Friday, 30 March 2007

Phnom Penh to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC))

I like to ride my bicycle

Listening to the fan's perpetual drone that provides scant relief from the Cambodian heat, I decided it was time for some exercise. I hired a bicycle and set off, map-less, to explore Phnom Penh.

The traffic was chaotic, swarms of scooters driving anywhere they like - I'm not sure what side of the road they're supposed to drive on here! This takes a little getting used to, as does trying to cross the road as a pedestrian. You can see foreigners standing at the curb (well, dusty road edge) wondering how to cross this never-ending flow of assorted traffic. There are no pedestrian crossings and even if there were nobody would stop at them. There are literally no road rules here.

Formula 1

I drank regularly in the Drunken Frog (or Inebriated Amphibian if you're a smart arse) ran by Alex and Martin, two canny Englishmen. One day we decided to go Go-Kart racing at Kamboul village 10km west of PP.

Now, this is what I love about Cambodia – no Health and Safety to spoil your fun. Complete lawlessness - an Asian Wild West! There's a bar overlooking the track where you're encouraged to drink beer while you wait. The karts are fast and really get the adrenalin flowing. Ten x 1km laps takes around 15mins. All of this for £5 – truly exhilarating.

Afterwards a few of the lads went to fire Kalashnikovs at live cows at the nearby shooting range. I'd fired enough SA80s in the Royal Navy and I'd no desire to slaughter a cow so I gave this a miss. I think they paid $1 per round.

Shagging Germans

My last night in PP was spent swimming in a 5 star hotel with some Argentinian backpacking chicks. I had a final beer with Canadian Dave before going for an early night. However, a German couple started doing the Karma Sutra next door. The walls here are paper-thin and I might as well have been in there with them. You know how hard it is to sleep when that's going on!

I woke groggily at 0600 ready for the bus to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). I had a morning baguette and coffee with an old Khmer lad. Oddly, I was the only passenger on a big posh air-con bus! We left one hour late at 0900. I love Asian punctuality man - they've obviously never done military service.

We slowly crawled out of PP and crossed a bridge over the Bassic River. The unsealed roads were dreadful. Typically Cambodian for the first two hours (or 70km). Here we reached the small, busy town of Neak Leung and boarded a car ferry to cross the Mekong River. From here the roads were excellent and we made good time. The Vietnamese bus driver was mental, honestly, it really was white-knuckle stuff.

Good morning Vietnam

At Bavet we crossed the border to Moc Bai on the Vietnamese side. I had to pay 2000Dong (6p) for a health certificate. How they judged my health is a mystery?

From the border we passed Cu Chi town where the VietCong tunnels are located. The VC used these during the American War (as it's called here). The tunnels, along with the Ho Chi Minh trail through Laos and Cambodia, were instrumental in the North winning the war against the American backed South. The land is still scarred from bombing.

The bus stopped many times for reasons unknown. One stop was for the driver to buy of a bunch of small birds. They were hung together upside down by their feet, still alive but covered in blood. I've no idea what was going on there but it seemed unnecessarily cruel.

I saw two motorbike crashes on my first day in Vietnam. One involved a bloke who had a massive live pig, inside a big basket, strapped to the back of his bike. We didn’t hang around much to see that melee get fixed. The woman running the HCMC guesthouse had a chunk of knee missing because of a crash. I asked if she’d been wearing a helmet? “Of course not” she chuckled in response to a stupid question!

I had a great haircut/shave/massage in the street today for 20,000Dong (65p). The old man expertly massaged my head, neck and shoulders afterwards - it felt fantastic. I loved that the mirror was hanging from a tree.

I fended off hundreds of offers from rickshaw drivers. They all have written testaments by tourists from all over the world saying how good they are. I wanted to walk around the main sites slow time. I went to the War Remnants Museum, which happened to be shut for lunch. I saw the Reunification Palace with its tanks outside and Notre Dame Cathedral. I chilled on the banks of the Saigon River staring at the statue of Tran Hung Dao (he fought off the Mongols in the 13th century).

I had a glass of ice tea for 1000Dong (3p) while a dodgy electrical junction box atop of a street pole caught fire. Eventually, an ancient fire engine somehow battled through the traffic and uniformed soldiers dealt with it.  There wasn't much in the way of protective clothing and one of them was wearing flipflops - class.

The traffic in HCMC is more ordered than PP but there's so much more of it here. I stood at some traffic lights in awe of the sheer volume of motorbikes. Incredible!

Tomorrow I head for Mui Ne. It's a beach area with fishing villages and sand dunes four hours by bus from HCMC. After that I want to go to Dalat, which is in the South Central Mountains where the climate is supposedly a little cooler. It's really hard to describe how hot it is here. I'm getting used to it but it's boiling man - you have a constant sheen of sweat. 

Gam On (Vietnamese for thanks)

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