Posted by: Tom Lancaster | September 24, 2010

Panic attack down at Fraggle Rock

Episode 27: Dalat/Ho Chi Minh City/Can Tho/Ha Tien, Vietnam

Skin colour (Tom):Bob Monkhouse
Skin colour (Jane): Bob Cratchit
Location: Ha Tien, Vietnam

Date: 23rd September 2010.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that nothing goes down as badly as a fart in a lift. This is, however, wrong. From personal experience, I can assure you that there are four worse things than the actual fart:

  1. The fart is a particularly bad one, that slipped out accidentally I promise.
  2. The lift reverses direction unbidden at your floor (without the doors opening to facilitate your escape) and returns to the reception area of your guest-house.
  3. A straight-laced couple get in, wrinkle their noses and glance accusingly at you.
  4. The clincher – instead of a hasty and embarrassed farewell when they exit the lift, your wife detains them with polite small talk about their recent dinner until you hammer the door close button, like an over-excited morse code aficionado, just as the green fug threatens to engulf them.

We’ve reached the end of our time in Vietnam and we leave without having asphyxiated anyone.

A pause on the road to Dalat

My last update came from Nha Trang, way over on the east coast of the country. We’ve done a lot of travelling since then, and as I write this we’re on the Vietnam/Cambodia border at Ha Tien.

From Nha Trang, we got a mini-bus to Dalat and enjoyed some cracking mountain scenery en route, and also some idiotic photography from our fellow travellers: even I know that holding the camera way above your head and taking a photo out of a bus window with the flash on isn’t going to produce great results; and why the old woman in front of us was taking wonky photos of the inside of the road (blurred grass and rocks), when there were breathtaking views on the other side, both we and her future suicidal slide-show guests will never know.

Not the Eiffel Tower

It rained quite a bit in Dalat, which bills itself as a French alpine city, but isn’t really (although it’s the first time in Vietnam that we’ve resorted to long sleeves and trousers). They have an Eiffel Tower shaped radio mast, but that doesn’t make it French.

The brains in charge of town planning had also drained the (allegedly beautiful) lake, which meant we had to make up our own walking tour, since the one in our trusty guidebook would have seen us walking 7km round a waterlogged field looking for ducks.

Dalat lake!

None of this is to detract from Dalat, which is a lovely place, and practically hassle-free. Our walk lasted the best part of four hours, during which we visited the Hang Nga Crazy House (it does what it says on the tin and was clearly designed after a long session on the beers) and Bao Dai’s Art Deco Summer Palace (he was an emperor, so it was a nice pad).

The crazy house

It was on this walk that we encountered once again the annoyance of signs, which has been bugging me quietly for months. The Palace was signposted from 1.5km away, but as we got closer the signs just stopped. We’ve seen this time and again on the trip and still don’t understand what’s going on.

It seems that the closer you get to any sight, the fewer signposts. Usually this means that we end up skirting any museum/palace/temple for a couple of hours and give up on finding them, before stumbling upon them several hundred metres from where they should be. Someone’s moving tourist attractions the world over.

Bao Dai's summer palace

After lunch we trudged wearily up a hill which seemed about 14 miles long to the newest Dalat attraction, a cable car. I was just glad of the sit-down, but Jane was terrified for about 85% of the trip and I’m not sure I was as sympathetic as I could have been.

Even after four long, long years of marriage, we continue to learn new things about each other.

I have learnt that Jane is fine with heights, but not cable cars, and is an ace navigator, even though she doesn’t know her left from right. Jane has learnt that my farts can kill and that I’m not joking when I say I’ll be as bald as a coot by the time I’m 35.

The fear had subsided after 30 minutes

It was with some trepidation that we left Dalat on a bus bound for Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City/HCMC (I’ll use the latter for brevity), since we’d heard mixed reviews of the place and only bad things about the petty crime rate.

I have to say that we were very pleasantly surprised.

First we breakfasted with a middle-aged American guy, who reminded us that eating with an American is like eating with a six-year-old. Why do they have to swap knife and fork over so many times and cut up their food in advance, rather than as they go along? You feel like sticking a bib on them and feeding them yourself while making aeroplane noises.

