The abbreviation "LP" stands for "Lonely Planet". This is the traveller's guidebook that every globe-trotter simply has to have. Often it's called "The Bible". LPs have been written for many destinations. Here, I only talk about the Vietnam edition. The publisher of all Lonely Planet books is Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd, Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia.
Ordering the ticket is an even closer affair. As I do not know if my Visa will arrive in time, I try to keep the departure date open as long as possible. After I receive my Visa, I try to fix a date but by then all tickets with my desired return date are sold out. My friend Liske from the travel agency presents me my tickets 2 hours early to the departure; she brings it right to the check-in point at Frankfurt Airport. The return date is 16th January, 10 days later than what I want, but there is still the option of rebooking. The DM 2250.- ticket is by Malaysian Airline System (MAS). Hence I go to Hanoi via Kuala Lumpur (KL). Return is from Saigon via KL. The people who suffer most from my chaotic planning are my parents. Second most my friend Liske.
My luggage consists of the utmost necessities, including an electrical switch and a 28" bicycle wheel with a "Torpedo" three-speed hub. My rucksack is just a bit over 5 kg, perfect hand-luggage. The wheel goes unaccompanied.
The flight to KL is smooth, MAS service is ok, the pineapple juice is worth mentioning. The passengers around me are generally nice, not that type of Beer-Sex-'n-Bali tourists.
Hotel Malaya is a very nice one, things are clean and well-maintained. Fortunately, there are some more travellers around, so I don't look too much out of place with my worn blue-jeans and Chinese sports shoes. The check-in people give me a room and tickets for food, I cash the one for makan tengah hari right away. After lunch I take a nap - I'm tired. When I wake up, it's already late afternoon. I go out, have a look at Chinatown. The area is somewhat familiar to me. I've seen it before. I've been here with my friend Chong in August. Though it's crowded and noisy, I like it this time. I have a short shopping list, slippers and a towel. I can only find a towel, the slippers I don't like. Then I go for snacks and drinks. I meet a couple of nice guys from Burma and we see a movie together. After this, I find me a stall with roti canai, I can't miss that when I'm in KL. People stare at me when I eat that roti with my fingers - what's wrong ? New manners in KL ? Maybe I'm the only true Malay there...
I start wondering why I shouldn't spend 4 weeks in beautiful Malaysia, I already feel so much at home, here. Besides, it's "Visit Malaysian Year" ! Well, I have to visit my Vietnamese friends, they'd be waiting. I return to my hotel room, try to switch off the aircon but don't succeed though I'm an electrical engineer. With a feeling of guilt I force the window open. Immediately, the room fills with damp and smelly KL air. I sleep well on the nice bed, take my breakfast in the morning, have another walk around Chinatown. I buy the latest Gelihati and take a taxi to the airport. MAS takes me to Hanoi, same pineapple jus again. There are French and a lot of Australian passengers aboard. The Hanoi airport looks a bit devastated, a few military planes and not much more. The white MAS plane doesn't fit in there. They even don't have a bus to carry us to the terminal.
Tim (from Australia) and me, we get off at Ho...n Kim Lake. We look around for a hotel and find a 14 $ / hot shower double-room thing. We leave our luggage and walk around Hanoi. The traffic alone is a sight. We change money and eat at a roadside stall where old women sell their homecooking. We only order simple things because we're not sure what the other things are. Our choice wasn't bad and the price is incredibly low, a matter of 2500 dong (0.25 US$) for us two.
Hanoi, like many other Asian towns, has businesses grouped by streets. For example, you find a street for motorcycle spares, one for cameras, one for books (they have the very latest Lonely Planet !!!), and so on. We happen to stumble into the "Meeting Cafe", 59 B... Trieu. It's a place where travellers must definitely go. There we book a 2-day trip to Halong Bay for the next morning.
In the late evening, I decide to visit my friend Phan in southern Hanoi. Though cyclo is not my favourite type of transport, I have no choice. A lady from the hotel finds me a cyclo, we agree on a price of 10.000 dong. The cyclo driver seems angry because I must pay more, I'm a tourist. Still we go. Next corner, we stop. The driver takes my 10.000 dong and demands another dollar. I don't want to give him the money but he starts to shout. He then finds another cyclo driver who takes me on for 7000 dong. It's a bit tricky to find my friend's home, we have to stop and ask several times. House numbers don't always come in the right order. Finally there, I have to pay another dollar to the cyclo driver. The right price for this trip is 5000 dong. From where the cyclo driver drops me off, a man who knows my friend shows me the way through the housing area to Phan's house. I spend the last hours of the day with Phan. We have a couple of beers, then he drives me to my hotel. I almost can't recognize it because at midnight Hanoi looks very much different - the roads are totally empty, roadside stalls are gone, everyone is asleep.
Next morning, my Australian mate and me, we join the group going to Halong bay. Our vehicle is a modern Japanese minibus and our guide is called Bnh (Pea). We have not a single puncture though the road is partly bad. On our way, we touch no more than two cyclists, this is surprising because there are so many of them. In a small town north of Halong, we stop at a good hotel. We leave our things and take a fisher boat out to the islands and grottos. It's a unique together of narrow passages, traditional junks, tiny islands and caves which can be best described by photos. It's a pity that it is so cold. It's getting dark at 5:30 in Vietnam, we have our dinner and go to the hotel. Next day, we sail the bay again, visiting a majestic cave. This day it's even colder. I wear all I have and I wish I had brought socks. After lunch, we take the bus back to Hanoi. The group is quieter than on the day before. Maybe exhaustion.
I hope for warmer weather in Hanoi, but now it seems to be as cold as Halong Bay. I go and see my friend Phan. He lends me a jacket. Very useful. I can stay in his place, from now on. He and his family take care of me, make sure that I drink enough tea, eat enough and don't miss any of the Vietnamese specialties and oddities (some can be really disgusting). They take me to many of their friends and relatives (boring !) where I take lots of photos of little black-haired people. They can never get enough.
