> wanderlust > Out of South America
continued from Skip en Sudamérica - Part 3
These travels follow on from Skip en Sudamérica, a diary of sorts which follows the travels of Skip through South America between late April 2000 and mid September 2000.
After an easy nine hour flight from Caracas, Venezuela, the big 777 flopped onto the runway at Gatwick (London) and discharged me into the first of several queues. The train into Victoria passed by one of my previous residences and refreshed plenty of memories from a dozen or so years back. At Victoria it took a split second for me to reacquaint myself with the underground, the world's coolest public transport system, and in a jiffy I was lurching my way toward Parsons Green station.
Lloyd, an old friend from home was there to meet me at the station and so began my London odyssey.
In the following days of the London odyssey Lloyd and I did the London Eye, a huge ferris wheel with bubble shaped capsules, visited the permanent Dali Exhibition, the Courtauld Gallery, the excellent Tate Modern and the much hyped Millennium Dome. In between activities I had a fine time relaxing with Lloyd, Jane and Sammy in their pleasant Fulham surroundings and too soon, it was time to farewell London.
From Heidelberg we headed south to Interlaken in Switzerland. Germany is a pretty neat, tidy and obviously affluent country but in Switzerland these things reach an almost unhealthy level of perfection. Almost everything seems to be immaculately presented and operates with near perfection. Our train to Interlaken passed through the typically cute, manicured, alpine, lakeside Swiss scenery.
Our next train journey took us eastwards to Innsbruck in Austria. The scenery through to Innsbruck was more of the cute alpine stuff. Innsbruck is an attractive city but the sunny weather we'd had in Switzerland had started to wear off and everything looked a little less rosy beneath the bleak, grey skies. In Innsbruck we checked out the Volkskunst Museum, the Alpine Zoo, the Swarovski Crystal Works and the Hofburg (Imperial Palace). On our last day in Innsbruck we took a day tour across the border into Germany to Schloss Neuschwanstein, the fairy tale castle of the mad King Ludwig II. It was extremely touristy and the castle sort of lacks authenticity but it was impressive and the story of the mad king quite interesting. On the way back from the castle we stopped at Oberammergau which the guide book correctly described as "unbelievably touristy".
Another cool thing we did in Vienna was visit the Kunsthauswien, a building designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser and dedicated largely to displaying his art. He spent quite some time living in New Zealand and designed the well known public toilets in Kawakawa and the proposed alternative green koru flag for New Zealand. His art is very easy to like as is the goofey architecture of the Kunsthauswien and the nearby Hundertwasserhaus.
After four nights in Vienna it seemed like time to move on. We headed back into Germany on a swanky ICE train which never seemed to reach its top speed of 250 km/hr or more but was still pretty fast and comfortable. The German immigration people and police with huge panting dog beast from hell could do with a little work on their PR but the dog beast didn't even sniff in our direction and I think it might even have quite liked me if we'd just had time to get to know each other. A few hours later we arrived in Regensburg, a pretty little town with narrow cobbled streets and impressive cathedral but I'd almost seen enough of that sort of thing and hopping on the plane the following night in Frankfurt provided a refreshing start to the next phase of my travels.
Back into backpacking mode, we headed off to Khao San Road where all the others of our kind hang out. We drank too much for two nights but didn't succumb to the sleaze although I'm not sure John wasn't tempted. Nursing hangovers we then headed off on a bus to Pattaya. Pattaya isn't very nice but there are beaches and diving there. It's a package holiday destination and must draw sexual deviants from all over the world. I saw a few family groups with kids there and felt sorry for them. After a day of watching all the sad bastards on sex tours, their choice of holiday destination must have seemed like a terrible mistake. Needless to say, it wasn't my kind of place but I can't speak for John. We went out diving for a day but the underwater visibility was disappointing. Any diving is good but this certainly wasn't great.
Back in Bangkok the next day, we picked up visas and flight tickets for Vietnam and flew to Hanoi the following day. The thick, thick cloud and drizzle on our arrival was a bit depressing but the oppressive heat of Bangkok was gone and it felt a whole lot more comfortable. The notorious bureaucracy of Vietnam seemed like a myth as we breezed through the airport on arrival and then headed off for the city. Bangkok has lots of cars, Hanoi has lots of bicycles and almost as many motorbikes. They move along the busy streets in swarms defying any traffic rules which might exist. It's absolutely chaotic but nobody seems to crash. Maybe there is a god (but I don't think so). You get the feeling that the best way to cross the street would be to do it in a complete day dream in the confidence that they'll all skillfully swerve to avoid you.
