Working hard in Vietnam

I’d expected to post more while I was out here, but I’ve been incredibly busy with work so simply haven’t had the chance. I’m working as a Tour Guide for the Hanoi Backpackers’ Hostel which is a 6-on-1-off working week. When I’m “on”, I’m away at Ha Long Bay with no internet and I don’t take my netbook with me.

I’ll explain the trip first, then tell you why it’s such hard work after!

The trips are hard work, very tiring, but also great fun. The trip involves 4 hours on a bus to Ha Long harbour where we jump onto the Jolly Roger, our private boat. There we chill for a bit until lunch, then have fun diving off the top of the boat into the water. Our kayaks then arrive and – tides allowing – we paddle off to an island nearby with a lagoon hidden inside. As far as I know it’s only our tour groups that go here.

Back on the boat, we chill out till dinner and then happy hour begins. This usually involves the start of the drinking games, dancing, loud music and partying in general.

Next day, some people head home (though we usually convince them to do the extra day as it’s definitely worth the extra) while the rest of us swap onto a smaller boat for the 90 minute trip to Castaway Island. Here, we do wakeboarding or banana boat and rock climbing. Kayaks are available so anyone can just take a boat out and explore the surrounding area.

Overall it’s really chilled out until after dinner when – again – it’s party time. Around midnight we usually try to get everyone into the water to enjoy the bioluminescent plankton. On a good night, of you reach the pontoon about 100m from the beach and stand there, it looks like millions of blue-green fireflies are swimming towards you!

Next morning, it’s a 7am rise for breakfast followed by 2 boats and a bus ride back to Hanoi for happy hour at the hostel.

The hard work is mainly in the hours. I’m up at 7am on day 1 to gather everyone up and make sure we’re not missing anyone. We then split into two buses if required and have a 40hour journey. Then it’s corralling everyone to make sure we all get tickets and onto the boat, often in groups if there are too many – the transfer boat seats 20 at most.

A lot of the work is just keeping people in line. Making sure they follow rules, hoping that nobody minds sharing a room with a stranger – sometimes with just a double bed! I shared with one of the guys on the last trip. Thankfully he didn’t snore.

Safety is an obvious concern, especially when people are jumping from heights and messing in water. We had a guy on the trip before last who couldn’t swim but who still wanted to join in. Fortunately I had a great group who were very supportive. We got him a life jacket and two girls taught him some basic swimming. He even did the wakeboarding on the Island. Ken, I salute you!

With the kayaking, it’s the sense of what the hell are you doing?! when I set off (at the back of the group) to see 18 kayaks all over the place instead of following the Vietnamese guide at the front. If anyone reading this is going to do the trip, please save us a lot of stress and don’t go paddling off randomly. It is possible to get lost in the Bay given the fact that it’s 1500km2 in size. The 2000 rock formations can look a little similar after a while.

Next up is judging the group. When you play drinking games you’re going to divide people – those who are game for anything and those with some level of reservations. Also, if you have a large group it’s often hard to hold interest if you have to circle 40 people.  One of the guests on an earlier cruise taught me Hacienda which is great as you can rattle through it with 40 people in 10-15 minutes, everyone gets drinking and nobody gets a chance to get bored. It also doesn’t involve forfeits so it’s a chance to loosen everyone up without pressuring anyone.

As the night goes on, it either gets wilder (usually) or the group divides which can make things better as you’re only overseeing the ones who have few inhibitions. Less embarrassment!

The partying can run on until 4 or 5 am on the boat. Most people forget that they have to be up at 7:30 for breakfast. I have to be up earlier than that to make sure they do indeed rise. Fine if it’s a smallish group who go to bed early. Hard work if it’s a large group and I have to sleep on the deck where they’re partying!

The island is relaxing for me during the day as the guests chill or go out on their watersports. We may organise a game of volleyball with the Vietnamese staff if anyone’s up for it, or take a small group out in the kayaks. Again, though, I have to get the party going after dinner. I do have the help of the resident wakeboard instructor, another of the hostel staff, which takes some of the burden off me and does give me someone else to “play off”.

Again, this can go on until 3am or so when the staff turn off the generator so they can get some sleep! And again, people forget there’s an early rise. I’m up before 7 to bang the breakfast gong. We have a long trip back to Ha Long and then to Hanoi, where I usually catch up on some sleep.

If that sounds like a lot of partying with little sleep, remember that I take out two trips back to back. I get back from one and straight out on another the next morning. The night I’m back I may also end up taking a group up to Snake Village, which means drinking shots and snake wine with the group.

At least there are gaps in the day when I can catch up with a snooze but it’s really tiring! It’s also incredibly rewarding though. We had two birthdays on the last trip and one girl told me it’s the best party she’s ever had. That made my trip for me.

