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:

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:


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)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 24th – Hanoi

We arrive back to Hanoi shortly after 4:00 in the morning. Our cab ride back costs 50,000 dong, which is also the maximum price our hotel staff have instructed us to pay (and we obviously don’t want to look like schmucks in front of them). The cab driver speeds through red lights and breaks a couple of other traffic rules. But it’s early in the morning and there are few other cars, so that makes it legal, right?

It’s pitch dark inside the hotel and the doors are locked. We knock and wake a few of the hotel workers, who have been asleep on improvised beds assembled out of the lobby chairs. A male receptionist zombie-walks to the front desk and fishes out our room key. We’re given a room on the top floor with a good view over Hanoi.

Our room is on the 9th floor, but the elevator only goes to the 7th. This is because, according to an ancient Vietnamese prophecy, taking elevators to higher floors summons the ghosts of evil building contractors, which is a rather bad omen. The other possible explanation is that extra floors have been added after the elevator’s completion, but how likely is that?!

“Who dares travel up here?! Got spare change?”

The room is smaller than our original one and is almost fully taken up by a huge bed. We make full use of this bed, if you know what I mean. That’s right, we sleep like two bricks until 9:30.

We go down for breakfast. The hotel staff ask us about our impressions from the Sapa trip. They also tell us we’ll be picked up from the hotel at 14:30, so that we can make it to the 15:45 train to Hue. They continue to spoil us (and we’re loving it). After breakfast we return to the room. Katka takes a nap, while I surf the Internet to catch up on latest developments (most of them sombre – Utoja shootings, bullet trains colliding in China, Amy Winehouse is dead). After this refreshing look at the world of news headlines we plan our last shopping tour to stock up for the long train ride to Hue.

I have already told you about our futile attempts to find Fivimart, a big supermarket described in Lonely Planet. Since we’re both rather stubborn people we decide to go for yet another shop-finding adventure. This time we enlist the help of our receptionist, who gives us a detailed map of the area along with equally detailed directions. You’d think we should have no problem finding it now. You’d be wrong!

We run a full circle around the Hoan Kiem Lake without finding the store. Then we try again to follow the street indicated in Lonely Planet. We find a flashy place called “Civilize”, which is either a nightclub or a casino (or both?). We ask a man standing outside about how to find Fivimart. He points vaguely in the direction of where we came from. He may as well have told us it’s “somewhere in Hanoi”.

He also mockingly tries to sell us this sign as a souvenir…

At this stage we finally give up and decide to shop elsewhere. We find a small mini market and stock up on some canned food, bread, and hand wipes. Suspiciously, the lady at the cash register doesn’t use the product scanner and instead punches in some numbers into an old calculator, before presenting us with the total cost. She most likely overcharges us, but the end sum is modest enough to not warrant any arguments.

On the way back to the hotel we decide to walk a new street to mix things up. What can I say, we love living on the edge! Half way through the street we notice a giant supermarket ahead of us. As we get closer, we are shocked to discover that we’re standing in front of the infamous Fivimart. It’s like finding an oasis in a desert, except after having already drunk some ostrich blood instead (and paid for it).

Nevertheless, we want to use the opportunity to buy up more things for the trip. Inside we’re told that Fivimart rules demand that we leave our bags in a locker. At the same time a sign on the locker says that Fivimart bears no responsibility if our stuff goes missing. How convenient! I see they’re learning from the comparably bullshit coat-check disclaimers.

We buy some cold cuts, apples, instant noodles, yoghurt and yomost (uuuuhm, yomost!). We have definitely gotten more stuff than we bought at the mini market and we’re charged less for it. So the calculator-woman has indeed overcharged us, but I don’t care because YOMOST! Mind-blowingly good, see for yourself:

On the way back Katka starts feeling weak and dizzy. My guess is it’s Yomost-deficiency, but I’m not sure that’s an accurate medical diagnosis. We get to the hotel just as it suddenly starts pouring down. Katka drinks a lot of cold water, eats a yoghurt and some hastily made sandwiches and immediately feels better. Katka and I play doctor, if you know what I mean. That’s right, we browse some online medical advice sites to help us diagnose her symptoms. We conclude she has heat exhaustion. Decision is made to keep her well rested, cool at all times and out of direct sunlight (sort of like you have to do with Yomost).

