Leaving Vietnam…eventually.

Note: I just added a few pictures to the previous post.

Getting to the airport in Hanoi was challenge, needlessly so. The airport is 20 miles north, but no trains run that way. Most cities have an airport bus service, or even many of them, not Hanoi. The guidebook lists a bus service run by Vietnamese airlines, and it’s cheap. So we went along to buy a ticket. Turns out the bus is nothing to do with the national carrier, they’ve just stolen the name and positioned themselves opposite the airline’s office. The man in the bus office spoke no English other than to say it was not possible to buy a ticket in advance, you had to pay the driver on the day. Seeing it was a 12 seater minibus with no space for luggage, and knowing that the locals would get first option on the seats we knew by now it wasn’t even worth trying. The bus station was also the base for the airport taxi service, which meant all the tourists catching a flight but unable to get on the minibus would be stung for the privilege of a ride with them. By now we could smell that scam a mile away, so opted to book a taxi elsewhere ourselves. But of course no taxi drivers we found spoke any English. So we went to a travel agent who sold us a pre-booked taxi for the next morning, we paid up front and went away happy, but still slightly sceptical.

Quite rightly it turned it out. This was the last of many annoying deceptions we encountered; you couldn’t even get out of the country cleanly. The taxi driver turned up early at our hotel the next day, a promising start. We got in, he seemed surly and miserable, not uncommon. Then as he drove off I noticed the meter was running and asked him why. He spoke no English but it was clear from his gesticulation he was expecting us to pay the meter charge. We showed him our receipt proving we’d already paid the agent but he was having none of it. He got angry, we got angry. We refused to pay twice and he then drove at a snail’s pace around the centre of Hanoi in circles. He got on his mobile and shouted at some people, and we asked to be taken to the travel agent. He refused and eventually took us back to our hotel. Now we had lost half and hour and had to check in for our flight. I’m sure this was part of the ploy. He was now doing the Vietnamese thing of totally ignoring us, so we found someone at the hotel who spoke English (luckily) and she rang the travel agent for us. After some hostile words between them we found ourselves back in the taxi with the angry driver, on our way to the airport. For most of the way he drove very slowly and took some very minor roads once we got out of town. I knew we should have been on a dual carriageway. I was tracking our direction on my GPS and we weren’t heading towards the airport anymore. I was getting worried that we were about to be robbed at that point I have to say, especially as he’d kept phoning people during the journey. Even though he knew we were in a hurry now, he stopped for petrol, presumably just to make a point as his tank was over half full already. Anyway, we did eventually get to the airport, what a welcome sight that was. After we unloaded our own bags from his boot he stood there waiting for a tip, a tip!  We were nearly an hour later that we should have been. If he’d spoke English we could have told him were to stick it, but he didn’t so we left the nasty piece of work by his car. Content in the knowledge that we were flying out of all this and he still had a day’s dishonest work to do. Phew.

We checked in and went to the café where a mouse was running around the diners’ feet, including ours. Surprising as it was a nice modern airport. I mentioned the rodent to the cashier and he just said it was ok as a mouse is only small. That was true, friends we met had emailed us the day before to say that he went to the gents toilet at the airport and saw a big snake on the floor, and nobody seemed bothered (except him). The snakes are probably there looking for the mice of course.

Anyway, we boarded the Tiger Airways flight and the steward said ‘Good morning sir’. This really struck me as it was the first time anybody had been so polite in weeks. Singapore was looking good already.

Just to end, although recent posts may have appeared negative about Vietnam they were not intended to be. I think the people and culture of Vietnam are fascinating and the countryside beautiful. More beautiful than largely deforested Malaysia for example. I think that as part of an organised group travelling around Vietnam would probably be mostly hassle free. The problem comes as an independent traveller; you are reliant on honesty and goodwill and people speaking a bit of English. Most of these seem in short supply, especially in the north. Not with everyone I’m sure, but many of those who dealt with us tourists as part of their job offered little courtesy or respect, the concept of providing good service seemed an alien concept much of the time. If you ever get the chance to go there do go, but either be on your guard, or be part of an organised group.

