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Sometimes it is a good idea to get off the boat

July 11, 2013

… the backpacker boat that is. I am trying to. I am trying to split from the whole fucking programme, just like Kurtz did and head off several clicks north into the wilds of Cambodia*, but in the meantime…

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Spliting from the programme

I’ve realised I’m not really a desert island type of person. I’m on Cham Island, off the coast of Hoi-An in Vietnam. It’s ‘blissfully undeveloped’, as the Lonely Planet says, which sounded very appealing until I found myself in the midst of a small village, in a tiny room with dubious dark patches on the walls and electricity that keeps cutting out. The roosters started crowing about five a.m and then the whole village woke up half an hour later and some enthusiastic person started on with a DIY project, hammering away soon after that so I had no option but to get up too. Admittedly, I went for a swim in the calm waters of the South China Sea,

My salubrious dwellings on Cham Island

My salubrious dwellings on Cham Island

watching the fishing boats go out and the mist rise over the mainland several miles away and that was very cool. I came back to the guest house hoping for at least a fried egg – there are enough hens roaming around here, but the guest house owner, who speaks little English and obviously wasn’t prepared for an ‘an chay’ (A Vietnamese phrase used for Buddhists who eat no meat) guest and could only brandish a manky potato at me and gesture at a carton of milk. In the end, I had coffee, followed by tea.

I wouldn’t have minded mashed potato, but last night dinner had consisted of a huge bowl of rice, chips with a really nice salty tomato topping and noodles with tofu, a cold soup with potato in it and a plate of greens, so I was feeling a bit ‘carbed out’, a horribly Western concept, I know.

The port of Cham Island

The port of Cham Island

The heat makes me feel so lethargic so I spent most of yesterday afternoon lounging in a deckchair (I’m not really a lounging person), watching the speedboats of Vietnamese day trippers come and go, the women with their sun hats parasols and modest clothing. The last thing they want is a sun tan. They must think us Westerners very strange. It is nice to be away from all those other strange Westerners here though. The train and bus route from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City is firmly on the backpacker trail. It’s got to the point now where I keep seeing people I’ve encountered before in the last city or the one before that.  It gets a bit unnerving, coming all this way to find you are surrounded by other British people, for the British seem to make up about fifty per cent of all these Westerners.

From Hanoi, I took the night bus to Hue. Well, it was more a night and then half the next day bus and I have vowed never, ever to take one again. The seats were narrow, half-reclined things that most people couldn’t fit properly into and it’s impossible to get comfy. The journey was supposed to take twelve hours and set off from Hanoi at eight in the evening, but didn’t arrive until half one the next day. Of course, the bus was full of backpackers. When we first boarded, some people thought the whole thing was amusing and took pictures of the seats with their phones, but by the time we pulled into Hue, everyone was wilting. I feel very sorry for the guy who was staying on until Nha Trang, twice the distance again. The hostel in Hanoi had firmly recommended the bus over the train, and the two Italian guys who were in the bunks alongside mine said their hostel had too. The bus driver was strangely cheerful the whole way, almost mocking, I thought, and I wondered if the ‘night bus from hell’ is a communal joke for the Vietnamese who like to put all these idiot Westerners on them and watch them suffer. I’m probably being paranoid, the Vietnamese on the whole are lovely people.

What can I say about Hue? I stayed at the Imperial Backpackers Hostel, a total

Some temple thing or other at Hue... I was too hungover to care

Some temple thing or other at Hue… I was too hungover to care

party place with a twice daily happy hour and fish and chips on the menu. I went out two nights running to a truly terrible, night club, the second night culminating in me licking cake off the face of a gay Irish guy.  I have no idea why I did any of this.

The next day, hungover I decided that I am far too old and cynical for the whole SE Asia backpacker scene and I, yes, I really did want to retreat to the jungles of Cambodia immediately. I couldn’t though as I had arranged to travel from Hue to Hoi-An via motorbike. This was very cool… though I was riding pillion and I was a bit freaked out when the driver asked me to marry him about half an hour into the trip. That made things a little uncomfortable. The Vietnamese countryside is so stunning, DSC_0509and being on the back of a motorbike is the best way to sea it. We passed a lagoon and over mountain passes which looked down on the coastline. He had a portable MP3 player with built in speakers and kept playing The Summer of ’69 by Bryan Adams. Over lunch he asked me to write down some British music so he could update his ‘collection’ for other British customers. I was tempted to write down One Direction or Ed Sheeran in revenge for the sleaziness but resisted and then realised I hardly know any modern British music.

Anyway, I arrived in Hoi-An and fell straight in love with the place. It is a wonderfully preserved old town with ochre-coloured buildings and lots of

Hoi-An

Hoi-An

temples, lots of beautiful restaurants and lots and lots of custom-tailors, which it is famous for. You can get gorgeous clothes made really cheap, dine of some of the best Vietnamese food in the county and even find places with extensive European wine lists here. Of course, it’s swarming with tourists, but it’s no surprise really. I bought a few totally- impractical-for-travelling clothes and so had to discard some of my more practical ones.

I’m returning to the main land (where I will post this blog as there is, needless to say, no wifi here on the island) and then will make the arduous journey to Cat Tien National Park, and onwards to Saigon, where I hope to wake up after dreaming I am still in the jungle.

* Yes, HJ Hampson has been watching Apocalypse Now, again.

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