Culture shock

Baffling, overwhelming, interesting, exhausting, exhilarating, exciting and at times harrowing.

All these words accurately describe our first four days in South East Asia.

Monday this week we were in Sydney, yet it feels like years ago already. So much has happened, so much has changed and so much is different.

We spent four days resting in Sydney checking out the city. It was great to catch up with a load of our friends who have moved down under to start new lives.

The main news in Australia last week was Trump’s description of his conversation with Aussie Prime Minister Turnbull as “the worst by far” of all his conversations with various world leaders.

This was promptly followedby an interview in which Whitehouse press secretary Sean Spicer mispronounced Turnbull’s name as “Trumble”, twice, which prompted much hilarity amongst some of our friends we went out drinking with one night.

It’s a brilliant lifestyle in Sydney – stunning beaches only a 10 minute bus ride from the city and for our friend James who lives in Manly, his commute is a ferry ride across the bay past the Opera House and Harbour Bridge.

Here we all are playing volleyball on the beach a stones throw from their house.

The contrasts between Sydney and Ho Chi Minh, where we flew to in South Vietnam, are many. One worth writing about as we’re in it everyday is the traffic.

The first thing anyone will notice about the roads in Ho Chi Minh, is that they are full of mopeds and motorbikes, 7.4 million of them according to this – that’s equivalent to every person in London (7M).

The density of mopeds is so great, and the fact there are hardly any traffic lights, means the flow never stops. The road is like a river of mopeds, the current never stopping but constantly being added to by tributaries from side streets. The road gets busier and busier the closer you get to town, until the various rivers converge in a giant whirlpool of a roundabout with hundred of bikes constantly spinning round and round.

Crossing the road is a unique experience. There’s no red or green man to help you, you simply have to wade across and hope not to get swept along in the tide.

Once you take the plunge and start walking across, the drivers somehow find a way to weave their way around you. You feel like Moses parting the red sea.

On our bikes, once you are in the flow it feels safe – you’re carried along with the rest of the flotsam. It’s getting out that can be a problem, particularly if you’re turning against the traffic.

They drive on the right here, so turning left means cutting across the oncoming mopeds and cars. At most junctions there is no lights or right of way rules, so you have to apply the same principle as crossing on foot – press on through the oncoming traffic, and hope it parts around you.

When turning against the traffic, no one is going to stop and “let you go”, and there is never a big enough break in traffic to enable you nip across.

A strategy that works is to wait in the middle of the road until you’ve built up a crowd of fellow drivers also turning left. Slowly, everyone edges forward into the traffic and suddenly once you hit a certain critical mass, you have right of way and the other guys have to stop.

We have had a laugh imagining how tough the hazard perception section of the Vietnamese driving test must be!

We spent a day in Ho Chi Minh before cycling again. It’s a cool city, named after Ho Chi Minh the former president of North Vietnam before the Vietnam War. Prior to being called Ho Chi Minh it was Saigon.

We didn’t really have a clue about the specifics of the Vietnam War as it wasn’t taught in school and we’d never been to this part of the world, so we visited the War Remnants Museum in town.

The museum is interesting and disturbing.  It focuses a lot on the suffering of the Vietnamese civilians during the conflict, of which 2 million are though to have been killed.

Two things that really stuck out were the Americans’ use of agent orange, a chemical that was sprayed across jungle to eliminate forest cover for the North Vietnamese, and crops that might feed them. There was 80 million litres of toxic chemicals sprayed on 18,000 square km of land, almost the whole area of Wales (20,000 square km).

The Vietnamese Red Cross estimate 3 million civilians have been affected by agent orange including 150,000 children born with birth defects. US servicemen were also affected and in 2015 (40 years after the war ended), the government agreed to compensate those affected.

Another harrowing stat from the museum is that after the war finished, 42,135 civilians between 1975 – 2002 died due to unexploded bombs going off, 62,143 were injured.

