Progress of my journey (Part 5 – The final)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Hue (bus, 9€) ⇒ Hoi An (with a stopover at Nha Trang, sleeper bus/another bus 15€) ⇒ Da Lat (a sleeper bus, 9€) ⇒ Saigon (Mekong Air, 25€ ) ⇒ Phu Quoc (speedboat, 9€) ⇒ Ha Tien (bus, 8€) ⇒ Kep, Cambodia (minivan, bus, 6€) -> Sihanoukville ⇒ Koh Rong (boat, 11€ for the roundtrip) ⇒ Sihanoukville (four buses/minivans and one boat, 20€)-> Koh Chang (boat, bus, 6€) ⇒ Bangkok (diesel train, 2nd class, 0.5€) ⇒ Ayuthaya (diesel train, 2nd class, 0.5€) ⇒ Bangkok (Air Berlin, via TGX, 346€) -> Helsinki

Total: 119€ + 346€ for the flight to Helsinki

One particular thing about traveling in Vietnam and Cambodia is that it is extremely slow. Distances that do not look that big on the map can easily take a whole day of traveling, as it for example happened on the route from Sihanoukville to Koh Chang. Phu Quoc to Kep transfer took a greater part of the day too. There is an option in Vietnam to buy a bus pass, which includes eight destinations. And the price is only 40 bucks. Extremely good value, if you do a bit of traveling around Vietnam. I learned about it only after spending some time in Vietnam, which made me very sad. But in the end I did not do enough traveling in Vietnam anyway. On the route from Saigon to Phu Quoc as it was almost the same price as the bus + boat combination and saved me a whole day of travelling. Boats are never cheap.

A quick recap of Epic Journey 2: The Orient Express

View Epic Journey 2: The Orient Express in a larger map

  • The total price of moving from one place to another is 1262€
  • 8/10/2010 – 02/06/2011. Almost eight months of travelling. I aimed for a 9 months travel to make the journey more symbolic, but had to come back when I had to come back.
  • 11 countries visited (Macau and Hong Kong included)
  • I flew only thrice. Hong Kong ⇒ Bangkok, Saigon ⇒ Phu Quoc and Bangkok ⇒ Helsinki
  • The longest stretch by land: Helsinki ⇒ Hong Kong.
  • The most comfortable way to travel is high-speed trains in China
  • The least comfortable is crappy buses everywhere. The bus from Ulan Ude to Ulan Bator probably takes the lead.
  • Summer began in December for me
  • I saw a little bit of snow in Siberia and Mongolia, though

Notes about Vietnam (Part 2)

My first reaction after crossing the border with Laos was – oh my god, it is so green. Laos is abundant with nature, but there is something about Vietnam that makes its different. Blue skies and extreme greenery as far as an eye can see. It all is really beautiful. Rapid industrialization takes its toll though. As everywhere in Asia (minus Singapore) non-biodegradable garbage is all over the place and deforestation is rampant. Deforestation is not evident though, as in Laos, where you see scars left by the slash & burn practice everywhere. In fact I would not know anything about deforestation, unless I was told about it. Hills in Da Lat are covered with fields and plantations, while only several years ago they used to host forests. It even looks pretty with green tidy fields, unless I was not aware of the past. Ignorance is truly bliss sometimes. On the other hand all those strawberries have to come from somewhere.

I entered the country in the central Vietnam right in the hear of DMZ, where most of the fighting took place. Today the area is abundant with graveyards. I saw quite a few on my way to Hue, which made me think about the futility of war. Ten years of fighting, millions dead, devastated industry and infrastructure and all for nothing. United States and other aggressors never paid any war reparations or made any formal apologies. Agent Orange victims have tried to sue manufacturers of Agent Orange for years, but all in vain. How the hell you can attack a country like this and then just pretend the whole thing never happened? Simply mind-blowing. What is even more mind-boggling is that the history is repeating itself today in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it is business as usual: both wars are still going on with no attention is being paid to any of them any more, people are getting killed and the war economic machine is going full speed ahead. Anyhow, back to Vietnam. A good thing is that American and other wars are things of the past, even though the aftermath still rears its ugly head, like all the Agent Orange victims. Vietnamese in general and especially younger generation do not seem to hold the grudge against USA or France. US dollars are widely accepted as a currency and you see US branded clothing and accessories everywhere. It works in the other direction too. I have talked with several old American war veterans, who fell in love with the modern in Vietnam and made it their home. It is all water under the bridge. Indeed why cling to the past, when you can live in the present moment?