Phan assists me buying a bicycle - I definitely need one because people stare at me when I walk on my feet. I want my "Torpedo" 3-speed hub built into the bike and this causes a bit of a problem. I prefer a Chinese bike but they all have 40 spokes, whereas my 3-speed hub accepts 36 spokes only. Luckily, all Vietnamese bikes have 36 spokes. It's not easy to find a 28" bike with 36 spokes so I settle on a 26" model. It costs 550.000 dong at a (Wild-West) hardware store. My friend manages to find a bicycle repair-man who can fit my hub into the centre of the existing wheel. He does a very nice job for 10.000 dong. We send the bike home by cyclo, where I fit the remaining parts of the gearshift. Next day, I do a trial run. At a workshop further south, I have a small bracket made. It holds the hub's brake lever in place. I don't understand how I manage to get this without talking Vietnamese. I also try to get my saddle a bit higher - the tube is too short. There is simply no longer tube available at Hanoi bicycle shops. After a while, I come across a plumber's shop where they have the right thing: A 22 mm iron tube, 4 m long. This is what I need but the man doesn't want to understand and sends me to a bike shop. Fortunately, my friend's brother has just the right tube at home, so I finally have a bike that fits my size.
I have to practice cycling. It's not easy to cross a main road. In Germany, I do it like this: In heavy traffic, I slowly move to the left of my lane, signalling a left turn. Then I wait for a moment when there is no traffic on the opposite side. I use the moment to turn around quickly on the opposite lane. In Hanoi, a fast motorcyclist slammed into me when he tried to pass me on the left while I was doing this.
Since then, I use a different method to turn around or cross a road: I slowly move to the left of my lane, going the same speed like all the others. I then go head-on into the traffic of the opposite lane. Everyone coming my way hopefully sees and avoids me. I go slower and slower, softly pressing left until I reach the pavement. This is quite a save and common way in Vietnam but it might not work in other countries where drivers simply don't expect riders coming the wrong way.
It is surprising how many people in Hanoi talk German. I stop at a bakery and find out the owner is from former East Germany. I try all cakes and desserts that he has on stock. He gives me an introduction to sour milk; it was by far the best sour milk I've had in Vietnam. It was yoghurt. Too bad that I can't remember the names of all the good cakes. Just know that they don't taste like they look.
On one occasion, I cycle around the northern edge of Hanoi, through small villages and fields. People don't bother if I just cycle along but children come and stare at me whenever I stop. The scenery is not very exciting, no forest, just rice-fields as far as I can see. Poverty out there is a bit hard on the folks. Many kids don't have shoes and it is really cold, I feel like 5řC. Then there are those who stand in the water of the rice fields where they manually irrigate the fields all day long. No job for me. I just take photos.
Hanoi is a nice place, not at all smelly. Though it has clean parks, safe streets and little motorized traffic, I get fed up with it after some days. The weather doesn't please me. At this time of the year, it's always cold and windy. Locals compare the wind to cutting knives.
I buy one of these double-priced tourist-class rail tour tickets and prepare for travel south in a sleeper. Phan makes sure that my bike is taken care of. In the field of bicycle transport, the Vietnamese railway is far superior to the German system.
The overnight train journey is not very exciting. The temperature is comfortable but it's hell of windy with no glass in the windows of the car. I share my compartment of a hard-berth sleeper with 5 Vietnamese guys. They don't talk English at all, so we only look at each other. Rough food is served in military style aluminium containers. Western tourists get the same junk on a plastic tray. These trays have been used by Vietnam Air before. I finish everything they serve and pay with 3 days of moderate diarrhoea. What else could I expect ? I cannot sleep very well though we hardly stop. The berth is just an inch too small for me.
The only reasonable place seems to be the Le Loi. I check in, enjoy the western style water closet and the cold shower. Hue is one of these "border towns" between cold and warm Vietnam. It is a place that is so warm that people don't have hot showers. On the other hand it's not always so warm that you would want a cold shower.
There are few cars in Hue. Most of them are trucks and busses from far and the rest belongs to military or hotels. The Le Loi has several vehicles available for tourism. The hotel offers tours down to the tombs if enough tourists ask for it.
Inside the hotel area, there are some shops. I buy me a map (I don't have to mention that they overcharge me ...) and compare it to the one in the Lonely Planet (LP). They are almost the same. I review the morning's trip and get a rough picture of the area. It's a bit greener than cold Hanoi, also a bit warmer. The steady rain compensates for that bit warmer; I'm always wet and cold.
Hue is a great place for tourism. Everything there is historical and interesting. I already get curious from a look at the map: The palace dominates the city's layout.
On the day of my arrival, I don't feel so well and I do not try to see any remote places. I just cycle about south of the city, hoping to see maybe one of these famous graves. On the (muddy) way, I do Notre Dame Cathedral. Yes, they have that in Hue - as well as a French language institute and French baguette !
I go through an area of hills covered with graves and try to find a nice and big tomb for a photo. Suddenly, I stumble into Vin Th"ng Pagoda. This is not on my map and it's the first Pagoda I visit, so the monks have to explain to me that this is a pagoda. It is a beautiful and clean place, I like it there. There's a 20-year-old monk, his name is Thich Quang TŁ. He shows me the Buddha stature. One of the older monks tries to ride my bike. It's funny, the saddle is far too high for him and he almost falls off. He doesn't want me to take a photo of this. When we sit down and drink tea, we have tough communication problems. Thich is the only one who talks a bit of English, but just a bit. He uses a booklet with the most important sentences, English-Vietnamese and I use the word list of the Lonely Planet and my little Vietnamese dictionary. At least I understand that I'm welcome and can stay for lunch. This is what I don't want, I've been rude enough showing up short before lunchtime. We take some photos in front of the pagoda and the monks give me a photo of Thich with a white pigeon in his hands; then I leave.
In the late afternoon, I go west to famous Thien Mu Pagoda. The monks are a bit surprised that a single tourist shows up out of the blue, where is his boat and his group ? They get the info that I came on a bicycle and seem satisfied. Thien Mu Pagoda monks must be very busy with tourists at certain times of the day. They invite me to look around their place but then ignore me because they are busy with other things. The Pagoda is just like the LP describes it plus there's a nice little tower in the garden on the far end.
On my way back, I meet some German ladies who try to get deep into the history of the site. It is almost dark when I pedal back to the city. Now and then, children playing by the road try to hit me with sticks or bare hands. Some throw stones and other things in my way. I've learned; when I see a child with a clenched fist standing by the side of the road, I accelerate and try to run it down. Running away, the child is too busy to throw stones in my path.
Bach Ho Bridge is an exciting way to cross the Perfume River. The bridge was initially designed for railway only. Later, they added narrow bicycle tracks on each side of the main track. With a plank missing now and then, the cyclist gets a dizzy view of the river below. The maximum-fun way of crossing is to wait until the bridge is free of any Vietnamese cyclists, then take a run across it.