At 14:30 we go down to the lobby to say goodbye to our friendly hotel staff. We give them a box of candy and leave a generous tip in the “tip box” by the reception. Mr. Son, the manager, gives us final walk-through of the trip to Hue and tells us to get in touch in case we need any help once we’re back in Hanoi. He hands us some business cards to pass on to friends and encourages us to give Rising Dragon III a review on Booking.con and His boss apparently bases the employee bonus on the ratings they get. We were planning to do so in the first place, so we promise we will. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 23rd – Ta Va, Sapa, Lao Cai

Mercifully, a complete power outage ends the TV fun downstairs and the whole family finally goes to bed. However, proudly continuing the tradition of sleeping like crap, I manage to wake up a few times during the night. Once due to loud dog fights and once again due to a rooster with a distorted concept of time (seriously dude, 3AM is not a signal to wake up and sing your lungs out). Everyone is up around 8:00 for a quick breakfast and an even quicker goodbye to the host family. The man of the family shows up again to briefly shake everyone’s hand and that ends the extent of our interaction with the Red Dzao.

As we set out on the last hike of our three day Sapa tour, it becomes apparent that Katka and I have gradually become the charity cases of the group. Katka is still wearing Belgian girl’s scarf to protect her neck from going up in flames. The same Belgian girl lends me her rain-cover for backpacks, because the scary grey clouds around us seem to mean business! Her boyfriend lends me his socks, since after breakfast I discover that one of mine is mysteriously missing (a new Bermuda Triangle?). Finally, the British couple keeps offering Katka a T-shirt, because hers hasn’t managed to dry overnight and she only has her “Batman” poncho for cover.

At some point we actually consider asking for donations…

On the hike we’re accompanied yet again by a huge group of Black Hmong. We get to a fork in the road and our vodka-happy guide gives us a choice of going the “easy” or the “hard” way. As soon as he gives us the choice he immediately decides for us by basically saying that the “hard” way is a no-go due to the massive amounts of rainfall that came during the night. The “hard” way gets extremely muddy after rain and he makes it sound like we’d be practically swimming in mud to get anywhere. Unsurprisingly, everyone votes for the “easy” way and we continue.

While the “hard” way would have taken us up some steep slopes and probably resulted in the same slip-n-slide experience as yesterday, the “easy” way just follows the road. Along the way we come across some young kids riding buffaloes, like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

“Did someone call a cab?”

We reach a waterfall where everyone takes some obligatory pictures. While our group is busy taking photos of each other in different configurations, we notice a few other groups arriving from the direction of the “hard” way. They drop down from steep slopes like SWAT teams (minus the cool gear and athletic skills). They’re completely covered in mud and sweat, so we’re immediately happy for our choice of the “easy” way.

Close to the waterfall lies an old wooden suspension bridge. It’s exceptionally narrow and looks rather worn out. It leads to a dead end rock. It’s probably somewhat dangerous and completely pointless to cross the bridge. Naturally, we all take a trip there and back, one person at a time. We film each other performing this “feat”, secretly hoping that some minor-yet-hilarious incident would make one of us an instant YouTube sensation.

I must admit it’s quite an exhilarating experience to walk down a derelict wooden bridge hanging well above a rushing stream of water. For a brief moment I even imagine I’m Indiana Jones on a quest for skulls, grails, Chupa Chups lollipops and whatever else he usually hunts for. Then I’m told by the rest of the group to put down the whip and fedora and stop being a jackass, so I return to solid ground.

They’re just jealous of how awesome it makes me look…

After I’m finished with my crazy antics we leave the “bridge walking” area. Upon exit we are promptly charged a token fee for having used the bridge. I guess “risky wooden bridge crossing” is the Hmong version of a theme park ride.

We settle down for a quick lunch of noodle soup and bananas at a nearby cafe. We’re surrounded by kids and I hand out the rest of my candy and chewing gums to them. The Belgian scarf-woman has a bunch of balloons that she inflates and gives to the kids. The kids are mesmerized. After lunch we’re picked up and driven back to our Fansipan View Hotel. The road is narrow and slippery and there’s plenty of traffic, so the ride takes a while.

Back at the hotel we’re directed to a separate room with some showers, where we get to shower and repack. While waiting for our bus to Lao Cai we go online to pick out and book a hotel for ourselves in Hue. We settle on Ancient House Hotel, which, despite its hardly promising name, looks quite modern, comfortable and affordable. Unless its pictures are Photoshopped and reviews are doctored (you just can’t be paranoid enough these days).

