A long time on a train

We left Phu Quoc with me feeling a sense of regret. For three nights, two days, we’d hardly left the resort other than a run and a v short cycle ride. There was good reason for it, in that it rained all the first day and we had beautiful weather for the second that shouted, ‘stay by the pool!’. But as we headed off on Superdong 3, skidding at 30 mph across a pool-table sea, I thought, ‘we really should get out more’ (like we did in Langkawi where we hired a bike for 3 days).

We had put the sunny day to good use. We’d planned our final ten days, which wasn’t without incident, C and I had managed a run on the only running machine (I’d forgotten how much I like running machines … I am kicking along nicely – and my heart is pretty much behaving now that I’ve cut out all caffeine), and we lounged by the pool and dipped in the sea. It was fab, although we both have the odd lobster patch to show for it.

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The ferry left on time, and arrived on time, and we managed the connection to the five-hour bed-coach trip to Ho Chi Minh City. Yes, you read it right … a coach, with beds, no matter that it was during the day. Whilst it was hardly five-star comfort, it did give me chance to reflect on Vietnam.

For a start it’s much more prosperous than Cambodia. We started at the southern, Mekong Delta, bit of the country and some of it is very Western. The roads were mostly good, some of the new-build residential on the coast could be any Mediterranean town, the many canals have Rhine-style ‘cloppiter-cloppiter’ barges plying their trade and there’s plenty of industry kicking about. But there is still a lot of poverty and, in public places, so much rubbish even though we’d seen bin men of sorts.

It’s clearly come a long way in forty years since the US used the place for carpet-bombing and napalm practice. And, of course, Vietnam has, quite literally, been through the wars.

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We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and took a taxi to our hotel (Red Doorz – room for £14) only to find that they’d double-booked us and they were trying to find us an alternative. On interrogation we found that they had basic rooms for £10. We took them and they were lovely – with a glass cubicle ensuite. Supper was a mad-dash out into a city that looked even crazier than Phnom Penh, thousands of mopeds scurrying around like a water-scolded ants nest. I loved it. Crossing the road was an outer-body experience. You have to launch yourself into a tide of two wheelers confident that they will miss you. And, so far, they have.

And then the train: the Reunification Railway. With a strict environmental ‘no fly’ policy, and Rebecca only flying when the were no alternatives as she hates it, we booked the 30-hour sleeper from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Hanoi in the far north (£45 each). Unfortunately, as our itinerary planning was never to book anything until two days before, they were out of a four-berth carriage and we had to take two sets of two top bunks in two separate six-bunk carriages, bunks you need a wealth of mountaineering experience to reach. I take my hat off to C for being such a trooper … in the end we were best positioned, well out of the way of the mass of tactile, culturally different humanity. Because the SE Asians are different. There is no sense of personal space, no part of your body they won’t touch to move you to one side, no niceties, no decibels too loud, no noisy children too, well, noisy … no pleases and thank yous, not away from the service industry at any rate.

But, apart from the odd person with a peaked cap who could be overly officious, they’re default position is loveliness. The children are as cute as crib full of teddy bears and, when you engage the adults, they all smile and laugh, even though they haven’t a clue what you’re saying. And we are amusing. At six-four I am an alien from an altogether different planet. The kids stare at me as though I’ve got three heads … until you wave at them, and then they frantically wave back. The adults couldn’t be more helpful, unless you are in their way and then they’ll manhandle you out of it.

So it wasn’t an unpleasant journey, just a very long one. On the other hand we were able to catch a glimpse of the Vietnamese countryside – from bottom to top. And, wow. Just wow. The south is all Mekong, flat and riddled with rivers: beautiful and calming, like a giant Somerset levels. Interestingly we saw massive solar farms and the odd wind farm. The middle is spectacular. High, pointy hills covered in scrubby jungle, the bits between them alluvial valleys rich in rice – all greener than a green thing. And the railway makes it to the coast, clinging to a shear face at times … think Croatian colours, but with junks rather than gin-palace yachts. Perfect and unspoilt (yet).

