After crawling off the worst sleeping bus we'd yet experienced (I think the beds are designed for children or adults under 5 feet tall, given the amount of leg room you get), and making our way to the Duc Vuong Hotel which we'd splashed out on for Christmas, we found we couldn't check in until 12 without paying for another day's accommodation. We decided to make use of the free bananas, tea and wi-fi in the lobby to check out Amazon, and it turns out that Amazon have an incredible returns policy: if your Kindle gets damaged within 12 months of buying it, you can send it back to them and they will send out a replacement free of charge. Obviously this poses a problem when you're not in any given place for too long, so I opted to have it sent to Australia where we'll be headed in April and staying with friends. They were fine with this, and also said that they would pay the cost of posting my broken Kindle back to them. Unbelievable customer service.
Whilst I'm handing out plaudits, I would be remiss if I didn't mention another amazing website: Natureshop. I bought my Keen sandals from this company, and unfortunately after only 2.5 months of wear, the glue attaching the sole to the upper has started to dissolve, and the material is coming away. I emailed them and asked what they could do, if anything, and they replied back saying that my size was out of stock but as soon as it was back in they would send a replacement pair of the same sandals out to Australia for me free of charge. Fantastic. Companies that stand by their products and treat their customers like normal people instead of assuming they are all chancers deserve our patronage; I'll definitely be using them again.
Since we had 5 hours to kill, we ditched our bags and decided to head down the road to the Fine Arts Gallery. Two floors of the gallery were under renovation and closed to the public which was a shame, but turned out to be a boon as we were so utterly knackered that, after walking around the only open floor and adjacent art shops, we were ready to sleep. We got back to the hotel at 11am where they mercifully let us check in earlier, and we had enough time to get showered and changed before going to meet Scott and Hannah at La Marq restaurant for lunch. We ate some excellent Hue food, and almost made us forget we'd had three hours' sleep.
After grabbing another three hours' kip in the hotel we were feeling a little better. The hotel put on a Christmas Eve party for all of its guests; the Vietnamese appear to celebrate Christmas Eve as the main holiday rather than Christmas Day - at least, that's the impression we got. Regardless, the party involved food, Dalat wine, beer, plenty of funny hats, some very bad dancing, and some even worse karaoke. It turns out that everyone in Vietnam is obsessed with Lionel Richie, specifically "Hello". Now, I don't know "Hello", other than the chorus. That didn't stop microphones being shoved in our faces with expectant looks once the karoke selection was made. I think we delivered an improv-version of the song worthy of "Who's Line Is It Anyway?". That's how it plays out in my head, anyway.
The department stores in HCMC go a bit crazy for Christmas and there seems to be an odd custom of locals all swarming around outside them just to see the displays they put on. Everyone loves Christmas over here.
We found out that Scott and Hannah had never been to Swensen's so decided to rectify this horrific problem immediately after dinner, and they are now convert thanks to the Chocolate Ring-a-Ding. We saw in Christmas on the rooftop terrace of the hotel, playing some cards and teaching the Aussies how to play cribbage. Seven floors up, the smog and noise seemed to be much reduced, and the terrace was decked out in fairy lights and tinsel. It was a subdued, lovely way to welcome Christmas Day, and unlike any I've experienced before.
This made up for Christmas day, which was a bit of a bust. Somehow, I had managed to pick up a stomach bug: the first illness I'd had since travelling. Of course, it had to happen on Christmas day. It wasn't so bad in the morning. We'd set off for the War Remnants Museum to get some perspective (Vietnamese, naturally) on the impact the US had on the country during the war. I'd heard that it was graphic, but even that didn't fully prepare me for the photos and stories on display. Mutilations, corpses, burned out villages, deformities caused by Agent Orange (the dioxin spread over the jungle to kill it off and expose the Viet Cong); the atrocities committed by the US were so horrific that at one stage I just had to walk away from one of the galleries. It was a relentless, brutal onslaught of inhumanity on show, a sobering and harrowing journey from one act of cruelty to the next. Yet if we choose to ignore what we do to each other as a race, how will we ever learn? Happy Christmas, indeed.