Thankfully we were cheered up by a kind man in a bike shop who helped us get set up and on our way!

Once out the city, cycling in Vietnam has been a pleasure. There is always so much to look at. People go about their days buying, selling, meeting people and generally looking busy. Mopeds are loaded with all sorts, from bags upon bags of pineapples to stacks of steaks to huge hay bales.

In cities no one really bats an eyelid at us, but in rural areas we are something of a local attraction. Kids run to the side of the road to see us go by and groups of guys playing cards at the roadside yell “Hello, how are you?”.

A funny incident occurred when Katie had a minor mechanical at the side of the road. We pulled over to fix it, then decided to move behind a building in the shade as it was burning hot and the middle of the day.

Whilst we were sorting it, a few guys came over and started watching and smiling. We couldn’t speak to each other, but once we had fixed the bike, one of the lads gestured to our empty water bottles offering to fill them up.

We gladly accepted, and followed him into his house where we met (what we assume to be) his mother, father, younger sisters and a few other guys. Everyone said hello to each other, then before we knew it we were being ushered to the table, and sat down.

The mother then proceeded to fuss over us, and brought over a range of Vietnamese dishes, none of which we had a clue what they were but we gladly got tucked in.

We all ate, and tried to communicate via charades, us doing things like fanning ourselves and pointing at the sun, indicating we were thankful for the shade and the food.

The real breakthrough came when the initial guy pointed at himself and said “Macheser United”, implying he supported Manchester United.

We then had a great conversation which consisted of us each saying names of Premier League players. We asked if he knew Leicester, he looked confused at first and didn’t understand, presumably because the spelling of Leicester is difficult, but he then cottoned on and said:

“Aaaahh! Jamie Vardy!!”

And the conversation recommenced. “Wes Morgan!”, “Danny Drinkwater!” and so on.

Another classic night was staying with Vietnamese guy David who we found on Warm Showers (cycling network). On his profile he said he’d love to host people traveling through, and that he was an English teacher and he’d appreciate it if we would come along to his class to meet his students, which we of course agreed to.

It was a particularly gruelling day of cycling, and we arrived around 6pm as it was getting dark, we were sweaty, dirty and generally disgusting. We met David who explained where the learning centre was, and so we said we’d meet him there after some food.

David met us outside, and walked us into the classroom. With no further explanation as to who we were, or what we were supposed to do, he turned to the class and said to the kids who were 12/13:

“Here your new teacher!” and just sat down and looked at us.

We stood there a bit baffled, then the kids asked us some questions from the textbook “how many brothers do you have?” etc, and then it all went a bit off piste and we got into London, Harry Potter and our cycle ride.

After “teaching” for about 40 minutes, we went back to David’s where we showered, and then were told we were all going out for coffee. We met some other English teachers and spent the rest of the night helping them pronounce words which they got up on their phone, like “lull”, “gulf”, “golf” and “luggage”.

It’s really hard for them to pronounce “l” sounds, so we worked on that, and then we tried and failed to pronounce a bunch of Vietnamese words, before almost falling asleep in our chairs.

It was a shame we only had two full days cycling in Vietnam as it is such a beautiful country with cool people.

The border crossing into Cambodia was relatively straightforward. We were confused at first as we were unaware we were required to get an exit stamp from the immigration boat (obviously) and so initially weren’t allowed to leave the country. Once we’d established this, we were through no problem.

It was a day cycle between the border and the capital city Phnom Penh through mostly rural countryside. The kids here were really excited to see us. Almost every house we passed, a kid would run out shouting “Hello! Hello! Hello!”, and when they got a response they would jump around celebrating.

It was so constant that often we couldn’t see where the shouts were coming from as we were passing, but we didn’t want to let any of them down so would just shout “Hello!” as we were pedalling, or wave from the bike. They were so excited, we felt guilty if we left them hanging.