The following day, I visit the Citadel with the Imperial Enclosure. The high entrance fee is hopefully used to restore this historical city. The inner part is in a real bad shape, today. It can be quite a creepy place at certain times, I bet. As I leave, I meet a couple of Vietnamese students. We stand and talk English (in the rain), with one of the guys (H-ng) I make a date for next day - he wants to show me some beautiful girls of his class.
Hue is a student town. There are several excellent language schools, amongst these an institute of French language. Hue girls are said to be the most beautiful ones in Vietnam. They may also be the ones with the best French. H-ng and some girls pick me from my hotel, next day. We go to his school but are not allowed to enter. So we find a caf where we sit down for a chat. How bad that it's always raining ! We sit inside and sip coffee and sirup. H-ng has brought the girls so they would talk English and French with me. They are afraid to talk because they know very little. They ask the basic questions and don't understand me unless I give the standard answers. Soon the girls leave, they have to attend classes.
H-ng is free and I take him down to Vin Th"ng Pagoda - today I have to give them yesterday's photos (many photo shops in Vietnam offer 1h printing). H-ng knows that specific Pagoda and tells me that he often comes there for study because it is a quiet place. The monks are happy to see us again and H-ng can translate English, so we talk a bit more this time.
On return from the pagoda, we are again wet and also hungry. We visit H-ng's favourite restaurant, a place where many students eat. It is located on the right side, if you come out of the railway station. It rather looks like an accumulation of huts. Food is cheap and a bit rough for my taste. This is how most Vietnamese like it. There is quite a variety of things available. We order a bit of each and drink beer. In town, on the other side of the river, I've been into far better restaurants. Many tourists eat in those places but they cost approximately twice as much.
In the evening, I buy me a train ticket to my next destination. The Hue weather is a bit too wet for my taste and Danang doesn't promise a change. So I decide to go to Nha Trang straight in another 2 days.
Next day, I finally visit the tombs. It's a long way to the first one, I cycle maybe 1 hour. Parts of the road are bad and dirty. It's raining constantly. I visit Khai Dinh Tomb first. Vietnamese Kings' tombs are the ultimate type of tombs; huge, with many garden workers and even electricity ! My grandparents' is nothing compared to this. I'm on the track of tourism again - and again I have to pay for it: Entrance fee to the tomb is US$ 3. Though one of the Vietnamese ladies recognizes that I'm a poor student just riding a bike and not having shoes, it doesn't bring the price down. Photos inside the main building cost extra, this place seems to be made for professional photographers but not for travellers. The best bet is to buy those photos in Hue or by the door of that main building.
Further southwest, there's a village from where you can take a $5 boat over to Minh Mang Tomb. It means at least x 10 overcharging. Maybe the LP guys could mark the landing point of that boat on their map. In the village, there are no signs that show the way. It is hidden behind a row of houses. People take care of my bike, then the boat takes me across the main river and enters a side arm. From the landing point, it is just a few meters walk to the entrance of Minh Mang Tomb. The path is slippery, I hardly can stay on my feet. Vietnamese people stand by the way, just waiting for me to fall or to buy their stuff. I hate their staring eyes and pretend to hold on to one of the women for support. She moves away frightened and I smile at her. Minh Mang Tomb, like Khai Dinh Tomb, is a busy place. Everywhere, people work on garden and buildings. It's me who pays their salary through the entrance fee, so maybe $3 is ok. Enough tombs, I get back across Perfume River. On the way, a Vietnamese man gives me a letter to Germany. Like many, he has no trust in Vietnamese mail. I add his letter to the heap I carry since Hanoi.
Just north of the village where I took the boat to Minh Mang Tomb, I find the public ferry. Next time I save the $5 for that boat and go by ferry. Then, I pass several small and badly maintained tombs. Nothing special to see around there. Maybe a snake, if you're lucky. From a hill with several bunkers on top, I have a nice view over the river. The bunkers seem to be party places, at times. At dusk, I get back into Hue.
Dong Ba Market is most vivid at night. The bike-park is on the northern end of the market. It is advisable to bring the bike in there, for security reasons. Around the market area, there's not a lot of light. Some stands use candles and oil lamps, light bulbs look like 15 Watts or less. I personally recommend a flashlight to examine items you may want to buy. It's advisable to bring a good light, the Chinese or Vietnamese ones are scrap. Together with Taiwanese batteries, those lamps are hardly brighter than a candle. I try to find pocket-tissues on this market but they don't have them. Later in Saigon, I see real German "TEMPO". There's also a similar product called "TINPO".
I have breakfast in front of my hotel, there's a small stall selling Pho. Nothing special, but it helps my hunger. The girls at this stall try to be funny but they don't talk a word English.
Here in Nha Trang, I'm going to visit a friends family and all his old friends. The problem is, the family doesn't talk English ! Today I decide to have a look around Nha Trang on my own, because as soon as I'm under the care of friends, I have no freedom left. They become responsible for me.
But now, I'm still on my own and up I go to the Cham Towers again, then further north into the countryside. I photograph the "Nha Trang"-sign to prove I've been here. I also photograph all kinds of exciting vehicles, with drivers and passengers waving their hands just because of me - what a perfect country for taking people's photos !
There's not much to be seen outside town. It's a hilly area with light-green vegetation. Boring. No real jungle. I return to the town. As I cycle, a motorcyclist drives up to me; he wants a chat. I hate it when people chat with me in heavy traffic. I also hate it if they drive up very close to me. And I hate it even more if they are on motorcycles and I'm on a push-bike !
I decide to stop and get the chat done by the side of the road. Well, the guy invites me to his home. This home looks half-Christian, half-Buddhist and claims to be Christian. Nothing to be scared of. He invites me to join tonight's Christian party. We agree that someone picks me up from my hotel in the evening.
