Transport top trumps: the vehicles of Vietnam

The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed I’ve been back for weeks but most of this was written along the way, I promise. Since we spent much of our time in Vietnam on the road (or river, or in the air), I’ve done a summary of the trip through modes of transport. If you want you can print them out and actually play Top Trumps, although if you have the time to do that then I have serious questions about your lack of purpose in life.

(Side note: are my titles becoming too alliterative? Can a title ever be too alliterative?) 

Train

Speed: 6

Comfort: 8

Fear factor: 0

Entertainment: 5

Value for money: 3

The train from Hanoi to Dong Hoi was probably the most pleasant of our various travel experiences, given the air con, decent reclining seats and the possibility of getting up and moving around, as well as the provision of incredibly cheap hot food.

Although it was surprisingly slow and quite expensive, the only big annoyance was the noise level, which was only partially due to the small children waddling around in every direction. The main culprit was the tannoy system, which periodically blasted out high-pitched, painfully crackly music, with a commentary about whatever place we were approaching. There was also a screen showing “RailTV”, which seemed to mainly consist of a soap where two people gazed sadly into each other’s eyes in a variety of locations.

Taxi

An alternative to taxis: getting hopelessly lost for several hours

An alternative to taxis: getting hopelessly lost for several hours

Speed: 9

Comfort: 10

Fear factor: 3

Entertainment: 2

Value for money: 2

Before this trip you could have counted on two hands the number of taxis I’d ever taken. This is because a taxi in Herefordshire would cost a bomb given the distance between where I live and places that aren’t the middle of nowhere, and a taxi in Oxford would be utterly pointless given that I’ve never needed to travel more than a mile.

In Vietnam, however, we found ourselves luxuriating in air conditioned cabs every other day, and sometimes more often. This was due to a number of factors. They’re cheap and convenient, and when it’s 40 degrees outside and you don’t know where the hostel is (or have a map with street names on it), walking isn’t appealing. We also both managed to have a mild form of trench foot for the first half of the trip, which made walking even less appealing.

The main downside of taxis, apart from being a massive cop out, is that they are subject to the general terror of Vietnamese roads, and usually lack seatbelts, although this is no worse than the buses.

Motorbike

Speed: 5

Comfort: 2

Fear factor: 10

Entertainment: 10

Value for money: 6

We took a lot more motorbikes than we’d planned to originally, and I have to admit that I can see the appeal (even if I stand by my original position in that spending extended periods of time on them is Dangerous). They’re cheap, the view is unimpeded, and the wind whistles off your exposed skin in a way that is both exhilarating and constantly evocative of the possibility of contact between skin and asphalt.

Sleeper bus

My 'bunk'

Settled in for the night

Speed: 8

Comfort: 5

Fear factor: 3

Entertainment: 2

Value for money: 8

We took several of these, which conveniently sorted themselves into “surprisingly great”, “OKish”, and “terrible”, based on a combination of proximity to the toilets, bunk cleanliness, and aggressiveness of conductor.

We even accidentally took a sleeper bus during the day, which was a somewhat surreal experience, given the unusual layout of the bus. There are three rows of bunks, stacked two-high, all of which recline to nearly horizontal and are about a foot too short for me. Shoes are removed upon entry, and when our daytime-night-bus pulled up at a designated pit stop, we were kindly provided with flip flops to wander round the food stalls.

Pit stop

Pit stop

The day-night-bus also had an entertainment system that we’d been spared on previous journeys, involving a number of TVs playing cover versions of songs ranging from “bang bang” (with an accompanying comedy/drama video which defeats description) to “last christmas” and ABBA’s “Happy new year”. This was initially hilarious, then wearing, and, by the end of the journey, torturous.

Various distractions: it's hard to see here, but on the dashboard is a special screen just for the driver to watch terrible cover videos on.

Various distractions: it’s hard to see here, but on the dashboard is a special screen just for the driver to watch terrible cover videos on.

Local bus

Speed: 2

Comfort: 1

Fear factor: 3

Entertainment: 5

Value for money: 10

We took a number of these, especially in HCMC, where the 35 minute drive from the centre to where we were staying could be achieved in a mere two hours. They cost the equivalent of 20p, making them very cheap, but are lacking seatbelts and can be a lottery in terms of fellow passengers. On one bus, I’m fairly sure there was a chicken, while on another we met a very friendly student of English whose pronunciation was unfortunately so difficult to understand (although, of course, still infinitely more impressive than my total lack of Vietnamese) that we mainly communicated in writing. She was interesting and nice, but as Laura and I were both feeling quite unwell that day, we weren’t really feeling the hour-and-a-half long conversation.

Small boat

Speed: 3

Comfort: 2

Fear factor: 0

Entertainment: 9 

Value for money: 4

Floating market

Floating market

Floating petrol station

Floating petrol station

The customary tourist thing to do in the Mekong delta is to go and see the floating markets, so we booked an 8-hour trip on a three-person boat, beginning at sunrise, to see the river and its sights. This was very enjoyable, although it began raining torrentially half way through. The big river was teeming with massive barges which were floating ridiculously low in the water and probably would have been swamped by a medium-sized wave. The small canal was teeming with waterlilies, so thick in some places that our driver resorted to ramming them as fast as possible, although the limited success of this meant we spent some time pulling on branches and shoving lilies out of the way before we made it to the other side.

