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.

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The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 26th – Da Nang & Hoi An

We get up at 8:00 and head for breakfast. Remember how I’ve talked about the mysteries of fresh milk in Vietnam? Well, this is our first experience with it.

We order our breakfast and coffee with milk (neither of us drink black coffee). To my delight and to Katka’s disappointment both of our coffees are brought with sweet condensed milk in them, Vietnam style. You see, as crazy as that may sound, Katka doesn’t like sugar in her tea or coffee. We’re all allowed our bizarre quirks, so nobody holds this against her.

In order to let Katka enjoy her weird sugarless coffee, I ask the polite young guy from yesterday (who is now also our waiter) to bring us another cup of coffee, this time without sugar. To make sure I get it right, I make my request in several variations – “no sugar”, “without sugar”, “just milk”, “regular milk”. He looks at me and probably wonders whether I’m playing a new thesaurus-game that’s unknown to him. In the end he nods, smiles, says “OK, OK” and leaves to fetch the coffee. He brings us two more cups of coffee, both with the same sweet milk in them.

This is not what I meant when I said "Please don't invite more people"!

Alright, time for a different strategy. An English-speaking lady at a table next to us tells me to ask for a cup of black coffee and “fresh milk” on the side. Apparently it has worked for her. Good suggestion, thanks random lady! I tell our waiter that we’d like a cup of plain black coffee and a glass of fresh milk on the side, please. He says “OK” even more times this time, smiles even wider and leaves. He returns with a tray that has two cups of black coffee on it and two cups of…wait for it…condensed sweet milk!

At this stage we have eight cups at our table and a very confused waiter trying to look like he’s totally in control of the situation. He can see this wasn’t what we were looking for, but he doesn’t seem to know what else he could do. Luckily, before he runs off to bring us 10 more cups of coffee, his mother passes by our table and comes to the rescue. She asks whether we want “fresh milk” to which we nod “yes” enthusiastically. At last, Katka gets not one, but two cups of fresh milk brought for her.

As we eat our breakfast the tour agent of the hotel drops by and informs us that the regular seats on the 11:00 train to Da Nang are all booked. He suggests we take the 19:00 train instead. Since that would make us lose a day, we ask whether it’s possible to still get “non-regular seats” (whatever the hell those are)  on the 11:00 train. The guy is so utterly shocked that he loses his ability to construct whole sentences, saying: “Extra seats, no air conditioning, terrible!”. It’s a 2,5 hour train ride to Da Nang, how horrible can it be? If locals can do it, so can we! (rhyming was entirely unintentional, but pretty wicked regardless). We ask him to go ahead and get the “extra seats”.

In the worst-case scenario we'll just imagine ourselves some seats

We finish packing, pick up the clean laundry and check out. The hotel calls a cab for us and we’re taken to the station. We are early, so we settle inside a small waiting room filled with people. The room has one air conditioning unit and a number of regular ceiling fans, struggling to keep everyone cool.

There are two TVs fixed up to the walls. One of them is playing some golfing movie with Kevin Costner (“Tin Cup“?). The other one is playing (on loop) the same 3 minute clip of Mr. Bean attempting to take a picture with a British Royal Guard. The fascinating thing about this is that every 30 seconds (exactly, I counted) the clip is interrupted by a commercial break that lasts 1 minute 20 seconds (exactly, I counted). Even more fascinating is the fact that I’m on vacation in Vietnam and the most entertaining thing I can find to do is to count the duration of TV commercial breaks. Although you’ve got to admit – that’s a pretty crazy commercial-to-content ratio!

The train is 30 minutes delayed and we all end up waiting on the platform. When the train arrives we make our way to coach number 6 (our tickets state 6P). We cannot locate our exact seats, so we turn to some locals for help. We are sent to carriage number 5, then back to number 6 again. Exasperated, we finally find a train conductor and show him our tickets. He nods, disappears inside his cabin, then returns carrying two tiny plastic chairs. He places these chairs directly in the train aisle, points at them and smiles. I guess now we know why they call them “extra seats”.

Still way better than those imaginary seats!

The coach is well air-conditioned and we’re sitting right by a window, which makes the plastic chairs quite bearable. Except for a small issue: every 10-15 minutes a cart has to be pushed through the train aisle. There are carts with food, soup, water and snacks. Each one of them makes a regular trip through the train. Every time a cart goes through we have to get up, grab all of our things, move our chairs out the way and jump either into an adjacent cabin or the toilet or the space between two carriages. Take a look:

[youtube.com/watch?v=RBaFHip9Jnw]
This fun game of not-very-musical-chairs occurs no less than ten times throughout the 2,5 hour trip to Da Nang. Our train conductor brings us two bottles of water and then gets intrigued by the Viet Cong helmet I bought in Hanoi. He takes off his blue cap, puts on the helmet, makes a posing “serious face” and gives me a thumbs up. Who knew that a cheap knock-off helmet I bought in Vietnam would catch the interest of a Vietnamese train conductor?

In between all of the interruptions we absorb the beautiful coastline whizzing by outside. It’s an especially sunny day and visibility is great. We can see distant cities disappear into the horizon as our train leaves them behind. Upon approach to Da Nang we discuss whether to take a cab or a bus to Hoi An.