I'm glad that I found an English-talking man and it's a perfect occasion to ask if he would want to translate for me so I could meet my German friend Hung's family. He agrees and we do that right away. I also meet some of Hung's old friends. We plan a date tomorrow because today is the Xmas Eve party. I take a nap until the afternoon, when a man I haven't seen until then comes to fetch me with his motorbike. He carries my card so I know that I can trust him. I wonna have my own transport; I follow him with my bike. He leads me to the house I've already seen in the morning and there we wait for other guests to arrive. It seems to be one of these show-around-a-European-guy parties. Many come, have a few words with me and go off again. Am I so disappointing ? The remaining ones sit down and we eat Vietnamese specialties (like these half-developed duck-eggs; and this on Xmas eve !) and drink strong liquor, at least everyone apart from me. Then an old English-language teacher joins the party. His American language is quite good but he is already a bit too drunk. I don't know what he wants when he says that I should pay him respect because he is an old and experienced man. He asks me to be a bit more entertaining, but this is exactly what I'm not good at. I manage to sing songs but don't manage to get drunk. I can't. I don't trust these people. That teacher tells me that I'm under friends, they are all in his class. I must let myself go, get drunk and sing, forget everything. It is good to do this once per week, he says. He may be right but he won't let go of me, he pushes me again and again to sing another song and to drink more. This party seems to depend entirely on me alone. I'm sorry, I'm locked up and afraid. At midnight, I wonna get out of that place. When I leave, the party has died. The guy who invited me in the morning accompanies me back to the hotel. He asks if I enjoyed it and I say "yes" because this is Asia. My next Vietnamese Xmas would be in a Pagoda, I suggest.
Next morning, I look forward to meeting Hung's crowd. He has an older sister called Luong. Her husband, Khuong, picks me up from the hotel with his motorbike. We move my belongings into his house. There he gives me an own room with a large bed. Khuong seems to be relatively rich. He owns a stone house in a nice housing area off the main road. The place and access road are shadowed by palm trees. Though he has a wonderful and quiet place to live, his office is just a few minutes into town.
Altogether, I spend one week in Nha Trang. Khuong shows me around many of his relatives and friends. We also visit the police station, he has to report my presence. Wherever we go, we take lots of photos. I'm the man with the camera and such men don't turn up so often. I photograph uncles, cousins, ma's, pa's grandma's, grandpa's, neighbours, sisters, brothers, fiances, friends and many more. I have the pictures printed locally, so everyone get's his/her photos quickly. I shoot five rolls of film in Nha Trang alone. Though Konica is Vietnam's best selling film manufacturer, my favourite Fuji 200 ASA color print film is also commonly available. For this, they usually charge something like d 30.000 each roll, not a bad price if I compare to Germany.
Luong cooks for us almost every evening. She cares a lot and prepares many specialties and whatever else I want. When it's time to eat, we cover the concrete floor with a bamboo mat. In the centre, we place the food. We all sit around the food in a circle. This arrangement is very useful because little children and drunken guests cannot fall off any chairs.
The Vietnamese eat most things with chopsticks, others with a spoon. Their fingers they hardly use. It is too bad that I'm sick from the meal on the train and those bacteria mingle with the bacteria from the Nha Trang area. The result is that for several days, I spend a long time on the toilet and have a great desire for bananas. My appetite for other things is low, even Chinese food I'm no more keen on. I'm sorry for Luong who feels miserable because I can't eat. Forgive me, please !
Every day, I meet with my German friend Hung's previous classmates. Now they are students. Their names are Dung, Khu, Lm, Mi, Nghia, Thanh. They always take care of me and never leave me alone. They virtually work in shifts to accompany me. Whenever they don't have to attend courses or do homework, we go out together. We visit all the local sights, many cafs, restaurants, friends and even nice places out in the countryside. They treat me just as if we had been friends forever. We can talk about anything, as long as their English allows. Too bad, English is not what they are best at - but they all promise to practice English so we can write letters or talk when I return. They are convinced that English is very important for their future. Great attitude.
Nha Trang itself is a good place to stay. The only problem seem to be the taifuns. A few days ago, one has knocked down many of the houses that stood by the beach. The inhabitants now populate the beach and live in simple huts until they manage to rebuild their homes. Fortunately, the Nha Trang climate is very mild. In winter it's warm and in summer it's hot and damp.
The Nha Trang beach is the most popular one in Vietnam. It is beautiful and clean, with perfect white sand. When I visit the beach with my friends they say it's too cold for a swim, it's winter. For me it's ok. Some Australian guys might even enjoy the waves.
Early every morning, barefooted Vietnamese folks go jogging up and down the beach. There are young and old ones, even very old ones amongst them. They say hello when they pass each other. Try a 5 kilometer run to find out how good your feet are ! It's much more tiring than a 5 km run with jogging shoes. In addition to the joggers there are groups of old people doing Tai Chi (or something similar). Makes them almost immortal, it seems.
Along the beach, you'll find many hotels that accommodate western tourists. As the sun rises and the tourists move out of their rooms to the beach, the honest Vietnamese abandon the beach and get to work. The remaining crooks sell drinks and food for triple the standard price to tourists. They only talk to people who have white skin and look like money.
Cycling in Nha Trang is not as demanding as cycling in Hanoi or Saigon, still one must be cautious. By now, locals learned that tourists cannot be counted on in traffic matters, so they are already cautious when they see one. There is a simple trick to safe cycling: Go straight and at a constant speed, so that everyone can see what you intend. The faster you go, the higher the chance that others move out of your way. On the other hand, increased speed causes more damage if someone does not get out of your way. You can adjust your speed to match a desired level of risk. No problem so far, but from time to time one has to stop, turn left or right and these are the more challenging situations for a tourists.
For the traveller it's useful to know that Vietnamese often have no (working) brakes on their bikes (especially the chaps I know). Chances are that someone slams into you from behind, if you stop without an obvious reason. For the beginner, it might help to study difficult situations like roundabouts from the side of the road. (You should take out your camera then and pretend to take a picture. If you don't, someone might wonder why you stop and ask you if there's a problem with the bike.)
Mastering traffic may require a little experience, courage and luck but Caucasian appearance is a great bonus (you can ride a push-bike but you count as much as if you rode a motorbike). I personally advise everyone not to cycle on new-year's eve, especially not without earmuffs. The noise of the Chinese crackers does throw cyclists off their vehicles and the smoke is temporarily blinding !
In Vietnam, there is traffic police but they won't bother tourists. They could have arrested me for speeding, but they didn't. For my crowd it was important not to drive past them with more than 2 guys on one motorbike. Police don't mind if you drive drunk or without a helmet. They do just the same and would not want to miss it.
For our trip to Ghost Spring, we borrow motorcycles and go 30 km south. Several kilometers from the main road towards the mountains, we leave the bikes to the care of farmers. These villages are much poorer than Nha Trang. Children beg for money and we ignore them. People here live a simple live. Their clothes are ragged and some are undernourished. I just hope that they don't eat our bikes.
