ianskipworth.com > 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.

The London Eye, London, United Kingdom
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Having not slept too well on the plane the night before, I felt like an early night could be in order. However, Lloyd had plans to go out to a club and it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. My travelers rags swapped for clothes borrowed from Lloyd and head spinning wildly, we negotiated the tube to eventually arrive at Old Street station. In a nearby pub we met with friends of Lloyd's and consumed the necessary in preparation for the night ahead. At the club it was kind of quiet at first but things soon kicked in and in the hours of boogying that followed I had an intensely enjoyable time.

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.

The Millennium Dome, London, United Kingdom
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On the the morning of my departure I met with Mum at her hotel and together we tubed it out to Heathrow from where we flew to Frankfurt arriving early in the afternoon. From Frankfurt we took an easy train ride south to Heidelberg where we spent a couple of nights and visited the Schloss Heidelberg.

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.

Sammy, London, United Kingdom
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The next day we took the mountain railway up into the nearby Jungfrau region. The spectacular mountains, the lush green valleys, the rustic chalets and the cows with silly bells were all just like the postcard pictures. These places must be some of the most touristy on earth. There's rich elderly Americans and Japanese everywhere and surprise, surprise, I didn't see a single Israeli backpacker. The Swiss obviously struggle to find things to spend their money on and have built these ridiculously impractical railways which allow trains to climb their way almost to the top of their highest mountains. Our train took us up to Jungfraujoch which at 3,454 metres (11,330 ft) is a fair way up. I felt a little light headed despite the weeks spent at higher altitudes in South America and Mum really wasn't at all well. Although the weather had been beautiful further down the mountain, Jungfraujoch was clouded in and after staggering around with Mum for a while, I was pleased to get the train down to lower altitude.

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".

Heidelberg, Germany
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Having had a pretty good look at Innsbruck, we moved on to Salzburg where we checked out the Hohensalzburg Fortress on our first afternoon there. As castle things go it was pretty good and from the top we got great views of the chilly, cloud blanketed city. The next day we checked out more of Salzburg's sights and admired the dozens of beautifully decorated cow statues spread around the city centre. After another easy and comfortable train journey we arrived in (it means nothing to me...ahhhhh...) Vienna and wasted no time in wandering around the city centre. The architecture around there is as impressive as I can remember of any city with loads of big, old, grand buildings. The Habsburg dynasty which ruled Austria and good sized chunks of Europe for over 600 years must have been unbelievably wealthy. Not only did they pay for these impressive buildings but they decorated and furnished them lavishly and acquired or commissioned countless priceless works of art. In the Hofburg palace we were dazzled by the riches in the Shatzkammer (Imperial Treasury) and in the Kunsthistorisches (Fine Arts) Museum, the building interior and the art collection were very impressive. Schloss Shönbrunn, a massive summer palace built not far from their other palaces was pretty cool too and begs the question : How many palaces did they really need? (and how many do you really need to see?)

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.

Kleine Scheidegg, Jungfrau Region, Switzerland
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They usually stuff me into row 75 right in the arse of the plane but his time we got some kind of upgrade to row 74. Bad sleep, time warp, jet lag, culture shock later and we're in a big hotel in Bangkok. The heat, humidity, filth and noise were a bit much after cold, grey civilised Europe but we staggered about the streets a bit and toured the Grand Temple before it was time for Mum to head home and John to become my next unfortunate travel companion.

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.

Street Scene, Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam
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After spending some time in Hanoi, this really did seem to be the best way to cross the street. You don't quite day dream your way across but the more relaxed you are, the easier it is. Not making any sudden moves is the key so that the myriad of cyclists and motorcyclists can plan their manoeuvre around 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.

Flower shop near Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, Hanoi, Vietnam
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The Vietnam countryside, at least in the north, is pretty cool. All available land is intensively farmed using methods which are probably little different from the way it was done several hundred years ago. The fields are ploughed with the assistance of water buffaloes and the crops, predominantly rice, are planted and harvested by hand. Being so labour intensive, the fields are a hive of activity and the roadsides lined with buffalo or cattle drawn carts and people using the available asphalt to dry rice straw or rice grains. A lot of the people wear the conical straw hats - you get the picture.

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.

Cave, Perfume Pagoda, near Hanoi, Vietnam
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I next headed off on an overnight train to Sapa, northwest of Hanoi, near the Chinese border. At Lao Cai, I looked across the river into China. It's never really interested me much as a place to travel and this could be as close as I'll get for a long time to come. Set in a pretty green valley at some altitude, it was considerably cooler in Sapa. The weather was magnificent but despite this, the great vista across the valley was spoilt by that damn haziness which you get frequently in many places around the world but seldom in New Zealand. I toured around the Sapa area for a couple of days visiting some of the colourful ethnic minority villages before heading back to Hanoi on an overnight train. For a couple of days, I explored the city further and visited two more museums. I tried again to get inside Uncle Ho's mausoleum but it seem to be closed. Although his body goes to Russia every year for maintenance and wasn't there at this time, I think the atmosphere in the place would have been worth checking out. In general, Vietnam is a fairly cheap place to travel but accommodation seems a little over priced and the cost of train tickets is definitely excessive. Despite having to pay many times more than the locals do for train tickets, it is certainly more comfortable and considerably safer than taking bus rides on Vietnam's crazy roads. So, I splurged a little, and commenced my journey south on an overnight train to Hue.

Buddhist Shrine, Perfume Pagoda, near Hanoi, Vietnam
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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.

Countryside, Mai Chau, Vietnam
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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.

Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue, Vietnam
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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.

Kids, Hue, Vietnam
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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.

American M48 Tank, Hue, Vietnam
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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.

With just a few days left in Vietnam, the next day I headed south by bus to my final destination, Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam's largest city and its commercial and industrial heart was renamed on reunification of the country in 1975 but its former name, Saigon, is still used by most of the locals. Like Hanoi, the traffic is crazy and crossing the street is not something for the timid.

Incense Sticks, Vietnam
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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".

Perfume River, Hue, Vietnam
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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.

By the time I caught my flight from Saigon back to Bangkok, I was starting to feel like my big world tour was drawing to a close. It had been great but I was looking forward more and more to getting home. After a few days in Bangkok, I flew to Melbourne where I stayed for about a week with an old friend, Aaron and his family. I had a very relaxing time chilling out with Aaron and reacquainting myself with the city I'd lived in about ten years previously but the trip had really come to an end and I was keen to settle back into real life.

On the afternoon of Monday 27 November I flew into Auckland. On Tuesday morning I awoke at dawn in a strange place. In the half light I looked around an unfamiliar room with that uncomfortable feeling of disorientation. The TV and computer in the room puzzled me and made me think I must have found this expensive looking hotel in a state of desperation. Perhaps I was very drunk the night before. This was going to be awkward finding out where I was and whether I'd already paid for the room.

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