Tonight’s the England v USA game and I’m in two minds about watching it as it’ll mean bed at 4am or thereabouts. I don’t want to be a mess in the morning!

When I get home I have my year’s probation to go through to qualify as a teacher. Right now it’s seeming as if that will be my holiday!

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Road Warriors

I hooked up with another backpacker, Chris, not long after I arrived. He’s currently trying to offload a Minsk motorcycle that he’s been using for the last month or so. In the meantime, he’d planned a day trip out up the Red River Valley.

Seemed like a nice idea, so I hopped out and rented a moto for $8. Nothing anywhere near as rugged as the Communist tank ridden by Chris, but it had two wheels and didn’t stall so it was fine by me. I rented from Voyage Vietnam on Luong Ngoc Quyen, not far from Bia Hoi Corner. I’m happy to recommend them – lovely people.

The original aim was to try to get to a lake around 200km out of town. However, getting out of Hanoi is not very easy, even if you have a map.

Between the one way system, helpful locals who pointed us at the wrong highway and our utter lack of a sense of direction we finally passed the city limits after over 90 minutes. We didn’t manage this by any kind of navigational means, more by circling enough times that we achieved escape velocity.

Instead of heading north west, we found ourselves going more directly north towards Noi Bai airport. Not a huge problem until at one point I realised we were the only motorcycles on the road, surrounded by trucks, cars and buses. It seems the large bridge on the way up is for non-bikes only. Which would explain why the police were waving frantically at us to pull over before we got onto it. Oops.

We swung a left at the first roundabout onto what was clearly marked as a highway on the map. Thing is, “highway” in Vietnam basically means “the main road from A to B”. The quality of that road is indeterminate until you’re on it.

In this case, blacktop gave way to dust and potholes very quickly. Chris’ Minsk had far fewer problems than my little around-towner.

However, we really didn’t know where we were. As Chris put it, “I think we’re having a Top Gear moment”.

Navigating by the sun (that is, guessing) we headed north west, finally passing a couple of towns marked on the road atlas Chris had stored in the ammo boxes he used as paniers.

The roads varied a lot from nice tarmacced ones to potholed dirt tracks. The thing is, they can change very suddenly. Whereas Chris’ Minsk had no porblems dealing with this (except his seat falling off at one point), my little bike needed a bit more care an attention, so I was a fair bit slower that him.

In many areas, the roads were covered in grass as the locals used it to make hay. At least it would give a soft landing if we fell off (we didn’t).

Realising time was a little short, we crossed to a different road and worked our way back south east again. After a petrol stop, we pulled in for a couple of beers at a small shop. Very quickly we had a small fan club – a grandfather (70, but looked 50) with his little grandson, another old chap and a few other members of the family.

The grandad took a great interest in Chris’s Minsk, first circling it for a good couple of minutes before squatting and staring at the motor. I guess he used to have one or perhaps rode one in the war.

We were made most welcome, and had a great time taking photos of each other and trying to converse. This is what makes little day trips out in Vietnam so enjoyable. The scenery and so on are lovely, but the people make it.

Hanoi was in rush hour mode by the time we got back, so it took a lot longer to return to the hostel than intended. Still, despite losing track of each other we managed to both find the place again even if it was an hour after the bike shop had closed. I returned the bike the next day and they only charged me $3 as they’d stayed open an hour late waiting for me. I’ve no problem with that and would recommend them.

My forearms are sunburned, but it was worth it. As Chris said on the way back – “Great day out.”

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Upcoming schedule – Bangkok then Hanoi

Blue Dragon Children's Foundation

Good news is that I’ve been granted a leave of absence from university so that I can head off abroad a couple of weeks earlier than otherwise. The bad news is that in waiting for this to come through, all my flight prices went up. Sometimes it’s better to just do stuff and worry later, but ah well!

The fact is I can now step onto a plane from Heathrow on Tuesday 25th of May and (weather, strikes, ash clouds and the like allowing) expect to be in Bangkok very early on Wednesday 26th.

I had originally planned to then transfer onto a flight to Hanoi, but for a couple of reasons this won’t be happening. First up, I was worried that the 4 hours I’d allowed myself to transfer flights might not be enough if there was a delay. I’d then find myself at the airport with a ticket and no plane.

Secondly, eDreams turned out to be dodgy as all hell and I didn’t trust them to get me the ticket anyway (see an earlier post on here).

Instead I’ve just booked an AirAsia flight at the crack of dawn on the Saturday.

So I’m now heading into Bangkok for a couple of nights. I’ll look into staying somewhere different from last time, but still on the shuttle bus route. I have just enough Baht to get me into the city without having to use the fee-charging ATMs at the airport.

I’ll be in Hanoi for almost 2 months, but my return flight is from Bangkok on July 27th.