We walk for half an hour until we reach some rocks in the midst of a small river. We sit there and play cards. We're not the only ones. In the distance, there are other groups of Vietnamese who enjoy the sounds of the forest and the murmur of the stream. It's a nice place, just too far from Nha Trang. Maybe this is why it's still nice and hardly littered.
While the others play on, Nghia takes me a bit further upstream. We are both barefooted and we jump from rock to rock. It's dangerous to wear shoes because one can't feel if the ground is slippery or safe. Nghia is leading and he's much faster than me. From time to time, he hides behind rocks and waits until I find him. Then we sit down and he asks me if I know why the Americans have lost the war. Nghia explains that their soldiers can never climb and run as fast as the Vietnamese who have been doing it from child's age. I bet he's right.
Every evening, my Nha Trang friends and me cycle out together. Eventually, we stop at one of the many cafs with inviting music. Like all the others, we leave our bikes to the guard in front of the caf. The guard hands us tickets so we can retrieve them later. We go in, smile at any (beautiful) girl, then locate a table and group around it.
My Nha Trang friends love to sit around in such places and I get accustomed to it fast. Actually, we don't just sit around there; we sip hot or cold (!) coffee and listen to the sound of American music. We try to understand the lyrics of the songs and believe there's a deeper wisdom in them. Even if there's not, it is definitely from the west and it is always loud. The bass is strong enough to slowly vibrate a coffee pot off the table. Loudspeakers need to be big and the sound has to match certain quality standards, no cheap stuff. The music is also best quality: American charts are well-known. For some unknown reason, ancient Boney-M dance music is always very popular. Further south, music is getting harder. Especially the slower songs of Metallica can be heard regularly, nowadays. Some cafs offer music videos as well. In the very dark corners of some coffee-houses, a flashlight comes handy to call (and upset) the waitress. They don't serve Black Forest cream cake in those cafs. Should it be different, get out there.
When I return home, I will really miss this sitting in cafs while enjoying evening breezes and nice cold coffees by the sound of "The Unforgiven" from an 18 inch woofer while peaceful little black-haired people try to catch my ear. There's nothing like this in Germany.
Not only have we been to cafs, there are also lot's of good restaurants around. Most of them are Vietnamese and some are Chinese. Beer accompanies every meal, show that you have style and choose the Saigon-made 333. In Vietnam, the name of a good restaurant is well-known. It is unlike elsewhere in Asia, where the most excellent delicacies are sold by simple roadside stalls.
All my Nha Trang friends, most of all Khuong (he's responsible for me), worry about my safety because I like to cycle fast, far and alone. On one occasion I do a day-trip, leaving Nha Trang to the north and returning from the west. The countryside is not exciting but it is great fun cycling. The hills are easy to do with the 3-speed. Downhill, I go past cyclists who push their bikes; they don't trust their brakes. Some bad stretches of the road require my full attention. There are so many pot-holes that busses and trucks can only creep along. I go past them all and never see them again. Every kilometer or so you see elevated water tanks where vehicles can stop and buy coolant. It works like this: In addition to the normal cooling system, Vietnamese vehicles have a second cooling circuit. To be precise, this is not a circuit but a one way arrangement. The water comes from a tank on the roof, runs through the engine and drops to the street. A local guy told me that they have this because it allows them to drive faster and makes the motors last longer.
Country folks are often surprised to see me turn up out there. It's not a problem for me; I'm gone by the time they realize that I'm not Vietnamese. I don't like to stop in villages with crowds of kids who want to play with me and my bike. I find no comfortable place where I can take my lunch and I just go on and on. When I reach the outskirts of Nha Trang, I buy food and drink from roadside stalls. People who stare at me, I photograph.
On another occasion, I go straight north from Nha Trang. My destination is a place called Three Lakes. I'm not sure if I can do it - it's maybe 30 km with parts of the road in a doubtful condition. Friendly motorcyclists push me from time to time and I even get chances to hitch slow motorized vehicles. I wonder if my return would be that convenient. Near the road, I see an interesting rock and a nice stretch of beach. I'm curious and stop. There are western tourists (a Swiss couple) plus a local guide. I talk to them and they invite me to share a boat to a place called Monkey Island (Lucas Arts is not in this business). I join them and we sail over to an island with low vegetation, only small trees. As our boat approaches the shore, a pack of monkeys comes out to the sandy beach. Too bad that we forgot the bananas. We send the boat back to fetch some. Meanwhile, I walk around the northern tip of the island. People have been camping around there. The vegetation is dry with many thorns. The sun is hot and I can imagine far better islands. I return to the landing point where the boat has arrived. The monkeys just finish the rest of the food.
Our guide shows us something about monkeys' nature: He embraces the male tourist in view of a male monkey. The monkey doesn't care. Then he embraces the female tourist: This starts the animal shout in jealousy !
While the boat carries us back to the mainland, we decide to visit the Three Lakes. First we take our lunch. It consists of an excellent (!) rice soup and beer, of course. Slightly dizzy, we travel on. We've been riding for just a few minutes, when one of the motorbikes blows a tire. The next repair shop is half a kilometer away and we go slow. I happen to carry a puncture repair kit for my bicycle. We use it because it is faster and safer than the traditional way. First, the man is suspicious but he knows how to handle it. Maybe he has no trust in chemical vulcanising. Surprisingly, it works out perfectly well though the patch was made for push-bikes only. I can only recommend to bring enough of these repair-kits, you will always need it, no matter what's your vehicle.
With a mended tire, we continue our journey. My bike remains at the repair shop and I take my seat on the guide's Honda. (By the way, he works at Vinegan Restaurant, Nha Trang.) He's handicapped, lost his two hands. Still he's a good rider. The two Swiss share the other bike. We soon leave the road and follow a dirty track. In the last village, we park our bikes and walk on. The path ends and we have to climb rocks. Our guide has no problems jumping from rock to rock with no hands. The Swiss do very well, maybe they go climbing at home. It's just poor me who is afraid to go fast, I'm always slow and hesitant. We rest for a while, then move on to the first lake. There are obstacles I cannot get across without the help of the others. I'm terribly afraid to slip. At the first lake, I take a bath. The water looks cold but it's comfortable. There's a current in some places. It gets very strong towards the shallow drain of that lake. All right, I'm wet and we can return now.
