The Silver Backpacker – Chapter 3: Thailand and Vietnam

The River Kwai and its surrounding area had been a fascinating time for me as well as quite emotional. I was now looking forward to the journey back to Bangkok,  and a little wild night life, which I intended to by bus,  a relatively easy journey taking just over two hours. Once in Bangkok I used the SkyTrain to cross the city to the district that was to be my home for so many future BK stopovers, Sukhamvit Road and The Landmark Hotel

The vast majority of younger backpackers, when in Bangkok, tend to congregate in the Khaosan Road area of the city, a thriving community that caters to the every need of the budget traveller: from cut-priced airfares and accommodation, shopping and a vibrant night life. It is also ideally placed for visits to many Thai Buddhist Temples and Royal Palaces. It is easily accessible by both river taxi, buses and more recently a rail link.

Sukhamvit is definitely not for your average backpacker but I guess that while I was in Bangkok I wasn't your average backpacker. What silver backpacker would be?

The Landmark Hotel occupies an excellent position at the heart of Sukhumvit and is a couple of minutes walk from the Nana Sky Train station. Indeed, the same Skytrain line will take me in 48 hours to the Ekamai Bus Terminal where I will catch a coach for my next journey to Trat Provence and the last frontier for backpackers,  the island of Koh Chang.

And so it was that having moved eastwards to Trat province I was soon on the ferry to Koh Chang (Elephant Island). This was in 2004 the nearest thing to Thailand, seen in the  film 'The Beach',  as one could possibly get. It was backpackers territory, rough, under developed and fun.

Koh Chang is Thailand's second largest island with miles and miles of white sandy beaches. For my stay I headed for a small town called Hat Sai Khoa which itself meant white sand beach. I checked into a mid range hotel with aircon and shower and after a relaxing swim in the sea set about planning my 5 day stay.

I could not miss the many Scuba Dive shops so that became for me a must. I now had to put my newly found skills into practice, away from the comfort zone of where I had qualified. Determined also to see a bit more of this island I hired a motor bike for 4 days. I clocked up four dives off the shores of Koh Chang and bought my first piece of diving kit – a mask. Little did I realise then the expense my hobby would come to some three years hence. There was no doubt that tourism was catching on here but fortunately at the time of my visit supply outstripped demand. (I actually returned the following year with my wife, so keen was I to show her this corner of paradise. It still was but the rate of development in just one year was startling).

The really nice thing about Koh Chang in 2004 was the authenticity of the Thai food. It was good and though other international food outlets were available they were nowhere on the scale of places like Phuket and Pattaya. All in all an excellent visit time and a great atmosphere never to be forgotten. All to soon I was heading back to Bangkok and the next stage of my journey – Vietnam.

I had visited Vietnam four years earlier when I undertook a specialised 3 week 'Battlefield Tour'. I had become fascinated with the country and its people, its culture and its scenic beauty. The 'Battlefield Tour' had been fully escorted albeit I was the sole member on the tour – it has its advantages.

This time I flew into Hanoi from Bangkok courtesy of Thai Airways. The plan was to spend several days in Hanoi, travel to Halong Bay for another few days before returning to Hanoi and then heading south towards Saigon (I prefer Saigon to its official title Ho Chi Minh City). I had pre-booked  my Hanoi stay at The Hanoi  Melia, very ritzy but for whatever budget I may have had, a very reasonably priced 4 Star hotel. It was also exceptionally placed for getting around Hanoi.

I found Hanoi most fascinating. There is an amazing French influence, not only in the food. Though invariably spicy Vietnamese food offered less 'heat' than Thai food. It is more fragrant, relies more on fresh herbs and with less oil used in its cooking, invariably more healthy.

I well remember on my first evening walk from the hotel meeting two young Vietnamese women who were anxious to practice their English conversation with me (true folks) and after a while they introduced me to an amazing restaurant well off the beaten track and which specialised in what is now probably my favourite Vietnamese dish, Pho Bo.

Pho Bo is a nourishing Vietnamese soup supplemented with Beef and flat noodles and is popular throughout the country.

Hanoi in 2004 had little or no public transportation within the city itself. Fortunately most sights of interest to the visitor is in easy walking distance. From the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum to the famous Water Puppet Theatre, from the Old Quarter of Hanoi, also known as the 36 streets of  guilds, to the Tran Quoc Pagoda this is a fascinating city.

My three nights in Hanoi soon came to an end and I headed by private transfer to the World heritage site of Halong Bay, some 160 kilometers east of Hanoi. 

Halong Bay is a fascinating place. It is situated not far from the Vietnamese China border and consists of a dense cluster some 3000 limestone monolithic islands, rising spectacularly from the water and each topped with thick jungle type vegetation.  Some islands support thriving fishing villages while other villages are made up of floating islands. Cat Ba island and its surrounds are probably the most famous and most visited in the archipelago. I stayed at the Halong Heritage Hotel, set some 100 metres off the Halong City foreshore and a not too distant walk from the pontoons that operated the tourist boats for touring the bay.

As luck would have it, my first day coincided with a quiet day on the water and I was able to charter a boat for myself for the day at not too great a price in US Dollars cash.  A full day on the water was really worth every cent and I also had more time to spend on the floating fish farms which fascinated me.

The following day I joined a group of female Japanese tourists for another boat excursion, this time to Cat Ba island. Bless them, they loved practising their English on me but it was often hard work.

The following day I said goodbye to Halong City and caught the ferry that would take me across the Bay of Tonkin to Haiphong. Haiphong had always fascinated me from the days of the Vietnam War. It was the port for the north and suffered some terrible bombing raids.

From the moment I arrived at the ferry terminal till the moment I reached my hotel in Haiphong, some 8 hours, never once did I meet anyone who spoke English. This really was travelling native and I was thankful I had invested in two litres of bottled water before leaving the hotel. Haiphong did not disappoint and this was truly an image of Vietnam that not many backpackers were likely to see. After two nights I journeyed back to Hanoi by train. Again, a similar experience to the ferry crossing.  This was raw Vietnam, fascinating, exciting and the Vietnam of its people.

That evening after one more visit to the Pho Bo restaurant with my two friends I boarded an overnight coach and headed south for Hue and Da Nang. But that is another part of the journey.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Selective Asia for holidays to Thailand and Vietnam.

Read Chapter 1 – Taking off for Asia
Read Chapter 2 – Koh Tao to Kanchanaburi
Read Chapter 4 – My Lai, Hue and Saigon

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Richard Okill

Retired naval officer & businessman

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