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Vietnam: Robyn Malcolm

During her 15-day tour of Vietnam, ex-Shortland Street star Robyn Malcolm got her first taste of travel in a developing country... And she absolutely loved it.

Day One: Hanoi
I know the guide books are accurate. I also know that you don't really get a sense of a country till you can see it, smell it, feel it and hear it all in one go. Those first few moments are fantastic, confronting and sometimes scary, heralding all the newness to come. The Old Quarter of Hanoi... AHA! This is where it starts. Madness! Noisy, smelly, busy, crazy busy. I think this must be what Elizabethan London was like. People buying, selling, eating, making, fixing, sleeping, tossing rubbish, drinking living -- all on the street! All in the 1.5 square metre area each person has on average to exist in! Oh, we are so private and clean and put away in the West. I've done most of my travelling in the West so this is really different. I expect to be enchanted, challenged and scared several times a day.

Day Two: Hanoi
Hanoi is bustling. Several million people fighting with a few million cycles fighting with a few million motor scooters. There's a saying that you need three things to get around Hanoi -- good horn, good brakes, good luck. Looking at the cafe signs, I realise "Thit Cho" means dog meat. I am NOT going there. At lunch, I squeak at our tour guide, "Is this food safe? You know, OK to eat?" He raises his eyes to the ceiling: "I dunno mate. Eat it and see.".

Day Three: Cho Ra
I have drunk snake wine, refused bird wine (strangely similar to Jim Beam), boated to the most romantic Ba Be Lakes, ate cucumber in the rain, negotiated my own price for pig intestine, and saw the hugest spider of my life. I yelled bloody murder and the Vietnamese proprietoress thought me the most hysterical thing she'd seen in years (I seem to be have the same affect on these people as I do on Western babies). Took a pee in a corn field yesterday only to discover a family of at least three generations leaning out a window watching in glee and fascination. I tried some theatrics to cover my embarrassment, which turned glee to confusion I think.

Day Four: Pac Bo Cave and trek
I've been inside Uncles Ho's cave, Pac Bo, where he lived for three months in the 40s. It's beautiful and awfully basic. Very Vietnam really. I now climb a big cone-shaped limestone mountain on the Chinese border. My bed for the night is in a tiny village of five wooden houses on stilts, inhabited by a minority group called the Nung people. They had dogs, cats, chickens, buffalo and pigs and they kept them under the house at night. The floor boards were loose and rotten, or soft bamboo (Westerners go through it soooo easily... too big and fat). My bedroom, or sleep area, is above the pigs and also the female loo. During the night I'm woken from a corn wine induced coma to find a Nung lady squatting by the bed and pissing through the floor boards onto the piggies. So we did too and it was all great fun! No one from the West had ever come to their place before so the ladies kept grabbing our arms and squeezing our tits, to see if they were real I guess. I chatted with one of the women. She was 30, pregnant with her fifth child. She was hoping for a boy and would keep trying until she had one. She will have the baby on her own -- no assistance. She smoked the most wickedly strong tobacco out of a huge bong and was beautiful. I gave all her girls hair clips with butterflies on them which they loved but giggled furiously at... I didn't realise that they often describe female genitalia as a butterfly.


Day Five: Tong Cot and trek
Imagine a rubbish dump, it rains heavily on the rubbish dump, put some old wooden shacks about, smack them about a bit, put holes in them, add livestock, lots of it, indoors and out, throw about lots and lots of poo, add more rain, about 10,000 people, many very poor, pissed men, sick babies and deformed old people. Tong Cot is the poorest, most depressing, most challenging place I have ever been. My "home stay" looked like a country bar. About 200 wide-eyed faces drinking beer or rice wine and eating Pho. Led towards the back, the smell hit Looking through the floor boards it was easy to ascertain I was above a human sewer this time. Climbing up a small ladder by a wall to the attic (or storage for the town's junk),I'm greeted by a big pile of drying (or rotting corn), a dead motor bike, rubbish and rats. Crawling back down, I sit in stunned silence while Mr Duk informs me, most seriously, that this is my bunk for the night and I also MUST NOT EAT ANY FOOD OR DRINK ANY DRINK HERE because "the locals have custom where they like to poison visitors". Oh boy.

Day Six: Cao Bang
I found nice concrete digs last night, although was disturbed to find an intravenous drip tied to the window. Still, I'm glad to head back to Cao Bang, which I would have classed as a shit hole two days ago. My hotel is a prize piece of Soviet architecture but it has a real bed and a real bathroom and that's more than enough to keep me happy. A cool beer takes the edge off. Thankfully the Vietnamese LOVE their drinking games. "Chicks are queer!" they seem to say and then down this rocket fuel made from either rice or corn. Often they put dead animals in the bottom, or insects, big insects with many, many legs.

Day Seven: Hanoi
Got to our chosen restaurant late last night, which was not a bad thing. Big cockroaches on the floor and too much woof woof on the menu for my liking. Funny, I can stomach the idea of bovine bits more than I can dog. Just couldn't go there. The rest of the menu made weird reading -- boiled intestines, cock and balls of a large buffalo, pig's uterus... Ohhhh, for a lovely herb crepe thing. Thank God for lots of rice wine. I was up at 4.30am to do tai chi on the lake with some old ladies. Not the popular thing now, it seems. Most people were doing a crazy mix of old drama school moves and the Gay Gordon. I met these wonderful old women. I wish I spoke the language. I wanna know what they have seen and done in their lives -- not all church cake stalls I should imagine. I really am starting to love the women here. They seem tough, like the Scots. They are little, beautiful and steely as all get out. My guide, Mr Duk, does not join in. I say, "Do you exercise Mr Duk?" He says: "No. I don't want to live past 60. What is the point of living if you can't work?" A thoroughly Soviet and humorless man.

