My beautiful, trusted and stalwart travel companion. The coolest entity in the history of the universe. We’ve shared so many great times, we’ve shared so many bad times, and I thought he’d be with me until the bitter end. But alas, he’s gone. Onward to adventures of his own. And I never even got to say goodbye.
I’m speaking of course, of my hat. My utterly fantastic and immensely loved leather outback hat, who’s been at my side (or atop my head) from the blistering heat of Saigon, through the torrential rains of the Ho Chi Minh trail and all the way to the misty mountains of the Chinese border post in Lao Chai. And in the course of this great journey he’d become a rock star in his own right. Adored by many (mainly me) and hated by others (mainly Marie-Carmen), he’s been the centre of attention for the entire duration. I can’t count the number of times some Vietnamese person has stopped me in the street to remark upon the magnificence of my hat, nor the number people, from giggling schoolgirls to elderly market traders, who have insisted upon donning this glorious article of headgear to pose for a quick selfie*.
And now he’s gone. I foolishly left him on a bus, and life just won’t be the same without him. Plus I’ll have sunburn on my bald spot. A moment of silence please for a fallen comrade.
Some other stuff has happened too. Like the fact that we’ve sold Desmond, departed Vietnam and are now in a different country entirely. But these small matters pale into insignificance when measured alongside the loss of my beloved, and likely irreplaceable hat.
It’s been a while huh, people? I’ve recently been accused of neglecting you all, in that my email correspondences have been neither so frequent nor so rambunctious as those privy to my last adventure had come to expect. Sorry. I’ve been too busy enjoying myself, which is after all what this whole business is about. If you require higher standards from your travel bloggers, start sponsoring me. Then I’ll spend all of your money on beer and still only write back once a fortnight. I’ve never had much of a work ethic.
So where were we? Ha Long? Then I’ll begin there. The journey from Cat Ba island took us across three landmasses and two ferries before culminating in a thunderous charge from Hai Phong to Hanoi, all completed in the space of a single day, and beating the sunset by mere minutes. Which was good, because Desmond, sensing that this was his final hour, began to disassemble himself enroute. First to go was the brakes (again), followed by the rev counter, and finally a complete failure of all the bikes electrical systems, so no lights, indicators or horn.
But the old soldier made it. And I’m sorry Desmond if you were expecting a comfortable retirement after your herculean efforts, because he was almost immediately sold to another English guy and his girlfriend, who were about to embark upon the return trip all the way back to Saigon. The chap emailed me within minutes of my ad being placed on Craigslist and had bought it less than an hour after his plane had landed. How about that? Craigslist apparently isn’t just for advertising illegal services and identifying prospective casual sex partners, turns out you can actually sell things on there too. You learn something every day. He sold for 8 million dong (I paid 9) so it’s actually cost less than £30 for 3 months of motorbiking, reasonable deal if you ask me. I didn’t mention the dodgy brakes. Or the broken regulator. Or the fact that the drive chain has about 200km before catastrophic failure. It’d spoil the fellow’s trip if he didn’t get to find out these things for himself.
Thus, with no bike and only a week remaining on our visas we decided to book ourselves in for an organised tour to Sapa, a former French hill station high in the mountains 400km Northwest from Hanoi. A journey undertaken aboard an overnight sleeper bus. The prefix “Sleeper” is I suspect, more aspirational than factual. It’s not the rough nature of the mountain roads, it’s not even the fault of the Asian pop music soundtrack. It’s more that the reclining seats offered on these bus services would be regarded as ‘a little cramped’ by the average Vietnamese person. The average Vietnamese person being approximately a foot shorter and a good 35 kilos less ‘ample’ than yours truly. And I had to share my seat with my backpack.
For anyone who might want to recreate this experience at home, I can recommend the following course of action; first, lay your wheelie bin down horizontally and climb inside. Second, make sure you install some blinking Christmas lights and a loud stereo playing an endless loop of ‘Gangnam Style’. Third, fill any excess space in your capsule with a 20kg sack of potatoes. Fourth, have a sporting friend drag you along behind his vehicle while he competes in the Paris-Dakar rally. Now, GO TO SLEEP!.
12 hours it took before we were finally deposited in Sapa. And herein, there was another surprise.