Rice for sale in HCMC

We then spent a day strolling through the city, enjoying the architecture and having ice and plastic bottles thrown at us by teenagers who took exception to our being there. This wasn’t as bad as it seems, but we wonder if the same thing happens to random tourists in London.

Even the traffic wasn’t as bad as some scaremongers would have had us believe, although it was a Sunday. They actually have (and sometimes use) traffic lights in HCMC.

It was a heck of a hot day, so the War Remnants Museum provided blessed relief for about 10 seconds, until we began to look around. We knew it was supposed to be pretty hardcore, and so it proved.

At the War Remnants Museum

It wasn’t quite what we were expecting – it was more of a photographic exhibition of the wars Vietnam has fought, rather than a historical articles and info exhibit, but it was very hard-hitting.

The sections on the effects of Agent Orange and on the tortures carried out (by the Vietnamese on their compatriots) at Phu Quoc Island were particularly graphic and sobering.

The Presidential Palace, site of the 1975 coup, was a veritable laugh-fest after the museum. It certainly was for the large group in party hats who’d hired most of it out for the afternoon. We weren’t complaining – it had only cost a pound.

Presidential Palace

Our last stop around HCMC was an organised trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, which I have to say was superb in spite of yet another annoyingly repetitive tour guide and the obligatory half hour stop at a handicrafts centre.

Sadly I couldn’t afford to fire an AK-47 whilst laughing maniacally, because the bullets were about $2 each, but we did see how (horrible looking) traps and weapons were made, how the Viet Cong survived underground, and of course experienced the tunnels first hand.

An actual sized tunnel entrance

I should point out that the section of tunnel we visited has been modified for tourists: it’s been made wider and higher and a few electric lights have been installed. I don’t know how they did it. You have to walk as though you’re carrying Rik Waller on your back and even with the lights, it’s as dark as an episode of Psychoville.

It’s a bit like Fraggle Rock, but with less Gorgs, Doozers and singing.

Our guide (the only man with a torch) shot off like an expensive bullet out of an AK-47, leaving Jane on point. It’s fair to say that she initially revelled in this role for a time, giving detailed information on the ups and downs of the tunnels to the group behind.

Before the agonising pain kicked in

However, once the guide left through a side entrance and when we reached a particularly narrow and low section, Jane panicked like a South African cricketer at a World Cup.

She barreled back down the tunnel like that boulder in Indiana Jones shouting “I can’t do it, I can’t do it”, and I gallantly and modestly stepped up and led the group to safety (Jane, however, recovered sufficiently to follow me and even pose for photos en route).

In defence of my wife, she at least completed the 120m walk/crouch. Of the 20-odd people on the trip, only eight of us got to the end of the tunnels, and many people didn’t go into them at all (what’s the point in going on the trip?).

Post-breakdown, but still slightly hysterical

Having experienced five severely watered-down minutes of the clawing claustrophobia, heat and intense discomfort of these tunnels, it was difficult to imagine how 16,000 people called the 250km of tunnels at Cu Chi their home during the war. It’s not difficult to see how the determination to live and fight this way frustrated the Americans.

So we waved HCMC goodbye and headed for the Mekong Delta on another lengthy bus journey. We stayed in Can Tho, where we ran into a couple more scams. In case you’re ever in Can Tho trying to book a boat trip to the floating market, look out for:

  • The woman who quotes you prices for the trip with an English-speaking guide, then when you go back to book five minutes later says the guide is an extra five dollars. We walked away.
  • The woman who quotes you a price in dollars (about four times the average daily wage for a 4-hour, non-guided trip), then calculates the rate in Vietnamese dong on her phone. It was only Jane’s surprising flash of mental arithmetic ability, as she did the calculation herself and found that nearly 20% had been added on to the price after exchanging, that prevented us being ripped off again. When we asked her to check the price on her phone calculator, she then denied having said the price we’d both heard her say!

And today, not related to the floating market, but incredibly confusingly:

  • A bus company who tells you the next bus to your destination isn’t for over three hours, even though you know they run every hour. When we walked away to find a company that had a bus sooner, they called us back, having miraculously found that they had a bus leaving in 45 minutes. We have no idea why they’d do this – there was no difference in price and we’ll be scratching our heads for a while. The bus wasn’t even full and we watched them sell tickets for it to locals after we’d bought ours.

