So you’re going to South East Asia, lucky you! Maybe it’s been your dream holiday destination since childhood, maybe you’re going on a Buddhist pilgrimage but let’s just cut to the chase and assume you are going there because you are really broke. Lovely, please enjoy this guide.
Ah Bangkok, the great capital where you are never more than 5 metres away from a fish spa or a billboard featuring man with exceptionally large ears (that’s their king, probably don’t say that aloud). Bangkok is a very big place and naturally because you are young and cheap you will be staying on Khao San Road.
If Bangkok was a person, Khao San Road would undoubtedly be the armpit, or perhaps the crotch. It is a hot, heaving mess of a place but much like the crotch there is a lot of fun to be had in particular areas. By day it’s the nerve centre for all things tourist, brimming with genuinely fake Adibas and crazed shirtless men that would conceivably gnaw off a vital limb to get you into their motorized tricycle, which is only slightly less terrifying than it sounds.
By night the ‘San transforms, the smell is somewhere between burnt poultry and lighter fluid, which coincidentally is exactly what the vodka tastes like. ‘Vodka’ and the like is served in buckets, a cruel prophesy in the sense that that is exactly what you will need the next day, minus the decorative umbrellas. Do not ever get into an altercation with bar staff about how to pay for the bucket because that is basically How to get Beaten Up by the Mafia 101. A nice general rule to keep in mind when staying on Khao San Road is to assume everyone is in the mafia.
Despite the fact that Kanchanaburi is north of Bangkok, it is positioned here in the guide because you would have bought the tour to Kanchanaburi in Bangkok because you are a stupid tourist. While in the western world the job of a taxi driver is to take you to your desired location, the job of a tuk tuk driver in Bangkok is to take you wherever the fuck they want. Temples and landmarks end up looking suspiciously like tailors and tourist centres in the name of a free petrol voucher. This is something you simply have to roll with because as mentioned above, your tuk tuk driver is probably in the mafia.
This is all ok because Kanchanaburi is actually quite lovely and its name is also fun to say. The highlight by far is the Erawan National Park where you will enjoy about 45 minutes of sweaty uphill discomfort in the name of seeing and swimming in some beautiful waterfalls. There are lots of monkeys and if you get close enough one might pounce on you, try to forget about the debilitating and potentially fatal effects of rabies and enjoy the moment. Avoid anywhere with the words ‘elephant camp’ or ‘tiger temple’ in the title unless you are a sadist. If you are a sadist simply ask your bus driver to turn the air con off and play some traditional Thai music.
Koh Samui is one of Thailand’s largest largest islands and boasts rock formations that look like a penis and a vagina. If you’ve ever been scolded about being immature you will feel just great about the fact that one of Ko Samui’s main tourist attractions is a 2 metre hard on.
Koh Samui’s second best attraction is the Muay Thai gyms, which abound on many of the streets all over the island. There is nothing particularly amusing about the gyms themselves, but watching pasty tourists absolutely murder themselves in 42 degree heat as the chiseled, sweat-free locals look on in degradation is practically the definition of hilarious.
If neither of the above options appeal, you can always go to a ladyboy show. The performers will all look better in a leotard than you could ever hope to in a hundred thousand years and you may have an existential crisis. Drown your sorrows with a bucket then ask about their diet secrets when you see them in the bathroom.
Thai locals will tell you Koh Tao means ‘Turtle Island’ but it could just as easily mean ‘disappearing ankles’. This is because Koh Tao is the perfect holiday destination for people who sit in saunas competitively and also people who were born on the sun. Unless you are a camel this sort of heat tends to have an immediate and terrifying swelling effect, to the point where by the end of your stay you won’t actually have ankles, just legs that end where your toenails are. Do not seek solace in the shallows unless you’re keen on slow cooking your bloated limbs like a Sunday roast. The diving however, is very nice.
After nearly drinking yourself into oblivion and witnessing a ping pong show (tip: not a table tennis competition) in a dodgily lit backstreet on the islands of Thailand, you may want to consider other ways to kill yourself such as walking down the road in Vietnam, let’s start in:
Vietnam’s capital Hanoi is Vietnam’s second largest city and chock full of people who want you to die, or at least pretend like they do until the very last minute. Everyone in Hanoi owns a motorbike, in fact it’s believed in a few generations time Vietnamese will emerge centaur-like from the womb with wheels instead of legs. In the Old Quarter of Hanoi, sidewalks don’t actually exist because they are covered in parked motorbikes, which at least gives you an idea about their priorities. If you need to walk anywhere, close your eyes and walk in a straight line, the bikers will either: blast the living shit out of their horn and expertly dart you, or blast the living shit out their horn and kill you with the fridge/animal carcass/1 bedroom apartment they’ve got strapped to the side of their Vespa. The thrill of not knowing is a real buzz.
Halong Bay is arguably Vietnam’s most famous tourist spot, mostly because 98% of Hanoi’s population sell tours there. This is very handy when you want to buy a nose job and a tour at the same time, but not if you like your boats above the waterline. For the best result, buy a tour from somewhere that exclusively sells tours, you will feel very smug about this when your fellow backpackers are spotted climbing onto something with the structural integrity of a lily pad.
For most tours you will spend two days cruising through the stunning limestone islands of the bay, the days peppered with various outdoorsy activities including kayaking, cave exploring and cropping the broken lightbulbs out of your beachy Instagram shot. Do not be surprised if you stumble upon a local who’s paddled into the middle of the ocean in a goddamn rowboat to try and sell you something. You will be encouraged by your tour guide to ignore them because as it turns out, the mafia rule applies in Vietnam as well.