When we arrive to Da Nang we’re ambushed by a swarm of taxi drivers, who offer drives to Hoi An. We see another backpacker in a similar predicament and I ask him whether he wants to share a cab to Hoi An with us. Turns out he does, because he has basic knowledge of math and knows that one-third of the cab fare is less than the full fare. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 25th – Hue

I’m up at 6:00 and, immediately continuing yesterday’s train of thought, my first move is to check whether my phone is somewhere in the cabin. The French couple is already awake and are out in the train aisle. I climb down and search for my phone on the floor. No luck.

Once Katka is awake we pack our things and wait for the arrival to Hue. After the train stops we let the French couple leave first and I make one final sweep of the cabin, hanging on to the last bit of hope of finding the phone. Chances are slim that…HALLELUJAH…the phone is lodged between a lower bunk and the wall! I kiss and hug my phone, shed a few tears, and promise to never let it go again. Katka frowns and shakes her head, but that’s because she just doesn’t understand our relationship (mine and the phone’s, that is).

We take a cab to our hotel, the price of which I masterfully talk down from 60,000 to 40,000 dong (in case any prospective employers of professional negotiators are reading). Ancient House Hotel is a cosy and clean family-run hotel, with only a few guest rooms.

We arrive there at 7:30, which is well before our scheduled check-in time of 12:00. A polite and constantly smiling young guy leads us to a small dining room, where we get to pick a dish from the free breakfast menu. While we eat our breakfast and drink coffee I take a look around the room. Walls are line with pictures of the family and tasteful paintings of some workers planting rice and tending  to their crops. The outside door is open and several small birds fly in and out of the dining room, circling and chirping above our heads.

An artist’s approximate rendering of said birds…

At 8:00 a young lady walks in and tells us the room is ready! We were initially just hoping to leave our bags at the hotel and go exploring, but they’ve gone to the trouble of preparing our room well ahead of schedule. If this level of hospitality and service continues we may never adjust to Denmark again. Our room is spacious, with two King-sized beds, high-tech air conditioning unit and a huge flat screen TV mounted on a wall. Most importantly, there’s a proper bathtub in the bathroom (also a rarity in Denmark).

We unpack and rest in the room for a while, plotting our following moves. Later, we hand in our laundry to be done and then we’re given free bicycles to explore the city. The weather outside is beautiful – clear blue sky without a single cloud, the air is dry and hot. For almost thirty minutes we just bike around the city without a clear direction, hoping to eventually get to the Perfume River.

Our ultimate destination for the day is Hue’s main attraction – the Citadel. The Citadel is a huge complex on the Northern bank of the Perfume River (our hotel is on the Southern bank). Inside the Citadel itself lies the Imperial City, which in turn houses the so-called Forbidden Purple City. So, to recap – inside the city of Hue lies the Citadel, inside which lies the Imperial City, inside which lies the Forbidden Purple City. It’s the Matryoshka-style of city building.

When in Hue, do as the Russians do

The Forbidden Purple City used to be where the Nguyen imperial family lived. It was naturally forbidden to outsiders, something its subtle name hints at. Nowadays, crowds of tourists can gain access to the site for a token fee. The site has withstood many years of termite and cyclone damage, only to be completely flattened by the French and the Americans during periods of war in the 1940s and 1960s. Right now most of the former buildings exist only as outlines with signs, indicating where they used to stand. However, reconstruction work is actively ongoing and replacement temples and palaces are being erected in their place.

Back to Katka and I. After enjoying the bicycle ride, yet not getting any closer to the Perfume River, we stop by a church (later we’ll find out that it was the Redeemer Church) to get our bearings. We eventually get to a park by the Perfume River, where we sit down for a drink at an outside cafe. Before we order Katka snaps a few pictures of some curious artwork found nearby:

“…help..me…”

We order two ice teas. The order is treated quite literally here: the tea is brought hot, but with a bowl of ice on the side, so that we can regulate the desired temperature ourselves. We discuss our battle plan for the following day. We decide to leave Hue for Hoi Ann early tomorrow, giving us a good part of the day to explore the city itself. Then we’ll have time the day after for a trip to the nearby ruins of Hindu temples at My Son (pronounced “meeson” – mind blowing, I know) and departure to Dong Hoi.

When we want to leave we cannot find any waiters to summon for a while. Then a guy with a tray and without any English skills shows up. For a long time we attempt to get the “we’d like to pay for our drinks” message across, and only succeed after utilising some complex sign language.

We take our bikes across the Truong Tien Bridge to the Northern bank of the Perfume River. On approach to the Citadel we take pictures of the Flag Tower by the Citadel entrance, which is the tallest flagpole in Vietnam. There’s a big open square in front of the Flag Tower, lined on both sides by the Nine Holy Cannons – five on one side and four on the other.

Before we enter the interior grounds of the Imperial City we park our bikes at a “parking lot” behind a food vendor. An older man by the lot writes numbers on our bike seats with chalk. Then he gives us two pieces of paper with pen-written numbers corresponding to these. With such a sophisticated tracking system, we know we’re in good hands! (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

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.