There was more that occurred than I’ve included in recent posts, I don’t want to appear overly negative, and most of all I don’t want to be labelled another whinging pom. But I reported things how I found them; I would have been talking ‘guidebook speak’ if I’d have prettied everything up. Actually, even the Lonely Planet Vietnam guidebook is littered with warnings about scams, dangers, and annoyances that have been reported to them by travellers in Vietnam. So it wasn’t just us, or the other people we met.

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Hanoi and Halong bay – now with pictures

Our quest north continued, we took an overnight train to a small town called Ninh Binh. The train was grimy and we had a four birth sleeper compartment which was comfortable enough. There were a group of youngsters playing drinking games in a compartment a few doors along but they soon shut up after the train crew warned them. The crew were fairly hostile, not for them the pleasantries of customer service. We were sternly treated as we boarded, and at 6.00am I walked the train to find one of them to ask what time we might arrive. I found one member of crew sitting up in his bed on the floor smoking, even with my crude drawing of a clock face and the name of our station I was dismissed immediately with a repeated wave of his hand, and a facial expression which translated into ‘get lost foreigner’. All this dreadful treatment is getting wearing by now, it happens quite often when you need to find something out or use a transport service.

We arrived in Ninh Binh about 7.00am, a small town with a handful of hotels, three of them having the same name (the Queen hotel), we got a nice boutique room in the best one for £10 a night. Then we discovered the town had no proper restaurants or cafés, just a few local street places and hotel food. Then we discovered that all the eateries had the same very basic menu, and many didn’t even stock what was on that. In one day all I managed to eat was an egg in a bread roll, one for lunch and again for dinner. For lunch we had to buy our own roll from a shop, the café had no bread, and get the café to cook an egg to go with it. The rain poured which put a stop to our plan to explore the nearby countryside on a bike so the next day we got back on the train and headed for Hanoi. I also saw two big monkeys in a small cage outside a shop, they looked agitated (unsurprisingly) and were jumping about in the confines of their small bamboo cell. It was a sad site, and one that I decided not to share with CM, it was just too depressing and helpless.

Arriving in Hanoi was a bit confusing, this was the capital but the station was not announced nor had any signs, nor even a platform. We climbed down from the train and followed the hoard across several sets of tracks and out onto the street. All the while pursued by taxi drivers keen to get an inflated fair from foreign tourists. I read later that American air strikes had destroyed the old station, along with a nearby hospital. The station doesn’t seem to have been properly rebuilt. Not wishing to fall for the taxi rip off we trekked across town on foot to the cheap hotel area in the old quarter. The area is a compact maze of narrow streets with a slightly French colonial feel, and of course frenetic traffic. We found a place to stay after hearing numerous stories of grungy hotels and unscrupulous staff. The place wasn’t bad actually, if a bit noisy and not very secure. Theft and robbery is a bit of problem here, we met people who had their cameras and phones stolen on the street. One of them had been to the police, with one of the culprits (a lady he’d apprehended until the police arrived), but he said it was a waste of time as nothing was done.

Getting a room is only half the battle. Once checked in, hotel staff badger you to book tours and trips every time they clap eyes on you. They add on a hefty premium for anything they sell you, so you spend your time ignoring the endless sales pitch. You feel a bit rude doing so but it’s the only way. Similarly, when the food vendors approach you on the street, you pretend not to notice them in the general hubbub. On each occasional I did agree to buy something before I’d finished asking the price they had it bagged up and in my hand. Then comes the price, about five or ten times the going rate. As you’re already holding the goods your bargaining position is weak. They are a pretty sharp and wiley bunch!

One afternoon I looked out of balcony window to see a young man and woman crouched in the gutter outside their shop plucking birds. They I saw that the birds were doves or pigeons and that they were moving. Manhandled and plucked alive, they had blood on their puny bodies and were making deathly squawks in objection, or perhaps pain. It was an unpleasant sight, but I’m sure a common one in this part of the world. CM on seeing this wanted us to go and protest, which we did. Their response was exactly as I expected – they just laughed at the stupid tourists. It’s not for us to go about trying to impose our western values on foreign cultures but sometimes you feel that by making your point in some way, that your small gesture may contribute to a gradual enlightenment and shift in the sentiment of local people. Animal cruelty is not a cultural difference; cruelty and pain are the same the world over. CM led the protest in this instance, they might have laughed at her, but at least they now know we tourists are not happy about the unthinking suffering they inflict. Once the birds were plucked they were thrown into a small cage with other birds (yet to be plucked) where upon they languished, still alive, on the bottom. Presumably the idea is that when they decide to eat the scrawny things the prep is done, they just throw them into the pot or onto the coals. Hopefully killing them first, but who knows.