At the repair shop, I recover my bike and say goodbye to the others. There are no slow vehicles and friendly motorcyclists who push me, I have to pedal all the way. Fortunately, I ride south. It's the direction of the wind. I cannot recommend to travel Vietnam from south to north on a push-bike when the other way is so much more convenient ! It's not far from Nha Trang, where I see a small Pagoda with a tower almost like Thien Mu in Hue. Just that this one is nice and well-maintained though not quite as big as the one in Hue. Take a photo is all I have time for. I do not want to enter and be shown around the complex. It's getting dark and I need to get home. The last slope on my way is very steep and I have to push my bike up. From there it's a downhill chase.
Back in town, I stop and eat French bread with sausage plus sugar cane juice. It's already late and I'm not sure if I can still eat at home. One piece (they are sandwich-sized) is not enough - this I realize as soon as I'm back in the saddle. Again I stop for French bread. This time, I don't have sausage but French cheese with it. In Vietnam, people consider cheese a delicacy, especially if it is French. It's that soft, creamy type of cheese and it says La Vche Qui Rit on the packing ! It tastes exactly like the one I had in France. What a pity that I don't like it.
We have to be a bit cautious with my budget on this trip. We only eat at simple native restaurants but food is not bad. It is in Dalat where I enjoy snails for the first time in my life. They are really nice. The vendor shows me how to eat them. My stomach doesn't complain, just a few tourists fall ill from watching me.
The Dalat Central Market is most interesting. It's the best-assorted one I've ever come across. There you get the snails. Amongst other odd fruits, strange (3-stones each !) cherries can be bought. Strawberries are not very sweet and rather small. Maybe they have better ones in summer. Excellent dried and prepared fruits are also on sale. Dalat is famous for these. Then there are lots of spices but only my friends know what they are good for. They buy some. They also buy orchids that are grown in greenhouses outside Dalat.
Sunday is a sad day, I have to say goodbye to my Nha Trang friends. At lunchtime they leave after they've found me a hotel. Well, I don't have much time to cry because I want to visit another waterfall.
It is Datanla Falls, a place recommended by the LP. I get there by bicycle, straight downhill on the mainroad. Indeed, it's the most beautiful one I've seen in Dalat. From the entrance, a long way - partially steps - lead down to the foot of the falls. There I meet Vietnamese tourists - ah, they come from Nha Trang. What a surprise.
The falls can be climbed and I do so. On top I find a level area with several small pools. A stream is coming out of the forest. Stones in the water are inviting picnic spots. The place reminds me a bit of Ghost Spring. It looks as if one can follow up the stream but I don't do this because I'm alone.
Instead, I return and visit Quang Trung Reservoir. This is not far from Datanla Falls but the road is so bad that I cannot cycle at all. I'm afraid that the sharp gravel cuts my tires. When I get there, it is almost evening and the last tourist boat is just returning from the lake. There's nothing special about that lake; only the water reflects an incredible blue, I don't know where this comes from. I pedal around the lake. On a hill nearby a new Pagoda is being built. It's great to see that Buddhism is expanding. Below the Pagoda, logging has cleared all of that hill. Erosion cut several meters (!) deep into the sandy ground. I wonder what they intend to do with that slope. With the bike, I climb a hill on the other side of the lake. From there I catch a nice view over the mountains and the road winding up to Dalat. Erosion is definitely a problem around the reservoir: On roads where there is no gravel, cars cannot go any more. The tracks are hollowed out.
The way back to Dalat is uphill all the time. Other people push their bikes and stare at me - I have these wonderful gears and go past them all. Back in my hotel room, I plan my trip for the next day. In the morning, I want to visit Lat Village where I hope to see some real non-Vietnamese tribes. Then I will go south to Saigon. I'm not so sure about the way, so I go down to the hotel's reception and ask. A young man who talks perfect English gives me details about road conditions and distances. I then decide that I better go straight to Saigon and forget about Lat Village. I spend the evening with that perfect-English guy and his friend. He tells me that cycling in Vietnam is totally safe. Whenever I get into the night and cannot find a hotel, I could stay with farmers. He says that even western tourists do so.
It is still cool when I travel on. Now the area becomes hilly and my average speed goes down. It's getting warmer, too. The further I go, the more the sun becomes a nuisance when the clouds clear for some minutes. Then I wish I had a Vietnamese hat. Why can't I buy one ? Because they are for women only ! In Indonesia, everyone can wear such a conical hat.
Now and then I stop and take photos of things that I don't know. I'll ask someone later. Now and then I buy excellent little cakes, cookies, soup and sugar cane juice from roadside shops. I find that older women are usually honest though young ones often overcharge me by several hundred percent. My lunch I intend to take in Bao L"c. I cannot get there in time so I'm really hungry and exhausted when I finally arrive. Until now, I've done 118 km. It's almost sure that I cannot get to Saigon, today. Sweating, I sit down in a restaurant and feel dizzy. People stare at me, the mad one who comes on a bicycle though he could afford a bus ticket.
I make them understand that I want rice and fish and vegetables plus water. I get a huge plate. After that, I feel much better. I decide to cycle on until nightfall, then hop on a bus or find a place where I can sleep.
After Bao L"c, the scenery gets very nice again. The road cuts through mountains and rocks, there is forest on both sides. I enjoy this for several kilometers but I cannot go fast any more. It's uphill most of the time. There are few villages and distances between them grow bigger as I ride on. At about 5 pm, I start looking for a bus. There is no vehicle for half an hour, then a private minibus comes along and stops.
I'm so lucky that they are all educated Saigon people who have been to Dalat for a holiday. They talk English and they promise to take me and my bike to Saigon. I board this bus around the area of Da Ha (Nelles Map).
I get a seat of honour next to the girls and we chat. They ask me what I would have done had not their bus come along. I say that there would have been some other vehicle or some farmhouse for me to rest. I've always been lucky in such things. Well, they don't accept this foolishness of mine so I explain that god had sent them and it simply had to come this way. They happen to be Christians. Our journey into Saigon takes another 2 or 3 hours, it is dark when we arrive and they've been telling me horror stories about crime in that city. When they finally drop me off north of the city center, I'm not only excited but frightened. They've invited me to visit them later (if I survive).
