Golden dragon swimming in the river milky way

MY ROUGH GUIDE
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The Independent Travel
BEST DISCOVERY

I had been told in Ha Tien that there was a decent beach down the coast on the Hon Chong Peninsula, but none of the guide books I had were doing me any favours. I left my hotel and did a little sleuthing, following a track lined with cacti, and tamarind and palm trees until it petered out at a pagoda set into the side of a cliff. Inside, a low doorway led off into a gas-lit grotto whose half-light revealed looming Buddhist statuary. From here, light was visible down a cramped corridor. Following it took me out onto a perfect cove of golden sand, lapped by waters that were disturbed only by the odd bobbing fishing boat. The owner of the cove's one restaurant beckoned one of those boats to shore, bought a crab and some fresh prawns, and set to work on my dinner as I watched the sun setting over the twin peaks of nearby Father and Son Isle.

FAVOURITE HOTEL

Though I'm tempted to nominate the Movie Star Hotel in Pleiku for its name alone, the Khanh Hung Hotel in Soc Trang holds the fonder memories. Straddled across an oily branch of the Mekong River, Soc Trang's slovenly town centre is the sort of place that makes you wish yourself back at home. Thanks to the luxury of satellite TV in my room in the Khanh Hung, I was able to chase away the blues by cracking open a beer, watching an episode of Inspector Morse on ITV (shady goings-on in an Oxford cricket club), and dreaming of England.

BIGGEST LET DOWN

Zoos aren't my favourite places at the best of times, so it was more out of duty than interest that I strayed into Saigon's. Cages here are ancient and dreary, with no concessions made to their inmates' preferred habitats, and the stench of animal is at times overpowering. At least things have improved recently: a few years ago no one could fathom why the big cats were acting so slothfully, until keepers were discovered snaffling meat supplies for their families.

BIZARRE MEETING

When I met Vien Thuc, the so-called Mad Monk of Da Lat, he was working on another painting. No surprise there - he's already completed 80,000 sumptuous abstract water-colours, many of which are stacked up in the warren of lean-tos behind his pagoda. In his heavy cowl, brown woollen flying hat and the Nikes he once swapped for a painting, he cuts an odd figure. All his pieces are for sale, and it's hard not to succumb to his lunatic patter: Vien Thuc closes deals with the artistry of a second- hand car dealer. I picked out a painting I fancied, and with a flourish he scrawled a title that he thought might suit it along its base: "Golden Dragon Swimming in the River Milky Way". When he reaches a round 100,000 paintings, the monk says he's going to tour the world and look up all his buyers. What will my neighbours think?

ESSENTIAL PHRASE

Price-tagging being a concept that's quite alien to the Vietnamese, bao nhieu is an indispensable phrase, meaning "how much?", sure to force traders onto the back foot when combined with a swift follow-through of dat qua, "that's too expensive".

FAVOURITE MEAL

Nem is self-service food, Vietnamese-style: to make it, grilled pork strips, noodles, slices of green banana and starfruit, and a sprig of fresh mint are laid onto a circle of rice-paper - using only chopsticks. Should you get this far, you roll the rice-paper into a pancake, dip it in a spicy peanut and fermented pork sauce, eat it, and then start over again.

BIGGEST MISTAKE

In Vietnam, your passport stays at hotel reception until you check out. At five in the morning in the highland town of Pleiku, I was in no fit state to check that the passport handed over belonged to me. It was red, it had a lion and a unicorn on the front, that seemed good enough for my purposes. Five hours later in Buon Me Thuot, I produced it again. "Before, you very handsome", said the receptionist, "better you cut hair again". I looked over her shoulder. Staring up at me off the page was a near- bald gentleman, twice my age, sporting a Jimmy Hill beard.

FAVOURITE SOUVENIR

In a remote village in the South-Central Highlands, an old couple who took a shine to me presented me with an exquisitely crafted length of cloth decorated with what I took to be traditional motifs. In fact the designs turned out to be helicopters, B52 bombers and rifles.

Mark Lewis did research for `The Rough Guide to Vietnam' (pounds 9.99). Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter `Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.

FACT FILE

Getting There

Flights to Vietnam include KLM's pounds 587 return through STA (0171-361 6262)

Getting About

Ha Tien. Ten hours west of Ho Chi Minh City (pounds 5 by bus), lying in the Mekong Delta.

Buses from Ho Chi Minh City take six hours to cross the Mekong Delta to Soc Trang. The Khanh Hung Hotel (0084 79 821026) is in the centre of town.

Da Lat. Best to go by bus (pounds 5). In order to push on to Buon Me Thuot and Pleiku buses must loop down to the coast and then climb again.

Hoi An. Halfway up the coast between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Can be reached by taking a train to Da Nang and then a taxi (car or motorbike) from there.

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