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)

Vietnam 2011: General Observations (Part III)

This is the third instalment of my observations from summer’s trip to Vietnam. Before reading, see Part I and Part II if you haven’t done so already. The rest of you – thanks for following! And here we go.

Observation 7 – Got Milk?

Quick, think of a rare liquid that is expensive and hard to come by. If you’re thinking of oil, nice try Einstein, but you obviously haven’t been to Vietnam. The answer is milk. You know, the stuff that comes from a cow and is used for all sorts of healthy and nutritious meals like Kellog’s Frosties and McDonald’s milkshakes? It’s a rare Vietnamese restaurant indeed that will serve this delicious treat in its “normal” form. Sure, you’ll have no problem getting a cup of coffee with sweet condensed milk in it. However, try ordering some fresh milk and you’re soon going to lose your mind as you attempt to explain to the bewildered staff what it is you’re looking for.

Unidentified substance known only by its codename: “Element M”

This hasn’t really been a problem for me, since I’m a sugar junkie. There’s a good chance that sugar represents around 75% of the content of my arteries at this point. Therefore, I quite like the sweet condensed  milk. Katka, on the other hand, doesn’t take sugar in her coffee or tea. But she does like to have milk in it and that’s where troubles start.

As you will see from my upcoming travel notes, there were many episodes where we struggled in vain to get regular milk in Katka’s coffee. We’ve tried any approach we could think of – writing our request down, using words like “fresh”, “ordinary”, “regular” and “just” in front of “milk” and otherwise doing everything we can to get our point across. At some stage I believe I actually pantomimed milking a cow, which was quite uncomfortable for everyone involved (including the invisible cow).

By now I have a sneaking suspicion that many Vietnamese assume milk leaves a cow’s udder in a sugary condensed form. As awesome as that would have been – alas, we’re not that lucky!

Observation 8 – Houses & Paint Jobs

The majority of houses in larger cities are narrow, long and tall. They are often nicknamed “tube houses” (someone had pitched “elongated constructions with disproportionate sides”, but it didn’t quite catch on). One of the reasons for this odd form is believed to be the fact that houses used to be taxed based on the amount of space they took up at the street level. These narrow houses are usually huddled together, which makes for some pretty eclectic sights like this one:

Builders go through great lengths to decorate the front of their house and give it festive colours. It is quite odd, then, that usually no effort whatsoever is spent on making the sides of the house look remotely presentable. There are houses that stand proudly alone and have elaborate designs on the front, yet as soon as you pass by and look at their side you’re staring at an unpainted grey wall.

Sure, I understand the logic. Why bother painting the side of a house if in a few years there may be others growing up right next to it? Still, it’s quite bizarre to witness such contrast between different sides of the same building.

Observation 9 – Noise

I think Vietnam is one of the loudest countries I’ve ever been to. And this is coming from a guy whose regular speaking voice is volume-wise on par with jet plane take off. There’s a sustained level of noise in larger cities, that never seems to subside. Kids playing outside communicate via a series of intricate and deafening shrieks. Cars and motorbikes use their horns to signal anything from “I’m coming through” to “WATCH OUT” to “I’m bored, are you up for some Karaoke?” – it’s often impossible to tell. One usually learns to just tune out the constant beeping.

This neat Vietnamese mobile phone has intuitive buttons and sleek design

Also, it appears that many people don’t quite trust modern technology yet. They just find it impossible to believe that a mic on their mobile phone can pick up their voice and carry it over great distances. This prompts people to raise their voice significantly when talking on the phone. Therefore, every single mobile phone conversation we’ve heard in Vietnam sounded like Christian Bale having a breakdown (minus the constant swearing…I hope).

This part wraps up my general observations. Starting from the next Vietnam post I begin a day-by-day account of our adventure-packed trip. For now, remember you can still enjoy some great pictures from this trip at Katka’s Flickr page.