We met up with other travellers we’d met along the way in Hanoi, had some nice dinners out with them, and compared scams, attempted and executed. The food was fairly good, when you got what was ordered. Often your plate on arrival at the table was only an approximation of what you asked for. At one café we asked for veg noodle soup, I pointed out on the menu at least once to be certain. Then arrived two bowls of beef noodle soup, no veg. Which was a shame as the veg soup is often really good. We objected to the waitress but she wasn’t interested and just went into the ‘I’m ignoring you’ routine which we’d triggered a few times after querying why something was wrong.

We did two main things in Hanoi, firstly we visited the mausoleum of Vietnamese independence hero Ho Chi Minh. We queued quietly with hundreds of others to enter the stone edifice and file past the great man’s body as he lay in a glass coffin. Uncle Ho, as he’s known, died in 1969 and wanted to be cremated. Instead, they built this mausoleum and put him on show. It was a curious sight; he was well lit and looked like he could have come from Madam Tussauds. He had a plasticised appearance, similar to Joan Rivers or Joan Collins perhaps, but with less botox. Every year Uncle Ho goes to Russia for remedial work, presumably a top up of formaldehyde. Nevertheless he was a great leader and freedom fighter, and he’s revered by all in Vietnam. Ghandi got the British to ‘Quit India’ by non-violent means. Not long afterwards Ho Chi Minh kicked the French out of Indochina through humiliating military defeat. He helped do the same to the Americans later on. You can see why the man is placed on a pedestal and in his own mausoleum, against his wishes today. There was also a Ho Chi Minh museum, which was a bit surreal. It told you little about the man, but tried to bamboozle you with symbolic art installations which left us a bit confused. Here is a picture of some giant plastic fruit, something no museum about a freedom fighter should be without.

The museum also had many pictures of women fighters, women played a huge role and were on the front line with the men. Teenage girls winning medals and great battles against the French and Americans. War escalated the status of women in Vietnam, today they seem to participate in every part of society and are often seen working alongside men at jobs we usually only envisage men doing. Women certainly don’t appear to be downtrodden in any way.

The other big ting we did from Hanoi was visit Halong Bay, probably Vietnam’s number one visitor attraction. Hundreds of limestone pinnacles, or karsts, towering out of the sea to form a maze of islands. A place of serene natural beauty and warm seas. We booked tickets for a two day tour and went a bit upmarket. As usual there were many stories from others about bad experiences on these tours. We met a Dutch couple just after they returned “It’s a country of 85 million crooks” the man told me. They were now waiting to go to the airport after cutting short their time in Vietnam, they’d both had enough. He said that on their tour they went kayaking from the boat for an hour, nearly all the tours offer this as part of the deal. Whilst they were out on the kayaks the tour boat crew got into the cabins and rifled through cases and bags. Some Australian tourists on the boat had hundreds of dollars stolen while they were happily paddling, although the Dutch were lucky and didn’t. When the others noticed the theft later and started shouting nothing was done of course. When the tour got back to dry land nothing could be done, even though it was obvious who the culprits were. Mass tourism in Vietnam is never going to take off while they pull scams like this, and neither should it.

So we booked with a company managed by an Australian, he had good reviews and we had his phone number should things go wrong out on the water. It turned out to be a good choice, as we enjoyed our time. With only nine people in our group and a smart cabin with balcony and ever-changing beautiful views it was lovely. The food was also really good, the best we’d had in Vietnam; prawns, fish, crab etc presented really well. Here’s a picture of some prawns presented with sculpted vegetables. The crew were ok too, although when we went kayaking the directions we were given were vague and nobody told us about the undercurrents that made paddling quite hard work. It would have been quite easy to get lost in the myriad of pointy islands that mostly looked the same. A few pictures from the boat trip are below.

Our Canoe out on the bay

View from the top of a hill we climbed up

Similar view from the hill

A few of the many floating houses we saw

This woman with her floating shop visits a family who seem to be living in this cave above the water

A snack vendor rowing across the bay, with her daughter in training!

