Wednesday, 2 May 2007

China Beach, Vietnam to Xepon, Laos.

In Quang Ngai I battled through an army of motorbike taxis to walk to the bus station. The moto drivers are very pushy as they really want a whitey so they can massively overcharge. I'll not mention ripping off foreigners anymore as I'm boring myself with it but it's a daily hassle when buying anything in Asia – particularly Vietnam.

China Beach
I paid double price for a dreadful 4hr 100km journey to Danang. They agreed to drop me off at China Beach but managed to mess it up. I had to pay another motorbike driver to take me the last few km to China Beach (he reckoned it was 40km). What a day! Independent travel in Vietnam is proving to be a nightmare - gross incompetence, racist overcharging and terrible attitudes towards foreigners. This is the most unwelcome I've felt since Russia - perhaps it's a communist thing?

Marble Mountain
I finally arrived at Hoa’s Guesthouse. It's discreetly nestled in a quiet spot between China Beach and Marble Mountain. (12km South of Danang and 20km North of Hoi An). I loved it here and ended up staying for eight nights.

I found myself part of a close-knit group engaged in a lot of drinking, swimming, sun-bathing, surfing and midnight skinny dipping. I loved swimming in the sea at night because as you move through the water you leave a magical trail of florescent plankton particles. China Beach is a magnet for surfers so I gave it a bash with a couple of Aussie experts, however, it didn't take long to realise I'm a bloody useless Pomme!

Japanese Bridge Hoi An
I hired a scooter and rode to Hoi An - a small riverside town famous for tailors. There's traditional architecture here and a stroll through the old streets and markets is a pleasure.

My Son ruins
I didn’t linger long as I was headed for My Son - a World Heritage site containing ruins from the ancient Cham civilisations. I enjoyed the time here more for the location than the ruins themselves. The site is set in a bowl of lush jungle with narrow paths winding their way through. However, after Angkor Wat in Cambodia anything else seems ordinary. I was lucky that I'd missed all the bus trips and had the whole place to myself - I could feel the history. The ride out here past emerald rice paddies set against a mountainous backdrop was spectacular.

I got lost on the way back. It was strange as I could see the huge Marble Mountain where I wanted to go but there were no roads going that way. Eventually, I ended up in Danang (Vietnam's third city) and managed to find my way from there as it was getting dark.

I spent time chatting with marble sculptors at the foot of Marble Mountain. Their carvings are incredibly intricate. One day during a drinking binge a bus load of old Northern English people came into the guesthouse for a meal! They were on a SAGA holiday – I thought they preferred Blackpool.

Oh yeah, Hoa was the small Vietnamese bloke who ran the hostel. I called him ‘Uncle Ho’ after the infamous Ho Chi Minh. After meeting so many cheats, it was refreshing to know Hoa as he'd go beyond the call of duty to help you out. He made big dinners every night which were great social events. Although I made many friends here, my favourites were James and Kat. A Cockney/Brummie couple who're both 19 and really good fun - I loved hanging out with them.

I found myself in a pickle as my Vietnam visa was due to expire. I made a dash to Hue where I spent a night in a dorm after a quick walk around the old city moat. I bought a ticket for the 388km trip to Savannakhet in Laos.

I woke at 0530 and endured another travel calamity. We left Hue at 0600 and by 1400, after 3 buses, we were still 200km from Savannakhet in a small town called Xepon just 40km over the border. That last 40km had taken 2hrs!!! I thought ‘Sod it’ and jumped off there.

This 190km journey took 8hrs! That's 8hrs to do 120miles. The bus journeys in Asia seem to take forever. The average speed of that journey was 15mph! At the border we waited for an hour to board a wreck of a bus. Once the bus was suitably crammed full of people, luggage and livestock the driver finally pulled out. 500m later he stopped to fill up with petrol! I couldn't believe it! Why didn't he do that while we were waiting? The petrol filling took 20 minutes because it was gravity fed from two oil drums. Sometimes it's best not to question Asian logic.

Xepon market
As the bus pulled away I looked at my surroundings and thought 'Shit'. No English, no maps, no scooters, no bicycles, no info, no talking – nada! I walked around the market and soon discovered this is a place where not many people smile. I felt like I was in an episode of The league of gentlemen. This place is dead! 

I started drinking BeerLao at the market out of boredom. This was my first taste and it's an outstanding beverage - scant consolation in my lonely predicament. For some reason, perhaps an act of madness, I paid for two nights here? I had consigned myself to another whole day of sitting in the skanky market drinking BeerLao.

Unbelievably, in the middle of the second day I spot a Westerner. He was with the US Army and had just helicoptered in looking for MIAs from the Vietnam War. That was the only English I heard in Xepon.

The next day I caught a Songthaew to Savannakhet. The 200km only took 5hrs which is good going. An old woman had a huge lizard in a net bag and left it by my feet! Food or pet? No idea. On one of the many stops some traditionally dressed Laos ladies were selling cooked insects. I found myself with a stick-full. A good laugh for the locals watching me tackle these. They tasted OK and are supposed to be a great source of protein – so what do we know? They are very popular here in Laos.

At the Vietnam/Laos border I had exchanged 1,500,000 Vietnamese Dong into 1,000,000 Laos Kip (£50) however this had ran out by the time I arrived at the Saisouk Hostel in Savannakhet. There is only one ATM in the whole of Laos and that's in Vientiene, the capital city. The next day was a bank holiday so I couldn't withdraw cash with my visa card. I had about £2 to last two days.

I started my hunger campaign with two baguettes the first night. The next day I split my money evenly between two cheap meals. Now I'm skint and read in bed.

There are two banks in Savannakhet and the first one I try doesn't do visa cash advances. I'm panicking as I wait in the second bank but hugely relieved when they allow me to take £50 (3% commission). That'll last me until Vientiene where they have ATMs. This morning I paid the two nights I owed on the room and had the best meal I could find after two days of worry and hunger.

Savannakhet is a great little Laos border town that sits on the mighty Mekong River. In the evenings we go down to the river and watch the sunset over Thailand. Laos is very relaxed compared to its neighbours which most visitors here really appreciate.

There seems to be even more ordnance from the war here in Laos than in Vietnam. People use discarded bombs to make fences and sometimes even as garden ornaments! You also need to stick to paths as there's still, despite Princess Di’s efforts, a lot of unexploded ordnance (UXO) here.

Kop Jai (Laos for Thanks)

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