One of Vietnam’s highlights for me was food, which is just yummy and totally different to anything I have tasted before. Fresh spring rolls, friend wontons, pha, fried frogs, all kind of seafood and myriad of other things I have no name for. The cuisine can be best described as some sort of a fusion of Chinese and Thai cuisine, but in reality is totally unique and just awesome. Herbs as mint, basil and local varieties I have knowledge about are a big part of the cuisine. A nice touch is a complimentary bowl of herbs you get along with your food. Either you chew them as a healthy snack or add to your meal is your choice. My best food experiences were when I was out eating with locals, who knew magic words that brought all those secret delicacies to the table. English menu was often limited to rice and noodles with a couple of add-ons. It was especially frustrating, when I saw locals over a next table having a proper feast on the things I did not see on the menu. Food is very cheap too, even by South East Asian standards. I would love to visit Vietnam anytime just for the food experience.

In a nutshell, Vietnam is awesome. With a rapid economic growth and extremely determined people, I think they are destined for a great future. Next Asian Tiger or even the next mini-China maybe? Time will tell for sure. For now it is a lovely country with rich culture, delicious food, friendly people and low prices. Love it.

Notes about Vietnam (Part 1)

While I was in Laos, I heard so many negative things about Vietnam and especially Vietnamese people, so that it made me to reluctant to go at all. Fortunately I went and realized that Vietnam is not all that bad and in fact is a lovely country, although I can see why some people dislike Vietnam. Vietnam is like the mini-China. Vietnamese are ruthless, determined and focused. These people fought for 40 years non-stop defeating French, Americans and Chinese (and then invaded Cambodia). If there is a third world war, I want to be on the side of Vietnam for sure. One cannot conquer these people. As a citation in War Remnants Museum says “Those who dare to attack our territory; Will be immediately and pitilessly annihilated” Vietnamese are very business oriented minds and they easily make you part you with your money, sometimes in not so honest matter. But they do it with in a good fashion with a smile on their faces. You have to be constantly alert when doing money transactions. Double checking change, establishing price information in advance and making sure that you really get what you pay for. Nonetheless I found Vietnamese good-natured and pleasant. Especially after you get past the “you as a wallet” role, people turn out to be very nice. In this sense, Vietnam is very similar to China. The Chinese are vicious business-men and act like your worst enemy, when the transaction is being made. But once you get past that, they magically turn into the sweetest people. Jackyl and Hyde style.

I had an interesting experience on the journey to Da Lat, when I forgot my wallet in the bus. I realized the fact only after the bus was gone. A phone call was made and ten minutes later I got the news that they had found my wallet. Immediately a motorbike guy appeared and offered his services for only 150000 dongs (5€). An outrageous price, but I had to catch another bus, so I had to accept it. We went from one place to another one and back. Everybody around me spoke Vietnamese, inquiries were made, I did not understand anything and just followed my guide. Eventually two guys appeared with my wallet in their hands. Their first question was how much money I had in my wallet. To which I told them to just give my wallet back. We argued for a bit, but eventually I got my wallet. Cash card, euros and bahts were intact, but dongs were missing. It was plain obvious from their reaction that they took the money, but words and accusations did not help. Eventually I gave up, hopped on a motorbike and went back to catch a bus connection. This incident produced mixed feelings. One one hand, money was gone, but on the other hand they were honest enough to return my wallet with the rest of the content. Interestingly enough I had more in euros and bahts than dongs, but they did not know the value of these currencies.

I found out that Thai are a nice smiling bunch (at times artificially) and swallow any kind of disrespect, but behind your back they will be sure to express their true feelings. Vietnamese are different. Years of war resulted in the fact that Vietnamese do not tolerate disrespect from tourists. If you offend them, they do not laugh it away like Thais do, but will tell you directly that you are out of line. Tourism industry has created this artificial wall of niceness, where tourists can get away with anything, as long as they pay money. I prefer the Vietnamese way, though. Direct and ruthless, but at least there are no artificial smiles and fake emotions. If they act nice, they are nice. If they act angry, they are angry. Simple as that.

Hello, motorbike?