Hoi An may in fact be the only place in Vietnam where hiring a motorbike is actually a good idea, mostly because it’s quaint and whimsical, but also because the people don’t drive like P addicts. Practically all of the food in Hoi An is amazing, so be immediately suspicious of people waving you into their restaurant as if their life depends on it, because if you eat there your life probably will. If you park your motorbike somewhere expect the nearest salesperson to claim that that was their patch of grass and that you must pay for it, if you are not willing to pay for it hope to god your motorbike is faster than theirs, because it’s likely they’re in the mafia too.
Nha Trang is a rather lovely coastal tourist city known for its nightlife and an overwhelming infestation of Russians. Restaurants commonly serve borsht and Russian sturgeon, and given how bad the Western food is one can only marvel at how well the Vietnamese interpretation of borscht goes down. If you are white prepare to be mistaken for a Russian by fellow Russians, usually this will just mean keg-bellied men with gold chains and impossibly large noses aggressively barking questions at you and eventually giving up.
Other than the diving, which is exceptional, Nha Trang’s greatest asset is Vinpearl Land which is guaranteed to cure your hangover or worsen it substantially depending on which part of the waterslide you’re on and how loudly Pitbull is playing from the speakers. Towards the evening take the Alpine Coaster, which boasts a gloriously outdated instructional video and a questionable braking system. It can be very romantic, aided by the sultry tones of Mr 305.
The best way to describe Mui Ne is that it really wants to be Nha Trang but won’t ever make it because it is the Gretchen Wieners of Vietnam and won’t ever be quite as good. Of course this perception could be avoided in part if you choose to make your own way to the sand dunes rather than opting for the miserable alternative that is the tour, which may go something like this:
Your guide is less of a guide and more of a disinterested driver that plays the Vietnamese version of Basshunter like he’s on commission for every repeat. You will get approximately 40 minutes to traverse what appears to be the dusty version of Everest on foot, or choose from a selection of the world’s Quad Bikes Most Likely to Spontaneously Combust. Bits of it will fall off, do not be alarmed.
Then it’s on the Red Sand Dunes, which are probably red or at least a similar tinge under all the stinking piles of detritus. Your driver may allow you to gaze at it for up to 7 seconds before it’s on the next destination, consider this a blessing. The next point in the tour is usually described as ‘Authentic Fishing Village’ or some such thing. What you are more likely to experience is an ‘Authentic Pile of Fish Carcasses’ which admittedly doesn’t roll off the tongue as well, then it’s on to destination number four.
Destination Four, more often than not, is ‘The Fairy Stream’ which is akin to naming a steaming turd ‘The Pretty Princess’. You are told to wade haphazardly into a knee deep stream likely to contain toxic waste or at the very least human remains, before being pounced on by some locals who swiftly demand money and bring up that old chestnut, the mafia. At this point you are starting to wonder, a) whether all of South East Asia is in fact in the mafia, or b) they’ve just watched a lot of The Godfather and know how to efficiently scare the living shit out of tourists. It is best to never try to find the answer to this question.
If all of this emotional trauma is enough to make you a little disillusioned about the whole Mui Ne experience you may want to break your ‘authentic local food only’ rule and head to Joe’s Café or Phat Burgers. The latter serves real cheese , which if you’ve been in South East Asia for a while might be enough to make you break down and cry salty, lactose deficient tears. Try to do it quietly or you will alarm the staff.
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City, still referred to by many as Saigon, is Vietnam’s largest city and thus even more full of motorbikes than anywhere else in the country. The critical difference between Hanoi and HCMC is that here there are footpaths, which makes the drivers appear less intent on killing you, or at least they have less of an alibi.
An absolute must do is the War Remnants Museum, a truly sobering reminder that humans are sometimes real shits to each other. There is a particularly striking gallery of Agent Orange victim photos which you may find a teenager taking a selfie in front of, try to resist the urge to punch them in the face unless of course their parents give you permission.
Another must do is the Cu Chi tunnels, a reminder that even though humans are sometimes real shits to each other, the Vietnamese really did it with panache. Not advised for anyone with recurring dreams of being impaled by a swinging door trap, or those averse to a strangers butt in your face while trapped in an enclosed space, which is entirely understandable.
Of course, aside from the history, along with big cities come the trappings of the wealthy. If you’re never going to be wealthy in the real world, you can at least pretend you are in Vietnam, which is really easy considering one New Zealand dollar equals sixteen thousand dong. The best way to pretend to be rich is go to a bar like Shri which is 23 stories up and damn near the best view in town (the actual best is the Bitexco tower but you’re not allowed to get drunk there which is an obvious black mark). Of course no one there will actually think you’re rich because you’re covered in tunnel dirt, but you can at least rack up a stonkingly large bill and drink cocktails that don’t come in a bucket until you feel classy.
This sort of night out obviously calls for an equally chic recovery, and because you look like an embarrassing drunk aunt in all of your travel photos thus far, it’s time to deceive your friends into thinking you are glamorous just this one time. A day at a spa like L’Apothiquaire achieves both this and peels off the several hundred layers of sweaty nastiness that’s now accumulated on your swollen, flaky face. Disclaimer: getting the shits will really ruin the illusion of grandeur so seriously NO STREET CHICKEN UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.
I’m not kidding, it will ruin you.
That was your unorthodox guide to Southern Thailand and Vietnam.
Do try it, you might like it.