When we first left Saigon some three months ago, bound for the town of Dalat, we were told by the people of the city that it would be very cold there. And it was. A good 10 degrees colder than Saigon, but this still registered in the high twenties, so while the locals wore scarf’s and duffel coats, we wore t-shirts and factor 30. Again, when we departed Hanoi for Ha Long bay we were warned that it would be freezing out at sea, and again, while the night time breeze might have had one reaching for a light jacket, the daytime temperature was more than comfortable for swimming in the sea and climbing rock faces. So, when we were advised to pack warm clothing for our trip to the mountains, we took this advice with not a pinch, but a great big shovel full of salt.
It was two degrees above zero when we rolled out of the bus. And we were booked in for two days of mountain trekking, equipped with naught but cotton trousers, thin hoodies, and a selection of humorous t-shirts. Better still, our accommodation during the trek was a mountain homestay. Also known as kipping in the attic of some random hill tribe rice farmers. “ Heating? What that?”. “You can snuggle up to buffalo if you want . . .”
Our guide for the trek was a 40 something year old lady called “Som”, a member of the minority H’mong tribe, who showed us the real meaning of tough, by effortlessly outpacing our (much younger) group on the mountain climbs, despite being 8 months pregnant. I’d also like to make a small point here, because our group consisted of 5 tourists, all of whom had paid something in the region of 60 dollars for the tour. Even subtracting the cost of the homestay and meals this still equates to over $20 per person per day for the guide. This is the amount we each paid to the tour company. And of this, Som is paid Seven dollars. Not seven dollars per hour, or even seven dollars per person, just seven fucking dollars, for a heavily pregnant lady climbing mountains. The remaining $93 per day going to the man sat on his fat arse behind the desk at the tour office.
Mr Bob’s top tip: if you want to ensure that your guide is paid fairly, book yourself on the absolute cheapest tour you can find, and slip that $20 – $30 you saved straight into your guide’s hand at the end of the day.
Anyway, I guess I don’t need to wax lyrical about all of the marvellous things we’ve seen in the markets and villages of the Sapa hill tribes, because Madame has already covered these things to great extent (if you’ve not been following it, more fool you. Hers has facts, photographs, and actual useful advice, it’s not just a meaningless tirade of archaic language interspersed with occasional penis jokes. She’s even gone to the effort or writing in English despite it being her third language.) and I can move straight to updating you on our current location.
We’re in Thailand! Bangkok to be exact. I love Bangkok, this is now my forth visit to this awesome city and I’ve started to consider it my home away from home. Nowhere I’ve ever been offers such variety, whether you like to sightsee, shop till you drop at some of the most dazzling mega-malls in the world, or lay back with your feet up sipping a cool beer in the smoky and laid-back bars of the backpacker strip. And then there’s Patpong.
Just as no holiday in Paris would be complete without a trip to the Eiffel Tower, and no night in Las Vegas would be right without playing a hand of poker in Caesar’s Palace, You can’t come to Bangkok without taking an eye-opening wander around Patpong. World capital of the strip club, the underground boxing den, and the ‘ping-pong show’. Rumour has it that Patpong gets through more table tennis balls in a night than every Olympics since the game was introduced in ’88. And I’ve yet to see anyone brandishing a racket.
Madame is yet to be inducted.
Oh, and if you don’t follow the news, Bangkok is currently something of a war zone, as the protests/demonstrations/riots that have been going on for months are expected to come to a head next week with an anticipated 7 million people converging on the city to try and force out the government. Fun fun fun. Last time I found myself in the midst of a protest in Asia was nearly three years ago in India, where I wound up on the front of the battle line as the police charged, and was personally photographed and interviewed on page two of the Hindustan Times. Wonder what I have to do to make the front cover. . .
And so here I am yet again, gazing through a fog of deja vu, as we land once more in a hot and sweaty country populated by excitable short people, and set out on a quest to purchase a motorcycle.
Wish us luck. And happy New Year to you all.
PS final score for Mr Bob versus the Bastarding Mosquitoes in Vietnam; 32 to 20. That’s 32 splattered varmints against 20 bites to my person. Pretty low scores all round really but as we rode north and the temperatures dropped, the less I encountered my nemeses. That’s likely to change now we’re back in the sweatbox of Thailand, but me, my DEET spray and my rolled-up newspaper shall be ready to meet the challenge. We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
* I know. ‘Selfie’. Never thought a word as disgusting as that would be found in my lexicon, but since the OED has recently proclaimed it word of the year, I suppose I’ll have to acknowledge it’s existence.