John had little more than a week in Vietnam so during his stay we tried to pack in a fair amount. Things in Hanoi are very well organised for travelers and it's very easy to arrange tours of one or more days in the area. After a couple of nights in Hanoi we left early in the morning for Halong Bay, on the coast east of Hanoi. The tour took us by bus to Halong City and then on a slow boat ride of about four hours to the island of Cat Ba where we stayed the night. The attraction of Halong Bay is the thousands of mostly tiny, jagged limestone islands forming a labyrinth of waterways which are just beautiful to cruise amongst. If the water had been a deep blue with no rubbish floating in it, it would have been even more beautiful but it wasn't like that. In Thailand, high speed boats would have been screaming everywhere but Vietnam seems not to have yet been fully spoilt. Although there were plenty of boats about, they're all either rowed or powered by cheap Chinese put put motors. The limestone islands are riddled with caves, some of which we stopped to see. They were big and pretty impressive but the excitement which you would get from exploring them by torch light was kind of spoilt by the permanent lighting system hooked up to tasteless multi-coloured fluorescent tubes.
On returning from Halong Bay, John and I hung out in Hanoi for a day before heading off on a trip to Mai Chau. In Mai Chau, most of the people belong to the White Tai ethnic minority and we stayed in one of the stilt houses belonging to them. The local people seemed incredibly friendly and waddling through the surrounding farmland and villages was very pleasant.
Back in Hanoi, we tried to behave badly in an expat watering hole on John's last night in Vietnam but failed to emulate the performances of the seasoned locals despite spending plenty of John's money. Being loud mouthed, pot bellied Aussies on fat US dollar contracts would have allowed us to fit right in but we were no match for them and shuffled home early and sober by their standards. After John's departure I hung around in Hanoi for three nights trying to organise a tour to Sapa but also spending a lot of time getting to know the city better. I checked out the Army Museum, the Maison Centrale where US POWs were imprisoned during WWII, (Uncle) Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, his museum and his stilt house. The displays in these places give you some funny kinds of messages. The benevolent Uncle Ho is worshipped everywhere of course, the Americans are described as the "imperialist aggressors", every North Vietnamese action of the war was "heroic", and the former South Vietnamese government is branded as the "puppet regime". It's not high powered propaganda but it must have done the job on me because I have plenty of sympathy for Uncle Ho and his comrades.
The area around Hue,
particularly the DMZ (demilitarised zone) to the north, was the scene
of some of the fiercest battles during the Vietnam War and on my first
day in Hue, I took a day tour up to the DMZ. At most of the sights we
were taken to, there isn't a whole lot to see. Probably the most famous
of the sites is the Khe Sanh Combat Base which the Americans came to regard
as strategically vital and at one stage had 6,000 troops there to defend
it. The base seems to have been somewhat foolishly located within artillery
range of hills across the border in Laos with the result that the North
Vietnamese were able to lob in artillery shells and lay siege to the base
for 75 days. The American response was to drop 100,000 tonnes of bombs
in the area but they were unable to silence the artillery. We had a very
good local guide who who kept saying "I remember when..." and told us
of a North Vietnamese veteran he'd met who told him that they were able
to haul the artillery pieces inside caves in the hills in between shelling
in order to avoid the bombs.
The battle for Khe Sanh was the single largest of the war but after successfully holding the base, the Americans eventually decided that it actually wasn't so important and promptly withdrew. Today, there is little to see there except a small museum and a memorial. At one time there must have been a mountain of junk lying around but the impoverished locals have been scouring the site for 25 years looking for scrap metal (and sometimes getting blown up by land mines or live munitions). Now there are coffee plantations and a few local kids selling rusty bullets and very convincing looking fake US soldier dog tags. Much of the DMZ area was heavily doused with herbicides, particularly agent orange and it's quite sad to see that even today much of the landscape is somewhat barren. Most of this area was originally covered in dense jungle but a lot of the hills today still have nothing but grass and a bit of scrub on them. In flat areas you can still make out bomb craters. The most interesting thing on the DMZ tour was the tunnels at Vinh Moc. Here, the North Vietnamese built a large network of underground tunnels in order to escape the American bombing. Constructed in three levels, the deepest of which is 26 metres below ground level, the tunnels include many tiny rooms where whole families lived for months or even years on end.
It is impossible to
imagine the impact that the war had on the country but a few statistics
help to give some idea of its significance. The roots of it were established
by a fairly bloody war of independence against the French lasting eight
years and ending in 1954. At this time the country was "temporarily" partitioned
between north and south and from this followed a north-south war in which
the Americans became increasingly involved. From 1959 to 1967 American
troop numbers in Vietnam increased from a few hundred to nearly half a
million. The firepower and resources which the Americans brought to the
war was almost overwhelming but by 1973, over 58,000 American lives had
been lost and the US Congress passed a resolution prohibiting any further
involvement. The Americans continued to provide military support to the
South Vietnamese but by April 1975, the Russian and Chinese supported
North Vietnamese had captured Saigon, the war was finally over and the
country reunified. Over a million North and South Vietnamese soldiers
and approximately four million civilians had been killed. The Americans
won every major battle but lost this, the longest war in their history.
The cost to the American economy was several hundred billion dollars but
what price the millions of Vietnamese lives lost? Despite all this, the
people seem not to harbour any resentment against the Americans.
