Longing to travel with just a bag and her wits, Sharon Kelly joined the gap yah types in Cambodia and Vietnam, aged 54… and had a ball
There were moments on my month-long backpacking trip around Cambodia and Vietnam, on a budget of £25 a day, that I questioned the sense of my plan. Time-rich and cash-poor, I wanted to travel, but also to rediscover my sense of adventure.
However, it was more than 30 years since I’d last backpacked – around India (and that trip had its challenges). The doubts started almost immediately as I endured the seven-hour, bone-shuddering, coach ride to Phnom Penh from Ho Chi Minh City (there are no trains in Cambodia), being force-fed One Direction and Britney Spears videos.
It was at the Mad Monkey Hostel in Phnom Penh where I faced my first “age-challenge”, on being shown my bed. It was the top bunk of three, eight feet up in the air with a vertical climb up a ladder. My one pair of jeans ripped immediately in protest.
This catastrophe led to a sequence of events that would reduce many a middle-aged woman to tears and an immediate flight home. But not me. How I laughed when I tried on a kaftan that made me look like the not-so-small sister of the late Demis Roussos, how I giggled with the tailor as he measured my behind, and how I howled, hysterically, when he produced an outfit that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an operating theatre. On the upside, he did manage to patch my jeans. If there’s one piece of advice I would give any woman travelling to Indo-China it’s, if you’re over a size eight, make sure you have enough clothes with you.
Next, I needed to find my backpacker legs and acclimatise to the heat, dust and traffic. At 5.30am, having slept very little (there was an all-night bar, a couple feet above my head), I jumped into a tuk-tuk and for £4 rapidly went from temple to monument and back to a temple and so on, while fitting in one palace and the national museum.
At a slower pace, I supped a beer in the Foreign Correspondents Club and savoured the glamour of the Raffles Hotel Le Royal Elephant Bar, which once served, among famous others, Somerset Maugham and Jacqueline Kennedy. On my budget, one cocktail was enough but at least the atmosphere was free. Things were looking up.
There was another spasm of doubt during another long and at times terrifying, bus ride to Siem Reap. No one should take the night bus. But it was in Siem Reap that I realised that for only slightly more money I could have my own quiet room and a bed a lot closer to the floor, (Mandalay Inn, £10 with air-con).
Bayon temple in Cambodia
The town’s many glitzy but reasonably priced restaurants (breakfast, lunch and dinner for around £12) compete for business with the beggars, the hawkers and the tuk-tuk drivers, some of whom whiled away the night watching televisions strapped to their vehicles. But I was there to see the world-famous temples of Angkor Wat. I arose at 4.30am for the sunrise along with a thousand or so other people. You can get a three-day pass which might suit some as it was hot and humid by 9am and I had only managed to visit three temples.
Being a backpacker at 54 might not be a good look but age does have some advantages, including being allowed to use the pool in the four-star Angkor Holiday Hotel in Siem Reap, looking like someone wearing pyjamas who’s been dragged through a Gardenia godefroyana hedge backwards. It was a very welcome few hours of luxuriousness.
Back in Vietnam, I planned to fly to Hanoi (two hours from Ho Chi Minh, £56) and then work my way back down the eastern coast. When I took out my travel insurance I ticked the box that promised I wasn’t participating in dangerous sports, so I had to hope that did not include riding pillion on a moped.
Along with millions of other mopeds (some carrying live animals, monks and whole families), a large number of buses, lorries and taxis but a distinct lack of traffic lights, we whizzed through the dilapidated, charming, mildewed city that is Hanoi, only slightly slowing down at crossroads or roundabouts, where my guide would say: “Shut your eyes now, lady”.
West Lake in Hanoi
I flew past the Ho Chi Minh City Mausoleum, the Hanoi Opera House and Hoa Lo Prison. I saw street barbers honing their craft and ex-offenders releasing turtles into West Lake for good luck. We broke into the closed B52 Victory Museum (only the outside) and went to a restaurant that served dog – fortunately they’d sold out.
Needing something a little less frenetic, I spent the following day on a boat visiting the stunning Ha Long Bay. There are approximately a thousand people living in villages floating between the limestone karsts, many of whom make their living rowing tourists around the caves and inlets.