Day Eight: Hanoi and the DMZ
It's a rattling overnight train that takes me to the old battle sites, old bases, blown up remains of buildings, a big Vietnamese war museum, war graves. My tour guide, Mr Wee, lost five brothers and sisters in the war but still he is cheery and full of information. At Vinh Moc a North Vietnamese village dug tunnels and lived underground for two years while all hell was going on above them, over 25 meters below ground! Driving down Terrible Boulevard, a stretch of road where about 10,000 people died during the "Hell Summer", I saw a family and thought that family could have died in 1968. Mr Wee would say, "It not safe here, people found unexploded ordinance here last week, stay on path!!" He would then proceed to lead us off path. "Is it safe?" I bleat. "Oh No!" Mr Wee would say, marching ahead.

Day Nine: DMZ
The bus drives along the Ho Chi Minh trail ending up at the Khe San Military Base where I understand one of the most bloody battles took place -- all for nothing. About 12,000 NVA and VC troops were killed along with 500 American. Weirdly, I think I kinda committed a faux pas. I read this visitor's book. Obviously, Khe San is a bit of a pilgrimage for Americans. It symbolizes something for them. There were many notes along the lines of, "Have come here to try and establish a connection with the Dad I never knew..." There was one really, really angry one from a son: "You took my father, you got what you deserved - Communism." Someone from Afghanistan wrote "Americans go home". Reading those last two, I think about how easily war starts and burst into tears. I can't understand the Vietnamese words, can't read their language. But I could the English. All day I'd been travelling through Vietnamese tragedy and I get to American loss and I blubber! It seems it is not the done thing to connect with Western grief at the moment. The afternoon was odd after that. I am confused and unsure about this subtle need we have to side with sides for our own personal resolution and moral grandstanding. Grief is grief and loss is loss. It's always where war ends up and there aren't any resolutions. Maybe I'm behind the times, but I hated the cynicism, and I hated the judgement. Its like there are so many experts on this war now and there seems to be a right way and a wrong way to respond.

Day Ten: Village
Another homestay and I am lucky enough to sit near the 86 year old head of the village. He fought as a guerilla in the jungle for 10 years and was in the army for 36 years. He saw many, many things. "War is a terrible life" he said chugging back more rice wine, sucking on a fag and said his moral now is "No Stress". Having a lovely time with the village kids, I'm doing my best Princess Diana impersonation. I finally asked the interpreter what the kids were saying. "Give me all your money" came the reply. This village saw travellers a few years back so they know a little of what to expect and prepared a traditional tribal dinner with plastic wrapped savs and white bread! More drinking games. Canterbury University would be proud of me! Then they sacrificed a pig and a goat and mixed the drained blood with sticky rice wine and offered it to me. Oh how confronting! Just about fainted... am pathetic. I have to acknowledge I'm a hypocrite. I eat meat from the supermarket. This is a night of celebration -- many youths pissed as farts on rice wine getting completely out of it. The sacrifice of the goat is awful as they are too munted to be accurate and keep getting the veins and not an artery. As any ex-TV nurse will tell you, you don't get pumping blood for your sticky rice wine out of a sacrificed animal if you go for the veins! Once dead (it took a while), the carcasses go on a big bonfire for a while, then they dance around whooping and giggling and doing all sorts off lewd weird stuff! Farcical, bloody weird and awful and, in the end, very middle New Zealand I thought: Palmy. Queen St. Huntly. Inglewood.

Day Eleven: Hue
In Hue, I am able to wash. Honestly, I never thought those few Gatherings would come in so handy. That's the only other time I can remember being in the same clothes for days on end. This trip has taught me human beings are tough nuts, and sometimes you should trust in yourself not to stay all clean and scared. To be able to sit down with tribes people, smile, eat the food they prepare and drink their wine and not question whether it's good for my health... I have found it completely brilliant.

Day Twelve: Hue
Drove through the outskirts of Hue on the back of a motor bike, through a forest of big statues to a monastery to hear monks' prayers and it pissed with rain and rain and rain. Driving back over dirt tracks, I hold a big blue umbrella over the eyes of Huong, my driver, who is going at break neck speed. I wonder if I will live as Huong dodges trucks and large spiky things carrying lots of rice plants. I screamed an awful lot.

Day Thirteen: Hoi An
BEAUTIFUL little town. It used to be a big shipping port, but has been by-passed by industry and is now the best shopping town you can imagine. It is a World Heritage Site and there are a few important temples and buildings about. You can cycle everywhere too... A very friendly place.

Day Fourteen: Hoi An
Have bought new shoes, new bag, new dress, new lanterns.... Ohh and new suitcase to take them all home in.

Day Fifteen: Hanoi
I have always gone to places where there is a way out. I have always gone to places where I can connect with the lifestyle of the people and find a safe resolution amidst it all. I'm back in Hanoi with a mass of questions, I am so proud of myself and a bit freaked too. Sometimes we watch the news and see footage from other countries and places we might never go to, and hear politicians talk about lifting tariffs, or not, and then change channels. Then you go to that place. Everything, absolutely everything is relative. I am amazed constantly by what I take for granted. I am amazed at what other people live with on a day to day basis in the same way I live with putting the rubbish out, or turning on the coffee machine. The reference points are different. Does that make sense? I have slept on hard flea-infested floors to then celebrate a soft flea-infested floor. I was nervous of eating salad and now don't give a crap (yeah go on take that literally). I suppose I'm learning what many of you already know, that travelling can be fraught with paranoia or fear. You stay with your Western head and never get past it, or you chuck everything up in the air and trust some instinct. The second way seems to be a helluva rewarding way.