Thursday July 30, 2015 (Asia, Southeast Asia, Thailand, Vietnam)
It’s been quite a whirlwind around here the past few days. I’m realizing that we’ve now actually transferred completely through Thailand and into Vietnam without providing any kind of update. Atrocious manners on my behalf. For that I apologize.
Our plan was to spend three nights in Thailand before moving on to Vietnam. Why so short, you ask? Well, because we’re coming back to Thailand to travel later in September and October timeframe along with Sandra’s friend Robin. By moving on to Vietnam, we can meet up with our friends Joe and Caroline that we met in Kochi, India! We’ll be hanging out with them for the next few weeks as we discover Vietnam from south to north.
To make a long story short, we didn’t do a heck of a lot in Bangkok. Our flight got in at the semi-ungodly hour of 6am. This is obviously made more ungodly by the fact that we left India at 1am. We ate a “dinner” on the plane at the equivalent of about 4am. Free wine and beer? Yes, please! Cleanup, then a twenty minute nap, and suddenly the lights are on and we’re supposed to be awake again for our entry into Thailand. Yikes.
We arrived at the Siamese Views Lodge in Bangkok around 7:30am or so. Of course our room isn’t ready (that’s not surprising). So Sandra and I immediately head out on an aimless wander for a couple of hours to get our bearings. We return by 10am, at which point we’re given two chairs to fall asleep in while we wait another couple of hours for our room to be ready. By noon, we’re in!
It was fun exploring the local area with Sandra. We were fairly close to Khao San Rd, which is the age-old “traveller’s area” of Bangkok. I had frequented the area about nine years ago on my last visit to Thailand, and it has changed a LOT. It’s definitely verging on a Vegas-like feel at this point. It’s much more built up, with tons of signage and lights everywhere! Nine years ago the vendors were hawking knock-off Lacoste polos, Diesel shoes, and pumping Jack Johnson music. Now everybody’s selling tank tops, ripoff Havaianas, and pumping electronic music. The world keeps turning.
We ate three times at a local vegetarian place called Mango Vegetarian Restaurant. Sandra loved the pancakes and I was a fan of the muesli. We both drank Kombucha, as it’s the first time we’ve seen it on a menu since we started our trip! Lychee, blueberry, and ginger flavours. Yum!
We had a great time taking a water taxi to the massive Central Mall. The boat had little handles you could pull which lifted, via a pulley system, an exterior tarp intended to shield passengers from any spray coming off the water. Ingenious! The Central Mall in Bangkok is absolutely massive. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been in a larger mall. Sandra was enthralled with all of the name brand stores. This is a big change from India! There was even some kind of school band talent show going on with judges and everything. This is the place to be!
One evening, I convinced Sandra to accompany me to Bangkok’s latest burger craze: Daniel Thaiger Burgers. It’s really just a food truck located outside of a craft beer place called Whisgar’s. Conceptually, I knew the location. Of course, their location has recently changed and their Facebook map hasn’t been updated to match. Only their latest text posts tell you the new spot. I incorrectly trusted the map. So we ended up wandering around for about an hour trying to find the place! We were both ravenous once we located the place, but the burgers certainly lived up to expectation. Very tasty indeed, and all the better with a nice IPA to go along with it. Unfortunately, there was no veggie burger option for Sandra, so she opted for the tuna melt which appeared to be fairly unremarkable unfortunately. All in all I was very pleased, just don’t look at the pricetag on those beers from Whisgar's. Hayzeus – never again!
Our last experience in Bangkok was the local Hash House Harriers. For those of you who don’t know, they generally describe themselves as “a drinking club with a running problem”. They exist in most major cities around the globe. We’d heard about it from Andreas and Tracy, whom we met on our trip to Antarctica. We tried to get out to one in Nairobi but didn’t hear anything back. This time around, we were determined to make it work!
The run itself was a confusing affair. The Hash House Harriers runs are supposed to be a bit tricky, such that there can be false trails and missing sections of the trail that require the leaders to spend some time figuring out the correct route. This allows the slowbies to catch up. Unfortunately, the trail marking on our run seemed to be a bit under par such that the entire running crew ended up hopelessly wandering about trying to locate the “right way”. Everybody ended up taking their own creative route to return back to the start. Which is when things get fun anyway, because that’s where the drinking begins! I was lucky enough to be selected as the “Prick of the Week”, which allowed me the distinct honour of sporting a demon-faced phallus attached to glittery thong underwear while downing a beer as quickly as possible. Sweet photo op! After the drinking outdoors, we were invited up to the host’s apartment for dinner. It was a very tasty spread, and we had a lovely time chatting with the local runners! It was a wonderful way to get involved a bit more in the local scene of Bangkok. We plan to check out other Hash House Harriers as our vacation continues!
I hesitate to provide a link to all of the sordid images captured during this ceremony, but you're welcome to take a peek at the album if you're so inclined.
So now it’s on to Vietnam: our present location!
