Saturday, 26 November 2011

Days 81 to 84: Overnight Hat-trick

Hue to Ho Chi Minh (aka Saigon) to Manila to Banaue. Four destinations, three overnight journeys linking them: overnight train, overnight flight, overnight bus. I'm a little tired now.

For the traveller, a good overnight journey is an excellent way of incorporating accommodation with transport, thus saving on the cost of a hotel; for the normal person the overnight journey is a gruelling test of endurance, involving lack of comfort and sleep. I like to think I fall somewhere between the two. They are a necessary evil, an enemy with benefits, an exchange of energy and peace for money. For Burness and myself, it was a way of minimising the time spent in two cities we had no particular eagerness to visit - Ho Chi Minh and Manila - but utilising both their airports. Thus, as we boarded the sleeper train from Hue to Ho Chi Minh, we were primed for a bit of upcoming fatigue.

The sleeper train, in fact, wasn't arduous at all. A near twenty-hour journey, it was made more than tolerable by the four-bed cabins, which were reasonably comfortable. For most of the journey, we were accompanied by a couple from Melbourne who were pleasant, but perhaps a little wholesome-seeming for my full approval. But at least they were quiet - the pair in before them, who mercifully departed three hours into our journey, were two Vietnamese guys, who turned off the lights and both listened to music. That is, using his computer and the other using his phone, one bottom and one top bunk, they listened to appalling dross - love ballads and local Vietnamese stuff - over each other. It was a surreal cacophony, but only lasted an hour or two before they departed.

What is it about the Asian mindset that not only tolerates but seems to actively favour a racket over peace? From buses in Burma to breakfast bars in Singapore, unnecessary noise prevails. Burma, so far, has been the worst offender - why on earth, on an overnight bus, would you want blaring ballads on TV? How could these Vietnamese guys think it was a good idea to both play loud crap, to the point where neither could have enjoyed their own music? And why, oh why, did the Hue-to-Ho Chi Minh sleeper train play Haddaway's early 90s dance anthem "What Is Love?" through the speakers at 7am the next morning? Nobody, least of all Asians, know the answers to these questions.

But the journey was still restful, at least, which is more than I can say for the flight the following night. Finding an affordable flight to Manila that suited our schedule was tricky, and the only one we ended up managing was the appallingly timed 1am to 4.30am flight. I hadn't known that short flights existed at such hours, but was in no position to argue when it was £150 cheaper than any other. Therefore, we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City at about 3pm, with ten hours to kill.

And in fairness to Ho Chi Minh, it wasn't too bad. In fact, I'm almost sad I wasn't able to spend a little more time there.

The reason we'd decided to effectively skip it was because Burness had already been, a year or so back, for work, and hadn't considered it a must-see. The general consensus among other travellers was that it was a busier version of Hanoi. That it may be, but the small section I saw - the business district - seemed pretty nice. It appeared wealthier, more Western and more ordered than the motorbike madness that is Hanoi, and had a lively, spirited, but not too shambolic feel to it. Of course, my time there was very limited, but I liked the small sample I saw.

Keeping it real as hardcore travellers, we decided to go to the Sheraton Hotel to sip cocktails on their rooftop bar for sunset. This introduced me to a cocktail called "Grasshopper" which I one day hope to produce in large quantities. It also allowed us great views of Ho Chi Minh City and a nearby big tower. Only as the place began to fill up with other traveller-type people did Burness confess to me that he'd first got the idea from the Lonely Planet, which has the Sheraton's rooftop bar at sunset as one of its recommendations. Bloody Lonely Planet! It's great but... well, the sense of adventure and exploration that should be part of travel is diminished somewhat when everybody eats, drinks and sleeps wherever the Lonely Planet suggests (Burness disagrees - he thinks it's a good shortcut to finding good places to eat, drink, sleep, etc).

After eating in an English pub - again, keeping it real, but this one we discovered on our own - the next few hours were killed at the airport, before getting on the short flight to Manila. As you might imagine, not a great deal of sleep was managed. Arriving tired at 4.30am in Manila is not a good introduction to the city, and so perhaps our view of it was jaded from the start, but nevertheless we both felt the same way very quickly: Manila is a terrible city.

After a couple of hours stuck at the airport due to Visa card shenanigans, we eventually managed to withdraw cash and headed to a hotel to rest for the day. Manila is a vast, featureless sprawl of a city, effectively many towns and cities stuck together. But not everything sticks together well. A bunch of random shapes, in good hands, can become a beautiful mosaic - but Manila is no mosaic. Rather it is like a bunch of old bin bags crudely taped together to create not one giant useful bin bag, but a bunch of useless garbage. Sorry Manila, on the morning of November 25th, I did not feel your charm.

Perhaps it was our taxi driver - and all subsequent taxis we got in Manila - who made sure our doors were locked for our own safety. This has never been required anywhere else in south-east Asia, and did not put us at ease. Or maybe it was the same taxi driver, upon repeated utterance about blessings (the Philippines is a Catholic country) then claimed to have no change and insisted it should be his tip - a whopping 100% extra! Fortunatuely, we found the right money. Maybe it was the child who, upon Burness getting out of the taxi, immediately attempted to steal his painting. Maybe it was the armed security guard at our small, run-down hotel - the requirement for his existence did not make me feel very safe. Maybe it was the hotel owner, who claimed that only the most expensive "family" room was still available - only later did it dawn on me that this was likely a ploy upon seeing how obviously tired we were (this is sheer unfounded conjecture, I should add though). Maybe it was the grim hotel itself, with the mouldy bathroom ceiling in tatters, and a bleakness usually reserved for arthouse movies. Perhaps it was the armed security guard at the restuarant we visited. Or the coffeeshop. Or the taxi driver who stopped to stare out a beggar he believed insincere. Or the sheer vast distance between anything, always with heavy and aggressive traffic. Or anything nice. Nothing in Manila seemed nice.

So I was glad, very glad, to get our overnight bus to Banaue, in the north of Luzon (the island it shares with Manila). And we were lucky too - upon rocking up at 7pm, only two seats were available for the 10pm bus. Phew.

It was an alright journey too, taking about ten hours. Despite frequent, and seemingly unnecessary, stops, the bus was comfortable and although with a TV and soundsystem, turned both of these off around midnight. Peace exists in the Philippines! Buses are never the best means of overnight travel, with their jerky stop-start nature and often-uncomfortable seats, and the lack of a toilet, but I got a reasonable rest.

And how refreshing, after days of transit through busy cities, to arrive in Banaue (pronounced Ba-na-WE), a town of only a few thousand and at altitude, therefore with a cool climate. It's the home of the 2000-year-old rice terraces, which also greeted my arrival, and my hotel of choice was conveniently right next to the bus station and with a fabulous view of the town and terraces. And hence, here I am, on my 33rd birthday, after a pleasant rest in a comfortable bed in a cool room and after a warm shower, feeling refreshed and ready to enjoy my next World Wonder. Trains, planes, and buses can all be put aside as the next form of transport planned is a classic: feet. A three day trek through the mountains and rice terraces await, all away from the hectic pace of modern life and cities, and back into traditional farming communities with a less hurried pace of life. And, I hope, some comfortable beds so I can get some good sleep.

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