The next day in Hue
I toured the local area on the back of a motorbike. As the former home
of Vietnam's Nguyen Dynasty emperors, there are extensive ruins of the
former imperial palaces within the citadel and many large tombs of emperors
scattered around the city. Many of the buildings in the citadel were completely
destroyed during the fierce fighting of the war but the tombs seem to
have escaped this and are fairly impressive if a little run down and in
need of maintenance or restoration. On my first day in Hue, I met an Australian
war veteran in a state approaching inebriation and spent all my nights
there with him and others developing a strong liking for the local Huda
beer. After four nights of this it was time to give my body a rest so
I jumped on a day bus heading south to Hoi An.
This picturesque little
town seems to have escaped most of the ravages of war and has lots of
interesting old buildings. Hoi An is also well known for its garment industry
with many tourists stocking up on tailor made clothes here. In Vietnam,
you typically get approached by dozens, if not hundreds of touts or vendors
every day and fending them off is a necessary daily chore. I had no intention
of buying any clothes but found myself surrounded by three of the cutest
little Vietnamese girls in a restaurant who eventually managed to lure
me to their shop. Needless to say, from this point on the sale was a formality
and I ended up having a few clothes made for me. A lot of Vietnamese girls
are very pretty and with their beaming smiles, it's sometimes very hard
to get rid of them. You tend to do a lot of smiling in Vietnam. It just
seems rude not to smile back at all these happy faces.
The bus journey south
from Hoi An to to Nah Trang took 11 hours and seemed like a bit of an
ordeal. Much of the road isn't wonderful but they are doing an incredible
amount of work on improving it and building dozens of new bridges so it
will undoubtedly be a lot better in a year or two. On this bus journey
it started to rain heavily. At times the road was completely submerged
and locals beside the road would get a horrible drenching from the bus's
bow wave as it sped through. This was the first major rain which I'd seen
after over three and a half weeks in Vietnam. It didn't rain all day however
and at the end of the journey it was hot and dry again.
Arriving in Nah Trang
in the evening, I immediately checked out scuba diving possibilities but
was told that all diving operations had shut down for the season and wouldn't
open again until January. Disappointed, I booked on a boat tour instead.
These boat tours have a reputation for their drinking and this one didn't
disappoint in that respect. After a reasonable snorkel and a beautiful
lunch, the special surprise of the trip, the floating bar, was launched.
One of the crew sat in the middle of a big floating ring with a crate
of bottles of port like stuff and we all bobbed around in the water beside
it and kept our cups above water level with the assistance of life rings.
The rest of the day becomes a bit hazy after that but I know that I lost
my (cheap, crappy) watch and after the boat tour was over, managed to
stagger down to a dive operation and book a dive trip for the following
day. I'd talked to people on the boat tour who'd been diving the previous
day and had told me where to find this place.
Naturally, I wasn't
feeling very wonderful the next morning and had uncertain memories of
arrangements made the previous night. However, I made it onto the dive
boat and endured the day reasonably well. At eight to ten metres, the
visibility wasn't great but it was reasonably pleasant diving.
As if the Vietnamese
propaganda machine hadn't already done a good job on me, they really turned
up the heat at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. I'd already been exposed
to quite a bit of this stuff, mainly in Hanoi, but I found this museum
to be particularly interesting and quite moving. There was all sorts of
American armour, artillery and weaponry on display but the photographs
were by far the most compelling. There's a lot of gruesome stuff - mutilated
corpses, victims with burns and bomb shrapnel wounds, young people supposedly
deformed at birth by herbicides, even deformed babies in jars. There's
photos of atrocities supposedly in progress - it's all very sobering stuff.
I noticed other people in one particular room with looks of shock and
disbelief on their faces as I had on mine. I sat down on a seat outside
that room for a while feeling like a zombie. In another room was an excellent
display of photographs taken by mostly western photojournalists covering
the war. Many of these photographs had been made famous following publication
in the western media and could hardly be described as Vietnamese propaganda.
There were some beautiful and moving photos and photo-essays amongst them
and a memorial to the dozens of photojournalists who lost their lives.
It really was an extremely dangerous job because they had to be right
in the thick of the action to get many of these photos. There was also
a room displaying photos and posters from antiwar protests around the
world and something which I'll remember for a while; An American veteran
had had all his medals framed and sent them in to the museum. A small
plaque on the frame said "TO THE PEOPLE OF A UNITED VIETNAM, I AM SORRY,
I WAS WRONG".
The next day I visited
the Reunification Palace, formerly known as Independence Palace or the
Presidential Palace. This architecturally impressive building constructed
in the mid sixties was the home of the president of the South Vietnamese
government and the scene of the famous footage recording the North Vietnamese
T54 tanks crashing through the palace gates to bring an end to the war
on April 30th, 1975. The interior of the building is grand with beautifully
furnished conference rooms and presidential receiving rooms. An extensive
network of basement tunnels includes communications and war rooms still
full of equipment and with huge maps on the walls.