This is going to be a bit of a busman’s holiday for me. I may take a trip at some point, but on the whole my aim’s to stay put in Hanoi and spread myself between working for the Hanoi Backpacker’s Hostel and Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation. The former should help fund my stay and the latter work towards my Continued Professional Development as a teacher. As well as being awesome fun!

So if anyone reading this is heading through Hanoi in June/July, please do come and say “hi”. It’s a great city and I’ll be happy to show you around!

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Motorcycling around Vietnam

Sunny biking in Vietnam

Sunny biking in Vietnam

All of these hints are from personal experience of a recent (August 2009) round trip from Ho Chi Minh City through Mui Ne, Nha Trang, Da Lat and back again. We used one bike between two of us, a small-ish automatic, and covered around 1100km in six days.

  • Don’t take too much luggage. It increases fuel consumption and reduces manoeuvrability. Just because your average Vietnamese can somehow carry three family members, a dog, a month’s groceries and a shop display (complete with stock) on the back of their bike does not mean you can.
  • Along the main highways there are loads of fuel stops so you shouldn’t have a problem filling up as and when you need to. Sod’s Law dictates that if there’s a median then the next five stations will all be on the left, however, so you can’t get to them. Plan ahead on your fuel use and figure out how far you can travel between refills. Our little beast did a shade over 100km on a tank. And watch out for the newer roads, such as the one from Nha Trang to Dalat where there hasn’t been time for many fuel stations to be planted and grown as yet.
  • Fuel prices are set by the government so you should pay the same price everywhere. However, if you’re off the beaten track you may find a higher price even at the “proper” fuel stations. The little one-man manually-operated pumps you find on country roads are noticeably more expensive. Also, it’s worth checking the pump to ensure the price quoted is the price charged.
  • Watch the roads carefully, not just the traffic. Generally, they’re pretty good but you can suddenly hit a potholed area. Trust me when I say that you can’t bunny hop a motorcycle the way you used to be able to do with your old Raleigh pushbike if you haven’t got time to swerve round the worst holes. Hitting one at speed will hurt and could throw you off the bike. This will probably ruin your day if not your whole trip.
  • If you’re travelling alone, carry a spare inner tube, repair kit and pump. On the main roads there is usually a tyre repair place every couple of miles (or less), and when you’re away from the cities the locals you may meet are every helpful. However they can only be helpful if they’re actually there to be helpful and you may not see many passers-by on the more remote stretches.
  • Learn the “rules” before hitting the highway. Get a feel for the bike and the locals’ driving habits by heading somewhere quiet and safe first. It’s not as scary as it first seems when you arrive in Hanoi or HCM, but you do need to drive well and with confidence.
  • Get a decent map. The road signs are not too helpful and very few, if any, have lights on for night-time navigation. They will often only point to the next town along the road, or to the one at the end of the stretch, not detailing the two or three you pass through to get there. Unless you know the other towns along the road, you can be sat at a junction not knowing where to go.
  • Plan for and take breaks. Unless you have a very comfy Easy Rider or a backside padded significantly more than my skinny effort, you will quickly find out what “saddle sore” means. I found being a passenger was far harder on the bum than being up front.
  • Eye protection is more important than you may think. Large sunglasses are passable, but a liability at night and dust still flies about after dusk. A pair of goggles will cost you next to nothing and it’s easy to find a shop selling them (and helmets if the one you’ve got is rubbish).
  • Think those Vietnamese people look a little silly with their faces all wrapped up in surgical masks and hats? Wait until you’ve driven behind a lorry spewing diesel fumes, dust and mucky water for 3km before you can overtake it. One look at the cloth you use to wipe your face with afterwards gives you an idea of the muck the road can kick up – and you’re breathing that in. There’s a whole hardware store worth of pots calling an entire kettle manufacturing plant black here, as I didn’t use one, but I would next time.
  • Weather can be changeable. Carry some kind of waterproof clothing in case the heavens open, because when they do they usually don’t mess about.
  • Check your choke. It’s very easy to nudge the thing when you’re lugging bags on and off the bike and it can play havoc with performance and fuel use. We thought we had a major problem for over a day until I spotted we’d knocked the choke half on and were partially flooding the engine. D’oh.
  • Unless you want to turn a lovely bright red colour, slap on long sleeves or a decent amount of sun tan lotion. This stuff is still hard to find and expensive in Vietnam so pack it before you leave, or pick some up in Thailand.Don’t forget your face otherwise you’ll end up looking like a very irate panda courtesy of the sunglasses or goggles. Trust me when I say you will burn very quickly as you won’t feel the damage being done due to the wind.
  • Drive within your limits. Don’t think that just because one person went past you at 80km/h that you have to do the same speed. There’s every chance he knows every pothole on the road and has been driving a bike through insane traffic since he was 12. You don’t and you haven’t.
  • Be polite if you’re stopped by the police. It’s very unlikely they’ll have flagged you over because you’re foreign. In fact, in my experience, you’re far more likely to be treated leniently as a foreigner. Make sure you have the vehicle registration document – it should be supplied with a rental bike. Having your passport or a copy is also useful, but I wasn’t asked for mine. As far as I’m aware, the only driving license they care about is a Vietnamese one, and it’s unlikely you’ll have that as a foreigner so they won’t ask. However, obtaining a license is very cheap and very simple if you want to freak them out by handing them one. Should any questions arise – is your best legal advisor.
  • Have fun. Stop and take pictures once in a while. Enjoy the looks from the locals as you pass by them on country roads. Gawp at the scenery. Chat to the people. Blog about it afterwards. Just take care and revel in the sense of freedom of making your own way through one of the most amazing countries on earth.

