and french fries at a nearby restaurant which has just opened for the early morning trade. Finally I arrive in Saigon at seven in the evening in the middle of a heavy thunderstorm which drenches me to the skin with seconds of alighting from the bus and reclaiming my pack. There is nothing for it but to trudge through the streets in search of hotel. Finding the first two I try fully booked I end up paying twice as much as I would like just to get out of the rain. Next time I'll pay a little more and take the sleeper train!
The next day I board a bus to Can Tho, the largest city in the delta. In this area the land is criss-crossed by large and small rivers and canals as the Mekong divides into countless tributaries (not the right word, I know) as it nears the coast. I hire a boat and boatman and set off in the dark at 5.00 am for the floating market a few miles down stream. An occasional drizzle seems to dampen the spirits of the traders and much of their produce is covered in plastic sheeting which unfortunately obscures any colour there might otherwise be as the dawn breaks.
We also visit a noodle factory where I observe the fascinating process of turning rice flour into noodles and cruise sedately between verdant
rice paddies and banana trees.
I had hoped to to travel by boat between various towns in the delta but due to faster and cheaper buses there are now very few ferries left, and none it would seem going where I want to go, and so I decide instead to head for the island of Phu Quoc which is just off the coast. Despite leaving Can Tho early in the morning I miss the last hydrofoil to the island and am forced to spend the night in Rach Gia. I quickly come to dislike the place intensely. There are more more motorbikes racing through the streets than anywhere else I've been and I tramp around the town for ages before I find a Vietnamese restaurant that has pictures of its menu so that I have some idea of what I'm ordering. I go for a Thai hot pot which involves me cooking tofu and vegetables and a few other things I can't identify in a boiling and seething broth at my table. The hot pot lives up to its name and because of its spiciness I am am unable to eat much of it. Despite this I am still overcharged on the bill. This seems to be common practice in Rach Gia where everywhere I go the price is inflated to tourist level.
I am glad to board the boat at 8.00 am the next morning for the four hour trip to Phu Quoc, but half way across the sky begins to darken and before long the rain is lashing down. This turns out to be the beginning of Tropical storm Vamco which innudates much of south-east Asia and lasts for almost a week bringing thunderstorms, strong winds and rainfall as heavy as I've ever seen. Any plans I had of spending some time on the beach go out of the window as the wind blows and the waves crash violently onto the shoreline. There are breaks in the rain though, and I manage to spend one day exploring the south of the island by motorbike. An Thoi at it's southern most point has a large harbour crammed with fishing boats and locals sorting and packing their catch.
For those of you having difficulty imagining me on a motorbike
But this day is an exception and as the rain continues much of my time is spent either in a bar or reading in my room which is becoming increasingly damp to the point where water begins to drip through the ceiling. Being the low season in this part of Vietnam there are only a handful of tourists around, either Vietnamese or westerners, and the area I am staying in resembles a ghost town. On some occasions I am the only person in a bar, outnumbered six to one by the staff. It's a very strange feeling.
And so my time in Vietnam comes to a wet and slightly miserable end, but overall, considering that this is the rainy season, I have been very lucky with the weather during the last two months. I have come to love Vietnam with its many varied landscapes and it's people who have been charming, friendly and hospitable. I am sad to leave but time moves on and visas expire.
Health bulletin: thankfully my tropical ulcers have completely healed and the pain in my legs has gone leaving me fully mobile but with some scars which will probably remain as souvenirs of an otherwise wonderful visit to a truly amazing country.