Instead of the familiar “Tuk-tuk! Where you go?” Vietnam has its own “Hello! Motorbike?”. Tuk-tuks never made it to Vietnam for some reason, but motorbike taxis are literally everywhere. You do not need spending energy finding them, they will find you instead and offer their services again and again despite your protests. Motorbikes are widespread all over South East Asia, but in Vietnam they are truly universal. Cars are for rich people, motorbikes are for everyone. Traffic jams are the problem, but I never saw one. The traffic has a life of its own and just flows, even if it is appears like utter chaos. Everybody does their own thing with no consideration to what is happening in the rear mirror whatsoever. Honk is the only tool you need in Vietnam. This strategy works too, just like individual cells in an organism. Every one of the bunch functions on its own producing a collective end result. Once I had a (mis-)fortune to ride a motorbike through the rush hour of Da Nang with Tigen from Australia on the back seat. This is something I wanted to avoid at all costs (Lonely Planet dubbed the traffic of Da Nang as murderous), but ended up driving right into the center of Da Nang. Right in the peak of rush hour. The intensity of the ride was unforgettable. Chaos is only an illusion. Once you become one with the traffic, everything makes perfect sense. You drive forward, you do your thing, you honk at other people. It works. At times like this the process of driving turns into a computer game like simulation. Focused attention and intensity of the moment. No fear. I was rather amused at the whole thing, but Tigen was petrified. Indeed, passenger’s role usually has more of a fear factor to it.

Three people on a motorbike is a norm. I realized only recently that mopeds like Honda Wave / Dream are actually designed for three people. On some models there is even a sticker in the backside of the bike with two girls suggesting that a guy and two girls on a bike is a way to go. Three persons is nothing special, probably even legal. Once I was a passenger on a bike with three other adults. I was tired and wanted to go to sleep, but a tout wanted to give us a lift to a bar. I was foolish enough to joke about fitting four persons on a motorbike. “No problem” was the response. We made it to the bar safe, although in a bit of an intimate fashion. Two adults, plus two-three children on one bike is nothing extraordinary in Vietnam and even more so in Cambodia. Helmet use is obligatory, but it is rather a fashion phenomenon, than a safety precaution. Most helmets are paper-thin, but on the other hand are incredibly trendy. Burberry, Nike, Puma – many styles and brands of dubious origin to choose from. Who cares about personal safety, when you can be STYLISH? Interestingly enough helmet laws concern only the driver, not their passengers. You often see the head of a family wearing a helmet, while wife and kids on the same bike proudly go bare-headed. Bikes are also used for transporting everything under the Earth. Among other things I saw are overlong pipes, bamboo poles, pigs (both alive and dead), A/C units, refrigerators, TV sets and so on. Why bother with a truck, when a bike can fulfill all your needs?

Phu Quoc Island

Phuc Ol Phu Quoc is reputed for having the best sunsets in the whole Vietnam. It makes sense, as it is one of the few places in Vietnam that has a coast facing the west. Phu Quoc is quite big, some 45km long and some 20km wide at its widest point. The island is already not a paradise retreat, but not yet fully developed. It is somewhere in between and developed parts do not look nice at all. Proper roads are being built all over the island and by proper I mean wide avenues that could pass highways. Construction of resorts is not far behind too. Most of the tourist action is centered on the central west part of the island on Long Beach. The beach is rather long indeed, but that is about the only great thing about it. Other than that, it is dark sand and rough sea and new piles of garbage every day. On contrast, the whole eastern part of the island has almost entirely escaped the fate of development. No long beaches here, but instead there is squeaking white sand, turquoise sea, small fisher villages and battered dirt roads. Bao Sao beach in the South East has early signs of tourist development, but it is all very neat so far. Other equally brilliant no name beaches have absolutely nothing on them. No resorts, no bars and no people . Now writing these words, I kinda regret that I did not go to any of them, but instead drove past them. Oh well.

It rained every day, but storms were no match for spectacular thunderstorms in Laos. Just boring rain, grey clouds and sometimes thunder in the distance. Somehow Laos has mastered delivering awesome nature presentations, be it in the form of clouds or tropical storms. The weather and crappy accommodation did not make a good first impression of the island. But then I found nice accommodation and met nice people. Good-looking spacious bungalow with wi-fi, sea breeze, a hammock and nice garden area. Three girls from Helsinki ending their exchange studies in Bali by doing a quick tour around Vietnam and Cambodia. Niels and Stephanie I had met in Da Lat arrived too. So it was alright after all. Seafood at the local night market was excellent and cheap too. Considering all of the above, I almost overstayed one more night, but the journey had to be continued towards the wonders of Cambodia.