This post follows on from 'the joy of travelling..albeit domestically (pt 1) and (pt 2). After touring around Australia mostly solo for several years between work commitments and further
study, I decided to get a degree. See 'lie of lifelong learning'... If travel broadens the horizons, overseas travel really expands your mind.
It also makes you appreciate your home...
So it was, in the year 2000 during my second year of undergraduate study at University, my dad and I decided to take a small trip overseas. As we were lacking the time to hit the UK there and then
and wanting something a bit different, we headed off to South East Asia instead. We had not travelled much together before this but i think he had begun to get the 'travel bug'. We booked a tour with Intrepid and ended up touring through Thailand, Laos and Vietnam on a 7-day tour with an extra day or two in Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City as its now known at the end.
Prior to heading off i visited the TMVC – Travel Medical Vaccination Centre for some advice on travelling in South-East Asia. I got soo many warnings about what food to eat and not eat, to only drink bottled water and had my jabs updated as
well as a bunch of tablets for anti-this and anti-that. I think one was Quinine, an anti-Malarial. I was well-prepared, in fact you could say I was alert and alarmed. My dad, on the other hand, just went to the family GP and wasn't given any of this just a
'be careful' and 'have a good time'.
Our tour itinerary took us first to Bangkok, Thailand and from there we travelled north through towns like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Chang Khong. On the first day in Bangkok,
we had breakfast in the hotel, Dad was grabbing some of the salad. Prior to leaving Australia, we had been warned about the cleanliness of preparation of salad items, so i reminded him to be careful. I must say, I became a little paranoid about the water and
food during this trip. My diet all the way round from that point was fried rice. I figured you couldn't go wrong with fried rice. As i don't do spice, some of the local foods didn't really appeal to me anyway.
We travelled by overnight train and bus to these northern towns. Thank goodness, the beer was cheap there, every night we would have a few of the local brews and talk to members of our tour group. The
last night in Thailand was spent looking out over the mighty Mekong River. The next morning we crossed the river border by boat into Laos, the 'porters' were waiting
for us. Some would not only carry your bags for a few notes of the local currency = the 'Kip' but they would also offer drugs. I found it pretty common all the way round, maybe because i was, at that time, a young white bloke with a fair bit
more hair than i have now and they thought i was there for that sort of good time? Well, my response was the same in laotian "bawdee" which apparently means 'no good' in other words 'no thanks, that's not cool!'
in fairly basic accomodation throughout the tour and had to get use to squat toilets. Dad and I both struggled with this at first but it was worse for dad as he had a bad knee at the time, one of those 'old football injuries'. While in Laos, we travelled
by slow-boat down a fast-flowing river and stayed overnight in Pak Beng, a small trading town on the banks of the Mekong River. This town ran on generators and the power would go out
around 9pm. This was our first taste of Lao Lao which is a rice wine and also of BeerLao which was a great beer and
so cheap. We spent several days in Luang Prabang which used to be the capital of Laos. This town had a lot of old French style architecture and the people were friendly and fairly relaxed,
bit different to the Thais.
We then moved on the next day to LaoPako a sort of environmental resort in the forest. Well, the bugs there including tarantula sized spiders and others kept me awake. We had bug spray and mosquito nets over the beds but there were large holes in the nets and it was just
not doing it for me. I remember playing jenga with a couple of ladies from the UK in the main dining/recreation area all night rather than go back to our huts. The following day we asked
the tour leader if we could go to the city of Vientiane and stay there instead.
Vientiane had, not long before our visit, a bombing in one of its main marketplaces and we had been warned of this, it was the reason we were not staying in the city. The bombing was blamed on the Hmong tribespeople, but you see the Laos government was trying to move these mostly hillside people into the valleys and the more populated areas because they wanted to keep an eye on them. The three of us ended up in the city at a nice
hotel and after a quick early dinner we just went back to our rooms and slept, given we had stayed awake the previous night. The rest of the party joined us the next day for a tour of Vientiane before making our way to the border with Vietnam.
Crossing the border into Vietnam was an experience including the drunken border guard and tax evaders walking the 'goat track' next to
the gates in order to avoid the taxes on goods from one country to another. We saw many make this climb over the hill with fridges and all sorts of white goods strapped to their backs. We were told not to make jokes and to stand along a wall while at the border
crossing. Also, not to display any money as that would be an open invitation for possible corruption. We got through there reasonably quick, though i think that had something to do with one of the female border guards asking our young male tour leader named
Mark whether he was married. He said he wasn't married yet and to this she smiled and waved us through.
In Vietnam we visited Vinh, we drank Bia Hoi and again it was good and cheap. We travelled mostly by minivan and i was impressed by our drivers who negotiated their way through the chaos of bicycles, scooters and increasingly other cars. Cars are expensive in Vietnam because
of the high taxes but there did seem to be a large number of cars and trucks on the road sharing the space with cycles and scooters and not necessarily following any form of road rules that i could recognise. The busy pace of Vietnam really grated on me, the
simple act of walking down the street saw people constantly in your face trying to sell you something. We were amazed at the hills cut away to make way for rice fields, we saw people working the fields from dawn to dusk. After Vinh we headed north to Hanoi.
We visited the museums including the Hanoi Hilton,
it was very interesting to see war museums basically praising the efforts of the Vietnamese while labelling the USA as an 'imperialist dog'. These displays talked about war crimes by American soldiers and the corruption of South Vietnam. But there didnt seem
to be any venom in it, we saw lots of Americans with their veteran caps wandering around and the locals didn't seem to mind. They were too busy getting on with business...
The tour group that we had come to know spent their last night in Hanoi, at a nice restaurant where the tour guide told us to order whatever we wanted. He assured us it was all good food and they hadn't had a problem.
I went for something a little more exotic than fried rice. Later that night, both dad and i began the constant run to the toilet, we took it in turns. Luckily we had some Imodium tablets with us and took
those. Dad said later it fixed him up but I then had the opposite problem and for the last leg of the trip, i couldnt go to the toilet.
The next leg was flying from Hanoi to Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City. We walked into the airport and saw two men in uniform talking and smiling, when they finally saw us they barked orders and wouldnt even process us together but separately. The flight itself was okay, we ended up talking
to some American veterans of the Vietnam war who were on tour around the country they once fought in.
Saigon was hustle and bustle central with people constantly in your face trying to sell you something. It got to a point where i didnt
even want to go out of the hotel room. While in Saigon, i did get to see the Cu Chi Tunnels, I crawled through both the 'western section' and the 'local section' of the tunnels
with a guide. The 'western section' being slightly larger and more for the overseas tourists. I loved the Cu Chi Tunnels themselves and the various 'boobytraps' on display but there were some animal displays that i wasn't happy about such as monkeys in small
cages and some bears etc.. We went with a local tour company, along the way they took us to different stores for souvenirs, art and craft, i figured they had a commission deal with these shops.
We flew back to Australia via Bangkok and
Singapore airports. The amount of food on the Singapore Airlines flights was amazing but not so great for my already troublesome gut and bowel. I must of sat on the porcelain throne for hours upon my return home. I have, up till recently, kept in contact with
one of the blokes from that tour group. He's an english guy who lives in London and on our trip to the UK we had dinner with him at a Nepalese restaurant. But that is fodder for my next blog post... stay tuned for more travel stories....