So Halong Bay we all agreed was a success, at last something that went smoothly and without attempted rip-off. It is indeed spectacular, jagged geology shrouded by tropical flora, with a few monkeys and majestic soaring raptors thrown in. It’s quite unique and despite the constant flotilla of wooden tourist boats, in the traditional Chinese junk style, it does still feel largely unspoilt. Quite a rarity in a part of the world, where rampant development so often ruins a good thing. Although the ever present trinket stalls at the mouth of a cave we visited ran to a loud soundtrack of thumping techno dance music. The toothless old ladies peddling their wares seemed to have a thing for bangin’ Euro drum and bass. Most odd and a bit of an atmosphere killer in such beautiful surroundings.  However Halong Bay was certainly the highlight of Vietnam for us.

At this point we still had about 15 days left in Hanoi but we’d done it all really, and the hassle was grinding us down so we decided to forego our paid for flights and board a plane to Singapore. As ever though that was easier said than done, more on that episode in the next post.

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Riding down the coast from Hue

From Hoi An we headed on up to Hue and spent a few days there seeing the sights. We met up again with some friends we originally got talking to back in Malaysia. We hired a boat out on the river and had a day visiting temples and pagodas along the river. Very old and very antiquated but we were all a bit templed out. Also, after Angkor in Cambodia all other temples are the children of a lesser god, so to speak. It was a relaxing day though, topped off with a very good Indian curry, nice.

We hired a scooter on our last day in Hue and went out to the undeveloped coastline, riding for about twenty miles through small hamlet after hamlet. Communities here are sandwiched in by a big lagoon on one side, and the South China Sea on the other. See the map below and the long strip of land that we explored. It was a really interesting and pleasurable ride, shouts of hello rang out as we went along, and we saw no other tourists at all. I made a short video whilst riding through one of the bigger villages, see it below.

I also got a nice picture as the sun was going down, the water buffalo is wading in the foreground and the wet rice paddy gives way to the sea in the background. I quite like this picture.

Water buffalo at sunset near Hue

Fisherman near Hue

Fisherman near Hue repairing their nets

Upon reaching the coast we rode down to a beach where some locals were just having fun in the sun, and where traditional fishermen were repairing their nets. Their big heavy boats looked sturdy but ancient. They also had coracles; navigating one of those through the choppy sea must be no mean feat. Again the scenes we saw here would have been much the same centuries ago.  This was a place devoid of tourists, I doubt anyone spoke a word of English unfortunately. The locals on the beach watched us but seemed uninterested in interacting with the strangers in town.

On our way back it got grew dark,  it’s amazing how drivers/riders don’t turn their lights on until well after dark. It’s not as if there are street lights either. We got back in one piece after battling with the traffic and getting lost, road signs are almost unheard of in the towns here. It was a lovely day out though, a rare chance to mingle rural locals who arn’t just out to make a dishonest fast buck from the unwary tourist.

The Google map below shows where we went, the dots on the beach would be the fishing boats in the picture.

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Ratty goes for a swim

Our next stop north after Nha Trang, and the horrible bus journey, was Hoi An. Arriving sleepless at 8.00 am we went in search of a decent hotel room. It turned out alright in the end, we got a room that was adequate in a reasonable hotel that catered to budget tourists. The staff were a rude and sullen bunch, but we’ve come to accept that as the norm now in Vietnam. Reading reviews on Tripadvisor after check-in we learnt that a few people had had things stolen from their rooms by the staff. So it was a case of keeping all valuables on you at all times. The doors and windows are never that secure here, probably a good excuse when things go missing from rooms. The night before we checked in I was sitting in the breakfast area opposite a group of Germans that were playing cards. Suddenly there was a great kerfuffle and an older woman threw herself off her chair and onto the floor. What card game is that I wondered? She picked herself up and I asked what was wrong. Apparently a big rat had run through her legs, you see rats everywhere at night, but usually outside. We’ve watched agile rats saunter along the telephone cables from hotel gutter to telegraph pole. In fact, telephone lines are probably an ideal rat superhighway. Later that night we came through the hotel lounge area which had a small sized swimming pool squeezed into it. We watched a big rat take a run up and jump into the pool. It swam half a lap and showing great aquatic agility, jumped out again and off into a hidey hole somewhere. Not good for the pool water, which already looked a bit murky and bereft of chlorine. When we checked out the next morning and handed our money over to the stoney faced miserable manager (which she took without a thank you or any other courtesy) I decided to tell her about the water rat to gauge her reaction – just for a laugh. She just looked at me with a nonchalant air and said half smiling “Yes, there are rats everywhere”. Try telling that to the poor tourist who contracts Weil’s disease, I thought. Actually I’m sure she would have, and not given it a second thought. CM also put some words of warning to fellow travellers on Tripadvisor here.