In the bottom floor of that place is a reception; there I ask for Thang. It takes a long time until someone finds him and sends him down to me. In the meanwhile, an English teacher with a perfect American pronunciation tries out my English. Then he sends his students to talk with me. They do it in order to please their teacher. What a situation !
When Thang finally arrives, I can't tell if it's him. I've never seen this person before but he resembles his brother.
The school won't accept that I sleep in the dormitory so Thang and a friend of his help me find a hotel. It's not easy, most of the cheap ones are booked out at this time of the day. Finally we find something I can still afford. We make our way through the crowd of whores and lock the door behind us. I leave my stuff in the room, the valuables I take down to the reception. Then we go to a caf - yeah, one of these cafs again. I have ice coffee - great.
Saigon, unlike Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore does not stink. (Well, maybe a bit because of all the motorcyclists.) On the other hand, you cannot find durian fruits there - at least not on every corner.
One reason to come back to Saigon is that it's hard to see all of it during one visit. Saigon is not so small and it's possible to get lost. So I always stay around the center, being afraid that I cannot find my way back. I have a map, still Saigon is difficult to navigate. The actual street names differ from the names in the map. The locals are able to show me the way but they cannot help me if I refer to a map. Hence I try to get acquainted with central Saigon so that I can do without a map. Roundabouts are most critical places: If you can choose one out of eight exits, things get difficult. If you then cannot take a close look at your map and at street signs because the traffic won't let you, then you are easily lost. You might think that it is possible to look at the map before you enter the roundabout, then simply count the exits. This won't work because some of the smaller streets are not in your map and you'll exit early. The best place to stop and decide about the right exit is the center of a roundabout. There, people don't go fast and sometimes it's possible to retreat to a kind of pavement.
Central Saigon traffic can really be a nightmare. If the Vietnamese didn't practise defensive driving, the whole traffic would break down and infirmaries would be full. Mainroad junctions I hate most. Cyclists don't always slow down if the traffic is not heavy. They watch the situation on and around the junction early and avoid each other while crossing. If you are suddenly caught by fear and jam the breaks in the middle of such a junction, then you're going to create a major pile-up right there. As a beginner, one could just close the eyes and go slow but steady until across. I propose Vietnam Tourism awards medals to Saigon visitors who have made it 3 days without an accident :)
Until now, I haven't done shopping because I do not like to carry a lot of luggage when traveling. It's in Saigon where I have all my films printed and do that shop-until-you-drop thing. At the post office, I buy packs of postcards from all over Vietnam. This is a very convenient way to obtain good photos of Vietnam's well-known sights. I also buy cigarettes, coffee, laquerware, literature. Vietnamese clothes are cheap but either out of style or of poor quality. I'm accustomed to the high standards of Indonesia so I buy almost nothing. The same goes for music; I can understand that even the Vietnamese prefer American music.
Consumer electronic products are said to be very cheap. I buy a simple hand-held computer game for $7. Today, these units are spread all over Vietnam. You can say that they've become a piece of Vietnamese culture.
I also buy a Japanese camera. In order to get the best price, I decide on a specific model first. Then I go around all shops and write down their prices in a list. When they see me do this, they usually ask a low price from me. All shops settle more or less on the same minimum. To verify this method, I have a friend bargain for me in my absence but he can't bring the price down any further. Then I buy. The dealer is so happy, I'm afraid that he still earns too much: He gives me batteries, camera case and a film for free, a packet of cigarettes for my friend.
After some days I've bought a heap of things but how can I get them home ? A TV shop helps me out. The owner gives me an empty cardboard box after I've spent 15 minutes explaining that I only want an empty cardboard box and neither a TV nor a loudspeaker.
There are still those friendly people who have taken me along in their bus. They said that I should visit them, why not do it ? I telephone the girl and make a date for the evening. With a friend, I cycle there. It's a long way, Saigon can be really endless. When we are there, we find out that we are still not there: Though the house number is right, we are in the wrong part of the street. Some kilometers further down the same house number will come again. When we're really there, I'm in no condition to visit a girl. I only want a restaurant and a bed. Run Anh serves us tea and her grandma does nice b nh bao for us. Her younger sister arrives as well and we talk for a while; they want to practice English with me. They do this until it's bedtime. I cycle the long way back through busy streets. Yes, still busy though late - very different from Hanoi. There's a black-haired friend on my carrier, street lights are dim, all cyclists go without lights and there are many of them. I go up the main street like in trance. At crossings there's a bit more light and a bit more traffic. I don't really care for the others now, I only go around those who stand in my way. The others go around me, if necessary. I'm glad when I'm back to my hotel. A third-world-whore attempts to slip into my room. She shouldn't be surprised to be grabbed by her nose.
During my stay in Saigon, I visit the MAS-office several times because I need to change and reconfirm my return flight. MAS has no problems reconfirming a flight to Kuala Lumpur straight away though they cannot make sure that I can go on to Frankfurt earlier than the 16th January. I decide to leave Saigon early, so that I have good chances to get on a flight from KL to Frankfurt.
Thang and a friend of his borrow motorcycles for my trip to the airport. It is too far for a cyclo or bicycle though one cannot say that the airport is outside Saigon. It once must have been at the northern edge but Saigon has expanded...
The airport is not too big and clearly arranged, reminds me a bit of Jakarta. I need to do a declaration of what I've brought in and what I take out. They wonna see the contents of my carefully wrapped TV-box but as I start opening it they change their mind and help me repacking. It is illegal to take Vietnamese currency out of the country, so after I paid the airport tax I donate the remaining dong to my friends. I keep a couple of small bills for a souvenir - customs don't care.
I have a Chinese friend in KL and he takes care of me and my luggage. While Chong is busy during the week, I will spend my time in central West Malaysia. Here in KL, my little money can't last.
The bulky part of my luggage, I leave in Chong's place. I only take the utmost necessities like toothbrush and computer game with me. It is too bad that I'm not properly equipped for travel in this area. I lack a dictionary, a detailed map and most of all, money. My credit card is exhausted; I've limited it to 1000 US$ earlier. A rough map I get from the tourist information - this is free and a big help to me. Then I hop on a bus to Mentakap (nr Temerloh). From there, a small train goes north through picturesque forest. It is similar to the Vietnamese trains, just not as crowded at this time of the day. Today, the train goes as far as Gua Musang, a wonderful little town with Kelantan drums in the center of a roundabout right in front of the railway station. Chinese entrepreneurs will run over you with their Toyota 4WDs if you are not cautious in the area of that roundabout. This is Wild-West. Hamburgers are available from a stall right by the roundabout.
