I love the window seat. On flights, trains, buses, everywhere I go. You can rest your head as you sleep, you don't have people stepping on your feet as they get up and down, you don't have to worry about your handbag, safe as it is under your feet, you don't have to talk to your neighbors, the stewards make an extra effort to feed you, and best of all, you never get bored peering down at the landscape below, and can take as many pictures as you wish. Kids making a racket behind you, peer down. A young couple getting dirty on the next seat, peer down. Boring love stories playing on in-flight entertainment, peer down. Forgot to pack your book, peer down. The key to a successful "window seat" experience though is to use the bathroom before you board the flight.
All I could see from my window for an hour after we took off from KL was the blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand. Then the muddy, brown flat lands shaped by the great Mekong river, the lifeline of much of South East Asia, and the little villages fed by the soil and silt it deposits. It is an incredibly flat terrain, with the Mekong snaking its way through the landscape, its brown waters broken by the yellow and green paddy fields, and the red and blue tiles of the villages. Ho Chi Minh city announces its arrival by its skyscrapers as the flight starts circling into descent. It looks large and wide, its 10Mn population spread across 24 districts making it the largest city in the country. It was raining on one side of the city as we landed, and it was bright and sunny the other part, with a rainbow beginning to form at the horizon. Welcome to Vietnam.
Immigration was quick and easy. I got my visa sticker, was asked to go to the last counter, but the guy waved me to the next, although it was empty. And so on, each immigration official waving me to the next counter. They were all empty. And the guy at the first counter again asked me to go to the last. I smiled and said they sent me here. He smiled and stamped my passport, and out I was. As I kept looking out of the cab on my way to downtown Saigon and my hotel, two things stood out; the yellow French bungalows reminding one of the history of Saigon as the capital of French Indochina, and the innumerable 2-wheelers that seemed to occupy every inch of the road.
My hotel guide suggested a walk in the afternoon and an umbrella. It was hot, humid and bright, but in exactly 10 mins, in rolled a thunderstorm that lasted about 20 mins. Typical Saigon weather in the rainy season, said the Brit with whom I ended up sharing a narrow strip of shade during the storm. Saigon is a bustling city, and it seems there are as many motorbikes as humans. "Beware when you cross the road" warned the traffic policeman, seeing my camera, is there a bigger touristy giveaway? Huh, you want to advise an Indian about traffic? I have seen it all and driven on far worse roads and traffic, I said to myself. And promptly got caught at a crossing, with only a kind old woman saving me from being driven over. Saigon bikers do not obey any rules, or signals. The key, as the old woman taught me, is to keep moving ahead with a wave of your hand, and they will drive around you. A t-shirt summed it well "If it's green, I cross. If it's red, even then I cross". I didn't see much of the city except downtown, I just had one night before starting my journey across the country. But there were truckloads of backpackers, with as many pubs and street joints dotting the city. Fish and chips, a beer and dessert for $5. If this was any indication of what the food cost, I had changed too many dollars at the airport.
Vietnam was the only country is South-East Asia I hadn't set foot on. Over the past decade, and over the course of many travels, I had ticked off much of the region, including Cambodia in 2014, which was at the top of my bucket list, especially Angkor Wat. You've seen one, you've seen them all, I said. And how different could Vietnam be, I reasoned and pushed it to the back of my list. AP asked me the exact same question. Kamal from takeabreak.in designed a terrific road trip and convinced me it was worth the money. I think he uses me as a guinea pig to discover new destinations; I love it. It is a win-win relationship.
The intriguingly S-shaped country is roughly 3,500kms long, of which I would cover two-thirds. The two major cities Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city officially, but everyone calls it Saigon) and Hanoi are 1,800kms apart, and connected by a ram-rod straight highway that hugs the coast. 50kms narrow at it's center and expanding to 600kms wide up north, Vietnam is uniquely diverse. Over the next two and a half weeks weeks, our www.straytravel.asia tour bus passed through cities, river deltas, central highlands, sublime coastline, sheer cliffs, dense tropical forests, and some of the largest paddy fields, stretching as far as the eye can see. We hiked through mountains, discovered pretty towns and lakes, drove though roads that seemed to drop off the face of the earth, explored huge cave systems, walked across ancient capitals and pagodas, and criss-crossed wild and dense national parks. We tasted an incredible variety of street food and sampled the culture, with different influences ranging from Khmer in the south to French and Chinese in the north. And experienced both the best and worst of the weather, hot and humid, wet and tropical, cool and misty, calm and serene. And got caught in typhoon "Vamco", which briefly threatened to ruin our trip. Three weeks which I would look back fondly as incredibly exciting. Sometimes, and only sometimes, whims turn out right. I love telling stories, and my three weeks in Vietnam had many.