Central Saigon turns out to be a whole different experience from the outskirts. The centre is crazy fun bustling life, mostly living on mopeds. You’ve never seen so many scooters and small bikes, converted and customised to fit any job. The transportation vehicle of choice here isn’t the transit van – that’s boring, in Vietnam you can get anything onto a bike if you try hard enough: attach a huge wheelie bin to the back - it’s a dump truck; or strap a dozen fire extinguishers to it – it’s a fire engine; fit a family of five on it – it’s a people carrier; pull a wheel barrow backwards behind it – it’s an articulated cement mixer; strap anything to the back from bedding piled 2 metres high to a wide-screen TV to a 6 foot tall mirror. There’s no limit to the ingenuity of what you can do with a 100cc bike, I even saw a woman in a hospital gown on the back of one with a third passenger behind holding an I.V. drip in the air for her! And nothing stops for the rain, just put your plastic cape on and keep riding. There’s a lot to do and see in Saigon, I love sitting outside a coffee shop just watching the street life, walking through the tiny streets to China town and getting soaked again in another Monsoon shower, going up to the Heli-bar on the 52nd floor of the Bitexco Tower and paying three times over the odds for a coffee, although the view is worth it at dusk. There’s also a fascinating (if harrowing) war remnants museum which gives a very Vietnamese view on how French colonised them before WW2 and the more recent American attempts to burn them, poison them, shoot them and bomb them back to the stone age. The tour of the Viet Cong’s tunnels at Cu Chi gives a bit of an insight into the Vietnamese resolve to repel their invaders. The tunnels spread for hundreds of km from Saigon to the Cambodian border and even the bits that us tourists are allowed to crawl down give you claustrophobic nightmares without having fighter-bombers, Napalm, Dioxin (one of the most toxic substances on Earth), tanks and GIs with M-16s trying to kill you. The craziest feature of the Cu Chi tunnels tour is the opportunity to fire live ammunition with an AK47 or an M-16. The cost is astronomical, but there were plenty of Chinese tourists with Mastercards who gave me an interesting aural backdrop to being down the Viet Cong tunnels with the sound of machine guns a couple of hundred metres away. Holy shit machine guns are loud!
A couple of hours after crawling through the Viet Cong’s tiny tunnels to the tune of an AK47 on rapid fire I met up with OCD Lawrence and Fix-it Brett at the Vietnam – Cambodia border for what would be the last time. There was a definite sense of an end of a big chapter in all of our travels today. I first met Brett in a traffic jam on an Indian expressway somewhere South of Pune on Christmas Eve 2015. On and off for the last six months we’ve done bits of India, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam together; the roads, the mayhem, the breakdowns and the bush-mechanic fixes. I have a vivid memory my first encounter with Lawrence, in a bad burger bar in Bangalore where he took a dislike to their BBQ sauce. Since then we have shared a wide variety of culinary disasters, some unusual sleeping arrangements, some mountains to race up and crash down, and music and philosophy by moonlight – very romantic! About half of my time on the road since December has been spent with one or the other of these guys and I’m going to miss them, but my agenda is now a bit different from theirs and I’m twisting the grip round to the quick setting to get myself across Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia in the coming month. They’re going to do it in a more leisurely fashion and I have a feeling OCD is heading back to Northern Thailand to play with fire with a Thai girl who’s already got 2 kids! It felt a bit strange to pull away from our last lunch stop together, leaving them with a fag and a cloud of dust, but now I’m back to where I started, and what I had always envisaged which is making decisions on the fly based on how I feel, what I see, what I’ve read and how hungry I am. So as I leave our lunch stop in another forgettable dusty border town I feel intrepid again; I can see blue sky and an open road and I’ve read that the South coast of Cambodia is stunning so I set course for Sihanoukville with a stomach full of noodle soup. Initially everything is perfect; decent roads, not much traffic, wide rolling plains, blue sky with cotton-wool clouds - it's heaven again, but that can all change quite quickly.
Seven hours later I finally arrive feeling hungry, tired, damp and a little bit irritable on account of events over which none of us have any control. The only way to get to the South coast is to loop around the bottom of Phnom Penh, which I happened to hit at rush hour, just as the afternoon Monsoon was kicking in. So I got stuck in the muddiest, floodiest, busiest, slowest rush hour I’ve ever seen (and I’ve commuted into central London for several years). The Monsoon turned the roads back into flood plains. The brown mud water obliterated the tarmac, it was impossible to tell where the potholes, kerb stones, dead dogs and tree stumps were, and there are a lot of those on the way in and out of Phnom Penh so several million people were making slow progress across the city by sense of smell, and everything smelt wet and mouldy. Phnom Penh’s outskirts were a pretty horrific ride, I expected to be able to speed up a bit having got out of suburbia but no, the industries which litter the roads south of the city seem to be sweat-factories where thousand upon thousand of Cambodian women work. And at 6pm they all come swarming out of the factories to get herded into the back of cargo trucks to take them home – wherever that may be, I daren’t even guess, but looking at the way they’re crammed into trucks I can’t imagine it’s all that salubrious! And there doesn’t appear to be any men working in these factories, at least, none who have to catch the slum-trucks home. I wonder what they’re making in all these factories … Premiership football shirts or plastic toys or permanent markers? No idea, but the air around these factories smells of chemicals and plastic. Two hundred km away is a different world, on the idyllic white sand of Otres beach near Sihanoukville there are no polluting industries or sweat-shop workers, there’s a chilled out assortment of wooden beach bars playing Reggae, there are bamboo huts with ineffective air-con, and an authentic Italian Pizza restaurant and I’m just in time for last orders. I try not to think about the factories and their labour force, it’s a very different way of life.
Back home in Britain it's EU referendum day ... there's an interesting life choice for us.