The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 28th – Dong Hoi

A harmonious symphony of banging doors, people stamping on stairs and street noises wakes me up at 7:30. The sun is shining in my face so I’m having a hard time falling back to sleep. I walk over to draw the curtains to shut the sun out. As I pull on the curtains, the entire pole that holds them crashes down noisily, successfully waking Katka up as well. I was going to wake her with a kiss, but I guess this works even better.

We place the curtains back in their spot and head down for breakfast. There’s no menu this time, we both just get fried eggs with bread on the side. Katka makes another naive attempt to order coffee with regular milk. Her coffee arrives without any milk at all, for a change. In the end the owner tells us she doesn’t have any fresh milk (no surprise here), but she could run to the store to get some. We decline, so as not to bother her.

Our tickets to Ninh Binh have been ordered. The train will be leaving at 23:00. We check out, leave our bags at the reception and rent two bikes from the hotel owner. She seizes this opportunity to overcharge us yet again (we pay 40,000 dong per bike, while having had them for free in Hue and seen them for 20,000 in Hoi An). I guess it’s a good thing we didn’t ask for that fresh milk – who knows how much she’d want for it.

“That will be one human soul, thanks!”

We head straight for Nhat Le Beach. We decide to skip the tourist routine for today, primarily because there are a grand total of two landmarks in Dong Hoi. One of them (ruins of the Tam Toa Church) is right next to our hotel, so Katka takes some pictures on the way to the beach.

Nhat Le Beach is a public beach, but there isn’t a single person around at this time. We’re all alone in a vast sea of sand. Also, sea of sea. We leave our things under a fixed wooden umbrella and head for a swim in the unusually warm water.

During our swim we notice a guy walking around the beach and kicking sand with his feet. He does this for a good five minutes and seems very methodical about it. At some point he kneels down to the sand and pulls out…a can of beer. He wipes the sand off of it and walks away. Apparently he’s been using the sand as his personal refrigerator. It’s either that or he’s insanely good at spotting abandoned beer cans.

“Helloooo?! Anyone seen my beer?”

For the rest of the day we sunbathe, swim, and read in the shade when it gets too hot. We’re completely alone, except for one curious episode.

Around noon an older woman in a traditional Vietnamese conical hat appears on the horizon. She’s carrying with her a strange collection of assorted cardboard boxes and big plastic trash bags. She makes her way slowly towards our umbrella and sits down right next to Katka. The woman proceeds to construct a makeshift fort out of the cardboard boxes around herself.

Once she’s finished building her castle she turns around to us and starts gesticulating wildly. We figure out that this is most likely not a form of interpretive dance, so we try to understand what the woman wants. It turns out she’s asking for water, but unfortunately all we can do is point to our already empty bottles.

The woman suddenly begins to point at Katka’s bra and winks at me repeatedly. I shake my head to indicate that I have no clue what she wants. Her pantomime intensifies and is now accompanied by smacking noises and stranger, unidentified sounds. After ten minutes of complete communication breakdown the woman finally gives up, gathers her boxes and walks off into the distance.

Maybe it was Morse Code?

By 16:00 the beach starts to slowly fill up with people. We go for one more swim, dry ourselves off and set out in search of a post office (Katka wants to buy and send some postcards).

Dong Hoi is much more untouristed than the other cities we’ve been to so far. Nobody is trying to sell us overpriced fruit or give us motorbike rides. Also, this is the first place where we feel a bit like alien species. People tend to stop and stare, run after us yelling “hello” and occasionally ask for our pictures. I’m enjoying my new-found minor celebrity status, smiling and waving graciously at people. I get tempted to start handing out autographs, but resist the urge (barely).

Katka has become a daredevil in traffic. She’s clearly transformed compared to her first day in Hanoi, when she was hyper cautious about even walking out onto the hectic streets. Now she’s weaving in and out of traffic and biking across busy intersections on red light, while yelling “they’ll have to wait for us to cross, then!”. Vietnam has created a monster!

Artistic rendering of Katka in Dong Hoi

After almost an hour of circling around we fail to find a post office and give up on the idea altogether. We find a mini market and stock up on crackers and Yomost. I’ve already talked about the awesomeness of Yomost here and here, so I’ll spare you further raving. Just know that it tastes like heaven-flavoured ice-cream, but ten times better! We still have the uneaten instant noodles we’ve purchased in Hanoi some days earlier, so we should be all set.

Next order of business is to find a place to get proper dinner. We explore what’s left of the town and don’t find any real restaurants – a clear downside of the place being less touristy. After circling back to the town’s centre we end up on a street that has at least six Karaoke bars. Or, to put it another way, every cafe also doubles as a Karaoke bar. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

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The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 27th – Hoi An, My Son, Dong Hoi

7AM. Rise and shine. Or, rise, slither out of bed onto the floor and crawl to the bathroom. Then slide down for some food. The hotel’s breakfast buffet is quite varied. There’s a lot of fresh fruit, banana and mango pancakes, various western and Vietnamese dishes and, of course, Cà-Phê (with fresh milk, no less).