As ever, any further hints will be more than welcome. Please just add them to the comments below.

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Back at the Dragon… and back home :-(

Blue Dragon Children's Foundation

Blue Dragon Children's Foundation

My last day in Vietnam and the last proper day of my trip. A sad day, as ever, more-so due to some events back home over which I had no control, but that is for another blog.

To cheer myself up I hopped on a xe om up to the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation to catch up with Mike and the staff. As I blogged last year, they’re in a new building not far from the Red River though this time it was much quieter. When I visited in 2008 it was the summer holidays and there were children everywhere. Today there were maybe a dozen or so making use of the facilities as the rest were attending school.

Over lunch, I got talking to a couple of the staff and a few ideas began to germinate. There are a couple of IT-related questions they’d been pondering over and I managed to throw in a bit more information which will hopefully help them make some decisions. It’s nice to feel useful!

I also sat and talked to two of the Vietnamese staff for over an hour about my travels, predominantly around Vietnam. Both have been around their home country as well as to Thailand and Cambodia. It’s really interesting to compare their experiences with my own, particularly impressions and the way people respond to you.

Overall my experiences with people in Asia have been fantastic. Sure, there’s always someone trying to make a fast buck out of you (or cut to the chase and steal your wallet) but name me a European country where that’s not the case. But for every one of them, there’s a table of seven in a roadside restaurant that insist you share their food and drink. Or a Javanese grandmother on a train proffering doughnuts during Ramadan. Or a Japanese train guard that insists you wait there until he finds someone who speaks better English than him so that you can get the information you require. Or a taxi driver who actually wants to save you money by taking you to a bus stop nearer by so that you don’t miss the coach to Hoi An. Or two men sat on the beach who don’t speak a word of English, but just want to sit with you and share shots of rice wine. Or…

You get my point.

Every time I arrive in Hanoi, I get a little tingle. I feel like I know the place, I know how it works, I know where to go. And yet every time it’s different. There are new shops, new places to get food, a new nightclub to go to, new faces to see and get to know.

One thing that never changes is the hustle and bustle. It’s a city that’s genuinely alive. The only other place I like anywhere near as much is Bangkok and of the two, I’d prefer to stay here than in the Thai capital. It’s a tight decision, I admit, but Hanoi nudges it.

A major factor in this tipping of the scales is the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation. If I’m here, I can be useful as well as enjoying myself. If I’m feeling low, as I was today, then the warm greeting from Mike (seriously – is he ever not happy to see someone?) and the smiles and laughter of the children is enough to lift anyone out of a deep blue funk.

Another is the Hanoi Backpacker’s Hostel which has – deservedly – gone from strength to strength over the six or so years it’s been open. Near tripling in size last year and now the proud parent of it’s first proper offspring in Hue. Mike and Max really know how to run a great place. Without a doubt there are cheaper places to stay in Hanoi, but there is absolutely none better for the independent traveller.

Fifty-some countries, probably a similar number of hostels and this is still the best one I’ve stayed in. No argument.

So I’m sat in the BDCF office, tapping this up as Mike’s in a meeting. In an hour or so I’ll have to say my goodbyes before I return to the hostel, grab some dinner, then hoik my rucksack onto my back and catch the airport bus.

At 20:55 (delays allowing), I’ll be on an Air Asia flight to Bangkok. At 08:45 tomorrow, I’ll be airborne courtesy of Etihad on the way to Heathrow via Abu Dhabi (the next place I’m likely to get online – Bangkok really needs to get its act together as regards wifi).

All going well, I’ll be back on English soil by 18:30 on Wednesday.

And I’ll be that little sadder for it.

I love my home country (and my adopted one north of the border), but I’ll miss Vietnam and Hanoi in particular.

So until the next time, Vietnam. And there will be a next time. There is no doubt in my mind about that.

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