The non-Chinese are more friendly (towards me). I meet Malay who work as road markers. They are simple folks from Perak, all very close even with their boss. They find me a room and force the "locals-price" for me. Then they invite me for dinner. In the late evening, they buy beer and we drink it in my hotel room; Malay can't do this in public because Malaysia is controlled by Islam. Then we go over to their hotel where they have a stereo. We listen to the latest Malay music. They know a lot about Malaysia because they've been marking the roads all over the country. They recommend me many nice places for hiking and climbing.
Next morning, I buy batteries, biscuits and parcels of food on the market. These little meals are all wrapped in banana leaves, some can last several weeks without a refrigerator. Perfect for travel ! There's a wide choice and many of these dishes I do not know. Some are typically Kelantanese. Fortunately, a young man explains me many of the dishes in English.
With the late-morning-train I continue north to Dabong, a place I've visited in August already. The town has 12 hours of electricity per day, good to know in advance. One of the reasons why I go to Dabong is my budget. Here I know what things cost and here I can easily spend a couple of cheap days in a beautiful area with forest, caves, mountains and waterfalls.
The government rest house is a well-maintained and reasonably priced place of accommodation. I rent a room there. A cheeky girl from a restaurant says hello as I pass by. She remembers me. Rosnani talks English not too bad. She and her little old dictionary can overcome any communication problem. If it wasn't for her, I'd choose a different place to buy a drink. When I sit down in her place, Rosnani complains that I haven't sent a letter. True - I forgot to take her address in August. Give me another chance.
Next morning I visit Gua Ikan. I have a good flashlight but no guide and no children are around. I cannot find a save entrance on my own, so I take lunch first. Having finished, a couple of small leeches decide to have their lunch. They are terrible little beasts. They jump and stick to my legs, bite into my skin and when I tear them off they sometimes stick to my hand ! I move to a dry place and pull them off, quickly. Wounds bleed on for an hour, but not very strong. I decide it is better to clear out and when I slowly return to the village I meet children, Orang Asli amongst them. They are on their way to the cave. I go with them and we enter. They are no good guides and we don't get in deep. Then an older Orang Asli shows up and offers me his service. He takes us deep into the cave until I can't go on because I'm too fat. The guide is very funny. He carries my flashlight and sometimes switches it off, frightening us.
After Gua Ikan, we visit another cave. We cannot get in far but the entrance is exciting. You dive into a pool, pass under a rock and when you return to the surface, you're inside. We wash our clothes and the kids try to catch fish. They are not successful, so we finish my bananas and biscuits. Suddenly, one of the boys cries out; a small leech jumped up to his breast. All the children run to the street. The guide and me, we follow them after we've finished our meal on a rock. I part with the group not far from Dabong railway station. Their kampung is near the tracks a bit hidden from the road to the caves.
Not far from Dabong is a place called Jelawang. There's a wonderful waterfall near the kampung. When I get there, I meet Bahar (also called Pakda). He's an experienced tourist guide who speaks English well. Everyone around there knows him. I met him last summer for the first time. We talk about the business and he says it's going slow, needs more advertisement. I'll see what I can do.
Today, I plan to go up to the resort (a couple of huts near the waterfall approx. 500m above Kampung Jelawang) but Bahar tells me it is closed during the rainy season. Of course, I can go alone - bring my own food and so on. Bahar says it is save and I can do it if I like to. He only wants me to report to him when I return. He then draws me a map of the way up along the waterfall and also tells me about the forest's animals and what time of the day or night they show up. Before I leave, I buy cigarettes because I'm afraid that there are leeches.
As I climb the left bank of the fall to the first pools, I meet young Malay who play and fish in the pools. They do not want to come up to the resort with me so I stay with them for a while; then it is starting to rain and I abandon my idea of going up to the top alone. What happens if I break an ankle on the slippery track or stones and cannot return ? Shall I lie by the track and wait until a hungry snake or tiger comes and finishes me off ? I know, I'm a coward.
I return and take a train back to Gua Musang the same day, same Chinese hotel again. My road marker friends are gone; instead, I meet Malay and Indians in the place where I eat Roti Canai. I spend 3 days in this little town. It is the town from where I finally get a phone link to Germany.
In Gua Musang I sleep a lot, check out music stores, hang around with locals and chat, eat excellent Malay and Indian food, relax; in other words, I'm very lazy.
When I get bored with doing nothing, I take a look around the natural sights. There is considerable logging activity in the area. Possibly as a result of this, there are government-built Orang Asli kampongs around. Some of the aboriginal folks can be met fishing by Sungai Galas.
Of course, I visit the cave opposite the railway station. This is a real nice one. The people in the kampung below know the way up. Entrance is through a high but narrow gap in the rock. You get stuck in there if you are too fat. A lot of plastic junk has accumulated in the first chamber. To the right, a majestic aisle continues through the mountain. It's clean there. A flashlight ain't mandatory: When the light of the entrance extincts, the "back door" comes in sight just around the corner. From that rear exit, one can climb to the top of the mountain. Perfect view from up there. A number of smaller branches off the main aisle can be explored with a flashlight. The cave is save (for those with common sense). It can be accessed barefoot, no special equipment and no guide is necessary. On weekends, many locals can be found up there. They warned me of snakes but I only saw small spiders in one of the side branches. Foxes (Musang) there are none.
Other caves can be found in the Gua Musang area. People tell stories of tourists who have never returned from visiting them. Some caves accommodate evil ghosts. I wouldn't go without an experienced guide. For the caves that have a ghostly reputation, it is difficult to find one.
A day before my plane's departure, I leave Kelantan. I return the way I came. In KL, I spend my last night (and last money) at the youth hostel near the Central Market. Many Malay but also Japanese people stay there. Most of them are poor though very nice. The youth hostel is a perfect place to catch scabies. I happen to have a bad bed, so they are on me. Tiger Balm can sooth the itching but won't drive the little beasts away; they bite me again and again. By the time Chong brings me to the airport it is already itching all over my arms. Back to Frankfurt airport, I'm ready for the doctor. The experienced doc at the airport's medical facility gives me balm against the scabies. In another day I'm back to work. Busy with the job, I have little time to worry about these tiny, itchy creatures. After 1 week, they are virtually gone. What remains is an itching on my back whenever I think of it. The thought alone is infectious.