After breakfast we pack our bags and take them downstairs. Here we check out and leave the luggage at the reception to be picked up after our My Son trip. A mini bus picks us up, along with some other tourists, and we set off to My Son.

Our tour guide is an entertaining fellow and constantly tries to make jokes. He delivers a lot of unintentional comedy, because he chops his words and has a heavy accent. He also has a habit of repeating parts of, or even whole sentences. A few of his verbal gems include “the area belonged to the Cham people, the Champa-people” and “some of you are going bus-by-bus and some are bus-by-boat, bus-by-boat”. Here he’s referring to there being two groups of people: one group will be going back by boat, while the rest of us will be on the same mini-bus.

Bus-by-boat?

Upon arrival to My Son our guide grabs my helmet and puts it on (OK, this helmet is way more popular with people than it should be). He wears it while going up to the ticket booth and buying entrance tickets for all of us. He gives a brief salute to the whole bus and then hands the helmet back to me.

My Son is a rather small site and only very few buildings are still intact. Even these intact buildings are mostly damaged after years of erosion. The surrounding area is absolutely stunning, with lush forests and mountains stretching out as far as I can see (which is quite far, seeing how I’ve got 20/20 vision and it’s a clear and sunny day).

Our guide tells us that there are two main reasons why the Cham people have built the temple site exactly here:

1) There’s a big mountain nearby. “My Son” actually means “Beautiful Mountain” and is (surprise) named after that mountain.

2) There’s a stream that runs through the site, which the Cham crowd used for making “holy water” for their worship ceremonies.

Possible 3rd reason: “Dude, I’m, like, really tired. Can’t we just build it right here?”

The guide insists on making us listen to his rather clumsy explanations of the site’s remaining structures, before he finally lets us explore on our own. So that’s what we do, with all the cultural sensitivity that…

Yes, that’s exactly the purpose for which they were built

And with respect to the…

OK, that’s just not cool!

Anyways, we spend the next hour exploring the temple site and taking pictures.

Now I know what you’re thinking, but it’s actually just a phallic symbol

At 11:00 there’s supposed to be a half hour dance show. We’re still exploring the site when we hear the show start, so we make our way back to the small outside stage by the entrance. We arrive at 11:15 and catch a grand total of 10 seconds of the show (hey, that’s cheating!). The dancers pack up and leave and we head back to the minibus. The drive back is uneventful. Most of us doze off until we get to the hotel. Here Katka and I eat a quick lunch and await our cab to Da Nang.

We arrive to the train station in Da Nang well before departure time. Since our train is also 30 minutes delayed we spend over an hour in the by-now-familiar environment: a waiting room with way too many people and way too little air conditioning.

When the train finally arrives we climb into a shabby-looking seater carriage. Some of the seats in the carriage are tilted all the way back, with no visible way of getting them into an upright position. Both of our seats are “luckily” in that category. Well, still an upgrade from yesterday’s plastic chairs! We settle in for a 5-hour ride to Dong Hoi.

I fail to fall asleep due to a few constantly coughing passengers and a horde of children running around and screaming (or was it just one kid?). By the end of the trip I develop a headache and feel tired and grumpy. We buy two train dinners, each consisting of a lot of rice, a chicken leg and some salty cabbage.

Cabbage – the foundation of gourmet train dinners!

We arrive to Dong Hoi around 21:00 and take a cab to Nam Long Hotel, recommended by Lonely Planet. We’re greeted by a girl of around 12, manning the reception by herself. “You want a room?”, she asks in good English. When we answer affirmatively she makes a phone call (presumably to her mom, who runs the place).

After hanging up she tells us there’s a room for 15 dollars, including breakfast. This sounds pricey compared to what the book says and also considering that we’re here during the low season. However, I’m not about to engage in a price negotiation with a 12-year old (how will I ever live with myself if I lose?).

The girl walks us upstairs and chats with us in pretty fluent English. The room is by far the worst we’ve seen in Vietnam until now. The furniture has a worn out and cheap feel. There’s no phone or Internet, but there’s a colony of (hopefully friendly) ants living by a pipe in a tiny bathroom.

“Hi there, you new in town?”

There’s something that looks like a window. Upon closer inspection we discover it to be an opening in the wall that is shut tight by two non-transparent sliding bars. These make awful horror-movie-inspired screeching noise when we attempt to open them. Through the tiny opening that we manage to make we’re treated to a magnificent view of…the wall of the building across.

We’re here on a one-night stopover, so we don’t care. Katka heads downstairs to talk to the hotel owner about train tickets to Ninh Binh, breakfast and other practicalities. In the meantime I befriend a few ants and drag my grumpy and tired self to bed.

Continue the adventures right here.

For now, visit Katka’s Flickr for some great pictures from the Vietnam escapade.