Once we stopped to buy some bread of a lady on the side of the road, it was the middle of the day and so we were looking out for shade. A lady gestured that we could sit on a small bench behind her house.

As we sat down, about nine kids came running to just stare at us as we ate. We shared some biscuits with them, and although we couldn’t communicate, we took some pictures and showed them on the camera which they liked.

The roads so far in Cambodia have been single lane roads with wide shoulders, and no passing lanes – but who needs passing lanes when you have… the oncoming traffic lane.

The protocol for oncoming traffic seems to be:

  1. Pull out to the oncoming traffic lane with hand pressed on the horn.
  2. Accelerate past the vehicle you are overtaking with either hand continuously on the horn, or beeping the horn.
  3. Once you are in the oncoming traffic lane, you have right of way, and it is the responsibility of oncoming traffic to get into the shoulder to avoid head on collision.

They drive on the right here, mostly. It’s sort of optional, if you want to drive on the left you can do so, although generally stick to the outside of the left lane, but whatever really.

The road coming into Phnom Penh was traffic like nothing else either of us have seen in the world. There was construction going on, so two mad lanes of traffic was squeezed into one, and then there was a bottle neck going over a bridge.

There were mopeds and cars going in all directions, and it took us about an hour to get over this bridge and into the city.

Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia and we arrived on a Friday night. The city was absolutely throbbing, lights everywhere, music, food, temples, monks, bars, clubs – all sorts going on.

Only 30 years ago, Phnom Penh was the centre for the regime of Pol Pot. Pol Pot and his political party, the Khmer Rouge were the rulers of Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.

His party took control of the country when they marched on Phnom Penh in 1975. Pol Pott and his followers attempted to instigate an extreme form of Communism which turned into one of the worst atrocities of the last century.

Anyone who spoke against the regime was branded an enemy and was killed.

Anyone with links to the former government, ethnic minorities and professionals and intellectuals were enemies. This could include teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers – anyone with soft hands, or who wore glasses (i.e. an intellectual, not a “worker”).

As a result of his policies, an estimated 2 million people died, around 25% of all Cambodians.

We visited the notorious prison “S21”, where so-called enemies were taken. They were tortured until they wrote a forced confession for colluding with the CIA or the KGB, and were subsequently taken to be killed. 17,000 people passed through S21 and only seven survived.

A poignant moment on the audio tour was the description of Kiwi, Kerry Hamil, a 27 year old guy who was in Cambodian waters on a round the world sailing trip when Pol Pot came to power. He was put in jail on suspicion of being a terrorist, and tortured to draw a “confession” out of him.

Knowing his cause was useless, he made up a confession, in which he said Colonel Sanders from Kentucky (“The Colonel” from KFC) was one of his superiors in the CIA, as was Sergeant Pepper (the Beatles reference). He was killed in 1978.

It was harrowing to walk round, and see the various torture weapons and prison cells.

We then continued our day of fun with a visit to the “killing fields” just outside Phnom Penh. It’s also harrowing to walk round, there were 8,985 people clubbed to death here (bullets too expensive), and there are still shards of bone on the grass.

The most difficult part of the killing fields is the Chankiri Tree, where the guards used to “smash” the heads of children and infants in order to kill them.

After this morning of culture… we headed to the market and made ourselves feel better by drinking a jug of Cambodian beer by the side of the Mekong River, and watching the sun set behind the Royal Palace (below).

On the audio tour of the S21 jail, the narrator says:

“As you leave s21 you too are a keeper of that memory. Tell others what happened so we may all serve for human compassion, dignity and peace everywhere for generations to come.”

So here we are, doing our bit and passing on what happened.

It’s been a brilliant introduction to South East Asia and although it’s hard to learn about history at times, it’s important to do so.

It’s testament to the amazing people here that two countries that have endured such painful recent pasts, are now so warm and welcoming to us travellers passing through.

We’re back on our bikes tomorrow, and looking forward to another week or so in Cambodia, and then into Thailand.