Feeling a little queasy (and not just from the museum), I soldiered on with Gilly to the Reunification Palace where we had a fairly interesting guided tour around the various conference rooms and the underground bunker used during the war. At this stage, amidst a pretty large crowd of tourists being shepherded to each room, I started to feel a lot worse and by the time the tour was over I was in agony with my stomach. We stopped at Napoly cafe for some overpriced peppermint tea, before heading back to the hotel. I zonked out for a couple of hours and was feeling slightly more human after some sleep. So much so, that I was definitely feeling up for a Christmas curry courtesy of Mumtaz. We took a bottle of decent wine along with us (which in SE Asia takes some tracking down), which the staff were happy to let us drink with our meal, and even a piece of plastic in the curry couldn't spoil the evening. Unfortunately, that was about all I could manage as I was again feeling completely drained, so went back to the hotel whilst Gilly went out with Scott and Hannah for some Christmas evening drinks.
The next day I was feeling much, much better so we decided to carry out our original plan which we'd postponed from the day before, and go to Dam Sen Water Park. We took a bus with the locals (it's weird how few tourists want to do this: it's far cheaper, and lets you see parts of the city you'd otherwise miss) and stayed there from 10am to 4:30pm, having a cracking time on water slides, wave machines, lazy rivers and other water park staples. Foreigners have their own tiny changing area, segregated from the masses for some bizarre reason. The park itself was heaving with local kids who insisted on queue jumping, but a few well-placed glares soon sorted that out. I'm British, damn it: we live to queue in an orderly manner. Thankfully from lunchtime onwards, pretty much all of the kids buggered off in their respective school groups and we pretty much had the run of the park, so we rode each slide until we couldn't take any more then headed home. We went back to La Vanq for the evening meal, but it wasn't as good second time around. We also moved hotels to Ha Vy on Scott and Hannah's recommendation since Duc Vuong were going to bump up the prices way beyond our budget.
On the 27th we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, to see how the Viet Cong lived during the war. Guided by a Mr. Tung, a 64 year old ex-Viet Cong soldier who had been strafed by a helicopter machine gun which wounded him in the arm and foot, he gave us (and the other 40 tourists in our group) a whirlwind tour of the area, showing us some of the rather nasty traps that the VC used, the holes that they would dig and hide in, and finally a crawl - literally - through one of the tunnels. I have no idea how they could have lived in those conditions; I only crawled for about 5 minutes from beginning to end and that was more than enough. To say the tunnels were small would be an understatement. I was on my hands and knees for the most part. Carrying a backpack would be near impossible, and we had to push ours in front of us from beginning to end. After that ordeal, we got to the firing range, where I got to try my hand at using an M-100 machine gun, with live rounds. Now, I'm not condoning guns, but shooting a sand hill was pretty therapeutic. Mind you, the only reason I was shooting the hill was because my aim was appalling, and I missed pretty much every target laid out for us.
Heading back to town in the afternoon, we spent half an hour or so in the post office returning the Kindle. Vietnamese post offices are fantastic. You just take whatever you want posting, fill out a form, give everything to them, and they sort out the packaging, wrapping, and postage. It's all dirt cheap, and saves you loads of hassle. The UK could learn a lot from their efficiency. Near the post office was Notre Dame cathedral, a poor facsimile of the Paris original which we saw in January for my 30th birthday. 5 minutes in and out was plenty...it's just another church. For our final activity of the day, we headed over to the botanical gardens and zoo, which had some fairly rare animals including a white tiger and a rhino. I'm not a fan of zoos, but there is a fairly decent argument made for them in The Life of Pi which I'm currently reading, so I can appreciate both sides.
For our final meal in HCMC, Gilly suggested we take a punt on one of the roadside restaurants on our street selling seafood. I'm glad we did, as it was some of the tastiest food we'd had for days. Scallops, crab claws and some sort of fried fish meat rice cake - all excellent. I'm glad we ended Vietnam on a high note for food.
I'm not sure we gave HCMC a fair chance, but I really didn't like it that much. It was noisy, crowded, dirty and smelly. It had plenty of things to do, but didn't have the charm of Hanoi which offset the bad aspects. If you disliked the bikes in Hanoi, you won't get on well in this city; there are about 6 million bikes on the road in a population of 7 million people and the road system is utter chaos. On the plus side, I can probably cross any road in the world safely now, since I can judge vehicle distances with millimetre precision.
Sihanoukville was off the table for New Year's Eve. We'd contacted a good 10-12 guesthouses and all were full; even the more expensive hotels were booked out. There was a Sea Festival taking place which would see a good 50,000 people descend on the town, and we simply couldn't get there unless we just turned up and hoped for a room somewhere. Instead, Gilly suggested we go directly to Siem Reap which was another great idea, as it meant we wouldn't be in the rather depressing Phnom Penh for New Year's Eve, and could work our way down to the coast.
So, on the 28th we found ourselves on a bus heading for the fourth country on our trip: Cambodia.