We’ve really had enough of these tactics now. I’ve read that for every person who tries to scam you in Vietnam, there’s another who goes out of their way to help. I’d say it’s at least a 5 to 1 relationship.

I won’t bang on about it again here, since I did enough of that in the last post, but whilst it’s true that Vietnam is beautiful and contains some genuinely friendly people and amazing sights, we won’t be sad to leave.

We’ve become weary of being distrustful I’m afraid, and it’s that alone that sours Vietnam – sadly I suspect that it’s the continual hassling and scamming that will stick in the memory.

Anyway, to the floating market. Final piece of advice on Can Tho: don’t go to the Cai Rang floating market, go to the other one. Cai Rang is for wholesale.

Not what we were expecting

All of those beautiful pictures you see of brightly coloured fruits and veg loaded into narrow boats, being paddled by conical hat-wearing ladies, have been taken elsewhere.

At Cai Rang you’ll see hundreds of watermelons, sweet potatoes and onions on huge barges and the same drink-selling scam as at Tam Coc. It’s billed (admittedly by the tour agencies) as being the biggest and best, but it’s not much of a tourist attraction – they’ve done well to get it in the guidebooks.

In the canals fanning out from the Mekong, you’ll also see the results of the river having been used as a giant dustbin and toilet: huge amounts of floating detritus. Sometimes it was like being rowed through a stagnant pool which took the edge of the experience.

Just don't look too closely at the water

We left Can Tho to head to Cambodia (and the beach for a few days), travelling part of the way to Ha Tien on a local bus where the fella next to me tried to talk to us all journey.

Since we’d clearly shown that we didn’t speak Vietnamese at the start of the journey, when he tried to pile our heavy rucksacks onto our laps for the three-hour journey (why they refuse to put them in the luggage area under the bus I have no idea), I’m not sure at what point he thought we’d have learnt it.

This didn’t stop him trying every 5 minutes to engage us in conversation, in between taunting the ladies on the bus by pulling their hair and pretending to open their handbags (he was about 50).

When we finally made it abundantly clear that we didn’t understand a word he was saying, he took to talking and laughing about us with a group of teenage male acolytes at the back of the bus. He was a charmer.

You don't get players like this in the snooker clubs I go to

So, that’s where we are – awaiting a bus to take us to Sihanoukville on the south-west coast of Cambodia, for a few days R&R.

Ha Tien is easily the best border town we’ve seen on the trip – very relaxed, to the point of being sleepy this morning.

Last night though, as we had a huge meal on a floating restaurant, we were treated to the sight of a number of floats passing by, with music and dancing, followed by thousands of motorbikes.

We have no idea what it was all about, but we’re telling ourselves that they were just giving us a grand send-off. See, that brings the ratio of nice vs. scammers about level and we can leave Vietnam with fonder memories.

Anyway, without further ado, I have a competition result to announce. Thanks to all the many, many, three of you who entered. The service not offered by the barber is the hot and sour soup enema, which nobody guessed!

The prize will have to roll over to the next competition.

For some more of my writing on Vietnam, see the Tourism Adventures website.

Any comments or questions are very welcome. However, bear in mind that we’re travelling around the world for 11 months, with varying standards of internet access, so won’t always be able to respond quickly!


  1. So your skin colour is that of a man who’s been dead for a couple of years – gruesome. It’s the result of all that colour-draining farting, of course.
    Hilarious as ever, Tom, lol!

  2. Excellent news that your reports are the role model for Belgians writing about travel.
    I think a petition for a directive requiring the same throughout the EU is in order!

    • Gaynor, that’s very kind of you to say. I suspect there will be some acerbic comments soon from these Belgian hoodlums! Hope you enjoyed the “Food, Glorious Food!” post (under “Interesting stuff” tab), I know you love to hear about what we’re eating. xx

  3. You’re right – the food post is great! But what was that big bowl of spiders in your latest update? Where were they? Looks like you escaped them – phew!

    • They are food. They were being sold (live) at one of the “service stations” where our bus from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh stopped. There were also crickets for sale there, and at another stop there were steamed tortoises (or terrapins perhaps) – I jest you not (you’ll see the photos on Flickr). All good eating, but not for us!

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