Vietnamese wanderings: Mui Ne to Saigon and beyond

After finishing the Easy Riders tour I felt a slight sense of ‘what am I going to do now’. Not being used to guided tours on holiday, it was quite nice to be able to just let someone else think about the sights, logistics and where we were going to stay. 

Mui Ne Backpacker Village is a nicely padded landing zone, however. Fairly recently built, everything is shiny, new and working. The pool is fantastic, and there’s a great bar and restaurant. However, it’s the kind of place that isn’t really my scene. Vietnam is 18yo Gap Yah central, and the Backpacker Village was the centre of Mui Ne’s Gap Yah scene. 

I’m too old for this shit!

After an elderly afternoon nap and a shower I felt a little bit more composed, and headed out to have a look at Mui Ne. Since I last visited in 2010 apparently a lot of the Russian tourists have stopped coming, although there are still loads of signs in Russian everywhere, and quite a few Russians too. Mui Ne itself hasn’t substantially changed either.

Its main strip is still a gigantic shithole. Sadly the presence of a beautiful beach cannot make up for the standard Vietnamese highwayside architecture, nor the presence of dozens of pest tourist enterprises selling tours, tat, massages, “massages” and everything else you never knew you wanted.

There are persistent touters of everything you could, or could not hope to buy, but most vociferous among these are the moto taxi riders (Or indeed basically anyone who’s got a motorised 2 wheel vehicle and an extra helmet and wants to make some more cash). I ran into a couple of these on the first night when I needed to book the Backpacker place… Decent prices on both occasions however it was a constant try-on from the start of the interaction to the end (Massa’? Marijuana? Local woma’?”) The second guy was particularly annoyed after I got off, gave him the agreed fare which he now wanted double for and then just walked off. They don’t like it up ’em!

Dinner at a decent Mexican place close to the Backpacker Village (Therefore, far less looky looky hassle on the walk there) and an early night… Sa-a-ad but I really did need to catch up on a bit of sleep.

Fishing coracles on the beach at Mui Ne

I’ve only got limited lying around the pool time in me, but 2 days was fine, which was what I had in Mui Ne. So the next day revolved around wandering along the beach, the odd dip in the pool, eating and a bit of life admin. I had attempted to immerse myself in the backpacker life by hopping in the pool when a volleyball game was going on, although quickly got bored after a German lady began organising everyone into positions and then rotating us each time a point was scored. Points? Positions? Score? Too, too serious for a friendly knockabout to pass time. Haha, bless the German organisational spirit!

Pool time

Mui Ne’s beautiful “Fairy Stream”

It occurred to me whilst booking my next travel move how easy SE Asia is to travel around. I’d never felt this before, however after the occasional screaming frustration of getting places in Mongolia and the particularly intense challenge of booking tickets at a Chinese train station this seemed like a piece of cake. I had to get back to Saigon within the next 48hrs in order to leave the country before the expiry of my 15-day stay so asked at reception about buses.

4 departures every day, 5 hour journey, 4 dollars. Three quid. “OK, where do I have to go to get the bus? What, it picks me up here? And which bus station in Saigon does it go to? What, it drops me off right outside all the hostels?”

Well padded indeed. So, the next morning at a civilised 11am I found myself being picked up from the hostel and gently herded into the sleeping bus. Great theory however not designed for anyone over about 5’5″ or with feet bigger than about size 2, as the little box you put your feet into is tiny. Therefore no ‘sleeping’ would actually occur for me, however by stuffing my feet above the box it was comfortable enough.

Snug

With a brief refreshment stop en route, we arrived into Saigon broadly on time and I walked the short distance to Hideout Hostel. It bills itself as a bit of a party place but I didn’t really care due to only being there for 48hrs, normally this would bring me out in a rash. The 2 free beers each night was a definite inducement.

Alley in Saigon

Saigon is definitely a more ‘fun’ city than Hanoi. It’s like the Beijing vs. Shanghai thing, it definitely feels a bit more alive and open. And a very good laugh. It was nice that I was able to meet up with a Facebook contact Hang from way back in 2010, when she was working on the boat I took a trip on in Halong Bay. Hang showed me lots of the sights of Saigon that I had missed the last time, and coffee and chat with locals is always my preferred option over another backpacker bar.

We saw the museum dedicated to a former leader, which I’d missed before. It was quite ‘specialist’ and definitely in the excess detail category, with a number of mosaics dedicated to him, radios he had used, etc etc…

Marginally more interesting prison diorama 

I parted company with Hang during one of the most intense rainstorms I’ve seen in Asia, therefore walking back to the hostel was a shoes and socks off affair. 

Saigon deluge

Ace Pho (Beef noodle soup) whilst sheltering… containing actual chunky beef!

Hue pancake, with pile of veg

Since I was in backpacker central anyway I thought I may as well embrace it, and decided to brave the pub crawl. The crowd leaving the hostel was extremely well ‘warmed up’ by the time we left, with people climbing trees and engaging in other youth shenanigans such as smoking an apple… Is this really a thing?

Bants

There was also the obligatory strange local guy hanging around, this one’s party trick was to pretend to be cutting his wrists with a bit of glass… very odd although the Australians seemed to take to him.

Pub crawls are a staple of backpacker hostel life. The one in St. Petersburg was a complete ripoff, however not without its benefits having met the legendary Sarah and utter diamond Alexander. The one in Saigon was free, which is an excellent starting point, although I still expected to be taken to basically dead bars wanting to drum up trade with free shots.

It actually turned out more like “indefinitely hang around in a crap bar filled with hookers” than “going to different places in a kind of route”, so I bailed after an hour.

It was a real shame that the muppets in the same room as me who returned at 0330 were so noisy upon their return, because due to the lack of sleep I completely *forgot* to make sure they were up to catch the early bus they and I were booked on, so I think they may have overslept and missed it.  Such a shame! I came across one of their party asleep on the reception floor in the morning, so I guess it was a good night. 

The bus to Phnom Penh again turned out to be an extremely easy and well-padded backpacker affair, with borderline comfortable seats and by far the easiest, most assisted border crossing I have ever experienced. The bus steward simply collected our passports and the Cambodian visa fee and we just collected them back avec visa to go through the Vietnamese exit and Cambodian entry. I was pleased to see that nothing had changed in the way of Asian immigration overemployment, in that we passed the first passport officer and stamping booth and then, on both sides of the border we had to pass an entirely superfluous man on a chair whose sole job was to take our passports and scowl at them/us before slowly returning them in a dismissive fashion. 

Entering Cambodia seemed like a step change down again in terms of general development. The roads deteriorated massively and in general the lack of roadside development was very clear. What I have noticed so far is that there is a great deal of foreign infrastructure investment in Cambodia- The majority of the newer road bridges have the names of donor countries on them.

Home for the night in Phnom Penh was a mega cheapo hostel, Happy House 19. Three dollars a night can’t be bad. Rough and ready but with a super friendly owner called Rok who even took me to a far-flung phone shop on his very cool KTM Duke because I needed a SIM card. And strangely the best night’s sleep I’ve had in ages. Despite the fact I took the last bed in the whole place it was one of the best, right by the open balcony door so cool and comfy. Rok plans to open a new hostel soon pushing the price bar downwards to $2… Good effort!

AMAZING Fish Amok (Fish curry with coconut milk and spices) by the river in Phnom Penh.

So, after a wander by the river and a look around one of Phnom Penh’s markets it was time for bed. The next day would involve visiting the Killing Fields and Prison Museum, and I wanted to take it all in with a clear head.

 

Next- A sobering walk through Cambodia’s brutal past.

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