The trail of destruction we left behind us

The trail of destruction we left behind us

Guided tour

Speed: 2

Comfort: 4

Fear factor: 1

Entertainment: 3

Value for money: 10 

We were loathe to just take a guided tour around the Mekong delta for the several days we had left, as we’d heard mixed things about them. However, the guidebook suggested using a day trip as a good way of getting from HCMC to one of the bigger Mekong towns, so we decided to find a cheap one (approx £4) and hop off at the other end instead of coming back.

The mekong riverbank

The mekong riverbank

This began relatively well; we were picked up from our hostel and hustled off to a minibus at 8am, then driven out to the port of Can Tho, where we were picked up by a big boat and taken a little way down the Mekong river. The main stop along the way was “Unicorn island”, apparently so named because of its shape and not its fauna, a place which had been somewhat brutalised by the tourist industry. We were greeted by bored and angry looking women in luminous green tunics singing “traditional folk music” (which apparently includes “If you’re happy and you know it” and “Auld lang syne”).

“If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands”

After an excruciating ten minutes eating our rambutans (look them up, they’re bizarre) and dragonfruit to an accompaniment of depressed warbling, we were ushered onwards for a trip in a rowing boat. We travelled along a small, idyllic river through the water coconut palms, to the rhythmic, angry thud of the oars which propelled us as fast as humanly possible past the boats going the other way in a manner which was not unlike that of a dodgem.

IMG_0438

We then stopped at a place that made and sold coconut candy, which was surprisingly delicious despite looking like used chewing gum. A longsuffering python was dragged out of a small box and passed around the group.

We finished up with an uninspiring lunch at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, and when we asked about being dropped in Ben Tre (where they’d told us the tour ended), it turned out they’d meant Ben Tre province, not the city. The tour guide promised us it would be easy to get a motorbike taxi for the remaining six kilometers. An hour later, after trudging up and down a stretch of road, we finally persuaded a couple of blokes with bikes to take us into town for what seemed like an exorbitant price, until we realised that the tour guide’s estimate was optimistic to say the least, and the town was actually at least 12km away via a toll road.

Self-guided tour

Speed: 1

Comfort: 2

Fear factor: 1

Entertainment: 8

Value for money: 10

Having gone off official tours, we spent our last day in HCMC wandering on our own around the streets of Cholon (Saigon’s Chinatown) and saw over ten pagodas and other religious buildings. My map reading was successful, so the only issue was the heat, and we saw some beautiful buildings. Unfortunately, I neglected to link names to photos and I don’t have the guidebook, so I can’t tell you which one is in the photo.

IMG_0631

Plane

Speed: 10

Comfort: 5

Fear factor: 10

Entertainment: 2 (8 when equipped with screens)

The plane out was uneventful, as previously mentioned. The plane from Danang to Ho Chi Minh City was bearable, albeit undertaken in a whirl of post-results (and post-loss-of-camera) emotion, but comfort was compromised due to the man sat next to me, who seemed to have no concept whatsoever of the personal bubble, and who splayed his limbs out in cheerful disregard for mine, to the extent that I eventually resorted to deliberately elbowing him every time he slumped into my territory.

This man is pioneering the art of sleep-elbowing.

This man is pioneering the art of sleep-elbowing. I promise this picture isn’t exaggerated.

The plane home was neither uneventful nor comfortable, mainly due to an increasingly alarming series of announcements on the first leg (to Moscow). The progression of events went as follows:

**Is there a doctor on board the plane? A passenger is unwell and requires medical attention**

Pause of around 1 hour, during which we remark that it’s like being in an episode of House, and hope that the passenger is OK

**A passenger on the plane has an infectious disease. All passengers must fill in a form to give to the health authorities in Moscow**

Very brief pause during which we notice that the stewardesses are now wearing face masks

**Would any passengers travelling on a transfer from West Africa please inform the stewards in case of contact with the Ebola virus** (NB: This is probably completely coincidental, but could not possibly have been timed worse)

At this point, we are torn between panicking that we might have Ebola, and panicking that they won’t let us off the plane to make our connection, which leaves (according to my calculations from the onboard clock) about 40 minutes after our arrival in Moscow. The stewardesses do not speak enough English to tell us anything about what will happen. Masks are given to all the children and pensioners on the flight. We are not given masks.

Our panic about the virulent infection that is almost certainly being transmitted to everyone on board is forestalled by the increasing turbulence. At one point, the plane begins dropping out of the sky for several seconds. Everyone screams, and I debate whether there will be time to leave a note before we crash. Fortunately, we stop falling and tragedy is averted.

When we land, we’re kept there for half an hour and I despair of making it back for graduation, until Laura finds out from a stewardess that the clocks are wrong and we have an extra hour. The doctors having decided we aren’t a health risk, we escape the Plane From Hell with mild emotional trauma and plenty of time to catch the next flight which is, mercifully, unremarkable.

That’s the end of the Vietnam posts, but I’m going to the Edinburgh festival soon, where I expect entertaining things will probably happen. Here are a couple of bonus pictures: 

The inside of the Reunification Palace in HCMC

The inside of the Reunification Palace in HCMC

A gatehouuse inexplicably shaped like Sydney opera house, in Ben Tre.

A gatehouuse inexplicably shaped like Sydney opera house, in Ben Tre.

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