Vietnam 2011: General Observations (Part II)

You may recall that a few days ago I’d started the process of converting my Vietnam travel notes into blog posts. 85% of my 3 currently active subscribers were overjoyed and screamed “more please!”. Since in all the years of high school I’ve never truly learned to resist peer pressure – here goes the second instalment. It will pick up right where Part I left off, so if you haven’t read that part yet you may want to do it first. While my blog isn’t strictly a travel one, you’ll probably see these Vietnam posts pop up rather frequently over the next months – for better or worse, but mostly for better. Onwards…

Observation 4 – Rats

Granted, Vietnam is home to a lot more exotic and noteworthy animals than good old common rats. However, it’s the rats that live in shadows close to most bodies of water. They come out at night in swarms to hunt human prey…or just, you know, hang out and mind their own business.

The first time we started paying attention was one evening in Hue. Katka was taking some night shots of the Truong Tien Bridge. The bridge had been wired with more lights than a Christmas tree at Central Park, which made for a pretty mesmerizing sight. Somewhere between setting up the night program and trying to find a good angle Katka let out a muffled shriek and jumped a few good metres to the side (Olympic athletes – take notes!).

Because she wasn’t in the habit of performing this sequence of actions on a regular basis, I figured that something was wrong. Oh yeah, I’m excellent at spotting subtle behavioural patterns. Upon a more thorough inspection, i.e. walking closer to the water and squinting my eyes against the dark, I discovered dozens of rats running sporadically back and forth along the shore.

Since then we have noticed this being the norm anywhere around lakes and rivers during dark hours. Once while sitting in an outside cafe in Hoi An and then later again in Dong Hoi. Here we were in a somewhat fancy restaurant, which had its own artificial lake around the perimeter. Rats were sneaking near this lake and paid occasional visits to our table. They were basically co-existing peacefully with the restaurant staff, Ratatouille style!

“Hmmm, is it just me or are these eggs a tad undercooked? Anyways, what brings YOU to Vietnam?”

Observation 5 – Propaganda Speakers

Mostly in the Northern part of Vietnam you still find propaganda speakers scattered around. Some of them don’t seem to serve any function at all, other than looking like outdated relics that they are. But in certain places the speakers are very much alive.

On several occasions we were woken up at around six in the morning by monotonous chatter of some anonymous dude. I assume he was talking about the latest achievement of the Vietnamese government and encouraging people to work harder for the common good. However, I know very little Vietnamese. Now that I think of it, “arigato” might actually be Japanese, which means I know zero Vietnamese. So the “propaganda man” may actually have been telling jokes, in which case he may want to work on his delivery.

These speakers were even present in a tiny village of Viet Hai tucked away on a remote part of Cat Ba Island, reachable only by boat or a super-human trek. We had rented a basic bungalow there, in the hope of having some peace and quiet for a few days, but the joke-telling speaker guy had other plans in store for us. Each morning he launched into almost one-hour tirades and every 15 minutes his comedy routine was interrupted by a song, usually involving a high pitched female voice singing something vaguely patriotic.

“All day, all night, all day, all night, all day, all night…..WHAT THE *BEEP*?!”

And speaking of singing stuff…

Observation 6 – Karaoke

No Asian stereotype is complete without an image of a man/woman singing on stage at the top of their lungs in a crowded Karaoke bar. It’s as typical as the image of a Russian/Ukrainian wearing a fur coat, fur hat, felt boots and zig-zagging through the streets drunk with a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka sticking out of the coat’s pocket. Now, this may be exactly how I look on some festive occasions, but that doesn’t mean it applies to all of us all of the time. What I’m saying is – beware of putting people into boxes or putting labels on them (Not literally of course. If you’re literally putting people into boxes and putting labels on them, I’m quite sure the police will catch you soon enough, you sick bastard).

However, it seems Vietnam is quite happily living up to this particular stereotype. We’ve seen a multitude of places with live Karaoke performances during our three-week long visit. Our hotel room in Hue was actually right next to a massive multi-floor Karaoke establishment. That specific night was “amateur night” of some sort (when is it not “amateur night” when it comes to Karaoke?) with many hours of performances from audience members. Performances ranged from “utterly tone-deaf” to “almost not horrible”, with the audience cheering for each and every one of them. I’m guessing the winner was whoever made others bleed from their ears the least.

Above: NOT a typical Vietnamese Karaoke singer

Although I must admit there’s something heartening about so many people coming together to celebrate out-of-tune singing (this also goes for Katy Perry’s live performances). I dare you to find a Karaoke bar with a depressing atmosphere and lack of energy in the air. It’s impossible! You have better chances of seeing a Justin Bieber concert that doesn’t end with bottles being thrown at his head.

In Dong Hoi, a city that is otherwise nondescript, there was a street with no less than five Karaoke bars right next to each other. I’m no expert, but it sure seems like overkill, even if you’re really into Karaoke. It would be like having a coffee shop on ever damn corner, it just doesn’t make…wait a minute…well played Starbucks, well played!

The final part of the general observations is now available here. Remember to check out Katka’s awesome pictures from this equally awesome trip! Also, remember to follow me on Facebook or Twitter or even subscribe via email, if you want to stay updated on all of the latest.