The north before Saigon was flat again, and not unattractive, although we have some spectacular vistas to look forward to over the next week. More of which later.

Good morning Vietnam!

We left Kampot in very heavy rain in a taxi that promised to take us across the border into Vietnam to a ferry port for $30, a journey of around 30 Kms. Once we were in the taxi the promise dropped to ‘the border’ (6kms short of the ferry) and the price rose to $40. We soon got him back down to $30, but he wouldn’t budge on the border. Ho hum

As we drove (on roads that at times were the worst I’ve experienced), Bex worked out that the price we should pay on the Vietnamese side of the border for a taxi to the ferry was 150,000 Dong (about a fiver; info from Lonely Planet).

Ok. So we paid the taxi bloke and then walked through a very unbusy border crossing, which only required us to pay $1 each at two separate locations for visas that was meant to be free. Oiling the wheels of corruption … if we have to.

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And then the taxi to the ferry. There were four of drivers waiting for us … and the starting price was $30, about £25. I held out 160,000 Dong, to which I was first offered 300,000 Dong. Then 200,000. We walked away … and after 20 metres a taxi pulled up beside us and accepted 160,000 (just under £6).

The ferry terminal didn’t accept a card (£8 each for a two hour journey + 80p each for a bus to the main town on the other side) and the closest ATM was back over a big road bridge about a mile away. Thankfully we had some Dong (come on, no jokes, please) which I’d bought from Olly in Singapore, so we sorted ourselves out and had time and spare cash enough for a simple lunch. Phew …

 

The ferry was better organised than the Malay equivalent and was called ‘Superdong’ … and I’m now struggling not to pen some euphemistic nonsense.

We arrived in Phu Quoc in the rain and it hasn’t stopped. We’re at the start of the rainy season and, so far, we’ve been lucky with the weather. It seems that we might have run our luck. The problem with the rain is that you don’t see things at their best. Phu Quoc is meant to be a bit of a paradise island, but grey skies, browny-grey seas and a wall of rain dulls the pallet. It’s actually not a problem for us, in that the temperature has dropped and at least we’re not trying to see a sight or visit an attraction. But I do pity those who have saved up to spend a week in the Vietnamese sun, only to find that they actually signed up for a week in the Vietnamese storm.

 

The resort (Echo Beach, far away in time), is pretty perfect. Built around a private sandy beach looking to a horizon-filled sea, the villas are spacious and well equipped. There’s an infinity pool, a small gym and a pool table. And lots and lots of rain. I ran on Thursday morning, down to the main road and back, and whilst I popped out on one of the free-to-use bicycles to get some provisions, C did 25 minutes on the running machine.

The rest of the day we did not a great deal. I dipped into the sea, which was warm and busy. We relaxed, took a couple of bikes out in the rain and relaxed some more. We ate, again, in the resort restaurant which was moderately inexpensive, but easy.

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And woke on Friday to bright sunshine. We then spent two hours sorting out our final eleven days. We want to go for a cruise in Haylong Bay and also up country to the tea plantations in Sa Pa. They are both at the other end of the country … about 800 miles away … and we’re determined not to fly. That leaves coaches or trains and, as we tried to book we found that the sleepers were almost full. I won’t tell you how it turned out, but it looks like another adventure!

And an update on real life: books? Well Rosemary, my proofreader, should have the finished article ready for when we get back (19th) and my ambition is to turn it round before the 1st of August … the paperback maybe taking a few days longer. And then onto rewriting Unsuspecting Hero, which I am convinced is the right thing to do. I’ve got some new scenes to add and just generally smarten it up and put it more into my, now slightly more mature (and sophisticated?) voice. I am really looking forward to that. And then marketing in the late autumn … and launch into book 6. Hurrah?!