Boats in Halong Bay
Next stop was Hoi An, an ancient river town, lit by thousands of silk lanterns at night and renowned for its tailors, I stayed at the fantastic Huy Hoang Garden Hotel (£12 for a double room, overlooking the pool, with breakfast included). When the receptionist gave me a map of the town she specifically told me not to go to the indoor market.
It is a tourist trap and unfortunately it’s exactly where I ended up. I was soon persuaded by a couple of great saleswomen to have a foot massage. They showed me books with other travellers’ recommendations although I should have taken note as many featured the word “trapped”.
Fish market in Hoi An
The soothing massage quickly descended into torture when they began to depilate my legs one hair at a time with threading. Then the arguments started – the price they quoted was extortionate. Especially for something I hadn’t asked for. They said I should have said “No”. I’m pretty sure I screamed it on numerous occasions. I got out by the skin of my legs and after a lot of haggling £7 poorer.
I chose the train option to go to Nha Trang (£21, 10 hours from Danang). It felt more like a moving market with vendors entering the train at every stop selling food, clothes and the ubiquitous silk and bamboo fans. Nha Trang is a beautiful resort with palm fringed beaches, and, due to past military connections, the Russians have landed here in vast numbers.
But for all the hammer and sickle flags flapping next to the gold stars, it is capitalism which has won. And the definite losers, apart from the locals, are crocodiles and ostriches which are worn, carried or eaten. I did treat myself to one capitalist-priced drink at the sophisticated Sailing Club on the waterfront.
At the beach in Nha Trang
Again I found it hard to refuse a moped man offering to show me the sights which included the Cathedral of Christ the King, where brides and grooms, in all their splendour, have their photos taken, sometimes months before their weddings, and the 14m-high Great Buddha, which sits on a hill watching over the city.
I returned once more to Ho Chi Minh, where I was staying for several nights with my friend Rebecca. In Ho Chi Minh City the new jostles for primacy with the old but both have their attractions, especially when it comes to bar hopping. We started out with a view of the heavens and finished in the gutter looking at the stars.
The Chill Skybar is on the roof of the AB tower from which you can see the whole of Ho Chi Minh, illuminated by neon lights punctuating the sky. It is stunning, as are the bar prices (cocktails are around £8 each). So it was just the one drink there before we headed off to one of Graham Greene’s favourite haunts, the Rex Hotel Bar. It was the end of the trip and nearly the end of my money, so we couldn’t stay long in there, either.
Instead, we hung out with the backpackers, sitting on soggy beer-soaked cardboard in the street. But it’s here where I remembered the value of backpacking – the camaraderie. We were soon talking, later dancing with an international smorgasbord of young people. We finally returned home at 9am. Slept and then had breakfast delivered – eggs benedict. How civilised is that, especially at three in the afternoon?
Back home, I found that the whole trip had rejuvenated me in unexpected ways, not least because it showed me that I could still enjoy and do many of the things I did in my 20s. The greatest difference between backpacking now and 30 years ago, apart from creaking bones, is the internet. In India I needed to plan ahead, be physically present to buy tickets, book rooms and have a Poste Restante address for contact with those back home. Now I have a Smartphone which covers everything. Any doubts I had are gone. I can’t wait for the next time I go backpacking.
And what did this all cost? The 28-day trip, including return flight set me back £1,100. But the experience was priceless.
London to Ho Chi Minh City flights start at £500, arranged through edreams.co.uk.
You can apply for a visa for Cambodia when you arrive in the country, it costs around £15: embassyofcambodia.org.
The visa for Vietnam is more expensive, especially if you need multiple entry, £54 and £85 for 30 days respectively. vietnamembassy.org.uk.
You can also order a visa to be collected at the airport in Vietnam. It’s cheaper but can involve a long queue.
Where to stay
Cambodia and Vietnam have a huge range of accommodation in all price ranges but you can’t go wrong with hostelbookers.com which books hostels, hotels, apartments and guesthouses.
By bus in Cambodia (and into Vietnam): see catmekongexpress.com.
seat61.com covers rail travel in both countries.
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