Hoi An though was a beautiful place, a small town set around a tidal river. Centuries ago it was the biggest city in the country, the main trade port and a centre of shipbuilding. The Chinese and Japanese set up shop and built some impressive houses and meeting halls. Many still stand and today the riverside has UNESCO world heritage listing. Today there are about a hundred shops selling silk clothing and as many tailors who’ll fit you up for a dress or suit. Below are a few pictures of the city centre. Only a week or so before we arrived the town was flooded and we saw high watermarks almost up to the ceiling in many buildings. Flooding has been a feature here for centuries but this year the floods were higher and the water hung around for several weeks.

A little lad that wandered our way to show off his dogtooth flat cap

One of the many shops selling silk and handicrafts

The cyclo's cover their passengers when it rains in Hoi An

Fruit vendor Hoi An

A lady fruit vendor and her heavy load, many of them wander the town.

Ao Dai girls on a bike

The girls are in traditional dress, but sharing an electric bike and wearing trendy stonewash denim too. I like this contrast of old and new.

The fruit market, how much of this fruit can you identify?

Typical restaurants in a typical Hoi An street

We also did a short Vietnamese cookery course at an outside café, mainly because the lady running it was friendly and spoke reasonable English. We cooked six different dishes in two hours. Some were better than others and all involved adding a teaspoon of MSG to the mix. They called it ‘sugar’ but it was MSG, the all purpose flavour enhancer. We made some tasty spring rolls from scratch and learnt how to make local soup. It’s tricky; you have to open the packet of noodles, boil them for two minutes and stir in the flavour sachet they come with. Who have thought it?

Our prawn curry

Our cooking hosts

Our cooking hosts in their street cafe

CM grappling with the big chopsticks (the universal cooking utensil)

It was a fun experience and we were able to help out this local family a bit, who’d been flooded out only recently. People here are so resilient and resourceful, they just carry on.

We rented bikes for a cycle out in the countryside. The rural areas are visibly poorer and what strikes you is how many people are doing backbreaking work farming rice or other crops, there seems to be very little mechanisation employed anywhere. Time has stood still, turn back the clock two hundred years and things probably looked the same.

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Relaxing at the beach in Nha Trang

We had a very scenic journey back across the verdant hills and arrived in the resort town of Nha Trang. It’s the Marbella of Vietnam, a fishing village that’s transformed itself into a beachfront strip of big hotels with a network of small streets behind that have dozens of café’s and small hotels. On paper it sounds awful, but it was actually very nicely done. Clean, spacious and very good value. There is a surplus of hotel rooms and we found the best value room of our trip so far. For only £9 a night we had a balcony room in a sort of boutique hotel.

Balcony view in Nha Trang

Balcony view in Nha Trang

The staff were very nice and it was a great location in a quiet residential area. Here’s a video we took of the room, as you can see it was unusual neighbourhood and unlike anywhere else we’ve seen in Vietnam.

One day we asked where we could rent a scooter and the receptionist made one appear outside within a couple of minutes, it cost us £3 a day to rent. We took off down the coast, a new winding and empty road hugged the rugged terrain and golden beach. Inevitably we couldn’t find the spot we were looking for, no road signs as usual. But we rode through the shrimp farms and small villages, no other tourists here. We stopped in a local café and had a bowl of traditional noodle soup; even here we were overcharged which again was inevitable. Coming back we had to take evasive action to avoid the police who were confiscating bikes in one place and pulling over traffic in another. As tourists we’re easy, and lucrative, game. International driving licences are not valid here (unlike most of the rest of the world), EU licences also don’t count. So I had no licence, which is a gift to a policeman looking for a little booster to his meagre salary. Bikes are rented to tourists everywhere and usually it’s not a problem, unless you are in an accident. Then things can get very messy very quickly. Anyway we took some cross country minor roads and got back unscathed. .It’s always a bit of a relief when you hand a bike back, a big, potentially trip wrecking liability is lifted from your shoulders. But a bike is an excellent way to get out and see the ‘real’ Vietnam, how most people live.

