Andy and I had circumnavigated our way to the other side of the world without flight. Now came the easy part, a route that goes by many names: The Backpacker’s Circuit, The Golden Circle, or, perhaps a little more cynically, The Banana Pancake Trail. Admittedly, things were a little different from what we had become accustomed to as we rolled into Vietnam’s second city.
Hanoi. This is where all the western travellers had been hiding. The place was a sea of singlets and flat-peak caps. Aussie accents and Essex slang filled the air. After having not talked to anyone for more than half an hour apart from Mr. Cycle-Tour a few weeks ago, it was all quite overwhelming, and took us a while to get our social skills back on track.
The place was a sea of singlets and flat-peak caps.
Upon entering a hostel, an opportunity to showcase our globetrotting knowledge and finesse presented itself immediately, and we jumped at the chance to show off. The American receptionist checking us in asked us where we came from, to which we simply replied ‘China’. He (correctly) assumed we had been to Beijing and started talking about how busy the metro system was, quickly adding ‘Not as bad as Moscow though. It’s crazy busy over there, man.’ We cut his train of thought short and assured him that we, as hardened trailblazing enthusiasts, not only knew of the experience first-hand, but had been there only six short weeks ago, ‘Because, don’t you know, we’ve travelled here overland.’
He was rightly impressed, and the need for the recognition we so greatly desired had been fulfilled. As it happened, nobody else cared at all. Hanoi was awash with young people looking to get drunk every night, and we obliged for a night or two.
I hadn’t actually been to Vietnam before, so watching the police form a long line at curfew (midnight, I think) to usher a bunch of drunken backpackers off the streets was something of a spectacle to me. The food in Vietnam is awesome. When you spoon a mouthful of Phở (Vietnamese soup) into your mouth and have your mind blown by the meld of flavours, it’s easy to forget that you’re sitting like a circus clown on a six-inch-high plastic stool on the corner of a main road, accompanied by the symphony of a hundred thousand motorbike exhaust pipes. It’s just great.
We joined the hordes to visit the famed Halong Bay. It was a mixture of where we had just been in Yangshou, with towering islands popping out of the water everywhere you look, and St Michael’s Cave, with the (don’t say garish don’t say garish) fantastically arranged luminescent pink and blue lights infiltrating the millions-year old limestone. It seemed to me no more special than many other places in Asia, but the day was cloudy, so might my judgement have been. It’s a place I’d like to give a second chance.
We decided to leave Hanoi and head south by bus, a process quite simple in most countries. Go to bus station, buy tickets, board bus. Here we were encouraged to visit a few specific agencies, where we were told that we should buy a super ticket to cover our entire trip down to Ho Chi Minh. This agitated a memory I’d long since tried to suppress about travel in South East Asia, but I couldn’t quite place it. We didn’t care about being ripped off for a fiver, so we bought it. No locals on those buses, you’ll notice.
The path down the Vietnamese coast has been well-beaten, battered, and cooked on a medium-high heat with fresh bananas, and I’m sure we did nothing differently. Motorbike rentals, beaches, and waterfalls. This is what I’ve come to associate with South East Asia, and it keeps drawing me back in. We rushed through it in two or three weeks, having to meet a friend who was flying out to Cambodia for my birthday. With a quick stop in Hoi An, where my prevailing memory, after the tiki light-laden river, was a number of restaurants that seemed to serve menus only. A menu for milkshakes, for fizzy drinks, for alcohol, one for seafood and one for meat. One for vegetarians, another for noodles and another for soups. Before long the waitress had covered our table with a poorly laminated feast of the gods, and left to get more menus. We knew we had to make a break for it but the hostel keys were lost amongst the plastic labyrinth. A frantic but ultimately futile search was well underway by the time she returned with the menu for which menu you’d like to choose from, at which point we resigned ourselves to a purgatory of indecision. I think we were there for the rest of our stay in Hoi An.
We finally found our way onto a bus. That memory threatened to resurface… but not yet.
It’s easy to forget that you’re sitting like a circus clown on a six-inch-high plastic stool.
A stop in some beachside two for a night or two was a relaxing break from all the beer and menus, before we ended up in Ho Chi Minh City. Here we resumed out itinerary of visiting waterfalls, sitting on little plastic chairs, eating loads of food, and wandering around aimlessly. We were told to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, which were used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during the war. Well, my five-minute venture through one of these was unpleasant enough as a tourist, so I can only begin to imagine what it was like living down there with little air or water, loads of ants and snakes, then of course the threat of death when you resurfaced. Other than this, we didn’t partake in much ‘war tourism’. Partly because of what was coming up in Cambodia.
Cambodia was noticeably poorer than Vietnam. Andy recounted a tale of crossing into the border once before, where a woman placed a naked baby into his hands and walked away. I later read that this is a popular scam to keep you occupied while someone else robs you, though I very much doubt Andy had more than a worn bit of packaged latex and a couple of polos in his pockets at that point.
Our friend, Simon, met us in Phnom Penn and suggested visiting Cambodia’s Killing Fields, a chilling reminder of the Khumer Rouge’s genocide in recent history. He and Andy had been before, so pitched up in a bar while I went to do some tourism. I can see why they didn’t want to visit the place again. For most people, seeing a tower of skulls isn’t top of the list of things to do on holiday, but it seemed to be normal here. I still can’t decide if visiting is the right thing to do.
Andy and I were tired of travelling around and Simon was on holiday, so we shot off to an island resort in Sihanoukville and spent a few days enjoying not having to travel. The nightmarish memory was about to resurface as we left to cross the border into Thailand. Yes, I’d chosen to forget about the ridiculously convoluted minibus circus that came to town every time you tried to cross a border into Thailand, or visit anywhere more than an hour away. I’ve never been in one that isn’t also a delivery service for some remote village, they always stop at some service station that sells stone sculptures to tourists (who buys those?), and they invariably involve three or four hundred changes along the way. Apparently taking one minibus from A to B is impossible. You have to circle through the alphabet a few times. This was a tiny contributing factor that led to our next decision. By now we had travelled overland quite some distance, and our goal of reaching New Zealand without air travel was palpable, alas, not all stories have a happy ending.
A woman placed a naked baby into his hands and walked away.
We wanted to visit Burma, which at the time was only accessible by air. Obtaining a visa involved waking up at 4am to be one of the first eight people wearing jade bracelets to arrive at the embassy on the dawn before a blood moon. So, once we’d finally secured the coveted piece of paper in our passports, there was no going back.
The outcome was final. We had failed to reach New Zealand without taking a flight.
Oxford to Bangkok overland isn’t a bad effort though.