At 16:30 we’re picked up by a mini-bus. We’re sharing it with the same Danish family that accompanied us on the first day. Only this time we’re also joined by five other people. The bus is overbooked and the only way everyone’s luggage can be squeezed in is by stuffing all of us into the car first and then piling our bags on to and around us. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 16th – Copenhagen & Warsaw


Our plane takes off from Copenhagen. We’re flying with LOT Polish Airlines, so we have a stopover in Warsaw before heading directly to Hanoi. It’s after eight in the evening on the 16th of July and thanks to the time difference we’ll land in Hanoi mid-day on the 17th.

We know exactly what we’re going to do for three weeks and have our itinerary fully planned out. Not! As it happens, we only have a vague idea that we’ll spend a bit of time in Hanoi and then head down to Central Vietnam, somewhere around Hue. While Katka (my girlfriend) has spent a decent amount of time browsing through Lonely Planet and highlighting places of interest, I know approximately nothing about the country we’re heading to.

Sure, I’ve had “history” in high school and I’ve seen a few movies that had something to do with Vietnam. However, I’ve stopped turning to Hollywood for reliable information ever since they’ve mislead me with Shrek. Turns out donkeys can’t talk – I’ve done my research, liars! Well, at least the rest of Shrek was factually accurate, I believe. Thankfully, Lonely Planet also has brief sections on history and culture, so my plan is to read these on the flight from Warsaw to Hanoi and thus instantly turn myself into an expert on all things Vietnam. Yeah, I’m happily naive like that.

Everything there’s to know about the world should be right here on this note

The Copenhagen-Warsaw flight is pretty uneventful. Katka spends the flight dozing off. I spend it clutching the arm-rests at any sign of turbulence (I guess in the hope of holding the plane up with the sheer strength of my muscles). Despite being a seasoned flyer I’m still recovering from a recently found flight anxiety brought on by an especially turbulent flight from Atlanta to Copenhagen the year before.


Thanks to my arms’ efforts at holding the plane airborne we make it safely to Warsaw. Our layover is just one hour. Everyone piles out of the plane and straight into…security control. Whaaaa? We have just left a plane, which we boarded in Denmark after going through a security check. Do Polish airport employees not trust their Danish counterparts to do a decent job? Or, more interestingly, do they believe we have somehow arranged for in-flight delivery of weapons and illegal goods?

“Thanks for the mail, you stupid bird, but I have specifically asked for an AK-47 and some heroin. What a fucking amateur!”

To add insult to injury, the Polish staff decide to only have one of the two X-ray conveyors operational, so a giant line is soon created. Everyone is also forced to take off their shoes, so at this point I’m starting to suspect that the Poles are just fucking with us for the fun of it. Around half an hour later we’re finally through and hurry to our gate, with only one small hurdle in the way – Passport Control.

There are four booths open in total, three of them for EU citizens, one for all others. Good news – Katka is an EU citizen. Bad news – yours truly isn’t. The line for non-EU crowd is also significantly longer and no effort is made to speed up the process by opening extra booths. I’m stuck behind a group of no less than forty Russian kids travelling with a few tutors. Behind me are a bunch of people heading to Beirut whose plane is supposed to leave 5 minutes before ours.

As you would expect in this type of situation, everbody just stands calmly in the line and silently awaits their turn. Or, more accurately, everybody flips the hell out and gets into heated arguments with everyone else about who needs to go through first while yelling and shoving.

“What do you mean ‘calm down’?! This is my happy face!”

Thanks to some divine intervention (and a nasty disagreement with one of the Russian tutors) I slip through about 5 minutes before departure time. Shortly afterwards we’re speeding up to take off. While we’re still on the runway one of the overhead bin doors swings open. A nearby female passenger gets up from her seat and starts trying to get it closed. Every time she swings it closed it opens right back up, but the woman doesn’t give up, even after around twenty attempts. The whole repetitive “close-open” routine is starting to look like a mad scene from a Tom & Jerry cartoon, although I’m getting more stressed out than amused by this as my flight anxiety kicks in. The door stays closed after the woman gets help from a flight attendant and returns safely to her seat.

Up in the air we catch a few episodes of How I Met Your Mother and I calm down, because it’s hard to be laughing at Barney’s antics while simultaneously being afraid for own life. Later on Katka manages to sleep for the majority of the flight. I read the sections on Vietnam’s history and culture. I discover that, despite being under Chinese rule for a big chunk of its existence, Vietnam kicked some serious ass in most confrontations with other powers throughout its history. So Hollywood wasn’t completely off afterall. Who would have thought?!

Armed with that knowledge plus some tit-bits on Vietnamese culture and customs I join Katka and catch a few sporadic naps. Next stop – Hanoi! Click here for “Day 2”.

Also, remember to tune in to Katka’s Flickr page for pictures from this epic trip.