Below is a picture of a well clad lady (sun tan deterrent) who had a small fired banana stall on the street. She was busy dipping said fruit in her wok when I came along. I bought half a dozen, very nice they were too.

Banana seller

'Whoops…have a banana'

texting while riding

Texting while riding, everybody does it here.

Nha Trang beach

The main beach at Nha Trang

Promenade Nha Trang

The promenade at Nha Trang (with CM)

beach road traffic Nha Trang

beach road traffic

Scooter Nha Trang

Our scooter in Nha Trang – not quite a Harley

We had a few good evenings in Nha Trang with other travellers we’d met. Good food, cheap beer, and good conversation with the new friends that we’ve met along the way. Back home you don’t often meet new friends; it happens a lot more when you travel. Especially here, when it often feels like it’s a game of locals versus tourists. Sharing experiences of potential rip-offs and scams with others that you’ve met is almost therapeutic.

Nha Trang has a nice beach with umbrellas and everything, it also has a bit of a beach scene going on. Most of the holidaymakers in the resort are Russian. Menus and shop signs are in Russian, and Vietnamese tour guides can be heard speaking Russian. The shared communist/socialist  history of both countries means they have long-standing ties. After all, during the USSR days Soviets still wanted to go abroad on holiday. Vietnam was cheap, anti-American, and not a place that many would choose to defect in. Today both countries embrace corruption and so a lot of Russian money is flowing into Nha Trang running businesses and building hotels. Anything is possible if the right palms are suitably greased. Down on the beach there are two variants of Russian tourists.The old money; older couples, 50’s or 60’s, she a former shot putter, he a career vodka drinker. They have oodles of cash to burn and drink like fish. No doubt a few are oligarchs. The second type are the young pouting sashaying girls. Size 8 twenty somethings in skimpy bikinis, shapely buttocks on show and make-up carefully but generously applied. They walk past you on the beach in full pout, swaying those hips and pushing out their well formed cleavage. It’s all done for effect, and I have to admit it’s quite effective. They’re usually not with partners, but there aren’t the equivalent numbers of Russian men about, so I’m not sure who the show is for? I imagine they are very high maintenance so they won’t be out sharking for Vietnamese or budget travellers. All very strange I have to report.

Also strange is the contrast between Vietnamese women and the sun bathing Russians. The last thing a Vietnamese woman wants is a suntan; white skin is highly prized, as in the rest of Asia. The sun umbrellas and loungers are managed by Vietnamese women. In the hot sun on the beach they wear jeans, thick socks and long sleeved fleeces. They wear a facemask, a broad bamboo conical hat and sunglasses. And, I nearly forgot, gloves. Not one inch of skin is exposed to the sun. A Vietnamese lounger girl, fully clad, sat under a sunshade staring for quite a while at a young Russian girl about three feet away from her. The Russian was laying flat on her stomach wearing a small leopard print bikini. Her bikini bottoms were hauled up and about 95% of her well tanned voluptuous rump was on display, like a beacon to attract for suitors it seemed to me. The Viet girl looked on curiously, in utter confoundedness no doubt. The Russian girl was unaware she was being observed at such close quarters. Two people, two sets of cultural values, which couldn’t be more in opposition when it comes to beach life. It would have made a great picture, but taking pictures on the beach is a risky endeavour so I erred on the side of caution.

After a few days we booked a ticket on an overnight sleeper bus for the nine hour trip north to Hoi An. The smiling flirty travel agent girl ripped us off on the tickets and a night of sleepless dreadfulness ensued. The bus crew were very aggressive and treated the passengers like dirt, it was quite unbelievable. But, as we’ve heard since, it’s also very much the norm. I won’t relay the horrid sage here but you can read about it on TripAdvisor HERE.

It was a great relief to got off that bus, the crew were still shouting at us as they threw all our bags off the bus and onto the dirt. They were pure bullying scum and shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the paying public, from whatever part of the world.

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