On the 28th, we flew into Ho Chi Minh City from Bangkok. In top fashion, the airport allowed for the straightforward purchase of SIM cards – we love this. And an unlimited data plan for one month to boot! It makes travelling so much easier when you have Internet access all the time. After a traffic-filled ride into the city, we made it to The Bali B Hotel and reunited with Joe and Caroline! Hooray for friends! We took a quick stroll along a nearby happening street by the name of Bùi Viện. We grabbed a bite to eat for dinner, and I realized that Vietnam is the home of an awesome thing: fresh spring rolls! Those rice paper wrapped tubes of pure, unadulterated magic. I could get used to this.
Yesterday had us eating breakfast at a place called Bookworms Cafe. They had a bunch of games available for the patrons to play, but we settled upon a rousing game of Trivial Pursuit while we ate. How civilized. After breakfast we headed to the War Remnants Museum. It’s a museum containing a bunch of military hardware left behind during the Vietnam war. We’re talking M41 tanks, F-5 jets, CH-47 Chinook helicopters, and of course the infamous Huey helicopter. Lots of artillery as well, including an M107 175mm self-propelled gun. This artillery has a range of just under 33km. That seemed pretty insane to me. The blast radius was about 250m or so. Unbelievable.
Inside the museum were lots of pictures detailing various aspects of the war, including many showing the effects of Agent Orange on the population. Pretty scary stuff. Overall, you definitely get a pretty one-sided look at the conflict, though. The information panels generally refer to “The US Aggressive War on Vietnam”. I have a lot of learning to do about the history behind it, but I’m trying to obtain sources of information that feel a bit more balanced.
We ate lunch at another vegetarian place called Hum Vegetarian. My fresh spring roll obsession began to spread to the rest of our group – muahaha! Then it was a walk around the Culture Gardens. It’s a really well-kept park and garden area right in the middle of the city. I was shocked at how many people were out and about making use of it! People exercising on the freely-available machines, people running through the park, and several exercise classes going on with music all around. So nice to see so many people taking advantage of the area!
Our dinner plan was to check out one of Ho Chi Minh’s favourite burger places: Soul Burger. I know – more burgers for Ian, right?! I’m a bit obsessed, it would appear. Anyway, on the way over there we took a peek through Bến Thành Market. Normally it’s an indoor market (that we haven’t actually been inside!), but by the time we were marching past there were tons of vendors on the surrounding streets selling all kind of wares. Sandra was particularly enamoured by the knock-off purses. Eventually we managed to locate the thin alley leading to a set of stairs on the way up to Soul Burger. And what a burger it was! I had the "Al Green", and it was divine! Sandra was able to partake as well, as they had a veggie burger on offer. My bun was a bit soggier than I would have liked, but overall the place comes highly recommended. Also recommended is the Bear Beer, straight from Denmark at a whopping 500mL of 12% alcohol. I only need one of those, let me tell you.
On the way back home Joe and I were suckered into buying a little plastic takraw ball. The game is like a wicker version of competitive hackeysack, except our version is the cheap plastic imitation. Our plan is to reach professional competence by the time we leave the country in about three weeks. Easy.
And now on to today!
The big plan was to hire a driver to take us out to the Cu Chi tunnels. This is a massive tunnel system (about 250km in all) dug by the Vietnamese before and during the Vietnam War. The tour provided on-site was excellent, and described all kinds of fascinating tidbits about the tunnels. Did you know the Cu Chi guerrilla force consisted of 30% female soldiers? Wow! That smoke from underground cooking fires was often routed a hundred metres away from the source in order to conceal it, and the fires would be lit during the morning to appear like fog if spotted from the air? Clever stuff.
Regarding the tunnels themselves, there were often three “levels” of tunnels: the first at 3m depth, the next at 6m, and the next around 9m. The guerrillas would generally hide out in the tunnels throughout the day where they were able to stay relatively safe from bombings. At night they would exit for some fresh air. Our guide described how American forces would pump water into the tunnels to force out the occupants (at best). Or they would use hunting dogs to locate the entrances to the tunnels. In a back-and-forth game, the Vietnamese guerrillas would throw spices and pepper around the entrances to the tunnels to throw off the dogs, until the dogs learned that these smells also indicated the location of guerrillas.
Our guide also described the rubber sandals the Viet Cong forces used, which were constructed of recycled tires. The sandals were also handmade in such a way that they could be worn either forwards or backwards. By wearing the sandals backwards, the guerrillas were able to confuse American troops as to the direction in which they were travelling.
Also on display were a plethora of barbaric traps set up by the locals to trap American forces. These things were positively medieval. All kinds of nail traps that rotated this way and that, each with a uniquely sadistic method of piercing or capturing an enemy. Pretty intense stuff, all in all. Massive bomb craters from the B52 bombers are still visible.
We were given a chance to hunchback-march through a length of the tunnels. It’s pretty tough going. And the funny thing is, every tunnel entrance and tunnel bore has been widened (often up to doubled in size!) to accommodate tourists. The claustrophobic need not apply. The tunnels were entirely dug by hand, so why waste any effort opening up a tunnel that was already large enough for a set of shoulders to squeeze through?
This half-day trip was definitely an eye-opening look at some of Vietnam’s history during the conflict. Many times I was left shaking my head at the living conditions that these people tolerated for years during the war. It’s pretty unbelievable stuff, but absolutely worth learning about.
Tomorrow our goal is to head out to Dalat in search of scenic adventures! Beep, beep! Big bus ride on the horizon!